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Is Jay Cooke State Park suitable as a cemetery?

When Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced three weeks ago that a new veterans cemetery was planned for 60 acres of land on the southern part of Jay Cooke State Park, about 20 miles southeast of Duluth, the proposed site was described as "flat and lightly ...

When Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced three weeks ago that a new veterans cemetery was planned for 60 acres of land on the southern part of Jay Cooke State Park, about 20 miles southeast of Duluth, the proposed site was described as "flat and lightly wooded."

But a look at the site shows that the majority of it is anything but that. Aerial photos and maps show that dense forest covers 75 to 80 percent of the proposed site, while the remaining open area is scattered with 10-year-old pine trees. Walk through it and you'll find a site that is full of hills, some of them with steep inclines and sharp drops leading to deep ravines.

"I'm sure a cemetery could be done there and be done successfully," said Richard Staffon, who is familiar with the site as an area wildlife manager for the Department of Natural Resources in Cloquet. "But you'd have to change the landscape. Most of the forest vegetation would have to be removed; most of the ground vegetation would have to be changed."

"When you first look at it," he said, "you wonder: Do you really want to put a cemetery there?"

In addition, the site might not be the most peaceful of resting places. The area is bordered to the north by a rail line used by BNSF, which is used on average by a train 16 to 20 times every 24 hours, a rail company spokesman said. It's so loud that Cliford Gallup, who owns 80 acres of land to the south of the proposed site, said when the train goes by his house vibrates.

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Gallup said he's not against a veterans cemetery next to his property, but he doesn't believe the cemetery belongs in that spot because of the significant change it would require in the landscape.

"I don't know who proposed the cemetery for that site," Gallup said, "but it seems like someone is trying to embarrass the governor."

Pawlenty's office declined to answer questions about criticism of the site but instead released this statement: "The proposed cemetery fills an important need for the 46,000 veterans who live within 75 miles of the site.  They and their families deserve our support. There were four areas within Jay Cooke State Park that were considered for this important need and this site was selected because a portion of it was previously used as farmland, it had appropriate vegetation and featured the best access. While no site of this size might be perfect, this particular one was recommended by experts within DNR and we are hopeful we will be able to proceed with this important project and take advantage of the opportunity to receive federal funds to create this lasting monument to our veterans."

The site wasn't chosen by the governor's office, but rather by the DNR and Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. Representatives of those departments said the Jay Cooke site was picked above five others, including three near the park. Anna Lewicki Long, a spokesperson for the Department of Veterans Affairs, called the site ideal because it would allow planners to make use of the natural landscape. Though a formal plan and design has not been crafted, Long said the site would be developed with minimal environmental impact.

"It's not the typical cemetery design that [many] think of. ... It's not several acres of wide-open grass," she said. "We would take as much advantage of the natural topography as possible."

As for its proximity to a train, Long said the rail line will be used as a natural barrier for the cemetery, and planners were told by Jay Cooke park managers that no park visitors have complained about noise from the rail line. And when the site is compared to the national burial site at Fort Snelling, located next to major roads, Long said it's relatively quiet.

Great need, but also questions

The cemetery still has to clear hurdles before it ever becomes reality.

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The land would have to be transferred from the DNR to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which both houses in the Legislature would have to approve. If that happens, an environmental impact study would have to be done. Then, according to the governor's office, the state Department of Veterans Affiars would pay the estimated $8 million in design and construction costs of the cemetery with federal grant money from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Long said those costs were estimated based on developments of other veterans cemeteries, as well as the cost to build the only other Minnesota veterans cemetery in Little Falls, where more than 2,700 are buried.

The cemetery is sorely needed in the region. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 46,000 veterans live within 75 miles of the proposed site, including in Wisconsin. If it opened, the governor's office estimated it would draw 40,000 visitors a year and be able to provide as many as 500 interments a year. The first phase of the production will have 6,000 grave sites.

But some, like Staffon, question whether the area is an appropriate use for a veterans cemetery. Aside from being next to a train track and far removed from a major highway, Staffon said the soil in the park is a heavy red clay that is hard to stabilize, erosive and gets extremely slippery when wet. He believed that roads throughout the cemetery would either have to be made from gravel or paved. Excavating the area could lead to excess water drainage into the rest of Jay Cooke State Park, he said.

Staffon said no one approached him for his review of the site but said if they had, he would have shared his concerns, including removing what could be hundreds of trees.

"For every grave and road, you need to remove trees," he said. "It'll be a dramatic change from what you have there now."

At least one legislator has some concerns about the site.

Bill Hilty, the DFL state representative of that district, took a tour of the northern area of the site with Gallup --the southern entrance is blocked by snow -- and was worried by what he saw.

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"It's pretty rough territory," Hilty said. "There were a lot of deep ravines. I don't know for sure if the rest of it is like that, but topographical maps show that it takes up a good part of it."

Hilty said he asked DNR representatives last week if they were sure that the land was appropriate to use as a cemetery, but thus far has not heard anything back.

"I don't see how this could be used for a cemetery unless they did extensive work, and I'm not sure that an environmentally sound thing to do," he said.

Natural environment

Courtland Nelson, director of state parks with the DNR, helped select the site and said he did so based on criteria provided by the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, including looking for a more natural setting.

"Does it appear to be an appropriate site for the uses they described by them to us? It would appear yes," he said. "The fact that it wasn't just an open field was appealing to them."

However, Nelson said the DNR would only transfer the site to the Department of Veterans Affiars after being given assurances that it would be done with minimal environmental impact. He said that 10-year-old pine trees planted in the only open clearing, for example, couldn't be touched. He said the redevelopment of the site would allow for removal of invasive and non-native species put there when a portion of the area used to be farmed.

Long said there's no number yet on how many trees would have to be removed, but the goal is to keep or replant as many as possible.

"We're certainly not going to flatten and bulldoze the area," she said.

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