Fight Over Roadbuilding in Great Smoky Mountains National Park Settled

BRYSON CITY, North Carolina, February 3, 2010 (ENS) – Congressman Heath Shuler, a North Carolina Democrat, has announced a settlement between the National Park Service, Swain County and others, bringing to a close the decades-long fight to stop a road through the wildest area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The park service will pay Swain County $52 million over 10 years, approximating today’s cost of a Swain County road that was flooded in 1944 when the Fontana Dam was completed, creating 29 mile-long Fontana Lake. The highest dam east of the Rockies, Fontana Dam across the Little Tennessee River was rushed to completion to provide electric power for the World War II effort and still provides energy for the Tennessee Valley.

Congressman Heath Shuler (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)

“This settlement will bring much-needed resources to Swain County for decades to come,” said Congressman Shuler, a Swain County native. “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 Swain County Board of Commissioners will hold a vote on Friday on whether to accept the settlement offer. As acceptance is likely, a signing ceremony is planned for Saturday, February 6 to officially finalize the agreement. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar will be in attendance, as will Congressman Shuler.

“It has been evident for years that the North Shore Road would never be constructed,” Shuler said. “This settlement, once finalized, will allow all the citizens of Swain County, regardless of their position on the road’s construction, to join together for Swain County’s future.”

Numerous local, state and national conservation groups opposed the road-building project, which would have cut through the largest unbroken mountain forest on public lands east of the Mississippi river, destroying habitat for rare song birds, black bear and native fish.

Southern Environmental Law Center attorney D.J. Gerken called the settlement “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.”

“It’s also a win for American taxpayers, since the road would have cost several times more than this settlement,” Gerken said. “Congressman Shuler deserves enormous credit for bringing this often-contentious issue to an end.”

View from Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Photo by Robert Seinfeld)

“The Sierra Club has been fighting the disastrous North Shore Road proposal since the late 1960s,” said Ted Snyder from the Sierra Club’s North Carolina Chapter. “We have always stood by the people of Swain County and are thrilled that this issue is finally resolved for the great benefit both of the park and the county.”

“This is one for the history books,” said Don Barger of the National Parks Conservation Association. “The wildest region of the park will stay wild, and future generations will be able to experience its isolation and grandeur. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Congressman Shuler and to the people of Swain County.”

“This settlement would not have happened without Representative Shuler’s leadership,” said Leonard Winchester, who chairs Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County. “We greatly appreciate his hard work to bring this matter to closure in a way that will benefit all the citizens of Swain County forever. The completion of this agreement will be one of the most significant events in the history of Swain County and certainly the most positive.”

In 1943, Swain County entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Interior, the State of North Carolina, and the Tennessee Valley Authority that allowed Highway 288 to be flooded to create Fontana Lake. In return, the federal government agreed to construct a road along the north shore of the lake to replace NC 288, the county’s point of entry into what would become 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 the lake, but abandoned the project after seven miles due to severe erosion and acidic runoff that wiped out fisheries in several streams.

A Draft Environmental Impact Statement prepared in 2006 by the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service states that construction of the entire North Shore Corridor would have “major adverse and long-term impacts to geology as a byproduct of excavating 2.9 million cubic yards of potentially acidic rock. Major adverse impacts are also likely to Park floodplains, wetlands, rare plant communities, the Oliver darter (a fish species of federal concern), trails and archeological sites.”

Some county residents continued for decades to push for completion of what came to be known as “the Road to Nowhere,” even though the agency, the governors of North Carolina and Tennessee, the Swain County Commission all rejected the project on environmental and economic grounds in favor of a cash settlement with the county.

Of the $52 million total settlement, $4 million has already been authorized for transfer to Swain County, with an additional $8.8 million to be transferred after the signing of the agreement.

President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget provides for the first of 10 annual disbursements to Swain County that will pay the remainder of the settlement, $39.2 million. The settlement agreement stipulates that money provided to Swain County will be deposited in a protected trust account with the North Carolina State Treasurer, who will disperse annual interest payments to the county.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.