Gary Nabhan remembers Stewart Udall

Former Interior Secretary known for vision, decency and conservation.

  • Stewart L. Udall

    United States Department of the Interior
 

On Saturday, March 20, the West lost Stewart Udall, one of the greatest conservationists this region has given to the world. The man exemplified vision and decency, conservation and consilience, in an era when conflict and entrenchment have become all too common.

As Congress fought bitterly over health care reform that same weekend, voting almost entirely upon party lines, I remembered a story that Udall told me as we celebrated his 80th birthday at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., in 2000. I had asked him about Barry Goldwater, the great conservative curmudgeonly Republican senator from Arizona, who reigned while Udall was still a young Democratic congressman from the same state. Did he have to cajole Goldwater to vote for conservation measures? His answer -- roughly paraphrased here -- surprised me.

"I never doubted that Barry loved the land. He spent his younger days roaming around, photographing much of the West. We didn't always vote the same way, but we were friends. The entire Arizona delegation to Congress -- both Democrat and Republican -- regularly got together to see what we could get done by collaborating across the aisle. We'd even golf or share martinis together after hours. The deep divide we see in Congress today is a relatively recent phenomenon."

Udall went on to become one of the most dynamic and effective secretaries of Interior this country has ever known. He helped protect more than 4 million acres as parks, monuments, national seashores and lakeshores and wildlife refuges, and was more personally involved in their selection and design than any Interior secretary has been since his eight-year tenure under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Just a few months after his confirmation in 1961, Udall was disappearing deep into Utah's red-rock country to shape the future Canyonlands National Park with legendary Bates Wilson, Superintendent of what was then Arches National Monument, at his side. Knowing their jeeps would take them far from civilization for many days, Udall arranged for government memos, the Washington Post, New York Times, scotch and ice cream to be air-dropped to his crew every few days. No Facebook or Twitter back then.

Of course, conflicts between private landowners and the government were just as likely then as today. In Kansas, Udall's call for a Tall-Grass Prairie National Park angered farmers and ranchers, and some of them toted shotguns to a hearing that Udall attended. And yet, he had a way of diffusing anger, as I later saw at that time in Elko.

It was rumored that some of the Nevada's toughest libertarian cowboys and ranchers in the wise-use movement were going to disrupt Udall's lecture at the cowboy poetry gathering. They assumed that he represented the first wave of the environmentalists who had disrupted their way of life. Hundreds of people packed into a too-small room, and tensions rose as it became clear that many were members of the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade, which earlier that day had caravanned through Elko with a bunch of heavy equipment, intent on rebuilding a road the Forest Service had closed for the sake of endangered species.

But when Udall spoke from his heart about his Mormon family's rural history and the community values that he had absorbed from them, virtually everyone in the room was touched by his words. When he finished, he was met not merely with warmth and respect, but with a standing ovation. People came out of that room knowing that he was one of them, the salt-of-earth poets of the West.

Udall was not only eloquent himself; he welcomed eloquent voices into Interior's domain, bringing in the likes of Wallace Stegner, Tom Watkins, John Graves and Alvin Josephy as the department's writers in residence to help articulate the role of wild nature in shaping American character and defining our nation's history.

The last time I saw Stewart Udall was in February of 2009; he had difficulty walking and seeing, but his spirit, his sense of humor and his passion were still strong. I had the honor -- along with his dear friend, author, musician and folklorist, Jack Loeffler -- of escorting Udall to reacquaint himself with Aldo Leopold's daughters and their extended family at an event in downtown Santa Fe, N.M. He spoke with great generosity and respect for their entire family's support of collaborative conservation efforts between rural communities and federal agencies. He could have easily bragged that his own family -- brother Mo, sons Tom and Jay, daughter Laura, nephews Mark and Randy, and so on -- had also made a lasting mark on Western conservation. But that night, Stewart Udall was more interested in hearing the stories of those who had inspired him than in broadcasting his own. Of course, he had no reason to wave his own flag; others will be waving it for him for years to come. He has inspired too many people to be forgotten now.

