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5 Lake Superior national parks going carbon-free

The effort will use solar energy, heat pumps and electric vehicles to eliminate burning fossil fuels.

Isle Royale National Park
Visitors to Isle Royale National Park hang out on Windigo’s dock Aug. 8, 2021, near a passenger ferry. A new plan would eliminate fossil fuel energy on the island and four other national parks around lake Superior by 2027
Steve Kuchera / 2021 file / Duluth News Tribune

ST. PAUL — The five U.S. National Park Service properties on Lake Superior will move to carbon-free energy for buildings and on land vehicles by 2027 under a plan promoted by the non-profit National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation.

The four-year initiative would make the national parks the first in the nation to “decarbonize,” eliminating carbon-dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere from their day-to-day operations.

The parks include Grand Portage National Monument, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Isle Royale National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Keweenaw National Historic Park.

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While the five are small compared to other national parks, supporters say the effort is creating a powerful model for other parks and the public to follow.

“The five National Parks along the lake in the three states that share Lake Superior are treasured public lands and the Decarbonize the Parks project is part of a bold vision for protecting the environment around the Great Lakes," said U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minnesota, in a statement announcing the effort.


A group of sea kayakers approach a crevice in sandstone cliffs along the mainland sea caves at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore near Cornucopia.
Clint Austin / 2012 file / Duluth News Tribune

An already completed engineering study estimates $15 million will be needed to increase efficiency and replace fossil fuel with solar, batteries, heat pumps and other technology, ultimately costing the parks less than maintaining current operations. Most of the funding will be available through the National Park Service, including new dollars from the Inflation Reduction Act, Great American Outdoors Act and bipartisan infrastructure legislation, which have already passed Congress.

“Lake Superior is one of the fastest-warming lakes in the world, with declining coldwater fisheries, unstable lake ice, and violent storms that have battered docks and marinas as well as light houses and other treasured resources,” said Tom Irvine, executive director of the St. Paul-based National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation. “With cost effective solutions and funding opportunities currently available, now is the time to rise to the climate challenge and demonstrate the importance of environmental stewardship.”

One of the biggest projects will be replacing diesel-burning generators that provide all the electricity for the few developed areas on remote Isle Royale, Lake Superior’s biggest island located about 14 miles off Minnesota’s North Shore. Plans call for 81 buildings at Isle Royale to be retrofitted for heat pump water heaters and LED lighting, along with a 1,500-kilowatt off-grid solar array with 695-kilowatt capacity battery storage. Seven gas burning ATVs will be replaced with electric models.

"Mitigating climate-related vulnerabilities in parks is a National Park Service priority,” said Denice Swanke, superintendent of Isle Royale National Park.

The remote national park in the middle of Lake Superior is only accessible by boat or seaplane. Unsurprisingly, it's the least visited national park in the lower 48 states, but visitors spend a long time on the island once they get there.

In addition to governmental, tribal and nonprofit partners, the project received a boost from a key private sector investment from Twin Cities-based Askov Finlayson outdoor clothing company.

“Lake Superior is a national treasure, and Askov Finlayson is proud to be the seed investor in this project and to support (the) bold vision for 100% decarbonization,” said Eric Dayton, founder and CEO of Askov Finlayson.

The five-park plan also calls for some of the parks to negotiate buying renewable energy from utilities instead of fossil fuel-generated power.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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