The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Conservation group urges feds to tread lightly on Foothills Parkway extension

Written by

 foothills map

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.

Rate this item
(3 votes)
Published in News

Related items

  • Report Card for U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge Operations: Failing grades in stakeholder engagement and environmental decision making
    EMDFlocation
     

    Editor’s note: As reported in Hellbender Press, the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management (OREM) was reprimanded by the Southern Environmental Law Center for neglecting its duty to follow guidelines and proper procedures mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Of immediate concern was OREM’s pretext and information — or specifically lack of pertinent information — released ahead of the public meeting on May 17, 2022 about its project for a new “Environmental Management Disposal Facility” (EMDF).

    With regard to NEPA compliance, Oak Ridge Operations has been the black sheep in DOE’s stable because it never prepared the required site-wide environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Oak Ridge Reservation (ORR). At said public meeting, Virginia Dale, Corporate Fellow Emeritus of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, commented on another tangent of shortcomings — not spelled out by Federal law — but matters of common sense, competent decision making and good community spirit.


     

    Public comments by Dr. Dale

    My name is Virginia Dale. My family roots in Tennessee go back to 1798. I’ve lived in Oak Ridge more than 3 decades. I have a PhD in environmental sciences and my comments come from my perspective as a citizen, scientist, and most importantly a grandmother who wants all of our children to live in a safe environment.

    It is absolutely necessary that the contaminated legacy buildings on the Oak Ridge Reservation be cleaned up.

    My concern is that the clean up occurs in a proper and timely fashion.

    I am a co-principal investigator on a project supported by the National Science Foundation to identify best practices for stakeholder engagement in environmental decision making. Since our team has learned that appropriate engagement results in better decision making, I evaluated how well those 6 best practices apply to DOE’s decisions regarding the EMDF.

    1. The full diversity of interested stakeholders be identified and engaged — DOE:  C

      1. I know of no effort to specifically engage either the people who live in west Oak Ridge nor those in Lenoir City, who are closest to Bear Creek and the streams into which it flows and who are most likely to access and even fish in the contaminated waters. Many of those people are Hispanic and primarily speak Spanish; yet none of the posted signs are in Spanish.
      2. I was so glad to see the Fact Sheets in Spanish
      3. However, EPA has made a specific effort to reach out to the community in Scarboro, which has been discriminated against in the past, but that community is not at high risk with the proposed landfill.
    2. The values of the ecosystem should be identified for all stakeholders — DOE:  F

      1. I am not aware of any effort to document who uses the contaminated waters of Bear Creek or Poplar Creek into which it flows, or how they use it.
      2. The use of an established forest for the site does not consider its value as a habitat for many organisms even though the ORR has diversity on a per area basis that is similar to the Smokies.
        1. The proposed new landfill site is in an area of the ORR that the OREM End Use Working Group designated to be kept uncontaminated, while other areas were stipulated to be permanently sacrificed to contamination.
        2. This site has shallow and upwelling groundwater (hydrology unsuitable for waste disposal), is in a watershed that has been relatively unaffected by past federal nuclear activities, and supports mature forest and wetlands.
    3. Listening deeply takes time and attention — DOE: F

      1. Careful listen requires answering all questions, making sure the nuances are understood, and using communication tools appropriate for the audience.
      2. Questions asked 4 years ago have still not been answered.
    4. Trust should be established, which requires upfront transparency as to timeframe, process, and results as well as the costs and benefits of potential outcomes — DOE: F

      1. The video “20 years of success” is misleading because
        1. The site filled up too fast
        2. Spills occurred
          1. The landfill has had a series of overflow events that basically dumped untreated effluent into Bear Creek.
          2. That overflow water averaged more than double allowed concentration of uranium in drinking water.
      2. Although DOE has been asked, they have not provided
        1. Costs of off-site transport vs onsite storage — nor the number of employees and type of jobs engaged in each alternative. I expect that offsite transport would require more analysts to document the material while the on-site option would require more truck drivers.
        2. Waste acceptance criteria have never been provided (the Fact Sheet on Waste Acceptance Criteria says what will not be included — not what will be or what the criteria are for acceptance). The Waste Acceptance Compliance Plan is still in development.
      3. While a field demonstration has been proposed, it seems that some aspect of this demo could have been started in the time since 2018 when questions were formally asked.
      4. DOE’s “Site Groundwater Characterization” fact sheet figure on page 2 is highly misleading, for it does not show the waste (of 75') to scale with the rest of the layers (which total 26').
    5. Being flexible requires that as new information becomes available that changes are made in the analysis and process — DOE: F

