An environmental group dedicated to protecting the Little Tennessee River has come out against a state proposal to widen and pave Needmore Road from one to two lanes.
The Little Tennessee Watershed Association did not dismiss out-of-hand the state Department of Transportation’s proposal to make improvements to the road. The Franklin-based group, however, stated that it would not support a proposal calling for such extensive work.
Needmore Road is currently a rough, one-lane gravel road paralleling N.C. 28 on the opposite bank of the river in Macon and Swain counties. The road runs through the protected Needmore Game Lands. A broad coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved the 4,400-acre tract from development some six years ago after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.
The Little Tennessee Watershed Association stated it “is in favor of a solution for Needmore Road that deals with safety and environmental problems that currently exist there, and wishes to participate with the DOT and the community in defining alternatives which will address both sets of problems while serving local transportation needs and contributing to the realization of the goals for which the Needmore Game Lands was created.”
The transportation department has set a Sept. 21 question-and-answer session, followed by a 7 p.m. public hearing, on the proposal. If built as proposed, 3.3 miles of Needmore Road would be widened to a minimum of 18 feet. Additionally, construction work would take place on the roadway’s shoulders.
The state has said the project would cost $6.5 million; the environmental group says it understands the cost would be much higher, and is citing $17.5 million as the actual potential cost.
Group’s opposition outlined
The Little Tennessee Watershed Association said the project was untenable because:
• “DOT states that the intent of the improvement is to ‘avoid or minimize adverse impacts’ to this outstanding stretch of river and rich game lands. Increased thru traffic and the consequences of major road construction through acidic rock will adversely impact the Needmore Game Lands and will alter the character of this recreational area which comprises and integral part of our local heritage.”
• “It is not consistent with the intent of the $17.5 million of public funds, including $7.5 million of DOT funds, invested to secure the Needmore Game Lands for recreational use and protection of local heritage.”
• “There are more immediate and pressing infrastructure and road-repair needs that should be addressed with such a large expenditure of public dollars.”
The environmental group’s position seems in line with statements previously made by Cheryl Taylor, leader of Mountain Neighbors for Needmore Preservation, to The Smoky Mountain News.
Taylor, a Swain County native and Needmore resident, said she believes Needmore Road “needs to see some improvements, but if they’d pave it just as it was, I’d be happy.”
Protecting the river
“There are impacts from that stretch of the river that come off of the Needmore Road,” said aquatic biologist Bill McLarney, who is the biomonitoring director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association.
McLarney has studied the upper watershed of the river for more than two decades. His work resulted in a state governor’s award in 1994 for water conversationist of the year, among other accolades.
The sedimentation is not just caused by rainfall, but even by wind, said McLarney, who sometimes uses snorkeling gear to examine the river.
“It is like somebody had put a thin layer of dust over the rocks,” he said of the bank’s appearance that is nearest Needmore Road.
Aquatic life there also has been adversely impacted.
“I have always been of the opinion [that] paving the Needmore Road would be a plus for the value of the river,” McLarney said.
But, the aquatic biologist said, he simply can’t support the option currently favored by the transportation department. Such work would increase traffic and detract from the recreational value, and diminish the importance of what took place when groups that have sometimes seemed at odds worked together.
“It would not have happened if local people … had not wanted to have it happen,” he said.”
One of the major players in that effort, the Land Trust of the Little Tennessee, has opted to stay out of this particular battle, at least for now. Sharon Taylor, land protection director for the group, said the land trust has not taken a position for or against the state’s proposal.
The land trust works with property owners and others to protect the “waters, forests, farms and heritage” of the upper Little Tennessee and Hiwasee River valleys.
Want to get involved?
WHAT: Presentation on Needmore Road paving proposal sponsored by WNC Alliance Environmental Group.
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. 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 starting at 7 p.m., Sept. 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.