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1. Landscape Diversity

Collection Issue

Not all of the nation's landscapes and physiographic regions are equally represented. Does the collection have sufficient geographic diversity? Is it comprehensive in any sense?

The landscapes and physiographic regions of America are not equally represented by the designated America's Byways®. A simple glance at the byway routes identified on maps of the United States shows significant geographic gaps in the collection. This initial impression is reinforced when the byways are overlaid on maps of landforms, physiographic regions, or eco-regions. Major gaps include the Great Basin and the Great Plains in the Continental United States, as well as Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

Firstly, it must be noted that non-participating States and Indian tribes are responsible for some of the gaps in geographic diversity. This is a result of the manner in which the Program has been designed—as a voluntary program based on grassroots initiative. However, even when State and Indian tribe boundaries are ignored significant gaps are evident, particularly in the Great Basin and the Great Plains.

While a voluntary program such as the National Scenic Byways Program (NSBP) cannot dictate the representation of intrinsic qualities across the nation, there may be opportunities to more fully represent the greater diversity of America's landscapes and physiographic regions. This paper suggests possible reasons for the geographic disparity within the collection and presents options to improve the diversity of the America's Byways® collection.


The following observations suggest possible reasons for the lack of diversity in landscapes and physiographic regions.

The label "scenic" continues to drive perceptions of the Program, visitor expectations, and eligible resources.

Despite the repositioning of National Scenic Byways and All-American Roads as America's Byways®, many individuals, Indian tribes, and State governments still perceive the Program as "scenic" byways.

The concept of scenery was strongly established in this country in the nineteenth century with a focus on the rugged and sublime landscapes of the mountains and the sea. This perception most strongly negatively impacts the Great Plains and Great Basin regions—areas often derided as "flat," "boring," or "flyover country." Such comments overlook the complex landscapes and rich heritage of these regions, and affect how people value the intrinsic qualities of these regions.

This preference for topographic complexity and vividness is also reflected in formal landscape assessment methodologies. For example, the Bureau of Land Management's guide to rating the visual appeal of a tract of land (BLM Handbook H-4410-1, Visual Resource Inventory) states that "Topography becomes more interesting as it gets steeper or more massive, or more severely or universally sculptured." Similarly, a research report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture states, "In general, the more varied the topography, the more appealing the setting" and incorporates topographic relief into a natural amenities index ("Natural Amenities Drive Rural Population Change", Agricultural Economic Report No. 781).

Personnel in many State scenic byways programs have little or no training in landscape evaluation.

DOT staff in many State programs are trained primarily in engineering and compliance. Our cultural perceptions make it easy for program personnel to appreciate byway designations for the sublime snow-capped mountains, rocky coastlines, and the less dramatic, but picturesque, woodlands and valleys of many regions. The more subtle landscape qualities of broad grasslands or endless fields of corn and wheat are not often perceived as "scenic." Early in the NSBP a byway official in a Midwestern State commented, "No eligible byways here, just corn." This comment not only demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the local landscape, but also suggests a lack of consideration for the possible historic, cultural, and archaeological intrinsic qualities likely associated with the agricultural legacy of his State.

Grassroots advocacy for a byway requires a resident population that may not be as readily available in some geographic regions.

The dearth of byways in the Great Plains and Great Basin may be a response to lower population levels, out-migration, and large publicly owned lands without a grassroots constituency. In Nevada, for example, approximately 80 percent of the land area of the State is in Federal ownership. Without a necessary population/advocacy base, it is difficult to initiate a grassroots program.

States without byway programs adversely impact the diversity of landscapes and physiographic regions.

With some States not participating in the NSBP, obvious gaps in landscapes and physiographic regions will result depending on the geographic location and land area of the State.

Landscapes and physiographic regions underrepresented in the collection are also underrepresented in historic, cultural, and archaeological intrinsic qualities.

The absence of byways in certain landscapes and physiographic regions suggests not only a lack of appreciation for natural features and systems, but also for the systems and features of human activity. If byways were recognized in the Great Basin or Great Plains for either "land" or "people" resources, one might infer that the imbalance between the two types of resources was based on an intrinsic qualities analysis and determination. However, the absence of both categories suggests an overall lack of valuation for intrinsic qualities.

Even with a voluntary program, some State byway efforts have improved regional landscape and physiographic diversity.

Two success stories are the Flint Hills Scenic Byway in Kansas and the Santa Fe Trail in Colorado:


The following options present opportunities and actions that may be considered to improve the Program's diversity in landscapes and physiographic regions.

Survey the academic and professional backgrounds and experience of State and Indian tribe byway coordinators and staff.

How many staff professionals with experience in landscape architecture, archaeology, or cultural resources are advising grassroots organizations or reviewing byway applications and corridor management plans? Is there a correlation between States and Indian tribes with diverse byway resources and diverse professional staff directing the Program?

Review the gaps within the landscapes and physiographic regions of States and Indian tribes with byway programs.

As desirable as it may be to represent all the landscapes and physiographic regions of the United States, the NSBP does not mandate all States or Indian tribes have a byways program. The Program should focus on filling the landscape gaps in the areas that currently have programs.

Establish an expert panel for the NSBP to promote greater diversity in landscape and physiographic regions.

Establish a NSBP panel of experts to discuss issues of regional scenic valuation and perception, and identify resources and institutions that may assist State and Indian tribe byway programs in underrepresented landscape and physiographic regions. Without directing the designation of new byways, such a panel may give impetus to State and Indian tribe programs and grassroots organizations unsure of their ability to contribute meaningful intrinsic qualities to the national collection.

Encourage the designation of long distance historic roads to expand the landscape and physiographic regions represented by the NSBP.

Segments of transcontinental highways such as the Lincoln Highway (Illinois) and Route 66 (Illinois, New Mexico, Arizona) have already been designated as America's Byways®. The designation of additional segments of these historic highways would positively impact both the Great Plains and the Great Basin regions. Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Utah, Texas, and Nevada would acquire significant byway mileage showcasing unique landscapes and physiographic regions.

Related Issues

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Level II Ecoregions
Designated byways shown overlaid on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency map of North America depicting 50 Level Two ecological regions.

Updated: 9/3/2013
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