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End of the road: a decades-long debate over the North Shore Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park may be nearing its end.


Along and emotional journey over "The Road to Nowhere" is finally leading somewhere constructive. Heated debate has divided a North Carolina community over a road development project that would slice through remote sections of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The multi-million-dollar project was designed to appease the residents of Swain County decades after a dam's construction flooded segments of a state road. But a compromise is on the horizon: In March, a bipartisan group of congressional members urged Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne to offer a monetary settlement in place of the road, a move supported by NPCA and other conservation groups.

"A road through the park would damage the largest and most pristine wilderness area in the eastern United States," read a letter signed by Sen. Lamar Alexander (RTN), Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC), and Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC), among others. "After over 60 years of controversy, it is time to bring this matter to a close."

The dense Appalachian forests north of Fontana Lake make up one of the largest remaining roadless areas in the eastern United States. Hikers can enjoy beautiful trout streams, miles of trails, and a scattering of centuries-old cemeteries and crumbling homesteads in which many of the local townspeople are rooted. The Park Service maintains those cemeteries and provides regular transportation for the families of those buried there.

The conflict over the land dates back to 1943, when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) built the Fontana Dam to meet the region's rising energy needs. As a result, much of state road NC288 was flooded, and instead of rebuilding the road, TVA purchased 44,000 acres north of the growing lake and donated it to the park. The Park Service agreed to rebuild the "North Shore Road" as long as Congress authorized the money, but nearly 20 years passed before funds were appropriated. After seven miles of road were constructed, engineering problems, landslides, environmental concerns, and a skyrocketing price tag led Congress and the Park Service to abandon the project.

Federal funding was frozen until the 2001 budget, when former representative Charles Taylor (R-NC) successfully attached $16 million to the Transportation Appropriation bill to resume the project. It was that appropriation that triggered the environmental assessment that the Park Service plans to complete this fall. Last May, the Swain County Commission asked for a $52 million settlement in place of road development that could have cost taxpayers $1 billion-and the park agrees that a monetary settlement is the best alternative.

"That was a huge step towards closure on this issue," says Greg Kidd, NPCA's senior program manager in the Southeast regional office. "For the benefit of Swain County, the Smokies, and the American people, Congress must take advantage of this historic opportunity to settle this issue once and for all. The cash settlement is a winning solution for everyone."

Six decades have allowed plenty of time for conservationists and the surrounding communities to consider what the North Shore Road would mean for this part of the Smokies. "There's no power, no phones, limited cell coverage, and it's a challenge just to get there," says park spokesman Bob Miller. "Interestingly enough, discussions between road supporters and opponents focused on that very issue of remoteness. Road supporters think this is such a wonderful place, all it needs is a road to get there. Road opponents think the last thing you want to do is build a road and ruin it."

The park's preferred alternative is based upon an extensive review of impacts to the park's natural and cultural resources, and nearly 76,000 public comments. The settlement money requested by Swain County would likely be used to improve educational facilities, pursue economic development opportunities, and lower taxes. If the push to expand North Shore Road really does come to an end, the park will continue to offer transportation to the cemeteries, and ask for more federal funds to improve the current ferry and shuttle system.

Rep. Shuler, a Swain County native who helped lead the congressional charge to stop the road, has more than just political ties to the place where the pavement ends. It's his wilderness refuge, a place where he returns year after year to clear his head and ponder big decisions. "All of the things that are important in my life are here," he says. "It's where I decided which college to attend, and where I made up my mind to leave a year early for the NFL draft. I proposed to my wife here, and I came here when I was faced with the decision to run for Congress. The Road to Nowhere has led my life in many different places."

The park, too, has benefited from the journey. Not only have scientists learned volumes about a remote area that had yet to be explored, but tens of thousands of people became engaged in the issue, most in a very positive way. "I wouldn't have expected it to be so cordial," Miller says. "We've come to know all our neighbors a little better for this. We've learned that people really care."
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Title Annotation:Trail Mix
Author:Marquis, Amy Leinbach
Publication:National Parks
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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