For Western North Carolina, it was bigger than when Eric Rudolph was caught Dumpster diving in Murphy. After 67 years, the North Shore Road controversy was over.
Saturday, Feb. 6 — the day after the Swain County commissioners voted to accept the agreement — was wet, cold and icy. Not the most auspicious conditions for the signing ceremony planned at Swain County High School. And bad weather in Washington kept Interior Secretary Ken Salazar away. But none of that seemed to dampen the audience's enthusiasm. Local musicians led the audience in "This Land is Your Land" and "America, the Beautiful," and a brass band played patriotic tunes.
Retired Swain County educator Leonard Winchester, the president of Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County, proclaimed: "It's a historic day." However, Winchester, who's been pushing for the deal for five or six years, added: "We have to continue working to make sure we get the rest. But now we can ask our two senators to help, because there's only one option."
Ted Snyder has been involved with this issue since the '60s. The former Sierra Club president feels the agreement "does something for the parks, the plants and the animals." He now plans to focus on getting wilderness designation for the Smokies. "Wilderness status is feasible," he believes, "but the locals won't support it until they get all their money."
Not everyone present was thrilled about the deal. "I think this is two steps backward," said sixth-generation mountaineer Mike Clampitt. "The new agreement says less than the old one. There's no guarantee we'll get the $52 million." He also questioned what wilderness status would mean for the area. Helen Vance, a member of Proctor High School's class of '43, expressed disappointment but added, "The time has come that we have to accept it and move on. My concern, now, is that the cemetery trips continue."
Glenn Jones, chair of the Swain County Board of Commissioners, noted, "It took us 67 years to reach this point," asserting, "Every citizen in Swain County will benefit from this cash settlement." He praised U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, a former quarterback for the Swain County Maroon Devils.
Superintendent Dale Ditmanson of Great Smoky Mountains National Park brought a message from Salazar: "The settlement is good for the people of Swain County, because it generates much-needed revenue; good for the department, because it protects one of America's most treasured parks; and good for the American taxpayers, since building the road would have cost several times more than the settlement."
Finally it was Shuler's turn. "Growing up, I saw both sides of the issue," he recalled. "It's divided this community. Our next generation can grow up with better education. It's time to let go of something in our past that divided us. My roots are here; my foundation is here." He received three standing ovations.