It promised to be the biggest event in Western North Carolina in 67 years – bigger certainly than when Eric Rudolph was caught dumpster diving in Murphy. The North Shore Road controversy in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was over. Swain County was going to get its $52 million over 10 years -- an amount that was calculated as the present value of the road that was flooded in 1943 to create Fontana Lake and Fontana Dam.
This past Friday, February 5, Swain County Board of Commissioners voted 4 to 1 in favor of the agreement. Under the terms of the agreement by the Department of the Interior, Swain County, North Carolina, and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the federal government will pay up to $52 million into a trust fund established for the county. Only the interest earned on that trust can be spent. The county was one of the four signatories of the original 1943 agreement. In fact, the two principals in the negotiations were the county and the Department of the Interior.
On Saturday, a day that dawned as forecast -- wet, cold, and icy -- a signing ceremony was held at Swain County High School. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was scheduled to attend, but the snowstorm in Washington kept him away. This omission did not dampen the audience’s enthusiasm. This day was about Swain County and Congressman Heath Shuler, the hero, coming back to Swain County High School where he played football.
When I arrived at Swain County High School quite early, the parking lot was packed. I was impressed but soon found out that most of the cars were for people attending a basketball game, not the signing ceremony. Swain County is one of the poorest counties in North Carolina, partly because 85 percent of the land is either owned by the Smokies, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, or is under water covered by Fontana Lake.
Leonard Winchester, president of the Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County and a retired Swain County education administrator was elated. “It’s a historic day. We’ve already received $4 million and will receive another $8.8 millions in 120 days. We have to continue working to make sure that we get the rest. But now we can ask our two senators to help because there’s only one option.”
Ted Snyder has been working on this issue since the 1960s. Mr. Snyder, a retired lawyer from South Carolina and former national president of Sierra Club, believes the agreement “does something for the parks, the plants and the animals.” Next, he plans to work on wilderness status for the Smokies. “Wilderness status is feasible, but the locals won’t support wilderness status until they get all their money," he said.
Pro-road supporters also attended the ceremony, some wearing their “Build the Road” hat. Mike Clampitt, a sixth-generation mountaineer, said “I think this is two steps backwards. The new agreement says less than the old one. There’s no guarantee that we’ll get the $52 millions.” He was also concerned about what wilderness status for the park would mean. Helen Vance, who graduated in 1943 from the last senior class at Proctor High School before the road was flooded and who helped organize the first cemetery reunions, said she was disappointed that the road was not finished. “The time has come that we have to accept it and move on. My concern, now, is that the cemetery trips continue”.
Glenn Jones, chair of the Swain County Board of Commissioners, proclaimed that, “It took us 67 years to reach this point. The journey has not been easy. People have made sacrifices but these sacrifices are going to make the future easier. Every citizen in Swain County will benefit from this cash settlement.”
He praised U.S. Rep. Shuler, a Swain County graduate who played quarterback for the Swain County Maroon Devils before receiving national recognition in college as quarterback of the Tennessee Volunteers and later recording a short-lived NFL career. Mr. Jones instructed the pro-road people to put their protest signs away, but they stayed, quietly, while hoisting their “Build the Road” signs.
Great Smoky Mountains Superintendent Dale Ditmanson, representing the Interior Department, recapped the federal government’s involvement in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that examined building the road. There were 75,000 comments on the DEIS and it was determined that the road would not be built.
“No one has worked as hard over the last three years on the monetary settlement as Congressman Shuler. The National Park Service will continue to provide transportation to the cemeteries," said the superintendent, adding that Secretary Salazar considered “the settlement is good for the people of Swain County because it generates much needed revenue; good for the department, because it protects one of America’s most-treasured parks; and good for the American taxpayers, since building the road would have cost several times more than the settlement.”
Finally it was Congressman Shuler’s turn at the podium. He recalled that “growing up, I saw both sides of the issue. Its divided this community. Our next generation can grow up with better education. It’s time to let go of something in our past that divided us. My roots are here. My foundation is here.”
Then the signing. Three of the four parties had already signed the historic document. The last, Glenn Jones for the Swain County Board of Commissioners, signed and it was witnessed by Congressman Shuler. This truly was a historic day and I was thrilled to be there.