Interstate 3, or “How I learned to love the road” – Part 1

Stekoa Creek enters the Chattooga RiverI used to work on the Chattooga River, which is the northwest border of South Carolina and Georgia. Designated “Wild and Scenic” by Congress in 1974, it is one of the last undeveloped free-flowing rivers on the east coast. Located in three National Parks, it is carefully protected and jealously regulated by the National Forest Service. Only three professional outfitters are allowed to operate on its pristine waters and enjoy world-class white water rapids. But the proposed development of a major Interstate highway threatens the river. Nearly all attractions in the area are directly connected to the Chattooga or the many local waterfalls; damaging the watershed would damage the outdoor tourist industry, which brings hundreds of thousands of people to the region each year.

The valleys and gorges through which the river flows are beautiful examples of Appalachia’s rich biodiversity.

“Local researchers have established that the Chattooga River watershed is a unique ecotone for the temperate deciduous forest — a transitional area providing habitats for both northern boreal and southern tropical species in one drainage basin” (Bruce et al., 1995).

Many threatened and endangered species live here, and the well-managed head waters ensure that the river is clean and clear. If you don’t mind giardia, you can even drink the water. Tourists travel hundred or thousands of miles to sample the Chattooga’s rugged wilderness, unique and exciting rapids, and get a taste of Hollywood history: Deliverance was filmed here and is often credited for bringing white water sports into the public eye.

The proposed development of Interstate 3 would connect Savannah, Georgia with Knoxville, Tennessee and cut right through the Chattooga watershed and other protected lands. The existing Interstate system bypasses this remote region because the topography does not support gentle, straight roads of any size, as illustrated by I-40. While the Chattooga River itself is protected by its “Wild and Scenic” status, its sustained health relies upon the protection of its headwaters. GORP.away.com sums up nicely:

“Many think the Chattooga River is protected and preserved under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act… However, the river faces water quality threats as some of its unprotected watershed lands are developed and tributaries become polluted.”

Polluted water is more than a buzz-kill for outdoor enthusiasts. Water quality is key for sustaining plants, insects and fish in the ecosystem, and of course for human activities. Stekoa Creek is a prime example or poor watershed management. As the Chattooga’s most-polluted tributary, it introduces a plume of sediment into the river so thick, all of the water downstream resembles chocolate milk (See image: There are no shadows over the river, that’s mud meeting crystal clear water).
ChattoogaRiver.org provides a handy I-3 fact sheet with a time line and the reasons it was originally proposed:

1) to provide a linkage between military facilities to provide better national security;

2) for economic benefits, more expeditious transportation and safety;

3) to honor the U.S. Army 3rd Division that served as the “tip of the spear” during the latest Iraq war.

4) to move tritium and MOX fuel between the Savannah River nuclear facility to other nuclear power plants and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for processing.

Opponents ask whether the region really needs a new Interstate. The currently favored route would only shorten the Savannah-Knoxville trip via I-40 by 15 miles. It would cost billions of dollars and move radioactive materials along treacherous roads that frequently experience fog and ice. The project has already experienced setbacks.

Despite local and regional opposition, the legislators in Congress continue to push the project. Representatives from Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina do not rely on small mountain populations for reelection. They claim the Interstate would improve national security, boost local economies, and relieve traffic in distant Atlanta. I intend to investigate this issue further and report back in future posts.

What is your opinion? Would a large highway improve rural, remote mountain communities and economies? Would a project of this size permanently damage the Chattooga watershed? Should the concerns of small communities override the needs of the military or metropolitan areas?






  1. Carolyn Strong

    I live in Hiawassee, Georgia. I moved here to get “away” from what this highway would bring here. Not only is this a watershed area, it is home to thousands of wildlife species. This is where people “come to vacation” to get away from “it”. By allowing this to come through, it would damage the allure of the mountains.

    My other reason…with this budget out of control, wouldn’t it be nice to pull back the dollars spent and use them for something that everyone wants..SMALLER GOVERNMENT…AT A SMALLER COST. The people in Towns County are vehemently against this Interstate.

    1. Philip DeNigris

      But everybody else around the region seems to support it. Being a roadgeek myself, first Interstate 40 does NOT provide a direct route from Chattanooga to Savannah, you need I-16, and I-75. The Atlanta commute is god awful, and Augusta needs interstate access. Besides, they’re not doing much with nuclear waste these days. Although a violation of highway numbering standards, the Interstate 3 is heroic. Besides, what’s all this “oh the landscape’s gonna get damaged” crap all about? It won’t affect it at all! All of the other interstates built in this region were built without controversy and had to go through the areas that I-3 is going through. But now, all of a sudden, here comes I-3, just let the highway get built! It’s totally necessary. God Bless America!

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