The National Park Service is caught in the middle of a political fight between elected leaders in Minnesota who are pushing for a new highway bridge over a federally protected portion of the lower St. Croix River and critics who say that authorizing the bridge project would violate the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
The $690 million St. Croix River Crossing Project, which has been discussed for nearly two decades, would connect the riverfront city of Stillwater, Minn., on the eastern fringe of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, with the small bedroom community of Houlton, Wisc., on the river's opposite bank.
Under a plan developed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, a new, four-lane bridge would replace the 80-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge, which when raised allows recreational and small commercial vessels to pass underneath. The lift bridge, while historic and a popular tourist attraction, can cause gridlock in downtown Stillwater when the lift is raised, halting traffic in and out of the historic business district.
Even worse, the two-lane drawbridge is sometimes forced to shut down for several days due to flooding caused by spring rains and melting snow, requiring local motorists to detour several miles south to the much larger Interstate 94 crossing.
There are also concerns about the structural integrity of the lift bridge, which was built in 1931 and in the last five years has undergone restoration work, including the installation of a new reinforced concrete deck.
"This [bridge] is a transit corridor in a major metro area that is currently served by a resource that cannot meet that demand," said Mike Zipko, a spokesman for the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing -- a nonprofit formed last year by local business and government leaders to lobby for the project. "This is not just about Stillwater, it's a regional issue. People in Wisconsin cross the bridge every day to get to work. Being able to maintain a transit system that does not overload is critical. That's what this project is about."
But NPS, which oversees the Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and many of the more than 200 waterways Congress has placed in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, has formally rejected the bridge proposal twice in the past 15 years -- most recently last October.
In its decision last year, then-NPS Midwest Regional Director Ernest Quintana wrote that the Park Service cannot consider any proposal that will have "direct and adverse effects on the values for which the river was designated as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System" when those impacts cannot "be avoided or eliminated," as NPS has determined with the St. Croix bridge project.
The project, however, has powerful backers, most notably Stillwater resident and Tea Party Caucus Chairwoman Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who this month introduced legislation that would effectively overturn NPS's latest rejection of the project.
Bachmann's bill would direct NPS to revert to a 2005 decision by the Park Service that authorized the bridge project. Environmentalists challenged that decision, and a U.S. district court judge threw it out last year, ruling the Park Service failed to explain why it was essentially ignoring its own 1996 decision against authorizing the bridge project.
Bachmann, in a statement announcing her recent legislation, referred to the project as being "stalled due to outlandish lawsuits and bureaucratic delays," refuting claims that the construction and daily use of the bridge would be disruptive to the river's recreational users and wildlife.
Bridge proponents have also noted that the lower St. Croix, while scenic, is not a pristine river. As part of a growing metro area, the river's banks are dotted with marinas, homes and businesses, and just downstream from the new bridge site is Xcel Energy Inc.'s 588-megawatt Allen S. King coal plant and the I-94 crossing carrying tens of thousands of vehicles daily between St. Paul and western Wisconsin.
Bachmann also has won key bipartisan support for the bridge project, including from Minnesota's two senior-most Democratic office holders, Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Dayton, a one-time opponent of a new bridge, only recently changed is mind about the four-lane design, calling it "the only realistic possibility for the next decade, and probably longer."
Klobuchar has said she plans to introduce legislation in the Senate granting the bridge project an exemption from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Meanwhile, Wisconsin Reps. Ron Kind (D) and Sean Duffy (R) have also signed on in support of Bachmann's bill.
"This is a common-sense piece of legislation that simply clears the path for the St. Croix River Crossing Bridge to be updated in a way that will not only increase safety for commuters, but will ease traffic congestion," Duffy said in a statement supporting Bachmann's bill. "This is a plan that has broad support between legislators in both Minnesota and Wisconsin and is widely agreed upon as critical."
But the proposal also raises a number of serious resource management questions that extend beyond the St. Croix River, and some say a reversal of last year's decision could undermine the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act approved by Congress in 1968.
The law, co-authored by former Vice President Walter Mondale when he was a Democratic senator from Minnesota, was designed to protect and preserve select rivers that "possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values," as well as "their immediate environments ... for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations," according to the law.
