June 18, 2003
Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I am Don Barger, Senior Director of the southeast regional office of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). NPCA is America's only private, nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated solely to protecting, preserving, and enhancing the National Park System. NPCA was founded in 1919 and today has approximately 300,000 members who care deeply about the well being of our national parks.
NPCA appreciates the opportunity to express our views about H.R. 1409, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian Land Exchange Act of 2002. This proposed exchange has enormous implications for two of our most visited national park units-Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway-and should not be entered into lightly. NPCA, along with others in the environmental community, applauds the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians' (EBCI) commitment to provide their students with the best possible schools. The proposed Ravensford land exchange is so controversial because it combines two extremely important and emotional public policy issues: protecting our national parks, and providing young people with the best possible schools. Fortunately in this case, both of these important goals can be satisfied because of the presence of alternative locations for schools outside the boundary of our Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
As you know, the National Park Service (NPS) is analyzing a proposal for Great Smoky Mountains National Park to relinquish 144 acres, commonly referred to as the Ravensford tract, to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), in exchange for adding a parcel of land to the Blue Ridge Parkway many miles away. The exchange is extremely controversial with many national, regional and state organizations, including the North Carolina National Park, Parkway and Forest Development Council and Tennessee Park Commission, expressing their opposition.1 NPS is developing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA); a draft EIS is slated for publication this month. Consequently, NPCA believes that H.R. 1409 is premature, as it would short-circuit the ongoing public process and require the land exchange to proceed before the impacts of the proposed land exchange have yet to be fully debated or understood.
The proposed exchange will have far reaching impacts on the integrity of the National Park System and will significantly impair the resources of both Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. The beauty, natural history, and human history of the Ravensford tract make it of great educational value as a natural classroom. Scientists from the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory have recently identified approximately 59 species that are new to science located within the Ravensford tract. Ravensford is also home to an unbroken archeological record of Euro-American, Cherokee and pre-Cherokee history, including historic and prehistoric artifacts dating back more than 8,000 years. The discovery of these cultural resources supports the site's 1982 placement on the National Register of Historic Places.
Part of the Ravensford tract includes alluvial floodplain, a globally rare ecological community described as imperiled by the Nature Conservancy. Because they're flat and near water, most such areas have been developed over the course of history, making the preservation of Ravensford in an undeveloped state even more important. In fact, the Ravensford tract was flooded during the recent severe rains during the week of May 5, 2003.2 The Ravensford tract affords beautiful vistas from the Oconoluftee valley, with a foreground of open fields from which hills and mountains of Great Smoky Mountains National Park rise abruptly. The topography of the park is such that vistas like these are extremely limited. The recently updated Blue Ridge Parkway (BLRI) visual analysis survey of the Ravensford tract published by the Department of Interior states, "Parkway visitors consider the Raven Fork River Valley view among the most coveted, a rare icon view." Parkway management has concluded that the views to the tract should be preserved.
The ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains form a natural gateway that separate the noise and congestion of the town of Cherokee from the Oconoluftee valley in the national park. The proposed school complex would sit at the primary North Carolina entrance to the park as well as the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway. If the Ravensford tract is developed into a school campus, that grandstand of mountains will include night lighting, six athletic fields, three parking areas and traffic congestion, as school buses would have to navigate the principal North Carolina entrance to our nation's most visited national park.
It is important to emphasize that there are alternative locations for new schools both inside and outside the Cherokee Reservation. Two documents produced by EBCI, the Cherokee Business District Master Plan and Education Campus Site Evaluation, state explicitly that alternative sites are available.
EBCI received the Cherokee Business District Master Plan in February 2001. The stated purpose of the document is to "serve as a guide for the orderly growth and development of Cherokee's CBD [Central Business District]."3 The development of the master plan began with an inventory and analysis of the natural and man-made features and conditions within the reservation. Based on that inventory the master plan states:
Opportunities for commercial developments, parking facilities, and cultural attractions also exist throughout the area. The north end of the CBD is currently experiencing retail growth. With a large amount of flat to rolling land, opportunities exist for development of large facilities such as a shopping area or hotel as well as a public parking facility. (emphasis added).
Another large area of potential development lies across the river where several large buildings stand unused on Acquoni Road. These large flat and paved areas could be used for a number of public or private ventures that do not require direct tourist visibility.4 (emphasis added).
