One of the most pleasing drives in Florida for Jim Thorsen is a nearly 60-mile stretch of State Road 40 between Ormond Beach and Silver Springs.
The mostly two-lane road winds through the heart of the Ocala National Forest and offers motorists a view of the world's most massive collection of sand pines. The thousands of unspoiled acres along the way are one of the last wild and uncrowded places still left in the Sunshine State. It's also where the largest population of Florida black bears exists.
"So you get a good feeling of old Florida and what it looked like in the days when [ Hernando] De Soto came over," said Thorsen, a retired district ranger with the Seminole Ranger District who worked in the Ocala National Forest for years. "It's something that people will not see anywhere else."
Federal transportation officials agree.
In October, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., that Central Florida's S.R. 40, dubbed the Black Bear Scenic Byway, has been designated as a National Scenic Byway, joining 150 other picturesque but less-traveled roads in 46 states.
The Black Bear Scenic Byway also includes two spurs on State Road 19 between Altoona and Palatka.
It wasn't the only Central Florida road honored. The popular Ormond Scenic Loop and Trail in Volusia County also was granted the prestigious federal designation.
The designation means the roadways now are eligible for federal grants that can go toward erecting signs, building information kiosks, establishing trailheads and publishing tourism brochures about the roadway to attract visitors.
It also means the surrounding area will be better protected from overdevelopment.
"We're really happy about it, because bears are very important," Thorsen said. "State Road 40 has one of the highest road kills for bears. But it's not just about bears. It's kind of a symbol for all wildlife."
'Amazing' number of requests
Thorsen pointed out that a variety of species besides bears cross S.R. 40 including deer, foxes, alligators and gopher tortoises. The area also is filled with scrub-jays and red-cockaded woodpeckers, both protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
When it comes to taking a scenic drive, Central Floridians have it good. Of Florida's six designated National Scenic Byways, four of them are in this area. Besides the Black Bear and the Ormond Loop byways, the others include portions of State Road A1A between Volusia and Duval counties and the Indian River Lagoon Scenic Byway on the east coast.
The Florida Keys Scenic Highway — also known as the Overseas Highway — connecting Key Largo with Key West, was named an All-American Road in October by federal transportation officials, the highest recognition possible under the National Scenic Byways program.
Florida also has a separate scenic-highway program started in 1993 through the state Department of Transportation. Since then, 24 road corridors — including six in Central Florida — have received the state designation.
"Since we started the program, it's been amazing how many applications we keep getting," said Mariano Berrios, state scenic-highways program manager and an environmental programs administrator for the state DOT. "It's getting to the point that if we designate too many, it may get watered down and [the roadways] will lose their significance."
State roadways are designated nearly biennially and the agency receives about three applications a year, according to Berrios. National designations have been handed out six times since 1996.
Joe Jaynes, chairman of the nonprofit Ormond Scenic Loop and Trail group, said the national designation puts the Florida roadways alongside other famous U.S. corridors, including Historic Route 66 in New Mexico, Illinois and Oklahoma.
The Ormond Loop — known as "The Loop" to locals — circles about 36 miles from Ormond Beach to the Flagler County line. It's long been a popular ride for motorcyclists and bicyclists because of its massive tree canopies.
Journey to special places
"These roads are really significant natural resources. So this is how we protect them and preserve them for future generations," Jaynes said. "You're singling them out as national treasures. … We want people to come here and see the beauty and stay in a hotel, and walk the trails, and get in a kayak. We want to enhance a visitor's experience."
The National Scenic Byways program was established by Congress in 1991 as an effort to recognize the country's scenic but less-traveled roads. It's also a way to promote tourism and protect the surrounding area from overdevelopment.
Getting a road designated a National Scenic Byway is a grass-roots effort, meaning that a resident, group or municipality must start the process. Roads must first be recognized as state scenic highways, under that state's separate designation.
National scenic byways also must meet at least one of six characteristics: scenic, natural, historic, cultural, archeological or recreational.
An All-American Road, the highest recognition possible under the National Scenic Byways program, must have more than one of those characteristic qualities and be considered a tourist destination unto itself.
"The scenic byway is intended to be a journey into a unique and special place," said Doug Hecox of the Federal Highway Administration. "They're meant to be enjoyed. … We want people to go out and enjoy these special, uniquely American, places. … We're trying to help Americans rediscover America."
Thorsen and a group of other wildlife enthusiasts have been working for the designation for S.R. 40 and part of S.R. 19 since 2004, after they found out about plans to widen S.R. 40 to four lanes. The widening would damage the surrounding area and lead to more deaths of bears and other wildlife, including deer, foxes and gopher tortoises.
After the group — known as the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway Corridor Advocacy Group — obtained the Florida Scenic Highway designation in April 2008, it then applied for national recognition this year.
Group chairman, Tony Ehrlich, who lives along S.R. 40, traveled to the nation's capital to receive the designation on behalf of his group. Jaynes also attended the event for the Ormond Loop designation.
"It's quite an honor for the state of Florida and quite a tribute to the natural beauty and the intrinsic wonders and resources of our state," Ehrlich said.
Martin Comas can be reached at email@example.com or 352-742-5927.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun