Lady Bird Johnson + Redwood National Park

Contributed by Will Rice

On the North Coast of California grows a grove of big honkin’ trees. Often shrouded in a salty mist, they stand in a kind of surreal majesty that beckons nostalgia of an earlier planet, one dominated by mega flora and fauna. The Redwoods have a magic about them, that childlike magic that gives us innocence and a bravery to risk looking foolish. Tourists walk through their ranks with unfettered laughter of their own insignificance. The wonder of pitching a tent among their trunks can only be likened to the thrill of youthful afternoons spent pushing one’s nose into the lawn and imagining life as an ant. In a recent visit, I spotted a young man composing what appeared to be a symphony at a campsite, sampling the acoustics of the trees when a note eluded him. Their magic, perhaps, is a harmony.

The Northern California Redwoods that remain today were saved in a piecemeal fashion, beginning with the Boone and Crockett Club in the 1910s. California began adding groves to its state parks system in the 1920s. Though their protection was doubtlessly progressive compared to the much later preservation of many of America’s other scenic wonders, the protected groves lacked connectivity, and eventually World War II’s lumber demand pressured for the harvesting of the last giants. In the 1950s, a large effort was launched to create a national park with the hope of bringing continuity to the Redwood groves. Finally in 1968, after much organizing and advocacy by citizens across the country, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the act that established Redwood National Park, leaving the previous state parks within the larger national park to be governed by California.

Lady Bird Johnson, the first lady in President Johnson’s White House and perhaps the strongest advocate for parks to ever live inside the place, advocated tirelessly for the park. Her work made such an impact on the President, that before signing the act for the park’s creation he asked the National Park Service to dedicate a grove in his wife’s honor. When they informed him that such honors are only allowed on a posthumous basis in national parks, he reportedly said to them, “Folks, do you want this park or not?”

The preservation of the Redwoods was a product of bipartisanship. It took compromise and civility to lay the political groundwork for its designation. This was readily apparent on an August afternoon in 1969 when President Richard Nixon, Governor Ronald Reagan, Evangelist Billy Graham, and President and Mrs. Johnson stood in Lady Bird’s grove for its formal dedication. Two ardent conservatives. Two lifelong liberals. One preacher. Side by side to dedicate a grove of ancient trees.

As they took to a makeshift stage, President Nixon spoke first:

I am on vacation now, if a President ever takes a vacation. I am on vacation down in San Clemente, California. Sometimes in the evenings I have a chance to read, and President Johnson noted, as he was looking over the library, that the book I currently was reading was one of the biographies of Theodore Roosevelt that happened to be there at this time [yes, the Johnsons and Nixons were on vacation together, and, no, this was not noteworthy].

In reading that biography, one point came through to me very clearly: that he, as President of the United States, found that he always received renewed strength from going to the great outdoors. He, of course, was known as the President that believed in the strenuous life.

I am not sure that I can go as far as he went in that respect–I won’t even ride a surfboard. On the other hand, he was one who liked to come to great groves like this. He came always to the West. He was renewed by going to the West and then going back to the awesome duties that he had in the White House.

The duties that he had at the turn of the century from 1900 to 1908 were very, very heavy. The duties that a President of the United States today has perhaps would have to be described as even heavier. But certainly to stand here in this grove of redwoods, to realize what a few moments of solitude in this magnificent place can mean, what it can mean to a man who is President, what it can mean to any man or any woman who needs time to get away from whatever may be the burdens of all of our tasks…

To stand here makes us realize the great service…our very honored guest, Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, has rendered in her work for beautification, and particularly her work with regard to this very grove in which we stand.

After his predessor, President Lyndon Johnson spoke. He had left the presidency just eight months before and it happened to be his birthday. Perhaps it was his newly found freedom that afforded him a certain level of candor as he spoke:

For some reason or other, one of the few times in our 35 years of married life, Mrs. Johnson waked up first this morning and she must have had this occasion on her mind because she had our daughter, who lives in Washington, and our son-in-law come down and bring our granddaughter, and I don’t know why they chose me, but they brought in my young granddaughter with two teeth, about 9 months old, and deposited her on my stomach and told me to play with her for a while while the ladies went to the hairdresser.

When they came back both of the ladies were rushing me to get dressed so that we could be on time with President Nixon. I said: “Well, you have asked me to keep the baby and I have had her on my lap for an hour. I have had no time to dress and now you want to walk out with me in my pajamas to get out to the redwoods.” That shows how much she loves the beauty of this country and this Nation…

If I could express a hope today…I would hope that future generations might look down the history of our past and look at the great conservation leaders and that some of my children and my grandchildren and if I am fortunate, even myself, could read not only what both President Nixon and I read about the works of Theodore Roosevelt…but that soon we might have a book from the Richard M. Nixon Library that would join with the great names of Roosevelt, the great name of Richard Nixon.

The 1960s and 70s were not great years for Presidents. Vietnam and Watergate riddled the presidencies of Johnson and Nixon. But no two presidencies have ever done as much for the environment. The Wilderness Act. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The National Trails System Act. North Cascades National Park. Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef. Voyagers and Redwood. The Clean Water Act. The Clean Air Act. The National Environmental Policy Act. The Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Endangered Species Act. The EPA.

One Republican and one Democrat. One planet. We share it with giant trees and seven billion tiny people. To recognize our shared strife of keeping Earth in a livable condition is perhaps the easiest expression of bipartisanship. Each human being, minus those few on the Space Station, wakes up on this planet each morning. Businessmen in Mumbai, grocers in Zambia, migrant workers in the Imperial Valley, and Presidents of the United States— all share a stake in our environment. That is a great irony of our age. Each roll back of Johnson and Nixon’s progress is a step backward for our own wellbeing. Weaken our clean water regulations, strip the EPA, and we will all share in our collective demise. Lyndon and Dick understood this simple premise: unify and evolve or separate and die.

Take it from Lady Bird. To dedicate her trees, the former first lady took the podium with her usual grace and eloquence:

Thank you, Mr. President. You have given me a day to treasure always, and I am grateful. I am grateful, too, to another President who in his time, along with many, many people, did what he could to insure that these trees would be here for all the tomorrows.

Conservation is indeed a bipartisan business because all of us have the same stake in this magnificent continent. All of us have the same love for it and the same feeling that it is going to belong to our children and grandchildren and their grandchildren–I am coming to understand that a lot better these days–the same opportunity to work in our time to see that it stays as glorious.

The harmony of trees. Let’s rediscover it.

Photo courtesy of Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library

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