by Tom Valtin
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park—the most-visited in the national park system—contains one of the largest undeveloped tracts of mountain land in the eastern United States. But a proposed highway, the so-called North Shore Road, would cut through the heart of this rugged landscape, bisecting the Appalachian Trail, harming wildlife habitat, and threatening dozens of pure mountain streams with polluted runoff.
In early January, the National Park Service released a draft environmental impact statement identifying five alternatives to resolve a 63-year-old road dispute. The alternatives range from completing the North Shore Road—to the tune of $589 million in taxpayer money—to leaving the wilderness intact. The Park Service statement said the “environmentally preferred alternative” is to not build the road—a position the Sierra Club supports. But the agency declined to name an overall preferred alternative, saying it wanted more public input. Members of the public have until March 20 to comment on the five alternatives.
The week after the Park Service’s statement, the Charlotte Observer called the road proposal “an outrage… a proposal to spend $600 million, and maybe more, for a 34-mile-long road in a national park that almost no one wants and that makes no sense, financial, environmental, or otherwise.” The issue is far from parochial: the World Conservation Union calls the undeveloped lands of the Great Smokies “the most important natural area in the eastern U.S., of world importance as an example of temperate deciduous forest.” So why ram a highway through its heart?
The reason goes back to 1943, when the federal government and the Tennessee Valley Authority built the Fontana Dam in Swain County, N.C., submerging a county road and displacing rural residents along the north shore of the new Fontana Lake. At the time, federal officials promised that a replacement road would be built. The park service began construction in the late 1960s, but only seven miles were built before exorbitant costs and extreme environmental damage brought construction to a halt in 1972.
Since then, community leaders and conservationists have advocated that a cash settlement of $52 million be paid by the federal government to Swain County—less than a tenth of what completing the so-called “Road to Nowhere” would cost. The Park Service is on record as saying the North Shore Road would serve no transportation need and would jeopardize the agency’s mission to protect the biological and cultural resources of the park. For years, as the cash settlement option gathered support throughout the region, the road idea was allowed to slide gently into oblivion. But the debate was reopened in 2000 when Congressman Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) convinced Congress to allocate $16 million in federal money to restart construction.
The road is opposed by North Carolina Governor Mike Easley, the Swain County Commissioners, and other civic leaders in western North Carolina, all of whom favor a cash settlement. In endorsing a cash settlement as the environmentally preferred alternative, the Park Service acknowledged that building the road would cause the permanent loss of aquatic and terrestrial habitat, introduce “roadway mortality and habitat fragmentation,” and do “substantial” damage to water quality and aquatic species.
“The Park Service has received thousands of public comments in support of the monetary settlement option,” says Sierra Club organizer Natalie Foster. “Why isn’t the agency willing to support the option that saves taxpayer dollars and protects America’s most-visited national park?”
Under federal rules, the park service had to get a waiver from Interior Secretary Gale Norton to avoid naming a preferred alternative. D.J. Gerken, staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, says this makes him worry the park service will be forced to build the road despite its better judgment.
Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who maintains a home near the park, calls the North Shore Road a terrible idea. “I have hiked the path [where] that road would go,” he says. “The Road to Nowhere shouldn’t be built—it would tear up the Great Smoky Mountains. I fully support a cash settlement, but I am completely against the road.”
To send your comments to the National Park Service by March 20, and to see a sample letter, go to sierraclub.org/GreatSmokyMountains. Comments can also be e-mailed directly to email@example.com.
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