Minnesota-Wisconsin: Replacement of Stillwater Lift Bridge
Agencies: Federal Highway Administration and National Park Service
Criteria for Council Involvement:
- This project raises significant issues regarding the competing values of natural resource protection and historic resource preservation in the National Park Service's management of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program (Criterion 2).
- There is widespread public opposition to demolition of the Stillwater Lift Bridge (Criterion 3).
In March, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) notified the Council that it intends to approve replacement and date-certain demolition of the Stillwater Lift Bridge, given National Park Service (NPS) refusal to grant a permit for a new bridge absent a commitment to demolish the historic structure. Although Council staff is inclined to recommend that consultation under Section 106 be terminated, FHWA headquarters has asked the Council to defer such action in hope of resolving the issue at the policy level.
Stillwater Lift Bridge, spanning the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and Minnesota at the City of Stillwater, Minnesota
(photographer: National Trust for Historic Preservation)
In April, a meeting was called by the Council on Environmental Quality at the request of FHWA to explore the possibility of resolution among representatives of FHWA, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Interior (DOI), NPS, and the Council. However, NPS continues to insist that only demolition of the historic lift bridge can satisfactorily mitigate the visual impact of constructing a new crossing over the Lower St. Croix Wild and Scenic River. Attendees agreed a smaller committee should reconvene to discuss the matter further.
In 1994, the Council executed a Memorandum of Agreement for construction of an additional crossing over the Lower St. Croix River between Minnesota and Wisconsin at the City of Stillwater, Minnesota. The agreement provided that the historic Stillwater Lift Bridge would not be affected and would remain in use as part of the respective States’ trunk highway systems after construction of the new span.
In 1995, however, the Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Transportation sent a joint letter to FHWA indicating that the historic bridge would be removed within ten years of completion of the new crossing. The decision was driven by the position of the NPS Omaha Regional Office that the historic bridge must be removed because the Lower St. Croix River is a “wild and scenic river” under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Under Section 7(a) of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, NPS has the authority to review and approve projects that might impede the free flow of designated rivers. While bridges are not specifically cited in the legislation, the Sierra Club prevailed in litigation that led to a ruling that this project is subject to NPS approval under Section 7(a).
Since NPS maintains that only removal of the historic bridge can adequately address the visual and direct impacts of the new crossing, FHWA believes it cannot obtain the necessary approval from NPS without affecting the historic lift bridge.
There is a great deal of local public interest in preserving the bridge, led by the City of Stillwater. Since January 1999, Council staff have participated in a series of meetings with FHWA, NPS, and other consulting parties to seek a compromise. A proposal was developed which would have retained at least a major portion of the bridge by removing its causeway, relocating the river channel, and fixing the lift span in place to extend its life. The public strongly criticized that mitigation package, supporting instead retention of the entire structure.
The Omaha Regional Office of NPS and the Superintendent of the Lower St. Croix Wild and Scenic River insist that the ultimate removal of the historic lift bridge is essential to mitigate the visual and physical impacts of constructing a new crossing approximately one mile downstream. NPS will not grant FHWA a Section 7(a) permit for the new crossing absent such removal. Council staff holds that NPS could easily justify retention of the historic lift bridge by recognizing its scenic, historic, and recreational value as contributing to the outstanding resource values for which the Lower St. Croix was designated a Wild and Scenic River.
As interpreted by NPS, the historic bridge does not fit within its definition of scenic and aesthetic elements and does not fall within the broadly defined “outstandingly remarkable values” for which the Lower St. Croix River was designated a Wild and Scenic River. The result is direct competition between the protection of natural and cultural resources, an unfortunate outcome that raises questions regarding the potential future impact of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program on historic properties.
Staff contact: MaryAnn Naber
October 1999 report on this case
Return to top of page