The law does not forbid construction of bridges, and federal regulators in the past have authorized bridge projects that span wild and scenic rivers. But those projects replaced bridges with similarly sized structures that were built in essentially the same spot as the structures they replaced.
Congress has also approved two exemptions to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act -- but both exemptions authorized projects designed to improve the rivers in question, said Dan Haas, a natural resource planner with the Fish and Wildlife Service and a member of the Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council.
The first exemption allowed for the construction in 1999 of an electric barrier designed to keep Atlantic sea lamprey out of western Michigan's Pere Marquette River and away from crucial trout spawning habitat, Haas said.
The other exemption was for the construction of a water-intake tower in the south fork of western Oregon's McKenzie River. The tower blends warm water on the surface of the river with cold water near the bottom, maintaining a consistent temperature downstream of Cougar Dam. The result of that project, completed in 2005, was the return of thousands of chinook salmon to the river, Haas said.
While such congressional exemptions authorizing "big-picture" projects improved the waterways in Michigan and Oregon, the St. Croix bridge project would harm the river, said Mike Soules, a staff attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Minneapolis.
Authorization of the St. Croix project would also open the door for other similar proposals along wild and scenic rivers, Soules said.
"I do think this would be precedent-setting because a bridge of this size and scale has never been authorized and built over a wild and scenic river," he said. "But it is also dangerous in that once you start carving out poorly designed pork projects for wild and scenic rivers, all of a sudden it's open season on cutting away at the general protections of the law."
That view is supported by Mondale, who has retained senior statesman status in Minnesota. Mondale told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune this month that approving the St. Croix River project would effectively usurp the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
"I think that people ought to be soberly thinking about whether they want to assault the uniqueness and majesty of that river," Mondale, who now works as an attorney in Minneapolis, told the paper.
For her part, Bachmann has gone to great lengths to argue that her bill does not ask for an exemption from the law, but rather to direct NPS to adhere to the agency's 2005 authorization of the bridge project.
But the result would be the same, said Lynn McClure, the National Parks Conservation Association's Midwest regional director in Chicago.
"The reality is that it would open up other large-scale transportation projects that have never been exempted," McClure said. "It would open wild and scenic rivers to that kind of development."
Critics of the St. Croix bridge proposal say that instead of the jamming a bigger bridge concept through Congress, highway planners should consider already devised alternatives that could help relieve traffic congestion in Stillwater without damaging the river.
Rep. Betty McCollum (D), whose 4th Congressional District abuts Bachmann's 6th District and includes much of St. Paul and its inner suburbs, said Stillwater residents "deserve a replacement for the existing, outdated lift bridge over the St. Croix River," but she wants a re-scaled design that is both more aesthetically appropriate for a protected river corridor and less costly.
One such proposal, submitted to the state several years ago by a group of local architects, calls for a two-lane motor vehicle bridge much like the current draw bridge, with an emergency lane and bike and pedestrian access. The new bridge would diverge from the existing route but have a much smaller impact on the river. It also could be built at a lower cost.
McClure said her group supports a project on that scale. "It gets us closer to what we'd like to see," she said.
Another idea would be to route river-crossing traffic to I-94, seven miles downstream, McClure said.
"We're advocating for a lower-impact bridge that respects the viewsheds and that adequately replaces the current bridge," she said. "The bridge does need to be replaced. It's inadequate. But we want a replacement bridge with less impact."
But building a similarly sized bridge will not do much to relieve the traffic congestion problems, said Zipko, the St. Croix River coalition spokesman.
"When you build a project like this you need to allow for future growth," he said. "Everyone looks at the metro area and projects increased population. Right now a two-lane bridge is not big enough. If we build a two-lane bridge it would lock in a traffic gridlock for years to come."
As for NPS, the agency said it will abide by whatever the current law allows or Congress mandates.
"We are not for or against the bridge, or for a smaller or larger alternative," said Chris Stein, superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. "We just evaluate projects as they come along."
Click here to read the Park Service's October 2010 rejection of the four-lane bridge proposal.
Click here to read Bachmann's legislation.
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.