Knoxville News Sentinel Editorial: Smokies road saga coming to an end

Posted on February 5, 2010

The long-standing saga over the North Shore Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is expected to end this morning with a vote of the Swain County, N.C., Board of Commissioners.

Leonard Winchester, chair of Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County, said he anticipates approval by the board. Federal officials also are counting on approval, with a signing ceremony to be held in the town square in Bryson City on Saturday morning. At the ceremony will be U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, whose district includes Swain County, the county's Board of Commissioners and other North Carolina officials.

The federal government will pay Swain County $52 million over the next 10 years to settle the dispute that dates to 1943 when the Tennessee Valley Authority completed Fontana Dam.

Shuler, a Democrat, helped broker the deal. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, also supported a settlement, as did other members of the North Carolina and Tennessee congressional delegations.

The National Park Service promised to build a road into an area that became isolated by water when the dam was completed. However, rising construction costs and environmental concerns brought construction of the road to a halt in 1972.

The park service provides transportation to those who visit and tend the cemeteries in the area cut off by the dam. Dale Ditmanson, superintendent of the park, said in a recent News Sentinel guest column that park employees will continue to provide transportation to annual cemetery "decoration days" and continue to tell the story of those who inhabited the area through exhibits and programs.

Observers such as Shuler, Winchester and Don Barger of the National Parks Conservation Association are right to regard the settlement as a historic occasion. "This is huge in the history of this park," Barger said.

The settlement has been years in the making. The park service in May 2007 recommended that the 30-mile road not be completed and issued its "record of decision" in favor of a monetary settlement in January 2008.

Construction to finish the road could have cost more than $600 million, making Swain County's $52 million to settle the issue a bargain.

A recent tentative agreement had provided $4 million to the county, with an additional $8.8 million when the settlement is signed. The remainder of the money will be paid in 10 annual installments. The money will go into a trust fund with the North Carolina state treasurer, and Swain County will be able to draw on the interest.

Shuler said the settlement "will bring much-needed resources to Swain County for decades to come." Specifically, the money is expected to help the county pay for improvements to its schools and to attract good jobs.

Shuler drew a lot of deserved praise for his efforts. Alexander also deserves thanks for his role in the Senate.

The fabled Road to Nowhere is really going nowhere after all these years, and most people are quite happy with that outcome.