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March 2013

Lost in the Wilderness

The battle to reclaim a piece of Appalachian history reveals
a deeper war over what’s worth preserving.


Reaching Michael Hoyle's final resting place is no easy matter. Each summer, a handful of his descendants gathers at a gravel boat launch in a quiet corner of western North Carolina for the one chance they have each year to pay their respects. A chartered tour boat takes them across Fontana Lake to the mouth of Forney Creek in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where a sport utility vehicle waits to drive them to the base of the final stage of their pilgrimage, a thirty-minute uphill scramble to the ridge that hosts the Hoyle family cemetery.

Hoyle’s great-great-great-great-grandson, fourteen-year-old Daniel, calls it “a nice day in the woods.” Daniel’s sixty-eight-year-old grandmother, Joann, on the other hand, jokes that the next time she comes up for “cemetery decoration day,” she’ll “lie down right beside Michael ... and stay there.”

Still, all the effort is a walk in the park compared with the ongoing fight to force the federal government to honor what many call a broken promise to build a new road through the grounds, which straddle the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. Such a road would give everyone, including those too old for strenuous hikes, a chance to re-connect with their heritage at their convenience instead of the park’s. At least twenty-seven cemeteries, holding between four and 175 graves each, are scattered throughout the dense woods along the north shore of Fontana Lake. “What’s important is what we can pass on to our children,” says Linda Hogue, a veteran campaigner for the road.

Such a road would also, however, pose a monumental challenge for the National Park Service, which already struggles to manage the ecological and economic costs of the busiest park in the United States. According to a draft environmental assessment of the proposed road, “major, adverse impacts” are unavoidable.

Despite the threat to the park and the estimated 590 million dollar cost of the project, North Shore Road proponents have the backing of some powerful allies, including Representative Charles Taylor, a Republican from North Carolina’s eleventh District, who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee for the Department of the Interior. On the other side are environmental groups throughout the Southeast. At stake are competing visions of what’s worth preserving. Hope for a viable compromise is slim. To some, the battle over this road is just one front in a cultural war that’s being waged across the country.

Michael Hoyle—1814-1889, according to the new headstone that was hauled in by pack mule a couple of years back—could not have foreseen the fuss that would stem from his choice of burial place. After all, his grave is but a few minutes’ walk from the Hoyle homestead. But the Hoyles and a few hundred other families were forced to abandon their homes in 1943 when the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA, flooded the Little Tennessee River valley with a reservoir for the highest hydroelectric dam east of the Rockies. Back then, no one challenged the need for electricity to supply a wartime economy. Among the casualties was the only road through this particular part of Appalachia. Highway 288 now lies at the bottom of Fontana Lake.

Today, members of the North Shore Road Association, most of whom live just outside the park in Swain County, North Carolina, say the federal government has an ethical and legal obligation to build the road. They argue that a 1943 agreement, signed by the state of North Carolina, the TVA, the Department of the Interior, and Swain County, includes a commitment to build a road along the north shore of the new lake. To road proponents, it’s fair compensation for the land they lost when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park swallowed up 44,400 acres of Swain County in the wake of the flooding that formed the new lake.

An alternative proposal to give impoverished Swain County 52 million dollars—a bargain at a tenth of the cost of the road—enjoys majority support from those on the county   commission, which grapples each year with a tiny tax base thanks to the park; eighty-six percent of the county’s land, which includes 200,000 acres of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, is publicly owned. But no formal offer is forthcoming, and members of the association, many of whom maintain that their heritage is not for sale for any amount of money, consider a cash settlement a nonstarter. They are convinced that the 1943 agreement, along with letters to individual families promising a road, makes their case ironclad.

Unfortunately for the proponents, the agreement makes no reference to just when the road would be built, other than a vague clause that reads: “as soon after the present war as funds are made available therefor by Congress.” A short stretch from the county seat of Bryson City to the park boundary was completed in 1959. By 1972, the National Park Service had paved another six miles, but environmental concerns halted further construction. That leaves thirty-odd miles between the western dead end of what’s now called the “Road to Nowhere” and the town of Deals Gap near the Tennessee side of the park. An attempt to force the Park Service to honor the commitment to complete the road was dismissed by a U.S. District Court in 1983 on the grounds that the proponents had no legal standing. Meanwhile, a legislative campaign by environmental groups to have the entire area declared a wilderness gathered strength through the 1980s and 1990s. No love is lost between the two camps, both of which cling to fundamentally incompatible—and contestable—versions of the natural and political history of the region.

