Sunday 2 April 2017

Lady Bird Johnson's Highway Beautification Project

"The biggest decision of all concerns our highways, the greatest public works program of any civilization... our challenge is to see that these highways are not only superbly functional, but also in harmony with our landscape and a pleasant asset to our lives.  After all, this is a civilization where our favorite recreation is driving for pleasure." (Lady Bird Johnson)

With the construction of the Interstate Highway system overseen by President Eisenhower came the growth of the billboard industry, a force more powerful in the United States than any other save the Rifle Association.  The highways had become peppered with junkyards and billboards to the detriment of nature. Lady Bird Johnson, who accompanied her husband President Johnson on road trips from their Texas ranch to the White House, was tired of seeing the endless ads on the nation's highways.  President Johnson explained:  "We have placed a wall of civilization between us and the beauty of our countryside."

She mounted a campaign to curb the billboards amid fierce opposition.  Senator Robert Dole sarcastically called it "Lady Bird's Bill" and motioned that the word "Secretary of Commerce" be replaced in the Act with "Lady Bird", a motion that lost by only one voice vote.  But President Johnson would not be deterred, telling his staff:  "You know I love that woman and she wants that Beautification Act...and by God we're going to get it for her."  The act finally passed, after much debate, on October 22 at 1 am.

Decades later, there are mixed emotions about the Lady Bird's Bill.  Some say that while the goal of eliminating junkyards along the highways was achieved, the goal of eliminating billboards failed. Today, billboards are twice as big as they were in the 1960's.  The number of billboards has increased rather than decreased (450,000 today versus 330,000 in 1965).  Seventy thousand of the "non-conforming billboards" still stand today according to the New York Times.  Some of them which were knocked down by Hurricane Katrina. The billboard industry lobbied fiercely to get them rebuilt. (  

When new billboards are built, often trees are cut down.  Twenty of the most common birds have lost half their population in the past 50 years since Lady Bird's Bill first was signed.  But the billboard industry can take nothing away from Lady Bird's initiative.  Her heart was in the right place.


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