Outdoors: The North Shore Road revisited

I wasn’t exactly a dispassionate observer in the fight against building the North Shore Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As a hiker, I’m fortunate to live close to the park, and I want to see its trails protected. I’ve backpacked the Lakeshore Trail, which approximates the road’s proposed route, and I’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail, which would have been compromised by the proposed 35-mile route. But now the fight has reached a turning point, and our job as environmentalists is to see that Swain County gets its money—soon.

North shore ghosts: A road to replace N.C. 288 — flooded when Fontana Dam was built — will probably never get built, but reminders of the past remain. Photo by Danny Bernstein

After completing an environmental-impact study in 2007, the National Park Service recommended making a cash settlement instead of building the road (see “North Shore Road,” May 21 Xpress). But how much, and when?

History and the trail

About the time World War II was declared, the Tennessee Valley Authority built Fontana Dam on the Little Tennessee River. In the process, the TVA flooded the only road along the new lake’s northern shore—N.C. 288. Residents were forced to move out, and the federal government paid them for their land. That land became part of the park, and in a 1943 agreement, the government promised to build a road along the northern shore of Fontana Lake. But only seven miles of the promised road were ever built, and the project was abandoned due to environmental and financial issues. (See “Road to Nowhere is No Solution,” March 1, 2006 Xpress.)

Walking east on the Lakeshore Trail from Fontana Lake, I find hints of this history in the rusted skeletons of 1930s cars resting by the side of the old road where they were abandoned. It’s Park Service policy to leave such historical artifacts where they’re found.

Farther on, I visit Proctor Cemetery, the largest gravesite on the north shore. The first settlers, Moses and Patience Proctor, lived nearby and are buried here. They moved from Cades Cove in the 1830s (it must have been crowded back then). The trail continues through the now-abandoned town of Proctor; in the 1920s, it was a logging town with electricity, cafés, pool halls and even a movie theater. Ruins of the old sawmill on the nearby Hazel Creek Trail are now covered in kudzu.

The state of the latest proposal

Leonard Winchester—a retired Bryson City teacher who now heads up Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County—is adamant that “$52 million is the number Swain County is going for” in the settlement proposal.

I asked Bob Miller about it, too. Miller, who is public-affairs officer for the Smokies, replied: “The EIS did not mention a dollar amount. Swain County is asking for $52 million, but the Park and Swain County are not in agreement over that amount. There are discussions behind the scenes, but no further meetings between the four parties [National Park Service, TVA, the state of North Carolina and Swain County] are scheduled.”

Even if those parties came to an agreement, Congress would still have to appropriate the money. U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, a Bryson City native, has led efforts to bring the monetary settlement to Swain County, partnering with Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to line up $6 million left over from an earlier appropriation for the road as a down payment (see “Blow Struck Against ‘Road to Nowhere,’” Dec. 21, 2007 Xpress). But before the money can be turned over to Swain, the 1943 agreement must be superseded by a new one, and the remainder of the settlement money must be appropriated.

North Carolina Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr now say they favor the financial settlement. Kay Hagan, who at this writing is running against Dole, did not reply to repeated e-mails and phone calls. Carl Mumpower, who was running against Shuler, immediately replied: “No. I will not be championing the monetary settlement. It violates our word, is a bad deal and is founded on misrepresentations of the facts.”

Ted Snyder—a retired lawyer, former national Sierra Club president and vocal environmentalist—has been working on this issue for decades and is probably the foremost expert on the North Shore Road’s history and politics. He believes there are other ways for Swain County to get the money besides pursuing four-party negotiations. Congress could appropriate the money directly, or the Department of the Interior could either ask for an appropriation or find the funds within its 2009 budget, Snyder argues.

Final thoughts

Continuing east, the Lakeshore Trail skirts Fontana Lake. For more than 24 miles, it shows few signs of civilization. Yet, looking closely, I can spot home sites, chimneys, boxwoods and daffodils. With all this native beauty around them, it seems, residents still wanted to plant exotic bushes and flowers. At the end, the trail merges with the unfinished road’s pavement and leads to a tunnel, a 360-yard-long dark passage marked by graffiti. The tunnel ends a seven-mile-stretch built in the 1970s that was meant to be the start of the North Shore Road.

For those who want to visit cemeteries on the north shore of Fontana Lake, the U.S. Park Service provides free boat transportation and a ride on park roads as close as vehicles can get to the cemeteries. No other cemetery visits get this level of support from the park.

Nonetheless, some folks haven’t given up on getting the rest of the road built. Members of the North Shore Road Association recently replaced a billboard, located two miles from downtown Bryson City and just outside the park. It reads: “Welcome to the Road to Nowhere, A Broken Promise, 1943.”

To die-hard road supporters, this battle will never end.

[Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein is the author of Hiking the Carolina Mountains. She can be reached at danny@hikertohiker.com.]

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