Henry David Thoreau’s claim that “In wildness is the preservation of the world” sums up the environmentalists’ case. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most heavily visited and, consequently, the most polluted national park in America. In 2005, some 9.2 million visitors, riding in 3.9 million cars and trucks, passed through. More than half of them saw the park from the vantage point of Highway 441, which runs for thirty-two miles between Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina. Imagining the environmental impact of a second roadway doesn’t leave a lot of room for wildness.

“It’s a no-brainer,” says Doug Ruley, an attorney in the Asheville, North Carolina, office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is working with several other green groups opposed to the North Shore Road proposal. “If we can’t do right by this park, you have to question whether we can do right by any of our public lands.”

Ruley contends that the park is overstressed and that the last thing it needs are more visitors. Indeed, even the most conscientious hikers take a toll. The draft environmental assessment, commissioned by the Park Service and released earlier this year, anticipates “adverse and permanent” damage to at least thirty-one wetlands and twenty-one rare communities if the road were to be built. More than 400 acres of migratory bird habitat would be affected, as would local populations of the Indiana bat and, to a lesser extent, the bald eagle. One population of the olive darter, a fish considered threatened or endangered throughout most of its limited range, could be at risk.

Since evidence of civilization isn’t exactly hard to find—the remains of a pair of chimneys that once stood in the Hoyle family homestead, for example, are an important landmark along the trail to Michael’s grave—the essence of the environmental argument boils down to less objective interpretations of what constitutes wilderness. “This area has been managed as wilderness for the last twenty years,” says Ruley. “It is the largest mountainous, roadless area in the East, and the remaining evidence of prior human activity in the area doesn’t change that.” For Ruley, thirty-seven miles of blacktop just isn’t compatible with that description, and his counterparts at the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, Wild South, and other environmental groups in the Southeast agree.

But members of the North Shore Road Association beg to differ. David Monteith, a county commissioner who spends much of his free time offering PowerPoint lectures on the road’s merits at schools, colleges, community groups, and to anyone else willing to listen, bristles at the notion that his family’s cemetery is surrounded by wilderness. “When they tell you this is a roadless area, that’s not true. Six thousand people lived there, and there were 600 miles of road,” he says, adding that one of the displaced communities, Proctor, even had electricity before Asheville did. “There’s roads all over these mountains,” agrees park maintenance worker Tony Collura, who helps clear the trails for cemetery decoration days, when the Park Service brings in SUVs and a four-wheeler by barge. Collura notes that one of the “trails” can even support a school bus.

Road proponents, who believe the fight is more about cultural heritage than wilderness, say they, too, respect nature. They carpooled long before gasoline was three dollars a gallon, understand the need to recognize the limits of the land they live on, and don’t want to see the countryside gobbled up by rampant development. But if they were to draw inspiration from the writings of an American environmentalist of letters, it would probably be Gary Snyder rather than Thoreau. Asked for the one thing that an individual can do to save the planet, Snyder famously replied, “Stay put.” As he wrote in his 2004 book, Danger on the Peaks, “have a place and get involved in what can be done in that place.”

Staying put wasn’t an option for the families forced to leave the north shore sixty years ago, says Monteith, who disparages the hypocrisy of radical environmentalists who have no connection to the park. “People move ten times before they settle down. The land doesn’t mean anything to them,” he says. “But to us, it’s everything we have. I think some of these people haven’t got it yet.”

The official government definition of “wilderness” isn’t much help. The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines it as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Federal land “retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions” also qualifies, as does an area that “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”

Strictly applied, that definition would qualify few if any portions of the United States as true wilderness. Most of the country was occupied and modified by Native Americans millennia before Europeans displaced them. But parts of the north shore appear to meet a more liberal interpretation, especially after the six decades nature has had to reclaim its primeval characteristics. It is almost impossible to land even a canoe on much of the shoreline, which is dominated by dense stands of mixed broadleaf deciduous forest. Hiking up a creek bed can be a tricky affair for even experienced trekkers. Most of the maintained trails, including those leading to the cemeteries, are clearly “affected primarily by the forces of nature.”

Whatever the area’s state today, its future hinges on the resolution of a debate that is neither arcane nor bureaucratic. If Congress declares the region a wilderness, the road proposal is dead. If construction of the North Shore Road resumes, the chances of a wilderness designation are equally moribund.

The complicating factor of the cemeteries, however, and their special place in the culture of western North Carolina confounds everything. “Like national parks, cemeteries are hallowed ground,” says Ted Coyle, an associate professor of anthropology at Western Carolina University and co-author of a review of the cultural aspects of North Shore Road commissioned for the environmental assessment. “It’s about a way of life that’s been erased from the area.”

