Recipient Biography

Stuart L. Udall


Stuart L. Udall is one of the founders of the modern conservation and environmental movement in the U.S. He was born in St. Johns, Arizona, near the New Mexico line in 1920. His father was an Arizona Supreme Court Justice. His childhood and public school years were spent in this rural town, which was a Mormon community founded by his grandfather. He grew up on a farm, working the horse-drawn plow and cleaning out ditches. He later observed, "When you grow up in a small farming town and you raise your own food, you are close to the ground, close to the animals."

His youthful experiences in a western environment and in a Mormon family dedicated to principles of stewardship left a distinct imprint on the attitude of Udall in his adult years. Udall said of his earliest memories, "I grew up, not in the wilderness, but, from the back door of the house that I lived in, you could shoot ducks in season and you could, some mornings if you listened real hard, hear coyotes. And.. .you could hike off into places where at least you could imagine nobody else had been."

In 1937, he attended Eastern Arizona Junior College and a year later transferred to the University of Arizona, but two events interrupted his university education. First he served two years as a Mormon missionary in upstate New York and Pennsylvania. Then World War II occurred and he enlisted as a gunner on B-24 bombers with the Fifteenth Air Force engaged in combat operations in Europe.

In 1946, he was a member of the first University of Arizona basketball team to play at the National Invitational Tournament at Madison Square Garden, and he was an all-conference basketball player. After graduating from the University in 1948 with a law degree, Udall started his own practice, but shortly thereafter he and his brother Morris opened a law firm together in Tucson, Arizona. In 1947, he managed his father’s campaign for the Arizona Supreme Court and became increasingly interested in politics.

In 1954 he ran for Congress successfully. He was appointed to the House Interior Committee which handled the Western issues with which he was familiar. However, its chairman was the autocratic Wayne Aspinall who believed "junior members are to be seen and not heard." This was the beginning of an adversarial relationship with Aspinall which would continue when Udall became secretary of interior. Aspinall was also a Democrat from the West, but he represented the traditional user constituencies of mining, forestry, and agriculture and typically opposed conservation measures.

Udall was chair of Senator John F. Kennedy’s Arizona campaign committee, and was instrumental in persuading Arizona Democrats to support him. He was appointed by President Kennedy as secretary of interior and held the position for eight years.

When Udall arrived as secretary of interior, conservation had been off the national agenda since the New Deal and Harold Ickes' efforts in the 1930s. Political preoccupation was with World War II and the subsequent "Cold War." The neglect resulted in environmental problems which were highlighted, immediately prior to Udall taking office, by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring. Udall wrote that this book, "catapulted the concept of ecology into millions of minds-and into the global dialogue." It inspired the National Environmental Policy Act (requiring environmental impact statements for proposed new projects) and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Udall used this stimulus of widespread public awareness to overcome the prevailing inertia and apathy in the federal government towards conservation. It jibed well with his personal experience in the West and his concerns about the destruction of natural beauty that was occurring there due to mining, development, and pollution. His effectiveness in revitalizing the conservation agenda created momentum that continued for another decade after the end of his tenure in 1969 until the end of the Carter Administration in 1980. In those subsequent years many of the ideas and the legislation he proposed, but was unable to enact during his term in office, came to fruition.

He later observed that "a movement that spoke for the concerns of a minority of Americans in 1963 evolved into a cause that now commands broad national support on most environmental issues." Udall was a primary source of this sea-change in public perception. Again, his own writing unintentionally explained part of his legacy when he noted:
Ideas must precede action, and sometimes the seeds of thought have a long period of germination. Reform must begin in the minds of men and a significant segment of society [has to accept the values] before effective action could commence.

Many regard Udall, along with Harold Ickes (Pugsley Medal 1942) and Bruce Babbitt (Pugsley Medal 2000), to be the most influential and effective of all secretaries of interior. A biographer concluded:

Stuart Udall left a record to rival that of any of his predecessors, and succeeded in placing an environmental philosophy before the American people. He broadened the concept of conservation from a mere custodianship of individual resources to an understanding of the interrelationships of natural and human resources and to a concern for the health and beauty of the entire environment. No longer were conservation activities, the saving of a forest, park, or wildlife range peripheral actions, isolated from the mainstream of American life. No longer was the conservationist regarded "as a sort of odd fellow in the popular mind: as the check-shirted, dungareed nature lover, shaking his fist like Prometheus at the onslaught of civilization.

