State and federal environmental agencies for more than a decade have questioned the need to make substantial improvements to Needmore Road. They’ve also repeatedly raised concerns about the possibility of serious environmental damage and worries about public reaction, documents on file at the state Department of Transportation show.

“As I had mentioned earlier, I am concerned with the controversy surrounding this project,” Tim W. Savidge, who worked in the transportation department’s environmental unit, warned District Engineer Joel Setzer in a letter dated Sept. 2, 1997. Setzer now serves this region as the transportation department’s top leader and decision maker.

In a required transportation department checklist, the district engineer — who surfaces in the documents then and today as a driving force behind the project — indicated at about this same time that he did not believe construction work to the road would be controversial.

Savidge’s warning, however, proved prescient.

In the past few weeks, environmental advocates and more mainstream voices — longtime residents living near the community, among others — have spoken out against the transportation department proposal to pave and widen Needmore Road to two lanes. The state wants to take the road to more than 30 feet across to accommodate lanes plus shoulders.

If done at the level currently endorsed, construction would require cutting out and removing Anakeesta-type rock, often dubbed “hot rock” because of the possibility it can leach acid when exposed by construction.

The documents reveal that even transportation department officials who favored extensive work to Needmore Road have questioned what is now being proposed. One internal memorandum baldly stated that it wasn’t feasible: from an economic standpoint or an environmental one.

The proposal to “improve” this 3.3-mile stretch of gravel road in Macon and Swain counties sparked concerns because it runs through the protected 4,400-acre Needmore Game Lands. Also, the project comes with a steep price tag during a time of economic constraints: $13.1 million.


Considered ‘most significant’ biologically in WNC

The state Wildlife Resources Commission started managing the Needmore tract about eight years ago after a coalition of hunters, environmentalists and residents rescued the land from development. This required the loosely bound group to raise $19 million to pay Duke Power for the property, which was done through a combination of funding sources, such as private donations and grants. The transportation department also chipped in money toward the rescue.

On April 16, 1998, the Wildlife Resources Commission noted in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the overall importance of the area:

“This reach of the Little Tennessee River, from a biological diversity perspective, is perhaps the most significant habitat in Western North Carolina,” Mark S. Davis, mountain region coordinator, wrote. “The (wildlife commission) is concerned about potential project impacts to three federally listed aquatic species … as well as other state listed aquatic species.

“In addition, the Little Tennessee River from the Georgia/North Carolina state line downstream to Fontana Reservoir is classified as critical habitat for the spotfin chub. This area also supports an excellent smallmouth bass population as well as other game and non-game fish species and provides habitat for several wildlife species such as river otter, wood ducks and herons.”

Davis said paving Needmore Road could help reduce sedimentation into the river. Area environmentalists also have endorsed this view, though they oppose the scale of construction proposed by transportation department officials.


‘Hot rock’ issue

Early on, the transportation department vigorously argued against exposing “hot rock.” A memorandum dated July 26, 1999, in which engineers advocated for widening the road toward the river rather than cutting into the bank on the uphill side, spelled out exactly why they considered the current proposal a bad idea.

“According to the geotechnical unit, the rock formations along Needmore Road are of the type known to produce acidic runoff when exposed to weathering,” District Engineer C.R. Styles wrote.

“The cost associated with treating and disposing of 26,000 cubic yards of this ‘hot rock’ would be over $1 million. Also of great concern, are the adverse effects the exposed rock cut could pose to the environment. In order to minimize the potential effects, the rock cut and adjacent ditch line would have to be treated to neutralize the acid. The costs associated with these treatments would be approximately $10,000 initially, and $5,000 per year for the next five to 10 years.

“The total estimated cost to construct this 1,000-foot section of Needmore Road by widening away from the river is well in excess of a million dollars (app. $1.3 million). By comparison, the average cost to construct secondary roads in this area is $200,000 per mile. Therefore, from an economic standpoint, this design isn’t feasible. Also, from an environmental standpoint, this design could have a detrimental effect on the Little Tennessee River ecosystem for many years to come,” Styles wrote.

