Road to ruin 

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

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The silt from construction sites, the reduction in natural stream buffers and stormwater runoff from road surfaces, parking lots, driveways and rooftops will stress fragile mountain rivers and streams even more than they already are stressed.

And since it's an east-to-west route and most rivers in the state run north to south, the corridor will cut across almost every river system in north Georgia.

Truckers heading east from Dalton will take a new four-lane over the Conasauga River until it crosses U.S. 411, just south of Chatsworth. The road will then traverse the upper reaches of numerous mountain streams as it piggybacks the existing U.S. Highway 76. At Ellijay, it will connect with Highway 52 and 26 miles later will cross over the Etowah River, which provides drinking water for much of metro Atlanta.

The upper Etowah and its more than 100 tributaries catch rain water in a 610-square-mile basin, which already is suffering flooding and reduced water quality caused by uncontrolled development.

By 2020, the Etowah's plight is likely to get worse: Between 27 to 30 percent of Cherokee County will be covered in manmade surfaces, according to a 1998 University of Georgia study. And upstream -- in the area affected by the Appalachian Scenic Corridor -- land that now filters crystal clean mountain water into the Etowah will be changed by development lured by the new road. Six to 9 percent of Dawson County, for example, will be covered by solid surfaces.

It doesn't take a genius to see what'll happen: Runoff from those solid surfaces will carry motor oil, exhaust soot, silt, pesticides and herbicides into the Etowah, home to 76 different species of fish. (The 76 species make it one of the richest river systems in the country in terms of biological diversity; the massive Colorado River, which dwarfs the Etowah in size, has only 25 species).

About nine miles downstream from the Highway 52 bridge is a place where the only sounds come from Amicalola Creek, an Etowah tributary, as it drops about 35 feet over rolling rapids.

Upper Etowah River Alliance Program Manager Candace Stoughton stands on large boulders next to Edge of the World rapid, taking pictures with a digital camera for her group's website. After finishing grad school at UGA, Stoughton formed the Upper Etowah River Alliance in 1997 to protect the river. She has her work cut out for her and she knows it.

She wants people to see this section of the watershed, even if it's on a computer screen, because the area is home to two species of endangered fish that don't live in any other river system in the world: the Etowah and Cherokee darters. Because this section of the creek runs through a state Wildlife Management Area, it's an area where the darters are less scarce.

"The road and other developments from it add stress to the [Etowah] watershed, not just to wildlife species, but on drinking water supplies, anything that requires clean water," Stoughton says.

There also are eight species of mussels on the endangered species list that are now believed to be extinct. Biologists haven't found a live mussel in the Etowah for several years. If they don't find any this year, they'll bring in other mussel species from a farming program at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.

The Etowah already has lost 15 fish species since the first biological inventories were done in the late 1800s, and it'll lose even more. And there are two other types of endangered darters in Etowah that haven't been even been named yet.

"These are little fish that most people never heard of," Stoughton says. "They just aren't as charismatic as eagles and polar bears, so it's hard for people to appreciate that they are worth protecting. A lot of counties are very interested in bringing growth to their counties, and that's a difficult trade-off. How do you know when too much development will impact your streams?"

You don't usually -- until it's too late.

Nobody pushing for the road wants to admit that it could ruin North Georgia. Then again, they aren't exactly disagreeing.

"Those are not totally invalid concerns. DOT's goal is not to ruin north Georgia -- it is a beautiful area up there," says DOT spokesman Bert Brantley. "The planning is done by local governments. We don't have any say over what they do [or] the way they control and restrict development."

That's precisely the line DOT officials used for years in the Atlanta region, where the agency's single-minded attempt to move people exclusively by automobiles created the traffic crunch and air-pollution mess that is the metro area.

Finally, Gov. Roy Barnes was elected on the promise that he'd clean up that mess and, to some extent, he did. He created the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority to coordinate road and transit plans all over metro Atlanta. But GRTA only addresses part of the problem: It just oversees metro counties that were hit with a federal road-building moratorium because state and local officials were only coming up with transportation plans that would make the region's air dirtier. And the governor never followed through on his aides' earlier promises that he'd address Georgia's impotent land-use planning system.



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