Udall shepherded into law a crescendo of conservation legislation. During his time in office, 54 new wildlife refuges were created, together with four national parks, eight national seashores, nine national recreation areas, and 20 historic sites. But his legislative accomplishments went far beyond establishing specific new sites. They included nurturing the passage of six laws which provided vehicles for sustaining the momentum of the conservation movement in subsequent decades. They were the Wilderness Act, The Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Water Quality Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Endangered Species Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act.

Frequently in his campaign to publicize the wilderness issue, Udall spoke of the wilderness idea as a resource in itself. To illustrate his position, he relied upon a statement written by his friend Wallace Stegner, novelist and outdoor enthusiast, who wrote:

Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed, if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarettes, if we drive the remaining few members of the wild species into zoos or into extinction...we need these wild places preserved...because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it.

The Wilderness Act provided for the conservation and protection of 9.2 million acres of wilderness areas by the federal government. It was highly controversial, vigorously opposed by Congressman Aspinall and Western industry-oriented congressmen, but Udall prevailed. His effectiveness can be gauged from the Senate vote, where it passed with an 82 to 12 majority.

The problem of securing congressional appropriations for new investments in parks and recreation areas had bothered Udall during his years in Congress and had hampered his expansion program as secretary of the interior. To solve this problem, Udall devised the Land and Water Conservation Fund program to help finance federal, state, and local efforts to provide outdoor recreation opportunities. The program was to be financed by the sale of surplus federal property, the unclaimed federal tax on fuels used in pleasure boats, and entrance and user fees collected at recreation areas.

The principal thrust of the proposed program was to provide a federal-state program whereby the states would share the cost and responsibility in public outdoor recreation. The role of the federal government was to be one of cooperation and financial assistance. Udall s plan represented the first attempt at an overall coordinated federal-state approach to acquire land and water areas for public use.

This proposed measure, however, was not without controversy. The timber interests viewed the acquisition provision as increasing the competition for land and timber. The barge and waterways interests looked upon the fee aspects as one step short of initiating a fee for use of navigable waters. Others looked questioningly at the use of the proceeds from the sale of federal property for outdoor recreation. And still others viewed the authority to charge at federal recreation areas as an infringement of a tradition of free use of public lands.

Purchasing property for the federal park system was a radical departure from previous policy, which had been confined to carving parks out of the existing federal estate or accepting them as donations. Udall believed it was time "to cross into an entirely new watershed in the history of conservation" by reversing the donation or redesignation policy. It was necessary said Udall, "because the path of land conservation that our government has used for more than half a century is running into a dead end."

The Land and Water Conservation Fund Act (LWCF), as eventually passed by Congress in 1964, was a watered-down version of Udall s ideas. Because of a lack of uniform designated areas and inadequate collection policies, the receipts from federal recreation area fees did not come up to original expectations. Yet, the fund was a major breakthrough and provided a continuing source of revenue for the purchase of land when it was becoming scarce and when an affluent and mobile population was finding more time for recreation. Udall later observed that the Land and Water Conservation Fund encouraged Congress to appropriate money and stimulated action in the states and he suggested, "This was almost as significant as enlargement of the national parks."

Subsequently, he saw those funding sources were too limiting for the LWCF to be effective and persuaded President Johnson to support an amendment which augmented the fund with receipts from the mineral leases in the outer continental shelf. Congress passed this in 1968. Udall believed this to be a new concept for the management of American resources in which the values of non-renewable resources, the oil and mineral resources of the vast continental shelf, were used to build a permanent land estate for future generations. He said: "The nation now has a statute that for the first time gives full faith and credit to the knowledge that the works of man and the works of nature are inextricably intertwined."

The Land and Water Conservation Fund has provided funds for over 40,000 park projects at the local and state levels in the four decades that have passed since it was enacted.

Udall's concern with local urban areas was a new departure by Interior and it was further manifested when he embraced water pollution as an Interior Department responsibility. Enactment of the Water Quality Act of 1965, set off public protests. Industrial representatives, faced with the possibility of having to clean up the nation's waterways, denounced the act for providing the threat of federal coercion. State officials, fearing that industrial growth in their states would be curtailed, protested the possibility of federal intervention. The federal government was pilloried by an array of executives and politicians who wanted local pollution controls and self-regulation.

