It’s a day many didn’t think they’d ever live to see, but last Saturday, Swain County, North Carolina leaders were presented a check for $35.2 million for the North Shore Road settlement, ending a 70-year-old battle with the federal government and the National Park Service. Ironically, much embattled U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is the guy on the white horse who saw to it that the feds finally made good on the Road to Nowhere debacle.
Zinke along with U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-NC, U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Asheville, State Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, and state Reps. Kevin Corbin, R-Franklin, and Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, made the trip to Bryson City to present the check at the Swain County Heritage Museum.
Until now the North Shore Road issue has been a hot-button item for the community that for decades its commissioners tried to get the federal government to live up to its first agreement with Swain County, which was to rebuild the road that was flooded during World War II in order to build Fontana Dam.
Failure to rebuild the Road to Nowhere that halted at Noland Creek led to a lot of resentment from Swain County residents as they have not been able to access their family homesteads and cemeteries that their ancestors were forced to abandon for the war effort. Many residents wanted the commissioners to hold out for the road to be rebuilt as promised, but most knew that the cost-prohibitive and environmentally controversial project just was not going to happen.
Swain County and the U.S. Department of Interior finalized another agreement in 2010 that would provide $52 million cash settlement to the county to be paid out in annual installments until 2020. While the county received its first installment of $12.8 million in 2010, it didn’t see another dime of the money until last year.
The money got caught up in Washington, D.C., every year — either it wouldn’t get budgeted at all or it would get budgeted to the National Park Service but wouldn’t get released to the county (imagine that??).
It’s an issue every Western North Carolina congressman has worked on in the last several decades, starting with the conservative hero of mine, Jesse Helms. In the more recent years, the group included former Congressman Heath Shuler (former quarterback for the University of Tennessee and a Bryson City native) who was also present Saturday. When Shuler left office, Rep. Meadows carried the torch.
“This was the last thing Heath Shuler worked on when he left office and it was the first thing I did when I was elected,” Meadows said. “We testified before Congress from different parties to support an issue that should have been done a long time ago.”
It wasn’t until Zinke was appointed to Secretary of the Interior under the Trump Administration that the issue started to once again get traction in Washington. Zinke has been demonized by many in the fly fishing community, much the same as was James Watt, Secretary for the Interior under President Reagan. Press treatment of both officials is shameful.
Swain County commissioners had already put pressure on the federal government to pay out the settlement by the 2020 deadline by filing a lawsuit against the Department of Interior back in April 2016. The county spent about $100,000 in litigation costs only for the breach of contract lawsuit to be dismissed in May 2017, but it did seem to get the ball rolling again.
In September 2017, Swain County received a $4 million payment and in February 2018, President Trump had included the remaining settlement funds in his budget proposal. Even then, officials and residents were hesitant to believe the funds would make it into the final budget.
“What an emotional moment for us here in Swain County,” Mike Clampitt said. “It’s been a long and arduous road to get here today.”
Clampitt choked up as he started to talk about former Swain County Commissioner David Monteith, who was an adamant proponent of getting the road rebuilt and later fought tooth and nail to get the government to pay out the settlement funds. It was Monteith’s number one priority during his 20 years in office, but he passed away in March 2017 before being able to see the conclusion of his hard work.
“David was a road builder believer, I know he’s smiling on us today and blessed us with this good weather,” Clampitt said.
Zinke assured the crowd gathered at the museum that they were being well-represented in Washington, D.C., by their congressmen and President Trump. Originally from Whitefish, Montana, he said he understood the frustration people in rural America were feeling.
“There’s a lot of anger about the government not following through,” Zinke said. “But this is our government. The government only exists if our people trust we’re going to do the right thing.”
With the North Shore Road settlement behind them, Zinke said Swain County can now focus on the future and other important goals — perhaps a new campground at the end of the infamous Road to Nowhere.