Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Remarks to the Delegates to the White House Conference on Natural Beauty.

May 25, 1965

Mr. Rockefeller, Members of Congress, participants and observers of the White House Conference on Natural Beauty:

First, before I begin my prepared remarks, I want to thank the four outstanding panelists who made these reports. I was inspired by their words and by their plans. I will comment on them a little bit later, but I want to present to you one of our greatest Americans, and a person who is my strong right arm in all of my endeavors from natural beauty to Viet-Nam, the Vice President, Mr. Hubert Humphrey.

Today I worked and thought about problems in Viet-Nam and the Dominican Republic.

I had to consider decisions which might affect the security of this country, the lives of Americans, and the destiny of other nations. Yet this may be the most important thing that I have done and am doing today, and I am confident that this is the most important group that I will see. For this is part of what all the rest is for.

We have increased the wealth of our Nation and the prosperity of our people. Yet we did not do this simply to swell our bank deposits, or to raise our gross national product. The purpose of this Nation cannot be listed in the ledger of accounts. It is to enrich the quality of people's lives--to produce the great men and women which are the measure of a Great Society.

And that is what you have been here trying to do.

We have also built the most powerful defense in the world, and that power is now on guard in the Caribbean and in southeast Asia, and in a dozen other quieter places. But we did not forge this shield for freedom simply to be safe and secure, or free from risk or sacrifice. We built it to liberate our energies for a society where each person could use all of his full powers--a civilization for the flowering of man. And this, too, is what you are trying to do.

Crisis and conflict command the headlines. But it is your work that will shape the future.

For natural beauty is not a luxury for the satisfied. It is not a pleasant frill or a superficial enjoyment. Natural beauty, as you and I conceive it, is the world that we live in. It is the environment in which we were born, and grow to maturity, and live our lives.

It is more than a rich source of pleasure and recreation. It shapes our values. It molds our attitudes. It feeds our spirit, and it helps to make us the kind of men and women that we finally become. And the kind of men that we finally become in turn makes this great Nation.

The importance of natural beauty cannot be easily measured. It cannot be coded for computers or calculated by economists. But it is proved beyond doubt by the history of the race and the experience of our own lives.

The force of natural beauty--its meaning to the life of man--infuses art and culture throughout the Western civilization. Each generation from the beginning has drawn from it strength and meaning and even truth. And nowhere has it played a greater role than here in our beloved America.

At first there seemed no end to the limitless wonder of the land. And then, the country grew. There came a time of greed and ignorance and ruthless exploitation.

Far-sighted leaders, from Theodore Roosevelt to John Kennedy, acted to halt decay and tried to preserve our natural splendor.

Last year I signed more than 30 important conservation bills into public laws--the greatest record of conservation since the Republic was born. But this accomplishment was only the beginning. This year I have sent to the Congress already, new bills--bills to protect our great wild rivers, bills to create new parks, bills to provide funds for areas of recreation and pleasure throughout our metropolitan areas. I predict here this afternoon, that 1965 will set new records in conservation in America.

Now these are important measures for our people, but most of them are expansions of the classic role of conservation.

Today, natural beauty has new enemies and we need new weapons to fight those enemies. They are the products of the modern world. In many ways they are the dark side of the bright achievements which have helped us to grow and to prosper and to improve our welfare.

The technology which has given us everything from the computer to the teleprompter, has created a hundred sources of blight. Poisons and chemicals pollute our air and our water. Automobiles litter our countryside. These and other waste products of progress are among the deadliest enemies that natural beauty has ever known.

Urbanization is another modern threat. More and more our people crowd into the cities, cutting themselves off from nature. Cities themselves then grow and spread, often devastating the countryside. And in every corner of the land the Nation builds and builds and builds: highways and restaurants, factories and neon signs. And far too often we finish the marvels of progress, only to find that we have diminished the life of man.

This is not the consequence of the deliberate depredations of a few. Rather it is the result of uncontrolled growth and building; uninformed by the need to protect nature, unchecked by the citizens whose world is really being blighted.

This is why I have called for a new conservation: to restore as well as to protect, to bring beauty to the cities as well as to keep it in the countryside, to handle the waste products of technology as well as the waste of natural resources.

And there is something more, too. I believe in and I have fought all my life for more national parks and rivers, and forests and wilderness. But beauty cannot be a remote and just an occasional pleasure. We must bring it into the daily lives of all our people. Children, in the midst of cities, must know it as they grow. Adults, in the midst of work, must find it near their sight. All of us, in the midst of increasing leisure, must draw sustaining strength from its presence.

All this must be true if we are to ever really have a Great Society.

And none of it is going to be easy. The Federal Government, as long as I head it, will do its part.

But it will also require a most active concern and a practical program in every State capitol and in every city hall of this country. And in that connection, Mrs. Johnson told me, just as we entered the room, that three or four Governors were already following the example you have set here in calling State conferences on natural beauty where they will spend 2 days reviewing and evaluating and analyzing the problems at the State level, truly exercising their much boasted right of State's rights.

