The North Shore Road would be built along the shore of Fontana Lake and replace N.C. 288, which was flooded when Fontana Dam was built. It has been promised to the citizens of Swain County since a 1943 settlement agreement.
The timing for settling the score with a cash settlement, however, could not be better. The U.S. Park Service will be making its final recommendation soon, and most suspect it will reveal a healthy skepticism about the environmental impact of building the road. Many fear it will irrevocably harm the largest tract of wilderness east of the Mississippi. For now, though, let’s forget the environmental arguments and look at other realities.
For two elections in a row, Swain residents have voted for a board of commissioners who favor a cash settlement. In other words, support even in Swain County for the road is declining. It’s easy to see why. Even if it was approved today, it would take a minimum of 15 years to build the road. As a recent column in the Asheville Citizen-Times pointed out, that means that it will be the next generation of mountain citizens who would gain any perceived benefit.
There’s also the opportunity now to actually get the money. For decades, powerful lawmakers like Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. Charles Taylor fought to get funding to build this road. If these powerful congressmen could not see this project to fruition, it seems very likely that — with time passing and memories fading — road supporters will never find a lawmaker with the clout to get this project finished.
This is a good time politically to get the settlement money. Democrats wants a new congressman like Heath Shuler to succeed so he can secure re-election. Shuler might ride this support far enough to win money for the settlement. His request to honor the federal government’s obligation by spending $52 million — rather than close to $700 for the road — seems a good bargain.
Warren Wilson College recently completed a study contrasting the economic benefits of a cash settlement with building the road. In a Nov. 19 column in the Asheville Citizen-Times, D.J. Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center and Phillip Gibson with Warren Wilson College argued that the cast settlement would provide a much wiser economic investment for Swain County. Among their findings was that the interest from a $52 million cash settlement could reap $3.5 million a year for the county and 78 permanent jobs, versus 110 low-paying, seasonal tourism jobs if the road was built.
The report (which can be viewed in its entirety at (www.southernenvironment.org/cases/north_shore/econ_report.pdf) contains much more relevant information, but in total the conclusion was that the settlement would “allow Swain County to pave its own way to the future, diversity its economy, provide needed infrastructure, and secure its financial well-being for years to come.”
Then there’s the environmental argument. Even if it’s approved by Congress, environmentalists have promised decades of lawsuits.
The best option is to take the settlement money and fight for a visitor center and campground at the end of the existing road that would explain the history of the settlements lost for the nation’s war effort. It would preserve the past while helping provide a bright future for the children of the families who were forced to leave.