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Gary Nabhan remembers Stewart Udall

By: Gary Paul Nabhan
Published: March 29, 2010

On Saturday, March 20, the West lost Stewart Udall, one of the greatest conservationists this region has given to the world. The man exemplified vision and decency, conservation and consilience, in an era when conflict and entrenchment have become all too common.

As Congress fought bitterly over health care reform that same weekend, voting almost entirely upon party lines, I remembered a story that Udall told me as we celebrated his 80th birthday at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., in 2000. I had asked him about Barry Goldwater, the great conservative curmudgeonly Republican senator from Arizona, who reigned while Udall was still a young Democratic congressman from the same state. Did he have to cajole Goldwater to vote for conservation measures? His answer — roughly paraphrased here — surprised me.

“I never doubted that Barry loved the land. He spent his younger days roaming around, photographing much of the West. We didn’t always vote the same way, but we were friends. The entire Arizona delegation to Congress — both Democrat and Republican — regularly got together to see what we could get done by collaborating across the aisle. We’d even golf or share martinis together after hours. The deep divide we see in Congress today is a relatively recent phenomenon.”

Udall went on to become one of the most dynamic and effective secretaries of Interior this country has ever known. He helped protect more than 4 million acres as parks, monuments, national seashores and lakeshores and wildlife refuges, and was more personally involved in their selection and design than any Interior secretary has been since his eight-year tenure under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Just a few months after his confirmation in 1961, Udall was disappearing deep into Utah’s red-rock country to shape the future Canyonlands National Park with legendary Bates Wilson, Superintendent of what was then Arches National Monument, at his side. Knowing their jeeps would take them far from civilization for many days, Udall arranged for government memos, the Washington Post, New York Times, scotch and ice cream to be air-dropped to his crew every few days. No Facebook or Twitter back then.

Of course, conflicts between private landowners and the government were just as likely then as today. In Kansas, Udall’s call for a Tall-Grass Prairie National Park angered farmers and ranchers, and some of them toted shotguns to a hearing that Udall attended. And yet, he had a way of diffusing anger, as I later saw at that time in Elko.

It was rumored that some of the Nevada’s toughest libertarian cowboys and ranchers in the wise-use movement were going to disrupt Udall’s lecture at the cowboy poetry gathering. They assumed that he represented the first wave of the environmentalists who had disrupted their way of life. Hundreds of people packed into a too-small room, and tensions rose as it became clear that many were members of the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade, which earlier that day had caravanned through Elko with a bunch of heavy equipment, intent on rebuilding a road the Forest Service had closed for the sake of endangered species.

But when Udall spoke from his heart about his Mormon family’s rural history and the community values that he had absorbed from them, virtually everyone in the room was touched by his words. When he finished, he was met not merely with warmth and respect, but with a standing ovation. People came out of that room knowing that he was one of them, the salt-of-earth poets of the West.

Udall was not only eloquent himself; he welcomed eloquent voices into Interior’s domain, bringing in the likes of Wallace Stegner, Tom Watkins, John Graves and Alvin Josephy as the department’s writers in residence to help articulate the role of wild nature in shaping American character and defining our nation’s history.

The last time I saw Stewart Udall was in February of 2009; he had difficulty walking and seeing, but his spirit, his sense of humor and his passion were still strong. I had the honor — along with his dear friend, author, musician and folklorist, Jack Loeffler — of escorting Udall to reacquaint himself with Aldo Leopold’s daughters and their extended family at an event in downtown Santa Fe, N.M. He spoke with great generosity and respect for their entire family’s support of collaborative conservation efforts between rural communities and federal agencies. He could have easily bragged that his own family — brother Mo, sons Tom and Jay, daughter Laura, nephews Mark and Randy, and so on — had also made a lasting mark on Western conservation. But that night, Stewart Udall was more interested in hearing the stories of those who had inspired him than in broadcasting his own. Of course, he had no reason to wave his own flag; others will be waving it for him for years to come. He has inspired too many people to be forgotten now.

Gary Nabhan was 20-year old newcomer to the Southwest when he had the audacity to invite Stewart Udall to speak at Prescott College for an Earth Day celebration. To his surprise, Mr. Udall accepted, for there were also many Udall kids among that student body. He has been grateful to the entire Udall family ever since.


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