Corps of Engineers Rules Against Road Tunneling Beneath the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials are opposing plans in North Carolina to run a four-lane highway through a tunnel beneath the Appalachian Trail.

In a case in which late news is better than no news, it has come to light that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decided not to allow the North Carolina Transportation Department to build a four-lane highway beneath a stretch of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

That decision, which actually was made back in October but just recently came to light, drew praise from the Southern Environmental Law Center and environmental groups. The highway, one of several sections in a large-scale road improvement project in the southern Appalachians deemed ‘Corridor K,’ was proposed to run beneath the A.T. via a 2,870-foot long tunnel.

The Corps cited a number of negative comments received about the Corridor K proposal in their decision, including those from local landowners, the general public, and multiple conservation groups throughout the Appalachian region. The Corps' ruling officially requires the NCDOT to consider improving the existing two-lane highway already present in the region as an alternative to the extensive construction associated with a new four-lane highway.

Spokesmen for environmental groups expressed praise for the ruling last week. “We are extremely gratified that NC DOT will be giving full consideration to the alternative of upgrading and improving existing two-lane highways,” said Hugh Irwin, programs director of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition. “Upgrading existing highways has always made the most sense.”

Chris North of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation echoed Irwin’s approval. “A four-lane highway would be massively degrading to the waters in this pristine area, as well as to the valuable natural and historic assets of the region which generate millions of dollars in annual recreational revenue to the mountain region, including scenic trails, trout streams, hunting habitat, campgrounds, recreational businesses and historic sites,” he said.

This ruling hardly spells an end to the Corridor K proposal, however. NCDOT officials will be able to have their permit application reevaluated by the Corps as soon as they assess the benefits of improving existing roadways as an alternative to new highway construction. Elsewhere in the southern Appalachians and away from the Appalachian Trail, other sections of Corridor K are in different stages of the planning process, including a stretch of highway paralleling the Ocoee River in nearby Tennessee that has already generated a public firestorm.

In spite of what is sure to be continued controversy centered around the section of Corridor K impacting the Appalachian Trail, officials remain optimistic about the potential for a project that ultimately meets the needs of both regional planners and conservation groups.

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