However, after other regulatory agencies ruled out the possibility of encroaching toward the Little Tennessee River, the transportation department embraced the idea they’d once so vigorously opposed.

The change in position is particularly evident in this Oct. 14, 2008, transportation-department memorandum, written following a meeting where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raised concerns about ‘hot rock.’

“NCDOT responded that the acidic levels of the rock on this project were very low. With the levels present, runoff from them would not be considered a ‘hot runoff.’ Leaching from freshly exposed surfaces are not likely to pose a long-term problem because the surfaces oxidize very quickly. Any runoff from the surfaces could easily be neutralized by lining ditches with limestone or spraying a limestone slurry on the exposed rock faces.”

For years, regulatory officials working in other agencies have expressed doubts about the need to widen Needmore Road.

A July 22, 2000, memorandum sums up the concerns:

“The general consensus from the agencies is that the need for the project is weak. The environmental impacts outweigh any benefit from improving the road other than paving in place. The very low traffic volumes do not suggest that this road needs to be improved at all. NCDOT will have to produce a stronger need for the project and alternatives that fit that need in order for the agencies to reach concurrence.”


Making the proposal palatable

Despite these concerns, the project proposal survived. And, in the last few years, the transportation department deliberately tweaked the language it used when discussing Needmore Road. Setzer led the charge.

“Per your request, I have reviewed the Dec. 7, 2001, document and have the following comments and suggestions,” Setzer wrote in a Feb. 4, 2002, email to Karen Capps, who works in the project development branch of the department.

“I agree that one of the needs of the project is to help reduce sedimentation, but it is really a secondary benefit of the project and should be included further down. I suggest beginning this segment with purpose (not need). The purpose of this project is to enhance the quality of travel for the current users of the road. The need is to provide a safe and well-maintained road that protects/and or improves the natural resources.”

And, in another email, Setzer wrote: “The more I think about it, the more concerned I am about the primary purpose and need being stated as to reduce sedimentation. I am very concerned that if concurrence is reached under that stated purpose, the agencies will use it against DOT to argue for paving as it is.”

Capps responded, “Joel, you have a very good point. Let me see if I can rearrange that statement some. I’m sure there are other issues that will try to surface, but my plan is to stick to purpose and need and get past this point …”  

Setzer also attempted to fine-tune the number of people who could potentially benefit.

“I also recommend changing the designation of the road from ‘local rural route between Franklin, N.C. to Bryson City, N.C.’ to ‘local rural route between Macon County and western Swain County and Graham County,” Setzer wrote to Capps.


Defending the project

Questions about why Needmore Road needed such extensive work also seemed to have been raised internally within the transportation department.

In a memorandum to Carl Young, project engineer for the planning and environmental branch, Setzer wrote:

“At our meeting, you asked for justification for widening Needmore Road prior to paving instead of paving the existing cross section …

“The motivations and thoughts behind these policies and minimum standards are safety issues, maintenance issues, and liability issues. The department of transportation is obligated to improving roads to a safe and serviceable level. Paving Needmore Road to lesser than minimum standards will create hazards to the traveling public as well as the natural environment. It will also increase future maintenance costs.”

As late as April of this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Office expressed doubts.

“In summary, EPA continues to have substantial environmental concerns regarding the recommended alternative as well as the other paving options. There is insufficient traffic volume on this rural roadway to substantiate the potential long-term adverse environmental impacts to the Little Tennessee River, the Tellico Valley Historic District and the Needmore tract.”

Dorothy and Steve Poole are among the few who live along a 3.3-mile stretch of Needmore Road the state Department of Transportation wants to widen and pave.

“I agree with the people who want to keep it beautiful,” Dorothy Poole said. “But the road has safety issues.”

Her husband, speaking at an information session held in Franklin last week, told the 30 or so people there that he, his wife and their neighbors simply want the same consideration other parts of the Macon-Swain gravel road received.

