The conservation hall of fame is too small

  • Paul Larmer, executive director

  • A young Brad Udall joins his dad, Mo, on the steps of the U.S. Capitol


Just as sports fans have their legends of the game — their Babe Ruths, Michael Jordans and Jack Nicklauses — so, too, do conservationists. Our legends aren’t household names; my daughter had never heard of Aldo Leopold until her high school science teacher put A Sand County Almanac on her optional reading list last week. Yet their crystalline vision and massive accomplishments define our views of the natural world and continue to inspire us in our work.

In the West, our heroes include scientists such as Olaus and Mardie Murie and Aldo Leopold; activists John Muir and David Brower; and politicians from President Teddy Roosevelt to the brothers Udall — Stewart and Mo — whom we profile in this issue of the paper. These folks ushered in the modern conservation era in the West; their efforts kept large swaths of ground away from the voracious appetites of an industrial society.

But looking back on their accomplishments raises a question: Where are the conservation leaders of today who will become the legends of tomorrow?

With hundreds of dedicated people in the field, there’s no shortage of candidates. Yet it is hard to think of anyone who can fill the shoes of yesterday’s giants. Mark Udall, the Colorado congressman and son of the late Arizona congressman Mo Udall, keeps a pair of Mo’s size 15 basketball sneakers in his office to remind him of the enormity of the task.

But perhaps the West does not need new superstars. After all, it is a far different place than it was even two decades ago. Today’s West has more people and more conservation challenges than ever. It also has a polarized politics that makes bipartisan agreement on large-scale conservation endeavors almost impossible. We will likely never again see the U.S. Congress pass a bill on the scale of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, which in one swoop doubled the size of the country’s national park system and tripled the national wilderness system.

That doesn’t mean that the conservation movement’s big work is already done in the West. Far from it. Critical decisions are still being made about how to manage the public domain; the conservation of private lands has emerged as a major issue; and water management in an era of drought and population growth is sure to dog us for decades to come.

These issues are playing out on so many fronts, and in such nuanced ways, that it will take a small army of conservationists and politicians like Mark Udall and his cousin, Tom Udall of New Mexico, to stay on top of them. They will have to do the painstaking work of building coalitions that will protect the last wild places of the West, restore its degraded landscapes and make its cities more livable.

This work may not earn them a place in the conservationist hall of fame. But it will bind the people of the West into a real society, and allow the region to hold on to its legendary scenery.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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