The long and winding road: a 60-year dispute over the proposed North Shore Road in the Great Smoky Mountains may finally be resolved.
Since this country's earliest days, pioneers have relished what park interpreter Freeman Tilden called "the liberty of the hills," building hardscrabble lives amid the scenery long before there was a park.
When Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934, many of these pioneers were displaced, leading to a complex set of relationships between the park and its neighbors. Many local people recognize the importance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and appreciate its importance in protecting the mountains and valleys they love. Others resent it and point to unresolved issues about their claims to the land.
Just this past year, the National Park Service (NPS) has been presented with a historic opportunity to solve one such claim that has threatened the park for six decades.
On February 11, 2003, the Swain County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution in support of a cash settlement in lieu of building a road along the north shore of Fontana Lake within the boundaries of the park. The Bryson City Board of Aldermen passed a similar resolution on March 3, 2003. Both resolutions note that a cash settlement will be of greater economic benefit to the taxpayers and citizens of Swain County than the unknown and unpredictable benefits of building the road, estimated to cost about $150 million and take ten to 20 years to complete.
"A cash settlement of the North Shore Road is a win-win solution to this long-standing issue," says Greg Kidd, associate director of NPCA's Southeast regional office. Kidd, who has worked closely with those seeking a settlement in Swain County, added: "The people of Swain County can invest the money in schools, roads, or any other priority; the park's resources are protected from a hugely destructive road project; and the American taxpayer is saved millions of dollars."
The story of the North Shore Road is more than a simple disagreement between the park and some residents. It has bred division among the residents of Swain County, been debated in Congress off and on, and spawned a lawsuit that traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it died without being heard. Residents have sought a resolution to this dispute for years, one that now seems to have come from the residents themselves in the county where the dispute first began.
The story begins in 1943 when the Department of the Interior, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the state of North Carolina, and Swain County signed an agreement to build a 37-mile road on the north shore of Fontana Lake to replace another road that had been flooded by the construction of Fontana Dam. As part of the agreement, Swain County absorbed a nearly $700,000 debt for road-building activities--a debt that has never been repaid.
Construction began on the North Shore Road in 1957 but was halted in 1962--with slightly more than six miles built--when the National Park Service determined that the areas geology posed significant environmental hazards. That area of the park contains Anakeesta rock. The rock produces acids and heavy metals that are leached by rainwater into streams, killing aquatic life and damaging habitat. In addition, the proposed road would cut through the largest road-less tract of mountain terrain in the eastern United States, a move that could be devastating to terrestrial wildlife, especially bears.
Further complicating the issue is the long-held local belief that the road was promised to provide access to remote gravesites within the park. At the time, TVA had given residents a choice of either leaving the gravesites intact or having the remains reinterred elsewhere. A number of families chose to leave gravesites intact, counting on the promise of a road.
Although the 1943 agreement makes no such provision, this "promise" has been repeated from generation to generation, igniting an emotional firestorm. Since then, county residents have argued that they are owed either a new road or repayment of their debt. In today's dollars, that figure would come to about $52 million--the value of a proposed cash settlement to resolve the outstanding claims.
Luke Hyde understands the emotional aspect of the dispute. He was born in Swain County, and his ancestors were displaced by Fontana Lake. "I heard stories from my parents and grandparents," he says. "I grew up thinking that they should have a road if they were promised one." Today, he is general counsel for and active member of the Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County (CEFSC), a grassroots group that supports a cash settlement.
"It became apparent to mc that, if any legal matter had not been settled in 60 years, the chances of it being settled are pretty remote," Hyde says. "Six different environmental laws have been passed since 1943, any of which could prevent the road from being built. And if the road is not going to be built, we need to come up with the next best solution."
And gaining access to gravesites within the park is not a pivotal reason for building a road; the Park Service voluntarily ferries visitors across Fontana Lake to the cemeteries. The construction of NC Highway 28 on the lake's south shore meets local high-speed transportation needs.
