As Paul Carlson tooled out of downtown Franklin, houses faded into rolling hayfields, and the Little Tennessee River soon took up its flank position along the edge of N.C. 28.

Is there another region in the United States that has had more flourishing towns and villages disappear than the one along the Little Tennessee and Tuckasegee rivers in Swain and Macon counties? Almond, Japan, Judson, Bushnell, etc., in Swain went under when the Fontana reservoir was flooded in the 1940s. And there’s yet another “lost” town farther south up the Little Tennessee near the Macon County line that was sacrificed in the name of electric power but never actually went under water. Left high and dry to wither and die, the place is named Needmore.

Two of Western North Carolina’s most storied conservation groups, both based in Macon County, merged this month into a single entity.

The Little Tennessee Watershed Association has been absorbed into The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and is being touted as a win-win for regional conservation efforts and as a means to financially help underpin regional conservation efforts.

The Land Trust name will be retained for now. The merged organization has the combined backing of more than 500 members.

The smaller of the two nonprofits, the watershed association, had just three employees. It has struggled to adequately tap spigots of grant funding. Those traditional nonprofit-geared pools of money are continuing to dry up in the face of the difficult economy.

The Land Trust, on the other hand, just completed its best fundraising year ever. A few years ago, anticipating stagnating grant opportunities, the larger eight-employee group deliberately and successfully began to diversify its revenue stream. The Land Trust now relies as much on individual, private support as on grant funding.

Such transformations haven’t proven possible, at least not to the same degree, for smaller nonprofits such as the watershed association. Also difficult for small groups is keeping and recruiting experienced board members, thereby ensuring stable governance.

Often small groups are almost totally reliant on the energy and charisma of a single leader, said Paul Carlson, who helped guide The Land Trust from a similar small nonprofit to, at least for this region, a large one.

“It’s in part a question of economy of scale,” Carlson said. “I think the toughest job I know is to be director of a small nonprofit, because you have to wear so many hats.”

Jenny Sanders, executive director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, revived the nonprofit five years ago, he said. Talks were actually under way then to perhaps merge the two groups, but that didn’t happen because, Carlson said, of the caliber of Sanders’ leadership.

Sanders opted not to take a new job with the Land Trust following the merger. The decision was personal, a desire on her part to pursue other interests, she said. Sanders supports the merger, saying it simply “makes sense” for both organizations.

“I believe for a lot of reasons this was absolutely a smart move,” she said. “And it will provide a unified front for conservation in the six westernmost counties.”

 

Ensuring the work goes on

The watershed association’s most recognizable project is ongoing aquatic monitoring conducted by a corps of volunteers and overseen by Bill McLarney of Macon County. The biologist has studied the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries for more than two decades. McLarney, via the watershed association, has assembled a body of data on what lives in the Little Tennessee waterways — from miniscule larvae to newly discovered fish species — that’s difficult to find duplicated elsewhere in the U.S. McLarney’s work helped the Little Tennessee earn a reputation as one of the most biologically intact rivers. The baseline of what species are supposed to live in the river serves a greater purpose, however. If a species turns up in fewer numbers or disappears, it would alert future researchers that trouble was brewing.

McLarney, an original founder of both organizations, described the merger as “a natural progression” for the nonprofits.

Ken Murphy, board chairman for the Land Trust, said timing of the merger couldn’t be better.

“We already had plans to broaden our scope, and the areas we touch,” Murphy said. “Land and water are almost inseparable.”

The Little Tennessee often touts its work of protecting land along the Little Tennessee corridor as protecting the river itself, based on the premise that saving surrounding land from development keeps the river ecosystem from being disturbed.

The now 10-employee Land Trust plans to expand its work further into the Tuckasegee and Hiawassee river basins, the board chair said.

There are no plans at this time to merge The Land Trust with additional conservation organizations, Carlson said.

Murphy emphasized that there is an important people component to that strategy of concentrating on both land and water — to connect all of us to the natural world.

The merger will move those plans forward exponentially, Murphy said, because it serves as an opportunity “to bring in-house real expertise on water issues” and combine that knowledge with those conservation tasks The Land Trust has long focused upon.

The Land Trust, established 15 years ago, has forged the very concept of private land protection in the state’s westernmost counties, plus successfully worked on habitat restoration and cultural landscape conservation. The latter includes farmland and historic preservation. The group’s crowning success was the preservation of the 4,500-acre Needmore Tract, which straddles Macon and Swain counties along the Little Tennessee River, and was the likely site of development.

