The road less traveled

“My heritage is not for sale. Our folks were promised this road; we haven’t gotten it.”

— Swain County Commissioner David Monteith

Few regional issues have shown greater divisive power — or, for that matter, staying power — than the long-running plan to lay a 34-mile ribbon of asphalt through the southern portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The so-called “North Shore Road,” a mostly dormant work-in-progress dating back to the 1940s, claimed center stage once again back in January, when the National Park Service hosted a round of regional meetings on its draft environmental-impact statement for the project.

The document resulted from successful efforts by Rep. Charles Taylor and then Sen. Jesse Helms to secure $16 million for the road project in 2000; about $3 million of the money was spent on the draft EIS.

And though public sentiment at a Feb. 7 hearing in Asheville overwhelmingly favored paying Swain County $52 million and abandoning the project once and for all, a vehement (and vocal) minority — many of them people whose families were evicted more than 60 years ago to make way for Fontana Lake — still want their road.

Then there’s the matter of cost. Building the road is now projected to exceed $590 million — more than 10 times the amount of the proposed settlement.

Meanwhile, with the federal government pinched by war, Katrina cleanup costs and rising debt, some argue that the likelihood of that money ever reaching the woods of Swain County is as remote as the place itself.

The National Park Service is accepting public comment through Monday, March 20 (see box, “Weighing In”).

The Road to Nowhere

In 1943, a four-party agreement between the Department of the Interior, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Swain County and the state of North Carolina bound the federal government to build the corridor in exchange for a land swap with Swain County that enabled the Tennessee Valley Authority to flood the Little Tennessee Valley for wartime power production.

The flooding displaced 600 families and left the greater portion of the valley’s primary road, N.C. 288, under water.

Not much happened till the 1960s, when the Department of the Interior (the Park Service’s parent agency) began making good on its already decades-old commitment to build a new road skirting the north shore of Fontana Lake. By 1972, however, serious environmental concerns and budgetary constraints had induced the agency to lower its shovels. The fruit of that abortive effort, popularly dubbed the “Road to Nowhere,” plunges seven miles into the park west of Bryson City before yielding to woods.

To some Swain County residents, the Road to Nowhere resembles nothing so much as a boulevard of broken promises. They say they want the road so they can access the nearly 30 small, family cemeteries scattered across that section of the park. They want the economic leg up that they believe a new road would represent. And they have a powerful and well-placed ally in Taylor — who, as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior and Environment and Related Agencies has a finger on the Department of the Interior’s purse strings.

Protect our park

But as the country’s most-visited national park (some 9 million people made their way there last year), the Smokies also have their share of friends, both individuals and groups, who want the park protected from further development.

They believe a new road would be an affront to the park scenery, a blight on the Southeast’s largest de facto wilderness, and a source of perpetual environmental degradation. They see runoff from the project poisoning streams with sulfuric acid, Appalachian Trail hikers losing the spiritual balm of a backwoods experience, and the corridor serving as both an inroad for exotic species and a killing field for natives in the Southern Appalachians’ greatest remaining storehouse of biological diversity.

The Park Service’s draft EIS seems to bear out many of these concerns. In nearly every category — water quality, aquatic life (as currently planned, the North Shore Road would involve 141 stream crossings), mammals, migratory songbirds, “soundscapes,” views — the study finds that the park’s natural features would suffer in significant ways.

“This draft environmental-impact statement reads like a horror story,” proclaims Starr Nolan, president of the Land o’ Sky Chapter of Trout Unlimited. “We’re talking about long-term, permanent effects on an area that is incredibly fragile.”

Trout Unlimited, Nolan says, has fought for years against the project, which she likens to “a recurrent nightmare.”

“I understand the citizens and their desire to see the road built, but when you see what’s at stake, it’s a no-brainer. These are some of the nicest freestone trout streams here in the mountains, and this road would effectively destroy them.”

Assorted options

Back in January, some 200 people turned out for a public meeting in Asheville to let Park Service representatives know how they felt. Among those who spoke in favor of the road was Helen Kirkland, whose family was one of the many torn from the Hazel Creek area six decades ago when the TVA was preparing to flood their homeland.

“A promise is a promise,” said Kirkland. “We’ve been lied to for 63 years. Build the road.”

But for every pro-road voice, there were roughly three at the meeting who opposed it, from Earth First! members in full commando regalia to more mildly attired representatives of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Sierra Club, as well as hikers and nature lovers with no visible affiliation.

In keeping with federal rules, the draft EIS presents a range of alternatives — including taking no action whatsoever. Another option calls for simply building a picnic site and interpretive area at Laurel Branch, near the existing tunnel on the Road to Nowhere. Other alternatives include building just seven miles of additional roadway or going ahead with the full North Shore Corridor project.

