Ozark Run Scenic Byway Route

This is the originally proposed route for the Ozark Run Scenic Byway. Throughout the process there may be a series of alterations based upon local feedback.

No one is arguing about whether or not the Ozarks are a beautiful place or whether the highways selected on the proposed route are beautiful drives through rural communities with rich histories and areas ripe for outdoor recreation. The crux of the debate surrounding the Ozark Run Scenic Byway proposal is whether it is actually what locals want, what sort of restrictions the byway brings with it, and how much state agencies have to take local input into consideration.

The Ozark Run Scenic Byway is a proposed route designation that begins in St. Louis, weaves its way through the heart of the Ozarks, ending near Branson with the idea of bolstering tourism to the communities along the route as well as preserving the natural beauty of the landscape. As stated on the Ozark Run website, the purpose of such a designation is to “define and discover the Ozarks”. The website goes on to discuss the unique geological, ecological and cultural identity of the Ozarks and the value those qualities provide to tourism.

The route started as the idea of an individual named Eric Hermanson of Bridgeton (St. Louis County). Hermanson works in management for an I.T. consulting company in St. Louis, serves as a church organist and is a husband and father with a love for roads and maps. Hermanson is especially fascinated by scenic byways around the country and has traveled many around the nation.

Two years ago, Hermanson’s love for roads and maps and his respect for the byways that he has enjoyed as a tourist, as well his admiration of Missouri’s natural wonders, spawned an idea in the back of his head for what he hoped, at that time, would be a National Scenic Byway through the Ozarks with a route that extended beyond Branson and through parts of Arkansas and Oklahoma. Hermanson has recently dropped the ambition of designating it as a national byway and has since focused on making it a Missouri byway.

Hermanson began researching in his spare time what it would take to have a scenic byway designated in Missouri, which is what ultimately became his Ozark Run Scenic Byway proposal. During that time, Hermanson became acquainted with an organization called Scenic Missouri.

According to Hermanson, it was only after he began researching his idea, (which later became The Ozark Run Scenic Byway proposal), that he came into contact with Scenic Missouri.

Scenic Missouri is a chapter of an organization called Scenic America, which is an accredited charity and 501(c)3 headquartered out of Washington D.C.

Scenic Missouri has the stated purpose of enhancing and preserving the scenic landscapes and communities in Missouri.

Hermanson said that, after coming across Scenic Missouri last fall, it assisted him in the creation of the Missouri Application and Corridor Management Plan, which he later submitted to the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) in November of 2021, accompanied by several letters of support from Ellington Chamber of Commerce President, Christy Roberts; Pilot Knob Mayor Shelby Chan; De Soto City Manager Todd Melkus; Washington County Presiding Commissioner Dave Sansegraw; all three members of the Iron County Commission; all three members of the Franklin County Commission; Missouri Department of Natural Resources Director Dru Buntin; and Lieutenant Governor Mike Kehoe.

Once the application was submitted in November and reviewed by MoDOT, it was brought before the Scenic Byway Advisory Committee in March to be reviewed for qualification as a possible Scenic Byway, a committee that has representatives from MoDOT and 10 other Missouri state agencies, the Department of Tourism, Outdoor Advisory, the Department of Conservation, the Department of Natural Resources, Triple-A, the University of Missouri Historic Society, Scenic Missouri, the Chamber of Commerce and the Retailers Association. That committee rates the scenic qualities of an application.

Fast-forward to August and September when Hermanson gave 10 separate presentations in communities along the route.

Each presentation included Hermanson explaining the purpose and idea behind the route with a large portion of each hearing devoted to fielding questions from attendees.

To Hermanson, the goal of the project is straightforward and presented as its vision statement on the Ozark Run Scenic Byway website:

“The Ozark Run Scenic Byway will start in St. Louis, head south to the St. Francois Mountains, cross the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, head west past Bull Shoals Lake, and end near Branson. This 375-mile journey through small towns and wilderness will link together many natural and scenic highlights in the state, and provide access to numerous recreational opportunities. A scenic byway of this magnitude will help to unite communities and organizations around a common mission: bringing the world's attention to the Missouri Ozarks - a supremely beautiful, yet largely overlooked territory in the heart of our nation.”

Some communities were generally receptive, viewing the added potential tourism as a positive push to their local economies. This reaction is in line with Hermanson’s stated intention.

“There have been studies done that naming a route attracts people to visit and see what that place is all about,” Hermanson told The Salem News.

Doug Short, one of the commissioners in Washington County, told The Salem News that he and the other district commissioner, Cody Brinley, attended the meeting held in Caledonia. Short said that he and Brinley initially went in resisting the idea of the byways because of concerns surrounding property rights, but that once they were assured that it would only really affect the installation of new billboards their views changed.

“As long as it stays the way we understand it, we’re okay with it,” said Short. “We’re finding that tourism is helping our community,” he said. Over the past few years, Washington County has seen a steady increase to sales tax revenue, which Short attributed in part to tourism.

Short said that he didn’t see any harm in bringing tourism dollars to counties south of St. Louis.

Some Ozarkian counties were united in cause against the byway with Shannon, Oregon and Howell providing fierce opposition.

At his Shannon County presentation Aug. 30, Hermanson presented to a standing-room-only crowd that “appeared to remain skeptical,” according to the Sept. 7 edition of the Current Wave newspaper.

The Current Wave also reported: “Fears that the designation would take property rights and bring a raft of new state and federal regulations for local property owners were evident in the comments and questions posed by everyone who spoke.”

