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Minnesota-Wisconsin: Replacement of Stillwater Lift Bridge

Agencies: Federal Highway Administration and National Park Service

Criteria for ACHP 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).

Recent Developments

In an April 2001 letter, ACHP Chairman Slater wrote to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton to express ACHP’s deep concern that the National Park Service (NPS) was discouraging preservation of the historic Stillwater Bridge by establishing high-cost conservation funding levels to protect the Lower St. Croix National Scenic Waterway. Further, ACHP again questioned NPS’ rationale for treating the historic bridge as an intrusion on the river as opposed to a property of positive historic and cultural value worthy of protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA). ACHP received a response from the NPS Midwest Regional Office that did not indicate any change in position.

Stillwater Lift Bridge, Minnesota-Wisconsin



Stillwater Lift Bridge, Minnesota-Wisconsin (photo courtesy of National Trust for Historic Preservation)


In May 2001, ACHP wrote to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in Minnesota to urge it to take the lead in reopening consultation to adopt a solution that allows construction of the new crossing while plans for preserving the historic bridge are investigated. Encouraged by this action, the Department of Transportation (DOT) of Wisconsin subsequently wrote to the Minnesota DOT reaffirming its support for construction of a new bridge and proposing that a decision on the fate of the historic lift bridge be deferred for 10 years in order to allow time for mitigation funding to be obtained.

For its part, Minnesota indicated that its support for such an approach would be predicated on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) accepting retention of the bridge and the Wisconsin DOT guaranteeing mitigation.

In June 2001, the Minnesota House-Senate Conference agreed to extend the timeline for the project until July 1, 2002. The Governor of Wisconsin then referred this project to the U.S. Institute of Environmental Conflict Resolution in hope of resolving the impasse. The members of the bipartisan institute are appointed by the President. A meeting of ACHP and institute representatives was recently held to assist the institute in developing a formal conflict assessment, which is scheduled for completion in November.


In 1994, ACHP executed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) for the construction of a new four-lane crossing over the Lower St. Croix River between Minnesota and Wisconsin at the City of Stillwater, Minnesota. Over 15,000 vehicles daily cross the existing historic bridge at Stillwater, but that number should more than double by 2020, exacerbating already severe congestion. According to the MOA, vehicles would continue to use the historic bridge after construction of the new span.

However, shortly after execution of the MOA, the NPS Omaha Regional Office determined that the proposed new crossing would have a direct and adverse impact on the scenic and recreational values of the Lower St. Croix National Scenic Waterway.

Under Section 7(a) of WSRA, NPS is authorized to review and approve projects that might impede the free flow of designated rivers. WSRA contains express language that includes historic and cultural values among those that the act protects. However, NPS maintained that only removal of the historic bridge could adequately address the visual and direct impacts of the new crossing on the wild and scenic river. Accordingly, FHWA did not believe that it could obtain the necessary approval from NPS for new construction without affecting the historic lift bridge.

ACHP has consistently 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 that earned the Lower St. Croix its designation as a Wild and Scenic River. At ACHP’s June 2000 meeting, members expressed their concern regarding the continued uncertainty about the fate of historic Stillwater Bridge. Subsequently, Chairman Slater wrote to the then Interior Secretary Babbitt to express ACHP’s strong disagreement with NPS’s position and ask him to exercise his leadership to resolve the impasse.

After the Secretaries of Interior and Transportation intervened, NPS stated it would consider retention of the historic bridge. In response, the State DOTs developed three alternatives, two of which would result in preservation of at least part of the historic bridge. All require creation of a conservation fund to be used to mitigate impacts to the Lower St. Croix National Scenic Waterway. Unfortunately, the conservation fund costs of the preservation options ($9.7 and $18.5 million) are extremely high. Also, the Wisconsin DNR has strongly objected to the retention option and has indicated that it will assert its permitting authority over the project if that alternative is selected.

The Wisconsin State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) has taken the position that the only acceptable alternative is retention of the historic bridge in its entirety and has questioned the disparity in mitigation funding between historic preservation and conservation. Further, the SHPO expressed concern that FHWA had failed to adequately consider secondary and cumulative effects. The Minnesota SHPO also supports retention of the entire historic bridge, but, if that is not possible, believes variations on a retention alternative should be considered.

Led by the City of Stillwater, considerable local interest exists in preserving the historic bridge, which is a community icon. In spite of this interest, the public acknowledges that construction of a new river crossing is sorely needed. So, in January 2001, the City of Stillwater resolved to accept any of the three alternatives.

The commitment of $5 million in Federal funding for restoration obtained by Congressman Bill Luther has probably encouraged the city to accept ownership of the bridge if it is retained. In addition, Congressman Luther wrote directly to NPS to explain the importance of the historic bridge to the community and to request that NPS strike the appropriate balance in considering impacts to natural and cultural resources.

Because of inadequate Federal funding for mitigation, lack of consensus among the agencies, and failure to obtain needed approvals, the DOTs announced suspension of work on the St. Croix River Crossing Project in January 2001.

Policy Highlights

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 future impact of the Wild and Scenic Rivers program on historic properties.

While NPS’ decision to consider retention of the historic bridge could signal a precedent for a balanced approach to similar future situations, there has been no change in the extraordinary cost of mitigation attached to either of the retention alternatives.

Staff contact: Laura Henley Dean

Updated June 6, 2002

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