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Past Issues Of Wildflower Magazine

Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.

America the Beautiful - Fall 2005

A look at the Highway Beautification Act and dreams for a beautiful America
Article by Christina Kosta

"There is a part of America which was here long before we arrived, and will be here, if we preserve it, long after we depart: the forests and the flowers, the open prairies and the slope of the hills, the tall mountains, the granite, the limestone, the caliche, the unmarked trails, the winding little streams - well, this is the America that no amount of science or skill can ever re-create or actually ever duplicate. This America is the source of America's greatness. It is another part of America's soul as well." - President Lyndon Baines Johnson at the signing of the Highway Beautification Act, October 22, 1965

The nation approaches the 40th anniversary next month of the passage into law of the Highway Beautification Act - designed to protect natural and scenic beauty along federal-aid highways by controlling billboards, screening junkyards, and providing for landscaping along these roads - it is fitting to reflect not only on the passionate words of the law's backers but on the period of time itself. For the time, the Highway Beautification Act represented just one piece of an intricate web of interrelated issues and policies that spawned an unprecedented awakening among Americans about the environment.

During LBJ's presidency alone (from 1963-1969), more than 15 Acts related to the environment were created, including the Air Quality Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Water Quality Act, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, and the Clean Air Act. President Johnson created 47 national park sites - more than were created under any of his predecessors and an accomplishment about which Lady Bird Johnson says today that she is most proud.

Of course, it is Mrs. Johnson herself who is credited as much if not more than her husband for heightening awareness of environmental issues during the 1960s. Working on beautification efforts within Washington, D.C., she created the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital and then expanded her program to the nation, traveling far and wide to promote conservation efforts.

"Conservation and the environment," she tells us today, "were something that was at the time deep in the hearts of everyone, and it started in response to the 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty. The nation appeared receptive to a new, timely, and exciting idea. It was something that I loved and felt that I could make a contribution to that was lasting and beneficial."

Our conservation must be not just the classic conservation of protection and development, but a creative conservation of restoration and innovation. Its concern is not with nature alone, but with the total relation between man and the world around him. Its object is not just man's welfare, but the dignity of man's spirit. - Excerpted from a message from President Lyndon Baines Johnson to Congress on February 8, 1965, preceding the White House Conference on Natural Beauty As National Parks Service liaison with the White House advising on beautification issues, Nash Castro worked with Mrs. Johnson on helping beautify Washington, D.C., and traveled with her as she spread this message nationally. Castro remembers first seeing the president's "green side" when he addressed a crowd at the University of Michigan in May of 1964, speaking of a "great society."

"The quest for natural beauty was really to be one of the pillars of his Great Society," says Castro, who saw more of LBJ's passion for the environment when the White House Conference on Natural Beauty came together a year later. "President Johnson saw a real need for more attention to be given to the environment. He had a 'green side' that has never been credited to him."

According to Castro, the last time the environment had been high on the national agenda was under FDR, before World War II and its aftermath captured the nation's attention. And none of what happened in the 1960s, Castro says, could have been accomplished had it not been for the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission that was commissioned by Congress in 1958. The ORRRC report led directly to establishment of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (now the Bureau of Land Management) and the Land and Water Conservation Fund as well as to major expansion of the National Park System.

Under the Johnson administration, and through Mrs. Johnson's efforts, conservation "reached a higher dimension than ever before in the nation's history," says Castro. "Highway beautification just resonated with the American people. Highway beauty is so 'there,' so highly visible. Beautification lifted the American spirit."

Although she says a better name may have existed for the movement that encompassed conservation along with clean air and water and the protection and enhancement of our nation's natural scenic beauty, Mrs. Johnson also credits beautification with having had a profound impact on the nation's morale at the time.

She now tells us, "Because serious problems faced us, it was important that we worked to make good things happen, too. Beautification was very doable at home, along highways, in shopping centers, gas stations, golf courses, and other amenities - and the results were pretty immediate."

"Fortunately, if we want to badly enough, we can do much to change what is not pleasurable to the eye and spirit. Even in the poorest neighborhoods, you can find a geranium in a coffee can, a window box set against the scaling side of a tenement, a border of roses struggling to live in a tiny patch of open ground. Where flowers bloom, so does hope." - Lady Bird Johnson

As difficult as it is to measure beauty, it may be impossible to calculate the success of the countless measures adopted on behalf of the environment during and since the 1960s. Many believe, however, that still more needs to be done and that the present time marks another pivotal era for the environment in America. New government agencies as well as private organizations have sprung up in the past two decades, demanding more change related to beautification and conservation issues that came out of the Johnson period.

Scenic America is among them. The Washington, D.C.-based group was founded in 1982 by concerned citizens - many of them members of the Garden Club of America - who were discouraged by amendments to the Highway Beautification Act that had weakened its ability to function as it was originally intended.

Today the organization often refers to the sense of place embodied in our nation and in each individual region, a concept Mrs. Johnson has long espoused. Kevin Fry, the organization's executive director, says, "At no time in American history has 'sense of place' been a more important issue. The homogenization of the American streetscape has left many communities struggling to find identity and visual coherence."

