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20th Century Roadside Beauty

To our engineers this flora is merely weeds and brush; they ply it with grader and mower. Through processes of plant succession predictable by any botanist, the prairie garden becomes a refuge for quack grass. After the garden is gone, the highway deparment employs landscapers to dot the quack with elms, and with artistic clumps of Scotch pine, Japanese barberry, and Spiraea. Conservation committees en route to some important convention, whiz by and applaud this zeal for roadside beauty.
Aldo Leopold, 1949

ot until the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 were highway departments legally responsible to beautify rights-of-way. Until then, roadside development had few resources to spare. From 1965 more landscape architects were hired, and more of what Leopold witnessed continued. Ironically, the force behind the Beautification Act, Mrs. Lyndon Johnson, spoke of natural beauty, much like Leopold.

To me, in sum, beautification means our total concern for the physical and human quality we pass on to our children and the future. Further, she wrote, we are the road-buildingest nation on earthÉ.therein lies both the glory and the burden of road-building. In disturbing so much of the turf of this beautiful country, incur a special debt not only in terms of land use but also in an aesthetic sense. We are obligated to leave the country looking as good if not better than we found it.
Mrs. Johnson, 1993

That natural beauty or our natural heritage is threatened, in part, because of the misinterpretation of the word, "beauty". Many nonnative ornamental forbs, grasses, shrubs and trees have been planted in rural roadsides, where they have no relationship to the natural beauty around them. They appear, instead, to relate to a traditional European view of beauty, not America's. In addition, not only do they displace our natural heritage in appearance, but the invasive species among them outcompete native plants and displace valued endangered plants. When planting in our natural environment, the consequences to the future should be considered in planting decisions, a part of the burden of road-building.

Along our railroad rights-of-way one meets the last stand of these prairie flowers. What a wealth we would have if our prairie roads could be lined with this rich carpet of colors, miles of flowers reflecting their colors in the sky above, or millions of sungods in the strong prairie breeze nodding their heads to the sun that had given them their golden hue.
Jens Jensen, 1939

What is really desired, however is attractive and useful roadsides which can be obtained by preserving or creating a natural or an approach to a natural condition in keeping with the adjacent or surrounding country.
J.M. Bennett, 1939

Protecting the utility, beauty, and intrinsic value of our roadside biota remains our responsibility. It's the only management
decision that makes sense.

J. Baird Callicot, and Gary K. Lore, 1999

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This page last modified on August 4, 2004


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United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration