North Shore Road settlement brings $52 million to Swain County

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 when Fontana Lake was created. On Feb. 5, county commissioners voted 4-1 to accept the settlement, which will be paid in installments and placed into a trust fund. Under a state ruling, commissioners can only spend the interest earned on the funds, and only for projects approved by county residents.

Although environmentalists have long called for a cash settlement, some residents remained adamant in calling for a new road to be built, as promised in a 1943 agreement between the federal government and Swain County. Commissioner David Monteith made the lone vote opposing the settlement, saying he'd rather work on the road for another 67 years than accept the cash.

The announcement came from the offices of Rep. Heath Shuler, a Swain County native who joined in the call for cash instead of the road, which would have cut through the most remote, wild area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In the 1960s, the National Park Service began building a replacement road for Swain County along the north shore of Fontana Lake but abandoned the project just seven miles into it, due in part 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 NPS, the governors of North Carolina and Tennessee, and the majority of Swain County commissioners all rejected the project on environmental and economic grounds, favoring a cash settlement.

"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 added, "The Sierra Club has been fighting the disastrous North Shore Road proposal since the late 1960s."

In a release, Shuler remarked: "This settlement will bring much-needed resources to Swain County for decades to come. …  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, a director with the National Parks Conservation Association.

Over the course of the next 10 years, the money will be deposited in a trust account with the North Carolina state treasurer, who will disburse 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 in interest available to Swain County, say representatives of Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County.

Dale Ditmanson, superintendent of the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, has stated that the Park Service will continue to provide transportation to annual cemetery "decoration days," allowing descendants of people buried in the North Shore area to visit the remote gravesites.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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