This article was written by Josh Mitchell • Staff Writer for the Smoky Mountain News
When Neal Hoppe dies he wants his body cremated and his ashes spread over the Macon County Airport.
“When I die, my soul will depart my body,” said Hoppe, who manages the airport’s terminal. “I don’t want a hole dug for me.”
The Macon County Airport is the best place to scatter his ashes because, “It’s a beautiful place,” said Hoppe as he drove down the airport’s taxiway.
Once Hoppe’s ashes are spread at the airport, he will join Cherokee Indians who made the Iotla Valley their resting place hundreds of years ago.
The Cherokee bodies buried at the site are now a huge source of controversy because the airport’s runway is proposed to be extended over the gravesites. The project has upset many people who think the Macon County Airport Authority and state and federal agencies are desecrating the Cherokee heritage.
The Airport Authority, however, says archaeology recovery is taking place, burial sites will not be disturbed and state and federal laws are being followed.
The runway extension seemed like a sure thing just a week ago but is now facing opposition from all fronts. Necessary federal permits are still pending for the project, the environmental assessment hasn’t been finalized, legal action from both environmentalists and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has been threatened, one county commissioner wants to withdraw local funding for the project and the Airport Authority’s argument that the project is needed for safety has had a hole shot in it.
Solid legal footing?
Airport Authority Attorney Joe Collins said he thinks the Airport Authority is on solid legal grounds.
Cherokee Attorney General Annette Tarnowski said there has not been any decision made by the Cherokee in terms of what, if any, legal action to take. The Tribal Council is looking at all its legal options, but Tarnowski would not elaborate.
It is a matter of great concern to the Cherokee because of the number of gravesites, she said.
The controversy has been eight years in the making and is coming to a head as archaeologists are now working on excavating the artifacts at the site to prepare to extend the 4,400-foot runway by 600 feet.
The problem is that artifacts are only being removed from 25 percent of the five-acre area that will be impacted by the project. The remaining artifacts will be left in place.
Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a contingent of other concerned citizens are outraged that the Airport Authority, the Federal Aviation Administration and the state archaeologist would allow artifacts and human burials to be put at risk.
Those against the project, including Cherokee Principal Chief Michell Hicks, said 100 percent of the artifacts should be excavated before it is paved over. Failure to do so could erase the archaeological record. Hicks said there could be some protests coming to Franklin.
But Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory said it would cost $2 million to do total artifact recovery — money the Airport Authority doesn’t have. The Airport Authority has contracted with TRC Environmental of Chapel Hill for $535,000 to recover the 25 percent. Hicks said the tribe is unwilling to pay the difference to do a complete excavation, saying it is the responsibility of the county and Airport Authority to do the right thing.
The entire runway project is expected to cost around $3.5 million, according to Airport Authority member Tommy Jenkins. County officials say the project is being funded 90 percent with N.C. DOT Division of Aviation grants and a 10 percent match from the county.
So far, four archaeologists have weighed in on the project. Two support the runway project moving forward, while the other two believe it is an abomination.
The one whose opinion matters most, however, is State Archaeologist Steve Claggett. Claggett decided how much of the site must be excavated before the runway project could move forward. He settled on 25 percent excavation, saying 100 percent is unnecessary because it wouldn’t result in learning anymore about the Cherokee. Moreover, Claggett said many of the artifacts at the site are damaged anyway from being plowed up when the land was farmed.
Claggett said the project is being done in accordance with all state and federal laws. However, some archaeologists disagree with Claggett and say 100 percent artifact recovery should occur.
An archaeological survey done on the site in 2000 indicated the presence of some 400 burials and numerous artifacts.
Claggett said the goal is to focus the artifact recovery on the areas that were identified as having the highest concentrations of materials. So even though artifact recovery is only occurring on 25 percent of the five acres, more than 25 percent of the artifacts may actually be recovered, Claggett said.
As far as the burials go, they are remaining in place at the request of the Cherokee. If remains are accidentally uncovered during work, “all work will cease within 50 feet of the remains,” according to a memorandum of agreement signed by the Airport Authority, Federal Aviation Administration, State Historic Preservation Officer Jeffrey Crow and the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The Cherokee refused to sign off on the agreement.
