"I thought I had the best job in the government, and I still think that," says Stewart Udall, speaking by phone from his home near Sante Fe, N.M. During his stint as Secretary of the Interior from 1961 to 1969 under Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Udall shepherded the country's young environmental movement through its growing pains.
Udall's accomplishments during his tenure at the Department of the Interior are numerous: he created new national programs such as the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the Wilderness Act, which pushed the nation toward a deeper appreciation and protection of its remaining wild spaces. He helped create many new national parks and forests and the first national seashores. Perhaps most importantly, he established a bipartisan consensus on conservation issues that would endure for 20 years.
Udall's 1963 bestseller, The Quiet Crisis, was a clarion call for conservation. The book traces the history of America through our relationship to the bountiful land, from the frontier men and explorers who created a "myth of superabundance," to the naturalists who expressed the beauty of the continent in their art, to the ruinous timber, agriculture, ranching and mining practices that would have stripped the country bare of resources had not the government started to wise up at the tail end of the 19th century.
On March 9, Udall will speak at Tulane University as part of the Mellon lecture series "Learning the Vernacular." Udall's lecture, titled "Preserving Nature, Preserving Culture, Creating a Future," will cover Louisiana's history of reluctant conservation as well as the state's new push toward coastal restoration. "I'm delighted to hear there's a lot of rethinking going on today," says Udall. "That's one of the reasons I'm coming down -- to help the change move ahead and help the people who want to develop new policies."
At 84, Udall is a rare environmentalist. He brings with him considerable expertise in environmental policy, gathered during seven years representing Arizona in the House of Representatives as well as his eight years as Interior Secretary. His books and other writings are eloquent and passionate, whether he's discussing the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau's search for God in the forest, or examining the nuts-and-bolts successes of President Franklin Roosevelt's Tennessee Valley Authority.
"I see [Udall] in the tradition of a lot of the great naturalist writers," says Nick Spitzer, producer of the syndicated radio program American Routes and Tulane's 2004 Mellon Professor. "I think the real difference, though, is that Stewart was able to hook it up to public policy, which few people were able to do."
Spitzer, a longtime friend and admirer of Udall's, invited him to Tulane to speak on the ever-shifting calculation of how humans live with the land and are shaped by it. Specifically in coastal Louisiana, the relationship between culture and ecology couldn't be clearer. The coastal erosion creeping inward from the Gulf threatens not only marsh-grass and herons, but also the Cajun way of life. "We're seeing communities that have maintained a lifestyle of fishing, foraging and trapping unable to stay on the land because it's flooding," says Spitzer. "When you have large corporate forces or a government that's indifferent to the ravages of the landscape, you have intimate communities -- particularly in these rural areas -- in peril."
In his recent book about the settling of the American West, The Forgotten Founders, Udall argues that the country is better off when the community is more important than the individual. In earlier works, he has criticized the frontier spirit of individualism that set the tone for America's relationship to the land: when it goes unchecked, he says, that individualism turns into selfish greed.
"I think the nation is always better off when we think and plan for the future as a community," says Udall. "At it's best, that's what the whole conservation cause is all about, taking the responsibility to turn over an environment to future generations that's as good or better than what we inherited."
Udall was born in the small town of St. Johns, Ariz., where farming wasn't an occupation, it was a way of life. "I grew up close to the earth," says Udall. "I grew up with a stress from the community on taking good care of the land. You had to. It was sort of built in as a principle and a way of living." St. Johns is on the high and dry Colorado plateau, and irrigation was a necessity. "I grew up learning the importance of water," says Udall, and the scarcity of this precious resource taught him an early lesson about the "myth of superabundance."
The myth, he explains in The Quiet Crisis, posited that no matter how rapaciously Americans consumed their natural resources, nothing would ever be exhausted. Crude oil was constantly being produced deep in the earth, America's stock of timber was endless, and there were far too many passenger pigeons -- an estimated 5 billion on the continent at the time of the Revolutionary War -- for the creatures ever to go extinct, no matter how relentlessly they were hunted. So went the common thinking up until the 20th century, when Americans learned they were wrong on each point.
The Udall family were Mormons who believed in careful husbandry of the earth at a time when most of the country was just coming to grips with the effects of irresponsible agriculture. In the 1930s, the Great Plains turned into the Dust Bowl, an event Udall has called "a bill collector sent by nature." Too many years of overgrazing and careless plowing and planting, coupled with a lack of understanding of the prairie's fragile ecosystem, resulted in the wind lifting the layer of precious topsoil from thousands of family farms. Foreclosures and migrations became one of the themes of the Great Depression.
In Arizona, President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal program answered the Great Depression largely through conservation programs. Udall was a teenager at the time, but he was well aware of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program that concentrated on reforestation, soil conservation and building trails and National Park facilities. "I thought the conservation programs of the two Roosevelts were admirable," says Udall. "That was part of my education." With the Petrified Forest National Park to the west of town and the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona, the results of early government efforts to safeguard public land were on display.