Care. Pavement. Safe shoulders. Pullouts, if needed.

Others at the session, sponsored by Western North Carolina Alliance, a regional environmental group headquartered in Asheville, argued the state’s plan is too extensive. The transportation department engineers targeted the most expensive option, they said, because these are men who like building roads. So they failed to adequately study other options.

If built as proposed, the gravel section of Needmore Road would be widened to a minimum of 18 feet, with up to another 14 feet for shoulders.


What’s at stake

Needmore Road runs through the protected 4,400-acre Needmore Game Lands. A coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved the tract from development some eight years ago after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.

The transportation department held a public hearing in Swain County on the paving proposal this week. Macon County commissioners have requested a second public hearing be held in their county.

The state has said the project would cost $6.5 million; the Little Tennessee Watershed Association says it understands the cost would be much higher, and is citing $17.5 million as the actual potential cost. Still others have said it would run to $13.1 million.

“I think they are playing a little fast and loose with the language,” Bill McLarney, the biomonitoring director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, said of the transportation department’s proposal to go with the most extensive option.

“(It) would be disastrous,” McLarney said.

McLarney and other speakers said they want more study on the possible use of a soil binder, an alternative surfacing method that might reduce erosion without the high impacts of paving.

McLarney added, however, that there hasn’t been enough information provided for anyone to focus on a definitive answer at this juncture.

The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee River, a Franklin based organization that works with property owners and others to protect upper Little Tennessee and Hiwasee River valleys, has joined the Little Tennessee Watershed Association’s opposition to extensive work on Needmore Road. The land trust played an instrumental role in helping to protect the Needmore tract.


What should be done?

The transportation department is proposing to pave and widen Needmore Road to two lanes. “Preferred Alternative E” would mean the road would be a minimum of 18-feet wide, and additional work would take place on the road’s shoulders. Completing this would require cutting through acidic rock. Here are other alternatives listed in the transportation department’s environmental assessment of the project:

• Alternative A, do nothing.

• Alternative B, upgrade drainage, replace drainage pipes, do grading improvements. Consider a soil binder/alternative surfacing method, to reduce erosion and dust by methods other than paving.

• Alternative C, pave existing road. Although the existing road generally varies from 14 to 19 feet wide, the maximum pavement width would be no wider than 18 feet.

• Alternative D, upgrade the road to a two-lane paved facility with 9-foot lanes for a minimum roadway width of 18 feet, plus 4- to 7-foot shoulders. When encountering acidic rock, shoulders would be sacrificed to reduce footprint of road.

• Alternative E, upgrade the road to a two-lane paved facility with 9-foot lanes for a minimum roadway width of 18 feet, plus shoulders. This would encroach into acidic rock.


Count it up

The transportation department has pointed to traffic counts and safety issues as the primary reasons for paving Needmore Road. These numbers represent average daily traffic volume over the course of the year with typical traffic conditions.

Needmore Road, just north of Tellico Road intersection

2003: 260

2005: 250

2007: 220

2009: 320

For comparison, traffic counts on Old River Road in Swain County, also a two-lane gravel road used heavily by local residents.

Old River Road, SR 1336

2002: 270

2004: 340

2006: 320

2008: 340

Another two-lane gravel road in the region, the road leading to Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, sees slightly lower daily traffic counts, shown here as a daily average in summer months.

2006: 262

2008: 249

2010: 249

Source: Southwestern Development Commission and National Park Service.

An environmental group dedicated to protecting the Little Tennessee River has come out against a state proposal to widen and pave Needmore Road from one to two lanes.

The Little Tennessee Watershed Association did not dismiss out-of-hand the state Department of Transportation’s proposal to make improvements to the road. The Franklin-based group, however, stated that it would not support a proposal calling for such extensive work.

Needmore Road is currently a rough, one-lane gravel road paralleling N.C. 28 on the opposite bank of the river in Macon and Swain counties. The road runs through the protected Needmore Game Lands. A broad coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved the 4,400-acre tract from development some six years ago after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.

