Press Release | August 20, 2008

Multi-million dollar highway through Nantahala National Forest is unnecessary and environmentally damaging

Conservation groups today condemned the findings of a recent environmental study by the North Carolina Department of Transportation that a 10-mile section of the proposed Corridor K highway would have little environmental impact. The four-lane highway would run from Stecoah to Robbinsville in Graham County, cutting through a portion of the Nantahala National Forest. The groups say the project is exorbitantly expensive, would pose a threat to local water quality, wildlife habitat and other natural resources, and would not be the boon to economic development it was conceived to be 40 years ago.

The highway, projected to cost $378 million, would cut a 2,870 foot tunnel under the Snowbird Mountains and require excavation of 3 million cubic yards of rock. Furthermore, studies conducted by DOT show that for most hours of the day, driving the new road would make no difference in travel times compared to existing routes, which with modest improvements are projected by the NCDOT to have acceptable levels of traffic for 20 years or more.

“The financial cost and environmental impact of this project cannot be justified in light of its meager transportation benefit,” said DJ Gerken, Senior Attorney in the Asheville office of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “With a construction cost of more than $38 million per mile, the agency’s refusal to consider cost-effective improvements to existing routes instead of this new construction is a major problem we will be calling on them to reconsider.”

The NCDOT has not yet released specific dates and deadlines for a public comment period on the draft environmental impact study.

The project is part of a road network planned by the Appalachian Regional Commission in the 1960s to boost the economies of the Appalachian states. In the 40 years since this project was conceived, nearby highways have been improved significantly and the new construction is not needed.

“Like a lot of the communities in this area, Graham County has adopted economic development plans that focus on increasing heritage tourism, not the kind of heavy industry that looks for a four-lane highway,” said Bob Grove, a member of the Western North Carolina Alliance.

Conservation groups have expressed concern over the environmental impacts the project would have on the health of nearby streams as well as wildlife habitat, forests and rare species in the region. Road construction is projected by NCDOT to bury 5,400 feet of mountain stream resulting in increases in siltation and other pollutants in these waters.

“The Stecoah and Cheoah Bald areas are environmental treasures, and we are deeply concerned about the impact road construction will have on the exceptional mountain streams, wildlife and pristine forest habitat here,” said Hugh Irwin, Programs Director for the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition. The area is home to rare species and an exceptionally large forested mountain habitat tract.

In addition to extensive environmental impacts, the draft study reveals that 35 families would be displaced and others would face a “high probability” that their well water supplies would decrease as a result of the project.

“We are disappointed that the ARC isn’t giving more consideration to positive alternatives, like devoting the $378 million this project would cost to economic development programs in Graham County,” said Holly Demuth, Executive Director of the Stop I-3 Coalition. “Instead of building a redundant and environmentally destructive road, the ARC could spend the $42,000 per Graham County citizen on more effective economic development projects.”

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About the organizations:

The Stop I-3 Coalition is a grassroots nonprofit organization that preserves and protects the unique heritage and environment of Southern Appalachia and nearby Piedmont communities by promoting sustainable transportation practices.

The mission of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition is to protect and restore the wildlands, waters, native forests and ecosystems of the Southern Appalachian landscape.

The Western North Carolina Alliance is a non-profit organization with the primary goals of protecting and preserving the natural environment of Western North Carolina.

The Southern Environmental Law Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that uses the power of the law to protect forest land, wetlands, water and air quality, rural landscapes, coastal resources wildlife habitat and special places throughout the Southeast.

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