Death of an era

by Ray Ring

updated April 21, 2010

When Stewart Udall made his final raft trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, at age 84, he took the hard way out.

He didn't float to the take-out at Diamond Creek, where he could have hopped a truck to the canyon rim. He declined a mule ride up from Phantom Ranch. Instead, he hiked 10 hours up the steep, cliff-carving Bright Angel Trail, and at the top, he celebrated with a martini in the bar of the historic rim-side El Tovar Hotel.

Fond remembrances like that and general accolades echoed around the country when Udall died March 20 in his Santa Fe home, at the age of 90. The praise was well-deserved, but Udall probably would've been uncomfortable with the tone of reflexive and gushing celebrity worship.

"Any wilderness area, any national park and national monument ... (Udall) created the spirit that made all those things possible," Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's chairman, said in the Los Angeles Times' obituary. "He was always doing the right thing for the Earth," Jim Vaaler, head of that group's Grand Canyon chapter, told the Arizona Republic.

Well, not always, as Udall himself acknowledged many times with characteristic humility and frankness.

In a career that included six years representing Arizona in Congress in the 1950s and eight serving as Interior secretary for presidents Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960s, Udall helped create Canyonlands National Park in Utah, Redwood National Park in California and North Cascades National Park in Washington, as well as a slew of national monuments, national shorelines, recreation areas and 56 wildlife refuges.

He also helped write some key environmental laws, including the 1964 Wilderness Act, and after he retired from government service, he served for decades as a private legal advocate for victims of nuclear pollution in the West.

But he also used his political power to push for some major dams, including the one that drowned Glen Canyon. He helped create the boondoggle Central Arizona Project that delivers Colorado River water to desert farmers and rampant urban sprawl. And he pushed construction of the interstate highway system, which helped enable Western development and an explosion in the use of hydrocarbon-hungry cars and trucks.

Udall was a pragmatist who grew up on a small Arizona farm; the grandson of a Mormon polygamist; an idealistic conservationist; a guy who liked to wear cowboy neckerchiefs even when not riding a horse.

More than anything, he represented an era. Most of the nation came together in the 1960s and 1970s around the goals of protecting the environment and preserving remnants of wild landscapes. Overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress passed many of the major environmental laws, including the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

A convergence of events formed that national consensus. There were undeniable environmental disasters, including an oil spill on the beach of Santa Barbara, Calif., and the near meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island. Astronauts provided the first photos of the whole Earth floating in space, and people began to realize that we are living on a rather small lifeboat that needs careful tending.

At the same time, U.S. society was torn apart by Vietnam War casualties and protests, the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother and Martin Luther King Jr., and the impeachment of President Nixon. People craved a unifying cause, and they settled on the environment. It was in that spirit that High Country News was founded in 1970.

"I had the great fortune to come into office at a time when people wanted new policies," Stewart Udall reflected in an excerpt in Voices of the West, a collection of oral histories and narratives, published a few months before he died.

Since that seemingly golden era, the consensus has waned and environmental politics have deteriorated. The political parties agree on almost nothing. There's a rising strain of hatred of government, including repeated flare-ups of the Sagebrush Rebellion. Congress is mostly paralyzed, and some Western legislatures are passing a new round of laws that aim to undercut many federal environmental laws.

In his last column, Udall said he'd become "a troubled optimist ... There is so much that is disturbing. I saw a poll that says 46 percent of the American people think a conservationist is a bad person. What is conservation? It is preserving the best things we have."

Mourn the death of a great but imperfect man, and -- even more -- the death of an era.

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