I am going to be disappointed if there is a single person in this room, representing a single State, that returns to that State and doesn't communicate with their Governor and see that not just three or four States follow this example, but all 50 of them have State conferences on natural beauty.

I think it is going to demand that all of our private citizens be constantly alert to stimulate, to inspire, and to stem new danger to beauty. For it is the quality of our lives that is really at stake.

All of this, at every level, has been begun by this conference. And this is not just the first White House Conference on Natural Beauty; it is one of the largest and I think the most impressive conferences that we have ever held. Experts, officials, and concerned citizens--in every field--from each of the States have come to Washington to try to help us make this a better and a more beautiful land.

I know for many of you it was not easy to attend. Most of you are busy people with much to do. But there is nothing that is more important. For you are helping to provide an enriching environment for almost 200 million Americans. You are working to extend the national heritage of beauty to successive generations of Americans. And you are laying one of the great cornerstones for the Great Society.

I have received reports on your progress from my staff. I have heard many observers, including my wife, say that your deliberations have been marked by expert knowledge, by a zeal for our cause, and an awareness of the demands of practical progress. The reports that I have just listened to, which I realize cover just a few of the highlights, reflect the impressive nature of your achievement.

I intend to make full use of all of your work and I hope that local government officials, as well as the Governors themselves in every State in the Union, will do the same. All America is deeply in the debt of that selfless patriot, Laurance Rockefeller, for the job that he has done.

Someone asked me the other day about how I liked to live in the White House, and they told me it was off the record. And I said, "Well, we do have our problems. We wake up early in the morning when the planes are coming back from the raids. We go to work and we come to a late lunch and, if we are lucky, we get a little nap after a bowl of soup, and get refreshed for the next part of that day from 4 until 12. But sometimes I am interrupted in that nap by Lady Bird and Laurance Rockefeller, and about 80 others in the next room, talking about flowers, roadsides, and so forth."

This afternoon, after a particularly hectic day yesterday and after a late lunch, I went in about 4:15 to get my afternoon nap in preparation for a day that will carry me up to midnight, and I dozed off to sleep immediately after I put my head on the pillow. And sometime or other I waked up and I could hear a little soft music in the background and a lot of conversation. And I said, "My! am I dreaming? Is Laurance Rockefeller back in town again?" I got up and went out and pulled the curtain and peeped behind it and looked, and there was not only Laurance Rockefeller and Lady Bird and the 60 that started out with them, but a thousand more that had joined them!

Now, what are we going to do about all this, here in the Federal Government? Well, first, after I review all your reports, I am going to send them to the members of my staff and to all the members of the Cabinet. They are going to be instructed to review all of your recommendations for Federal action. As many as feasible are going to be included in my next State of the Union Message and my next legislative program to the Congress.

I hope that you won't keep this conference and its achievements and its hopes and its dreams and its plans a secret from those Members of Congress from your State.

In this hour of our national history I am proud to report to you that I doubt that we have ever had groups working more together, with more of them with their shoulder to the wheel--the captains of industry, the managers of business, the holders of stock, the laborers and the workers in the mills and the mines. The women have come out of the kitchen and have gone out among us to lead the more modest ones. The minority groups, all of them, through their Congress are working to give us the greatest legislative program that this country has ever written.

There is less hate, there is less bigotry, there is less prejudice, there is less jealousy, there is less partisanship in your Congress among your Members of the House and Senate than any time that I know of in the 35 years that I have been here.

So for natural beauty, our next State of the Union Message to the Congress will contain our recommendations that require legislation and I will immediately give careful consideration to any that require immediate executive action and that can be taken without legislation.

Second, all recommendations for State and local action will be sent to the Governors of the States, and the mayors and the town officials across the country. Wherever further information is needed I will send a personal representative to explain your proposals as well as the Federal program.

In addition, I intend to call for a series of regional and local conferences to discuss specific ways to ensure natural beauty in each section of this country. And the members of the Cabinet and the authorities in this field will be available for those conferences and I have already said to the members of the Cabinet that this is required reading.

Third, all the recommendations calling for citizen action and public education will go to the local governments and the private groups in every State. In the Federal Government itself, I will set up a special unit for citizen education to help inform people how they can best combat blight and decay in their own neighborhoods, and I hope that every Governor in every State will do the same.

In this way I think we can keep the fruits of this enormous effort, that Mr. Rockefeller has provided the leadership for, from being dissipated. We can truly translate your work into action and action into pleasure and sustenance for every American.

I know you will be glad to hear that we have not even waited for the end of this conference to take important action, based in part on your discussions in several fields.

At two Cabinet meetings I have asked each Secretary to give high priority to making sure all our programs advance the natural beauty of America. I have asked for a progress report this month. I can inform you that in response to this request your Government has taken hundreds of important steps already-large and small--to increase natural beauty. We still have a long way to go, but I am determined that this Government in all of its activities shall be a model and a pacesetter for the entire Nation. Every public building that is built will be built under a natural beauty microscope.

In addition, tomorrow I will send to the Congress four new bills to help make our Nation's highways sources of pleasure and sources of recreation. Two of these bills will require the use of some of our highway funds for landscaping, beautification, scenic roads, and recreation along our roads system.

