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Road to ruin

The Appalachian Scenic Corridor will help you get through the mountains faster, but will there be anything left worth visiting?


When the Georgia Department of Transportation completes the Appalachian Scenic Corridor, the road will snake through some of the most beautiful parts of Georgia: 169 miles of postcard-perfect views of the Appalachian Mountains and green valleys that cradle the state's most majestic rivers.

God bless the DOT -- the Appalachian Scenic Corridor will take you as close to Mother Nature as you can get. Too bad it's going to ruin every scene it'll take you through.

Having clear-cut the state from Atlanta to the Blue Ridge Mountains, developers are spreading ever northward into the mountains themselves. And the Appalachian Scenic Corridor is going to help them get there faster.

The only thing that could save the mountains from the new highway and the sprawl that will follow would be to restrict the volume of development and to bar development in ecologically sensitive areas. But the corridor runs through counties and cities with few or no rules against gross overbuilding.

Ultimately, it promises to stretch Atlanta's sprawl well past the long-debated Northern Arc expressway, about 75 miles from downtown and into the heart of Georgia's mountains.

"The construction of this truck route would be disastrous for a mountain environment already stressed by development and Atlanta's urban sprawl," says Robin Littlefield of the Mountain Community Alliance.

Littlefield, who lives in Dahlonega, and other north Georgians along the route formed the alliance and teamed up with the Sierra Club to try to block the construction of the corridor.

"We believe it would have a catastrophic effect on our environment, safety, economy, quality of life and culture," she says.

But the powerful folks who want the road appear to be winning the battle.

The route slices diagonally from the northwest corner of the state through the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Chattahoochee National Forest until it hits I-85 in Lavonia at the South Carolina border. It's projected to cost just shy of half a billion dollars.

The corridor starts in Trenton, four miles from Alabama and eight miles from Tennessee. Twenty-three miles to the east, motorists will hit Dalton, home to the impetus of the road.

Dalton's carpet moguls lobbied for construction of the corridor in the mid-1990s because they faced a transportation problem. Truckers hauling rigs stuffed with rolls of carpet from the "Tufted Textile Center of the Universe" must drive down I-75 to Atlanta, run east on I-285 and exit on I-85 heading north; either that or drive 18-wheelers up Highway 52 or U.S. 76, both of which are steep, two-lane mountain roads with hairpin turns and hills that strain even F-150 pickups.

Although it won't be an expressway (with exit ramps and above-grade lanes), the corridor is intended to work something like an outer-, outer perimeter. Like the long-debated Northern Arc expressway, it's supposed to be a shortcut for truckers heading to the northeast and mid-Atlantic states.

"This road will be much more desirable for use since there's no easy way to go east to west," says Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce President and CEO George Woodward. "And it will provide better access to Dalton, so it will promote some tourism in the area."

But it's hard to see how tourism will be encouraged by a road that takes everything scenic out of the term "scenic corridor." Unlike, say, with the Blue Ridge Parkway, this "scenic" route has few provisions to preserve or enhance the forests, rivers and vistas along the highway.

In fact, building the corridor will mean clear-cutting land that's as steep and fragile as it is green in the summer and bright yellow and red in the fall. It will graze the southern borders of the Rich Mountain Wilderness Area and Amicalola Falls State Park, and cut through Lake Russell Wildlife Management Area.

Sixty percent of the corridor's route will require adding passing lanes, straightening curves and widening existing two-lane highways. The remaining 40 percent will be built from scratch. The total cost of the highway, including construction and right-of-way acquisitions, is projected at $476 million.

Eventually, the Appalachian Scenic Corridor will be mostly four-lane; two thick, black strips of asphalt separated by a median cutting across the southern slope of the Appalachians and through stretches that are among the most biologically diverse places in Georgia.

Along the way, massive swaths of land will be clear-cut for truck stops, fast-food restaurants, hotels, gas stations -- each one replacing trees and natural drainage trenches with asphalt parking lots and black tile roofs -- the very things people head to the mountains to get away from.

Over the following 15 or 20 years, even more significant changes are sure to follow. Golf course communities and subdivisions on cul-de-sacs will replace mountainside forests and pristine creek valleys.

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