The master plan states that the long-term plan includes possible acquisition of alternative sites for schools. The master plan states:
Even the poorly done Education Campus Site Evaluation, with EBCI's hand-picked criteria that assured the Ravensford tract would be identified, found potential alternative sites for the construction of schools. The study included a number of limiting criteria, including:
Commuting distance for students (maximum 15-mile bus commute for all students on the Qualla Boundary).6
A map showing low-slope land in and around the Qualla Boundary indicates large tracts of land with slope of no more than 8% within a ten-mile radius of the Ravensford tract.
EBCI have identified a need for 73 acres to accommodate a three-school complex with necessary parking and athletic facilities. The Education Campus Site Evaluation identifies 10 potential sites for school construction.
Following the site selection process, each site was evaluated based on a more detailed examination under the technical criteria. A lower ranking score of "4" was provided to sites that, among other factors, have "wetland and/or flood issues adversely impact full use."8 The study also states that it is important to note that many of the tracts are "located outside reservation boundaries and are comprised of individual tracts with multiple owners" concluding that these sites "will prove difficult, if not impossible, to acquire."9 The study neglects to point out that the Ravensford tract is among those sites outside the reservation boundary.
The Ravensford tract is outside the reservation boundary, within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and as parkland is owned by and for the enjoyment of every American, including the Cherokee. The tract includes approximately 7 acres of wetland.10 As stated earlier in the testimony, the Ravensford tract was flooded during the recent severe rains during the week of May 5, 2003.11 Nonetheless, the Ravensford tract was determined to be the "best suited to accommodate a consolidated school campus."12 The study does not conclude that the Ravensford tract is the only potential site for school construction. Also, the study neglects to consider the current locations of the schools as suitable locations for schools.
In a letter from NPS Director Roger Kennedy to Senator Jesse Helms, dated June 13, 1994 Mr. Kennedy noted that construction of either a golf course or school complex "would be totally contrary to the purpose for which the land was placed within the park, i.e., to preserve its scenic, natural and cultural resources." The letter continues:
Construction of a school complex along with the attendant parking, athletic field and 2 other facilities would require extensive clearing, grading and construction in an area where native grasses and forests now exist. The resultant disturbance would be totally incompatible with the archeological district and historic appearance now protected by national park status.
Visually, the proposed school complex would have a dramatic impact on the view from the last two overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway which currently provide unimpaired vistas of the pastoral Oconaluftee River valley and the Oconaluftee Pioneer Farmstead which is part of the park's Oconaluftee Visitor Center Complex.
Finally, the National Park Service is concerned that carving into the park for this project would lead to proposals for development in the park by other entrance communities, all of which are nearing the limits of the developable land. A few years ago, for example, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, requested permission to build flood control facilities inside the park's northern entrance. This request was rejected as well.13
NPS published another GRSM Briefing Statement regarding the EBCI requests for special park use of land for development on January 20, 1998. The Briefing Statement includes the NPS official position; "The National Park Service continues to oppose cutting into the Park to construct facilities such as the golf course or school complex which are not compatible with Park purposes."14
On June 14, 2000 NPS broke with their long-standing policy of rejecting EBCI's request for land within GRSM. Robert Stanton, former Director of NPS, entered into an agreement with the EBCI, to "create a framework within which the parties may explore the feasibility of a land exchange involving the Ravensford tract." The agreement includes a list of steps to be taken by both NPS and EBCI to determine whether it is feasible to exchange the land. One of the NPS action items listed in the agreement reads as follows:
Thus the agreement does not contain a guarantee that the exchange would take place.
History of the Ravensford Tract
The Ravensford tract was part of the land ceded by the Cherokees at the Treaty of Tellico in 1798.16 Euro-American settlers had begun to enter the area at that time and by the early 1800s the Ravensford tract and surrounding area was settled by the Mingus, Enloe and Hughes families.17 Descendents of these three families continued to control the private holdings in the area into the 1920s.18
During that period leading up to the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) in 1934, the states of Tennessee and North Carolina bought the land in preparation for turning it over to the federal government. Timber interests owned and were harvesting the vast majority of the land that became GRSM. Such was the case with the Ravensford tract. The Whitimer-Parsons Pulp & Lumber Company had purchased the land that was to become the lumber town of Ravensford in the early 1900s.19 The land in turn was acquired by condemnation from the lumber company by the State of North Carolina in 1933 and subsequently became part of the national park. Following the establishment of GRSM the federal government began the process of developing the Blue Ridge Parkway, an ambitious vision for a unit of the park system to connect Shenandoah National Park in northern Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.