After Hermanson’s presentation, the people of Shannon were left unconvinced. The Current Wave published Shannon County Presiding Commissioner Jeff Cowen as saying that the Shannon County Commission plans to sign a resolution not to accept the byway in its county, and that “State Representative Chris Dinkins, who will be Shannon County’s representative next year due to redistricting, drew applause when she said that if the proposal has to do with the federal government, then people here don’t want it. No one spoke up or raised a hand when she asked if anyone in the room supported the proposal.”

“He had no idea what he was walking into,” Cowen said of Hermanson to The Salem News.

“We told him that if he had gone about this a different way, the people might have been more receptive,” said Cowen. “Not involving a national organization would have really helped him out,” he said.

Shortly after, Hermanson canceled the meeting in Oregon County that was set for Sept. 1 in Alton after being told by some that he better not show up in the town of Alton or Oregon County. The hostile response from Oregon seems counterintuitive since Oregon County was listed among groups in support of the byway on the opening page of the proposal. However, Oregon County officials deny having pledged any support for the project.

State Representative Ron Copeland, Shannon County’s representative until next year, was also present at the meeting.

“You’ve got a guy out of St. Louis touting the beauty of the Ozarks and the benefits of if you create a byway,” Copeland told The Salem News.

“He thinks it sounds like a great idea, and most likely everyone he talked to in the early stages thought that, too,” he said.

“Shannon and Oregon County have been taken advantage of over the years,” said Copeland, referencing generational property rights battles with the National Park Service.

“They worry that they are going to get more rights taken away,” said Copeland.

“Of course there’s different sides to every story,” said Cowen. “But when one side has been duped so many times it’s hard to trust the other,” he said.

Hermanson’s final meeting took him to West Plains in Howell County on Sept. 13, which he opted to cut short after attendees began taking personal verbal jabs at Hermanson and more than one person telling him in no uncertain terms to “go back to St. Louis,” according to an audio recording shared with The Salem News by the Howell County News.

Shannon, Oregon and Howell appear to stand together as a brick wall of opposition that divides support of the byway. Hermanson told The Salem News that he does not currently have an alternative route in mind. The Salem News spoke with Dent County Presiding Commissioner Darrell Skiles, who also attended the Howell County meeting. Skiles said that he would not be in favor of a route that went through Dent.

However, this doesn’t mean the end of the Ozark Run Scenic Byway. The route does not need to be contiguous, despite that being its auspicious and explicitly stated goal.

“There’s a good chance that this can go further, even if these communities don’t want to be involved,” Brenda Harris, assistant to State Engineer of Right of Way at MoDOT, told The Salem News.

“They don’t have to be,” she said.

From the very beginning, MoDOT already had to cut out various portions of the proposed route due to existing zoning requirements spelled out in Missouri statute. Hermanson’s original 375-mile proposal delivered to MoDOT was already shrunk down to 340-miles before the proposal was presented to the committee in March.

When driving on the same stretch of highway it might be possible to, without making any turns, travel off and back onto the portion of the highway designated as byway, Harris explained. Since scenic byways need not be contiguous, it matters little as to whether local governments in Shannon, Oregon and Howell approve the designation in their counties.

According to Harris, the route can cease having the designation upon entering into counties that do not approve the byway, and then upon leaving a county have the designation start again.

For example, if Reynolds and Ozark counties are among those that approve the byway, but Shannon, Oregon and Howell are not, then the byway designation could go away upon entering Shannon and drivers would simply need to follow directions to the next stretch of highway in Ozark County in much the same way that industrial and commercial zones would not technically be a part of the byway designation despite being along the designated route.

A county that chooses not to be part of the route designation would not have any restrictions imposed upon its part of the route, according to Harris.

Harris also spoke about some misconceptions surrounding the sorts of changes that the route designation of a scenic byway brings with it.

According to Harris, the only restriction that property owners would automatically face upon the designation of a scenic byway is a prohibition of building new billboards, which according to Harris doesn’t seem like it should be much of a concern to locals since, according to Harris, there have only been two billboard applications anywhere along this 340-mile route in the past five years.

Harris also said, “This is not a federal byway. It does not give us the authority to condemn. We do not monitor what people do on their property on the route,” she said.

The Corridor Management Plan (CMP), a required element of the byway application, outlines how the applicant plans to involve the local community and maintain, improve and promote the byway. According the Ozark Run Scenic Byway website’s ‘Common Questions’ section, a CMP “states the vision, strategies and theme for the byway. The CMP contains vision statements on ways to maintain, enhance or develop the intrinsic qualities of the roadway corridor.”

The website also explains that “Corridor” “commonly refers to the public right-of-way and the area adjacent to the roadway that possesses any of the intrinsic qualities. This may or may not include everything that can be seen from the roadway. The community and the local government define the corridor that best fits their byway’s important features. However, existing laws cannot be changed without local government approval.”

Local entities have 90 days after the hearing to respond to the proposal as presented.

Once the 90 days are up, Harris said that she will present a final version of Hermanson’s proposal before the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission with her own recommendation that it approves the proposal. At which time the commission will either deny or accept the proposal.

According to Missouri Statute 226.799 states that “The [Missouri Highways and Transportation] commission shall only designate a portion of a road or highway as a scenic byway if the governing body of the county or municipality containing that portion of the road or highway approves the proposed scenic byway as prescribed in this section.”

Neighboring statutes also enshrine the right of a local entity to change its mind about the byway designation. A county that approves of the designation may later resolve to no longer be a part of the designation and a county that resolves to oppose the designation may at a later time apply to be a part of the byway designation.

Hermanson pointed out that the route originally published on the website and with the CMP is being altered to include feedback from the various communities on the route. Hermanson told The Salem News a few days prior to the meeting in Howell that his plans no longer include Shannon or Oregon on the final proposal as well as any other counties that stand against it.