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Road To Nowhere

Mountain families clash with environmentalists in a conflict without villains — except the federal government

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The hike was billed as a four-mile "walk" through part of the Smoky Mountains. But that estimate came from David Monteith, a commissioner in Swain County, N.C., and, more to the point, an activist whose cause rises to the level of fierce obsession. Likable and loquacious, Monteith shrugs off obstacles in minimalist terms, and describes benefits with sanctifying embellishment.

My Global Positioning System, which clearly had a better grasp of reality than Monteith, told me that by the end of the day, I'd trekked eight-and-a-half miles. All of it was in two directions: Up and down. By the denouement, "down" was proving more deadly — especially to my knees — than the merely fatigue-inducing "up."

But, hey, I made it.

Monteith led a group of about 20 to the North Shore of Lake Fontana, a 10,000-acre reservoir along the southern border of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

A very spry Hugh Jenkins, at 85, was by far the oldest of the explorers. Early on a hug-yourself-and-stamp-your-feet-it's-so-cool May morning, as we waited for a pontoon boat to carry us across Lake Fontana, Jenkins told his story. In his modest parable was the kernel of a dispute that has heated tempers among ornery western North Carolinians for 62 years.

It's a conflict where both sides are right, each in their own way, and no one is a villain — except the federal government, but that goes without saying. On the one side are salt-of-the-earth mountain people who feel their history has been ripped from them. Their opponents are environmentalists, worthy tree-huggers who want to preserve an irreplaceable treasure.

"I joined up with the Army in '40," Jenkins told me. He spoke in mountain twang, the beguiling accent that, to my Miami-bred ears, resembles a soft brogue with a liberal dash of Tabasco. "Street" translates as "strait," "over here" as "o-hee-yah."

Jenkins was the only one of the hikers with enough sense to wear a cap with earflaps. I was envious. "I ended up in New Guinea," he said. "When I came home ..." He shook his head, and his son, Jim, picked up the slack:

"Our family is from all around here. Jenkins is a well-known name." Later that day, we'd cross a path marked as the "Jenkins Ridge Trail." Jim would tell me, "Yep, our kinfolk."

"Everything was gone," Hugh resumed. "It had all changed when I came home from the war."

The instrument of change was the Fontana Dam, 480 feet of steel and concrete spanning the Little Tennessee River. Two days before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. House approved funding for the dam, and two days after the Japanese attack, the Senate concurred. Construction began in 1942, and finished two years later.

At the time, the Tennessee Valley Authority was hungry for power — the electric variety. Massive generation from a chain of dams was needed for aluminum smelters in Tennessee. The power made the aluminum and the aluminum made the planes and the planes helped make the victory over the Japs and Nazis.

There were even more important reasons, the top-secret kind, for the dams. One of our companions, Earl Kirkland — another name that dots the local landscape — lowered his voice and said, "They needed the power for the atomic bomb at Oak Ridge."

Kirkland waved towards the lake. "Boys like Mr. Jenkins here went to war, and when they came home, they found this. They had no home."

Jenkins actually grew up outside the flood zone, in Whittier. But many of his family lived in hamlets now long gone — either washed away or rendered nearly inaccessible — because of the lake. "I didn't know they were going to flood all of this. I came home, and all of the towns and homes I'd remembered from when I was a boy were gone."

Monteith said people settled with the government for as little as $7 an acre for their land. Some lucky families got $20 an acre. Nothing for houses or other structures.

"These people gave up everything they had for the war effort," Monteith said. "The government told people, 'We're going to build a bomb to end the war, but we'll build you a road so you can get back to your land.' They haven't kept their word. It's a contract we had with the federal government. A contract."

That "we" is not exactly correct. None of the activists has legal standing in the dispute over the road. The parties to a 1943 agreement were the TVA, the U.S. Interior Department, Swain County and North Carolina. That deal called for building a new road, part of the Interior Department's "Around the Park" project. From Bryson City at the eastern end of the lake, the road's projected path winds through the North Shore and west to the dam.

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