Call of the wild resounds loud and clear
Environmental groups and outdoors lovers packed the public hearing in Bryson City last week to decry the idea of building a road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a national treasure and is part of the shared natural and cultural heritage that belongs to every American,” said Greg Kidd, associate southeast director for the National Parks Conservation Association.
The Park’s analysis of the road finds negative impacts to nearly every aspect of the ecosystem: endangered species, newly discovered species, wetlands, creeks, soundscapes, rare plants and wildlife such as birds, bears and fish.
“We simply cannot build this road without the destruction of habitat, and when you destroy the habitat you destroy the wildlife,” said Bill Kane of Jackson County currently serving as president of the N.C. Wildlife Federation.
Several speakers pointed to the cost of the road — an estimated $590 million — as an outlandish price for a road so few people want.
“It is a misallocation of American dollars and a disaster for the American people who seek beauty and solitude in the last of these places,” said Natalie Foster, a representative with the Sierra Club.
The Park’s analysis states that the road would “reduce the sense of wilderness and solitude in this area of the park” and visitors seeking “sanctuary and refuge from life’s daily activities and routines would be impacted.”
“Society was once surrounded by wilderness; now wilderness is surrounded by society,” said James Dawson, a part-time resident of Swain County. “Once you divide that wilderness, it is no longer recoverable.”
While road supporters claim the road will bring tourism and jobs, Michael Morgan, a Democratic candidate for the seat held by U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, questioned whether those jobs are really what the community wants.
“Our children will be the ones that are making the bed sheets and swabbing out the toilets in the hotels,” Morgan said. “Our children will be the ones who are handing the hamburgers out the window at McDonald’s.”
Speakers said the blight of the road goes beyond its physical footprint. It will bring litter in the form of fast food bags, beer bottles and cigarette butts. It will give illegal four-wheelers easy access to the backcountry and provide an entrance for poachers.
The Appalachian Trail runs through the park in the vicinity of the proposed road as well. As a National Scenic Trail, the AT is also part of the National Park Service. The Park’s analysis finds the AT would be negatively impacted by the road.
“From New Zealand to Japan, for many it is a life dream to hike the most famous trail in the world,” said Danny Bernstein, a hike leader with the Carolina Mountain Club.
The road would destroy outright seven designated backcountry campsites and more than 30 miles of trail, according to the Park’s analysis. Traffic noise will carry up the mountainside and be audible for miles. While the road is projected to attract tourists — the largest sector being motorcycles, according to the Park’s analysis — the road would be detrimental to outdoor-based tourism, Bernstein said.
“We get hikers from all over the world that come here to hike,” Bernstein said.
The same goes for fishermen. Tom Massie of Jackson County spoke of behalf of Trout Unlimited, which has taken a national position against the road as well.
Several speakers responded to a sense of resentment by some in Swain County that they — non-residents who don’t want the road built — are butting in where they don’t belong.
“There are no outsiders on this issue,” said Bernstein. “This is a national park and any American from any part of the country has equal input.”
The well-orchestrated showing by environmental interests overshadowed any other contingency speaking at the hearing. The turnout included representatives from the following groups: WNC Alliance, Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, Southern Environmental Law Center, Wildlaw, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, and Georgia Forest Watch.
Hiking clubs were equally prevalent at the meeting, including members from the Nantahala Hiking Club, Carolina Mountain Club, Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Bartram Trail Society and hiking clubs from Georgia.
Despite the more than 1 million members collectively represented by these groups, speakers feared the decision will come down to politics.
“The power and influence of a few will decide for us all that another boondoggle of a road should be built into the hallowed ground of America’s most beloved national park,” said Wayne Jenkins, director of Georgia Forest Watch. “Enough roads already.”