The land Udall grew up in, and the lessons he was taught, would shape his entire career. The Zuni and Navajo tribal lands were also nearby, and his familiarity with their way of life led to a lifelong appreciation for American Indian cultures and land practices. Many years later, he would fight for American Indian land rights as secretary of the interior, and after his political career ended, he spent 10 years in federal courts representing Navajo uranium miners who had been unwittingly poisoned.
"I was running for Congress 50 years ago, believe it or not," says Udall. It was 1954, and after service during World War II as a gunner on B-24 bombers and a subsequent law practice in Tucson, Ariz., he decided it was time to take up the mantle of public office. "I was from a family who thought that serving in public office was important," says Udall, whose father served as a judge in Arizona's Supreme Court.
Indeed, so many Udalls eventually went into politics that they were sometimes called the "Kennedys of the West." Udall's brother, Morris, also became a representative from Arizona and went on to run for the Democratic nomination for president in 1976. Tom Udall, Stewart's son, and Mark Udall, Morris' son, currently serve in the House. "They're carrying it on," says Udall. 'They're good young men."
During his seven years in the House, Udall worked on the Resource Committee, where he acquired expertise in the country's inchoate environmental policies, and also worked on labor reform with Sen. John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy ran for president, Udall offered his support. "We were of the same generation," says Udall. "When Kennedy was elected, it was almost as though the soldiers from World War II had matured and were ready to take over the government."
Under Kennedy, Udall became the first person from Arizona in the Cabinet and a secretary of the interior that would go down in history. In 1961, large parcels of pristine Western land were still being sold off for a pittance. Teddy Roosevelt had jumpstarted the national park system and his nephew Franklin Roosevelt had begun long-needed agrarian and forestry reforms, but the conservation movement was still in its infancy. It was a time that called for clear vision and bold initiatives.
With Kennedy's strong support, Udall went to work. "It was almost as though you opened the door to new ideas and new policies," he says, citing the National Seashore system as a good example of an idea that flung the door wide open. He and Kennedy came up with the idea of protecting some coastlines from development and planned to start by naming one site, the long strand of beaches on Cape Cod, Mass. By the time the bill was passed, it included 14 sites, including Texas' Padre Island, Point Reyes near San Francisco and even some of the Great Lakes shoreline.
The assassination of President Kennedy stunned Udall, as it stunned the country. He got the news while on a plane with five other members of the Cabinet, en route to a meeting in Japan, and still has the ticker tape that bore the news of his friend's death. Udall stayed on as secretary of the tnterior under President Johnson and formed a close friendship with First Lady Claudia "Ladybird" Johnson, who was a staunch supporter of conservation. "We traveled around looking at conservation projects and visiting Indian reservations. We had a wonderful time," says Udall. "President Johnson liked what we were doing, so anything she wanted to do, or I wanted to do, we sort of had a blank check."
Udall says he's proud of the new national policies his team created in the following years. The Wilderness Act of 1964 created forest and mountain areas without roads or manmade structures, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 helped protect the nation's tributaries from industrial overdevelopment, and the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 paved the way for the stricter Endangered Species Act of 1973.
"But on another level," says Udall, "Rachel Carson and her book Silent Spring changed the thinking of the country and the world. [It taught] that you weren't doing a good job unless you understood the side effects of new technology. We championed her and we helped orchestrate that change."
None of these bills would have been passed, however, without broad support in Congress. Udall says the support for conservation amounted to a bipartisan consensus. "There was kind of a common belief that we had to do more to preserve and save the best of the West."
Of course, not everyone was on board. Among the handful of holdouts were Senators Russell Long and Allen Ellender, both from Louisiana. "To show you what I'll call the Louisiana attitude at that time," says Udall, "there were only 12 senators who voted against Wilderness bill [in 1964], two of them were Long and Ellender. It didn't surprise me."
The idea of wilderness areas, land that would be eternally protected from development and resource extraction, didn't fit Louisiana's emphasis on petroleum development in the state's wild places. "Louisiana, on this new conservation issue, was rather sluggish and backward I'm afraid," says Udall. The state valued the revenue from the oil and natural gas industry more than the land, says Udall, even when the environmental effects were disastrous.
"In the old days they made a mess," he recalls. "The petroleum industry is doing a lot better now; they've improved over the years. But they would just go in and drill and leave a mess when they left." One of the legacies left from the former approach to petroleum development is the 10,000 miles of canals carved in the coastal wetlands for navigation and pipelines. With erosion occurring all along these lanes of open water, the canals have been partially blamed for the loss of 25 to 30 square miles of marshland each year.
