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  • Ren Gudino

How Lady Bird Johnson Changed the Nation

Some states enjoy competing for having some of the most beautiful highways—using local and lush wildflowers and trees to boost state pride and show off the natural countryside. Did you know that this isn’t just an environmentalist’s past time, but a motion put forth by Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird? Tired of traveling along highways that were used as dumping sites, she insisted that we needed to promote our nation’s natural bounty and when her husband was running for president, she began mapping out what would be her still-current legacy.

Claudia Alta Taylor, “Lady Bird” went from planting three trees in her backyard to becoming one of the country’s biggest innovators, changing the way people view our nation in travel. In 1965, there were 16,000 junkyards along the highways, but her supportive husband signed 50 laws for conservation and beautification,

“to Lady Bird, who has inspired me and millions of Americans to try to preserve our land and beautify our [Nation].'”

The media said of her, “Very soon, they [Lady Bird and Liz Carpenter] had us climbing mountains, swimming rivers, and planting flowers all over Washington.”

Though Lyndon B. Johnson joked that if he lost the presidential election, his wife would have the time to go and clean up the countryside and plant all she wanted, he would prefer to win and "develop a national policy for the control and disposal of technological and industrial waste.” In 1965, he sent a letter to the Secretary of Commerce wanting them to implement laws that required all urban and primary highways to be landscaped, for states to acquire land adjacent to highways to preserve and enhance the beauty of the countryside, request all states add more rest areas, and broaden the study on the need for scenic roads and parkways. He received a serious letter in response that these items would be started “with enthusiasm” and the nation started to beautify its highway system.

Even though the Highway Beautification Act was developed in 1965, it was met with a lot of derision and mockery. Even Lady Bird commented on how the word “beautification” gave people the tendency to liken it to something petty, with male sarcasm ridiculing the act as too feminine. She preferred the word “conservation,” however the name had already taken off. Lady Bird’s efforts and influence are far from small or petty though, as she managed to conserve our nation’s wildlife in a way that can still be seen across the states to this day.

Now, State DOTs are forced to consider lasting impacts of the roadways, sensitive solutions, and their own environmental stewardship. State departments are more inclined to opt for sustainable and ethical choices. States currently compete for the most beautiful highways. Road trips are determined by which offers the most scenic routes. The beauty of a long drive has boosted tourism and gives way to scenic overlooks, quaint shops, cozy eateries, and encourages local business. Who has the most beautiful highways? We can’t say for sure as we’re biased toward Arkansas, but when you look it up, there are a number of mapped out trips, listicles, and blog posts over the topic. If you find yourself on one of these trips, just remember that Interstate Signways is marking the way!

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