Before the first Earth Day event in April 1970, the Bureau of Land Management launched the Johnny Horizon Program in 1968. The program ran from 1968 to 1977 as an enormously successful environmental protection campaign that involved all states. It was so successful that, in its later years, it was adopted by the Department of Interior and used as the main DOI environmental effort to Clean Up America for the Bicentennial celebration in 1976.
Now, 36 years after the end of the Johnny Horizon Clean Up America campaign, a new display in the BLM-Alaska State Office in Anchorage tells the largely forgotten story of this amazing effort by BLM, including its legacy today. The display was created by BLM-Alaska State Archaeologist, Robert King, a long-time BLM-Alaska employee who first learned about Johnny Horizon in the 1970s.
Origin: The Johnny Horizon Program can be traced back to the arrival of a new BLM Director, Boyd L. Rasmussen, in 1966. Prior to becoming director, Rasmussen spent 31 years with the United States Forest Service and witnessed the success of Smoky Bear as a mission symbol for the agency. Rasmussen decided that BLM needed its own symbol to represent and personalize important work carried out on public lands. The symbol - Johnny Horizon - would promote a new effort to clean up trash left by visitors and curtail such behavior in the future. By the later 1960s, BLM, like the nation, was more focused on the protection of resources, and the new BLM campaign supported national efforts to beautify America which was promoted by Lady Bird Johnson.
First Actions: To launch the program, the BLM hired an advertising firm to design graphics and information with the theme of anti-littering. Also, a young and enthusiastic BLM employee from Utah, George Gurr, agreed to serve a three-year term in Washington, D.C. as the Johnny Horizon Program’s first director. In an effort to promote the new program, he oversaw the distribution of thousands of Johnny Horizon information packets containing litter bags, stickers, and helpful tips about how individuals and local organizations could assist with its anti-littering campaign. These information packets were distributed to BLM offices nationwide as well as interested people and groups, such as garden clubs, rock clubs, the Boy Scouts, and even an organization on American Samoa.
The Johnny Horizon Symbol: When Gurr traveled to meet with various groups and promote the program, he often took along a nearly full-size, wooden cutout of Johnny Horizon created by the original advertising firm. Now, some 45 years later, the cutout left behind by Gurr upon his retirement as the BLM-Alaska Chief of Public Affairs is included in the display in Anchorage. This one-of-a-kind original 1968 advertising piece shows Johnny Horizon as he was first designed: a kindly-looking, middle-aged outdoorsman dressed in green pants, a plaid shirt and a red jacket, with a backpack and a brown brimmed hat. This image was described in BLM’s handouts as a symbol of the thoughtful visitor to the nation’s public lands, with an “origin myth” story of Johnny Horizon as part Nez Perce Indian and the son of a World War I soldier.
Tremendous Success: By 1969, the Johnny Horizon Clean up America message was spreading throughout the nation, but an event later that year increased the popularity more than ever expected. Academy Award-winning movie star and folk singer Burl Ives volunteered to help the program, and through him, other celebrities were brought in to promote the Johnny Horizon message. In 1970, Burl Ives appeared on the Johnny Cash TV show, and together, they discussed the goals of the Program. They also sang a special Johnny Horizon Song written by Randy Sparks, a well-known song writer of the period.
In all, numerous other celebrities also became involved with promoting Johnny Horizon, including Glen Campbell, Bill Cosby, David Frost, Johnny Carson, and Sonny and Cher. Charles Schulz even drew a Peanuts comic strip in 1972 mentioning Johnny Horizon. Peppermint Patty dreamed she was engaged to Johnny Horizon because of the popular buzz about the campaign.
Bicentennial Climax: In 1972, the wildly popular Johnny Horizon Program was adoped by the Department of Interior, with the image of Johnny Horizon updated to a square-jaw and smile, with a distinctive cowboy style hat. At that point, Johnny became the symbolic face for the DOI’s Clean up America Campaign for the Nation’s Bicentennial. With this change and new merchandising of Johnny Horizon souvenirs, the program gained more visibility and momentum as the July 4, 1976 bicentennial date approached.
Presidential Proclamation: On Sept. 19, 1974, President Gerald Ford issued Presidential Proclamation 4315. It was entitled Johnny Horizon ‘76: Clean Up America Month, 1974 and stated: “Although our Nation’s 200th birthday is less than two years away, much has been accomplished through the Johnny Horizon ‘76 Program toward improving the environment of the country for this historic event. But much remains to be done…We need to continue these improvements. To dramatize this need, the Congress has by House Joint resolution 1070, 93rd Congress, requested the President to proclaim the period of September 15, 1974, to October 15, 1974, as ‘Johnny Horizon ‘76 Clean Up America Month….” The President did this, saying: “I urge representatives of business, industry, labor, Government, civic groups, and other citizens to continue to join together to demonstrate the significant results that can be realized when Americans translate their concern into affirmative action. I further urge a continuation of neighborhood and community cleanups, beautification programs, resource recovery and education programs, energy and wildlife conservation efforts and other worthwhile activities.”
The Legacy of Johnny Horizon: With thousands of Johnny Horizon clean-up projects successfully accomplished, the end of the Bicentennial celebration resulted in a growing environmental movement and the retirement of Johnny Horizon. While some direct traces remain of the Johnny Horizon Program from a generation ago, including at least one annual Johnny Horizon cleanup event still staged in Idaho, his greater legacy – what the program represented – still remains with the BLM and the nation today.
By: Robert King, BLM-Alaska State Office Archaeologist