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The Planet

The Planet
October 1998 Volume 5, Number 8


Bridge Over Scenic Waters

by Jenny Coyle

'The decision affirms the authority of the Park Service over highway projects that affect wild and scenic rivers.'

The reporter wanted a quote. He knew Sierra Club activists in Minnesota would be jubilant about the court decision to bar construction of a massive mile-long bridge across the St. Croix River.

But he couldn't get anyone on the phone. So the reporter just quoted the message on the answering machine for Tom Clarke, conservation chair of the North Star Chapter: "Ding dong, the wicked bridge is dead - for now."

It was April, and though winning this round was a major triumph, Clarke showed some foresight by adding "for now" to his message.

The 150-mile St. Croix River forms much of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin. In 1972, it was one of the first eight rivers protected by federal Wild and Scenic River designation.

In the early 1980s, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Highway Administration (FHA) decided that an existing two-lane, historic lift bridge across the St. Croix River at Stillwater, a bedroom community of the Twin Cities, couldn't handle traffic in the area - now or in the future - and planned to build a new $101 million, 4-lane bridge.

So confident was the DOT that the project would go through, that it bought and razed nearly 70 homes that were in the path of the proposed bridge.

But Club members in the North Star and John Muir (Wisconsin) chapters thought otherwise. They asserted that the bridge and its 26 piers - eight of which would be in the water - would destroy wetlands, wildlife habitat and the river's scenic values, and trigger sprawl in two rural Wisconsin counties. And reports by two federal-watchdog groups listed the project as one of the nation's worst for wasting taxpayer dollars.

The North Star Chapter said the National Park Service had the authority to stop the project if studies showed the bridge would harm the wild and scenic values of the river. When the Park Service failed to act, the chapter and other environmental groups enlisted the Minneapolis law firm of Faegre & Benson and sued.

Their suit was announced at a press conference held at an overlook on the Minnesota side of the river. The breathtaking view took in the proposed bridge site, including the undisturbed Wisconsin bluffline that would be obliterated by the project.

The chapter prevailed in court, but when the Park Service ruled that the bridge would harm the river, the DOT - which had intervened in the North Star Chapter's lawsuit on behalf of the Park Service - and FHA took the matter up with the U.S. District Court.

The chapter argued before Judge Ann Montgomery that the Park Service, now a Club ally, had the authority to issue its decision. In April, the judge agreed, ruling that the agency's decision to halt the bridge project was legitimate - a huge victory in the chapter's 15-year fight to protect the river.

"The decision affirms the authority of the Park Service over highway projects that affect wild and scenic rivers," says Judy Bellairs, the North Star Chapter's legislative director. But activists couldn't rest on their laurels: A rider on a spending bill this summer would have revived the project. But Rep. Bill Luther (D-Minn.) played a decisive role in stopping the amendment. "With Rep. Luther we have an advocate for protecting the river," says Bellairs. Bridge opponents continue to stand guard against similar legislative attacks this fall.

Bellairs and Clarke credit the bridge victory to outstanding teamwork by volunteers and staff in the two states, and staffers in the Club's Midwest regional and Washington, D.C., offices.

Now a former DOT commissioner is meeting with various groups involved with the bridge project and will recommend a solution that, hopefully, will be palatable to them all. The Sierra Club, is pushing for alternatives like carpooling, bike lanes, park-and-ride lots and reconfigured parking along thoroughfares to address the traffic concerns.

"We're guardedly optimistic we'll end up with something that makes us all happy - and protects the river," says Clarke.
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