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Public Roads - Summer 2023

Summer 2023
Issue No:
Vol. 87 No. 2
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Forty Years of the Federal Lands Highway Program

by Doug Hecox and Scott Johnson
Aerial view of a mountainous area with trees, a lake, and a roadway with vehicles. Image Source: FHWA.
FHWA’s Federal Lands Highway Program, with its motto, “We work where you play,” brings America’s natural and cultural heritage within reach, like Many Glacier—a popular tourist area within Glacier National Park in Montana.

For 40 years, the Federal Highway Administration’s Federal Lands Highway (FLH) Program has built, maintained, and repaired one of the world’s largest transportation networks. Created in 1983, the FLH Program now manages a budget of more than $1.5 billion to oversee more than a half-million miles (805,000 kilometers) of roads, more than 11,000 vehicular bridges, and more than 1 billion acres on Federal properties owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Presidio Trust, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and National Park Service (NPS).

“Since 1905,” says Tim Hess, FHWA’s former associate administrator for FLH, “the Office of Federal Lands Highway and its predecessor agencies have assisted Federal Land Management Agencies in the design and construction of public roads, giving the American public access to and through the National Parks, the National Forests, and other Federally-owned lands. These roads, bridges, and tunnels allowed the public to access and experience the highest mountains, the quietest forest, the purest streams, and the best scenic views in America. The Office of Federal Lands Highway continues to this day to provide a safe, reliable, equitable, and resilient transportation system for all those accessing Federal Lands.”

Motorization of the Parks

In 1906, the West Coast was still recovering from the devastating earthquake and fires in San Francisco. More than 108,000 cars were in use, though America’s roads remained largely unpaved and rural. Cars of that era were still rare and, compared to their modern counterparts, unreliable and uncomfortable. The best-selling car that year was the Ford Model N, a four-cylinder two-seater with a top speed of only 40 miles (64 kilometers) per hour. Because of the rough condition of many roads, the undependable machinery powering such vehicles, and the relative shortage of trained mechanics, drivers rarely ventured too far from their respective homes. Interstate traffic was virtually nonexistent.

In the same year, at only 47 years old, Theodore Roosevelt was making his mark on the Nation. A few years earlier, America’s youngest president—elected in 1901 at 42 years old—made headlines by riding in a Columbia Electric Victoria Phaeton through parts of New England. It was the first time any U.S. president had ridden in a car as part of his official duties as commander in chief—making it the Nation’s first presidential motorcade.

A black and white photograph of antique cars in a paved parking lot lined by a rugged mountain and trees. Image Source: FHWA.
Vehicles fill a parking lot built on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which extends 469 miles and links the Shenandoah National Park (in Virginia) to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (in North Carolina).

Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for the great outdoors was widely known. The man who historians would later call the “conservation president” spent much of his two presidential terms in the White House preserving wildlife, naming national monuments, and creating five new national parks—Crater Lake in Oregon, Wind Cave in South Dakota, Sullys Hill in North Dakota (which was later re-designated a game preserve), Mesa Verde in Colorado, and Platt in Oklahoma (now part of Chickasaw National Recreation Area).

With a stroke of his pen, Roosevelt also enacted the Antiquities Act of June 8, 1906, which enabled him and his presidential successors to proclaim historic or prehistoric structures, landmarks, and other resources of historical value or scientific interest in Federal ownership as national monuments. Within the first 6 months of signing the act into law, Roosevelt proclaimed four national monuments—Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, El Morrow in New Mexico, and Arizona’s Montezuma Castle and Petrified Forest. He also used the act, in subsequent years, to protect a large portion of Arizona’s Grand Canyon as a national monument.

By the end of his second term, Roosevelt had called for the preservation of six cultural areas and a dozen natural areas. Much of the total land area of these sites was initially administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), since NPS was still 10 years away from creation.

Car ownership was climbing rapidly throughout the 20th century’s first two decades. For example, in 1900, the United States had 8,000 registered vehicles. By 1920, that figure had grown a thousandfold to more than 8.1 million. With the rise of registered vehicles came a rise in new drivers who were eager for new places to visit, and automobiles were increasingly driven beyond cities and into country hamlets and scenic picnic-friendly meadows. America’s tourism industry had begun.

In 1902, Henry G. Merry sneaked his 1897 Winton into Yellowstone National Park—making it the first car to enter the park. He raced his car past the guards at the Gardiner Entrance, who gave chase on horseback and caught up to him on a steep hill. The guards tied ropes to Merry’s car and dragged it to the park’s headquarters, where the park superintendent ordered it out of the park—after demanding a ride.

A black and white photo of a vehicle on a muddy road lined with trees. Image Source: FHWA.
A driver, attempting to navigate the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi, gets stuck in a muddy section of the unpaved roadway.

The Beginning of Drive-Throughs

While interest in exploring the Nation’s parks and monuments by car was growing, the official stance of the U.S. Department of the Interior—which manages America’s natural resources and heritage—was that no automobiles would be allowed in the national parks. Gradually, that stance began to change.

In 1907, a year after the enactment of the Antiquities Act, the issue was drawing congressional attention. Sen. Henry Myers (D-Montana) represented many constituents eager to drive through Glacier National Park, near Kalispell, in Montana. “We are very anxious to have the regulation so framed that automobiles may be used on the roads in the Park,” wrote Montana resident Fred Whiteside on March 24, 1911. “In the Yellowstone Park, nothing but horses are allowed, but we believe we have now reached the stage of civilization where it will be better to use automobiles even if the horses are to be left out.”

