Park Service at center of controversy over ‘road to nowhere’

BRYSON CITY, N.C.-One of today's longest-running federal disputes-a battle over whether the National Park Service should keep a 1943 promise to build a road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park-has heated up this year, with no end in sight.

In August 1941, shortly before the United States entered World War II, the Aluminum Company of America agreed to let the Tennessee Valley Authority build a dam on more than 10,000 acres of Alcoa land on the Little Tennessee River. As the 480-foot Fontana Dam was being planned, engineers determined that the resulting reservoir, called Fontana Lake, would cut off approximately 44,000 acres on the lake's north shore from the outside world. This land, sandwiched between the lake and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, had been owned and occupied for years by loggers, miners and settlers.

Before the reservoir was filled in early 1945, something had to be done about the land and its only lifeline-the muddy but (in good weather) passable thoroughfare known as State Route 288. So in July 1943, the TVA, the Interior Department, North Carolina and Swain County reached an agreement. The TVA agreed to purchase the 44,000 acres of land and transfer the territory to the national park. As compensation to local residents, the Interior Department agreed to build a new, 20-foot-wide, "dustless" road to replace Highway 288.

Initially, the road-building effort proceeded as planned. In the late 1950s, the state and county built a feeder road from Bryson City to the park border, and later, the National Park Service built a road 6.2 miles into the park itself, ending with a 1,200-foot tunnel dug into a mountainside. But there, the road simply stops.

The effort to build the remaining 30-mile stretch to Deals Gap, N.C., stalled, due to financial constraints and a growing belief among National Park Service officials that the road could adversely impact the ecology of the nation's most visited national park. To the irreverently inclined, the aborted project-officially known as the North Shore Road-was dubbed "the Road to Nowhere."

Park Service officials expressed concern that building the road could expose anakeesta rock, which can produce acids and heavy metals that are toxic to aquatic life. Officials also said that a road could reduce wildlife populations in the area's diverse ecosystem, and that unstable geological areas would need to be traversed, making construction prohibitively expensive.

As time went on, these worries grew, as environmental groups threatened litigation under new laws that did not exist at the time of the 1943 agreement: the 1964 Wilderness Act, the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, the 1970 Clean Air Act, the 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

At first, public disappointment was muted. But by the early 1980s, some local residents began to question why the federal government had backed off its written promise. They argue that the hazards of anakeesta rock can be contained using up-to-date building practices, and add that the opponents' cost estimates for building the road are too high, particularly if parts of the old road can be salvaged.

Road advocates also believe the road will boost the local economy. With the park's one transverse road often clogged with visitors on summer weekends, advocates say, a less-congested alternate route could lure tourists-and their dollars-to an area that could use them.

Offers to settle the dispute between the road's backers and its opponents have cropped up every few years. But none has ever stuck. Then, in late 2000, Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., who chairs the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, inserted into the fiscal 2001 Transportation appropriations bill $16 million earmarked for planning and construction of the road.

This development energized both sides. Road supporters cheered the beginning of an environmental-impact statement process, which not only moved the road one step closer to fruition but also forced the Park Service to adopt an official stance of neutrality for the first time in almost 40 years.

At the same time, opponents of the road-who advocate seeking a cash settlement from the federal government instead-found that Taylor's actions provided an urgency that gave their side momentum. In February, the Swain County board of commissioners-with a new chairman freshly elected on a cash-settlement platform-reversed its previous stance and voted, 4 to 1, to seek a settlement of $52 million. The Bryson City council passed a similar resolution, 5 to 0.

Settlement backers view these events, as well as the support they've received from Sens. John Edwards, D-N.C., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., as crucial milestones in their bid to show Taylor-whom both sides acknowledge is the key player in this fight-that local opinion stands against the road.

The controversy serves as a reminder of how disruptive the creation of national parks was in the era before laws empowered residents to fight government encroachment. Though the eastern half of the United States includes relatively few national parks, many of them had to be assembled from private landholdings, rather than being carved out of land already in federal hands.

Given the history of forced removals-and the longstanding feeling among Appalachians that they have been pushed around for generations by distant and powerful forces-it's easy to understand why the idea of a holding the government to its word retains so much power.

"The TVA people came in and told everyone they needed this land because of the war effort," says Swain County Commissioner David Monteith, a road supporter. "These were good, patriotic Americans-women and children, mostly, since their husbands were fighting. They said, 'We'll help this effort.' People were trusting of the government back then. But the government took away the tax base and the jobs, and they had to move."

Now, anti-federal animus helps explain why the two sides disagree so sharply. The controversy over the road has even affected the search for a new superintendent of the national park.

Last October, David A. Mihalic, the superintendent of Yosemite National Park, retired rather than be named superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains park, saying that Park Service higher-ups told him it would be part of his job to push through the North Shore Road, as well as a controversial land swap with a nearby Cherokee Indian tribe.

After Mihalic aired his comments publicly, a Park Service spokesman told the Raleigh News & Observer that the status of the two projects was "unchanged" and termed Mihalic's comments "a parting shot at the Park Service." In an interview in Sylva, N.C., Greg Kidd, the associate southeastern regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, called the possible politicization of Park Service personnel matters "extraordinarily disturbing."

The superintendent's vacancy is due to be filled soon, and the Park Service must remain officially neutral as long as the environmental-impact process is under way. Francis said he expects the study will be finished within two years.

But the NPCA's Kidd doesn't foresee any easy resolution to the dispute over the road. "It's hard to imagine how a compromise could be reached," he says. "I don't believe that the environmental community would accept any additional road in that part of park, and the pro-road position has made their stance clear. How do you cut the baby in half?"

Editor's note: The original version of this story stated that Graham County, N.C., had voted to seek a cash settlement with the federal government. In fact, county commissioners passed a resolution stating that they were in favor of completing the North Shore Road, but expressing the wish that the county be included in a cash settlement if one were negotiated. The story has been updated to correct the error.