When you think of scenic byways, you probably envision roads winding through beautiful countryside, charming towns, or dramatic landscapes. However, to earn an America’s Byways designation a roadway does not necessarily need to fit this traditional “scenic” definition. The National Scenic Byways Program recognizes roads that meet any one of six intrinsic criteria: scenic, natural, recreational, historic, cultural, or archaeological; All-American Roads must possess at least two of these criteria of national significance, while National Scenic Byways must have one of these criteria of regional significance. While many of the 184 designated roads (217, including multi-state byways) certainly are scenic, not all of them qualify under the “scenic” criteria. In fact, a closer look at all of the designated byways reveals that only 69 of 217 byways claim the scenic criteria as their qualifying factor.
According to the Federal Highway Administration’s scenic byway application, a road with a scenic intrinsic quality offers:
“a heightened visual experience derived from the view of natural and manmade elements of the visual environment of the scenic byway corridor. The characteristics of the landscape are strikingly distinct and offer a pleasing and most memorable visual experience. All elements of the landscape – landscape, water, vegetation, and manmade development- contribute to the quality of the corridor’s visual environment. Everything present is in harmony and shares in the intrinsic qualities.”
To claim the specific “scenic” intrinsic quality a byway must demonstrate that it meets this criterion. The application requires byways coordinators to identify up to eight points of interest along the route that embody that this quality and provide documentation supporting this claim. For an All-American Road designation, coordinators may highlight up to 16 points of interest.
Interestingly, this “scenic” intrinsic quality is not the most common attribute among the designated Byways and All-American Roads. Rather, it ranks second behind the “historic” quality, which is claimed by 106 byways. This quality is defined by FHWA accordingly:
“The Historic Quality encompasses legacies of the past that are distinctly associated with physical elements of the landscape, whether natural or manmade, that are of such historic significance that they educate the viewer and stir an appreciation for the past. The historic elements reflect the actions of people and may include buildings, settlement patterns, and other examples of human activity. Historic features can be inventoried, mapped, and interpreted. They possess integrity of location, design, setting, material, workmanship, feeling, and association.”
The third-most common intrinsic quality is “natural,” defined as:
“Natural Quality applies to those features in the visual environment that are in a relatively undisturbed state. These features predate the arrival of human populations and may include geological formations, fossils, landform, water bodies, vegetation, and wildlife. There may be evidence of human activity, but the natural features reveal minimal disturbances.”
Closely related to the “scenic” quality, natural significance is claimed by 48 scenic byways.
With so many roadways seeking recognition for their historical significance and natural qualities as well as their scenic beauty, it’s easy to see why the work of scenic conservation, environmental protection, and historic preservation organizations are closely connected. In many ways, these significant roadways bring us all closer together and provide more avenues for collaboration and partnership.