By John Latta
Ah spring, and all those wildflowers and trees and shrubs so beautiful along our highways. But they didn’t all just grow wild there. In fact there was something of a fight to get them planted, and the opponents were eyesore junkyards and the girl wearing nothing but a smile and a towel in the picture on the billboard in the field near the big old highway.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched our interstate system in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that President Lyndon B. Johnson was made aware that all over America alongside these super roads were places of extreme ugliness.
LBJ was educated about the problem by the very person who set out to fix it: His wife.
The President and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson made extensive whistle-stopping road trips as part of his 1964 presidential campaign. In Portland, Ore., Johnson told his audience that the auto junkyards they had seen during the campaign “are driving my wife mad.” He revealed that she’d told him if he lost his race at least she’d have more time “to get out and do something about cleaning up the countryside and these old junkyards along our beautiful driveways.”
Finding his environmental message popular, LBJ took to saying, “If it’s beautifying they want, it’s beautifying they’ll get.”
In the first few weeks of 1965, Johnson, a landslide election winner, ordered the Bureau of Public Roads to require landscaping as part of all federal highway projects and to encourage the states to acquire easements so they could do the same. Johnson also recognized that the modern highway “may wipe out the equivalent of a 50-acre park with every mile.” Conceding that “ours is an automobile society,” the President said, however, that he did not want to curtail road building but to make “highways to the enjoyment of nature and beauty.” The task was twofold, he said. “First, to ensure that roads themselves are not destructive of nature and natural beauty. Second, to make our roads ways to recreation and pleasure.”
At the same time, Lady Bird Johnson was publicly wondering whether billboards were detracting from America’s natural beauty. But she was aware they couldn’t simply be torn down: “Well, it’s a big industry. It’s private enterprise. I do think, though, that public feeling is going to bring about regulation, so that you don’t have a solid diet of billboards on all the roads,” she said in a magazine interview. She also took the wives of LBJ’s cabinet members on a bus ride down newly opened sections of I-95 in Virginia – with a press bus right behind – to help make her case.
From the initiatives of the two Johnsons came the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. As expected, it was controversial and opposed by advertising lobbies, but regulations governing – although not banning – billboards were included. When the House of Representatives considered its version of the bill, a pointed but tongue-in-cheek amendment by Robert Dole (R-Kan.) to strike out the term “Secretary of Commerce” wherever it appeared in the bill and insert the words “Lady Bird” lost by a voice vote. For a more detailed account of passage of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, go to www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/beauty.htm.
Lady Bird Johnson went back to Texas with LBJ when, with the United States mired in the Vietnam War, he declined to run again. She began to very publicly push for the beautification of Texas highways by personally giving awards to highway districts that used native Texas plants and scenery to the best advantage. Today, on 279 acres of Texas Hill Country land near Austin, there is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (www.wildflower.org), a brilliantly colorful, natural tribute to her.
So this spring, remember Lady Bird Johnson when you see those acres of roadside wildflowers and there isn’t a billboard or a junkyard to spoil the view. As summer rolls around, think of her as cool green trees line your route.
The Federal Highway Administration has exhaustive details about the Johnsons’ highway beautification work. I need to thank, and refer you to, Kathleen A. Bergeron’s story in March/April’s Public Roads and Richard F. Weingroff’s research that you can find at www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/ladybird.cfm.