Associated Press - Elizabeth Dunbar
RALEIGH - The so-called "Road to Nowhere" in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park should remain a dead end, congressional members from North Carolina and Tennessee said Wednesday.
The unfinished road from Bryson City to Fontana Dam in far western North Carolina's Swain County was supposed to replace one that was flooded in the 1940s when the dam was created. While the federal government promised to replace it if Congress would provide the money, environmental concerns and high costs halted construction in 1972.
On Wednesday, Rep. Heath Shuler, a North Carolina Democrat, Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, and 15 other members of Congress from the two states called on Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to agree to a cash settlement with Swain County and end the longtime dispute over whether the road should be finished.
"The United States made a commitment to Swain County in 1943," Alexander said. "But there is no obligation to satisfy that commitment to compensation by building another road."
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1946 that officials could satisfy the commitment to Swain County in other ways.
A draft environmental impact statement by the National Park Service shows the road would cost about $600 million to complete. Swain County has requested $52 million to settle the issue, which local officials said has divided the county for a half-century.
Shuler against road
Opponents of the road found a new ally in Shuler, who defeated incumbent Rep. Charles Taylor in the November election. Taylor, a Republican, had long supported completing the road and in 2000 secured $16 million in federal money to resume construction.
"This is the first time we've had this level of support for this decision," said Don Barger, Southeast regional director of National Parks Conservation Association, who opposes completion of the road because it would cut through an undeveloped area of the park.
"This part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the wrong place for development," he said.
Shuler said Wednesday that the settlement "will maintain the undisturbed wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and save the American taxpayers millions of dollars."
Local officials agreed that a settlement would be a better deal for residents and the federal government.
"We can move on and put all this to rest and do other things for our county instead of fighting," said Glenn Jones, chairman of the Swain County Board of Commissioners.
A $52 million settlement would help improve the county's schools and public safety, though officials would save the money and use only the estimated $2.5 million in interest it would generate each year, Jones said.
"Our budget is about $9 million," he said. "It's very badly needed in our county."
Those who supported construction of the road included family members of those buried in cemeteries in the park and people who thought the road would be a great way to attract park visitors, said Bob Miller, spokesman for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
On designated days each year, park officials take about 1,200 people across Fontana Lake by boat to visit the 26 cemeteries in that part of the park, Miller said.
"We would continue that regardless of the decision that's made on the road," he said.
The letter to Kempthorne asks that the Environmental Impact Statement endorse a cash settlement within 90 days and asks the Interior Department to support legislation that would transfer remaining money approved for the study to the settlement.
Kempthorne has been briefed on the issue and will likely respond to the members of Congress within a couple of weeks, said National Park Service spokeswoman Kathy Kupper. The department has received more than 75,000 comments on the draft environmental impact statement, she said.