Knoxville News Sentinel - Richard Powelson
Tennessee and North Carolina members of Congress united Wednesday in a strong effort to end 60 years of debate over whether to build a road in an environmentally sensitive area along Fontana Lake in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The proposal, presented in a letter to the Interior Department, suggests a final decision within 90 days not to build the road on the North Carolina side of the park and use the $6 million left over from a long federal study as a down payment to Swain County, N.C. The department and National Park Service, under direction from Congress in 2000, have spent years and $9 million on environmental assessments ranging from no road to $590 million for an asphalt road.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., spearheaded the letter signed by 17 House and Senate members of the two states. It's the strongest show of unity on the issue in decades, longtime staffers said.
The road was promised in 1943 to replace one flooded by the formation of Fontana Dam and Lake. About seven miles was built before ending work in 1972 over environmental concerns.
For the past 16 years, then-Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., strongly favored completing the road and secured $16 million in Congress to resume construction. That money in 2000 began a long environmental study that continues. Shuler defeated Taylor in November.
Swain County in recent years, because of many delays in construction, has voted, through its county commission, to accept $52 million to settle the matter.
Alexander and Shuler said the road would harm the environment in a very rugged, pristine and remote area of the national park and would be much too expensive.
Alexander has opposed the road since 1985, when he was governor and testifying before a Senate committee about it. Shuler won his election in November in part by strongly opposing the road and favoring the Swain settlement.
Shuler said he grew up in Swain County a mile from what locals called the "Road to Nowhere."
"This letter asks for a reasonable settlement which will maintain the undisturbed wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and save the American taxpayers millions of dollars," Shuler said.
While 17 members signed the letter, three prominent names were missing: Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Tennessee Republicans John Duncan Jr. of Knoxville and Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood.
Duncan can support a financial settlement, he said in a separate statement. Blackburn is not getting involved in the North Carolina matter, her staff said.
Burr issued a written statement saying he does not want to stop any Interior Department study prematurely. He noted division in the local community over whether to build the road or seek a settlement.
Smokies spokesman Bob Miller said it may take 4-6 months longer to complete the environmental study, which may run the thickness of five volumes of the Washington, D.C., phone book.
Miller said the study should be completed, after spending $9 million on it, to spell out "for the following reasons this should be the outcome" - whatever outcome is later endorsed.
Don Barger, a spokesman for the National Parks Conservation Association, said the 17-member letter "is outstanding. Hopefully this will give us some momentum and give the Park Service the sense that there is a critical mass of political support out there for this decision" for a financial settlement rather than completing the road.