Environmental First Lady

by | Aug 1, 2007 | People

AS A CHILD, Lady Bird Johnson paddled in the dark bayous of Caddo Lake in East Texas, under ancient cypress trees decorated with Spanish moss. The sense of place that came from being close to the land never left her. She would devote much of her life to preserving it.

As she was growing up, earning her degrees from The University of Texas at Austin and tending to the many duties as wife of a rising political star, Mrs. Johnson often noted the impact that natural beauty had on her life. She was first lady of the nation, however, before she was able to translate her love for the land into national policy. Once started, she amassed a lifetime of achievement as the Environmental First Lady.

Former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall credits several trips to the American West, the Rocky Mountains and Utah with igniting Mrs. Johnson’s interest in conservation. In 1964, when she visited Indian reservations and dedicated the Flaming Gorge Dam in Utah, she told audiences that natural beauty was their greatest resource and must be protected.

Right after the 1964 election, she decided that “the whole field of conservation and beautification” had the greatest appeal to her. Soon after that, she was urging her husband to see what could be done about junkyards along the nation’s highways.

Today, perhaps most people think of Lady Bird Johnson as the reason why we see wildflowers blooming along the nation’s highways and fewer junkyards and billboards. The Beautification Act of 1965 was one tangible result of Mrs. Johnson’s campaign for national beautification. Known as “Lady Bird’s Bill” because of her active support, the legislation called for control of outdoor advertising, including removal of certain types of signs along the nation’s interstate highway system and the existing federal-aid primary system. It also required certain junkyards along interstate or primary highways to be removed or screened and encouraged scenic enhancement and roadside development.

It is part of this legacy that today the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act of 1987 requires that at least one-quarter of 1 percent of funds expended for landscaping projects in the highway system be used to plant native flowers, plants and trees.

The term beautification concerned Mrs. Johnson, who feared it was “cosmetic” and “trivial.” She emphasized that it meant much more – “clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste disposal and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas.” Meg Greenwood, writing in the Reporter, noted the “deceptively sweet and simple-sounding name of ‘beautification.'”
Mrs. Johnson made it her mission to call attention to the natural beauty of the nation, and one of her most important efforts was in Washington, D.C., which was in much need of a facelift.

In 1964 Mrs. Johnson formed the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, responding to Mary Lasker’s suggestion that she make Washington, D.C., a “garden city” and a model for the rest of the nation. Soon afterward Mrs. Lasker, a philanthropist who lobbied for medical research as well as for natural beauty, and Mrs. Johnson founded the Society for a More Beautiful National Capital, which received private donations for the project. The first planting took place on the National Mall, where Mrs. Johnson planted pansies. She then planted azaleas and dogwoods in the Triangle at Third and Independence Avenue and ended her first planting effort at a public housing project.

Mrs. Johnson enlisted a stellar team to attack the issue, including Nash Castro, White House liaison for the National Park Service, philanthropist Laurance S. Rockefeller, Kathleen Louchheim, an assistant Secretary of State, and many others.

Mrs. Johnson’s view of this project went far beyond planting daffodil bulbs. She was concerned with pollution, urban decay, recreation, mental health, public transportation and the crime rate. The Committee agreed to plant flowers in triangle parks all over the city, to give awards for neighborhood beautification and to press for the revitalization of Pennsylvania Avenue and the preservation of Lafayette Park. The Committee also generated enormous donations of cash and azaleas, cherry trees, daffodils, dogwoods and other plants in evidence today in Washington’s lovely parks and green spaces. Perhaps most importantly, Mrs. Johnson’s effort prompted businesses and others to begin beautification efforts in low-income neighborhoods hidden from the much-visited tourist attractions.

One of her key efforts was to remove trash and control rats in the Shaw section of Washington. That developed into Project Pride, which enlisted Howard University students and high-school students to clean up neighborhoods. Mrs. Johnson funded the project with a $7,000 grant from the Society for a More Beautiful Capital.

Later, Mrs. Johnson was a key player in the White House Conference on Natural Beauty that convened in May 1966 and was coordinated by Laurance S. Rockefeller. She opened the conference with a question: “Can a great democratic society generate the drive to plan and, having planned, execute projects of great natural beauty?” The conference sparked similar local conferences and added momentum to the national conservation movement.

