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Plan is emerging for La Salle Lake rec area

Jade Templin, principal planner of the DNR's Division of Parks and Trails, shows a proposed map of a management plan for La Salle Lake. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

With the help of a handful of Hubbard County citizens, the vision for Minnesota's newest state park is slowly coming into focus.

La Salle Lake State Recreation Area will tentatively open May 15 as a shoestring operation; grow onward and upward, DNR officials hope. They've embarked on a 20-year strategic plan.

Tuesday night a Citizens Advisory Committee reviewed a draft of that management plan, made suggestions and offered local expertise.

Much is still incomplete, cautioned Jade Templin, principal planner of the DNR's Division of Parks and Trails.

But it's a start.

The new park in northern Hubbard County will be a mix of rugged accommodations along with "high amenity facilities."

The park currently has two year-round cabins, a sauna, swimming pool, laundry facility, kitchen and 40-site campground. A wide diversity of programs is planned. It will be managed as a satellite of Itasca State Park.

Primarily, it will remain pristine.

The Trust for Public Lands purchased the 990 acres in late 2010 on behalf of the Department of Natural Resources.

The DNR took ownership last year and held an open house Dec. 1, 2011.

It began a deliberately slow and strategic plan to bring the park into the state's fold. The plan is to offer "low impact" activities such as hiking, camping boating, swimming, fishing, hunting and trapping. The trails will accommodate hikers, bikes, snowmobiles and ATVs eventually.

The CAC met three times with input from the mainly Fern Township residents who grew up near or own property in the vicinity. They gave valuable input into the natural and cultural resources that exist.

The DNR listened.

The area has a rich history of early settlements of the region that will be valued by archaeologists and amateurs alike. There may be some Indian burial grounds, some shards of pottery that may get their own moniker, and a famous Civil War veteran buried in the Bear Creek cemetery on the SRA. Interpretive services are planned in the future to explain the value of the finds.

It's also an area rich in biodiversity, with many one-of-a-kind native plants and rare endangered species growing and living there.

A fish survey has been completed for the 240-acre lake that is 213 feet deep.

Templin said the plan may be to reduce the bag limits on walleye, pike and bass.

"There hasn't been a lot of fishing pressure on the lake because of limited access," Templin said.

A defunct resort has been the major water access point for years.

Some older locals recall fishing for lake trout in La Salle, but there are no plans to re-introduce the species.

"Our concern is because of the lack of turnover, oxygenation of the lake, there are no plans to stock trout," Templin said, "It may not be trout quality water."

The plan calls for "managing the species currently in place," he added. Only 7 percent of the lake is capable

The DNR is also proposing a strong focus to get youth interested in the history and the outdoors. Educational and recreational opportunities will be directed to school-age kids.

The DNR is hurrying to make some of the existing facilities handicapped-accessible by opening.

But changes will be slow in coming.

The draft plan must first be completed, which could take a month or two.

Then the plan will be presented for a public hearing. And, it likely will undergo some fine-tuning along the way. The final plan will include maps and photos.

Some structures may not survive. An old barn on the property has a failing foundation, and may have to be razed. Two farmhouses could eventually be converted to cabins.

Year-round use is envisioned.

Once the master plan is in place and signed off on, the DNR will seek partners and funding. No time frame has been announced in these fledgling stages.

Bob Chance, Itasca's new manager, is eager to get the park up and running. He's been attending the advisory meetings and meeting the locals.

The DNR has faced some criticism that it jumped into the acquisition too fast to assess if the agency is capable of managing another park, particularly one that failed under private development.

Templin said the master plan, once approved, would go to the Legislature for funding or a bonding bill. Legacy funds may be available for offset some of the expenses of adding to and maintaining the facilities, he theorized.

"We need a clear vision," he said. "Then we can chase the money."