When considering the power of the presidency in the conservation of nature, Theodore Roosevelt is often the first name that comes to mind. Rightly so. After touring the Grand Canyon in 1903, during a national debate over preserving the land or using it to mine precious medals, he insisted:
“Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it…Keep it for your children, your children’s children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American should see.”
He said it would be a tragedy to cut down the great redwoods of California to make decks or porches. To those who advocated progress over preservation, he stated that:
“There is nothing more practical, in the end, than the preservation of beauty, than the preservation of anything that appeals to the higher emotions in mankind.”
Yet we would be remiss to forget Lady Bird Johnson’s legacy of conservation. Although it’s largely a given today that first spouses will work on projects of their own, Lady Bird was the first person to put this into practice. She decided to pursue something that made her “heart sing.” As a little girl, Lady Bird had grown to deeply love the outdoors, and especially the flowers from her native Texas.
Although she’d never particularly liked the term, thinking it too indicative of cosmetics, the project became known as beautification. Writing in her journal in 1965, Lady Bird explained why she thought the project so important: “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 — national, state and local. It is hard to hitch the conversation into one straight line, because everything leads to something else.”
Lady Bird believed, simply, that people would be happiest surrounded by trees and flowers and greenery (she was right). Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson took the project national with the Highway Beautification Act–an attempt to clean up the nation’s highways, and take down the billboards. Although watered down, the bill did pass. Lady Bird also focused much of her efforts on cleaning up Washington D.C.
After LBJ’s presidency had ended, and after he had died, Lady Bird continued to work on the project. In 1982, Lady Bird started the National Wildflower Researcher Center in Austin, which was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on her eighty-fifth birthday. Although it started with Lady Bird’s donation of sixty acres, the Center now stretches across 284 acres and contains more than 800 kinds of native Texas plants.
Preserving nature and protecting federal lands wasn’t always a partisan issue. Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican. Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson were Democrats. Richard Nixon, whose administration created the EPA, was a Republican. Given that Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, which gave the executive the power to protect federal land as a monument, and Lady Bird believed so strongly in the importance of beauty and nature, one has to wonder what they would think about the Trump administration’s decision to reduce the Bear’s Ear Monument by eighty-five percent. Trump, no stranger to unprecedented moments, is the first president to seek to modify a natural monument since the signing of the Antiquities Act in 1906.
Special thanks to Betty Boyd Caroli’s “Lady Bird & Lyndon” and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpt: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism” for providing the background for this post.