When House Interior Committee Chairman Morris K. Udall of Arizona flew north in 1977 to hold hearings on a bill to protect more than 100 million acres in Alaska, locals in the town of Pelican hanged him in effigy.
Ten years later,
when Udall returned to Alaska to make a speech, an audience of
chamber of commerce members in Anchorage gave him a standing
ovation. Afterward, he talked about the applause with his
characteristic humor, saying it was getting easier to come back to
Alaska because locals were using all their fingers when they waved
When Udall died last month at age 76
after a protracted struggle with Parkinson's disease, House
Interior Committee Chairman Don Young of Alaska, who fought
bitterly against the Alaska Lands Act, said that despite their
repeated conflicts, he had deep respect for
Udall inspired respect because he valued
the opinions of other people, recalled Roy Jones, an Interior
Committee staffer when Udall forged a bipartisan compromise on
Alaska's wilderness bill.
"Each week, in the
committee, there were many, many times when Republicans would want
their day in court," " Jones recalled. "Mo's ruling could have been
to rule them out of order, cutting short debate. But Mo would look
for a means of compromise, of going the extra step of allowing the
minority to have its say. If the process had been shortchanged or
he ran roughshod over the minority, he would not have the benefit
of the doubt when needed." "
In his 30-year
congressional career, Udall had that effect on his fiercest
adversaries. Rather than ram bills down opponents' throats, he
triumphed through the art of finding
"The important thing about Mo is that
he was a practical man. He was not an ideologue," " said Priscilla
Robinson, a Tucson environmentalist who worked with Udall on air
pollution, water and other issues. "Mo Udall was the master of the
art of the deal. Today, that has kind of a slimy sound. In truth,
that is how you get stuff done."
As much as any
Washington politician, Udall helped guide environmentalism into
mainstream politics. But his legacy can be found in other aspects
of American public life. In 1967, he became one of the first House
Democrats to oppose the Vietnam War, even though his brother
Stewart was President Lyndon Johnson's secretary of Interior. He
also led a congressional inquiry that uncovered many of the details
of the U.S. military's My Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians.
In 1977, shortly after taking over the House
Interior Committee chairmanship, he shepherded through a law that
required coal companies to reclaim their strip-mined land. In
addition to the Alaska bill, which doubled national park acreage
and tripled wilderness acreage, he helped pass at least 40 other
wilderness and national park bills and secured a share of Arizona's
dwindling water supplies for Indians.
wasn't always triumphant. He failed in attempts to be elected
Speaker of the House and House Majority Leader and he finished
second to Jimmy Carter in seven presidential primaries. On the
environmental front, he had to quickly abandon an attempt to reform
the 1872 Mining Law that allows companies to mine gold, silver and
other minerals on public lands without paying royalties. The reform
try led to a brief attempt by miners in his Tucson-based district
to recall him.
Udall was not a purist. At times,
Arizona environmentalists called him the Representative from Alaska
because they felt he neglected Arizona's environmental problems,
according to a 1988 article in the Tucson-based City Magazine. He
voted to build seven telescopes on Mount Graham in southern Arizona
(HCN, 7/24/95) despite apparent misgivings about the massive
University of Arizona project's effects on the mountain, the
He spent his entire career
making sure Arizona got the $4 billion Central Arizona Project to
pump Colorado River water 330 miles uphill to Phoenix and Tucson.
The water arrived in his home town not long after a fall at his
Washington, D.C., house forced him into retirement in 1991. He
spent the rest of his life bedridden.
In 1986, he
expressed regrets about the biggest and most expensive federal
"... If I could turn the clock
back 50 years and do it all over again, instead of spending $3
billion for a water plan that would let Tucson grow and turn
Phoenix into another Los Angeles, I would have suggested that we
take land by the Colorado River, where we have the water, and build
10 cities the size of Yuma," " he told Arizona Highways magazine.
"But that's hindsight." "
The 1960s struggle to
build CAP may have produced more than hindsight. Udall's former
legislative assistant, Richard Olson, said recently that two
proposed dams in the Grand Canyon - they were supposed to produce
electricity to finance CAP - deeply affected Udall.
"There was a debate in Arizona between the two
of them, Udall and David Brower (then the Sierra Club executive
director), and I think it was kind of embarrassing to him in a way
to be advocating these dams," " recalled Olson. "It came from not
having a good answer to some of the arguments that were made
against the dams." " Eventually, both Mo and Stewart Udall stopped
supporting the dams.
His former allies and
colleagues differ on how he would deal with the current
environmental gridlock, but everyone agrees he would be horrified
at today's politics.
"He would have found a lot
to laugh about, but he also would have been appalled at the
misdirected passion," " said Mark Trautwein, a House Interior
Committee staffer during Udall's
"Mo was a man of enormous principle
and passion, but he was also a man of great fairness and
equilibrium, who knew when to make a principled compromise in the
public interest. What Congress needs now is a half-dozen Mo