The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Conservation group urges feds to tread lightly on Foothills Parkway extension

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Conservation group weighs in on parkway proposals: NPCA urges full Environmental Impact Statement amid threat to Southern Appalachian habitats

 (An unedited version of this story was published in error. This is the final version.)

Proposed construction of an unfinished section of Foothills Parkway from Wears Valley to the Gatlinburg Spur would traverse 9.8 miles of natural beauty that is home to multiple protected species.

The project dates to 1944, when Congress mandated construction of a scenic 72-mile, slow-paced highway featuring panoramic views to run from Cocke County west to the Little Tennessee River. The parkway is complete from Tallassee, Tennessee to Wears Valley west of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Plans call for the Foothills Parkway to skirt the entire Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from one end to the other, as previously reported by Hellbender Press.

The National Park Service (NPS) encourages public input and is reading comments received during a recent public comment period that ended Oct. 31. The park service will announce a new round of public comments  this spring after publishing an initial draft of the project’s scope.

The National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit supporter and monitor of national parks across the country, has already stated its concerns about the proposed highway, which park service officials acknowledge hasn’t even been funded yet. Chief among its problems with the project is the lack of an Environmental Impact Statement.

“NPCA has been engaged on issues related to the Foothills Parkway since the 1990s. We are concerned that the National Park Service has not conducted a full Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for these proposed projects,” NPCA Senior Program Manager Jeffrey Hunter said in comments collected earlier this year regarding the project.

“The significant impacts of some of the proposed alternatives in the planning document demand further study and analysis before proceeding. Such further study would be best accomplished by a full EIS. Furthermore, these projects should not be looked at together outside the context of a full EIS,” Hunter wrote. The conservation organization also cited concerns about air and water quality, loss of mature forest and the diminishment of natural resources such as the Walker Sisters cabin near Metcalf Bottoms.

The project is a conceptualization from the early 1940s to relieve anticipated traffic on the Tennessee side of the park, which became an extended seven-decade affair. A short section of parkway between I-40 and Highway 321 near Cosby, at the eastern end, and a 33-mile stretch between Wears Valley and the Little Tennessee River at the western end, are finished.

Completion of 9.8-mile section 8D of the parkway would fill a major missing link to the only unfinished, congressionally mandated parkway left in the United States. The most likely route, depending on the outcome of environmental studies, will be to climb the north slope of Cove Mountain and then run along the long, narrow ridge of the mountain to Gatlinburg.

If approved, the challenge would be to construct the new section while limiting environmental damage associated with roads built through diverse natural habitats.

One thing that won’t be a problem is acquiring private land. All easements and right-of-ways are in place, including a 1,000-foot-wide protected corridor, said Great Smoky Mountains National Park spokeswoman Dana Soehn.

Depending on the chosen route, there may be the need to blast one 1,000–foot tunnel through Crooked Arm Ridge. Safeguards will be in place to dispose of any environmentally dangerous pyritic rock exposed during tunnel construction.

Technical studies of water resources, karst topography, wildlife, vegetation, protected species, cultural resources, soundscapes, viewsheds and socioeconomics are currently under way. These studies are required by both the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).

If history repeats itself, depending on the study results and potential discovery of endangered or threatened species within the highway footprint, the situation could be similar to what happened 40 years ago on the Little Tennessee River far downstream from the park in Loudon County. During environmental assays for Tellico Dam on the Little T, scientists found the snail darter, a 3.5-inch fish on the Endangered Species List living in the river and its tributaries.

The diminutive fish fish halted construction of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dam because it was determined that building the dam would impact the critical habitat necessary for the snail darter’s survival. Eventually, the United States Supreme Court ruled construction of Tellico Dam would violate the Endangered Species Act.

The dam was completed after TVA led a successful initiative, with help from the environmental community, to transplant the snail darter to improved habitats in the Tennessee River watershed where it not only survived, but multiplied and thrived.

One option still on the table is to do not follow through with construction of the parkway extension, and a couple of things could derail the parkway extension.

Construction of the North Carolina side of the Foothills Parkway, originally designed to circumnavigate the park, was halted after nine miles because of environmental and cultural impacts and funding issues.        

And if a similar event like the discovery of the snail darter happens, that could also stop the road. Soehn said the park is unaware of any endangered or sensitive species communities except for Indiana and long-eared bats known to inhabit the area. 

If endangered or sensitive species are discovered during the studies, and mitigation methods can’t be employed, construction would be in violation of the Endangered Species Act and won’t occur.

Soehn said predicting a timeline to complete section 8D, Soehn said offering any timeline or prediction to complete section 8D would be “purely speculative at this point. A lot has to happen between now and then.”

Once the proposal is finalized, and the proposal meets environmental compliance, “NPS can then compete for funding,” Soehn said, “Just because the parkway is mandated doesn’t mean its funded.”

The park service will next  public comments from the civic engagement period that ended Oct. 31 and qualifying the environmental and socioeconomic studies to inform both the suggested route and viable alternatives.

Another public comment period comes spring 2022. By late spring NPS will prepare a required environmental assessment in draft form. Summer 2022 brings release of, and public comment about, the final environmental assessment. The park service will then make its decision whether to proceed with construction of missing link 8D, and if so, the route.

Tied to this project is a similar action to build a new, safer road in Sevier County over Cove Mountain from Wears Valley to Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area in the park, opening a new primary entrance.

NPS considers “like projects” if both have similar geography, timing and purpose, yet, if not joined, could proceed on their own.

Preliminary plans call for the new road to Metcalf Bottoms to exit the parkway within the first mile of section 8D between Wears Valley and Gatlinburg.

At the picnic area a new bridge will be built next to the existing one-lane bridge over the Little River and the road realigned to eliminate the 90-degree turn required to cross. This will be done to accommodate oversize vehicles to eliminate reported problems between motorists. Pedestrians would then use the old bridge to cross the Little River in the Little River Gorge.

Hunter also expressed NPCA concerns with this project, urging the park service to disregard any notion of connecting a new parkway section to Metcalf Bottoms and Little River Gorge Road through the park. Hunter argued instead for improvements to Wear Cove Road while keeping the ecological importance of Little River in mind.

“These alternatives (2, 3 and 4) would destroy intact mature cove forest and habitat for important plants such as pink lady slippers, flame azalea and mountain laurel, along with critical wildlife habitat for many species, including black bears.

“Additionally, the alignment associated with these proposed alternatives could have a deleterious impact on historic structures including the Walker Sisters Cabin and the Little Greenbriar School. The visitor experience at these sites could also be impacted negatively by sound and congestion caused by motorized traffic, thereby losing the sense of remoteness and quiet that provide a historic sense of the place as it was for the early inhabitants of the area.”

NPS said any construction will preserve existing trailheads along both of the new roads.  

Attached to the project description is $35 million in ancillary funding for improvements to the existing parkway between Highway 321 near Walland and the Little Tennessee River.

Hellbender Press reported on the proposed Foothills Parkway improvements earlier this year.

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