Cashing out

But to many, the most attractive option is a one-time cash payment to reimburse Swain County for the original cost of building N.C. 288, adjusted for more than 60 years of inflation. Invested at 5 percent, the settlement would bring in more than $2.5 million per year, supporters say — more than a third of the county’s total annual revenues. That money, many contend, would go a long way toward boosting public services in one of the state’s poorest counties.

Because most of Swain County — more than 70 percent of it — is federally owned, the county’s tax base is anemic. Where most counties derive 68 percent of their revenues from property taxes, Swain collects only a little more than half that much because so little of the land is in private hands, according to county Finance Officer Kevin King, who stressed that, given his official capacity, he was speaking as an impartial observer of the debate.

The Swain County Board of Commissioners, the Bryson City Board of Aldermen, and a host of environmental and government-watchdog groups have all backed the cash-settlement option. The Swain County commissioners endorsed the plan three years ago on a 4-1 vote. The lone dissenter, Commissioner David Monteith, says his position hasn’t changed.

“My heritage is not for sale,” declares Monteith; both his own family and his wife’s were removed from the valley in the 1940s. “Our folks were promised this road; we haven’t gotten it. Cost is not the issue: Principle is the issue. Those people gave all they had.”

Monteith also maintains that the projected costs in the draft EIS are dramatically inflated. By following the land’s contours, avoiding massive road cuts and reducing the roadbed’s width, he believes the cost could be drastically reduced from the nearly $20 million per mile the study projects.

“It could be a lot cheaper,” says Monteith, “unless they’re planning on lining it in gold. Once you get into the old roads that are there, the logging roads, you’ll save a lot on construction.” While Monteith doesn’t have engineering experience himself, he says regional contractors have assured him that the road could be built for much less — perhaps as low as $7 million per mile.

Power politics?

Supporters of the North Shore Road also contend that politics have played a major role in how the issue has been handled. Monteith says he believes his fellow commissioners acquiesced to the idea of a cash settlement under pressure from then U.S. Sen. John Edwards and North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley. Both men have written letters supporting a settlement, and Monteith maintains that the Edwards campaign received a great deal of money from environmental groups.

Linda Hogue, who heads up the North Shore Road Association, shares this view.

“Before the last election, all the commissioners were for the road,” says Hogue. “And now that they’re in there, they’re all against it.” The dispute, she says, “has become a trust issue in Swain County.”

Hogue has ample personal reasons for wanting the road built. Her husband’s family was evicted from the area six decades ago, and the Hogues still travel there by Park Service ferry several times a year to tend the family plot.

But she also believes the road would bring significant economic benefits. Indeed, the draft EIS predicts that nearly 500 jobs would be created annually during the project’s estimated 15-year construction period, plus another 225 long-term jobs as the road nudges Bryson City into ‘gateway’ status, sparking further development there. The study also finds that the project would boost annual incomes in Graham and Swain counties by a combined total of $5.6 million and annual retail sales by $14 million.

“It would be a godsend,” says Hogue. “You don’t have to look any further than the study to see that.”

Congressman Taylor seems to share Monteith and Hogue’s concerns. In a Jan. 4 press release, Taylor dismissed the settlement idea as the “so-called environmentalists’ alternative.” The federal government, says the press release, must “live up to a promise it made nearly six decades ago to build a road to give residents in Swain County access to their family cemeteries.”

In fact, the 1943 agreement makes no mention of access to the cemeteries; but descendants of those removed from the area insist that the TVA and the federal government sent them letters promising as much.

Taylor’s press release also took a cue from the Park Service’s own statement of purpose, alleging that, “walking away from [the NPS’] obligation to meet the terms of the 1943 Agreement does nothing to ‘protect, preserve or enhance’ the historic or cultural resources of Swain County,” adding that a settlement option was “not ‘preferred’ by anyone in North Carolina.”

Monteith, meanwhile, has his eye on the remaining $13 million already earmarked for the project, noting, “The rest of that money is still there for the road.”

A Swain County commissioner for eight years, Monteith argues that given the goverment’s track record, the $52 million is pie in the sky. However dusty the 1943 agreement may be at this point, he adds, at least it has legal standing.

“The money’s not there for a settlement,” says Monteith. “But we do have a contract, and that contract says the road will be built.”

Weighing in

The National Park Service is accepting public comment on the draft environmental-impact statement for the proposed North Shore Road through Monday, March 20.

Written comments (postmarked no later than March 20) should go to: North Shore Road Project Great Smoky Mountains National Park P.O. Box 30185 Raleigh, NC 27622

Comments can also be e-mailed to: northshoreroad@arcadis-us.com (subject: “North Shore Road EIS Project”).

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