Burnett County in northwestern Wisconsin is in the middle of a multi-year project to upgrade an 11-mile road that provides access to a river landing along the upper St. Croix. The county recently applied for federal funds for a portion of the project on County Highway O, through a grant program for local governments providing access to federal lands, like the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway.
The county has already received state help to pave three miles of the road, which will be done this summer. The fifth and final phase would pave and restore the last leg of the road from the intersection with West River Road all the way to the river. Phases in the middle are not yet funded, but in the works.
Officials see the project as not just road construction, but providing access to one of the county’s most valuable assets.
“The improvements, it is hoped, will provide for a better, more user friendly access to one of the great landings on the St. Croix,” said Dick Hartmann, Burnett County economic development director.
County Road O not only offers river access, but cuts through the St. Croix Seeps State Natural Area, where numerous springs support a unique forest with rare wildlife. It also passes and provides access to the vast wetlands of the Fish Lake Wildlife Management Area, and a significant chunk of Burnett County forest.
The federal grant would be key. While the National Park Services manages the riverway and the landing, it’s the county’s road that provides access. But the road is also sparsely populated and wouldn’t normally be a priority for paving — if not for the river access.
“Access to the Riverway is primarily by aged roads and trails that have seen very little improvement since their birth in the late 1800s,” the application says. “The roads are now owned and maintained by the local counties and townships with limited financial resources to put toward improvements. Since the roads run through mostly uninhabited forest lands, these roads are typically the lowest priority for maintenance and improvements.”
County O has a long history. It previously accessed a ferry that crossed the St. Croix between the present landing and what is now known as the Rush City Ferry Landing on the Minnesota side. The “Deerings Ferry” existed since at least 1875.
The existing gravel road requires considerable maintenance to manage washboarding, ruts, pooling water, and erosion. In some of the wettest areas, the surface is the lowest point of the roadway, so rain doesn’t run off. Improving drainage will be the main priority of the project.
Officials also say improving the road will improve access for emergency services, such as EMTs or firefighters responding to a river emergency, or for firefighters in the event of a wildfire. It could additionally benefit logging companies who harvest trees on county forest land in the area.
“Tourism in Burnett County is one of its largest industries and is identified as a high priority in the county’s comprehensive plan to maintain and expand recreational opportunities throughout the county,” the county wrote in its application. “Improving County Road O to modern roadway standards will significantly enhance accessibility and mobility to tens of thousands of acres of public lands including the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, which is a primary tourist destination for visitors to the area.”
The county paved the first mile of the road east of Highway 87 in 2018. This year, it will pave an additional three miles past Jimmy Carter Road, with support from a state grant providing 70 percent of the funding. If the federal grant is approved, the segment nearest the river would be paved in 2023. The county is still seeking other funding to help pave the remaining road in between those two segments.
The Federal Lands Access Program (FLAP) is administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation. It’s intended to supplement state and local transportation resources, “with an emphasis on high-use recreation sites and economic generators.” It was first created by Congress in 2012. The major infrastructure bill passed late last year included additional funding for the program, removing the requirement that local governments match the federal dollars.
Burnett County expects to hear whether its application has been accepted by mid-April.