Udall responded to these accusations: "Until states equip themselves with state laws able to keep waters clean and appoint pollution control agencies which regard clean water and not industrial development as their primary policy, the Interior policy alone prevents pollution and protects the public interest." He stressed that there is no inherent right to pollute water. He believed that a business that poured untreated wastes into a river was an enemy of the public welfare. To explain his view, Udall wrote in National Parks:

The notion that an industry has some kind of divine right to dump whatever kinds of wastes it wants into the nearest lake or stream because the industry provides jobs must give way to the principle that pollution control is a normal part of the cost of doing business. Only when that principle is firmly established can water that belongs to all the people be safeguarded for the use of all the people.

He led opposition to Corps of Engineers projects whose focus was on building dams and dredging harbors and estuaries. Their modus operandus was to study a project supported by local congressmen; demonstrate that it had a positive cost-benefit ratio based on irrigation, navigation, hydroelectric power or recreational use, and then return to Congress to get the money to build it. Usually nobody except the local congressmen, local elected officials, and the Corps participated in the process. Udall confronted them and forced them to view those projects as having national implications for conservation, so there was a national interest, and they had to meet national criteria. He focused attention on the destructive habitat dimensions of their projects.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was in some ways an effort to counterbalance the Corps' actions. Since they were building dams on the best dam sites, this act provided for the best rivers and tributaries to be selected and for them to be protected.

After a cooperative study by federal and state biologists in 1966, Udall announced that 70 varieties of wild creatures in the United States were in grave danger. In response, in the same year, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, which gave authority to the secretary of the interior to establish a program for the preservation of endangered fish and wildlife in their natural habitats. There had been earlier efforts to save separate species by the Fish and Wildlife Service: some citizen groups who had attempted to protect wildlife; and some protective measures which had been taken by a few states.

With the enactment of the Endangered Species Act, the scattered programs of the Audubon Society, the Forest Service, and other agencies became complementary, subject to constant review by skilled biologists. The endangered species program captured the public imagination and mass-media attention. Udall was encouraged by the interest in the wildlife preservation program, but he questioned the desirability of waiting until scarcity proved the value of wildlife, "There is something pathetic about a nearly-extinct creature," he said. The major task, Udall thought, was to assure each species an adequate habitat where it could fulfill its primitive life. This task would mark an enlightened step toward stewardship of the biosphere because the basic problem threatening wolves and eagles, for example, was the same peril threatening mankind, an endangered environment.

Udall became a champion of the historic preservation movement. In the early 1960s, it seemed that America had declared war on its own past. Construction of the interstate highway system smashed older buildings and tore communities apart. And the federal policy of urban renewal mistakenly tried to jump-start redevelopment by creating vacant lots where neighborhoods used to be. In the face of these trends, Udall took note of the preservation activists who were no longer satisfied with preserving a handful of individual historic landmarks in each community, and who were instead stressing the value of preserving whole historic neighborhoods and commercial districts.

Udall’s embrace of preservation principles helped elevate historic preservation on the public agenda. In the fall of 1965, a blue-ribbon committee, under the auspices of the US Conference of Mayors, visited Europe to learn about preservation efforts there. Secretary Udall appointed NPS director George Hartzog to represent him on the trip. The committee’s report, a landmark document entitled With Heritage So Rich, laid the foundation for the National Historic Preservation Act, signed into law by President Johnson on October 15, 1966.

One of the most distinctive features of Udall s tenure as interior secretary was his extraordinary engagement with the world of ideas. He viewed it as part of his responsibility to be "an educator and a preacher." As part of this effort he wrote a book, The Quiet Crisis in 1963 which was a history of conservation use and abuse. He later noted, "Writing that book gave me a grasp of American history." It provided him with a rich contextual framework which informed his policy decisions. The book was immensely influential, not only because Udall was in a position of political influence, but also because it was a superbly written and insightful pithy "pocket guide" of the historical evolution of the idea of conservation up to that point in time. In his own words:

The Quiet Crisis was a call to action, an effort to combat apathy by exciting interest in our conservation heritage. I wanted to arouse concern about the spread of environmental degradation, to help the conservation movement focus on new goals, and to remind my country of the ideas and ideals that had inspired earlier generations of Americans to see themselves as stewards of resources that belonged to their children and to the unborn.

