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Home arrow Working with Section 106 arrow ACHP Case Digest arrow Summer 2003 arrow Minnesota & Wisconsin: Construction of Alternative Crossing of the St. Croix River
Minnesota & Wisconsin: Construction of Alternative Crossing of the St. Croix River

Agency: Federal Highway Administration

This case illustrates the sometimes competing interests between protecting natural and cultural resources. In this situation, a 70-year-old lift bridge that spans the St. Croix River between Stillwater, Minnesota, and Houlton, Wisconsin, has become inadequate to serve increasing traffic needs. The Federal Highway Administration has proposed replacing the historic bridge.

The National Park Service has concluded that the community icon does not contribute to the river’s designation as a Wild and Scenic River, and that removal of the National Register-listed bridge is a way to solve the visual and direct impacts of a new bridge on the river.

The ACHP has requested reconsideration of the proposal to demolish the bridge, and President Bush’s inclusion of the project in his 2002 Executive order on environmental stewardship has helped jump-start the stalled case.

As only one of two lift bridges remaining in Minnesota, the National Register-listed bridge spanning Stillwater, Minnesota, and Houlton, Wisconsin, is no longer able to handle growing traffic demands across the Lower St. Croix River. More than 15,000 vehicles cross the historic bridge daily, and that number is expected to more than double by 2020.

Stillwater Lift Bridge, spanning the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and Minnesota



Stillwater Lift Bridge, spanning the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and Minnesota (staff photo)

In 1994, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) executed a Memorandum of Agreement for the construction of a new four-lane crossing at Stillwater, with the stipulation that vehicles would continue to use the Stillwater Lift Bridge after the new span was constructed.

Shortly after the agreement was executed, however, the National Park Service (NPS) 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 the Wild and Scenic River Act, NPS is authorized to review and approve projects that might impede the free flow of designated rivers. The act contains language that includes historic and cultural values among those that the act protects.

NPS found that the Stillwater Lift Bridge did not fit within the act’s definition of scenic and esthetic elements and did not fall within the broadly defined “outstandingly remarkable values” that led to the river’s Wild and Scenic River designation. Accordingly, NPS maintained that removing the historic bridge should be part of the mitigation to address the visual and direct impacts of the new crossing on the river.

The ACHP has consistently maintained that NPS could justify keeping 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. In 2000, former ACHP chairman Cathryn Slater wrote to the Secretary of the Interior to express her disagreement with NPS’s position.

In an effort to resolve the dispute, three alternatives were developed, two of which would result in preservation of at least part of the Stillwater Lift Bridge. All of the alternatives required creation of a conservation fund to be used to mitigate impacts to the Lower St. Croix National Scenic Waterway. The three alternatives, however, differ significantly in cost. Preservation of the bridge would require the largest contribution to the conservation fund.

Opinions among the case’s seven Federal agencies and 19 State, city, and local organizations were diverse. For example, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources strongly objected to keeping the Stillwater Lift Bridge and indicated that it would assert its permitting authority over the project if that alternative was selected. In contrast, local citizens mostly agreed to preserve the community icon, but, acknowledging that a new river crossing was sorely needed.

The city of Stillwater resolved to accept any of the three alternatives. Congressman Bill Luther wrote 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.

Both the Wisconsin and Minnesota State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs) also supported keeping the Stillwater Lift Bridge intact—but the Minnesota SHPO conceded that other ideas should be considered if keeping the bridge in its entirety was not an option.

Because of inadequate Federal funding for the conservation fund, lack of consensus among the agencies, and failure to obtain needed approvals, the State Departments of Transportation suspended the project in January 2001.

To resolve the impasse, the Governor of Wisconsin referred the project to the U.S. Institute of Environmental Conflict Resolution, a bipartisan organization whose members are appointed by the President. The ACHP met with institute representatives to assist the organization in developing a formal conflict assessment and selecting a project facilitator.

In September 2002, the project’s momentum was renewed after being listed in President Bush’s Executive Order, “Environmental Stewardship and Transportation Infrastructure Project Reviews,” as a project that required attention under the directive. In June 2003, the ACHP and other stakeholders in the project began working with FHWA to consider alternatives for a new crossing of the St. Croix River and the effects of those alternatives on historic properties, including the lift bridge.

Staff contact: Laura Henley Dean

Updated November 20, 2003

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