What good is a "Wild and Scenic" river if every town along its banks has the power to ignore the rules that keep the river wild and scenic?

That's a question the Minnesota Legislature should consider in the wake of a state Supreme Court decision that eviscerates federal and state laws intended to protect the lower St. Croix River.

The court ruled last week that the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is powerless to prevent the City Council in the Washington County suburb of Lakeland from granting a variance that allows a Twin Cities broadcasting executive to build a 10,000-square-foot home directly on the river bluff rather than observe the 40-foot setback dictated by the Wild and Scenic rules. The court's action overrode a string of decisions by lower jurisdictions, including Lakeland's planning commission, each of which affirmed the DNR's authority to deny Rob Hubbard's request to exceed the setback limit.

Unless the Legislature steps in to give the DNR explicit authority to override local variances, towns along the Minnesota side of the St. Croix -- or, perhaps, any of the state's six other Wild and Scenic river segments -- are now free to use the variance loophole to pursue any kind of development they like. That's a severe blow to the lower St. Croix, named last year by the conservation group American Rivers as one of the nation's 10 most endangered streams because of encroaching and mismanaged development.

In the case of tiny Lakeland (population 2,000), it's easy to imagine the temptation posed by the property tax revenues that river bluff mansions might produce, especially in these desperate times for local governments. But to toss aside environmental and aesthetic considerations for the sake of a few property owners (and a few more dollars in the local treasury) damages the broader interests of the public and makes a mockery of state and federal river protections.

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act -- with its inclusion of the lower St. Croix in 1972 -- has been a valuable asset to Minnesota and Wisconsin. No one disputes that local governments must conform their rules to the higher state standards along the protected river. It's just that the Legislature never granted unambiguous authority to the DNR to veto local variances. The Legislature should now correct that mistake, as the court seemed to suggest.

The only other recourse is for the DNR to write new "hardship" rules that make local variances harder to get. There are valid reasons for some variances, and rules should be as flexible as possible. But the court's opinion describes Hubbard's "hardship" as his inability to see the beach unless his house was closer to the bluff. If that was, indeed, the basis for the variance, it represents a fundamental abuse of the Wild and Scenic river ideal. If every property owner demanded to see the beach from the bluff top, the river might remain "wild and scenic" for them, but not for anyone else.