Western Highlands Scenic Byway gets national designation

Vernon. The historical society president said Vernon’s streams, woodlands, ski resort, hiking trails, and other attractions make it a natural fit for the National Scenic Byways Program, whose revitalization comes at a critical time for the travel and tourism sector.

| 23 Feb 2021 | 10:03

Vernon Township is included among the the Federal Highway Administration’s first new scenic byway designations in 11 years.

The Western Highlands Scenic Byway, which stretches along County Highway 515 from the intersection with Route 23 in Hardyston, which proceeds north to Vernon Township, loops around via County Highway 644, back to County Highway 517 and back around Route 94, and then north to the New York State border, was designated a National Scenic Byway by the Federal Highway Commission.

The nomination was made by the Vernon Township Historical Society, and along with Vernon, national scenic byway status was awarded to 34 municipalities across the United States.

“It’s absolutely huge for Vernon,” said Jessi Paladini, president of the Vernon Township Historical Society.

Vernon has it all

Established in 1991, the National Scenic Byways Program recognizes roadways with notable scenic, historic, cultural, natural, recreational, and archaeological qualities. Scenic America, a national environmental non-profit that preserves and enhances the visual character and scenic beauty of America, led the charge to revitalize and restore funding for the program.

Paladini said her group focused on scenic, natural, and recreational, although she said Vernon possessed every quality.

She cited attributes such as the township’s woodlands, Mountain Creek, the Appalachian Trail, the streams. The township also offers opportunities for fishing, boating, hiking, and birding.

“I’m not going to say I knew 100 percent we would get it, but I knew in my heart we needed to apply,” Paladini said. “I just had a feeling we would qualify.”

Paladini and fellow volunteer Shawn MaZur worked for nearly two weeks in 2020 to fill out the 70-page nomination form, which included photographing the byway, mapping it with GPS points and followed up in all the restrictive guidelines for the nomination.

Paladini said MaZur was the only person she knew who would be able to pinpoint all the coordinates.

An answer was expected in December but came in on Feb. 16. Paladini flipped through pages on the five-page letter until the last page listed the Western Highlands Scenic Byway on the list.

“When I saw that we were on the list, I was just ecstatic,” she said.

The route was named a New Jersey Scenic Byway in 2016. A management plan and a marketing plan were completed with nearly $500,000 in state funding and no local matching funds.

“Many people when they travel expressly take routes that are scenic byways,” Paladini said. “We hope it brings economic development to the town that we desperately need.”

Vernon Township Mayor Howard Burrell said on Friday he didn’t’ yet know what specific impact the designation will have on the township.

“To the extent that it will contribute to our community’s vision for a more vibrant economy, that’s a good thing,” he said.

Scenic byways rise during Covid
Scenic America took the lead to work with Congress to open a new nominations process and establish funding for the program. Through the leadership of Sen. Collins and Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), Congress included $16 million in funding for the program in the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act enacted on Dec. 29, 2020 — its first dedicated funding since 2012.
The program’s revitalization comes at a critical time for the travel and tourism sector as it contends with the devastating impacts of Covid-19 on communities that rely on a robust hospitality industry.
In 2019 alone, travel and tourism generated $2.9 trillion in economic impact according to the U.S. Travel Association. Scenic byways contribute strongly to those figures.
For example, the Blue Ridge Parkway generated $1.4 billion in economic output and supported 16,300 jobs in North Carolina and Virginia in 2019, according to the National Park Service. During the same year, the Natchez Trace Scenic Parkway brought $13.1 million in economic output to Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi, supporting 161 jobs. As Americans look for safe ways to return to travel, road trips and visits to parks and natural places are expected to have widespread appeal.