Stewart Udall Left Lands, Service Legacy

Posted March 22, 2010 at 6:38pm

Even near the end of his life, former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall was looking out for America’s public lands. In December 2009, he wrote three letters to his grandchildren that were then published on the Web site of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Each told about his life, his generation and his struggle to preserve nature for them and for their grandchildren.

[IMGCAP(1)]”Whether you are a person of faith who believes the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, whether you are an individual who has had mystical experiences that link you to the network of eternity, or whether you are a fervent conservationist who wants to leave a legacy for your progeny, the earth needs your devotion and tender care,” he wrote.

Udall, 90, died Saturday morning in New Mexico, leaving behind a legacy both in public lands and in public servants. The son of an Arizona Supreme Court judge and the grandson of a Mormon bishop, he made his mark as secretary of the Interior under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. Yet today he may be best known as the older brother of former presidential candidate and longtime Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.), the father of Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and the uncle of Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.).

Stewart Udall was elected to represent a southern Arizona district in the House in 1954. He served four terms mostly uneventfully. His biggest move may have been partnering with then-Sen. Kennedy on labor and civil rights legislation. Later, at the Democratic National Convention in 1960, he persuaded Arizona’s delegates to support Kennedy instead of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. In gratitude, Kennedy appointed him secretary of the Interior.

The eight years Udall led the Department of the Interior were the high point of his career. On his watch the Wilderness Act of 1964, Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965, Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, National Trails System Act of 1968, and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 were all signed into law, forever changing the landscape of the American frontier.

Udall came to his career in government armed with a lot of life experience. He was born in tiny St. Johns, Ariz., on Jan. 31, 1920. He served as a gunner in the Air Force during World War II and as a Mormon missionary in New York and Pennsylvania. He attended the University of Arizona for his undergraduate and law degrees (and his papers are preserved there today). He briefly served as a school district trustee before winning the open-seat race for Congress.

Even after he left the Department of the Interior in January 1969, he kept a full schedule as a professor, lawyer and advocate. He wrote several books, starting with his best-known, “The Quiet Crisis,” which urged conservation of America’s natural resources. He served as campaign manager for his brother’s 1976 run for president and took the lead on environmental cases. Fittingly, the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation, established by Congress in 1992, promoted conservation, researched environmental issues and fostered opportunities for Native Americans in public policy.

Udall was the last living member of Kennedy’s original Cabinet. On Saturday, Members paused to remember him on the House floor and President Barack Obama remembered him in a statement.

“For the better part of three decades, Stewart Udall served this nation honorably. Whether in the skies above Italy in World War II, in Congress or as Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall left an indelible mark on this nation and inspired countless Americans who will continue his fight for clean air, clean water and to maintain our many natural treasures,” he said. “Michelle and I extend our condolences to the entire Udall family who continue his legacy of public service to this day.”

Udall’s wife of 55 years, Erma Lee Webb, died in 2001. He is survived by six children and eight grandchildren. A memorial service will be held later this year in Santa Fe, N.M., according to a statement from the Udall family. They asked that contributions in his memory be made to Santa Fe Pro Musica, Santa Fe Conservation Trust and Think New Mexico.