Good things come to those who wait—but sometimes they have to wait almost 60 years. Last week, Dale Ditmanson, superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, announced that the National Park Service will recommend paying a cash settlement to Swain County instead of building the so-called Road to Nowhere in the southwestern corner of the park. The proposed road from Bryson City to Fontana Dam was meant to replace one flooded in 1943 by the Tennessee Valley Authority to create electricity for the war effort.
“I feel real glad that NPS finally decided on the preferred alternative,” said Claude Douthit, a retired TVA employee who lives in Bryson City. “I retired in 1974, and working on a financial settlement for Swain County has been an everyday job since [then] for me.” Douthit is an active member of Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County, a group backing a $52 million settlement to Swain County.
Greg Kidd of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Asheville office felt the recommendation was long overdue. “I’m extremely excited,” he said. “Thanks to the leadership of Congressman Heath Shuler and Sen. Elizabeth Dole, we’re moving ahead, and that’s great. Now it opens the door to legislation for Congress to actually appropriate the money.”
The road drew strong opposition because it would have harmed the natural habitat in one of the most pristine areas in the East and cost almost $600 million. However, construction of a North Shore Road is still advocated by some descendants of those who moved out of the area in the 1940s.
Linda Hogue, president of the North Shore Road Association, which supports building the road, was not pleased with the announcement. “I think it’s no surprise,” she said. “The Park Service had no intention to build the road, if they could help it. But we’re not giving up. Our group is looking at our future options.”
The area north of Fontana Lake was not part of the original Great Smoky Mountains National Park, formed in the 1930s. Until the 1940s, several communities lived in and north of the current lake location. The only access to and from their homes was a narrow, twisting road, from Bryson City to Deal’s Gap. The TVA dam flooded the road and several communities, and the residents had to move out. The land north of the lake was then amalgamated into the park.
The federal government promised to build a road on the North Shore of Fontana Lake after World War II if Congress appropriated the money. The NPS constructed less than a mile of road west of Fontana Dam and about six miles from the eastern boundary of the Park. In 1971, construction stopped when builders hit acid-bearing rock that would cause serious water contamination. The road now ends in a tunnel outside of Bryson City.
No further federal funding was received for the road until 2001, when then Rep. Charles Taylor revived the issue by obtaining $16 million for further construction, thus triggering the current process. For those who wish to visit cemeteries where their ancestors are buried, the NPS provides free boat transportation across the lake and a shuttle as close as vehicles can get to the cemeteries.
The Final Environment Impact Statement, which will recommend the cash settlement, will be published in September and then be available for public comments for 30 days. Regarding the early announcement of the NPS plan, Ditmanson explained that “even though the FEIS will not be released for several months, we wanted to be responsive to the intense public interest in the status of this undertaking.”