The watershed association helped secure the Needmore tract, plus partnered with the Land Trust and Macon County’s Soil and Water Conservation District on stream-bank restoration.

 

Expanding focus

The watershed association has a history of open advocacy on conservation issues, particularly under the out-spoken Sanders, its most-recent and final executive director. By contrast, The Land Trust has been more low-key and behind-the-scenes in its approach, though there have been issues in which the board has elected to become openly involved.

“The Land Trust has tried hard to not get caught up in polarizing issues,” Carlson said, “and we will continue to lead on results-oriented work.”

Carlson and Murphy both said The Land Trust is considering a more pro-active stance when it comes to conservation protections. And the spunky, outspoken and out-front history of the watershed association should slide nicely into that new focus.

“In the past, we have taken public positions on issues that involve the environment and conservation in our area,” Murphy said of The Land Trust. “But we plan to be a little more public about our positions and views of things that are happening in the region.”

 

Conservation merger

• The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee works to conserve the waters, forests, farms, and heritage of the Upper Little Tennessee and Hiwassee River Valleys. The organization works in partnership with private landowners, public agencies, and others to conserve land.

• The Little Tennessee Watershed Association works to protect and restore the health of the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries through monitoring, education, habitat restoration and citizen action.

Swain and Macon commissioners believe a state plan to widen and pave a 3.3-mile gravel road along a remote stretch of the Little Tennessee River goes too far.

Leaders of both counties have unanimously called for a scaled down version of the full-blown design suggested by the N.C. Department of Transportation. The DOT plan would widen the narrow road to a minimum of 18 feet, with additional construction work on the roadway’s shoulders.

The estimated price tag is $13.1 million, which environmental groups have termed a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. That said, many of those same environmentalists have called for some type of surface treatment because of river-damaging sedimentation from the gravel road. The Little Tennessee River is within spitting distance of the road, and dirt is spewed routinely into the water, damaging the fragile aquatic balance.

The resolutions by Swain and Macon commissioners for a compromise design received rave reviews from those same environmental groups. Julie Sanders of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association offered “many thanks” for the wisdom shown by both boards.

“We appreciate Macon and Swain counties’ leadership on this issue and feel that this is an important move,” she said. “It shows that both boards care about Needmore and that they listened to the community.”

Some residents along Needmore Road, however, believe the scaled down version backed by county commissioners falls short of what’s required to actually make the road safer.

“Needmore will essentially remain an unsafe road,” said Stephen Poole, one of those few people who actually live in the remote area. “Those of us who actually use the road would like to see it paved and made safer. We also would like to see this done with extraordinary care for the environment the road passes through. We not only live in the area, we love it.”

Brian McClellan, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said he believed that the two county boards, via the resolutions, walked the line between protecting the area and helping residents have a safer byway to and from their homes. The resolutions (with wording agreed on beforehand by representatives from both counties) noted: “both … agree and support efforts to improve and pave in place … with modifications including river-access areas and guardrails at specific needed locations.”   

Additionally, commissioners from Macon and Swain counties called on state officials to include only “minimum lane width” and “minimum shoulder widths.” They pointed out that the primary purpose of the project is to improve the quality of travel for local residents and to reduce sediment to the Little Tennessee River, which McClellan said the counties’ proposals would do.

“We suggested let’s meet in the middle on this one, and try to do something that might be the most feasible for everybody involved,” he said. “For the people there, this would be a much-improved surface without mudholes and potholes, and this would minimize runoff into the river and maintain the rural character of the area.”

Poole said paving is a priority for the people who use the road regularly so that the dust in the summer and the quagmire in the spring are eliminated.

But it is not the only problem residents face with the road, he said. During heavy rains, the road floods in spots, and those areas need to be raised “so that we aren’t stranded until the water recedes and the roadbed repaired.”

Also, the road should be widened where it is too narrow for two vehicles to safely pass, Poole said. During a 2009 traffic count, an average of 320 vehicles a day used the road.

Julia Merchant, a spokeswoman for the transportation department, said the next step is a concurrence meeting. Transportation officials and representatives from other state and federal agencies “will choose the least environmentally damaging, practicable alternative for the project,” Merchant said.

That meeting is tentatively scheduled for July in Raleigh. If the past is any indication of the future, agreement might be hard to come by. 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 worried about public reaction, based on a review of road documents by The Smoky Mountain News last fall.

