Sunday, March 6, 2011

Michele Bachmann, bridge advocates play loose with the facts on the St. Croix River

Bachmann fear-mongers about 'radical environmentalists' while pro-development bridge coalition cites phony precedents.

By Karl Bremer

A river of misinformation and smears is flowing from Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and other proponents of a massive new freeway bridge over the federally protected St. Croix River at Stillwater.

Bachmann charges that opposition to the new bridge is coming from “radical environmental groups.” She took time out from the Tea Party rubber-chicken circuit last month to breeze by the capitol and drop a bill in the hopper to exempt the St. Croix River from the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Meanwhile, the fledgling Coalition for St. Croix River Crossing, a pro-bridge consortium of St. Croix Valley government and business groups on both sides of the river, is touting two previous projects exempted from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act as being comparable to the proposed Stillwater bridge when, in fact, the exemptions weren’t even for bridges. They were for projects designed to preserve the fisheries of two protected rivers and had absolutely nothing to do with transportation.

But that hasn’t stopped the coalition from perpetuating this myth through the media, presenting it as precedent for exempting the Bachmann Boondoggle from the Act.

Alarmed that “radical environmental groups” were in our midst, I decided to contact one of them: the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). The NPCA was established in 1919—three years after the National Park Service came into being—to serve as an advocate for the protection of America’s national parks. The NPCA Midwest Office oversees 48 National Park sites in 11 states, including the 93,000-acre St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.

“We aren’t an environmental group,” says NPCA Midwest Regional Director Lynn McClure. “We were established in 1919 by the director of the Park Service as an independent organization fulfilling the function of advocate/watchdog for the parks. We did some educational outreach for the Park Service originally. But today, we’re the only dedicated national group that is the voice of the National Parks in Washington.”

Just how radical are they?

“I’d wager we have more Republicans on our board than Democrats,” McClure says. “It’s pretty darn close. We have a lot of fiscally conservative Republicans on our board. But they understand the preservation side of things and they will stand with the parks. They’re not banging the radical environmental drum.”

The NPCA was one of 26 state and national organizations that sent a letter to Governor Mark Dayton last month urging him to “shelve plans for a new bridge that would cost over $640 million, damage the Riverway’s scenic and natural resources, and accelerate sprawl into rural western Wisconsin. Instead,” the groups asked, “we urge you to quickly seize this opportunity to identify, with leadership from the Minnesota Department of Transportation and in collaboration with stakeholders, an alternative proposal for a new, modestly-scaled bridge – one that would dramatically reduce the impact on the Lower St. Croix, while serving the needs of Minnesota and Wisconsin residents and saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. At the same time, we urge you to oppose efforts to move the current unworkable proposal forward.”

Dayton responded that “all possibilities have been reopened for consideration” with regard to bridge options.

“Our first instincts are to find the best solutions that both protect the national parks and bring a local community together around it,” says McClure. “We understand the role national parks can play in economic development. But sometimes, you have to say you need to weigh in on this picture.”

The St. Croix River long has been considered one of the more unique rivers in the Wild and Scenic Rivers system because of its close proximity to a major metropolitan area.

“That’s primarily the reason we got involved in the bridge issue,” McClure explains. “The St. Croix is an extreme point of pride for the National Park Service.” When she’s in Washington, McClure says, the St. Croix is often mentioned in the same breath as Yellowstone or Glacier national parks. “The director understands the critical nature of this bridge if it were to go in.”

The Wild and Scenic Rivers system, created in 1968, protects more than 11,000 miles of 166 rivers in 38 states and Puerto Rico—barely more than one-quarter of 1 percent of the nation's rivers. The Upper St. Croix, from its source to Taylor’s Falls, was among the first rivers designated under the Act; the Lower St. Croix, from Taylor’s Falls to Prescott, WI, was added to the system in 1972.

“You don’t grant exemptions to the Act lightly,” McClure stresses.

Which brings us to the exemptions hailed by the Coalition for St. Croix River Crossing as precedents for granting an exemption to the Act for the proposed four-lane, 65-mph freeway bridge at Stillwater.

William Rubin is executive director of the St. Croix Economic Development Corporation (EDC) in Hudson and a member of the Coalition for St. Croix River Crossing. The Coalition was incorporated in Minnesota in December 2010 and lists the Stillwater City Hall as its address.

The St. Croix EDC website features a news release detailing the pro-bridge coalition’s goals and notes that two previous exemptions have been granted from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Other news reports about the Coalition state that the two exempted projects were “similar” to the proposed Stillwater bridge, or that they actually were for bridges.

When I asked Rubin for specifics about the previous two exemptions from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that his group cited, he didn’t have a clue as to what they were.

“Maybe you should ask the Department of Transportation,” he replied.

When reminded that the reference to the exemptions was information put out by his group, and not the Department of Transportation, Rubin became irritated.

“We deal in economic development here. Maybe our journalistic skills aren’t all that they should be,” Rubin says.

There’s a good reason why Rubin wouldn’t want to talk about the exemptions: because they don’t even remotely resemble the proposed Stillwater bridge project, and couldn’t under any reasonable circumstances be compared to it.

