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The long fight: Road debate nears final chapter

Since its creation, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has loomed over Swain County. Its massive peaks flank life itself: as an engine for tourism, a stomping ground for locals, and a refuge for wild things.

The park’s most lasting legacy, however, seems to be the deep and unforgivable wedge it has driven through the mountain people living there. Like every community bordering the Smokies, Swain County suffered a heartbreaking evacuation of farms and home places to make way for the park in the 1930s. Hardly a decade later, the construction of Lake Fontana forced a second relocation, not only for those who lay in the direct path of the rising water but also those who lived in a vast area rendered inaccessible when the only road into their communities was flooded.

Hemmed in by the lake on one side and the park on the other — and with no road in or out — the area was no longer habitable, and the people were forced to move out. The isolated territory was ceded to the national park, but with a written promise from the government that it would rebuild the flooded road on higher ground. While the land would remain part of the park, the hope of a road provided a measure of solace. At the least, descendents believed they could visit their beloved home sites and pay homage to their cemeteries.

It has now been 68 years, and the road is still not built.

The broken promise to rebuild the road has fostered deep-seated distrust of the government and the park in Swain County. The feeling was so universal in years gone by that it was commonly taken up from the pulpit on Sundays, with preachers packing powerful sermons about the injustice perpetrated by the government’s betrayal. The hardships suffered by those visiting graves of loved ones trapped deep inside the park fanned the flames of bitter resentment.

“There was a good period of time in Swain County when the overwhelming view of the county was united that we needed to build this road,” said Leonard Winchester, 59, of Swain County. “Primarily based on the idea that the families from the North Shore had been given a raw deal and the road would give them a way to visit cemeteries.”

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In the 1960s, a few miles of the road were actually built. But the rising environmental movement of the era rallied opposition from across the nation. Those forced out to make way for the park countered the false notions of a pristine wilderness. What about the houses and barns, mines and mills, stores and churches, that once riddled the area? But Swain proved no match for the numbers or clout of environmentalists, who not only made a good case against denigrating a well-loved national park but had the backing of environmental laws and the money to go to the mat if needed.

As Swain County fought for the road decade after decade to no avail, it seemed the government saw the mountains as a political backwater that needn’t be heeded. Over the years, however, some began to form a different conclusion. Perhaps the problem lay with the idea itself: a 30-mile road slicing through the largest backcountry territory in the East could never be pulled off.

As this realization sank in, a circle of leaders in the county began postulating: if given another out, would the government make good on its promise? If Swain County dropped its unwavering claim to build the road, then perhaps there was hope for another type of settlement.

The solution was a payoff, more or less: “Give us cash and we’ll settle this once and for all.” At first blush, it sounded like nothing more than a sell-out. Mountain people aren’t known for relinquishing their position once they’ve dug in. The challenge to change minds would be daunting.

The idea for Lake Fontana arose during the grips of World War II, when a large and steady source of electric power was needed for a plant in Tennessee hard at work churning out sheets of aluminum for wartime airplanes. A dam was proposed on the Little Tennessee River to provide hydropower for the Alcoa aluminum plant.

Not only would the lake drive out hundreds of people in the direct path of rising water, but it would flood the only road leading to several communities above the high water mark. Roughly 44,000 acres would be rendered inaccessible, leaving 216 families hemmed in by the lake on one side and the recently created Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the other.

The government could not spare the money to build a new road, so it decided those families would have to move out as well. A deal was crafted to evacuate the people and turn the land over to the national park.

The federal government signed a pact with Swain County to rebuild the flooded road after the war, “as soon as Congress appropriated the money” to do so. Known as the 1943 Agreement, it was signed by Tennessee Valley Authority, the State of North Carolina, Swain County and the Department of Interior on behalf of the national park.

The 1943 Agreement pledging to rebuild the road has lived in infamy ever since. While die-hard road supporters won’t speak to cash advocates even casually in public, there is one point they agree on.

“We felt like they owed Swain County something. We still do,” said Claude Douthit, the leading historian on all things pertaining to the North Shore Road.

The only question is what: a road or a cash settlement?

If there is one man responsible for turning the tide toward a cash settlement, it’s Douthit. Now 81, Douthit knows every court case on the matter, which courtroom it was heard in and the name of the presiding judge. He can quote chapter and verse from the 1943 Agreement.

