Claudia Alta (Lady Bird) Taylor Johnson, former First Lady of the United States and pionering conservationist, has passed on. But her multifaceted legacy of beautification and restoration of native American landscapes and cities will live on.
Lady Bird, as she was universally known, was a true Natural Patriot, making the conservation of native wildflowers and landscapes her special cause well before conservation became a widespread concern. With Helen Hayes, she established in 1982 the National Wildflower Research Center, later renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, housed at the University of Texas Austin. She was a restoration ecologist decades before that field had a name, and her restoration efforts continue.
Mrs. Johnson was close to nature from childhood: “When I was a little girl, I grew up listening to the wind in the pine trees of the East Texas woods.” Those experiences stayed with her throughout her life: “My heart found its home long ago in the beauty, mystery, order and disorder of the flowering earth.”
She is considered by many the most active first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt, and much of that energy went into conservation and restoration. For her many contributions she was awarded in 1977 the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. According to her biography:
“Mrs. Johnson was First Lady of the nation before she was able to translate her love for the land into national policy. Once started, she has amassed a lifetime of achievement as the Environmental First Lady.
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 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 that legacy that today the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act of 1987 requires that at least 0.25 of 1 percent of funds expended for landscaping projects in the highway system be used to plant native flowers, plants and trees.
That the Johnson Administration was the most active in conservation since the time of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt is largely due to Mrs. Johnson. Among the major 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, a total of 200 laws relevant to the environment.”
The Reverend Billy Graham was a family friend, who presided over President Johnson’s burial service, and said of Lady Bird: “Every time I see the flowers blooming along the highways of America, I think of her.”