According to Dan Haas, U.S. Fish & Wildlife planner who sits on the federal Interagency Wild and Scenic River Coordinating Council, “There have been only two exemptions to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act after the fact.” Neither of them were bridges, nor were they even transportation-related.

One exemption was for a sea lamprey barrier on the Pere Marquette River in Michigan. This electric fish barrier features bottom-mounted electrodes on a wooden deck. It works in conjunction with a fish bypass channel and lamprey trap to block upstream migration of Atlantic sea lamprey into trout spawning habitat on the river. The lamprey are diverted, trapped and electrocuted, eliminating the need for chemicals to rid the river of them.

The other exemption was for a temperature control tower built upstream from Cougar Dam on the South Fork of the McKenzie River in Oregon. The tower takes in warmer waters from the surface of Cougar Reservoir above the dam to maintain consistent temperatures downstream from the dam. This allowed for the return and revitalization of Chinook salmon populations on the South Fork of the McKenzie, which had stopped migrating up the river due to cold waters flowing out from the bottom of the reservoir following construction of the dam in 1963. The reservoir was drained for the tower’s construction but once it was refilled, the tower was submerged.

The only bridges that have been built over designated Wild and Scenic Rivers have been built in the same corridor as the old bridge, and then the old bridge was torn down upon completion of the new one.

Rubin and the Coalition for St. Croix River Crossing aren’t the only bridge proponents misrepresenting the facts. Not surprisingly, Bachmann is playing fast and loose with them as well.

Besides painting opponents of her billion-dollar boondoggle as “radical environmentalists,” Bachmann also claims her critics are lying about what her bill would do.

“It has also been claimed that my bill exempts the Lower St. Croix from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act,” says Bachmann. “This is wrong. My bill points to the 2005 National Park Service decision stating the proposed four-lane bridge construction is consistent with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act … These groups and I may never agree on what the river crossing should look like, but I am calling on them to stop lying about my legislation.”

Evidently, Bachmann’s pals in the Coalition to Support St. Croix Crossing didn’t get her memo. In its news release, it states that the group “will work with federal legislators from Wisconsin and Minnesota and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to exempt the river crossing from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.”

While Bachmann would prefer that the history of the National Park Service and the Stillwater bridge began in 2005, the fact is, the NPS opposed the bridge in 1996 before it supported it in 2005. It’s no coincidence that the NPS reversed itself during the Bush Administration, yet Bachmann was silent on that flip-flop.
In a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis ruled in March 2010 that the NPS 2005 policy reversal ignored its 1996 decision against a similar bridge and must be revisited. Upon review of the 2005 decision, the NPS announced last fall that it had determined that the bridge as proposed could not be built without causing “direct and adverse effects that cannot be avoided or eliminated,” a violation of Section 7(a) of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

So Bachmann not only is seeking to exempt the bridge from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act by declaring its most recent application null and void, she apparently is trying to exempt the project from judicial review as well.

Last year Bachmann sent a letter to House Natural Resources Committee Chair Nick Rahall sounding the alarm about “the growing trend of radical environmentalist groups like the Sierra Club abusing the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to pursue their ideological ends” and suggesting “possible revisions to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to ensure it is not misused.”

Bachmann’s legislative end-run on the courts, the NPS and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is only the latest salvo in this long-running battle to preserve the St. Croix River and the integrity of the Act itself. Bachmann introduced essentially the same bill last year and attracted no co-sponsors. This year, Wisconsin Republican Sean Duffy and Wisconsin Democrat Ron Kind have signed on.

Bridge opponents can take heart in the fact that despite her high visibility as self-appointed Congressional leader of the Tea Party caucus, the ineffective Bachmann has not passed one piece of legislation in her entire congressional career; her tenure in the Minnesota State Senate was equally nonproductive.

There’s also the niggling little detail of the bridge’s $700 million-and-climbing price tag, which flies in the face of Bachmann’s alleged fiscal conservatism. The federal government is hardly flush with cash these days, and neither Minnesota nor Wisconsin has a few hundred million lying around for anything, let alone a bridge whose need is dubious.

Ironically, a little over a year ago, Bachmann wrote in an op/ed article: “When will the President and Democrat (sic) leadership learn that spending money we don’t have isn’t always the remedy to fix whatever problem confronts us?”

And while Bachmann now claims that the new bridge is needed to create jobs, in that same op/ed piece, she railed against President Obama for making the same claim:

“A federal spending surge of more than $20 billion for roads and bridges in President Obama's first stimulus has had NO EFFECT on local unemployment rates, raising questions about his argument for billions more to address an ‘urgent need to accelerate job growth,’" Bachmann wrote.

If the latest pronouncements from disingenuous pro-bridge forces are any indication, the arguments for building the Bachmann Boondoggle are likely to get even more specious.

"I don't see Michele and that group backing down," says the NPCA’s McClure. But she remains optimistic given the latest turn of events.

“I think it would behoove everyone to take a step back and look at the transportation issues,” says McClure.

