HONOLULU — First-time visitors to Hawaii quickly learn they don't need to leave their rental cars to enjoy spectacular scenery, even in the most urban settings.
What sometimes takes longer to realize is that those views are unobstructed by roadside advertising. Hawaii is one of four states--with Alaska, Vermont and Maine--that completely ban billboards, leading the way back from when signs hawked "smoking tobacco" as a weight-loss aid.
Credit for keeping the islands billboard-free since 1927 is given to the Outdoor Circle, a local urban-beautification club.
Formed nearly nine decades ago by an all-white circle of the wives of some of Hawaii's most powerful men, the group has evolved into a coeducational, multiethnic force in isle planning politics.
Its current opponent is Hawaiian Electric Co., which wants to string 3.8 miles of overhead power lines on Waahila Ridge, part of the mountain view from Waikiki.
The Outdoor Circle favors underground wiring, but the state's largest electric utility says that's too costly.
Mary Steiner, Outdoor Circle's chief executive officer, said the group will just wait out the utility.
"We were really patient with getting rid of billboards, and we are known for our patience," she said. "We will be patient in the underground wiring fight, but we will prevail."
Along with pushing through some of the strictest signage regulations in the nation, the beauty brigade has built parks, planted hundreds of thousands of trees and shrubs, and successfully lobbied to prevent developers from marring the views from treasured natural landmarks.
"No environmental group has had such a profound, positive impact on Hawaii as has had the Outdoor Circle," Honolulu City Councilman Duke Bainum said. "When I and millions of visitors look at the vista of Diamond Head, it's because of the efforts of the Outdoor Circle that we look at a pristine monument and not one built up with condos and billboards."
As mainland communities debate curbs on outdoor advertising, anti-billboard activists are asking Outdoor Circle for strategy tips.
"It is the envy of other groups," said Meg Maguire, president of the Washington-based Scenic America. "I would hope that over time, those organizations will prove that they have the same mettle, the same stick-to-itiveness and the same vigilance over scenic values as the Outdoor Circle has demonstrated in its history."
That vigilance has paid big dividends for Hawaii, Steiner said.
"We pay a price to live in paradise," she said, referring to the isles' high cost of living. "But what we get back from our natural beauty far and away is worth it.
"People feel, whether they're out on the beach or hiking, a type of nourishment that really does replenish and makes going back to the day-to-day stresses so much easier to deal with."
Still, the Outdoor Circle's influence and upper-crust origins can rub some the wrong way. With Hawaii's economy precariously emerging from a nine-year slump, small-business owners accuse the group of rigidly opposing changes to signage regulations to allow more aggressive promotion.
"They have the power, and they've done some good. However, I believe they're standing in the way of progress too," said Clarence Silva, owner of Fleet Street Graphics. "The attitude I get from them is that it's their garden party and they're going to keep it that way."
Business and beautification interests clashed recently over whether to allow second-story commercial signs in Waikiki, the hub of Hawaii's $12-billion tourism industry. The City Council allowed the signs.
The Outdoor Circle has long maintained that Hawaii's tourism-driven economy is best served by environmentally friendly policies.
The group grew out of a chance 1911 meeting of three Honolulu women in the gardens of Versailles who decided their growing Pacific metropolis needed more gardens and fountains.
The women planted hundreds of coconut trees along the main drag of Waikiki, lined downtown streets with monkey pod, shower and banyan trees, and helped city dwellers replace fences with flowering hedges.
From horseback, they scattered kukui nuts on the steep hills of Tantalus above Honolulu and carried water barrels up the mountain by horse and buggy to water their plantings.
Decades later, when a need for camouflage arose after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Outdoor Circle donated thousands of plants to Army posts.
With the tourism explosion that followed statehood and the first jet arrival in 1959, the group fought to keep Hawaii green amid the massive new construction.
The group's membership of 3,500 has diversified to include men, young adults and professionals.
The group also has become preemptive, working more closely with businesses and the military to preserve trees before they are threatened, project manager Chris Snyder said.
Despite new emphasis on partnerships, the Outdoor Circle isn't afraid to get tough, Steiner said.
A Honolulu fire captain was targeted in January after he ordered his crew to chop down several trees at his Kailua firehouse to reduce yard work. Mayor Jeremy Harris promptly ordered new trees planted, and the captain was reprimanded.
Whether campaigning to save trees threatened by road-widening projects or against an elevated freeway along Honolulu's waterfront, the group's reputation for tenacity sticks to this day.
Just ask Bainum, who opposed the group during the Waikiki sign debate.
"While many of them are very nice ladies, a lot of them are not so sweet when it comes to a battle," he said.