A room in his house is littered with evidence of his fight for Swain County’s settlement. Files that no longer fit in cabinet drawers form precarious piles on his desk, dog-eared post-it notes protrude from the pages of Congressional transcripts. Maps detailing every tract of land acquired for the park have taken up permanent residence on his dining room table.

“I could tell you every piece of property that was down there and whose it was and how much it was,” Douthit said.

Douthit has all the necessary traits to drive the settlement home: he’s stubborn, cantankerous and a stickler for the facts. The tougher the fight got, the harder he hoed. When others wanted to give up, convinced it was a hopeless cause and their efforts were fruitless, he soldiered on, prodding others to stick with him.

Like many Swain natives, Douthit claims family ties to the area now under the park’s domain. His father worked for one of the big lumber companies as a blade sharpener for the giant saws that ate their way across the landscape in the 1920s.

Douthit spent his own career closely tied to the park. He was the head of the Bryson City office of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which had built Fontana Lake. As a lake overseer, Douthit spent many a day patrolling the water.

“I worked up and down this lake, worn out more damn boats than most people have ever seen,” Douthit said.

That’s how his quest for the real history behind the North Shore started.

When Douthit first started with TVA in 1951, the lake was relatively new. He was frequently paid visits by those whose land was claimed in the creation of the lake or the park and became a dumping ground for their gripes. Some claimed they were still owed for their land, others decried the hardship to visit family cemeteries unreachable except by boat.

“I had to learn and understand exactly what happened,” Douthit said.

Douthit wasn’t always a supporter of the cash settlement. Like most, he felt the government should keep its promises to build back the road it flooded.

While slow to start, it seemed the road would eventually come to pass. In 1960, $8 million was appropriated for the road and construction got underway. But in 1968, with just seven miles built, work ceased. For starters, money had run out. But far more ominous, environmentalists had mounted a campaign against the road. And park service engineers issued a report advising against further construction.

While the road progressed in fits and starts those eight years, a second debate was playing out over whether the park should be designated as wilderness. A heated round of public hearings ensued. Environmentalists and park lovers wanted the entire park to be designated as wilderness, forever scuttling the North Shore Road. The people of Swain County fought back, but were outnumbered by the rising environmental movement of the era. While wilderness designation never came to pass, the writing on the wall did not bode well for the fulfillment of a road.

Douthit and others fighting for a settlement of the 1943 Agreement began toying with the idea of a lawsuit against the federal government. In 1974, an entourage from Swain County drove to Asheville and boarded two small planes bound for Raleigh. Their mission was to meet with the N.C. Attorney General Robert Morgan and implore the state for help.

“Whether it was build the road or give money, just to do something,” Douthit said.

They felt the only solution was to sue the federal government.

But they soon uncovered a major flaw in the 1943 Agreement. The agreement contained a hold-harmless clause should the road never come to fruition, stating: “failure on the part of Congress for any reason to make such appropriations shall not constitute a breach or violation of this agreement.”

“Our county lawyers at the time got out- lawyered, so to speak,” Douthit said.

Dejected, Douthit realized there was no ground for a lawsuit.

“If they filed a suit, it would be lost and Swain County would never receive anything. It would be over with. We would get no road, no money, nothing,” Douthit said. “Knowing we couldn’t sue on the 1943 contract, what would we do?”

To Douthit, the fight for a road hit a dead-end.

“Why did I choose to fight for money?” Douthit asked. “We knew we couldn’t get the road. We knew we could never get it.”

And so Douthit began the long, uphill battle to bring the same revelation to the rest of Swain County.

One of the people on Douthit’s list to bring over to the side of a cash settlement was Luke Hyde. Born and raised in Swain County, Hyde went away to law school and entered the world of state politics in Raleigh. He traveled back and forth regularly, and Douthit figured Hyde would be useful to have on their side.

Like Douthit, Hyde, 69, had always supported the road. In the late 1960s, Hyde joined an underground movement of strategists to get the road built. They researched federal laws, studied the politics and plotted the prospects of bringing a lawsuit against the federal government get the road built.

But one day in the mid-1970s, when Hyde was giving a talk for the local Democratic Party in the old Swain County Courthouse, Douthit approached Hyde and shoved a thick stack of papers into his hand. Among the papers was a copy of the 1943 Agreement. Hyde came across the same pesky hold-harmless clause.

