If you stand on top of Shuckstack Tower along the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies, you can see the whole world — 360 degrees of wilderness, set within the largest unbroken tract of mountain land in the eastern United States. Now, however, this priceless resource is threatened by the proposed North Shore Road. The controversy — which has the distinction of being the longest-running open item on the congressional agenda — has pitted not only regional environmentalists against locals, but locals against locals.
As a hike leader for the Carolina Mountain Club, I feel privileged to live so close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I have backpacked the Lake Shore Trail, which approximates the route of the proposed road, from Fontana Lake to Bryson City. The North Shore Road would follow the northern border of Fontana Lake for 34 miles from the existing tunnel outside Bryson City to the vicinity of Fontana Dam.
When the Tennessee Valley Authority built the dam in the 1940s, residents of the area to be flooded (which included N.C. 288 in Swain County, the only road access) were forced to move. To compensate these people, the federal government paid them for their land and promised to build a road along the north shore of Fontana Lake after World War II. But only a few miles of the road were ever built before the project was abandoned due to environmental and financial concerns.
U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor revived the issue when he attached a $16 million rider to the 2001 Transportation Appropriations Bill to resume construction of the road. A portion of this money paid for a draft environmental-impact study, which came out at the beginning of January. But the road is only one of five proposed alternatives for fulfilling this wartime promise. A far better solution is a one-time, $52 million settlement, which four of the five Swain County commissioners voted to approve in February 2003.
Now it’s up to us to tell the National Park Service what we think. And I want to stress that there are no outsiders on this issue: This is a national park, and Americans from all parts of the country have an equal say when it comes to voicing concerns about the project.
The proposed North Shore Road would be an environmental disaster. It would disrupt plant-and-animal habitat and slice through the largest unbroken mountain tract in the East, creating an orphan strip between the road and Fontana Lake. What’s more, the rock that would have to be moved to build the road contains sulfide minerals that, when exposed, produce acid runoff. This, in turn, can damage vegetation and streams, upsetting some of the best fishing around.
But you don’t need to be a scientist or an angler to comprehend how 15 years — that’s right, 15 years — of bulldozers, trucks, tree cutting and even wider construction corridors would decimate a large part of this beautiful wilderness.
The road would even cut through the treasured Appalachian Trail. Hikers come from all over the world to hike the A.T., and for many, walking the most famous and best-documented path in the world is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. I have walked the whole A.T., and the North Carolina/Tennnessee section is the most beautiful part of the entire 2,170-mile trail, offering great views, prolific flowers, fascinating artifacts and the friendliest of people. When A.T. through hikers get off the trail — as they must every few days — to buy food or hunt up a motel and a shower, they remember the people of our region.
So let’s not mess up the A.T. while asking hikers to detour from Fontana Lake for the 15 years that road construction is projected to take. (And let’s face it: If this project ever is built, it will drag on even longer.)
No one needs this road. It can’t hope to enhance the tourist trade sufficiently to warrant the estimated $590 million cost — and like all construction projects, it would almost certainly go over budget.
For those who wish to visit the small family graveyards where their ancestors are buried, the Park Service provides free boat transportation across the lake and a bus/van shuttle as close as vehicles can get to the cemeteries. The proposed road, in fact, wouldn’t even bring these people any closer. But it would give vandals better access to such fascinating historical vestiges as stone walls, old house chimneys and metal artifacts attesting to former logging and railroad operations. The only people who would truly profit from this road would be the construction companies who get the contract — and the politicians they support.
On the other hand, if the proposed financial settlement were invested, it could produce more annual revenue than the county’s property tax now does, providing much-needed funding for schools and other infrastructure. A more prosperous Swain County would also help attract more hikers and other outdoors enthusiasts to the area. The Carolina Mountain Club has led many hikes that start in Bryson City or at Fontana Lake. And at day’s end, most of those hikers are likely to contribute to the local economy by buying gas, food, ice cream, maps and even souvenirs.
There’s no doubt that Swain County is due compensation. But the common-sense solution is a financial settlement that leaves the county in charge of its own destiny while preserving a priceless treasure that is the most-visited national park in the U.S. Rather than remaining so tied to the past, shouldn’t all of us be looking to the future?
The deadline for public comment is Monday, March 20 (see box). I urge everyone who cares about our region to take a moment to e-mail or write to the Park Service endorsing the financial settlement.
[Outdoors writer Danny Bernstein leads hikes for the Carolina Mountain Club.]
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 ProjectGreat Smoky Mountains National ParkP.O. Box 30185Raleigh, NC 27622
Comments can also be e-mailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org (subject: “North Shore Road EIS Project”).