The greening of the boards 

Outdoor advertisers drape visual blight in "Astroturf"

Ever notice that subdivisions are named after the animals and plants that once thrived where today there’s mostly pavement and over-watered lawns? And how about those “Astroturf” groups that take their names from the resources each hopes to exploit? The National Wetlands Council? It sounds like a group that wants to protect wetlands, but is in fact an organization dedicated to finding ways for utility companies, mining outfits and real estate firms to develop these ecologically valuable areas.

Astroturfed marketing strategies can also be found in the billboard industry. In the Flathead, many billboards loudly announce upcoming gun shows, the services of slip-and-fall attorneys and the latest fast-food specials. But at least two local billboards make efforts not only to blend in, but also to improve the surrounding scenery.

One, owned by Lamar Advertising Company, sits just south of Kalispell on Highway 93. It depicts a beautiful mountain scene with a forest, stream and meadow set against mountains in the distance. In big letters, the sign reads: “a natural form of expression—Outdoor Advertising.”

Another sign, located on Highway 2 between Kalispell and Columbia Falls, draws the attention of passing motorists with a picture of McDonald Creek in Glacier National Park. The water is exquisitely blue, but to some, the signs’ message is inexcusably crass.

It reads: “The Last Best Place to Advertise!” and provides a phone number for interested buyers.

Meg Maguire, with the aptly named anti-billboard group Scenic America, says she sees this marketing tactic used by sign companies all over the country. At the beach, self-promotional billboards will show crashing waves and beautiful sunsets. In the Midwest, they might feature quaint old barns and amber waves of grain. But there’s something about these attractive marketing images that Maguire wants people to remember: “Often, those bucolic settings are carefully framed by the photographer because there are billboards just outside the frame.

“The billboard companies seem to appreciate scenic environments,” continues Maguire, who lobbies for billboard regulations from her office in Washington D.C. “But when it comes to constructing billboards, they can’t seem to curb their appetite.”

Every year, more than 5,000 new billboards appear alongside the nation’s highways. Back in the mid-1990s, the Highway 93 corridor between Whitefish and Missoula became fertile ground for ambitious billboard builders. Companies were putting them up “as tall and as big and as quick as they could,” recalls Tri-City Planning Director Tom Jentz, who manages planning and zoning issues in Columbia Falls, Kalispell and Whitefish.

At the time, the strip between Kalispell and Somers was “an atrociously bad area,” according to Jentz. The billboard boom extended over to Highway 2, where another cluster of signs finally “got people’s attention,” he says.

“There was a major backlash,” the planning director goes on to explain, recounting how citizens came together in 1994 to push for and eventually pass a scenic corridor ordinance in Flathead County. Today, billboard regulations protect a stretch of Highway 2 leading up to Glacier Park, as well as a piece of Highway 93 between Kalispell and Whitefish that’s experiencing particularly rapid growth. Without the ordinance, the area might be well on its way to becoming a clone of the strip between Kalispell and Columbia Falls.

Anyone who’s driven past Glacier Park International Airport on Highway 2 has seen this case study in unregulated sprawl. “Not to have Highway 93 between Kalispell and Whitefish turn into a Highway 2 strip—that’s an important value that should not be lost,” says Jentz, who is also the former planning director for Flathead County.

Paul Dennehy, with Lamar Advertising’s regional office in Billings, says his company has no current plans to expand its presence in the Flathead. Yes, the company uses natural images to promote what many consider to be a scenery-spoiling product, but Dennehy fails to see the irony. He says the company is simply trying to put “something attractive up there.”

Lamar currently maintains more than 147,000 billboards across the country. In Montana, the company’s self-promotional billboards include a variety of outdoorsy images.

“There’s a real neat one that has a grizzly bear,” says Dennehy, who insists that Lamar is not attempting to greenwash the billboard industry by promoting itself with pictures of wildlife and breathtaking landscapes.

“It’s not in response to anything Scenic America does,” says Dennehy. “It’s just a matter of keeping it clean and attractive.”

Of course, one man’s billboard is another man’s blight. On its Web site, Scenic America offers a list of alternative terms to describe billboards, calling the signs “sky trash” and “the junk mail of the American highway.”

The group insists that billboards are not a “natural form of expression,” but instead just more “litter on a stick.”

Trying to carve out some middle ground for his company in the contentious debate over billboards is Montana Media’s Roger Nastase.

Nastase says that given the rules restricting new billboards, Montana Media has built its business around fixing up old signs “and making them look nice.”

Before choosing which color to paint the posts holding up his billboards, Nastase took a handful of pine needles into Sherwin-Williams and asked them to match the color. Now, he says, if you threw those posts in the woods, “You couldn’t even find them.”

When it comes to billboards, Nastase says, “I don’t think they need to be big and I don’t think they need to be ugly.”

But billboards are needed, he says, ticking off statistics about how “affordable” outdoor advertising generates business for local companies and assists travelers in search of food, gas and lodging.

As for billboards blocking out scenic views, Nastase says his company has no signs taller than 28 feet, then adds, “I ain’t seen no mountain that’s 28 feet high.”

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