The Little Tennessee Watershed Association stated it “is in favor of a solution for Needmore Road that deals with safety and environmental problems that currently exist there, and wishes to participate with the DOT and the community in defining alternatives which will address both sets of problems while serving local transportation needs and contributing to the realization of the goals for which the Needmore Game Lands was created.”

The transportation department has set a Sept. 21 question-and-answer session, followed by a 7 p.m. public hearing, on the proposal. If built as proposed, 3.3 miles of Needmore Road would be widened to a minimum of 18 feet. Additionally, construction work would take place on the roadway’s shoulders.

The state has said the project would cost $6.5 million; the environmental group says it understands the cost would be much higher, and is citing $17.5 million as the actual potential cost.


Group’s opposition outlined

The Little Tennessee Watershed Association said the project was untenable because:

• “DOT states that the intent of the improvement is to ‘avoid or minimize adverse impacts’ to this outstanding stretch of river and rich game lands. Increased thru traffic and the consequences of major road construction through acidic rock will adversely impact the Needmore Game Lands and will alter the character of this recreational area which comprises and integral part of our local heritage.”

• “It is not consistent with the intent of the $17.5 million of public funds, including $7.5 million of DOT funds, invested to secure the Needmore Game Lands for recreational use and protection of local heritage.”

• “There are more immediate and pressing infrastructure and road-repair needs that should be addressed with such a large expenditure of public dollars.”

The environmental group’s position seems in line with statements previously made by Cheryl Taylor, leader of Mountain Neighbors for Needmore Preservation, to The Smoky Mountain News.

Taylor, a Swain County native and Needmore resident, said she believes Needmore Road “needs to see some improvements, but if they’d pave it just as it was, I’d be happy.”


Protecting the river

“There are impacts from that stretch of the river that come off of the Needmore Road,” said aquatic biologist Bill McLarney, who is the biomonitoring director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association.

McLarney has studied the upper watershed of the river for more than two decades. His work resulted in a state governor’s award in 1994 for water conversationist of the year, among other accolades.

The sedimentation is not just caused by rainfall, but even by wind, said McLarney, who sometimes uses snorkeling gear to examine the river.

“It is like somebody had put a thin layer of dust over the rocks,” he said of the bank’s appearance that is nearest Needmore Road.

Aquatic life there also has been adversely impacted.

“I have always been of the opinion [that] paving the Needmore Road would be a plus for the value of the river,” McLarney said.

But, the aquatic biologist said, he simply can’t support the option currently favored by the transportation department. Such work would increase traffic and detract from the recreational value, and diminish the importance of what took place when groups that have sometimes seemed at odds worked together.

“It would not have happened if local people … had not wanted to have it happen,” he said.”

One of the major players in that effort, the Land Trust of the Little Tennessee, has opted to stay out of this particular battle, at least for now. Sharon Taylor, land protection director for the group, said the land trust has not taken a position for or against the state’s proposal.

The land trust works with property owners and others to protect the “waters, forests, farms and heritage” of the upper Little Tennessee and Hiwasee River valleys.


Want to get involved?

WHAT: Presentation on Needmore Road paving proposal sponsored by WNC Alliance Environmental Group.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16

WHERE: Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin, Sierra Lane.


Learn more:

WHAT: Question-and-answer session, followed by public hearing sponsored by N.C. Department of Transportation.

WHEN: Q&A from 4:30-6:30 p.m.; public hearing starting at 7 p.m., Sept. 21.

WHERE: Southwestern Community College in Swain County, known locally as the old Almond School, off U.S. 74, 5.5 miles west of Bryson City.

A state proposal to widen and pave a gravel road that runs alongside the Little Tennessee River and near the protected 4,400-acre Needmore Tract is being greeted with caution by conservationists.

“It is a very important stretch of river,” said Stacey Guffey, chairman of the board overseeing the Little Tennessee Watershed Association. “As a group, I’d say we’re not opposed to improvements that would help river quality. But, if something is going to be done, we want to see it have as little impact as possible.”

