Archived Opinion

North Shore area won’t be designated a wilderness

By Rep. Heath Shuler

After more than 60 years of contentious debate that has divided our community, we are finally nearing a fair and conclusive solution to the issue of the North Shore Road. This solution will provide a fair monetary settlement to the people of Swain County that will be used to improve our schools and economy well into the years ahead.

This monetary settlement was the preferred alternative recommended in the National Park Service’s Final Environmental Impact Study (FEIS), which took into account thousands of public comments gathered over several years. Additionally, the FEIS took into account the expressed position of the Swain County Commissioners, the elected representatives of the people of Swain County. Stemming from the FEIS, the National Park Service issued its Record of Decision, calling officially for the monetary settlement. Working with my colleagues in the House of Representatives, I was able to secure $6 million in the 2008 Appropriations bill to serve as a down payment on the full settlement.

However, as work has begun on that settlement, a small group of individuals has begun making false claims intended to frighten and further divide us. These individuals have claimed that much of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina will be designated as wilderness when a settlement has been signed. A wilderness designation generally means that an area of undeveloped federal land should retain its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, and which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions. The claims that a wilderness designation will be made with the settlement are absolutely false.

Some of these individuals have cited old studies and plans from 1974 as the basis for their claims. While these plans did exist at one time, they are no longer relevant. In 1999 the Council on Environmental Quality, the office within the White House that coordinates federal environmental efforts and develops environmental policies and initiatives, refused to re-transmit the old recommendations to Congress because the 1974 compliance documents were outdated.

In order for a wilderness designation to be made on the North Shore Road, the following steps would have to be taken. First, the Park Service would be required to study the need for the wilderness designation. This study is usually only undertaken after constituent requests. Second, the Park Service must conduct a wilderness suitability study through an environmental impact statement. This EIS would comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires public participation and comment. Third, the outcome of the EIS would be sent as a recommendation to Congress by the Secretary of the Interior, where a bill would need to be written to designate a portion of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park as wilderness. The request usually goes to the member of Congress who has jurisdiction over the land in question. I am that member of Congress for the portion of the Park in question. Let me be very clear about this: I do not and will not support a wilderness designation for the North Shore Road area of the Park, and will not introduce any legislation that would create such a designation.

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If another member of Congress were to possibly introduce this legislation, it would be referred to the Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands. I am a member of that subcommittee, and I will block any proposed wilderness designations.

The contentious debate over the construction of the North Shore Road is at its end. The monetary settlement will allow Swain County to make strong investments in education and the economy. Now, we must join together as a one community, moving beyond rumors and bitterness. We must stand together as one looking toward our bright future, while remembering our heritage.

(Shuler is a Swain County native who now lives in Waynesville. He can be reached via his Website at http://shuler.house.gov/index.shtml or by phone at 202.225.6401.)

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