The initiative to protect and preserve the M-119 corridor originated in 1936. Mrs. C. F. (Alice) Irwin, an early preservationist and naturalist living in Harbor Springs was able, via her state-wide newspaper column, to initiate a grass roots effort to protect and preserve the corridor. At that time several hundred people met to consider protecting the corridor as opposed to other plans being entertained that would have significantly modified the route to accommodate growing usage. Mrs. Irwin successfully petitioned the State legislature to protect and preserve the road in its natural state. Based on a desire to control soil erosion and preserve the natural beauty the preservationists carried the day. That movement continues to the present day.

In 1993, the Michigan Heritage Route Program was created by Public Act 69 of 1993, giving the State of Michigan the authority to designate heritage routes. Under the Heritage Route Program administered by the Michigan Department of Transportation, local communities have the opportunity to apply to have routes designated under one of three categories:  scenic, recreation, or historic. Essentially, route designation enables local communities to preserve or market the corridor.

In June 2001, the M-119 Heritage Route Committee was formed to develop the M-119 Heritage Route Management Plan.  The Northwest Michigan Council of Governments (NWMCOG) staff members worked with a dedicated group of representatives from Cross Village, Friendship, and Readmond Townships and the Emmet County Lakeshore Association to develop the Management Plan. The Heritage Route Plan Committee met monthly to gather and review data and maps, and to draft and finalize the management plan.  The plan inventories the unique qualities of the roadway and  outlines a process for preserving and enhancing the special character of the area.  This document describes goals, strategies, and recommendations to promote preservation, maintenance and design, and safety.  The management plan was unanimously approved by local units of government and in December 2002, the Michigan Department of Transportation designated  M-119 as a Scenic Heritage Route. West Traverse Township was added in 2007.