“I sat there reading it and my face flushed and I got angry and said ‘Son of a gun,’” Hyde recalled. “It was a marvelous job of lawyering.”

Like Douthit, Hyde realized then there would never be a road. There was only one outlet left. In lawyer’s terms, it’s called a “substitute performance,” but to laymen it would become known as the cash settlement.

It wasn’t an easy stance for Hyde. His own family grew up in the North Shore area and was forced off their land to make way for the lake and the park. Many in his own family remain road supporters to this day.

“We respect and love each other enough not to talk about certain issues,” Hyde said. “We are on good terms, but they think I am wrong for supporting the cash settlement.”

The drama over the North Shore Road heated up through the 1980s. Descendents of the North Shore area sued the government to get the road built, known as the Helen Vance lawsuit. The case was lost, appealed, lost again, appealed again, but denied by the Supreme Court for a hearing.

Meanwhile, Congressmen fought it out in the halls of Washington. Dueling bills were introduced: one that would provide a cash settlement of $9.5 million and one that would build the road.

In Swain County, public hearings on the dueling bills drew crowds in the hundreds, inspiring impassioned, angry and heartbreaking speeches. It was like a replay of the public hearings from 20 years earlier pitting wilderness designation against road construction. Little did people know at that time that the hearings were destined to repeat themselves yet again 20 years later.

Supporters of a cash settlement had won an important and promising ally in the late 1970s: Cecil Andrus, Secretary of the Department of the Interior. Andrus made a trip to Swain County to see for himself the issue at hand. It seemed everyone wanted a shot at lobbying Andrus, so a local entourage rented a bus and piled in for a chance to bend Andrus’ ear.

“We took him up to Calf Pen Gap and let him look across Fontana Lake to the Smokies,” Douthit said. “We wanted to convince him that Swain County was due some money, due something.”

The fieldtrip ended with a catered picnic at Deep Creek in the park. Andrus was apparently convinced and began working to help secure a cash settlement for Swain County. Andrus even appointed a committee to study the issue, which recommended a cash settlement of $9.5 million. A bill was introduced to that effect in Congress.

Although one foot was in the door, the prospect of a cash settlement hit a brick wall. Senator Jesse Helms, with his dueling bill to build the road, proved a formidable opponent. Helms was soon joined in Washington by Congressman Charles Taylor, who took a similar stance in the House of Representatives.

By the ‘90s, the issue had all but stalled. The families suing for the road lost their lawsuit in the federal courts. In Congress, Helms and Taylor were unable to advance the road but were unwilling to take up the cause of a cash settlement.

“We wound up with nothing,” Douthit said.

While hamstrung nationally, supporters of a cash settlement put their down time in the ‘90s to good use, swaying the hearts and minds of locals. In the process, Hyde struck on a commonly held belief.

“If you asked people as a moral question, should the government build the road, the answer would be ‘yes.’ But at the same time 9 out of 10 said there ain’t going to be a road,” Hyde said.

So Hyde stopped asking people whether they thought the road should be built.

“The question instead is ‘since they are not going to build the road, what should we do now? What is an intelligent plan B?’” Hyde said. “That’s been my posture.”

They took their message to what Hyde calls the county’s “influence molders,” one porch at a time and one living room at a time. One of those on their list was a man named Leonard Winchester.

Like many, Winchester was a road supporter. Hyde and Douthit not only swayed him, but convinced him to take a leadership role in their newly formed group to fight for the cause of a cash settlement: the Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County. While all in the group support the cash settlement, reasons vary.

“Some say since there is not going to be a road, we should pursue a settlement,” said Winchester, 59. “My view is given the choice of a road or a settlement and you can have which ever one you pick, I would still pick the settlement. I think it is a better choice.

“Clearly there would be some level of tourism increase if the road was there, but who would benefit from it,” Winchester said. “The average taxpayers would not get much out of it.”

Winchester, now retired, was the IT director for the school system at the time. Winchester was a Republican, unlike Hyde and Douthit who were Democrats. Winchester would help present their group as bi-partisan.

The Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County needed a cold, hard dollar amount to ask for to successfully advance the cause of a cash settlement. The group hired an accounting firm, Crisp, Hughes and Evans, to calculate a figure. They had an easy starting place: the monetary value of the old road flooded by the lake. The accounting firm started with that base figure, adjusted for inflation and added 60 years of interest. Their answer became the now-touted $52 million.

