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Lady Bird Tribute

LBJ hands Lady Bird Johnson the Highway Beautification Act signing pen as others look on.- LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe
LBJ hands Lady Bird Johnson the Highway Beautification
Act signing pen. LBJ Library Photo by Frank Wolfe.

Just days after Lyndon Johnson was sworn into presidency in 1964, Lady Bird was asked to consider her duties as first lady of the United States. Although she originally focused on the Head Start program for preschool children, she quickly decided that “the whole field of conservation and beautification” had “the greatest appeal.” Without hesitation Mrs. Johnson contacted the Secretary of Commerce and called his attention to the junkyards along highways. Thus began one of her most well-known environmental efforts: the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which is still in effect today. From there, Mrs. Johnson became a leading proponent for more than 50 legislative efforts.

The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 was designed to control outdoor advertising along interstates and highways by limiting signs and billboards. It also required that junkyards along these highways be removed or screened and encouraged scenic enhancement and roadside development. Mrs. Johnson was heavily involved in supporting the legislative process to develop this law; her activities were influential in shepherding the law’s initial concept, its progress through Congress and its final enactment in October 1965.

Mrs. Johnson’s environmental awareness inspired a deep interest in conservation and beautification. Her advocacy inspired President Johnson as well as subsequent administrations and likely made it easier to pass other landmark legislation.

On July 26, 1968, President Johnson presented his first lady with a felt board holding pens that he had used in signing some 50 laws relating to conservation and beautification during his term in office. Attached to the board was a plaque that read: “To Lady Bird, who has inspired me and millions of Americans to try to preserve our land and beautify our nation. With love from Lyndon.” The most significant bills that President Johnson signed during his term include the Solid Waste Disposal Act, the Air Quality Act of 1967, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The Solid Waste Disposal Act, also signed in 1965, focused on research, demonstrations and training. It shared with the states the cost of making surveys of waste disposal practices and problems and of developing waste management plans. This bill was the predecessor to the Resource Recovery Act of 1970, which established the federal program that regulates solid and hazardous waste.

Lady Bird Johnson planting a tree on Earth Day - photo by John Averett.
Lady Bird Johnson planting a tree on Earth Day.
Photo by John Averett.

The Air Quality Act of 1967, an amendment to the Clean Air Act of 1963, was one of a series of steps made by the federal government to control air pollution. Although it was not the first clean air bill, President Johnson deemed this act to be the best at the time. It authorized more funds to combat air pollution and became an important stepping stone toward the enactment of more effective clean air legislation.

In 1972, President Johnson signed the Clean Water Act, which established the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the nation’s waters and regulated quality standards for surface waters. This act made it unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a concentrated source into navigable waters unless a permit was obtained.

When Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, it recognized that our rich natural heritage is of “esthetic, ecological, educational, recreational and scientific value to our nation and its people.” It also expressed concern that several of the nation’s native plants and animals were in danger of extinction. The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to protect and aid the recovery of imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.

Lady Bird’s involvement, dedication and commitment in preserving the nation’s treasured environment supported her obligation “to keep the beauty of the landscape as we remember it in our youth…and to leave this splendor for our grandchildren.” And this she fulfilled.

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