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"I can't say that we haven't trimmed a damn tree sometime in the last five years," he says, "but it's been pretty minimal."
Ager and the Garden Club ladies didn't make it easy for Shack and the billboard boys to crank up the chainsaws. In the early 1990s, they challenged the DOT's legal authority to resume tree cutting without first convening an advisory council on the matter.
After the cutting began they challenged it in court. And after they lost their lawsuit at the lower levels, they went to the Supreme Court, where the justices ruled that the DOT couldn't just give the billboard companies trees that were owned by the taxpayers. The Garden Club finally won, and Ager says something happened that day to her and her Garden Club ladies.
"No other issue has brought us so much public awareness," Ager says. "They don't see us as tea and crumpets anymore. They see us a bunch of determined women dressed in green, marching on the Capitol."
We are rolling up U.S. 41 in the Marquis on another of the widening loops through Williams' Cook County holdings. He is pointing from this side of the road to the other, spinning through the details of land deals the way most of us might talk about moving around furniture.
Over here on the right and then on the left are acres and acres of sandy, gray land that he's cleared, in hopes that it will lure industry. Later, across a large parking lot, there is a massive Citgo truck stop that he built just a couple of years ago. There are fast-food joints, full-service restaurants, property purchased out of default, and property purchased on the open market.
There even is one large swath of land -- around 3,300 acres next to the highway -- that Williams is trying to convert into a wetlands mitigation bank. Closet environmentalist? Hardly. On another slice of land, next to the interstate, in the shadow of the billboards, he dreams of laying out a gigantic RV park, but he'll need the mitigation zone nearby so that the federal government won't get too upset when he backhoes and bulldozes the lowlands for the RV park.
Williams has his own view of what is beauty. Even he isn't happy with the number of billboards that have cropped up on the state's highways (he says regulations are partly to blame for that).
But to Williams, the billboard itself is a thing of beauty. It is hated by "the Sierra Club types" and by newspapers -- because newspapers, he says, see billboards as competition. But it is the heart that pumps motorists onto his exits; it is the vital link between the traveler and the tourism industry.
"Without billboards," he claims, "we might as well pick up and go to the county courthouse, and get a rocking chair and sit there, because without billboards we wouldn't even be in business."
"When you have the communities that don't have a John Williams, they're not harvesting, so to speak, the passing motorists," he says.
Like in Maine, where there are no billboards. "You have an uninformed potential customer," he argues. Last summer, he remembers driving over a ridge that revealed a beautiful view of a mountain.
"I'd like to know what is on the other side of the mountain," he says, lamenting the lack of written guidance. "I'd like to know what I'm looking at."
In 1998, the Garden Club learned how hard a place the state Capitol can be. Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard had been a Garden Club ally, but he backed out of the governor's race and became a lame duck, unable to offer much support in fighting the industry.
Garden Club lobbyists were forced to negotiate a deal with the DOT, billboard lobbyists and pro-billboard legislators. The bill called upon billboard companies to pay the state for each tree they cut. Garden Club negotiators thought they'd gotten a commitment that the DOT would value the trees according to an internationally recognized manual.
But months later Shackelford said that manual wouldn't do the trick. The DOT came up with its own fees, which the Garden Club said ridiculously understated the trees' value. So the clubs sued again, again arguing that tree-trimming represented a giveaway to a private industry.
"The first lawsuit, we talked about it for hours. The second one we talked for a few minutes," Ager says. "We learned something: That you could do something to right a wrong."
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