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Pawlenty proposes new veterans' cemetery

ST. PAUL - Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants legislators to approve a plan transferring land in a northeastern Minnesota state park for a new state veterans' cemetery.

Pawlenty on Tuesday proposed using 60 acres in Jay Cook State Park south of Duluth to construct Minnesota's second veterans' cemetery. The parcel in the 8,781-acre park would be transferred from the state Department of Natural Resources to the Veterans Affairs Department.

Pawlenty said there is a lack of access to military veterans' cemeteries in northern Minnesota, as the state has an aging and growing population of veterans. An estimated 46,000 veterans live within 75 miles of the proposed cemetery.

"This is something that's important to send the signal to our veterans that we respect and honor and appreciate them all the way," Pawlenty said while speaking to veterans who were in St. Paul to lobby for their issues.

Legislation is required to complete the land transfer. The proposal will be part of a larger land-related bill.

Rep. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, said once that legislation leaves House and Senate committees, it probably will not be controversial, increasing the cemetery provision's chances of becoming law.

"I just don't see that there's any issue, and I think the state recognizes that we sure could use a cemetery," said Koenen, who leads a Minnesota House veterans committee.

The state will apply for a federal grant to cover the estimated $8 million cost to establish the cemetery. The state would pay annual operating costs of $300,000.

Veterans Affairs Commissioner Clark Dyrud said while it is a competitive federal grant process, he is "almost 100 percent sure" Minnesota would get the funding it needed.

"This initiative was developed from a need to provide a peaceful resting spot for our veterans, our heroes, in northeastern Minnesota," he said.

Dyrud said there could be need for additional state veterans' cemeteries, including in southern and far northwestern Minnesota.

The proposed cemetery site is near Wrenshall in Carlton County, about 20 miles south of Duluth. It would be on flat and open acreage, making it suitable for a cemetery, Pawlenty said.

The cemetery could draw up to 40,000 visitors a year and provide a place for 500 burials annually, officials said. The first phase of the new cemetery's development will provide for 6,000 grave sites, said Dave Swantek, director at the Little Falls site.

Officials hope to begin construction within 18 months. Construction could take one year.

If approved, the cemetery would be the state's second for veterans, joining one established in 1994 just north of Little Falls. Minnesota has a national cemetery at Fort Snelling.

DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten said the plan is a good way for his agency to express its thanks to veterans.

"We couldn't think of a better place than Jay Cooke State Park," said Holsten, a former Stillwater-area legislator.

Jay Cooke is in Sen. Tony Lourey's legislative district. The Kerrick DFLer's brother, Matt Lourey, was killed in 2005 while serving in Iraq.

"Having all too recently buried a brother in a veterans' cemetery out in (Washington) D.C., I know the importance to our veterans to having a respectful place for them to meet their final resting place," Lourey said. "I'm very pleased to have a local option for those brave men and women serving today."