Is Michele Bachmann's Plan to Violate the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act the Green Move?


Stillwater, Minn. Photo: Dave Gingrich under a Creative Commons license.

In 2009, we congratulated Congress and President Obama on extending the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, forbidding development that would change the wild or scenic nature of designated rivers.

But now, Congress is debating a bill, introduced by Rep. Michele Bachmann, to grant an exemption from the law to build a new bridge over the St. Croix River in Stillwater, Minnesota. There are a lot of arguments for and against the project, and both sides are claiming they've got the green gods on their side.The Proposal

Stillwater is a small, touristy town about 25 miles east of Minneapolis, on the St Croix River. It's connected to Wisconsin on the other side by a lift bridge built in 1931. Designed to carry 11,000 cars per day, the bridge takes on an average of 18,400 vehicles daily, and up to 25,000 in peak summer season. It's listed as structurally deficient, with a rating of 32.8 out of 100. Traffic jams are a regular occurrence as cars wait to cross the river.

The proposed new bridge would be a $690 million, four-lane cable stay design. The old lift bridge would be maintained and converted into a bicycle and pedestrian crossing.

The Argument For:

One could assume that no bill proposed by Bachmann, who is busy calling for the abolition of the EPA, could have green merits. But that's not the case. The strongest argument in favor of the new bridge is the inefficiency of the old one: while waiting to make the crossing, cars are constantly idling, spewing out carbon emissions.

In a debate hosted by Minnesota Public Radio News, Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki argued that the project has been carefully planned and is the best option for the area:

Many alternatives were rejected because they would violate historic preservation laws, damage local parks, or not provide sufficient transportation capacity. The bridge we support is the best option our region can develop.

It will create the bridge we need and preserve the historic bridge by converting it into the key element of a new bicycle and pedestrian loop trail along and above the river. Bluff lands on both sides of the river will be restored. The project will decrease the amount of phosphorous pollution entering the river by 20 percent and reduce the dangerous levels of traffic and automotive pollution in our small, historic downtown area.

As to the exemption from the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, the project's supporters argue that the proposed site is not what lawmakers had in mind: it is an industrial area, next to a power plant and a sewage treatment plant.


The old lift bridge. Photo: shog9 under a Creative Commons license.
The Argument Against:

The argument against the project is more focused, and goes something like this: the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act was passed for a reason. Building a new bridge would directly violate the law, and set a precedent for future construction projects on other protected rivers.

But those against the current project are not suggesting that Minnesotans and Wisconsinites keep using the aging, dangerous lift bridge. They're proposing the construction of a much smaller bridge, one that would still meet demand but would cause less damage to the area.

In the MPR News debate, Carol Hardin, the chair of the St. Croix Valley Interstate Group, called for a moderate-sized project:

A low-profile, modestly-scaled bridge would meet the real traffic need need now and well into the future and honor the federally- protected status of the St. Croix River. The currently proposed bridge would go from blufftop-to-blufftop, defacing the pristine six- mile-long bluff, spanning nearly a mile across and rising more than 100 feet above the river. The National Park Service has ruled that this massive bridge would irreparably harm the Lower St. Croix's outstanding scenic and recreational values.

Development and growth are inevitable and can be achieved without scarring the natural beauty of our St. Croix Valley.

Ultimately, I suspect that the fate of the Stillwater crossing will come down to economic and safety issues, rather than environmental ones. But it's good to see that the green side of things is coming into play, and that Congress' past actions to protect the environment aren't being abandoned just yet.

Check out the rest of the MPR News debate, which includes some very insightful user comments.
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More on Congress and the climate:
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