"There are many good people who want to get to the cemeteries," says Hyde. "They can get there--it's not real simple but you can take a ferry and go. A lot of people think they have a right to drive to the cemeteries. They may have a moral right, but they don't have a legal right."
Claude Douthit agrees. Like Hyde, Douthit was born and raised in Swain County. A TVA employee for nearly 25 years, Douthit has two sisters buried north of Fontana Lake; he is also a founder of the CEFSC and avid supporter of a settlement. "I was a teenager when the 44,000 acres [around Fontana Lake] were turned over to the national park, so I know what I'm talking about," Douthit says. "This issue is 60 years old, and believe you me, it has divided Swain County. It needs to be settled in a sensible way, where everyone who is due should have some recognition."
One of those people is Bob McCollum, chairman of the North Carolina Park, Parkway, and Forests Development Council, a governor-appointed committee that offers policy recommendations on the state's public lands. The lake also displaced McCollum's family, and he grew tip staunchly believing that his family was owed a road. Yet he now believes as strongly that a cash settlement would be the best solution for both the park and the people of Swain County.
"Of all our mountain communities, Swain County has one of the lowest per-capita incomes in the state and the highest unemployment rate," McCollum says. "Anything that happens to the state economy, by the time it gets to Swain County, it's magnified. This $52 million would be cash in hand for Swain County. It would turn the corner for fire next generation."
Protecting the park makes both economic and environmental sense, McCollum adds. "Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a primary source of income for Swain Country." he explains. "If we got bad publicity about the road construction, or if it desecrated or visually damaged the national park, tourism would suffer."
Sens. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), as well as Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, have also advocated for a settlement. Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) also has indicated that she would support such a proposal. In June, Edwards wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton asking for the department's cooperation in renegotiating the 1943 agreement to include a cash deal. "The settlement," Edwards wrote, "would protect the largest contiguous wilderness area cast of the Mississippi River and foster a legacy of productive communication between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its neighbor, Swain County." At press time, Norton had not responded.
Despite bipartisan support for a settlement, some members of the North Carolina congressional delegation have consistently thrown up roadblocks. Assuming the mantle of former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) has been a vocal supporter for road construction. Taylor attached a rider to the 2001 transportation appropriations bill that allotted $16 million to build the road, even though the money was not requested by either the Park Service or the Department of Transportation. Taylor's action came despite the long-standing NPS position to settle the claims of the 1943 agreement through a cash settlement to Swain County. NPS anticipates using all of the appropriation to fund the environmental reviews required by federal law. The process is expected to take about two more years.
Looking ahead, NPCA, CEFSC, and other organizations will continue to advocate for a renegotiation of the original contract to allow for a cash settlement--but that means getting Interior, TVA, and the state of North Carolina to come to the same table, which hasn't happened in six decades. Barring that, Congress could approve the settlement through legislation. If the settlement is approved, CEFSC has suggested that the principal be held in trust, with the county accessing only the interest earned expected to total nearly a third of its annual $7 million budget. The remaining portion of the $16 million appropriated in 2001 could also be put toward the settlement, CEFSC suggests.
Some advocates for the settlement argue that it is important to remember that Swain County would not be the only beneficiary. "This is not a local issue--it's a national issue," Hyde says. "It affects all those people who want parks, places to walk, places they can get away from the cars and the noise and so on. We're going to resolve this in a way that makes sense."
In his classic work, The National Parks, Freeman Tilden honored the Smoky Mountain families. "When their sentiments are touched and their confidence is gained," he wrote, "there are no gentler people." If the parties agree, the gentle, proud people who live in the shadow of the Smokies may finally receive their due. In doing so, the federal government would also be fulfilling its mandate to protect the Great Smoky Mountains--a favor returned each year, with every spray of rhododendron and fragrant stand of pine.
Kim A. O'Connell is based in Arlington, Virginia, and last wrote for National Parks about the history of Porgy Key in Biscayne National Park.