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Wednesday, 30 May 2007 00:00

The end of the road? Park Service recommends cash instead of road

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The National Park Service has finally chosen sides in the long-standing debate over whether to build a 30-mile road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park backcountry outside Bryson City.

 

The park service announced last Friday (May 25) it does not support building the road. The decision is five years in the making following a $10 million study on the pros and cons of the project. Instead of the road, the park service is supporting a cash settlement of $52 million for Swain County.

The cash settlement would compensate Swain County for the loss of an old road that was flooded by the creation of Lake Fontana in 1943 for hydropower purposes. The government promised to rebuild the road, but never did, leaving a festering debate for the past 64 years.

The news that the park service supports the cash settlement in lieu of the road brought elation both to environmental groups and those who believe the cash payoff would benefit Swain County more than the promised road.

“It means we can move on and hopefully we can put all this behind us and unite Swain County again as one,” said Glenn Jones, Swain County commissioner chairman, who supports the cash settlement. “I am glad it is progressing forward. It had kindly slowed down for a while, but the train is now back on the track and moving.”

The decision from the park service is crucial for those supporting a cash settlement. When the federal government promised to rebuild the flooded road, a contract was signed between four parties: Swain County, the state of North Carolina, Tennessee Valley Authority (which had built the lake) and the National Park Service. Swain County commissioners have since endorsed a cash settlement. So has Gov. Mike Easley for the state. TVA has said it doesn’t care. That left the park service as the only signatory to the 1943 agreement that hadn’t weighed in.

“The statement from the park service brings them in line with all the key players,” said Greg Kidd with the National Parks Conservation Association in Asheville. “We have the final block falling into place.”

Kidd said in some respects the work is only now beginning.

“What we are aiming for now is that Swain County gets appropriately compensated after all these years,” Kidd said. “We need to make sure we don’t end up with another federal commitment that does not get fulfilled.”

That’s exactly what supporters of building the road think will happen, however.

“How do they think they are going to get money? We had a contract for road. We don’t have a contract for money. What makes them think we’ll get it? The government went back on their word one time. Why wouldn’t they go back on it again?” posed Linda Hogue, a road supporter who lives in Swain County.

The theory is that supporters of the cash settlement will introduce legislation in Congress to appropriate the money and finally fulfill the government’s outstanding obligation. Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, and Senator Elizabeth Dole, R-NC, are among those who officially support the cash settlement.

Kidd anticipates the appropriation will come in packages over the period of a few years rather than one lump sum. Getting support for such a bill will take a lot of education in Congress. But the park’s decision in favor of a cash settlement was essential before that work could begin.

“It allows the stakeholders to start moving forward on actually settling this issue,” Kidd said. “Certainly we’ve never had this alignment of stakeholders. The iron is currently hot.”

While the road supporters criticize the influence of national environmental groups, Claude Douthit, a leading advocate of the cash settlement in Swain County, said the pressure and lobbying of these national networks was crucial to the effort for a cash settlement.

“It was absolutely necessary,” Douthit said. It appears it will continue to be so, as Swain County might not have the clout on its own to get an appropriation passed.

 

Why the hold up?

The public expected a decision from the park service more than a year ago. Typically, the park service would issue a preliminary decision earlier in the process of conducting a study, in conjunction with preliminary findings.

But when the park released preliminary findings of the study last winter, it was not accompanied with a preliminary decision. The park service said it needed more time to evaluate the data in the study.

The public was a told a decision would come in another six months. But it was delayed again due to new leadership, namely a new director of the National Park Service and a new secretary over the Department of Interior, according to the park service.

“That’s what delayed our timetable,” said Nancy Gray, spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “They have now been briefed and we feel like they have come on board with understanding the whole project.”

Despite the park service explanation for the delay in a decision, some don’t buy it. Instead, they claim it’s been all about politics — namely the ousting of former Republican Congressman Charles Taylor by Heath Shuler in last fall’s election. Taylor was not only a staunch supporter of the road, but controlled the purse strings on the National Park Service as chairman of the Department of Interior Appropriations subcommittee. Some believe that’s why the park service wouldn’t issue a decision last year, but have waited until now.

“They wouldn’t go against him because he controlled their money,” said David Monteith, a Swain County commissioner and supporter of the road. “They were hoping Taylor would get beat, then they could do this. With him out the way, they can just go right on with what they want to do, which is not build the road.”

If Taylor was re-elected, Monteith said the park service’s decision would have been different.

Hogue agrees.

“They kept dragging their feet and dragging out the study until finally Charles Taylor got beat so they could do what they wanted to do in the first place,” Hogue said.

Shuler has advocated for the cash settlement since going to Washington. Two months ago, he aligned 15 elected officials — senators and representatives — to write a letter to the National Park Service asking them to wrap up the study and endorse a cash settlement.

“’Let’s get on with it.’ That was the point of the letter,” Douthit said.

The letter was a big deal in one respect: it was signed by Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-NC. It was the first time Dole weighed in. Her support meant Shuler had a needed North Carolina ally in the Senate to introduce and push legislation for a cash settlement.

Both Hogue and Monteith criticized Shuler for supporting the cash settlement.

“He should be ashamed to tear down something his own people had worked for all their lives that was practically in their reach,” Hogue said. “He’s a bought and paid for man and he is towing the mark for the environmental groups and liberals. It is sad he has to go against his own people.”

Douthit disagreed. A cash settlement of $52 million, if invested, would generate $2.5 million a year based on a conservative 5 percent interest each year. It’s simply a better deal than a road, Douthit said.

The money could be used to lower property taxes, build new schools, build a heritage center, create a greenway along the Tuckasegee River, boost teacher’s salaries, or any number of things.

“You could think of a thousand things,” Douthit said.

The park service decision — known as a “preferred alternative” — comes a few months before the final study on the road will released. The final study will be ready in September, the park service said. At that time, there will be a final round of public comment before the study and accompanying “preferred alternative” is finalized and the books closed on the issue from the park’s perspective.

Since the park has now arrived at its preferred alternative already — and it typically would have been released before this stage in the study — officials decided to go ahead and announce it now rather than wait until September.

“We wanted to be responsive to the intense public interest in the status of this undertaking,” said Dale Ditmanson, the superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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