Columbia S.C. archaeologist Michael Trinkley is appalled at the minimal artifact recovery taking place at the site. Too little work is being done considering the value and significance of the site, he said.
Trinkley is the archaeologist who performed the initial assessment in 2000 and said burials and artifacts will be destroyed. He said he thinks about 250 burials will be destroyed.
“I think it’s terribly disrespectful,” Trinkley said.
If it is not stopped, one of the more important archaeological sites in the state will be destroyed, he said. The burials will be destroyed when soil is removed, when equipment bogs down, when soil compacts and when fill is brought in, Trinkley said.
But Airport Authority Chairman Gregory said the earth will not be cut into during the project, meaning the burials will not be destroyed.
The burials could have been removed from harms way using appropriate techniques, such as hiring Cherokee elders and a shaman for reburials, said Trinkley.
But this did not occur because the Airport Authority never made any effort to reach a compromise with the Cherokee, he said. The Airport Authority denies this, saying it tried for eight years to work out an agreement with the Cherokee to no avail. Furthermore, the Cherokee specifically requested that the burials be left in place.
Trinkley said that the Airport Authority attempted to hide the project from the public rather than discuss it.
The manner in which the project has been handled is “corrupted,” he said.
As for other archaeologists in the mix, Russ Townsend, an archaeologist for the tribe, is opposed, while the archaeologist who landed the half million contract to do the partial excavation work is in support of it.
FAA has final say
The FAA is the ultimate authority on the project, said Claggett. The main law that had to be followed in regards to the archaeology at the site was Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.
According to Claggett, the law does not specify a “magic number” when it comes to how many artifacts have to be removed from a site.
Advisory Council on Historic Preservation spokesman Bill Milhans in Washington agreed that all the law requires is for the impact on archaeological sites to be considered. He said how much artifact recovery takes place depends on the significance of the site.
In this case, FAA consulted with the State Historic Preservation Office and decided 25 percent artifact recovery would be sufficient. Milhans said ACHP agreed that 25 percent artifact recovery is in accordance with Section 106.
An environmental assessment done by the project engineer WK Dickson of Charlotte states that the project will have “no significant impact” on the environment, artifacts or burials at the site.
The consultant’s findings were adopted as the official stance of the N.C. Division of Aviation, which holds the purse strings to the federal grant money paying for the runway expansion.
The state agency ruled that the project is in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act and will not “significantly affect the quality of the human or natural environment.” The public can make comments on the environmental assessment and dispute the finding of no significant impact to the State Environmental Review Clearinghouse until March 17.
Trinkley complained that there isn’t even a copy of the document to review locally, making it difficult for people to comment on something they don’t have access to. Trinkley wondered if that is illegal.
Further, Trinkley questioned the legality of the Airport Authority moving forward with artifact recovery prior to the environmental assessment going through the public comment period. Trinkley has submitted a letter to the State Environmental Review Clearing House disputing the finding of no significant impact.
Macon County resident Lamar Marshall said the environmental assessment is flawed and plans to sue on the grounds of violations of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. He said the environmental assessment is flawed because it contains out-of-date information that does not take into account species that have been listed as endangered in the past 10 years.
The Airport Authority failed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in regards to endangered species, said Marshall.
“The current EA is a cheap and erroneous shortcut that failed to disclose the cumulative impacts of serious environmental issues...,” said Marshall.
The Airport Authority also needs a water quality permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to proceed. Lori Beckwith, a biologist with the Corps in Asheville, said the Airport Authority submitted an incomplete permit application. Once the Corps gets a complete permit it will be open for public comment for 30 days, she said.
What is the need?
Gregory and other Airport Authority members have stressed that the project is needed to make the runway safer. Gregory has repeatedly noted that a husband and wife died in an airplane crash at the airport in 1995 because the runway was too short. Gregory said a life is more important than artifacts.