Although Coyle concedes that research on the role of cemeteries in southern Appalachia is thin, their importance appears to be a “distinctly American” product of the need of immigrants who settled in the region in the late 1700s to create a physical relationship with their new home. “It was people moving onto land that’s not their own, and they needed to make it their own,” suggests Coyle. “By putting a cemetery on that hill, you knew that was your land.” For this new culture, a mix of Europeans and African-American slaves, private cemeteries became symbols of a world left behind. That tradition is now the tip of the proverbial iceberg for the descendants of the families forced from their home, says Coyle. “They represent everything that’s lost to those people.”

Of course, remains of the dead have often been mired in controversy. At the University of Washington’s Burke Museum in Seattle, for instance, a 9,300-year-old human skeleton, pulled ten years ago from the Columbia River, intrigued scientists who were convinced an analysis of the curiously Caucasian features of its skull could shed light on the early settlement patterns of the Americas. But efforts to study “Kennewick Man,” as the skeleton is known, drew the ire of five tribes that claimed the remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. While the Army Corps of Engineers managed to conduct a handful of tests before the lawyers got involved, a more complete analysis was delayed for several years while the two sides fought for control in the courts.

The scientists eventually won the day in Seattle, but it was a different story two years ago on the north shore of Great Slave Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories. There, aboriginal Canadians successfully convinced a federal review panel to reject a mining company’s application to drill for diamonds. For the first time in the country’s history, a proposed mine was rejected because of the threat to “intangible aspects of culture that are central to the social and cultural well-being” of the indigenous population. A large part of the argument against the Drybones Bay mine was its proximity to ancient burial grounds.

Today, a dispute sill simmers in Ely, Minnesota, where residents are trying to block a plan to build a city and county maintenance yard next door to a cemetery. More than 300 of Ely’s 3,000 residents have signed a petition to force the city to choose another site, according to resident Frana Cherico. “There’s a natural force field, a sacredness around the cemetery,” she says. “I feel they’re violating us.”

Each of those cases involves the same respect for the dead. What sets the North Shore Road debate apart, and what may ultimately prove an insurmountable hurdle for the road proponents, is that their cemeteries aren’t holding up scientific progress or industrial development. Instead, they’re the impetus for development, which limits the potential support in a region that places so much value on wilderness, regardless of its quality.

Coyle and his co-authors, Alan Jabbour, former director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and Paul Webb, senior archaeologist at the environmental consulting firm TRC Garrow Associates, concluded in their cultural review that the proponents’ case for the road boils down to religion and ethics: “The religious aspect derives from their feeling of responsibility for showing respect to the graves of their ancestors. The moral aspect undergirds their argument that the road should be built because the government promised to build it, and government should honor its promises.”

While the religious dimension enjoys broad support in a part of the country with deep Christian roots, holding the government to its word is problematic. The 1943 agreement recognized that the North Shore Road is “an important link in a planned ‘around the Park’ road” and that the government “is agreeable to initiating construction.” But it is, like every other promise from Washington, contingent on the appropriation of funding—to the tune of more than half a billion dollars.

David Monteith, Linda Hogue, the Hoyle family, and the other road proponents know they shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for the government to fulfill its commitments. But they do have hope. In the meantime, they’re doing their best to enjoy the ferry ride across Fontana Lake. There’s only one trip to each cemetery each year, and it’s a celebratory event, complete with generous communal picnic lunches and much reminiscing. In their report, Coyle and Jabbour call the boat trips “part of the special pilgrimage of a North Shore decoration. ... It provides people with a feeling of a journey from the workaday world into a timeless sacred domain. A few people who are devoted regulars at North Shore decorations do not look forward to construction of the road and prefer the special qualities of the present arrangement, while others who are eager to see the road acknowledge that they may miss the boat journeys if it is built.”

The National Park Service will determine the fate of those trips once Congress decides what to do about the road, and that decision will be based, in part, on the recommendations of a final environmental assessment—this one due before the end of the year. But few, if any, are holding their breath. Even if the road is called a favored option, convincing Congress to produce the half-billion dollars needed to follow through will be a hard sell for anyone, Charles Taylor included. In the end, the free boat trips—on which the park spends just 70,000 dollars of its annual budget—won’t settle the debate over wilderness in America. But the rides may prove to be the best way to preserve one park’s natural character and the sacredness of a place where both the living and the dead may finally find some peace.


James Hrynyshyn spent more than a decade working as a newspaper reporter on the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic coasts of North America. He is now a freelance science journalist living in western North Carolina, where he tries to put his degree in marine biology to good use. His work has appeared in New Scientist, Canadian Geographic, Equinox, and several other publications in Canada and the United States.

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