The Blue Ridge Parkway Negotiations (1937 - 1940)
In 1937 the Cherokee declined an offer by NPS for the Ravensford tract as well as the Boundary Tree tract, Tight Run tract and cash in exchange for right-of-way across the Qualla Boundary to be used for the preferred, westward route for the Blue Ridge Parkway down from Soco Gap. The Cherokee's refusal of that offer set into motion a complex set of negotiations that eventually led to acceptance of an offer for cash and the construction of U.S. Highway 19 in exchange of right-of-way for the current eastward route of the Parkway.
One of the key issues faced by Parkway planners was acquiring right-of-way through the Qualla Boundary to GRSM to construct the southern terminus of the road. Negotiations began between the federal government, North Carolina and EBCI with the original plan to route the Parkway through Soco Gap west along Soco Creek down into the town of Cherokee.20 When the Cherokee discovered that NPS wanted a one-thousand-foot right-of-way and that the road would be for restricted use, the EBCI opposed the project.21 The Cherokee were concerned that the wider right-of-way would take valuable farmland in the Soco Valley and negatively impact commercial possibilities on the main street in Cherokee.22
Negotiations for the preferred Blue Ridge Parkway route along Soco Creek evolved with the Secretary of Interior offering the following exchange of park land for EBCI land: the EBCI would receive the Ravensford, Boundary Tree, and Tight Run tracts (all within GRSM) plus reasonable cash compensation; the NPS would receive the 1,102 acre Towstring tract and a right-of-way for the Parkway through the Qualla Boundary from Soco Gap west along Soco Creek.23 This exchange was explicitly made contingent upon consent of EBCI through a secret ballot in a general election within sixty days of the bill's passage.24 The bill was approved by Congress on August 19, 1937.
This proposal was clearly controversial among the Cherokee as reflected in an article from the Sylva Herald dated September 9, 1937. The headline read "Council Vote Reflects Opposition to Soco Route." According to the article, a general election resulted in an EBCI Tribal Council consisting of eight opponents of the exchange plan and four proponents of the plan. The Sylva Herald reported on October 14, 1937 under the headline "Indians Will Not Vote on Parkway," that the new council had chosen to adjourn without voting on the Parkway plan. Thus the offer of the Ravensford tract was rejected by EBCI in 1937.
Secretary of the Interior Ickes was thus caught between his attempts to procure a suitable route for the Blue Ridge Parkway and his obligation to protect the interests of the Cherokee. He composed a letter to the EBCI in which he plainly stated that DOI would not coerce the Cherokee into providing the right-of-way: "If you do not want the road to be built where the National Park Service desires it to go, it will not be built." The Cherokee were advised that if they did not approve of the current proposals for the Parkway, either a new route avoiding the reservation would have to be found or else the road would have to terminate at Soco Gap.25
The State of North Carolina, working through EBCI Principal Chief Jarret Blythe and the Superintendent of the Cherokee Indian Agency, abandoned the original proposal to go down Soco Creek.26 The new plan called for a completely different route eastward from Soco Gap, along the existing ridge-top route of the parkway. Given the complex of cuts, fills and tunnels NPS had realized that with this route it was going to cost significantly more to build the parkway into GRSM. This offer required that the State of North Carolina build a new highway through Soco Gap that would leave EBCI tourist business intact and allow economic expansion. This offer did not include any exchange of parkland. EBCI rejected this proposal.27
Finally, in 1940 Congress passed legislation that would provide NPS with a right-of-way across the Qualla Boundary along the existing route of the Parkway. That route takes the Parkway from Soco Gap along the ridgeline and finally connects with U.S. Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) within GRSM immediately adjacent to the Ravensford tract.28 In exchange the State of North Carolina agreed to build a highway from Soco Gap to Cherokee (now U.S. Highway 19), and the Cherokee received $40,000 or $30 an acre (whichever amount was greater) for the right-of-way and an option to acquire the Boundary Tree tract.29 EBCI did acquire the Boundary Tree tract in 1943.
Thus the boundaries of the Parkway and GRSM overlap along the southern most mile of the Parkway, with the Parkway passing immediately southeast of the Ravensford tract and running parallel to Big Cove Road. In other words, the Ravensford tract is completely surrounded by GRSM and bounded on the southeast side by the Parkway. The Ravenford tract is situated with both the Parkway and over one-half mile of GRSM land separating it from the Qualla Boundary to the southeast. Removing the tract from the park would create a private in holding almost completely surrounded by national park land.