But Macon County resident Michael Wyrick said the report from the National Transportation Safety Board indicates that the runway length had nothing to do with the crash.
The cause of the crash was determined to be a “the pilot’s failure to maintain flying speed resulting in an aerodynamic stall. A factor was sun glare,” the NTSB report states.
“From this we can see the aircraft never made contact with the runway and therefore the extra 600 feet of runway would not have helped,” Wyrick said.
And he said the plane that crashed was certified to operate on a 2,000-foot runway, so Macon’s 4,400-foot runway should have been ample.
When asked to comment on the crash report’s assertion that the accident was not a result of the runway being too short, Gregory said he had no comment.
Wyrick said he has been a licensed pilot of the past 28 years and was in management at the Asheville airport for 15 years, and he doesn’t think the runway extension is necessary.
He said if there were a lot of large companies wanting to fly in and out of the airport it might be necessary, but that is not the case. He added that the last accident that occurred at the airport was eight years ago.
About 10 residents vented their opposition to the project at the Macon County commissioners meeting on Monday (March 9).
The residents said it is disrespectful to the Cherokee to destroy artifacts and burial grounds.
The commissioners took no action on the comments.
Some residents said if it were a white graveyard it would be looked at differently.
The county’s real strength is in its cultural heritage and it should be protected, the residents said.
Resident Kathleen Walker questioned whether a runway extension is necessary. She said rushing to meet a grant deadline is no reason to extend the runway.
Other residents said an extended runway will decrease the quality of life for the area by bringing in more and larger airplane traffic.
The Airport Authority has stressed that the Macon County Airport will never be used for commercial flights. Gregory has said that once the runway is extended to 5,000 feet it won’t have to be extended again.
Resident Norma Ivey said there is a petition circulating with 84 signatures already against the project. And resident Susan Ervin said Macon County has always worked hard to protect its heritage and should do the same in this case.
Tribal Historic Preservation Office archaeologist Russell Townsend told the commissioners he wants to seek a compromise with the Airport Authority. Townsend said he did not have a specific compromise in mind.
‘No room for compromise’
Gregory told the commissioners there is no room for compromise. Gregory said he thinks his board has done everything it can to accommodate the Cherokee.
The project can’t be delayed because the grant money could be lost, said Gregory.
Commissioner Bob Simpson asked Gregory how long the Authority has before it loses the money, but Gregory didn’t know.
Simpson said he supports pulling the county’s 10 percent match from the project if 100 percent artifact recovery isn’t done. But he does not know if the money can be pulled because it was committed years ago.
However, Commissioner Jim Davis said he is “comfortable” with 25 percent artifact recovery.
Commissioner Bobby Kuppers said he thinks more information needs to be exchanged.
Townsend said it doesn’t appear to him that the county commissioners are going to step in and try to change anything.
The Macon County Airport brings in about $7.9 million annually, according to a N.C. DOT Division of Aviation study from 2006.
Airport Fixed Base Operator Neal Hoppe said if the runway were extended more businesses may come in. Macon EDC Chairman Mark West supports the project for its economic development potential.
A longer runway would make insurance on airplanes more affordable, said Hoppe.
Caterpillar does not fly into the Macon County Airport because the runway isn’t long enough, Hoppe said. Caterpillar said it was not taking a position on the issue of whether the runway should be lengthened and offered no further comment.
At 4,400 feet, Macon’s airport is longer than Jackson County’s, which is only 3,200 feet. But it is shorter than the Andrews/Murphy Airport has a 5,500-foot runway where some planes would rather fly into, said Hoppe.
There are about 30 planes registered at the Macon County Airport, said Hoppe.
Hoppe balks when people say that taxpayer money is being spent on a “rich man’s playground.”
The airport is an “economic stimulus” to the county, bringing in people who purchase things here, said Hoppe. Many who fly here have second homes in Highlands, he noted.
John Makinson has a two-seater Cessna at the airport and said the runway length is fine for a plane his size, but he said corporate jets and cargo planes need more runway.
Whether the runway extension is actually needed depends on the type of growth Macon County has, said Makinson.