The 64-year-old battle over a government promise to build a road through the park saw its first tangible bit of closure when $6 million was appropriated last month for a down payment of the $52 million cash settlement Swain County will eventually receive in lieu of the North Shore Road.
Because the North Shore Road issue looks like it may have finally reached a conclusion, supporters of the road fear the National Park Service will seize the chance to designate much of the park as a wilderness area, which could severely limit its use.
According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, a wilderness area prohibits the use of motorized transport and structures within the designated area.
Bob Miller, spokesman for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, says a wilderness designation is unlikely. Miller said the park has been managed as if it were wilderness since 1978, when it was recommended for the designation by the Secretary of the Interierior.
“Under wilderness law, if an area has been recommended, you manage it as if it is wilderness,” Miller explained. “The bottom line is that the park has been managing all the land proposed as if it were wilderness since 1978, so if wilderness legislation was to move forward from this point onward, nothing would change.”
North Shore Road supporters, however, don’t agree. In contrast, some worry that things would change with a wilderness designation — and not for the better.
One clause of the 1964 Act that most concerns North Shore Road supporters authorizes the government, “to acquire privately owned land within the perimeter of any area designated by this Act as wilderness if...the acquisition is specifically authorized by Congress.”
This clause appears to support the concept of buffer zones around the park, road supporters say.
“If the wilderness definition takes effect, the big scare is the potential of buffer zones, which...would limit and prohibit users adjacent to the park to have any use of their property,” said Mike Clampit, a vocal pro-road advocate.
“My greatest fear is the buffer zones that follow a wilderness area,” agreed Swain County Commissioner David Monteith.
Monteith, who operates a boat on Fontana Lake, is particularly worried about the Park Service limiting human access on the lake if the wilderness designation goes through.
“It totally locks (the lake) in. We could lose the businesses, which are five boat docks n Fontana Lake,” Monteith said.
“If the park claims to the middle of the lake, could they not control the boats on the lake? That’s a possibility,” added Linda Hogue, president of the North Shore Road Association.
Hogue said that in some wilderness areas, only non-motorized boats are allowed on lakes around a national park.
Bob Miller, spokesman for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, says use on Fontana won’t be limited even if there was a wilderness designation, which is unlikely.
“It wouldn’t impact use on Fontana or anywhere else. There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Miller said.
The potential loss of the economic benefits Fontana brings to the county would be “devastating,” Monteith said.
Clampitt noted that having a wilderness designation in the national park would cause further economic damage to the county because no shelters, facilities or exhibits could be built on the North Carolina side of the park.
“Economically, our side of the park has never been developed as much as the Tennessee side. It would be an economic boom for businesses and invididuals in Swain County, and we’d have the potential for additional growth,” Clampitt said.
Some also worry what would happen if the park service eventually decided to crack down on the use of transportation within the wilderness area of the GSMNP, particularly motorized vehicles used to transport visitors to the historic North Shore Road cemeteries. This could mean individuals in their 80s would have to take a difficult hike to visit the cemeteries.
“The park is supposed to be for all people — not just the physically fit people who can hike long distances,” Hogue said.
Miller, the park spokesman, says this fear is simply unfounded.
“We would still be doing boats across Fontana, which is one of the provisions of the alternate we selected (the cash settlement in lieu of the road). It includes that continuing commitment to continue to provide access to the cemeteries by boats,” he said.
Motorized vehicles, like park service ATVs, are currently allowed in the park. This wouldn’t change, said Miller, because they would be made an exemption.
So why the vast differences in opinion between road supporters and the park service? One major dividing factor is trust. Advocates of the North Shore Road won’t forget that the government essentially broke its promise to re-build the road it flooded to build a dam during World War II.
“I don’t believe them and I don’t trust them. They’ve got a real bad history with me in living up to their promises and obligations — they’ve fallen very short,” Clampitt said.
Subsequently, road supporters feel that while the park service may say one thing, the outcome of a wilderness designation could be very different.
“If push comes to shove, who knows in the future what they can do?” asked Hogue.
Miller says that the park service currently has no plans to push for a wilderness designation. The original proposal became stalled in Congress, and was never turned into anything more than a recommendation.
“The National Park Service has no plans to push forward for a wilderness designation. We see no advantage,” Miller said.
Wilderness legislation for the area could be pushed forward by Congress. The area could also be unrecommended if the government decides its no longer suitable for a wilderness area, Miller said.
One thing is clear — a push for a wilderness designation wouldn’t happen without a fight. In the 1980s, according to Miller, environmental groups pushed to have the park designated a wilderness area. This was fiercely opposed by North Shore Road supporters at the time, who wrote thousands of letters and made thousands of phone calls to get the proposal dropped. In the end, the effort succeeded.