Road to Nowhere: Getting dimmer by the day

Those opposed to building a $600 million, 30-mile road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park got welcome news last week.


A coalition of senators and congressmen from North Carolina and Tennessee are calling for a cash payoff to Swain County in lieu of building the road.

“We finally have a large number of lawmakers focused on getting a monetary settlement for the folks in Swain County,” said Greg Kidd, with the Asheville office of the National Parks Conservation Association. “This is the first time we’ve been able to point to such strong support for that approach on Capitol Hill.”

Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, is spearheading the effort. Shuler beat longtime Republican Congressman Charles Taylor in the election last fall, ousting a powerful stalwart for building the road.

Not everyone is happy with the move, however.

“I think it is a tragedy that the federal government is selling out the people of Swain County,” said Swain County Commissioner David Monteith. “For Heath Shuler to be a part of that, to go up there and sell his heritage out is a disgrace.”

While Shuler made it clear in his campaign that he supported a cash settlement, he couldn’t do it by himself. He needed a partner to push a bill through the Senate while he pushed one through the House of Representatives. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has also been a supporter of a cash settlement. But Shuler really needed a senator from North Carolina on board.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., was a proclaimed supporter of the road. But Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., had never really weighed in one way or the other. Until now.

Dole agreed to sign on to the call for a cash settlement for Swain County, and introduce the necessary legislation on the Senate side.

“Dole will introduce legislation in the Senate that provides the framework for a full cash settlement,” a press release from Dole’s office stated.

Dole’s position has disappointed supporters of the road, like Monteith.

“She always said she would support whatever the people of Swain County want. But she has never been real solid on it one way or the other,” Monteith said.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC, did not sign on, making him one of the only lawmakers serving North Carolina in Washington not to join the call.


Where’s the cash?

Until Fontana dam was built during WWII, there was a road leading from Bryson City to Tennessee. The lake flooded the road, rendering numerous communities inaccessible except by boat, forcing the residents to move. The cash settlement would compensate Swain County for the cost the road flooded by the lake, plus interest. Ironically, county taxpayers were paying off debt from the road’s construction long after the road was under water.

The cash settlement was calculated at $52 million by the Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County, a group that first proposed the idea of a monetary settlement to satisfy the government’s obligation to Swain County in lieu of building the road.

Despite the good news of serious congressional support for the first time, Kidd said his work is far from over. The next challenge is to convince the rest of Congress to support a cash settlement.

“The conservation community is absolutely dedicated to working to make sure that Congress does provide the monetary settlement for Swain County,” Kidd said. “Everyone agrees Swain County deserves compensation. Essentially we want to see closure here and the only way we will see closure is if Swain county is made whole. We don’t want to see this thing raise its head again in 10 or 15 years.”

Kidd said the momentum is on their side, but it will take work to convince the rest of Congress that $52 million for Swain County is not a pork appropriation.

“We recognize in some ways our work is just beginning,” Kidd said. “It is going to be up to us in part to educate members of Congress just how important this issue is. What’s exciting is we now have the combined muscle of these key members of Congress behind us.”

The letter signed from lawmakers calling for a cash settlement didn’t cite a specific dollar amount, but merely called for a cash settlement. Swain County could get roughly $6 million right away if the lawmakers get what they are calling for. That’s what’s left over from $16 million Rep. Charles Taylor inserted into the federal budget four years ago flagged for road construction. The park service has spent roughly $10 million conducting an environmental assessment of the road over the past four years. The assessment paid for biologists, economists, surveyors, botanists, engineers, topographers, hydrologists, and numerous other professionals, plus rounds and rounds of public hearings.

The lawmakers are calling for the remaining $6 million to be a “down payment” on the cash settlement, with more funds to be appropriated in the 2009 budget.

Monteith questioned whether the lawmakers could really deliver the cash settlement.

“We might get the $6 million, the rest of it is a promise that we might do this in the 2009 budget. What good is a promise? We’ve been waiting 60 years. They are asking us to trust them again? I have no confidence,” Monteith said.

Monteith said the majority of people in Swain County support the road.

Monteith said estimates that it will cost $600 million to build the road are bogus. Randy Jordan, a road builder with Phillips and Jordan Construction, surveyed the route of the road and estimated it would only cost half that, Monteith said.

“Every study that’s ever been done shows the majority of people support the road, not the cash,” Monteith said, citing on-line newspaper polls and a mail survey of the business community.


To build or not to build

The National Park Service has been conducting a drawn-out Environmental Impact Study of the road for five years. The study examined possible routes and designs for the road, all the plants, animals and ecosystems in the road’s path, cultural and historical resources, plus projected economic impacts of the road versus a cash settlement.

All of this was supposed to generate a “preferred alternative” by the National Park Service. The preferred alternative was supposed to be included in the draft study issued last winter, but the Smokies sought a waiver to bend the rules and take a pass on including a preferred alternative.

Instead, the Park Service promised a “preferred alternative” along with the final study, which was supposed to be due out by last fall. But last fall, the Park Service said it would be a few more months. A few more months have come and gone. The new timeline is another four to six months.

The reason for the delay is the appointment of the two top officials of the National Park Service — namely the director of the park service and the secretary of the Department of Interior, which oversees the park service.

“It’s those two that would make this decision,” said Nancy Gray, spokesperson for the Smokies. “It just took a little more time to get them on board with that issue.”

With 390 national parks, the road through the Smokies was only one of numerous issues they had to get up to speed on and it has simply taken time for them to learn the ins-and-outs of the issue enough to announce a decision.

The coalition of lawmakers calling for a cash settlement wrote a letter to the secretary of the Department of Interior asking the park service to go ahead and wrap it up — specifically, release the final study within 90 days and “endorse a cash settlement to Swain County instead of any further construction on the North Shore Road.”

Kidd said Shuler and the other lawmakers could continue waiting indefinitely to begin forging a resolution to the long raging road debate.

“We have all been awaiting the park service’s decision,” Kidd said. “A certain amount of frustration was growing among those law makers. They realized the need to give the National Park Service a strong push.”

Monteith questioned why all the noise about a cash settlement now when the long-awaited decision from the park service is in the final countdown.

“I think the environmentalists are scared what the study will recommend,” Monteith said. “It sounds like they are trying to jump in front of the gun and do this before the study comes out.”

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