      1. Even with record rainfall in the intervening 4 years since the last review, no new analyses have been provided that assess how the landfill will operate under increased rain.
    6. Accountability by all parties is necessary. This means that all question or concerns be addressed in a timely fashion — DOE: F

      1. Data, models and their assumptions should be made available.
      2. Questions should be answered — yet queries raised 4 years ago have never been addressed.

    Overall DOE get a D- in effective engagement of the community. While effective stakeholder engagement is a time-consuming and ongoing process, the total time and effort involved is reduced with early communication and clear engagement. Furthermore, better decisions are made if good practices for engagement in decision making are followed.

    So I ask DOE once again, please provide information on

    • The basis for choosing the site
    • The Waste acceptance criteria details
    • All models and their assumptions
    • Model projections of landfill conditions under increased rain
    • Costs of off-site vs on-site long-term storage of toxic wastes

    Finally (and most importantly, I ask that a plan for complete clean up of the ORR be provided (as required by law) instead of providing information piece by piece. Only by taking a holistic look at hazardous waste disposal can the public have confidence that DOE will fulfill its obligation to clean up the Oak Ridge Reservation.

    Thank you!


     

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency censured DOE in a 50-page document for large numbers of omissions, ambiguities, mistakes and non-compliance with terms of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) in its EMDF Draft Record of Decision.

    The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), likewise, had much to fault in DOE’s plan. TDEC doubts that the plan can satisfy the requirements of the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act and of Tennessee’s water quality antidegradation rules, particularly with regard to preventing further mercury pollution.

    Knox News summarized the troubled history of the controversial project in advance of the public meeting: Manhattan Project radiation lingers in Oak Ridge. Critics want more info on a new landfill.

  • National Park Service pedals toward construction of mountain-bike trails and concessions in Wears Cove
    in News

    Foothills parkwayNational Park Service via WBIR

    Feds and boosters have considered trail network since completion of the “Missing Link”

    WEARS VALLEY The National Park Service moved this week into the latest public-input phase regarding proposed construction of a Smokies-area mountain-biking destination on federal land near the current terminus of a recently completed section of Foothills Parkway that runs from Walland to Wears Valley.

    The plan calls for miles of single-track mountain bike trails of varying skill levels and vendors catering to bicyclists. Park service documents indicate a rest station with picnic facilities, bathrooms and bicycle rental and repair facilities sited in Wears Cove southeast of the parkway terminus at Wears Cove. The parcel is already part of a federal easement for another extension of the parkway that would connect with the Gatlinburg Spur. 

    “The Wears Valley portion of the Foothills Parkway could provide visitors new opportunities to experience the Park through mountain biking because it is within the Park’s general development zone and transportation management zone and is not managed as wilderness,” according to park service documents.

  • Feds reopen plans for long-delayed 9-mile Foothills Parkway segment from Wears Valley to Gatlinburg near Great Smoky Mountains National Park
    in News

    foothills map

    Plans for new parkway segment were hatched long ago; project would also include improvements to Wears Valley park entrance

    Just a few years after the “Missing Link” of the Foothills Parkway was finally finished following decades-long delays, the National Park Service now has its sights set on constructing a new 10-mile section of parkway on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park that would extend from Wears Valley to the heavily traveled Gatlinburg Spur.

    The leg of the roadway has long been included in a plan for full completion of the parkway. About 30 miles have been completed from Tallassee, Tennessee to Wears Valley. This section would extend from the current parkway terminus in Wears Valley to the Gatlinburg Spur near Pigeon Forge.

    Park officials said in a press release announcing the opening of the project’s public comment period that the unfinished section is the only stretch of incomplete, congressionally approved roadway in the U.S.