Stewart Udall lives in a comfortable adobe house near downtown Santa Fe, N.M. Now 84 years old, he’s earned the distinguished looks of a Western sage, with his beaked nose, strong face, long hair.

Each evening he likes to sit on his deck, with a blanket across his lap, puffing on a cigar. Macular degeneration has blocked most of his eyesight; he can only read with the help of a machine that magnifies the printed page. But he can still savor the spectacular sunsets over the Jemez Mountains.

He also contemplates a West that he helped shape during his years in Congress in the 1950s and as Interior secretary for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson during the 1960s. The unambiguous environmental victories extended from Arizona to Alaska and beyond the region: He helped save New York’s Carnegie Hall from demolition, and Florida’s Everglades from a jetport, and worked with citizens to protect wild rivers in the Ozarks.

With characteristic humility, he says he was merely an enabler. The time was right back then, in a convergence of thousands of conservation-minded leaders and officials, and broad public support. Despite his ailments, he’s still engaged in the conservation movement. On Sept. 19, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to be the keynote speaker at a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. More than 400 conservationists from around the country attended the gala, in the banquet room of the National Press Club. He spoke about the wilderness "heroes" of the old days, including Republican Rep. John Saylor of Pennsylvania, who ran the Green River rapids and then pushed for the creation of Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado, and Republican Sen. Thomas Kuchel of California, who pushed for protecting the California coast from oil drilling.

The turning point for conservation, in his view, came with President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s: Reagan was the figurehead for a movement that has turned many people against government and cooperative solutions, he says, a movement very much in charge in Washington, D.C., today.

"It’s a startling difference," he says. "From 1961 until the Reagan administration, all of the presidents gave strong support for conservation. It was like a relay race in the Olympics. You would pass the baton, and Nixon took it and ran, and Ford and Carter, but when James Watt took over (the Interior Department) for Reagan, he didn’t want the baton, it just dropped to the floor, and" — with the exception of the Clinton administration — "that’s where it’s been since then."

Today, he says, the political climate for conservation is the worst he’s experienced. "The Bush administration is anti-conservation," he charges, and the Republicans now holding the majority in Congress are mostly "like sheep" going along with it. "There is no standup Republican in the whole House now, like John Saylor was — he would stand up (for conservation measures) and all the Republicans would listen to him."

In a column for the Los Angeles Times in July, Stewart wrote, "The Bush administration, determined to ransack public lands for the last meager pockets of petroleum, has turned my old department into a servile, single-minded adjunct of the Energy Department."

Stewart laments the difficulties that his son, Rep. Tom Udall, and his nephew, Rep. Mark Udall, face just trying to "keep the causes alive." They both hold seats on the key House Resources Committee, but it’s run by Rep. Richard Pombo of California, a strongman who blocks most conservation bills.

"The person who would be most shocked at what’s happened is my brother (Rep. Mo Udall, who chaired the committee from 1977 to 1991). They all said when he died, he was the best at running it as a democracy — if somebody introduced a bill, it would be heard, and everybody would have a chance to express their opinions and propose amendments. The process was followed, and then on the floor of the House (it would put to a vote of all representatives). The old expression was that (a bill) ‘worked its will.’ But (a bill) doesn’t work its will anymore. Nothing comes out of that committee unless Pombo allows it to come out. He’s negative and dictatorial."

Yet Stewart Udall also sees signs of hope in on-the-ground efforts, such as land trusts, that mostly bypass Congress and the White House. He helped found two groups in the 1980s that do just that — the Albuquerque-based Archaeological Conservancy and the Grand Canyon Trust. "That has been one positive thing. That’s what you try to do, if the legislative process is slowing."

Failing eyesight is especially difficult for a man who’s written at least eight books on conservation. But he’s still putting his thoughts on paper, as best he can. "I’m writing a piece now; I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but it keeps me busy," he says. "It’s on the two things everybody is in denial about, that are coming to a head and are going to make this century extraordinarily different and more difficult: global warming and the intersection with the end of cheap oil. Everybody thinks technology will save us, but there is no panacea."

Ed Marston contributed to this story. Ray Ring is HCN editor in the field.