By Tommy Hough
We at Treehuggers International are saddened to learn of the death of former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, who died at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, of complications from a fall on Saturday. He was 90 years old, and a genuine American conservation hero.
An Arizona native and three-term congressman, Stewart Udall was tapped by President John F. Kennedy to take over as head of the Department of the Interior in 1961.
A tireless campaigner for America's outdoors and natural heritage, and a great believer in the power of the federal government to preserve America's remaining wildlands, as Secretary of the Interior Udall made it his mission to set aside our nation's special and vulnerable places as National Parks, National Monuments, or Wilderness areas to be preserved for future generations.
Despite a difficult relationship with President Lyndon Johnson, Udall remained in the cabinet following President Kennedy's assassination in 1963 and through the end of LBJ's term in 1969, and made concern for the environment and conservation a key, undeniable component of Johnson's Great Society.
Secretary Udall's record by 1969 was impressive. He facilitated the creation of a dozen National Park Service units, including Point Reyes National Seashore (1962) and Redwood National Park (1968) in California, Canyonlands National Park (1964) in Utah, North Cascades National Park (1968) in Washington state. While at Interior, Udall also laid the groundwork for what became Guadalupe Mountains National Park in 1972.
As Secretary of the Interior, Udall raised the bar in facilitating policy as well. He helped secure passage of the Wilderness Act and the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964, which remains of the most amazing acts of post-World War II legislative humility that now preserves over 400 million acres in 44 states in wild, primitive condition. Udall was also instrumental in crafting the Land and Water Conservation Fund (1965), the Water Quality Act (1965) which later evolved into the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Solid Waste Disposal Act (1965), the Endangered Species Preservation Act (1966) that served as the precursor to the 1973 version we adhere to today, the National Historic Preservation Act (1966), and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968).
As Matt Schudel wrote in a Washington Post obituary:
Mr. Udall, who sometimes led hikes as long as 50 miles when he was Interior Secretary, helped create the first federal bicycle paths and jogging trails. He made Ellis Island in New York Harbor a National Monument, protected the Outer Banks of North Carolina and designated Assateague Island in Maryland and Virginia, with its hundreds of wild horses, a National Seashore in 1965. Four National Parks, six National Monuments and dozens of National Wildlife Refuges, National Historic Sites and National Recreation Areas were created under his authority.
Udall brought conservation and environmental concerns into the national consciousness, and was the guiding force behind landmark legislation that preserved millions of acres of land, expanded the National Park system and protected water and land from pollution. From the Cape Cod seashore in Massachusetts to the untamed wilds of Alaska, Mr. Udall left a monumental legacy as a guardian of America's natural beauty.
The Post also notes that one of Udall's key conservation successes during his time as Interior Secretary was the preservation of the Grand Canyon. While it may be hard to believe now, stretches of the Colorado River within and alongside Grand Canyon National Park were under threat of a number of damming projects well into the 1960s:
Mr. Udall, who continued to hike the Grand Canyon into his mid-80s, summed up his environmental ethic on a trip in the 1990s. "I guess President Teddy Roosevelt, who slept out in the snow up on the South Rim nearly a hundred years ago," he said. "He said it right for all time. 'There it is, magnificent. Man cannot improve upon it.' Leave it alone."
Udall was also the author of a number of books, including The Quiet Crisis, which he wrote as a blueprint for the modern American conservation movement in 1963. Along with various Harvey Manning and Ira Spring guidebooks, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), Tim Palmer's Stanislaus: The Struggle for a River (1982), William Dietrich's The Final Forest (1992), Kathie Durbin's Tree Huggers (1996), and John Muir's classic The Mountains of California (1894), Udall's The Quiet Crisis was one of my personally formative books as a budding environmentalist.
The then-former Interior Secretary also penned a landmark October 1972 article for what used to be called The Atlantic Monthly that questioned the nation's conspicuous consumption and gas-guzzling ways, and accurately predicted the nation's first major energy crisis a year in advance.
Udall later became an activist on behalf of the Navajo nation after leaving the federal government at the beginning of the 1970s, fighting to secure compensation for Navajo citizens who had been poisoned by radiation while excavating uranium for nuclear weapons in the 1950s as federal government employees.
A World War II veteran, Stewart Udall served aboard a B-24 Liberator with the Italian-based Fifteenth Air Force in the Mediterranean theater, and is the father of New Mexico Senator Tom Udall and uncle of Colorado Senator Mark Udall, both of whom were elected to the Senate from the House of Representatives in 2008.
As a citizen, congressman, and Interior Secretary, Stewart Udall couldn't have made the strides he did in the protection of America's natural heritage without significant public support enabling bold legislative and executive action. Like former Sierra Club president Edgar Wayburn, another great conservationist we lost this month, Udall was a master at galvanizing public opinion around an issue or locale and acting upon it. As President Clinton's former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said in 2006, "More than any single person, Stewart Udall was responsible for reviving the national commitment to conservation and environmental preservation."
With a recent Gallup poll showing Americans' concern for conservation at a perilous 20-year low, it is incumbent upon 21st Century conservationists to step forward and build upon the far-reaching progress and environmental successes of the 1960s and 70s by reaching out and engaging with the public on what matters today.
Just as important, the American public needs to be reminded of their treasures, and the presence of new ones. They weren't always there. Every park, monument, or wilderness set aside for perpetuity is there because citizen groups fought, in some cases, for decades to preserve them.
Unless friends, family, and community members are invited along to these special places we cherish today with those of us who are passionate about the outdoors, how can we expect them to see for themselves why they are more valuable to the United States in their natural, pristine state, than exploited for destructive, short-term gain? How can expect them to care if they may not encounter these places on their own?
"Cherish sunsets, wild creatures, and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the Earth." – Stewart Udall, in a letter to his grandchildren
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North Cascades National Park photo by Tommy Hough
Big Bend National Park photo by Robert Knudsen / courtesy of LBJ Library
Wilderness Act signing photo by Yoichi Okamoto / courtesy of LBJ Library
A San Diego broadcast and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He ran as the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in 2018.