One result was the President’s Council on Recreation and Natural Beauty, chaired by Vice President Hubert Humphrey, another vehicle for spreading the conservation message and encouraging such local efforts as anti-litter campaigns.

President Johnson also issued a proclamation declaring 1967 a “Youth, Natural Beauty and Conservation Year.” The Johnsons opened the year with a press conference honoring youth leaders at the LBJ Ranch.
One method Mrs. Johnson employed in her beautification campaign was to call attention to important sites by touring those places with the media in tow. She visited historic sites, national parks and scenic areas, usually accompanied by Nash Castro of the National Park Service, a number of dignitaries and the media. Her nine beautification trips included Virginia historic sites, the Hudson River in New York, Big Bend National Park and the California redwoods, among others.

Mrs. Johnson’s views, expressed in letters and conversations, had influence in preventing the construction of dams in the Grand Canyon and in creating Redwood National Park.

That the Johnson White House was the most active administration in conservation since the time of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt is largely due to Mrs. Johnson. Among itsmajor legislative initiatives were the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program and many additions to the National Park system.

The president thanked his wife for her dedication on July 26, 1968, after signing the Department of the Interior Appropriations Bill. He presented her with 50 pens used to sign some 50 laws relating to conservation and beautification and 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.”
Just before President Johnson left office, Columbia Island in the Potomac River was renamed Lady Bird Johnson Park. Starting in 1969, she served on the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments.

After leaving Washington, Mrs. Johnson focused her efforts on Texas. She was the leading force behind Austin’s beautiful hike-and-bike trail that winds more than 10 miles around the Town Lake portion of the Colorado River, graced with blooming native trees and plants. “She’ll say she got on a moving train, but she had the leadership to say it could be a jewel,” says Carolyn Curtis, a close family friend. In July after Mrs. Johnson’s death, the Austin City Council voted unanimously to rename Town Lake “Lady Bird Lake.”

For 20 years, starting in 1969, she encouraged the beautification of Texas highways personally by giving awards to the highway districts that used native Texas plants and scenery to the best advantage. Her focus was on the ecological advantages as well as the beauty of native plants – a passion that would lead her to create the National Wildflower Research Center in 1982 on the occasion of her 70th birthday.
Mrs. Johnson enlisted her friend, actress Helen Hayes, and made a personal contribution of $125,000 and 60 acres east of Austin to start the Center, which grew into an organization of more than 13,000 members. The Center soon became a national leader in research, education and projects that encouraged the use of wildflowers.

Several years later, Mrs. Johnson foresaw the need for a larger site and located a lovely 43-acre piece of land in the Hill Country of southwest Austin on which to erect a permanent building. The new Center opened in 1995. In 1998 it was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Now, with 279 acres, more than 650 plant species on display, and a fully developed education program for children and adults, the Wildflower Center’s influence is strong across the nation.

With its mission of increasing the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes, the Center works to teach everyone how these plants conserve water, minimize the use of fertilizers and insecticides that pollute the atmosphere, and convey a unique sense of place.
“It is not just one organization, one location,” says Mrs. Johnson’s daughter, Luci Baines Johnson. “It is a philosophy that will endure long after my mother is not here, and I think there is no legacy she would more treasure than to have helped people recognize the value in preserving and promoting our native land.”

In an article in the Organization of American Historians’ Magazine of History, historian Rita G. Koman said, “Lady Bird Johnson’s legacy was to legitimize environmental issues as a national priority. The attitudes and policies she advanced have shaped the conservation and preservation policies of the environmental movement since then.”

Lewis L. Gould, University of Texas professor and author of “Lady Bird Johnson and the Environmental Movement,” wrote in his preface: “If a man in the 1960s had been involved with an environmental movement such as highway beautification, had changed the appearance of a major American city, had addressed the problems of black inner-city youth and had campaigned tirelessly to enhance national concern about natural beauty, no doubts would be raised that he was worthy of biographical and scholarly scrutiny. Lady Bird Johnson’s accomplishments as a catalyst for environmental ideas during the 1960s and thereafter entitle her to an evaluation of what she tried to do and what she achieved.”