This is not a use of highway funds for an alien purpose. It is a recognition that a highway is more than a ribbon of concrete. It is a way for people to travel, and it should serve all their human needs.

Its purpose is not just to get people from one place to another. Its purpose is to enrich the journey. I hope, if you have an opportunity, that you will tell your Congressmen and Senators of your interests.

The other two bills that we are sending will eliminate outdoor advertising signs and junkyards from the sight of the interstate and primary highway system--except in those areas of commercial and industrial use. Advertising has a vital place in our economy, and junkyards are a product of the inability of technology in the 20th century to dispose of old cars. But these old cars must not be allowed to scar the traveler's view of nature.

I thought that you would be glad to know that we have not been idle while you had been working.

I wish you could all know how wonderful it makes me feel to be able to come here and spend a few moments with you. Even the elements made their contribution to the natural beauty of the White House lawn, and the trees, and the flowers, this afternoon.

So much of a President's time is devoted to protecting the Nation, and to putting down danger and to preventing destruction. These are necessary things and your President must do them for you.

Yet, my real ambition is to help our people build, and that is really what you have been doing these days. You don't know how it lifts my heart to be able to join you here this afternoon and to feel that I am sharing in your task.

I remember when I was a very young man--a boy that walked through the sand, hot sand, up to see my grandfather--a child of 5 or 6. I would cross the dusty field and walk along the banks of the river.

My granddaddy would ask me questions. He would say: How many ponies do you have? How many chickens do you have? How many cows are down there at your little place? Tell me about the state of the crops; when are you going to start picking your cotton ?

I would stand there and wiggle my toes in the sand with my finger in my month. And if I knew the answers and answered all of his questions correctly, grandpa would take me in and open a black mahogany desk he had and reach in and get an apple. And I would walk satisfied, and quite proudly, back across the fields along the banks of the river. If I failed, the walk seemed endless-if I hadn't known the answers.

And those hills, and those fields, and that river were the only world that I really had in those years. So I did not know how much more beautiful it was than that of many other boys, for I could imagine nothing else from sky to sky. Yet the sight and the feel of that country somehow or other burned itself into my mind.

We were not a wealthy family, but this was my rich inheritance. All my life I have drawn strength, and something more, from those Texas hills. Sometimes, in the highest councils of the Nation, in this house, I sit back and I can almost feel that rough, unyielding, sticky clay soil between my toes, and it stirs memories that often give me comfort and sometimes give me a pretty firm purpose.

But not all the boys in America had the privilege to grow up in a wide and open country. We can give them something, and we are going to. We can let each of them feel a little of what the first settlers must have felt, as they stood unbelieving before the endless majesty of our great land. Thus, they, too, will reach for the wonders of our future, reinforced by the treasured values of our past.

I have one thought here that I overlooked. I don't know whether you think that is true or not, in light of how long I have talked, but we have 24 million acres in our National Park Service. I asked a young friend of mine to go out and ask Bob McNamara how many acres we declared surplus this year from our military establishments. Our military establishments now consume about half of our Federal budget. He tells me that we will make available, from the Office of Defense, 1,200,000 extra acres of land this year.

So, that is one-twentieth--one-twentieth of the acreage we accumulated since this country was born in national parks. One twentieth of it will be made available this year in substantial blocks. First priority is the State and local governments, the park services, the park systems, the recreation bodies.

In the State of California, a camp available there has more than 20,000 acres of land. An Air Force base in one of our Southern States has more than 5,500 acres of land. An Air Force base in one of the smallest Western States has more than 7,500 acres of land.

I have asked the Secretary of Defense to work very closely with the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture to be sure that, before we put this land on the auction block, that the servants and representatives of the people themselves will have a chance to look at it and evaluate it, and see how it can be used in our public system for recreation and natural beauty down through the years.

Now, you men will forget a lot of things that were said here today, and you will go back home and talk big about what you did. I don't know really how much will come out of it, and I am going to leave what you men do up to Lady Bird.

But you women, when you start out after something, you don't ever give up. I want you to remember one thing I say, if you don't remember anything else, that we ought to be very careful to see that every single acre of this land that can be used, that now we have public title to, is turned over to the National system, or the State system, or the local system, or some public system, so that it is maintained for our children, and our children's children.

I want you women to get in touch with your Congressmen, and with your Governor, and with you mayor, and with the rest of the people, and get that job done for me.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 6:12 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his opening words he referred to Laurance S. Rockefeller, Chairman of the White House Conference on Natural Beauty.

During his remarks he referred to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall, and Secretary of Agriculture Orville L. Freeman.

The four panelists who presented reports to the President were State Senator Fred Farr of California who reported on highways, Edmund Bacon, Executive Director, Philadelphia Planning Commission, who reported on cities, William H. Whyte, American Conservation Association in New York, who reported on the countryside, and Mrs. Arthur Whittemore, League of Women Voters, who reported on ways and means.

See also Items 54, 576.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks to the Delegates to the White House Conference on Natural Beauty. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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