With the creation of NPS in 1916, there was a recognition of the need to create roads and bridges with which to accommodate growing public interest in these wild, new, untamed lands.

“The motorization of park transportation was generally regarded as a positive development,” wrote NPS Historian Timothy Davis in the 2004 book, America’s National Park Roads and Parkways: Drawings from the Historic American Engineering Record (The Road and American Culture). “Not only did it eliminate the tedious and uncomfortable experience of clattering along in slow and dusty stagecoaches, but by significantly reducing the time and expense of park vacations, automobiles made the national park experience available to a broader segment of the public,” Davis recalled. “The automobile was greeted with a mixture of enthusiasm and apprehension when it clanked and wheezed its way into national parks at the turn of the 20th century.”

A curvy roadway intersects a mountainous area covered with trees alongside an open view of the sky. Image Source: FHWA.
The portions of the Foothills Parkway open to the public provide breathtaking views within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Distinctive Designs

Upon its creation, NPS proclaimed, “that one of its most pressing tasks was to upgrade the [NPS] to accommodate motorists.” According to a book published by NPS, Historic Roads in the National Park System, “[d]esigners during the 1920s tended to perceive roads and buildings as necessary evils, and they incorporated a variety of means in their designs to achieve harmony with the surrounding environment.”

“Roads and related features were to be designed to harmonize with their surroundings,” Davis added, “and great care was taken to ensure that the parks were not gridironed by excessive road construction.” Road designers would commonly use onsite, natural materials that supported the local environs, and curvilinear road alignments that hugged the topography—techniques today known throughout the FHWA as “context sensitive design.” Because this approach was widespread throughout the newly minted NPS, these new roads gave national parks a “distinctive, identifiable look and feeling.”

Between 1909 and 1915, visitorship to the parks increased fourfold, from 86,089 to 335,299. The rise was partly due to sensational popularity of the automobile which made park vacations a reality for a large segment of the population.

In 1926, NPS formed a partnership with the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR)—the precursor to FHWA—to formalize a relationship that had been working well to construct new roads and rehabilitate existing roads in national parks.

This interagency agreement gave BPR responsibility for surveying, engineering, and overseeing construction of park roads, while NPS maintained control over the aesthetic and day-to-day management of road construction. Also, according to the 1995 online publication, Historic Roads in the National Park System, “[t]he roads constructed through this working arrangement included some of the best examples of road engineering and the most scenic roads in the United States.”

A two-lane roadway and parking area surrounded by a mountainous area and trees as well as construction trucks, a tractor, traffic cones, road stop signage, and a construction worker. Image Source: FHWA.
Work crews at Yellowstone National Park carry on the tradition that FLH and its partners have been directly engaged in for four decades—giving access to and through national parks, forests, and recreational areas.

The Joy of Park Roads

In the decades that followed, BPR built park roads while their State counterparts constructed roads to connect to or access them. Park roads were so well-designed that the joy of driving one became an integral part of the national park experience. For the last 40 years, the FLH Program has continued to uphold that legacy of excellence.

Driving on park roads has evolved into one of the recreational experiences that visitors relish most in parks. Few visitors go to Glacier National Park in Montana without driving on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, or to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado without driving on Trail Ridge Road.

As reliance on the U.S. government for road maintenance and construction grew, so did its financial needs. President Ronald Reagan enacted the Program in the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, signed on January 6, 1983. Nearly a century after Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, Reagan’s signature gave FHWA its mandate to build, preserve, and protect roads and bridges on all Federal lands.

“FHWA has a long and successful history of interagency partnership with Federal land management agencies,” says Hess.

Even now, more than a century after the creation of the first national parks and monuments, the high-quality roads and bridges that make visits to them so enriching remain the highest priority for the FLH Program. Each year, its hundreds of workers—alongside NPS, BLM, USFS, BOR, USACE, and USFWS—labor in scenic, but remote, locations, enduring difficult conditions, bad weather, rockfalls, and occasional encounters with bad drivers and wildlife. Nonetheless, the FLH Program is united by a central purpose: to ensure a safe and scenic travel experience for the millions of people who depend on them each year.

A two-lane roadway with a single vehicle bordered by railing, a forest, and mountains on the right, and trees and rocky terrain on the left. Image Source: FHWA.
Beartooth Highway in Yellowstone National Park—acknowledged as one of the most scenic roadways in the Nation—is one of the many picturesque highways and parkways designed and constructed under the Federal Lands Highway Program.

With its motto, “We work where you play,” FHWA’s FLH Program brings America’s natural and cultural heritage within reach.

“Federal agencies working together to carry out their missions, and to leverage each other’s expertise to fulfill those missions, is what this is all about,” Hess adds. “The over 700 people working in [the] FLH [Program] are proud to support our interagency partners by building transportation facilities which give the American people access to their national parks, forests and recreational areas in a manner that balances access with resource protection. This ensures our national treasures can be enjoyed not only by current generations but by future ones as well.”

Doug Hecox, deputy administrator for FHWA’s Oregon Division, has a journalism degree from the University of Wyoming. He has authored two books, and taught journalism and public relations writing at American University for 20 years.

Scott Johnson is the director of Federal Lands Programs within FHWA’s FLH Headquarters.

For more information, see