On October 22, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Highway Beautification Act, which attempts to limit billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising, as well as junkyards and other unsightly roadside messes, along America’s interstate highways.
The act also encouraged “scenic enhancement” by funding local efforts to clean up and landscape the green spaces on either side of the roadways. “This bill will enrich our spirits and restore a small measure of our national greatness,” Johnson said at the bill’s signing ceremony. “Beauty belongs to all the people. And so long as I am President, what has been divinely given to nature will not be taken recklessly away by man.”
The Highway Beautification Act was actually the pet project of the first lady, Lady Bird Johnson. Beauty, she believed, had real social utility: Cleaning up city parks, getting rid of ugly advertisements, planting flowers and screening junkyards from view, she thought, would make the nation a better place not only to look at but to live.
“The subject of Beautification is like a tangled skein of wool,” she wrote in her diary. “All the threads are interwoven—recreation and pollution and mental health and the crime rate and rapid transit and highway beautification and the war on poverty and parks … everything leads to something else.”
Many urban activists, along with a number of other people who were beginning to think seriously about the consequences of the nation’s poor environmental stewardship, supported Mrs. Johnson’s efforts.
Business groups, polluters and advertisers, on the other hand, were not so thrilled. Lobbyists for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America and their Republican allies managed to water down the highway-beautification bill significantly: Companies who had to take down their billboards were compensated handsomely by the government, for example and the law’s enforcement provisions were weak.
Still, Johnson’s bill was important: It declared that nature, even just the strips of nature along the country’s roadsides, was fragile and worth preserving, an idea that still holds great power today.