Fry points out suburban settings, where scenic resources and individual hometown assets are especially obscured by billboards and franchise signage, poorly sited enormous telecommunications towers, and overhead power lines.

Through statewide affiliates and other partners at the state and local levels, Scenic America works to confront billboard blight and on other initiatives dedicated to protecting our nation's scenic beauty and combatting visual clutter. Success in these areas is measurable. Scenic Texas, for instance, one of 11 statewide affiliates, has reported that more than 250 cities and towns in Texas have banned new billboards. This extraordinary record of accomplishment demonstrates to them that the concerns about blight and visual degradation extend even into places with a strong tradition of personal property rights.

The National Scenic Byways Program was established by Congress in 1991 to help preserve the nation's unique places. Since 2000, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has used America's Byways as an umbrella for promoting roads designated by the Secretary of Transportation as National Scenic Byways and All-American Roads. Since the first designations in 1996, the program has grown to include a distinct and diverse collection of 96 designated byways in 39 states, encompassing more than 25,000 miles of America's most interesting and inspiring roads. For almost 1,500 projects in 48 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, $180 million has been provided.

America's Byways helps enhance travel experiences for Americans. As one traveler from North Carolina shared with the program in 2003, "In the midst of a solo cross-country drive, I decided to make a 'brief' detour from Billings to Yellowstone. Knowing nothing about the route, I decided that Highway 212 looked like a quick and easy shortcut to get there. Fortunately, I was wrong. The road was steep, the driving was slow, and the scenery was absolutely spectacular. I've done a lot of traveling and a lot of driving, and to this day Beartooth easily remains the most wonderful surprise and the most beautiful drive I have ever experienced. Yellowstone may have gotten shortchanged, but I don't regret it at all."

The America's Byways program is a grassroots-oriented program that makes use of volunteers who donate their time and effort. Examples include North Dakota's Sheyenne River Valley Scenic Byway, which stretches 63 miles along the longest river in the state. Volunteers have been involved in planning, development, and improvements in the corridor to showcase the byway, which was designated one of North Dakota's first scenic byways in 1997. What began as a small project to increase tourism has exploded into a $1.3 million project that includes 41 interpretive sites and a new visitor center.

"The challenge was not whether to build, but how to do it with beauty and a passion for life and its fulfillment. The environment is where we all meet; where we all have a mutual interest; it is one thing that all of us share." - Lady Bird Johnson, Wildflowers Across America

Some argue that, despite its best intentions, the Highway Beautification Act did not live up to its original promise, due to lack of funding appropriated by Congress after the LBJ era. Others say that once beautification in general joined arms with tourism and potential commerce, governors put effort toward "landscaping" or increasing human design rather than promoting their own state's natural beauty.

"In this case, the most important idea was lost in the shuffle. And so the original conservation bent of the Johnsons was modified greatly to what would sell communities as destinations," says Bonnie Harper-Lore, restoration ecologist with the FHWA's Office of Natural Environment and manager of its Roadside Vegetation Management Program, a holistic initiative concerned with "all things green and growing" on the 10 million acres bordering federally funded highways.

However, Harper-Lore acknowledges that with the passage of the Highway Beautification Act state departments of transportation gained the right to screen junkyards, control billboards, and allocate dollars to protect spots like scenic overlooks and rest areas.

"It was during this time that the states hired many additional landscape architects to assure an aesthetic approach to all of this. These same landscape architects defined a road design approach that applies to the human as well as the natural environment," says Harper-Lore. The approach is called Context Sensitive Design and is based on the notion that we analyze the entire setting (human and natural elements) before designing new roadways, bridges, transit, etc.

"Mrs. Johnson should be pleased that her 1965 landscaping piece has evolved to include the idea of conservation with which she began," she says.

Harper-Lore recognizes another way the Johnsons' vision of conservation is being realized in the attempt to reconnect all state department of transportation units that deal with plant decisions, whether in turf and erosion control, wetland and landscape matters, environmental services, roadside development, or maintenance. Because of the plants they work with on highway rights-of-way, they are inextricably linked but often do not work together.

This progress has occurred under the Vegetation Management Program (formerly named the Native Wildflower Program), which also recognizes that agricultural methods or horticultural practices are no longer considered the only solutions to vegetation problems; ecology-based practices like prescribed burns, biocontrols, and timing are also used.

It gives Harper-Lore both hope and heart when she hears decisions articulated in the "for future generations" language that brings to mind the Johnsons' era and when she sees citizens standing up to recognize conservation components of gardening and beautification.

"Garden clubs across the country have added conservation committees. Not all members simply want to hybridize the next great lily. Many recognize the connection between their back yard and the 'nation's front yard.'"

As we conclude the 40 years following the passage of the Highway Beautification Act and the culmination of the beautification movement in America, it is the responsibility of us all to seize this conservation opportunity.

Today, Lady Bird Johnson still says it best: "Beautification is contagious, and it starts at home, so if individuals look after their own little piece of real estate, it will be a good start to making our nation more beautiful.

"My fervent hope is that our homes, roadsides, parks - both community and industrial - and public spaces will provide a home for our wildflowers and other native plants where they can provide economic benefits and add to the eye and spirit of their beholders."

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