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

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010; A05

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.' "

Stewart Lee Udall was born Jan. 31, 1920, into a Mormon family in St. Johns, Ariz. His father was a chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, but Mr. Udall hardly led a life of privilege as a child.

"I grew up on the tail of the frontier," he told the Arizona Daily Star in 2005. "I plowed fields with horses and worked as a hired hand in high school for 50 cents a day."

He attended the University of Arizona, spent two years on a Mormon mission on the East Coast, then served as a B-24 tail gunner in the Army Air Forces during World War II.

After the war, he returned to the University of Arizona, where he played basketball and graduated from law school in 1948. He opened a law practice in Tucson with his younger brother Morris K. "Mo" Udall (D), who took over Stewart's seat in the House in 1961 and served until 1991. Mo Udall died in 1998.

Stewart Udall was elected to the House in 1954 and was an advocate of civil rights and an early supporter of home rule for the District of Columbia. Although best known for his fierce protection of the environment, he made several other contributions to Washington history. As a friend of Robert Frost, he arranged for the poet to read at Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. Mr. Udall also had a direct hand in integrating the Washington Redskins football team.

The Redskins -- the last team in any major professional sport to integrate -- were set to begin playing in a new stadium (which Mr. Udall later named for Robert F. Kennedy) that sat on land owned by the National Park Service. In March 1961, Mr. Udall sent a sharply worded letter to Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, warning him that he was in danger of criminal prosecution if the team violated anti-discrimination laws. In 1962, Bobby Mitchell became the first black player to take the field for the Redskins.

After leaving the Cabinet in 1969, Mr. Udall ran an international environmental consulting firm in Washington for several years. Beginning in 1978, Mr. Udall and a team of investigators -- including four of his six children -- spent years probing the reasons for higher rates of cancer among people who had lived near a nuclear test site in Nevada in the 1950s and '60s. He kept up the legal fight for more than 20 years and helped draft the 1990 "Radiation Exposure Compensation Act," which offered reparations to the families of cancer patients affected by atomic radiation.

He published a book in 1994, "The Myths of August," about the long-term environmental and health effects of nuclear weapons.

In 1989, Mr. Udall settled in Santa Fe and continued to write and lecture. He lived long enough to become something of a grand old man of the environmental movement, but he also saw some of his accomplishments come under attack. He lashed out at the Interior Department under George W. Bush in a column for the Los Angeles Times in 2004.

"The Bush administration, determined to ransack public lands for the last meager pockets of petroleum," Mr. Udall wrote, "has turned my old department into a servile, single-minded adjunct of the Energy Department."

His wife of 54 years, Erma Lee Webb Udall, died in 2001.

His son Tom Udall is a Democratic U.S. senator representing New Mexico; a nephew, Mo Udall's son Mark Udall (D), represents Colorado in the U.S. Senate.

Other survivors include five children and eight grandchildren.

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