The long fight over whether to build a road along the north shore of Fontana Lake in Western North Carolina ended recently with a multimillion dollar cash settlement that will stop the road forever. That decision pleases some people and infuriates others. Among those who are pleased is L.D. “Luke” Hyde ’63 of Bryson City and Raleigh. Hyde earned both a prestigious award from the National Parks Conservation Association for his help in organizing a broad coalition in favor of the cash and the anger of former friends and neighbors who favor the road. It’s been that kind of a bitter battle for nearly 70 years. The animosity saddens Hyde, but he says, “It had become impossible for the road ever to be built. The cash settlement will benefit opponents and proponents alike, if it is used wisely.”
Hyde and his older brother Herbert Hyde ’51, both attorneys and both natives of Swain County, once favored building the long-awaited north shore road, promised by the federal government in 1943. That’s when a 44,000-acre chunk of Swain County was taken to build Fontana Dam on the Little Tennessee River to generate hydroelectric power for the war effort. The rising waters of Fontana Lake flooded several small communities and covered the only access road into what would become an isolated section of the newly created Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Forced to move, more than 200 displaced families expected the government to follow through on its wartime pledge to build a road they could use to reach abandoned homesites and family cemeteries. Instead, the government delayed, protected by a clause in the 1943 agreement that said the road would have to wait until Congress could find enough money for construction. It never did.
After years of wrangling on various issues that reached the Supreme Court, a 9-mile stretch of road with a short tunnel was built near the eastern tip of Fontana Lake in 1968. And there it stopped. That two-lane segment, which became known as “the Road to Nowhere,” was enough to keep alive the hopes of road supporters. It also fueled fierce resistance among road opponents, an outspoken mix of local, state and national conservationists who feared further road-building would cause disastrous damage to an area of the Great Smokies.
As environmental concerns increased, so did estimates of construction costs, which eventually reached more than $750 million to complete about 30 miles of pavement inside the park. In the meantime, a noncontroversial road had been built along the south shore of the lake in Swain County. “All of those factors convinced me that the Road to Nowhere had reached a dead end and that the county would be better served by compensation in cash from the government,” Luke Hyde said. He, longtime road historian Claude Douthit and others formed the Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County to fight for the settlement.
It took several more years for all of the pieces to come together. A series of public hearings, which kept the controversy alive, also led to a 525-page study detailing the likelihood of massive environmental damage and minimal economic benefit from road construction. Those study results helped Hyde and the citizens group in their discussions with officials who would shape the new agreement. Backed by parks enthusiasts and conservationists across the country, and with strong bipartisan support from U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), they succeeded in hammering out a contract, signed in February 2010, for a settlement of $52 million in lieu of the much-disputed road. Under the new agreement, the federal government paid $12.8 million immediately and promised to pay $4 million each year for the next 10 years. Payments are held in trust by North Carolina, with Swain County receiving interest on the principal as it grows.
“While there’s no certainty that there will be enough money in the federal budget to make annual payments for the next decade, the strongest possible contract was signed with county, state and federal officials,” Luke Hyde said. “This time, there is no escape clause. All of the signatories recognize an obligation to honor the contract. And we’ll be working with them to be sure they do.”
For his work on resolving the Road to Nowhere issue, Hyde received the National Parks Conservation Association’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas Award at its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in April. The award, named for a prominent 20th-century environmentalist and writer, is presented annually to an individual or organization whose on-the-ground community work helps to enhance and protect national parks, said Thomas C. Kiernan, NPCA president. “Luke’s tireless efforts to find an appropriate solution to the north shore road proposal at Great Smoky Mountains have earned him this year’s recognition,” Kiernan said.
Leila Tvedt, former associate vice chancellor for public relations at Western Carolina University and L.D. Hyde’s spouse, contributed to this article.