An orphaned yearling was released into the wild at Calderwood Overlook along U.S. 129 Monday to cap a ceremonial signing of a ``Dam Relicensing Settlement Agreement'' with Alcoa Power Generating Inc. (APGI), the electricity producing subsidiary of ALCOA.
The centerpiece of the agreement, which still has to clear some legislative hurdles and be formally approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, was the draw for dozens of politicians, conservationists and bureaucrats who gathered at the overlook.
Part of the relicensing deal, which spanned seven years and included consultation and input with dozens of private environmental groups and government agencies, calls for the protection of some 10,000 acres of mountain land between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cherokee and Nantahala national forests.
Alcoa Power Generating Inc. will grant a permanent easement on 5,700 acres of the rugged forest land to the Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy will also receive a 40-year easement on 4,000 acres of land. Both tracts will remain open to the public for current uses, and will see recreational improvements in the future. The larger tract will likely be sold to the Department of the Interior for an addition either to the Cherokee National Forest or Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The deal also included a bit of legislative housekeeping, since it could not proceed without a ``land swap'' between APGI and the National Park Service. That entails the trade of some 100 acres of flooded Chilhowee Reservoir land within the Park for 186 acres of APGI land between U.S. 129 and the current Park boundary.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was dealt a blow by an international panel of tourism experts who ranked 115 destinations worldwide for a March article in National Geographic Traveler.
Of the three categories The Good, Not So Bad, and Getting Ugly the Smokies ranked near the bottom in the Getting Ugly category. Towns such as Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge cloud visitors natural and cultural experience and encroach on the parks ecosystem, the experts said.
Visitors interviewed in the park last week seemed to agree that the Tennessee side of the park is too gaudy. The wax museum, chair lift, sky needle and fudge and cotton candy shops of Gatlinburg were not the reason they visited the Smokies. In fact, it was a turn-off.
I dont like it. Ill tell you the truth, said Paul Johnson, a visitor from Houston, Texas. Its too commercial. Theres nowhere to park. It isnt tourist-friendly.
The forest is just stunning, he said. But next time, Johnson said he will take the bypass around Gatlinburg and try Pigeon Forge. When asked if he considered the North Carolina side of the park, Johnson grew puzzled. While hed heard you could get into the park from North Carolina, he wasnt sure how or where.
Meanwhile, business owners on the North Carolina side of the Smokies are pulling their hair out trying to lure more park visitors, pitching their towns as the antithesis of the amusement park motif of Gatlinburg.
We need to emphasize this is the greener side of the park, said Kent Stewart, owner of Waynesville Book Company.
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