After all the discussion and debates, planning, setbacks and renewed efforts, it's somehow appropriate to remember the final location of the Highway 371 bypass could have hinged on a turtle.
In this case the Blandings turtle, which is listed as a "threatened" species by the DNR.
Blandings turtles aren't scarce in Baxter. Years ago the fact that some turtles lived where a road should run wouldn't have concerned highway engineers. The most efficient design would have been decided on and the turtles left to fend for themselves. But in this day of heightened environmental awareness, MnDOT didn't want to step on a single turtle's crusty toes. To make sure all turtles were safe and accounted for the agency funded a DNR study for $61,000.
If the price tag sounds high be assured the alternatives, which could have featured an elaborate fencing network to route turtles into culverts under the road, or even a different alignment for the road, were much more expensive.
Turns out it was money well spent. DNR biologists trapped turtles, installed radio transmitters on their backs and tracked them with antennas. Others were marked and released. Eventually the DNR estimated that 175 to 300 Blandings turtles lived in the area, though none were found in what turned out to be the highway corridor.
But the area wetlands, specifically those on the east side of Perch Lake, have hosted turtles before and could again if water levels rise. When that happens migrating turtles will find four lanes of bituminous divided by a sizable expanse of grass.
"Some will try to cross but they won't make it," is how Steve Piepgras, a DNR mapper who helped with the turtle study, describes the fate of pilgrim turtles that don't turn back. In other words the bypass will soon become like other roads, which not only help motorists get from Point A to Point B but also help them track which critters are particularly active and mobile in a given season.
Yet the DNR is happy with where the bypass was built. "You couldn't have selected a better route," Piepgras said. "The main thing is they avoided splitting any wetlands. Whenever a road is upgraded or a development goes in there will be conflicts with wildlife. There's no way to mitigate that."
MnDOT took steps to assure the Mississippi River bridge was as unobtrusive as possible. The bridge was built at a bend in the stream, preventing sound from traveling long distances down the river corridor. It also assured as few dwellings as possible got a new picture-window view of the Highway 371 bridge. But then it's not a bad bridge to look at as bridges go.
"I think it's a very nice looking bridge," said Curt Eastlund, a MnDOT design engineer. "I don't think it's an eyesore at all. But people who are purely interested in the natural and scenic qualities of a river will find any man-made structure to be a detriment."
Trees fared almost as well as turtles. Although some were lost to new street connections the absence of a frontage road should assure that excessive roadside development won't take an undue toll on the greenery, which will take on the colors of autumn in the coming weeks.
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