A decades-long dispute is expected to come to an end Saturday when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar travels to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to sign off on a monetary settlement over the "Road to Nowhere" saga.
The road, of course, was the proposed 34-mile-long North Shore Road that was to run along the north shore of Fontana Lake. As Danny Bernstein noted back in December, in 1943, the federal government promised to build a road from Fontana Lake to Bryson City after World War II if Congress appropriated the money. For many years, this promise lay dormant; meantime, a new, modern highway, NC 28, was constructed outside the park. From Fontana Lake, less than a mile of road was built.
For years after TVA flooded NC 288, there was no practical way for descendants to take care of the graves left behind. It took until 1976 for the former residents to have a reunion outside of Bryson City. In the late 1970s, Boyd Evison, the superintendent at the time, issued a press release asking cemetery visitors to not leave plastic flowers or other non-biodegradable containers because there was no way to dispose of them. This was the kind of decree that give “outsiders” and the federal government a bad name. According to knowledgeable locals, “that’s what started the whole cemetery issue.”
The group created a cemetery association and threatened to sue the park over transportation to the cemeteries, and free transportation started across Fontana Lake. It’s supposedly for descendants and friends, but anyone can get on the boat; you don’t need a connection with the graves. When the descendants and friends get off the boat at Proctor, they don’t even have to walk the short distance to the cemetery. They are transported by buses and vans to the cemetery site.
The North Shore Road issue was revived again in 2001 when former Congressman Charles Taylor, a Republican from western North Carolina, obtained $16 million for further construction of the North Shore Road. This set off a process that looked into the environmental impact of the proposed road. The National Park Service held public input forums in various locations around the Smokies and accepted comments from anyone in the U.S. on various ways to resolve the 1943 agreement.
The road was expected to cost nearly $600 million and take about 15 years to build. Conservation groups argued it would have 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 claimed the road would bisect the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, destroy 28 miles of the Benton MacKaye Trail, and threaten 140 mountain streams.
Thousands of pages were generated, reviewed, and discussed. Descendants of the original settlers were the only ones who wanted a road in the park. Almost all comments were against the road and for a financial settlement with Swain County, where Fontana Dam is located, one of the four parties to the original agreement.
Well, come Saturday the financial settlement -- expected to total $52 million -- is expected to be signed off on by Secretary Salazar and local officials during a meeting in the Bryson City Town Square in Bryson City, North Carolina.
“With the help of Congressman Shuler, the commitment of the Obama administration, and the hard work of many people, we are closer than ever to resolving the long-standing dispute over the North Shore Road in Swain County, North Carolina,” said the secretary on Tuesday. “I look forward to traveling to North Carolina this weekend for what I expect will be a great - and long overdue - celebration.”