A state proposal to widen and pave a gravel road that runs alongside the Little Tennessee River and near the protected 4,400-acre Needmore Tract is being greeted with caution by conservationists.
“It is a very important stretch of river,” said Stacey Guffey, chairman of the board overseeing the Little Tennessee Watershed Association. “As a group, I’d say we’re not opposed to improvements that would help river quality. But, if something is going to be done, we want to see it have as little impact as possible.”
A portion of Needmore Road is a rough, one-lane gravel road that parallels N.C. 28 in Macon and Swain counties but on the opposite side of the river. The state Department of Transportation is proposing to pave and widen 3.3 miles of Needmore Road from one lane to two lanes. The new road would have a minimum width of 18 feet. Additionally, work would take place on the shoulders of the roadway.
“I think Needmore Road needs to see some improvement, but if they’d pave it just as it was, I’d be happy,” said Cheryl Taylor, a resident of the Needmore community and leader of the group Mountain Neighbors for Needmore Preservation.
Taylor said she and members of her group are concerned about the scope of the transportation department’s proposal.
“(The Needmore Tract) is a place to go to enjoy the area and outdoor recreation,” she said, adding that those qualities need to be protected.
The project is estimated to cost $6.5 million and would target the section from Byrd Road in Macon County to existing pavement in Swain County. Work on three of the four sections making up the project would get under way in 2012. The final — and most difficult section from an engineering standpoint — is slated for 2015.
“This alternative will improve the entire facility to conform to NCDOT Division 14 Secondary Road Standards,” states a meeting notice issued by the transportation department. “The proposed alignment calls for widening the roadway away from the Little Tennessee River.”
Joel Setzer, DOT division engineer for a 10-county region that includes Macon and Swain, said the paving proposal dates back to about 1997. Justification for the road upgrade is based on the number of houses served and traffic counts. Though there aren’t many houses along that stretch of road, Setzer said the traffic counts are high “as compared to other gravel roads.”
The purpose of the project is as follows:
• To improve the quality of travel for local residents who currently use the road.
• Reduce sedimentation from Needmore Road into the Little Tennessee River.
• Avoid or minimize adverse impacts to the existing high-quality natural resources.
The transportation department has worked on environmental assessments of the project, Setzer said, and has plans to deal with the Anakeesta-type rock found in the area. These rocks contain high levels of iron-sulfide and can create acidic runoff.
About 4,400 acres along the Little Tennessee River known as the Needmore Tract was saved from development and turned into a state game land overseen by the N.C. Wildlife Commission six years ago. Needmore Road, in places, borders the protected tract.
Nantahala Power and Light bought the property in the 1930s with the intent of damming up the Little Tennessee River for hydroelectric generation. The power company never built the dam. Instead, the bottomland was leased to farmers. Local residents used the remainder for hiking, camping and hunting.
Duke Power in 1999 took over Nantahala Power and Light and decided to sell the land for development. Public outcry led to a massive, five-year campaign to save the tract. Local residents, conservationists and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee worked together to raise $19 million in state grants and private donations to pay Duke. The Needmore Tract was then placed under state protection as the Needmore Game Land.
Aklea Althoff, who operates an office in Franklin for the environmental group Western North Carolina Alliance, echoed calls for restraint when it comes to tinkering with Needmore Road.
“We know that some improvements need to be made because of the sedimentation problem from the gravel road,” she said. “But it needs to be as minimal as possible because of this pristine ecosystem.”
Want to get involved?
WHAT: Presentation on Needmore Road paving proposal sponsored by WNC Alliance environmental group.
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 16.
WHERE: Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin, Sierra Lane.
WHAT: Question-and-answer session, followed by public hearing sponsored by N.C. Department of Transportation.
WHEN: Q&A from 4:30-6:30 p.m.; public hearing starts at 7 p.m., September 21.
WHERE: Southwestern Community College in Swain County, known locally as the old Almond School, off U.S. 74, 5.5 miles west of Bryson City.