To realize a cash settlement, the group had to sway the original four signatories of the 1943 Agreement: Swain County, North Carolina, TVA and the park service. Each would take work to win over, but perhaps the toughest and most critical were the elected leaders of Swain County.

To that end, the Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County pulled off quite a coup in the county commissioner election in 2002. For the first time, a majority of the candidates elected were in support of the cash settlement. They promptly passed a resolution by a vote of 4 to 1 calling for a $52 million payout in lieu of the road.

In the meantime, however, road supporters were having some luck of their own. Congressman Charles Taylor, a long-time road supporter, had risen in prominence and power in the halls of Washington. Using his seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, he stealthily inserted a line item of $16 million in the federal budget for construction of the road.

It was far from a green light for the road, however, as the National Park Service would first have to undergo a massive study to meet the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act.

The park would spend more than five years coming up with possible solutions and weighing them from every possible angle — even building a giant bridge across Fontana Lake. Once again, controversy reached a fever pitch as Swain County became home to another round of heated public hearings, marking the third such showdown in the history of the road saga.

The park service spent five years and $10 million conducting the assessment, a 552-page report on the pros and cons of building or not building the road. Ultimately, the park came down on the side of a cash settlement.

Ironically, Taylor had single-handedly advanced the cause of a cash settlement more than anyone in history. If not for his $16 million line item to build the road, there would have been no environmental assessment that in turn forced the park service to formally weigh in — for or against — for the first time. Taylor’s little line item had also once more rallied environmental groups and pushed the issue onto a national stage.

“That put them in high gear,” Winchester said.

The environmental movement was the lynch-pin in the fight for a cash settlement, bringing to bear political pressure that the people of Swain County could never have mustered otherwise.

“The conservation community is a large community, and they were willing to help to keep a road from being built through the park,” Douthit said.

In 2007, several key elements fell into place to bring about the cash settlement in lieu of the long-promised road.

One was the election of Heath Shuler, a new congressman for Western North Carolina who was from Swain County and differed from his predecessor’s stance on the road. Shortly after Shuler took office, he got to work on a cash settlement. Just three months into his term, a coalition of 17 Senators and Congressmen from North Carolina and Tennessee joined forces in calling for a cash payoff and signed on to a letter of support.

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

In May of that same year, Douthit got an important call — one that was a long time coming. Dale Ditmanson, the superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, told Douthit the park service finally made a decision on the North Shore Road. It supported a cash settlement.

“I was very pleased,” Douthit said.

Shuler got to work again and appropriated $6 million as a down payment toward an eventual cash settlement in the government’s 2008 fiscal year budget. Another $6 million is left over from the pot of money secured by Taylor for road construction that never came to fruition.

Swain won’t receive any money until final negotiations with the park service over a dollar amount are concluded.

While it seems Swain County is closer than ever to getting something, a new obstacle has arisen. The same park leaders who once embraced Douthit, Hyde and Winchester as allies have suddenly stopped backing a settlement figure of $52 million and are pushing for a lower number, according to those familiar with the issue.

The about-face was not only a surprise but a personal affront to the people of Swain County.

“It is the greatest disappointment I have seen in the last 20 years,” Hyde said. “I don’t know why they are backpedaling, but it is not a nice thing to do. We believe in the mountains in keeping your word. We got into this mess partly because people didn’t keep their word.”

Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson said he is merely trying to arrive at an equitable figure and determine how the $52 million was calculated.

Hyde said there is a moral and legal obligation for the park service to stay with its position on $52 million. Hyde suspects it may be a negotiating device suggested by the legal counsel for the park service. Whatever the case, “It’s not going to work,” Hyde said.

It seems the government is getting a bargain with $52 million — considering the cost of building the road was pegged at $728 million, he said.

Swain leaders say they won’t settle for anything less. For Douthit, Hyde and Winchester, it would be difficult to face their friends and neighbors if they did. They rallied the community to give up on the road and come together behind a cash settlement of $52 million, and to now produce something less simply isn’t an option for them.

“We are closer than we have ever been, and we are going to prevail. I am convinced we are going to make it work,” Hyde said. “While it has been 66 years, we are going to solve this and Swain County will get $52 million. We have the right combination in Raleigh and Washington.”

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