He proved to be a gifted writer whose erudite prose was captivating, and its success led to several subsequent books on the environment: The Energy Balloon (1976), Agenda far Tomorrow (1976), The Quiet Crisis and the Next Generation(1988), Arizona Wildfire (1993), Majestic Journey: Coronado's Inland Empire (1995), The Myths of August: A Personal Exploration of Our Tragic Cold War Affair With the Atom (1998), The Forgotten Founders: Rethinking the History of the Old West (2002).

He was a master of the memorable phrase which resonated with his readers. Consider the following examples:

  • Over the long haul of life on this planet, it is the ecologists, and not the bookkeepers of business, who are the ultimate accountants.
  • Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to protect man.
  • We have, I fear, confused power with greatness.
  • We stand today poised on a pinnacle of wealth and power, yet we live in a land of vanishing beauty, of increasing ugliness, of shrinking open space and of an overall environment that is diminished daily by pollution and noise and blight. This, in brief, is the quiet conservation crisis.

Udall recognized that the country's historical virtues of self-reliance and self-sufficiency created an ethic which has made the subsequent challenge of persuading society to conserve resources for future generations so difficult. Writing of the early mountain men who opened up the nation Udall observed:

These men embodied as few others have, self-reliance which became part of the American way. ...But they wholly lacked the self-discipline which alone could give it grace and meaning. ...Self-reliance was a quality that had defects, and men who possessed it to excess—men who were solely concerned with immediate profits—were plundering their way through the forests and the countryside...
It was the intoxicating profusion of the American continent which induced a state of mind that made waste and plunder inevitable... [It] enticed men to think in terms of infinity rather than facts, and produced an over-riding fallacy that was nearly our undoing-the Myth of Superabundance. According to the myth, our resources were inexhaustible. It was an assumption that made wise management of the land and provided husbandry superfluous.

At the end of The Quiet Crisis, written in 1963, Udall made two observations which when viewed in hindsight four decades later proved to be especially prescient. The first related to the tendency to believe that technology will resolve all problems.

Intoxicated with the power to manipulate nature, some misguided men have produced a rationale to replace the Myth of Superabundance. It might be called The Myth of Scientific Supremacy, for it rests on the rationalization that the scientists can fix everything tomorrow.

The second observation captures the contemporary realization that conservation and economic health are not antithetical, rather they are complementary:

Conservation statesmen must prove that profits and the conservation cause are compatible if we are to succeed in making an attractive and orderly environment part of our national purpose.

President Lyndon Johnson said of Udall:

I have no doubt that you have been one of the most active, colorful and productive Interior Secretaries in history. In your eight years of Cabinet service, you have not only been a supporter of the New Conservation-you have become its symbol. To your fellow citizens, you leave millions of acres of new parks, wilderness and recreation areas, a new awareness of the importance of the environment, and some important first steps toward clean air and clean waterways. This is a rich, even priceless, legacy.

After his term as interior secretary ended, Udall continued his leadership role in the conservation movement as an author, historian, scholar, lecturer, environmental activist, lawyer, naturalist, and citizen of the outdoors. During the energy crisis in the 1970s, Udall advocated the use of solar energy as one remedy to the crisis. He pressed the courts and Congress to compensate uranium workers and their families for damages suffered by them while living near and working in uranium mines during the Cold War years. As a member of an environmental organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Udall defended the Environmental Protection Agency against budgetary cuts. He was elected to the Central Arizona Water Conservation Board and commissioned as a member of the Arizona Parks Task Force.

These are illustrative examples of a large number of actions and leadership responsibilities for which Udall has been responsible. In honor of his contributions to the US, the easternmost point in the United States at the east end of Saint Croix in the US Virgin Islands was named Point Udall. The westernmost point of the U.S. is on the Orote Peninsula of Guam and it is also named Point Udall in honor of Mo Udall, Stewart's brother.

Udall's lifetime contributions have been characterized by perceptive insights, perseverance, dedication, and tenacity. He has been a major figure in establishing conservation as such a prominent issue in America today and an inspiration to many generations of Americans.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation (2006) Two preservation trailblazers awarded National Trust National Preservation Award, npa_udall_hartz.
Wilkinson, Charles. (2003). Inside Interior: Stewart Lee Udall. Headwaters News, September 24.
Udall, Stewart L. (1998). The quiet crisis and the next generation. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith.
Le Unes, Barbara, LB. (1977). The conservation philosophy of Stewart L. Udall. Ph.D. Dissertation. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University, Department of History.