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Wednesday, 30 May 2007 00:00

Park Service opinion could seal road’s fate

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The road, it appears, stops here. Now, elected leaders and citizens must demand a timetable for the $52 million settlement due Swain County.

The National Park Service has decided after a five-year study that its preferred recommendation is to not build the contentious North Shore Road, not to desecrate one of the East Coast’s most secluded wilderness areas. It’s the right decision, one that speaks both to the promise made more than a half century ago and the economic realities of this new century.

The North Shore Road has been promised to replace a road that was flooded during the construction of Fontana Dam and Lake in 1943, during World War II. The land on the north shore of the lake, however, was subsequently transferred from the Tennessee Valley Authority to the National Park Service, and ever since former residents of the area, their descendants, and many others have fought to have the road built. The road was to be an economic boost, a route to visit gravesites and old homesteads, and the fulfillment of a promise made by the federal government.

But times have changed. The road, built to today’s standards, is projected to cost more than $650 million. That price tag alone was probably its undoing. Getting that kind of appropriation for a county of 25,000 people — no matter what kind of promise had been made — has been a tough sell. Powerful lawmakers like Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. Charles Taylor were not influential enough to see the road to completion.

 

The truth is they lied

Let’s be honest. Yes, the government is reneging on a promise to build the road. But the government often backs away from public works projects that it says it is going to build. The difference in this case is that this road has assumed an almost mythical status in Swain County, partly because it was started and then halted. The tunnel at the end of the road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a stark reminder to anyone who visits it that the government did not fulfill its promise.

But other relevant factors played into this besides the cost. The Park Service’s study revealed rock formations that, if disturbed, threatened the purity of streams and the lake. In the ensuing 60 years since the lake was built, great tracts of forest throughout the eastern United States have been decimated and forest and farm land are disappearing at an alarming rate.

We’ve also witnessed the growth of an environmental movement that was non-existent 60 years ago. Throughout this country there is a growing momentum to protect backcountry wilderness as our population soars and our appetite for land and resources grows with it. While Swain County may be divided about the North Shore Road, most Americans feel very strongly about protecting our national parks. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park belongs to every citizen, not just us.

 

Moving forward

Rep. Heath Shuler, Sen. Elizabeth Dole, Sen. Richard Burr and our entire congressional delegation now have work to do. If there is a consensus that the North Shore Road is not to be built, then it’s time to begin lobbying for the $52 million cash settlement. If there is a delay in getting the money, then the final amount henceforth should be increased by a multiple based on the inflation rate.

We believe the payoff will happen. Once it has been approved, a host of options are available for using the money, from improving schools to lowering property taxes.

One idea that has been tossed around for the Park Service was a visitor center near the end of the current road, a cultural museum of sorts that describes the area’s history, it’s logging communities, construction of the lake, and the relocation of families. Perhaps the county can work with the Park Service to win approval for just such a facility. Maybe the Friends of the Smokies and hiking clubs can improve existing roadbeds and trails that lead to gravesites and homesteads.

There are better ways to remember and honor the history of the communities and families who populated this area of the mountains than a two-lane road that would allow cars to race through it. The settlement money can provide seed money to do it right.

First, though, we must demand that Congress follow through with the appropriation. That’s the next, crucial step, and people in the region need to start clamoring for its approval.

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