Fool's gold no more? Smok­ies' miss­ing link nears com­ple­tion

The Standard Journal - - LIFESTYLE -

WALLAND, Tenn. (AP) — Ef­forts to ex­tend a ser­pen­tine ridge-top road with soar­ing views of the Great Smoky Moun­tains National Park have been thwarted for decades as en­gi­neers have grap­pled with how to com­plete a 1.6-mile stretch known as the miss­ing link.

A $35 mil­lion com­mit­ment this sum­mer by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, National Park Ser­vice and the state of Ten­nessee means the 10-bridge stretch can fi­nally be com­pleted, thrilling sup­port­ers who say it will open up one of the most scenic ar­eas of the Foothills Park­way, but con­cern­ing those who say the project has got­ten too ex­pen­sive and poses a threat to the en­vi­ron­ment.

To Sen. La­mar Alexan­der, a for­mer two- term Ten­nessee gover­nor, the wait for and cost of bridg­ing the miss­ing link will have been worth it once vis­i­tors are able to take what he calls "one of the most pic­turesque drives in our coun­try with a view of the most-vis­ited national park in our coun­try."

The new seg­ment sched­uled to open within two years will end up cost­ing about $244 mil­lion in to­day's dol­lars. Work on the miss­ing link was halted in 1989 after re­tain­ing walls failed and con­trac­tors ex­posed pyrite, a min­eral bet­ter known as fool's gold, which forms sul­fu­ric acid when it comes into con­tact with rain. The toxic brew dis­solves met­als in bedrock and can wash into streams and rivers, chok­ing off plants and wildlife and coat­ing streambeds with iron hy­drox­ide, tint­ing wa­ter yel­low, red or or­ange.

Along with the en­gi­neer­ing and en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems, es­ca­lat­ing costs kept the miss­ing link on the back burner un­til the late 2000s, when the fed­eral gov­ern­ment agreed to pay for the long­est part of it: an 800-foot, S-shaped bridge de­signed to dis­turb as lit­tle earth as pos­si­ble and cost­ing $25 mil­lion. The money was pro­vided through the 2009 Re­cov­ery Act, the fed­eral re­sponse to the Great Re­ces­sion.

"The ex­pen­di­ture is re­ally in­cred­i­ble," said Ge­off Rig­gin, a vet­eri­nar­ian who led an un­suc­cess­ful pe­ti­tion drive to keep work from re­sum­ing on the miss­ing link.

Even after the bridges are built, half of the pro­posed 72-mile-long Foothills Park­way will re­main un­fin­ished: Land to con­struct the last 34 miles has been ac­quired, but no work has yet been done.

The Foothills Park­way was ap­proved by Con­gress in 1944 as a com­pan­ion to other National Park­way routes such as the Blue Ridge Park­way in Vir­ginia and North Carolina, and the Natchez Trace from cen­tral Ten­nessee to Mis­sis­sippi. The National Park­way sys­tem was de­vel­oped as part of the New Deal to help bring the econ­omy out the Great De­pres­sion in the 1930s.

Con­struc­tion of the park­way be­gan in the 1960s and the first two sec­tions, cov­er­ing 22.5 miles, were quickly com­pleted on ei­ther end of the scenic drive, which be­gins at In­ter­state 40 near the North Carolina bor­der in the east and ends at Chil­howee Lake in the west. But the paved road­way hit dead ends on ei­ther side of the miss­ing link.

Rig­gin says that wasn't such a bad thing; while ve­hi­cles could not ac­cess it, the area was still open to walk­ers, bik­ers, hik­ers and na­ture lovers. Rig­gins said he used to en­joy rid­ing his bike along the peace­ful ridgetops and over a trail through the miss­ing link area around Cay­lor Gap, where he oc­ca­sion­ally stopped to pick wild blue­ber­ries.

"So it had a util­ity then as it was," he said. "But ob­vi­ously that wasn't the orig­i­nal pur­pose of it."

Alex Ringe, the con­ser­va­tion chair for the Ten­nessee chap­ter of the Sierra Club, said the sub­stan­tial money sunk into bridg­ing the miss­ing link has vir­tu­ally en­sured that this sec­tion will be com­pleted, de­spite lin­ger­ing con­cerns with the pyrite.

In this June 13, 2012, file photo, work­ers use a spe­cial­ized crane to place a con­crete seg­ment onto an 800-foot bridge in an area of the un­fin­ished Foothills Park­way near Walland, Tenn. Work is un­der­way to com­plete the ex­ten­sion of the scenic route...

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.