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).
At the Council’s June 2000 meeting, members expressed their concern regarding continued uncertainty about the fate of historic Stillwater Bridge, given the National Park Service’s (NPS) refusal to permit construction of a new bridge over the Lower St. Croix Wild and Scenic River unless the historic bridge was removed. Subsequently, Chairman Slater wrote to the Secretary of the Interior to express the Council’s strong disagreement with NPS’s position and ask him to exercise his leadership toward resolving the impasse.
Stillwater Lift Bridge, spanning the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and Minnesota at the City of Stillwater, Minnesota
(photograph courtesy of National Trust for Historic Preservation)
The Secretaries of Interior and Transportation met in July, and it appears that the deadlock on the historic bridge’s fate may be resolved. NPS will now consider retention of the bridge. The Minnesota Department of Transportation is currently circulating an “enhanced mitigation plan” which includes two new alternatives, preservation and rehabilitation of the entire structure or partial preservation of the lift and adjacent spans only.
Unfortunately, the extraordinary cost (between $10 and $18 million) of these options may render either preservation approach infeasible. The bulk of these costs are for a “conservation fund” required by NPS to protect the viewshed of the river through scenic easements and other actions. The Council anticipates further discussions with FHWA and NPS on these alternatives in the near future.
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 DOTs 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 that law, 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 maintained that only removal of the historic bridge could adequately address the visual and direct impacts of the new crossing, FHWA believed it could not obtain the necessary approval from NPS without affecting the historic lift bridge.
The Council has maintained that NPS could easily justify retention of the bridge by recognizing its scenic, historic, and recreational value as contributing to the outstanding resource values which earned the Lower St. Croix its designation as a Wild and Scenic River.
There is a great deal of local 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 seeking a compromise. One 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, instead supporting retention of the entire structure.
As originally interpreted by NPS, the historic bridge did not fit within its definition of scenic and aesthetic elements and did not fall within the broadly defined “outstandingly remarkable values” which led to Wild and Scenic River designation of the Lower St. Croix River. The result was direct competition between the protection of natural and cultural resources, an unfortunate outcome that has raised questions regarding the potential future impact of the Wild and Scenic Rivers program on historic properties. NPS’s recent decision to consider retention of the historic bridge could signal a precedent for a balanced approach to similar future situations.
Staff contact: MaryAnn Naber
June 2000 report on this case
Return to top of page