Construction at the level proposed by the transportation department would require cutting out and removing Anakeesta-type rock, often dubbed “hot rock” because of the possibility it can leach acid when exposed.

The transportation department has maintained that the acidic levels of the rock are low, and that at those levels, runoff would not be considered “hot.” Furthermore, any runoff that did occur could be neutralized.

Merchant said that as part of the decision-making process, officials would take into account the commissioners’ votes as well as public comments received. Two public hearings were held, one in Macon County at the specific request of commissioners there.

McClellan said he’d find the situation very odd if transportation officials chose to ignore a “100 percent agreement” among elected officials in two counties on what should be done to improve Needmore Road.

“With every elected official in the counties involved unanimous on what’s to be done, I wouldn’t quite understand what’s then not to like,” McClellan said.

 

What, and where, is Needmore Road?

Needmore is a rough, one-lane road paralleling N.C. 28 between Swain and Macon counties, but on the opposite bank of the Little Tennessee River.

The attention being paid to such a short stretch of gravel might seem outsized except for a couple of important caveats: Needmore Road runs smack through the protected Needmore Game Lands, which were created after 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 Energy.

The second and final public hearing on whether the N.C. Department of Transportation should widen and pave Needmore Road took place in Macon County last week.

Needmore Road is a rough, one-lane, 3.3-mile gravel road along the Little Tennessee River in Macon and Swain counties. It parallels N.C. 28, but on the opposite bank. 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 Energy.

Twenty-seven people spoke at the recent hearing. Additionally, the entire five-member Macon County Board of Commissioners turned out to listen, along with transportation department officials. These comments come on top of nearly 800 signatures on a petition supporting some type of paving or resurfacing, and at least 66 written comments sent in to the department of transportation earlier. Plus, about 25 people spoke publicly at a previous public hearing last fall.

In a follow-up discussion, DOT spokesperson Julia Merchant told The Smoky Mountain News a post-hearing meeting would be held in about six weeks “to discuss each and every comment that has come in on the Needmore project. Then, we’ll make a decision as to whether future studies will be conducted.”

Merchant said no percentage weight is assigned directly to public support or opposition.

“So I guess you could say it’s more intuitive,” she said. “Public comments certainly weigh in the decision making, but we have to balance them against engineering criteria. We also have to weigh other engineering criteria such as cost, traffic surveys and impacts to the human environment in order to come up with the best solutions.”

People for and against the state Department of Transportation’s plans to pave and widen a 3.3-mile section of Needmore Road have another opportunity to tell officials what they think this month.

At the request of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, the transportation department will hold a second public hearing Jan. 25 in Macon County. The state agency fulfilled public law by holding one last fall in Swain County — the road connects Macon and Swain — but Macon leaders wanted to ensure their residents had a say, too.

You do not have to live in Macon County to participate in the public hearing.

“Both counties are involved in this matter, and given geography, there is no convenient location for a meeting to serve both counties. In my opinion, Bryson City was chosen because DOT perceived a better chance of turning people out who would be favorable to their agenda,” Bill McLarney, an expert on the Little Tennessee River (which parallels Needmore Road) and biomonitoring director for the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, wrote in an email.

“… I think it is particularly important to reinforce the will of the Macon County Commission by reminding them that their predecessors (and their Swain County counterparts) voted unanimously to support the Needmore acquisition, and that this is something of which we should all be very proud,” McLarney wrote.  

Needmore Road cuts through the Needmore Game Lands, located in Macon and Swain counties. The 4,400-acre tract was protected after a coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved it from development after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.

What’s being decided is whether to pave and widen this gravel section of Needmore Road to a minimum of 18 feet, with construction work on the roadway’s shoulders.

Most of the major environmental groups in the region have given the nod to paving, citing protections to the Little Tennessee River, which is the beneficiary of dust and sedimentation. The groups have stopped short of endorsing the road widening as proposed, however. That would involve cutting into and removing acidic rock, which carries an inherent danger to the environment.

 

Want to go

When: Pre-hearing from 4:30-6:30 p.m.; open house starts at 7 p.m.

Where: Iotla Valley Elementary/Cowee School, 51 Cowee School Drive, Franklin.

The way road projects get selected and prioritized in the state’s six westernmost counties might shift slightly following meetings this week and last by local government officials and transportation experts.

The method of weighing the projects will be tweaked to heighten safety issues. Crash data compiled by the state Highway Patrol will be factored into the equation. Elected officials serving on the Transportation Advisory Committee said, however, they want to see what that actually does to the alignment of projects before endorsing the approach.