The Department of the Interior was also creating national wildlife refuges during Udall's tenure and wanted to establish a few in Louisiana. "Louisiana, the whole Delta area, is the richest wetland area and wildlife area in the whole country. It's where the river empties," says Udall. "But the state people at that time said, 'Federal government stay out, we'll do it.' But they weren't doing very much." Eventually the state government had a change of heart, establishing Louisiana's first national park, the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, in 1978, and adding almost two dozen national wildlife refuges in the subsequent decades.
Udall did have a Louisiana ally in the House of Representatives. "My favorite congressman was Hale Boggs," he says. "Everybody liked Hale. If he hadn't have lost his life tragically, he would have been speaker instead of Tip O'Neill during the Carter and Reagan years. He was a very smart, sensitive person, and he was receptive to new ideas."
A main debate in the early conservation movement centered on just why the land was being conserved. Was it to be kept a pristine sanctuary for scenic purposes, or nurtured for the sustained harvesting of resources? It's a debate that still rages today, with initiatives like President George Bush's proposed "Healthy Forests" program, which increases logging in national forests. In The Quiet Crisis, Udall points to the first time the debate exploded on the national stage in the early years of the 20th century.
Yosemite Valley, in California, was put aside for public use in 1864 and became the United State's second national park in 1890. But when San Francisco city planners were looking for a hydroelectric dam site, Yosemite's park status gave it no protection. A glacier-carved valley within the park, named Hetch Hetchy, was seen as an ideal dam spot. John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, led the fight against the dam, writing indignantly, "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man." But the need for cheap electric power overwhelmed Muir's argument, and Congress authorized the dam in 1913.
Udall says he's stood on both sides of the line between "the workshop and the temple," as The Quiet Crisis frames the debate. "Dam building was kind of a religion, in the West in particular -- any dam was a good dam," he says. "When I went to Congress, that was the pronounced view in my state."
President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal had started a dam-building crusade with the Tennessee Valley Authority and continued the movement throughout the West. The dams provided cheap, clean electricity, most of which went to rural areas that had never had electricity before. "The little town I grew up in didn't have electricity, and that was the '30s," remembers Udall.
While he was in Congress, a bill was proposed to dam Glen Canyon, in Arizona, to create what is today Lake Powell. The Arizona electorate was very much in favor of the dam, and so, at the time, was Udall. In the years to come, he would reconsider. "If it had been proposed 10 years later, when I was secretary of interior, it never would have been built," he says ruefully. "It would have been a magnificent national park. So you end up having ambivalent feelings about some things."
Ten years later, Udall had a chance to do things differently. The Central Arizona Project proposed two dams in the Grand Canyon that would have sent Colorado River water to the rapidly growing city of Phoenix. With the Sierra Club and Udall's conservation allies on one side and the people of Arizona on the other, Udall had to make a hard choice.
"I made the decision, which didn't make me popular in Arizona, to dump those two dams that would have turned the Grand Canyon into lakes," he says. With Lyndon and Ladybird Johnson's support, the project was killed. Although this was undoubtedly a triumph for the conservation movement, Udall fears that it was just a temporary setback in the city of Phoenix's reckless expansion. "They're just tearing up the desert, trying to be another Los Angeles. I look on it with sadness," he says.
Udall left the government for good in 1969, when the Nixon administration took office. But the legacy he left behind -- bipartisan support for many conservation projects -- endured throughout the 1970s.
"I never thought Nixon understood the subtleties of the conservation movement the way Kennedy and Johnson did, but he turned out to be a good president on the environment," says Udall. "He declared the '70s would be the environmental decade, and he supported new policies." Several of the laws that form the basis of environmental regulation today were passed under Nixon's watch, including the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter kept the momentum going as the conservation movement gave way to a more vigorously scientific environmental movement.
But everything changed when President Reagan came to office in 1981, says Udall. "They turned conservation and resource development into a political football," he says. After 20 years of bipartisan consensus, the Western conservatives and Republicans split off. "[They] decided that the country had gone too far on conservation, and mining and logging and all the rest of it became controversial. The big issue became development. That's true under the Bush administration now. They're ransacking potential wilderness areas to find a little bit more gas.
"The idea of conservation as presented by Teddy Roosevelt was visionary," continues Udall. "You owe a duty to future generations, which means your children and grandchildren. That was central. But there's not much vision now. They look to the next year or the year after that, when they need to look 50 years down the road. That's unfortunate, and sad, to see that change. Our nation was the world leader [on conservation], but we're abandoning that leadership in Washington, I'm sorry to say, right now."
The national parks and seashores, the wilderness forests and wild streams spangled across America remain a testament to what Udall left for his children to enjoy. The fight now passes on to the next generation. President Kennedy addressed this struggle in his introduction to The Quiet Crisis: "Each generation must deal anew with the 'raiders,' with the scramble to use public resources for private profit, and with the tendency to prefer short-run profits to long-run necessities. The nation's battle to preserve the common estate is far from won."