Stewart Udall served in the US House of Representatives for three terms and as the secretary of the interior under presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson.
During eight years as secretary, he worked tirelessly for environmental causes and land conservation. He celebrates his 90th birthday this month.
Being a westerner has special meaning to me. I grew up on the tail end of the frontier in a small town, St. John, Arizona, surrounded by national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands. When I was eight years old, I took care of the garden. I milked the cow. It was important that everyone in the family contribute. I think that growing up in a small town was part of what shaped my interest in character and convictions. You had to irrigate; kids had to work, tend the gardens, and take care of the pigs and chickens. I grew up in a dry part of the West understanding the importance of water.
I’ve always said, even when I was secretary of the interior, that I’m a troubled optimist. I’m a little more troubled about the West now than I was back then, but I’m not despairing. I hope that some of the problems we’re seeing help us revert to looking at the West and the environment as a whole in a more sensible, conservative way.
I had the great fortune to come into office at a time when people wanted new policies. The reason that I and so many others were able to pass the wilderness bill was because in the 1900s Theodore Roosevelt started the conservation movement. The conservation movement was very powerful, and most of the people in this country thought that preserving land and creating parks were good for their communities. We felt we had a moral responsibility, a legacy, to leave the Earth, or that part of it where we lived, better. Recently, I went back and found the Congressional Record: the wilderness bill passed by a vote of seventy-eight to twelve. Of the twelve, six were Democrats and six were Republicans. I use some of my time now trying to remind people of the wonderful, broad bipartisan support that we had then.
I traveled the West with Kennedy two months before his death. We started in Pennsylvania and we moved across Wyoming, Utah, and other western states. We went out into the West and dedicated a park or a wildlife refuge, which gave people the sense that conservation mattered. If President [George W.] Bush or any of his department made this trip, I missed it.
We need presidential leadership. We need it desperately.
As westerners we are rich. We may be poor in many ways, but we have the richest environment there is. We have public lands, mountains, rivers, wildlife, and wilderness. I know that as a leader you can build a legacy and leave a legacy by creating open space, but you can also lose a legacy. I’ve been reading the stories that it’s the hottest it has been in history. We are seeing a synergy with drought and global warming that will cause us to lose part of what we have.
I think the real test of the West in the coming decades will be whether we take action against global warming and whether we adapt to the end of the petroleum age. We’ve created a society based on cheap energy. Our automobile culture is unique in the world. I voted on the damn interstate highway program in 1956. We didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t discuss it. We thought we had hundreds of years of oil. It was a mistake. And now we have to face up to the problem.
I supported the Central Arizona Project. We told Congress that the water was for agriculture. But the water was so expensive, most of the farmers couldn’t use it. Now it’s supporting this explosive growth of Phoenix and Tucson, and draining the Colorado River.
If we continue treating the land as something to be exploited, we will see the case made by the anti-conservationists that we have to shrink the wilderness, the national parks, and the national forests, that we can’t afford them any longer.
The statement that is on my mind now is from Aldo Leopold. It puts what is happening today into focus: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect” (A Sand County Almanac, 1949). The approach of the Bush administration and the approach that a lot of westerners favor is that land is a commodity. In Montana or Idaho they say we’re holding back progress by having too much wilderness or by restricting the mining industry’s access to federal land. It was unthinkable to sell off parts of the national forest when I was in Washington. And now that’s what they’re talking about.
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.
I think the way for things that I value in the West to be protected and to be funded is to have a return to a bipartisan approach. Maybe that’s a dream of mine, but I saw it. I helped orchestrate it in a way, and it was wonderful to see the overwhelming support for these changes. I think we need to strike a positive note, have epigraphs up of Wallace Stegner: “We need a society to match our scenery.”
I have the old-fashioned view that it’s important to have ties with the land. I feed my wife’s birds every morning. I’m losing a lot of my piñon trees, but I’m trying to water and save what I can. I think there’s hope. Maybe this big burst of growth will subside and people in the West will again see how rich they are in terms of the environment that surrounds them and how important it is to preserve it.