How exactly the state Department of Transportation moves forward on road building and road improving has raised pointed questions recently about political and personal gain versus public good and needs. Controversy in the past couple months erupted over two projects in particular: Needmore Road in Swain and Macon counties and N.C. 107 in Jackson County.

The transportation department has proposed paving and widening a 3.3-mile section of Needmore, a gravel one-lane road beside the Little Tennessee River. Needmore cuts through the protected Needmore Game Lands, and opponents say the environmental risks posed are simply too great (see accompanying article on page 9).

In Sylva, the transportation department this month held a public information session on how traffic on N.C. 107 between Sylva and Cullowhee could be reduced. Concepts included widening and building a whole new connector road. At least 200 people turned out for the session, and Smart Roads, a local activist group, promised to monitor and publicize the process going forward.

For all the outcries, no one from the public was present at either of two meetings where a bit of the rubber meets the road when it comes to transportation projects in the far west: Jackson, Macon, Swain, Cherokee, Clay and Graham counties. One meeting was for county and town planners and other government officials, a second was held Monday night for county commissioners and town council members.

Southwestern Development Commission, a regional planning group headquartered in Sylva, organized the get-togethers.

 

Who does the planning?

In the state’s six westernmost counties, road planning is headed up by the Southwestern Development Commission, headquartered in Sylva, which serves as the lead-planning agency for the rural transportation planning organization (RPO).

Southwestern Commission provides staff and GIS (geographic information system) support. The RPO consists of a technical coordinating committee (government officials) and a transportation advisory committee (elected officials). The government officials, as in real life, exist simply to make staff-level recommendations to the elected officials, who make the policies.

 

Here are the stated goals of the RPO:

• To provide a forum for public participation in the rural transportation planning process and serve as a local link for residents of the region to communicate with the transportation department.

• To develop, prioritize and promote proposed transportation projects that the RPO believes should be included in the State Transportation Improvement Program.

• To assist the transportation department in publicizing its programs and service and providing additional transportation-related information to local governments and other interested organizations and persons.

• To conduct transportation-related studies and surveys for local governments and other interested entities and organizations.

• To promote transportation as a regional issue requiring regional solutions.

Another public hearing on what, if anything, to do with Needmore Road has been scheduled for February, this time in Macon County.

An exact date and location hasn’t been announced.

The 3.3 miles of gravel, single-lane road traverses Macon and Swain counties, cutting through the protected Needmore Game Lands. The 4,400-acre tract was protected from development after a coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved it by raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.

State Department of Transportation in September held a public hearing in Swain County. That meeting fulfilled state-mandated legal requirements regarding public involvement. About 100 people attended, including many from Macon County. They turned out mainly to protest the transportation department’s proposal to widen and pave Needmore Road to a minimum of 18 feet, with additional construction work on the roadway’s shoulders.

The work would cost $13.1 million.

This is the only stretch of Needmore Road not previously paved. The road parallels the Little Tennessee River and can provide motorists a more direct route between counties than the motion sickness inducing N.C. 28, a curvy two-lane highway across the river.

Environmentalists as a whole do support some kind of paving or capping, because they believe sediment from the gravel road is causing harm to the river’s fragile and rare ecosystem. But what has been proposed, they say, is too extensive. Additionally, the work would require the transportation department to blaze through acid-producing rock, posing a significant danger to the Little Tennessee River if something went wrong.

“It will be very important for people to attend this meeting,” said Jenny Sanders, executive director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, a Macon County-based group dedicated to protecting just what the name indicates. “Many residents and all of the (outside) agencies involved in this project do not support the ideas of the full-blown widening and paving project.”

There are, however, residents in the Needmore community who just as vigorously do support the transportation department’s proposal, in all its grandiosity. They have cited safety concerns and difficulty traveling to and from their homes as reasons why the road needs work.

Macon County commissioners requested a public hearing be held in their county, saying they wanted to ensure residents there had ample opportunities to weigh-in on the issue.

Ronnie Beale, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said this week the decision by transportation department officials indicated the state agency is sensitive and responsive to residents’ desires.

For being just 3.3 miles in length, the improve-or-don’t-improve Needmore Road debate has generated reams of comment.

