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Lady Bird Johnson — Pioneer Environmentalist

To a large extent, the growth of the organic movement is an expression of love for the beauty and health of the planet. And, for many, that love had Lady Bird Johnson as a progenitor.

Breaking ground as an activist first lady, Lady Bird Johnson pressed for cleanup efforts in the nation’s capital and had a key role in lobbying for the passage of the Highway Beautification Bill in 1965. The $320 million bill became known as “The Lady Bird Bill.”

According to the Federal Highway Administration’s account, the first lady was particularly incensed by what she saw while traveling to campaign stops during the 1964 election. On a stop in Portland, Oregon, in September 1964, the President said the auto junkyards they had seen during the campaign “are driving my wife mad.”

The bill, signed October 22, 1965, provided incentives to reduce the number of billboards and remove or shield other ugly sights along federal highways. Planting wildflowers and other native plants along highways — already a well-established program in Texas — was expanded.

Johnson showed her love of flowers in other ways, both in the White House and afterward. She commissioned a china service for the White House that featured dozens of different wildflowers, including the official flowers of the 50 states. …

Harry Middleton, the retired director of the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin, said her efforts helped foster interest in the environment.

“So she figures mightily, I think, in the history of the country if for no other reason than that alone,” Middleton said. Environmentalism boomed after the establishment of the first Earth Day in 1970, the year after the Johnson administration ended.

She pointed out that more than 4,000 native plant species are in danger of extinction nationwide.

“Will these plants be lost to all but memory, with succeeding generations losing even that fragile connection? Are there sources of food, fiber, or medicine that might perish with them? How do we save these species in the face of an ever-expanding human population and its impact on the land?”

The family has asked that those who wish to honor Lady Bird Johnson do so through a gift to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Endowment Fund. You can donate here.

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