For that reason the route of the Parkway became a significant factor in NPS removing the Ravensford tract from the negotiating table. With the original proposal, the Parkway would have come down the west side of the ridge along Soco Creek, following a path that did not overlap with GRSM. Writing in 1940, GRSM Superintendent J.R. Eakin discussed, in pertinent part, the original rationale for the land exchange in the 1937 offer and how the NPS position had to change with the alternative route of the Blue Ridge Parkway:
I initiated the exchange that was offered to the Indians in 1937. The idea was to get a better administrative boundary for the park and to secure a right-of-way for the Parkway down Soco Creek, where construction costs would have been very much less than the location selected. We offered the Indians a value of about four-to-one, predicated upon the Soco Creek location. The Indians did not accept, and we here considered the matter ended. At the time the exchange was offered the site of the Secondary Administration Building [at Oconaluftee] had not been selected…. We are going to have a very fine layout there and I did state to Mr. Zimmerman [Acting Commissioner of the Indian Service] that in my opinion it would be unwise to complicate the situation by letting the Indians have the Ravensford tract. This is still my opinion and is the opinion of our entire staff. We believe the Parkway location has changed the whole picture.
Mr. Zimmerman appears to be of the opinion that we are withholding something that rightfully belongs to the Indians. The North Carolina Parks Commission purchased the lands under discussion for park purposes.
The present Cherokee entrance is not impressive and we proposed to exchange the Boundary Tree Tract, the northern boundary of which will make a more impressive entrance, unless the present deplorable development along the road in the Reservation continues on the Boundary Tree Tract if acquired by the Indians.
In conclusion, I desire to state that I have made no misleading statements, but on the contrary, Mr. Zimmerman is badly confused.30
Recent History (1970 - Present)
Since 1971, leaders of EBCI have periodically approached NPS requesting that up to 200 acres of the Ravensford tract be made available to the tribe. NPS consistently rejected EBCI's request for a land exchange. For many years EBCI requested the land to build an 18-hole golf course. Writing to Noah Powell, Principal Chief EBCI, in 1972 GRSM Superintendent Vincent Ellis explained the NPS position. Ellis pointed to a set of reasons for the denial including:
The Cherokee continued to request the Ravensford tract for a golf course. A memorandum to George Hertzog, Jr., Director NPS, from David Thompson, Director SE Regional Office NPS on November 16, 1972 sets out his recommendation that NPS not support a land exchange with EBCI. Thompson provides a list of reasons for this denial:
In reaction to a subsequent EBCI request for the land, NPS requested that the park's historian, Edward Trout, analyze the feasibility of conducting a land exchange involving the Ravensford tract. A memorandum produced by Trout in 1991 explains his determination that NPS cannot conduct the land exchange and includes the following:
A Great Smoky Mountains National Park Briefing Statement on the Ravensford land exchange followed that memo. NPS's stated position is "The National Park Service strongly opposes cutting into the Park to construct a golf course."34
EBCI established a Harrah's Casino in Cherokee, NC, in the early 1990s. It is assumed that with this revenue stream, EBCI shifted its priority to improving its school system. In 1994, the tribe requested a land transfer for the construction of new schools.
Mihalic says he also was asked to tackle the controversial North Shore Road -- a project the park historically has opposed. He announced this week he would retire Jan. 3 rather than take on the tasks.35
Also quoted in that October 5, 2002 Asheville Citizen-Times article was National Park Service Spokesman David Barna.
It is our understanding that EBCI have yet to purchase the non-federal land that is proposed for the land exchange. According to Jackson County, North Carolina records the property is still owned by Jay Schenck of Florida.36 According to Jackson County records the land value is assessed at $58,400.37 This is in sharp contrast to the NPS appraisal value cited by EBCI in a letter to the editor of the Washington Post that states "The land the Park Service would receive in exchange, the 218-acre Yellow Face site, was appraised at $590,000.38
Access Between Big Cove and Qualla Boundary
Another of the reasons that EBCI have stated for their request for the Ravensford tract is to reconnect the community of Big Cove with the rest of the Qualla Boundary communities. The mountainous topography in western North Carolina provides a limited number of suitable routes for roads through the area. By the 1960s the road system in and around the Qualla Boundary included the paved Big Cove Road, approximately one mile of which runs through GRSM. NPS has worked with EBCI providing the tribe with the authority to maintain Big Cove Road and providing right-of-way through the park for water, sewer, cable TV and electricity along the Big Cove Road corridor to service the community of Big Cove. EBCI have not articulated any problems with access to Big Cove as a result of the stretch of Big Cove Road that passes through the park.
NPCA stands ready to work with the Resources Committee, the National Park Service and EBCI to devise a solution that both protects Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway and provides Cherokee children with the best possible educational opportunities. Both of these goals can be satisfied. Unfortunately, the legislation before you does not produce such a solution.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify about this important issue. I would be pleased to respond to any questions you may have.