Cherokee Scheme To Develop Smokies Tract Challenged

A proposal by the Eastern Band of Cherokees to trade high-elevation land off the Blue Ridge Parkway for some bottomland in Great Smoky Mountains National Park brought out strong opinions, pro and con, at an Asheville public hearing in February.

The Eastern Band wants to swap a 218-acre parcel near Waterrock Knob in Jackson County, NC for a 168-acre parcel in the park known at the Ravensford tract. The tribe is hoping to build a school complex on the park property that would include an elementary, middle, and high school, plus a new football stadium, athletic fields, and parking.

At a February 14 hearing at the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Folk Arts Center, conservationists told park officials that the trade would set a dangerous precedent by giving away public parkland to private interests. They also said the Eastern Band has ample land elsewhere to build their schools.

Cherokee tribal members insisted the Ravensford tract is necessary to provide a quality education to their students, which they claimed are housed in substandard school buildings. They also said the swap would reconnect the tribe’s Big Cove community with the rest of the Qualla Boundary reservation land.

Park officials conducted three public hearings in February in preparation for writing an Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed swap. The EIS will consider social and cultural factors, as well as the results of studies conducted on the tract’s archaeology, history, and biology.

So far, scientists have found 55 species that are new to science at the Ravensford tract, which is the largest undeveloped alluvial area in the park. Two globally rare habitats — montane alluvial forest and Southern Appalachian acid seep — are also found there, along with other wetlands. Two federal species of concern, the olive darter and hellbender, were discovered in the Oconaluftee River that runs through the tract.

Between 1936 and 1976, National Park Service archaeologists surveyed seven prehistoric sites in the Ravensford tract, four of which are found within the area proposed for exchange. At least 10 other sites dating to 9,000 years ago or more were found in 2001. The Ravensford tract was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

However, tribal members who attended the Asheville hearing scoffed at the notion that the Ravensford property is worthy of protection from development.

“That bottomland is not pristine,” said Teresa McCoy, a Cherokee tribal council representative. “It’s noisy and it is polluted. There are approximately 1,800 residents and over a quarter million tourists a year on it. There are power pole and lights, sewer and water, contract and pay harvesting.”

“We are offering 218 acres, pristine acres, for 168 acres of an area that has been desecrated for many years,” said Leon Jones, principal chief of the Eastern Band.

Asheville resident Steve Legeay disagreed with that characterization. “This area contains wetlands, as well as unique natural resources that, according to law, should be protected,” he said. “It is situated in an area prone to flooding. It is not appropriate for development.”

Legeay said Smokies officials were put under a gag order to prevent them from speaking out against the swap. “It is outrageous that federal government officials restrict the First Amendment rights of other federal employees to facilitate a deal to turn over public lands to private interests for private purposes,” he said.

Jones told park officials that his tribe desperately needs new schools. “I have children in schools now that are dilapidated, that are overcrowded, that are warm in the summer and cold in the winter,” he said. “You would not allow your children to go there, and if you did have schools like that, you would be spending hours, days and months to improve those schools and to get new schools for your children.”

But numerous speakers challenged Jones’ assertion that the Ravensford tract is necessary to improving education for Cherokee children.

“I believe this tribe should make education its top priority,” said Jerry DeWeese of Sylva. “I’m afraid, though, that they have let the almighty dollar get in the way of accomplishing this goal. Over the years, they have chosen not to set aside enough educational space for their children, instead giving the vast majority of available land to motels, gift shops and the like. Now they are attempting to force their neighbor to forfeit some of its land because of their poor planning.”

Conservationist Ted Snyder displayed a map that was based on a school site study the Eastern Band did in 2000. It showed several pieces of property within a short drive of the Qualla Boundary that exceeded 100 acres. Snyder warned that claims of deteriorating schools needed to be examined closely.

“The [Cherokee] elementary school is deteriorating,” he said. “It’s been deteriorating for 6, 7, or 8 years. They’ve known it. It didn’t happen overnight. They could’ve started building a long time ago. The high school is relatively good: 450 students in a building designed for 1,000. So the only building they need is an elementary school, and here are 12 or 15 sites that meet all of their criteria.”

Talk of dilapidated Indian schools obscures the larger issue, many speakers pointed out. The bigger question, they said, is whether the trade would be legal or ethical. Steve Novak, an attorney with the non-profit law firm WildLaw, pointed out that an exchange of Ravensford property would be contrary to the Organic Act under which national parks were formed, as well as several other federal laws.

“When the Great Smoky Mountain National Park was established, the people of North Carolina and Tennessee were promised the land obtained would be used for the park and only the park,” said Diane Hankins of Asheville. “Given the number of families who transferred land in good faith, and who believed this government intended to keep its word to them and their descendents, I’d like to know whether the Park Service has found any footnotes in history authorizing them to break that promise.”

This is not the first time the Eastern Band has eyed the Ravensford tract for development. In 1940, the tribe sought to buy the tract along with another property, the Boundary Tree parcel, near the Blue Ridge Parkway. They got Boundary Tree, but not Ravensford. Then, in 1971, the tribe approached the federal government about obtaining the bottomland and turning it into a golf course.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a Comment