Billboard Companies Seek 'Hostile Takeover' of Utah’s Scenic Byways Program
January 23, 2024
Arches National Park, Moab, UT

A bill circulating through the Utah legislature has drawn the attention of Scenic America, affiliate organization Scenic Utah, and other supporters of scenic conservation across the state and the nation. The bill, aimed at restructuring Utah’s scenic byways program, is stirring controversy due to a provision that could grant billboard companies significant influence over byways committees.

Senate Bill 28, sponsored by Senator Wayne Harper (R-Taylorsville), proposes several amendments to the Utah State Scenic Byway Program. It addresses the criteria for designating a highway as a scenic byway, the process for declassifying such designations, and the nomination procedures for National Scenic Byways or All-American Roads. Notably, it seeks to eliminate the program’s current sunset date of January 2, 2025.

Since its inception in the mid-1980s, the Utah scenic byway program has successfully preserved and promoted distinctive roads that connect travelers to tourism destinations, exceptional recreational opportunities, and public lands. Utah currently boasts 28 national and state byways.

The bill proposes eliminating the current state scenic byway committee and forming temporary or ‘ad hoc’ scenic byway committees “as needed by call of the chair” and including on those committees a representative of the outdoor advertising industry. It is a sinister provision that will allow billboard companies to influence the program in ways that would lead to fewer scenic byway designations, fewer protections for existing byways, and more opportunity to segment ‘non-scenic’ sections of byways in order to add more billboards. Such a change would compromise the original intent of scenic byways—to showcase the natural and cultural treasures of the state while minimizing visual distractions.

The current process for nominating roads for designation or removal from scenic byway status belongs to local governments, who submit proposals to the Utah Scenic Byway Committee. SB28 would give final say on state scenic byway decisions to the state legislature, rather than the local governments and communities where byways are being considered.

Central to the concern is the potential for influence-peddling at the state level by billboard lobbyists and giving billboard companies the ability to prioritize their advertising interests over the preservation of Utah’s scenic byways.

“Granting billboard owners a pivotal role on the Scenic Byway Committee is like entrusting foxes with guarding a henhouse,” said Ralph Becker, chairman of Scenic Utah’s board of directors and former mayor of Salt Lake City. Becker believes the bill would further erode the ability of local communities to protect their scenic resources and reduce outdoor advertising. “This is the antithesis of what scenic byways are all about.”

“Scenic America is very concerned with what is happening in Utah for the primary reason that by allowing outdoor advertising industry representatives to be involved in the decision-making process could lead to the approval of billboards along scenic byways,” said Scenic America President Mark Falzone. “Scenic byways are supposed to be scenic. What we want is fewer billboards and less segmentation, and this legislation could result in more of both of those things.”

Scenic Utah Director Kate Kopischke sees through the claims of “equal representation” at the stakeholder level, and believes the bill has a much simpler overall objective. “This scenic byway bill is an effort to get a few more [billboards] up on scenic byways, where they’re currently prohibited.”

Scenic America and Scenic Utah stand unified in opposition to this bill. They emphasize the importance of maintaining the original vision of scenic byways as unspoiled corridors that celebrate nature, history, culture, and recreation. The outcome of this legislation will undoubtedly shape the future of Utah’s scenic byways and set a precedent for how other states navigate the balance between economic interests and the preservation of natural beauty.

Help Scenic America Stop SB28

Scenic byways should be scenic. End of story. Take action to tell Utah legislators that billboard companies should not have a say in byway decisions, and to vote NO on SB28.

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