The West's defender of wild places
An architect of the Wilderness Act, Stewart Udall still knows 'good wilderness' when he sees it.
After splashing through calf-deep water in the Santa Fe National Forest, Stewart Udall said, "This is good wilderness. Any time you have to struggle a bit to cross a stream you've got good wilderness." He may be the politician most responsible for America's legacy of protected public lands. (Jake Schoellkopf / For The Times)
FOR THE RECORD:
Wilderness protection —An article in Tuesday's Outdoors section about former secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall said the Wilderness Act protects more than 400 million acres. The act protects more than 100 million acres.
Udall, who turned 85 in January, has slowed down in recent years. Age, the death of his wife and a degenerative eye condition have contributed, but once on the trail, he gamely sloshes ahead, grasping drooping branches and, if needed, an outstretched hand.
"This is good wilderness," he says, his somber voice lightening up. "Any time you have to struggle a bit to cross a stream you've got good wilderness."
Good wilderness. That's what Udall can boast about. As secretary of the Interior during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations — and one of the architects of the Wilderness Act — he is perhaps the politician most responsible for the public lands you hike, the rivers you kayak, the mountains you climb and the wilderness you contemplate. And it is this legacy that he is most fearful will be lost.
Along with Robert McNamara, Udall is the last surviving member of the original New Frontier cabinet. In his ninth decade, he continues to put forth an environmental agenda, laments the dismantling of national lands and bemoans the malicious attitudes that he sees corrupting Washington. The family name is synonymous with public service: Both a son and a nephew are in the U.S. Congress, and his brother Morris, who died in 1998, was a longtime Arizona representative and onetime presidential candidate. Still, Stewart Udall realizes he is of a distant generation.
"I'm living out my life as the last leaf on the tree," he says.
The Wilderness Act was a radical piece of legislation in its day, calling for "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Today the Wilderness Act protects nearly 5% of the country's land, encompassing more than 400 million acres in 44 states.
The legislation was so complicated that it took 10 years of shaping and crafting before it could be successfully introduced to Congress. The Wilderness Preservation System, as the bill was formally known, became law in 1964, gliding through the House, 374-1, and the Senate, 72-12 (due in large part to California Republican Thomas Kuchel). The law, along with other Great Society initiatives, helped redefine American life, and it came about in large measure as a result of Udall's public and private persuasion.
A young family of three, the baby strapped to its father's chest, walks past Udall with a nod, while its dog races ahead.
"When you see families like that, you're seeing real outdoorsmen," he comments after they pass. "Modern life is a conspiracy. Everything is against health. Television tells you to sit, sit; eat, eat. People need to get out of doors. Exercise."
Udall can be a scold, however righteous he may feel. The word "curmudgeonly" comes to mind. Some have called him "the troubled optimist."
A diplomat who worked both sides of the aisle, Udall finessed the Wilderness Act by invoking not the social programs of FDR but the national park initiatives of Teddy Roosevelt. He shrewdly drew attention to the growth of the Sierra Club and the popular awareness of the environment that had been sparked by Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" and, to a lesser extent, his own Wallace Stegner-inspired "The Quiet Crisis," about the history of America's environmental movement. The legislation, coupled with other laws, has made the Udall years at Interior the historical high-water mark for preservation and conservation. The Wilderness Act, said one ardent supporter, turned poetry into policy.
Farther into the national forest, Udall zigzags across the stream half a dozen or so times. His cane is a carbon hiking stick, and he leads with a brisk pace. The forest, he points out, is reminiscent of St. John, Ariz., on the Colorado Plateau where he grew up.
"I was never much of a botanist," says Udall. Hefty pine cones lay around the tree trunks; a swarm of small purple butterflies flutters by. "I can tell a ponderosa when I see one. It's one of my favorite trees. Coronado walked through ponderosas when he traveled here. My favorite tree in New Mexico is the aspen, but we're not high enough. In St. John we had some cedar and some juniper at 5,500 feet."
Conversant with politicians, radicals and actors, Udall has been at the center of some of the great Western environmental conflicts of the 20th century: the Central Arizona Project, for instance, and the Glen Canyon Dam (he supported the former and regrets the latter). Memories for him are less moments of nostalgia than reminders of what can be done.
"Pete Seeger sang at a fundraiser we put on for the Navajo uranium miners once," he remembers. "Ed Abbey was there, too. I respected Abbey, and I suspect he respected me. The Atomic Energy Commission didn't tell uranium miners about the lung cancer possibility. They knew all along there was going to be an epidemic. If they'd told the miners about the possibility of cancer they'd have quit, and it would've affected the production of bombs."
Udall spent some 10 years representing lung-damaged miners, losing in the U.S. Supreme Court but winning compensation for them in Congress.