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NPS puts brakes on Stillwater bridge with Friday announcement

It looks like the old lift brdige will be here for even longer than most suspected.

It's deja vu all over again for Stillwater bridge backers.

The long-awaited word from the National Park Service regarding the agency's opinion on the environmental impact of the bridge on the federally-designated Wild and Scenic Riverway has come, and it's not good news for supporters of the new span.

In a press release from the National Park Service Friday, officials say that a new evaluation of the project indicates that "adverse effects" from the construction of a new bridge cannot be avoided.

In a letter from NPS Midwest Regional Director Ernest Quintana to Derrell Turner at the Federal Highway Administration, Quintana said a new bridge would "fundamentally change the scenic qualities that existed when the St. Croix was designated a national wild and scenic river in 1972 for its outstanding scenic, recreational, and geologic values."

As a result, the NPS will not sign off on the new bridge.

St. Croix Riverway Superintendent Christopher Stein, in a letter to the editor sent to media outlets, said the agency is charged with protecting the riverway from negative environmental and visual impacts.

The bridge project, as it is currently proposed, would harm both aspects, he noted.

If a new bridge is ever to be constructed, Stein wrote, Congress must approve a special piece of legislation to allow the project to move forward.

Bridge supporters were hopeful that a new bridge would be built by 2013, after a stakeholders' group approved a compromise plan in 2006. One of the stakeholders that signed off on that compromise plan was the National Park Service.

In March of this year, in response to a lawsuit from the Sierra Club, Judge Michael Davis ruled that the NPS failed to clearly justify its change of heart in supporting the most recent bridge proposal. Previously, the NPS had objected to the idea due to the Wild & Scenic Riverway Act.

Bridge supporters were hopeful that the NPS would return with a new and better substantiated opinion in July of this year, paving the way for construction to start. No decision came, and bridge supporters grew impatient.

Last week, in an effort to push the issue forward, state and federal elected officials sent letters to NPS officials asking them to issue their opinion. Local leaders also asked for the decision to be issued.

Friday's announcement wasn't what they expected.

A new Stillwater bridge has been discussed for several decades. Lawsuits from environmental advocates have put a stop to the idea on several occasions.

According to Sierra Club officials, the organization isn't against a new bridge, but would rather see it built near the location of the current lift bridge to minimize the environmental impact.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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