She points to alternatives like the replacement bridges that were built over other Wild and Scenic Rivers—called “low and slow” bridges because they cross at river level rather than bluff level, and are built for slower traffic speeds to minimize their impact on the river.

“I do think there’s a solution out there,” she concludes.

TOP PHOTO: Visualization of proposed four-lane freeway bridge over the St. Croix River as seen from a Wisconsin aerial view. Image by Minnesota DOT.

MIDDLE PHOTO: Sea lamprey barrier on the Wild & Scenic Pere Marquette River in Michigan.

BOTTOM PHOTO: Cougar Dam Temperature Control Tower on Cougar Reservoir on the Wild & Scenic South Fork of the McKenzie River in Oregon.


The following organizations signed the Minnesota Environmental Partnership letter to Gov. Dayton urging him to oppose the Stillwater bridge as proposed and seek less intrusive alternatives. Judge for yourself how "radical" they are:


  1. "A bridge to promote economic growth in rural Wisconsin". Give Governor Walker enough time and there won't be any workers or residents in Wisconsin to build a bridge to.

  2. Karl, Could I put you on my blog,"
    Bosco-Standing Alone in The Center" as a link? Just a note. You need to be a little like Bachman, short bites.

  3. Karl, maybe you are new to heated political discourse, but "an environmental radical" is by definition exactly what Stillwater bridge opponents are. This was a very nice article with info I did not previously know, nice work......but ease up on your "surprise and anger" over name calling in these debates.

  4. Thanks, Karl. You're spot on. The irony is that the "no new taxes" stance of Bachmann and other conservative politicians has left the cubbard bare for this wildly massive bridge to Wisconsin sprawl. In addition, the type of developoment that would follow rebuilding of HW 36 through the heart of the Stillwater business district into a mega freeway encourages the most expensive kind of infrastructure improvement and extension that today's tax and revenue structures simply no longer support. You are correct that a lower and slower bridge would allow virtually no impact to the present condition of HW 36 west of Osgood. The idea that nearly a billion dollars of bridge is a wise expenditure with respect to all of the other Minnesota infrastructure up grades that were left undone durring the Pawlenty era is laughable. The entire Central Corridor project as currently conceived is nearly the same cost as the bridge, and that is a project that will transform transportation and developement in the entire Twin Cities metropolitan area. IN contrast a mega bridge will promote exactly the opposite type of development that 21st century urbanists know is necessary to support an efficient, responsible and environmentally friendly suburban fringe. Bachmann, Kriessell, Haryski and others are oddly ignorant of the outrageous cost of the new bridge and the massive scale it demands for both the bridge and adjacent freeways. In no way does this bridge crossing justify such expense and scope. It never has. It was the hubris of MNDOT that it never allowed a downscaled bridge model to become a viable alternative. From the beginning they wanted a level crossing at freeway speeds. This has always violated the intent of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and they kept insisting on a challenge it. How odd that the budget conscious Bachmann and County Commissioner Kriessel now advocate for an outlandishly and wildy inappropriate piece of pork for their district and county when clearly better and less expensive alternatives exist. Drastically downsize the bridge and eliminate the freeway expansion and the bridge will become a reality.

  5. "There’s also the niggling little detail of the bridge’s $700 million-and-climbing price tag, which flies in the face of Bachmann’s alleged fiscal conservatism."

    That comment there sums it all up in a nutshell. Bachmann is a hypocrite, and there's other way to put it.

    $700 million for a project that will serve 20,000-25,000 commuters is mind boggling. That's as much as the 35W replacement bridge, the WAKOTA bridge project and CROSSTOWN project combined. With half a billion tax-payer dollars at stake (the difference between a $700 million project and a $200 million project), it's a no-brainer to come up with a new plan.

  6. Bridges like this and the highways to support them are only built for one reason. To promote growth.
    You need to check what speculators are buying property and what they intend to build on them.

  7. Maybe Bachmann would think twice before she ruined a scenic area if she wasn’t parading around the usa preaching the bible while wrapped in the american flag. She doesn’t represent the residents. Most people around town HATE her.

    Her District support comes from the areas where there aren’t any trees and all the houses look exactly the same. I can’t express how much I hate her in words. Oh, by the way, why should we ruin our beautiful and scenic area so a bunch of Wisconsinites can work in Minnesota? They’re not affected, because across the river is a town of like 500 people. It isn’t developed.

    How about the drive the 10 miles down to the MAJOR interstate 94 and take that to their high paying jobs? Or maybe if they didn’t all drive huge SUVs that they drive to feel big, we wouldn’t have so much angst around the world. The more than you need mentality represents that. How about Wisconsin stops sucking and provides some jobs so they don’t ruin our gorgeous area.

    I’ve never heard someone who wasn’t a bible preacher support Bachmann, and we will NOT let this happen. Again, she doesn’t even live here. She’s the new Sarah Palin. Ever hear her on MPR? Nope. Always Faux News. Gah.

  8. Bachmann's a fraud, all the supporters are frauds, why won't they even consider the alternative scaled down version? For six years she does nothing for the 6th district, then tries to stick us with this boondoggle.