What’s in a name? Embracing Stewart Udall’s legacy

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending the renaming ceremony of the Department of the Interior building in Washington, DC – now appropriately christened the Stewart Lee Udall building. It was truly moving to see the late Interior Secretary’s family (including two U.S. Senators), distinguished current and former public servants, writers and advocates shower admiration on the man recognized as the most effective Interior Secretary in U.S. history.

Udall’s legacy in Utah is unavoidable. Most prominent was the designation of Canyonlands National Park, but also noteworthy is Udall’s role in overseeing the passage of the Wilderness Act and being a tireless advocate on behalf of Navajo uranium miners and their widows. Udall took the lead role in setting the
conservation agendas for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, selling the White House (and, importantly, the First Lady) on the importance of America’s public land legacy and engaging with Congress in advocating for that agenda. Former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson yesterday extolled Udall as a Westerner, for understanding the “Western code” and for listening to all interests when it came to contentious public lands issues. In doing so however, he also made those interests, often opponents of conservation, listen to what he had to say about the value of land preservation – which is why Udall was so effective.

Utah’s redrock country continues to face significant threats today, just as it did when Udall first flew over it with the Bureau of Reclamation chief, who declared the area that eventually became Canyonlands National Park to be the site of the next great dam – compelling Udall to push for region’s protection. Today, the major threat is excessive, poorly managed off-road vehicle use and the damage it inflicts on the riparian areas, fragile desert soil crusts and cultural resources that make Utah’s redrock “the most scenic place in the world,” to quote the former Secretary.
We desperately need leadership like Secretary Udall’s to revoke the Bush administration “no more wilderness” policy and to fix the land use plans for 11 million acres of the Colorado Plateau that open up wilderness-quality lands to oil and gas drilling and off-road vehicle mayhem.

In bestowing the honor of naming the Interior Department after Stewart Udall, officials there are also embracing his legacy.  As so many speakers urged the audience yesterday, honoring Udall’s legacy entails more than talk. It means taking visionary, meaningful action to preserve our natural heritage.