In a long-sought settlement, the National Park Service will pay Swain County $52 million, approximating today’s cost of a county road that was flooded in the 1940s to make Fontana Lake. The announcement came from Rep. Heath Shuler’s office. Swain County commissioners are expected to accept the settlement, which dates back to a 1943 agreement between the federal government and local officials. Environmental and citizen groups that have long argued for settlement say it will close the decades-long fight to stop a proposed road through the most remote, wild area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“Today’s announcement is the tipping point on the North Shore Road story — the resolution of an historical wrong in Swain County, and protection of the park’s most wild, remote area for the future,” said D.J. Gerken, attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It’s also a win for American taxpayers, since the road would have cost several times more than this settlement.”
Sierra Club spokesperson Ted Snyder adds, “The Sierra Club has been fighting the disastrous North Shore Road proposal since the late 1960s.”
Back then the National Park Service began building a replacement road for Swain County along the north shore of the lake but abandoned the project just seven miles into it, due to severe erosion and acidic runoff that wiped out fisheries in several streams. For decades, a number of county residents pushed for completion of what came to be known in its incomplete state as “the Road to Nowhere,” although the agency, the governors of North Carolina and Tennessee, and the Swain County Commission all rejected the project on environmental and economic grounds, favoring a cash settlement with the county.
“This settlement will bring much-needed resources to Swain County for decades to come,” Congressman Shuler said in a release from his office. “The interest on these funds alone will greatly increase Swain’s annual budget and will help the commissioners in their efforts to create jobs, invest in Swain County schools, and improve the county’s infrastructure.”
“The wildest region of the park will stay wild, and future generations will be able to experience its isolation and grandeur,” said Don Barger, senior director, Southeast Regional Office, National Parks Conservation Association in a statement.
A draft of the agreement has been sent to Swain County commissioners, who will likely vote to officially accept it at a special meeting on Friday, Feb. 5. On Saturday, Feb. 6, U.S. Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar, plans to be in Swain County for an official signing of the agreement at the Bryson City town square in front of the old courthouse.
According to Shuler’s office, the money will be deposited in a specially protected trust account with the North Carolina State Treasurer who will disperse annual interest payments to Swain County. Already, $4 million has been authorized for transfer into the trust. Within 120 days of the signing, another $8.8 million will be added, with an additional $4 million allocated in the president’s 2011 budget, which outlines the first of 10 annual payments that complete the settlement. These initial amounts alone will provide an annual return of approximately $1 million going to Swain County forever, say representatives of Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County.
Dale Ditmanson, Superintendent of the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, has stated the Park Service will continue to provide transportation to annual cemetery “decoration days” and tell their stories through exhibits and programs.
Photos by Danny Bernstein.