A portion of Needmore Road is a rough, one-lane gravel road that parallels N.C. 28 in Macon and Swain counties but on the opposite side of the river. The state Department of Transportation is proposing to pave and widen 3.3 miles of Needmore Road from one lane to two lanes. The new road would have a minimum width of 18 feet. Additionally, work would take place on the shoulders of the roadway.

“I think Needmore Road needs to see some improvement, but if they’d pave it just as it was, I’d be happy,” said Cheryl Taylor, a resident of the Needmore community and leader of the group Mountain Neighbors for Needmore Preservation.

Taylor said she and members of her group are concerned about the scope of the transportation department’s proposal.

“(The Needmore Tract) is a place to go to enjoy the area and outdoor recreation,” she said, adding that those qualities need to be protected.

The project is estimated to cost $6.5 million and would target the section from Byrd Road in Macon County to existing pavement in Swain County. Work on three of the four sections making up the project would get under way in 2012. The final — and most difficult section from an engineering standpoint — is slated for 2015.

“This alternative will improve the entire facility to conform to NCDOT Division 14 Secondary Road Standards,” states a meeting notice issued by the transportation department. “The proposed alignment calls for widening the roadway away from the Little Tennessee River.”

Joel Setzer, DOT division engineer for a 10-county region that includes Macon and Swain, said the paving proposal dates back to about 1997. Justification for the road upgrade is based on the number of houses served and traffic counts. Though there aren’t many houses along that stretch of road, Setzer said the traffic counts are high “as compared to other gravel roads.”

The purpose of the project is as follows:

• To improve the quality of travel for local residents who currently use the road.

• Reduce sedimentation from Needmore Road into the Little Tennessee River.

• Avoid or minimize adverse impacts to the existing high-quality natural resources.

The transportation department has worked on environmental assessments of the project, Setzer said, and has plans to deal with the Anakeesta-type rock found in the area. These rocks contain high levels of iron-sulfide and can create acidic runoff.

About 4,400 acres along the Little Tennessee River known as the Needmore Tract was saved from development and turned into a state game land overseen by the N.C. Wildlife Commission six years ago. Needmore Road, in places, borders the protected tract.

Nantahala Power and Light bought the property in the 1930s with the intent of damming up the Little Tennessee River for hydroelectric generation. The power company never built the dam. Instead, the bottomland was leased to farmers. Local residents used the remainder for hiking, camping and hunting.

Duke Power in 1999 took over Nantahala Power and Light and decided to sell the land for development. Public outcry led to a massive, five-year campaign to save the tract. Local residents, conservationists and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee worked together to raise $19 million in state grants and private donations to pay Duke. The Needmore Tract was then placed under state protection as the Needmore Game Land.  

Aklea Althoff, who operates an office in Franklin for the environmental group Western North Carolina Alliance, echoed calls for restraint when it comes to tinkering with Needmore Road.

“We know that some improvements need to be made because of the sedimentation problem from the gravel road,” she said. “But it needs to be as minimal as possible because of this pristine ecosystem.”


Want to get involved?

WHAT: Presentation on Needmore Road paving proposal sponsored by WNC Alliance environmental group.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 16.

WHERE: Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin, Sierra Lane.

Learn More:

WHAT: Question-and-answer session, followed by public hearing sponsored by N.C. Department of Transportation.

WHEN: Q&A from 4:30-6:30 p.m.; public hearing starts at 7 p.m., September 21.

WHERE: Southwestern Community College in Swain County, known locally as the old Almond School, off U.S. 74, 5.5 miles west of Bryson City.

Mountain Neighbors for Needmore Preservation hope to raise about $250,000 to make a family campground on the Needmore tract a reality.

When some 4,400 acres along the Little Tennessee River known as the Needmore Tract was taken over by the N.C. Wildlife Commission four years ago, a touch of the Wild West in WNC — complete with wholesome cattle ranchers and rough neck squatters — would soon come to a close.

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