Acts Of Beauty

Lady Bird Johnson
Lady Bird Johnson stands in a field of wildflowers alongside a Texas state highway. The first lady inspired the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this October. Doing so set in motion a number of roadside-related initiatives that endure to this day. Photo by Unknown/Wildflower Center Archives

The Highway Beautification Act Turns 50

As Martha Tiller sped through our nation’s capital city six years ago, splashes of pink cherry blossoms greeted her through the taxi window. “Welcome to Washington in the spring,” said her taxi driver. “Isn’t it beautiful? Look at all these beautiful flowers. We’re sure lucky to have had Lady Bird Johnson here.”

“There I was,” Tiller says, “45 years after Mrs. Johnson had left the White House, being schooled about my former boss and how she’d made Washington, D.C., beautiful.” The Texan chose to keep mum and enjoy the scenery rather than tell the driver of her past work with Mrs. Johnson at the Johnsons’ Texas ranch.

Of course Lady Bird Johnson is remembered not only for bringing taxi passengers a view of cherry blossoms in Washington, but for turning the entire nation’s consciousness toward the need for better scenic views across America. The signature achievement that gained her this reputation and laid the groundwork for roadside enhancement and conservation was the Highway Beautification Act, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on October 22.

The bill, often called “Lady Bird’s Bill,” was meant to reduce junkyards and billboards and increase scenic beauty along our nation’s roads that receive federal funding. The president himself famously told his cabinet, “I love this woman and she wants this bill, so by gosh, she’ll get it.” (Incidentally, it was Rep. Bob Dole who coined it “Lady Bird’s Bill” rather derisively, as he led the opposition to the act.)

Nash Castro advised the White House on beautification issues as the National Parks Service liaison. He remembers waiting for members of Congress to arrive at the White House for a Salute to Congress event the evening the bill was being debated. “Well into the evening, the legislation was approved and dinner was finally served,” says Castro, who credits President Johnson with the outcome. “The president got the bill passed by personally injecting himself into the fray.”

Some of the bill’s supporters regret that amendments weakened the bill, actually giving the billboard industry more power. Still, all is not lost. Groups like Scenic America continue to urge bill reform, and organizations such as the Wildflower Center work to influence transportation agencies to approach roadsides ecologically. Mrs. Johnson is for good reason widely remembered as the environmental first lady.

Lady Bird Johnson with LBJ
(left) President Lyndon B. Johnson hands Lady Bird Johnson a bill-signing pen in the East Room of the White House at the signing of the Highway Beautification Act on October 22, 1965. Photo: LBJ Library Photo by Frank Wolfe, (right) Lady Bird Johnson plants pansies at the White House as Sec. Stewart Udall and others look on. Photo: LBJ Library photo by Robert Knudsen

More than 200 beautification and conservation laws were passed and 47 national parks created during the Johnson presidency. That’s more than during any administration before or since. Those close to the couple credit the first lady with inspiring them.

Bonnie Harper-Lore retired in 2009 from the Federal Highway Administration, where she served as the vegetation management program manager since 1993. In 1987 she was working for Minnesota’s Department of Transportation when she received an invitation from Lady Bird Johnson to gather with employees from other state departments of transportation at her Texas ranch to discuss restoring and preserving native plants on roadsides.

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When Harper-Lore’s boss wouldn’t permit her to attend on company time, she took vacation time and paid her own way. “Mrs. Johnson wanted to know what obstacles we faced in planting more wildflowers and what resources we needed to make it happen. I remember being gathered in the living room as we all shared our stories until nearly midnight,” Harper-Lore says.

“It was like visiting your grandmother’s house. The next morning over breakfast, the conversations continued with the first lady joining us, gracious and charming as ever in an old chenille bathrobe, with no makeup. At one point, Mrs. Johnson looked off wistfully, saying something like, ‘So much to do and so little time.'”

Not much time passed before Mrs. Johnson encouraged Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen to add an amendment to the federal 1987 Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act (STURAA). That transportation bill mandated that one-quarter of 1 percent of landscaping projects receiving federal funds (almost all interstate, state, county and municipal roads across the country) would be spent on planting native wildflowers.

“With that, the Federal Highway Administration Wildflower Program was begun, and five years later I replaced its first director, Gene Johnson,” says Harper-Lore.

During her first week in Washington, Harper-Lore found herself in a meeting with representatives from 15 other agencies working together on the invasive plant issue. “I was told that we at the highway administration were part of the problem. At that time many states were still planting species, in the name of erosion control, that were becoming invasive to adjacent lands,” says Harper-Lore.

Soon after, she changed the name of the Wildflower Program to the Vegetation Management Program.

“Highway corridors connected all lands, and we needed to plant native plants and control invasive plants in an integrated way. To protect native wildflower plantings and existing remnants, we needed to control weeds. All vegetation is connected, and what we do on roadsides affects everyone else,” she says.

Lady Bird Johnson
In a picture made possible by Lady Bird Johnson’s efforts to make a more beautiful capitol city, the first lady and two young people stand among blooming white azaleas in Washington. Photo: LBJ Library Photo by Robert Knudsen

No one who personally knew Lady Bird Johnson questions whether she understood that what was being called beautification was really conservation. Marge Morton served as Mrs. Johnson’s social secretary in Texas from 1976 through 1990. “At the time, there was pressure to get contractors not to mow the roadsides. Mrs. Johnson was not at all pushy but had her way of voicing her opinions that wildflowers should not be mown until after they went to seed, for the benefit of wildlife and the public who enjoyed their beauty.”

Back in her home state, for 20 years Lady Bird Johnson gave cash awards to Texas Department of Transportation districts that used native Texas plants to the fullest possible extent. As her social secretaries, Tiller and then Morton helped the first lady organize the annual Texas Highway Beautification Awards ceremonies at the Johnsons’ Texas ranch, where Mrs. Johnson treated winners to a barbecue lunch.

Morton’s memories of the first lady involve hours spent driving around the ranch to see what wildflowers were in bloom. “I know that on the weekends the Secret Service would drive her to track down wildflowers around Central Texas.

Someone once told me that wildflowers marched across Texas from east to west at a rate of 3 miles per day. She must have seen hundreds of miles of that,” Morton says.

Tiller recalls a different kind of travel. If you know Austin now, it’s hard to imagine that its iconic Town Lake (now Lady Bird Lake) was once a polluted eyesore, neglected and overgrown with weeds. That’s how it was in the 1970s, before the Johnsons got involved with the Town Lake Beautification Committee.

“I remember running up and down Town Lake with Mrs. Johnson, checking to see how the plantings were coming along. That wasn’t unusual. We spent a lot of time in the outdoors and gardens walking here and there to look at flowers and plants,” says Tiller. “I don’t kid when I say that I had holes the size of quarters in my shoes from walking Town Lake and the ranch.

“When people ask me what was it like to work with Lady Bird Johnson, I tell them, ‘I always had holes in my shoes.'”