Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of my favorites. The heavily forested landscape, cut by cataracts rushing downhill, is a snapshot of the primeval Appalachian Range.
Black bear, turkeys, white-tailed deer and bobcats are among the park's wildlife, which also includes one of the continent's most intriguing collections of salamanders. Tucked away in the lush, heavily forested folds of the landscape, once part of the Cherokee Nation, are the preserved remains of late 19th and early 20th century homesteads, places called Cades Cove, Catalooche, and Little Catalooche.
And then there's Fontana Lake, a meandering body of water created in the 1940s when the Tennessee Valley Authority built the Fontana Dam on the LittleTennessee River. It's a lake that today has park officials grappling with the "Road to Nowhere," a controversial road that carries a hefty $589.7 million price tag.
When Fontana Dam was created in 1943, not only did it become the tallest dam east of the Rocky Mountains, at 480 feet, but it forced many families to move, leaving behind family cemeteries. For years park officials have ferried all who were interested across the lake in the spring so they could visit those cemeteries for "decoration days."
For six decades federal officials have promised to build a dead-end road along the north shore of Fontana Lake so the families could more easily reach the cemeteries. And for six decades no firm decision was reached.
This week park officials released a 522-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement that discusses five alternatives for the so-called "Road to Nowhere." Somewhat surprisingly, the document does not contain a "preferred alternative." Even more surprising, while portions of the document say building the road would create a variety of "major, long-term impacts," it concludes that the road's construction would not create any lasting impairment on Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
"This is what's so puzzling," Gregg Kidd, the associate Southeast regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, told me. "They can make a statement that building the road is very likely to have these negative, long-term environmental impacts and somehow that doesn't equate with impairment to the park. That's an absurdity. That just doesn't jibe at all. You have to wonder what pinched definition of impairment are they utilizing to make such a statement?"
Several environmental groups, including the NPCA and the Sierra Club, have called upon the Park Service to abandon the road project and pay the county a $52 million settlement.
"Blasting a road through the most rugged, remote part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that will serve no transportation need is an economic and environmental debacle that will affect all Americans," said DJ Gerken, staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center that also opposes the road. "The project should stop, now."
The DEIS points out that the environmentally preferred alternative would be to pay Swain County, North Carolina, the $52 million settlement, and the county commission has voted in favor of accepting such a settlement.
According to the hefty document, it would cost $589.7 million, and take roughly 15 years, to build the two-lane, paved 34.3-mile-long Northern Shore Corridor from the end of existing Lakeview Drive to North Carolina 28. A lower standard gravel road would cost about $335.1 million. Another option would be to build just eight miles of the road and halt it at a new visitor complex on Lake Fontana at Bushnell. That would range in cost from $92.2 million to $148.6 million.
The DEIS also notes that building a two-lane paved road would have major adverse and long-term impacts on the park's geology, floodplains, wetlands, rare plant communities, and the Olive Darter, a fish species "of federal concern."
According to the environmental groups, the project also would cut through the "largest unbroken tract of mountain forest on federal land in the East, on the North Carolina side of the park, leaving a gash on the landscape that would be visible for miles." Additionally, they claim the road would bisect the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, destroy 28 miles of the Benton MacKaye Trail, and threaten 140 mountain streams.
With opposition from the Swain County Commission, North Carolina's governor, and other civic leaders in the area, you have to wonder why the Park Service did not support the settlement alternative.
NPCA's Kidd believes the decision doesn't rest with park officials.
"It's complicated by politics at the federal level, because the proponents of road construction have a very powerful ally in Congressman Charles Taylor (R-N.C.)," said Kidd. "The Department of Interior has made it clear that whatever option they choose, it will have to satisfy all the parties to that 1943 agreement."
Those parties include not only Swain County and other North Carolina officials, but also the Tennessee Valley Authority.
While officials in other parks -- most notably Yellowstone -- have said public comments on controversial issues do not equate with a vote on those issues, Great Smoky Mountains Superintendent Dale Ditmanson has said he put off selecting a preferred alternative "to allow time for the public and resource agencies to review the DEIS."
"After a full review of the DEIS and a careful consideration of the comments received, a preferred alternative will be identified in a Final Environmental Impact Statement, which is expected in about 12-14 months," said Ditmanson.
Public meetings to discuss the DEIS have been scheduled for February 2 at Swain County High School in Bryson City, N.C.; February 6 at Robbinsville High School in Robbinsville, N.C.; February 7 at Asheville Renaissance Hotel in Ashville, N.C.; February 9 at Knoxville Marriott Hotel in Knoxville, Tenn.; and February 13 at Gatlinburg-Pittman High School in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
All of the meetings get under way at 4:30 p.m.
(NPS Photo, Map)