In her column "When You Can't See the Scenery for the Signs" {Close to Home, Nov. 17}, Sally Oldham of Scenic America argued for a billboard-free Virginia in order to preserve scenic areas and increase tourism. The outdoor advertising industry is a proponent of preserving scenic areas while permitting local businesses to advertise products and services in commercial and industrial areas. With due respect to the great state of Virginia, not all areas of the state are scenic.

There is a balance to be struck, and a mechanism already in place to do so -- the Highway Beautification Act. If properly enforced, this federal legislation prohibits billboards from locations not designated commercial or industrial. The billboard industry supports strong enforcement to eliminate illegal signs that have been erected in scenic areas without legal permits. However, when other business activity is permitted in commercial areas, the opportunity for regulated local outdoor advertising should not be denied.

According to the U.S. Travel Data Center, 93 percent of all travelers from April 1990 to April 1991 agreed that "billboards are important to travelers looking for tourist attractions and services such as gas, food and lodging. Almost 70 percent agreed that billboards were the primary source of information to help them locate tourist attractions and services."

Sally Oldham mentioned that Vermont tourism had not suffered as a result of its ban on billboards. But she failed to mention that many Vermont merchants are buying billboards in Massachusetts and New York to lure tourists to their shops and attractions just across state boundaries. A drive through Springfield, Mass., or along Route 4 in New York demonstrates that many of Vermont's outlet centers, ski slopes and restaurants still rely on outdoor advertising.

For many advertisers like those involved in tourism and related industries, billboards are simply not replaceable. The unique and inherent benefits of billboards make outdoor advertising particularly important to local and regional advertisers. As a result, these smaller businesses represent approximately 75 percent of the $1.5 billion industry.

Extremists, like members of Scenic America, are incapable of balancing diverse needs. Clear-headed Virginians, though, should realize that scenic preservation and business promotion can coexist to promote the quality of life and economic health of Virginia.

RUTH SEGAL Executive Vice President Governmental Affairs Outdoor Advertising Association of America Washington