Try 772 signatures on a petition supporting some type of paving or resurfacing. And at least 66 written comments sent in to the N.C. Department of Transportation (public comment on the issue closed last week). This on top of a two-hour public hearing which 100 or so people attended, and a smaller information session in Macon County, sponsored by an environmental group, which drew about 30.

The reason? Needmore Road cuts through the Needmore Game Lands, located in Macon and Swain counties. The 4,400-acre tract was protected after a coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved it from development after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.

What’s at stake? Whether to pave and widen this gravel section of Needmore Road to a minimum of 18 feet, with construction work on the roadway’s shoulders, as endorsed by the transportation department.

All of the major environmental and conservation groups in the region have endorsed paving, citing protections to the Little Tennessee River, which is beside the road and is the unfortunate beneficiary of dust and sedimentation. The groups have stopped well short, however, of endorsing the road widening as proposed. That would involve cutting into and removing acidic rock, which carries an inherent danger to the environment and, particularly, to the nearby river they want to protect.

Macon County commissioners have asked state transportation department officials to hold a public hearing in their county — the previous one held was in Swain.

Julia Merchant, a spokesperson for the department, said a decision on the request is in the works.

Additionally, “a post-hearing meeting is scheduled for Nov. 30 to review every comment received and (to) make a decision about what the next steps are,” she said.

More than 100 people attended last week’s public hearing on a state Department of Transportation proposal to pave and widen a 3.3-mile section of road that cuts through the Needmore Game Lands and parallels the Little Tennessee River.

The crowd included environmentalists, hunters and fishermen, residents of the Needmore community and several reporters. There were about 15 representatives of the transportation department, plus regulatory officials from other agencies.

The comments were as varied as the people attending: endorsements of the transportation department’s proposal to widen the gravel one-lane road to two lanes at a cost of $13.1 million, and questions about the overall need for such a large-scale project in an environmentally sensitive setting. About 25 people spoke publicly.

Swain County resident John Herrin spoke in support, citing economic benefits to the two counties involved, Macon and Swain.

“You are looking at an improvement that will bring a substantial value to the counties,” he said. “Both of them.”

Others, including Mike Clampitt of Toot Hollow Road in Bryson City, pointed to rescue workers’ possible need for an alternative route to N.C. 28 during emergencies as the reason they supported the transportation department’s proposal. N.C. 28 parallels Needmore Road, but on the opposite side of the Little Tennessee River. N.C. 28 is a paved, two-lane highway.

Swain County Commissioner David Monteith also talked about possible emergency-response needs, plus described an overall faith in the state’s Department of Transportation ability to make the best decision for all involved.

“I’ll support anything DOT thinks they need. They are the experts,” Monteith said.

Others, however, weren’t persuaded, or as trusting.

“This is a resource that is not replaceable,” Macon County resident Richard Kennedy said in opposition to the project.

Kennedy, a motorcycle rider himself, warned that an improved Needmore Road would attract scads of motorcyclists, and that “people will get hurt on it.”

Western North Carolina in recent years has become something of a Mecca for motorcyclists, particularly a stretch of highway along U.S. 129 known as the Tail of the Dragon in neighboring Graham County.

Cheryl Taylor, who lives along a paved section of Needmore Road, warned her fellow fourth, fifth and so on generations of Swain County-rooted residents (several cited their antecedents prior to speaking; Taylor, as it happens, is fifth generation) that “we can’t get this back” if the area is damaged.

She characterized the transportation department’s plan as “drastic” and “invasive.”

“I don’t want to see it changed,” said Taylor, who was part of a massive campaign to save the 4,400-acre Needmore tract from development about eight or so years ago. The effort, involving a coalition of groups and individuals who are often at odds, saw $19 million raised in the form of private donations and grants. Duke Power, which owned the land, had intended to sell it off for development.

Along with many of the speakers, Taylor did endorse some improvement measures. She spoke in favor of paving and widening.

Ron Allen, who lives on Wagon Wheel Drive in Swain County, like Taylor spoke in favor of a middle way — do some improvements, but compromise and not go to the lengths proposed by the transportation department.

“Significant improvements can be had for less,” Allen said.

Bill Crawford, who lives in Macon County and is a member of WNC Alliance, said the environmental group is opposed to the plan proposed by the transportation department. Other environmental groups also have come out against the plan.

There is still no word on whether the transportation department will honor a request by the Macon County Board of Commissioners. Those county leaders want a public hearing held in Macon. The one last week was held in Swain County. The crowd seemed representative of both counties when a hold-up-your-hand count was requested.

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