What happens when you finally get to the end of the rainbow and there’s no gold in the pot? Perusing the Smoky Mountain News the other day, I ran across Becky Johnson’s piece about the $52 million dollar cash settlement, an agreement supposedly signed, sealed and delivered in 2010 that would pay Swain County $52 million in lieu of a 1943 agreement promising Swain a North Shore Road along the northern shore of Fontana Lake – see: http://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/9657-hope-on-the-horizon-hung-up-by-park-service-swain%E2%80%99s-cash-settlement-has-been-in-limbo

Now, for Western Carolinians, natives and/or transplants who have been here for the last 10 – 15 years or longer I’m sure there is no need to explain the “North Shore Road – Road to Nowhere” saga. If there are readers who are totally unfamiliar with the Road to Nowhere issue, I’m sorry but I don’t have the space here for the 42,000 words it would take to bring you up to speed. Just Google any or all of – North Shore Road – Road to Nowhere – Cash Settlement – and stand back and watch your Pentium processor smoke.

The CliffNotes are:

  • In the early 1940s the Federal Government decided to create Fontana Dam to supply the needed power to kick the Nazis’ butts.
  • By eminent domain, they removed thousands of Swain County citizen’s whose lands would be flooded by Fontana Lake.
  • In a 1943 agreement the Federal Government promised Swain County and her displaced residents that they would build a “North Shore Road.”
  • Never shirking their promises, the feds (state of North Carolina anted up a little) in the early 1970s built about seven miles of road and stopped due to environmental concerns.
  • A row ensued between proponents of the road (mostly Swain County residents and opponents (mainly environmental groups with some big players like Sierra Club.)
  • 1970s to 2000 – there seemed to be a kind of standoff and not a lot of movement on either side of the issue.
  • In 2000 Rep. Charles Taylor (whose district included Swain County) dropped a $16-million bomb calling for an EIS to start the ball rolling on the North Shore Road.
  • Somewhere in the timeframe of Taylor’s bomb and the EIS prepared by the National Park Service (2006) a grassroots group – Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County materialized – asking for a monetary settlement from the government in lieu of the North Shore Road.
  • In 2006, Bryson City native, Heath Shuler deposed Taylor – part of his platform was seeking a buyout for the Road to Nowhere.
  • 2010 – Shuler prevailed and a deal (seemingly) was struck with the feds, whereby they would pay Swain County $52 million to settle the Road to Nowhere controversy.
  • Swain received the $12.8 in 2010 – but since then – nada.

And that brings us to Johnson’s article that states, “Last year, $4 million was embedded in the National Park Service budget to go toward the cash settlement. But the National Park Service (NPS) has been sitting on the money, claiming it was unclear whether it had the authority to turn it over.” The article goes on to point out that the Government Accounting Office is on record as saying “…the park service doesn’t have to turn over the $4 million. But it can if it wants to.” Is that how “flip-flop” and “government-speak” became synonymous?

The aspect of the article that really drew me in was the fact that the North Carolina Chapter of the Wilderness Society and the National Parks Conservation Association has jumped on the Swain County bandwagon, demanding the federal government uphold their end of the bargain. To me, this epitomizes what a conservation/environmental organization is. These two groups opposed the North Shore Road, and encouraged a cash settlement. Through them and copious other regional and national conservation groups – the federal government received hundreds of thousands of emails in favor of a cash settlement. The cash settlement has been approved but the Feds seem complacent. I think that each and every one of those local, regional and national environmental/conservation groups that petitioned the government on behalf of a cash settlement for Swain County should resuscitate those chain emails and phone trees and put the same level of pressure on the Feds to fulfill their promise – there’s room on the bandwagon.