Gary Nabhan was 20-year old newcomer to the Southwest when he had the audacity to invite Stewart Udall to speak at Prescott College for an Earth Day celebration. To his surprise, Mr. Udall accepted, for there were also many Udall kids among that student body. He has been grateful to the entire Udall family ever since.

Stewart Udall
Joni Earley
Joni Earley
Mar 30, 2010 12:04 PM
We need many more people leading this country like Stewart Udall. Thank you, Gary Nabhan, for reminding us of what a great man he was. May it inspire us to search out people with those values to vote for..(if there are any!)
Stewart Udall
Sue Thomas
Sue Thomas
Mar 30, 2010 12:56 PM
I miss them all these pioneers who understood the land and the Western landscape. As the West is more urbanized the voices are stilled concerning saving the land and its wonderful species. We owe a great deal to all the Udall's. When I hike and experience the great landscapes I know they are still with us and I am so grateful.
Udall's passing
james bishop
james bishop
Mar 30, 2010 01:23 PM
  RIP Mr.Secretary-- his book, The Quiet Crisis stands as the classic work for anyone interested in saving Mother Earth. When last i interviewed he said, 'Hate to leave Arizona, there's so much i haven't seen." The canyons,creeks and valleys will always remember him. Without him, they'd be covered with asphalt
Thanks, Gary Paul!
Susan J Tweit
Susan J Tweit
Mar 30, 2010 01:15 PM
What a beautiful remembrance of Stewart Udall, told with characteristic Nabhan reverence for the whole community of the land, human and moreso. Thank you, Gary, for the thoughtful lesson in collaboration and roots, and High Country News for reminding us of what the West really is: home.
Thank you for a fine remembrance, Gary
Tom Robinson
Tom Robinson
Mar 30, 2010 01:53 PM
Those of us with the privilege of traversing and savoring the wildlands that Stewart Udall protected can be grateful beyond our generation for what we know and enjoy.
Stewart Udall
Robert righter
Robert righter
Mar 30, 2010 04:24 PM
Udall was a great environmentalist who will be missed. However, we should not lose sight of the fact he was a politician and an Arizonian. When Floyd Dominy and the Bureau of Reclamation proposed two high dams (Marble Canyon and Bridge) in the Grand Canyon in the 1960s, Udall favored the project. Thank god he lost that one.
Gary Naban's Reflection on Stew Udall
Betsy A. Leonard
Betsy A. Leonard
Mar 30, 2010 08:23 PM
Gary, Thank you for reminding us what a gentle person Secretary Udall was. It was through his influence that I entered the environmental field. There is no time an easy one to set aside parkland, and Mr. Udall did his best. A man of his caliber will be sorely missed. He has left his legacy in politically-minded sons and nephews. My thanks to the Udall family.
Stuart Udall
Derrick Crandall
Derrick Crandall
Mar 31, 2010 05:02 AM
The American conservation movement has enjoyed leadership from the east and the west -- from Teddy Roosevelt to Stuart and Mo Udall and Scoop Jackson and so many more. Every American is enriched daily by the vision and the passion of these forward-thinking and wise men and women. I came to Washington while the Udalls' influence was still great, after the decade of the 60's and its tremendous legislative accomplishments and as work progressed with new tools like LWCF and the National Wilderness Protection Act. It is sad to see giants of the 20th Century pass, but they leave us knowing that they have changed the lives of many -- and for cneturies to come.
Stewart and Lee Udall
Hal  Cannon
Hal Cannon
Apr 06, 2010 08:16 AM
Gary, Thank you for a wonderful memory of Stewart Udall. We remember the angry calls over inviting Stewart to speak at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering and how he won over the crowd with his love of both cultural and environmental conservation. Many of us met Stewart through his incredible wife Lee. She served in Washington as a board member of the National Council for Traditional Arts and later helped with many cultural projects in the southwest. My lasting memories are of them together.
Hal Cannon, Founding Director, Western Folklife Center