Alabama’s Scenic Byways Program

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.” Robert Frost

barbourcounty.jpgThe roads less traveled in Alabama are often our most beautiful. Everyone uses roads—they’re the backbone of our transportation system and without them, not much could get done. They’re how we get to work… how groceries get to market. But they are so much more, particularly when we open our eyes. Roads are how the world sees us. Roads are how impressions are made. Mostly, we see the world through our windshield.

Take the old-fashioned Sunday drive. No one got into the car after lunch on Sunday expecting to go anywhere—it wasn’t the destination that mattered, just that the wheels rolled and the scenery went by.

It is the idea of a Sunday afternoon drive that is the foundation of any pleasurable drive. If you’ve ever gone riding just to ride, you know. You know too if you’ve been on one of America’s most well known scenic drives, the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. The road IS the destination. Over ten million visitors drive some part of this 430 mile Parkway every year, stopping to purchase gas, food, crafts, lodging and services along the way.

There are tangible reasons why Alabama needs scenic byways. One of the most obvious is financial.  Increased business, tax revenue and jobs from tourism dollars along with the potential for additional federal and state funding for highway and roadside improvements are all possibilities with a successful program. And a byway in your community doesn’t require the same financial investment that building an industrial park requires. Basically, with a byway, a community must simply take pride in themselves and showcase to the traveler what is special about their road. The biggest investment comes in the form of community buy-in and personal pride.

And, that brings up the single most important part of the byways program. This truly is a grassroots program. Byways are conceived, shaped and managed by the community or communities through which they pass. The state program exists to help local communities work their way through the process of being a byway and to make certain that any corridors live up to the expectations of the traveling public.

Preserving the qualities that make a roadway special is at least as important as recognizing them to begin with—without them the road isn’t special anymore. That’s why each byway is required to develop a corridor management plan. A management plan is basically a roadmap to the future of the byway. It helps explain the types of growth expected, the way the roadway will be promoted and things along the roadway are particularly valuable and what isn’t really that important. The choice to have a byway begins and ends with people along the route.

lookoutmountain.jpgThe goal of the state program is to help people passionate about their roadways better protect the qualities that they treasure. If pastureland and catfish ponds are what make the roadway a special place, then those are important aspects to consider when changes such as new development occur.
The state program follows the successful national program in recognizing the qualities that make a roadway a scenic byway: they must have scenic, historical, cultural, archeological, natural, or recreational significance to fit into the state program.

A road that doesn’t have the obvious vistas of distant mountains or roaring waterfalls can be a byway if it has other important features. Perhaps the best example of a national byway that doesn’t fit the traditional mold is right here in Alabama—the Selma to Montgomery National Scenic Byway. It isn’t a particularly scenic road. There aren’t any mountains along the route. It doesn’t have numerous wetlands. But it has a history that makes it one of the most important roads in America.

The Scenic Byways program is designed to help focus attention on some of Alabama’s roadways, help promote those roads that are interested in becoming scenic byways, and provide rural Alabama with another economic development tool. Designation as a scenic byway provides a starting point for recognizing and protecting the beauty of our working lands (lands that are also used for catfish ponds, farming, timber production, and commercial development among other uses). There are three basic phases to becoming a scenic byway: eligibility, designation, and implementation.

The first phase, eligibility, involves developing a corridor story (a narrative that explains the significance of the route in an educational and interesting manner), inventorying the significant resources located along the roadway and confirming that these resources fit the criteria of the state program. The second phase involves designating the corridor as a byway and developing a corridor management plan. Finally—and most importantly—phase three involves actually implementing the recommendations found in the corridor management plan. This includes producing marketing materials, adding or enhancing visitor facilities such as pull-offs or rest areas, and working with community partners to create a long-term plan for the road.

Byways are a way to create community ownership for Alabama’s treasured landscapes, to protect our natural beauty and the distinctive character that makes Alabama more than just the place we live. It is what makes Alabama our home.

To learn more about the Alabama Byways Program, visit our website: And be sure to get out and enjoy the road!

by Joe Watts
published in the ACTION newsletter of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System

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