Stewart L. Udall, 90

Stewart L. Udall, 90, interior secretary was guardian of America's wild places

As secretary of the Interior in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Udall launched a series of far-reaching conservation reforms that made him one of the most significant figures in protecting America's natural environment.
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010

Stewart L. Udall, who as secretary of the interior in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations launched a series of far-reaching conservation reforms that made him one of the most significant figures in protecting America's natural environment, died March 20 at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 90 and had complications from a recent fall.

Mr. Udall had served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from Arizona when President John F. Kennedy tapped him for the top job at the Interior Department. Mr. Udall initiated the first White House conference on conservation since the administration of Theodore Roosevelt and stated his credo at the beginning of his tenure: "Nature will take precedence over the needs of the modern man."

He brought conservation and environmental concerns into the national consciousness and was the guiding force behind landmark legislation that preserved millions of acres of land, expanded the national park system and protected water and land from pollution. From the Cape Cod seashore in Massachusetts to the untamed wilds of Alaska, Mr. Udall left a monumental legacy as a guardian of America's natural beauty.

"Stewart Udall, more than any other single person, was responsible for reviving the national commitment to conservation and environmental preservation," former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, who was President Bill Clinton's interior secretary, said in 2006.

Despite having a testy relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson, Mr. Udall remained in the Cabinet after Kennedy's assassination in 1963 and made concern for the environment a key part of Johnson's Great Society. He helped secure passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 (which now protects about 400 million acres of land in 44 states), as well as the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act (1965), the Water Quality Act (1965), the Solid Waste Disposal Act (1965), the Endangered Species Preservation Act (1966), the National Historic Preservation Act (1966) and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968).

Mr. Udall, who sometimes led hikes as long as 50 miles when he was interior secretary, helped create the first federal bicycle paths and jogging trails. He made Ellis Island in New York Harbor a national monument, protected the Outer Banks of North Carolina and designated Assateague Island in Maryland and Virginia, with its hundreds of wild horses, a national seashore. Four national parks, six national monuments and dozens of wildlife refuges, historic sites and recreation areas were created under his authority.

In his best-selling 1963 book, "The Quiet Crisis," Mr. Udall warned of the dangers of pollution and threats to America's natural resources, calling for a nationwide "land conscience" to conserve the nation's wild places.

"We cannot afford an America where expedience tramples upon esthetics and development decisions are made with an eye only on the present," he wrote.

Mr. Udall narrowly thwarted an effort in the late 1960s to build dams on the Colorado River that would have put vast stretches of the Grand Canyon under water.

"My own people from Arizona were desperate to build these dams," he told National Public Radio in 1996. "Some of them still dislike me because I helped stop the construction of these dams."

Mr. Udall, who continued to hike the Grand Canyon into his mid-80s, summed up his environmental ethic on a trip in the 1990s.

"I guess President Teddy Roosevelt, who slept out in the snow up on the South Rim nearly a hundred years ago," he mused, "said it right for all time. 'There it is, magnificent. Man cannot improve upon it; leave it alone.' "

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