Johnny Horizon—the name sounds like it could be a summer popcorn flick starring Keanu Reeves. And maybe that’s not so far off. In the 1960s, wanting to present a more personable, friendly image, to maybe change their reputation from an entity concerned solely with mining and livestock management, the BLM dreamt up a fictional character that could serve as sort of a human version of the US Forest Service’s shirtless, shovel-wielding, Smokey the Bear. Rather than warn about the dangers of forest fires, the BLM decided on an anti-litter campaign. So in 1968, Johnny Horizon was born. Or, rather, created. And though we’ve mostly forgotten him now, Johnny had one hell of a run.
Johnny looked something like if Barbie’s boyfriend Ken had merged with the Marlboro man. Handsome, square-jawed, in jeans, a collared shirt, and boots. Though, hey, it was the late 60s, so even Johnny Horizon sometimes sported pants that bordered on bell bottoms. His mission was pretty simple: Respect your public lands. Keep them clean. Johnny was the human embodiment of the song, “This Land is Your Land.”
In advance of bi-centennial, the BLM printed thousands of cards for Americans to sign that featured Johnny’s chiseled, smiling visage beneath a Stetson that looked like a mountain peak, with the message “I pledge to help clean up America for our 200th birthday.” Tens of thousands of people who’d seen Johnny on a TV ad sent letters to the BLM expressing their enthusiasm for Johhny’s mission and assuring the organization that they’d do their part.
Celebrities soon took up the cause. The Tonight Show’s Ed McMahon recorded an ad praising Johnny’s mission. So did comedians Carol Burnett and Red Buttons. Folk singer Burl Ives teamed with a much, more famous Johnny—Johnny Freakin’ Cash— for a TV spot in which the two plucked on acoustic guitars, sang about clean water, and lamented the nasty air pollution problem the country dealt with in the early 1970s. They performed a sweet little duet of Horizon’s theme song: “I’m on my way to a better day, where the air is clean and the water’s clear.”
Ives toured the country singing about Johnny’s mission and even recorded LPs. In fact, the Department of the Interior awarded Ives the National Environmental Award in 1975, so impressed were they with his commitment.
Johnny even made his way into the toy aisle at department stores. But not just as an action figure. Parker Brothers made Johnny Horizon air and water pollution test kits. Young, burgeoning scientists and environmentalists headed out to the nearest lake and river to conduct some experiments to examine the health of their favorite fishing spots. No doubt they implored with their parents to help keep the environment clean too.
After the bicentennial in 1976, Johnny’s work was done. Not that he’d turned every American into an environmentalist. Or that the eternal problem of littering in public lands had been solved. But the Interior Department decided to retire the would-be ranger with the handsome jawline and the perfect hat. His PR mission had run its course. By 1982, the government no longer maintained copyright over the Johnny Horizon image.
He still lives on, though. Each year in May, Twin Falls, Idaho holds an annual “Johnny Horizon Day.” The town gathers to take up old Johnny’s mission. Adults and kids alike spend the day cleaning up litter, celebrating public lands, and, one, hopes, listening to old Burl Ives tunes about the importance of clean air and water.
We could use another character like Johnny Horizon, come to think of it.
Photo top: BLM