Tom Udall: It’s past time we confront the climate and nature crises

For our survival, we can look to my father’s vision as an alternative to our current path.

 

A wild female bobcat sits near Bosque del Apache, New Mexico.

In his 1963 book The Quiet Crisis, my father, former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, sounded the alarm about the creeping destruction of nature. “Each generation has its own rendezvous with the land, for despite our fee titles and claims of ownership, we are all brief tenants on this planet,” he wrote. “By choice, or by default, we will carve out a land legacy for our heirs.”

Today would have been Stewart Udall’s 100th birthday. And 57 years after he wrote the The Quiet Crisis, it is more urgent than ever that we heed his words and follow his example in order to save the natural world.

As Interior secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, my father was the visionary leader of a burgeoning conservation and environmental movement. During his first year as secretary, then-Bureau of Reclamation Chief Floyd Dominy took him on a flight over southern Utah to show him the “next” big dam. My dad took one look at the red-rock spires below and saw not a dam, but the next national park. He carried this vision back to Washington, D.C., and worked to establish what is today Canyonlands National Park.  

Stewart Udall stands at Rainbow bridge, one of the world’s largest known natural bridges, in Utah.
Courtesy of the Udall family

Canyonlands is one of four national parks, six national monuments, nine recreation areas, 20 historic sites and 56 wildlife refuges that Stewart Udall helped create as secretary of the Interior. In the face of environmental damage and species loss, he worked with Congress and the president to enact some of our country’s most successful conservation programs, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Clean Air Act, and the national wilderness system. In the process, he protected millions of acres of public lands. 

In the span of a few years, Stewart Udall and other conservation leaders significantly deepened our national commitment to the lands and waters that sustain us. In addition to providing our generation and future ones with cleaner air and water, the lands they preserved and the protections they put in place created the bedrock of a strong economy today

But now, the quiet crises that my father warned us about have risen to a crescendo that is impossible to ignore. Climate change is widely acknowledged as an existential threat to our planet. Meanwhile, the nature crisis has accelerated close to the point of no return. We lose a football-field’s-worth of nature every 30 seconds. And according to a United Nations report, 1 million species are at risk of extinction because of human activity.

The Trump administration has helped inflame these crises, eviscerating landmark protections like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Power Plan. President Donald Trump has already created the worst environmental record of any president in history as his administration hacks away at the nation’s proud conservation tradition.

But merely reversing Trump’s environmental attacks would be like putting a Band-Aid on a life-threatening wound. These crises were already worsening before he took office, and the trajectory will continue after he leaves unless we drastically rethink our approach to conservation.

If we fail to enact the kind of bold conservation framework my father envisioned, we will forever lose millions of plant and animal species...

If we fail to enact the kind of bold conservation framework my father envisioned, we will forever lose millions of plant and animal species — the biodiversity critical to our rich natural inheritance and fundamental to our own survival. We will lose not just our way of life, but the planet as we know it. 

Today, just as we did 50 years ago under Stewart Udall’s leadership, we must write an aggressive new playbook to confront the climate and nature crises head-on. And we need to act fast.

That’s why I’ve introduced the Thirty by Thirty Resolution to Save Nature a resolution to set a national goal of protecting 30% of our lands and waters by 2030, with half protected by mid-century. The resolution reflects the will of the scientific community, including and scientists like E.O. Wilson, who say that we need to protect half the planet to save the whole.

We must also face down climate change with the urgency it requires. To do so, we should make our public lands pollution-free. Emissions from fossil fuels extracted on public lands account for nearly one-quarter of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. Instead of being a source of pollution, public lands can and should be part of the solution. Knowing that we must transition away from fossil fuels, we need an inclusive approach that gets us to net zero carbon pollution.

And as we transition, we must support and protect the communities, tribes and states that have long relied on fossil fuels. No one should be left behind in our transition to a clean energy economy.

Indeed, equity, inclusion and environmental justice must be our guiding lights our true North Starjust like they were for my father. After a long career in public office during which he fought segregation and discrimination at every turn my dad spent his final chapter fighting alongside the widows of Navajo uranium miners. His mission was to ensure that families hurt by the federal government’s nuclear weapons activities were justly compensated, because he understood that low-income communities, communities of color and Native communities often bear the worst consequences of the environmental desecration and destruction too often caused by the rich and powerful.

Our conservation work must provide equitable access to nature and a just distribution of its benefits. We must ensure environmental justice for all. The future of our planet and of humanity itself depends on it.

Today, on what would be my father’s 100th birthday, let us remember a man who saw a national park where others saw a gigantic dam a man who clearly saw the peril in mortgaging the land for short-term economic incentives.

Just a few years before his passing, my father and my mother, Lee, published a letter to their grandchildren in High Country News. This was their call: “Go well, do well, my children. Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth.”

Now, with the wonder and beauty of the earth under threat, we must listen to Stewart Udall’s plea: that we do well by the planet, and by future generations.

Tom Udall is a United States Senator representing New Mexico. A member of the Democratic party, he has also served as a U.S. Representative and New Mexico's State Attorney General. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Thumbnail image via Senator Tom Udall’s office.

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