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The man who saved Canyonlands

As interior secretary from 1961 to 1969, Stewart Udall added dozens of parks and monuments to our national system.

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Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall talks with members of press party on trip at Peaks of Otter, Va., on Blue Ridge parkway, May 12, 1965.

Associated Press

Shortly after he was chosen as interior secretary by President John F. Kennedy, Stewart Udall agreed to fly over southeastern Utah in a small plane with his Commissioner of Reclamation, Floyd Dominy. Dominy wanted Udall to see the Canyonlands from the air. “This is where we should build the next dam,” Dominy told his boss. But Udall saw something else. “This should be the next national park,” he replied.

Half a century after the first Earth Day, it’s time to honor the pioneers from that heady era of conservation. Udall, who grew up in a Latter-day Saint family in St. Johns, Arizona, was the most influential of all. 

As interior secretary from 1961 to 1969, he added dozens of parks and monuments to our national system and led the charge for most of the significant environmental laws we now take for granted, including the Clean Air and Water acts, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Pesticides Reduction and Mining Reclamation Acts, the Wilderness Act, the Highway Beautification Act, the National Historic Trust, the Endangered Species List, the National Scenic Trails Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. 

Canyonlands, that immense landscape of red rock and deep multicolored gorges, carved over eons by sluggish rivers, was his favorite. At Udall’s urging, Congress created Canyonlands National Park in 1963. His current counterpart, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to fill the post, recently visited the park for the first time. “Every place you park, you can stand at an overlook of the most beautiful scenery,” Haaland remembers. “And it was really astounding, breathtaking. Just makes you cry. It is so stunning you can’t even put it into words.”

But as our team interviews people like Haaland for our documentary film, “Stewart Udall and the Politics of Beauty,” we’re learning that Udall was about much more than the environment. What makes his story particularly relevant now — in an era of racial conflict, political polarization, climate change and atomic weapons proliferation — is that he saw them all coming and addressed each throughout his life.

As University of Arizona basketball stars in 1947, he and brother Morris successfully challenged Jim Crow policies that barred Black students from the university cafeteria. Discovering at interior that the National Park Service didn’t employ Black rangers, he recruited students at traditionally Black colleges to serve in the parks. Moreover, Udall challenged the paternalism that pervaded the interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. He fought to protect the lands of Alaskan Natives and appointed the first Native American to direct the Bureau in a hundred years. 

A machine gunner during World War II, Udall became a peace advocate who traveled to the USSR with poet Robert Frost in 1962 to encourage a ban on atmospheric nuclear bomb tests. Later, after his stint at interior, he fought for the victims of such tests — “downwinders,” many in Southern Utah, who got cancer from radioactive fallout, and Navajos whose deadly tumors came from the uranium they mined without being warned of the dangers. 

Encouraged by his wife Lee, Udall also championed the arts, especially Native American art. Though a liberal, Udall was known for his bipartisanship, counting Barry Goldwater as a close friend. But the environment was his passion. “He was a transformational figure,” former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt told our crew. “He turned the Interior Department away from its hundred-year emphasis on development, dams and highways, toward a transcendent view of nature’s impact on our spirit.” 

Stewart Udall, seen in Santa Fe, N.M., in 2002, was advocate for radiation victims.

Stewart Udall, seen in Santa Fe, N.M., in 2002.

Jeff Geissler, Associated Press

When Floyd Dominy wanted to build power dams in the Grand Canyon, Udall faced a dilemma. “Of course, conservationists were all up in arms, especially Dave Brower of the Sierra Club, says Udall biographer Thomas Smith” Brower launched a massive campaign of anti-dam advertising and letters to Congress and the president. Udall was “caught in a vise,” Smith observes. “If he didn’t support the project with dams to provide Arizona with water, he was done as an Arizona politician and he had his eye on maybe the Arizona governorship or the other Arizona Senate seat once his service as interior secretary was over.”

Udall was having second thoughts about dams. Brower had sent him a book, “The Place No One Knew,” about the impact of Glen Canyon Dam. Udall wept when he read the book, his aide Harold Gilliam told me in 1988. “I voted for this dam when I was in Congress,” Udall mourned. “We had no idea what was there.” After a raft trip down the Colorado with his family, Udall had seen enough. He stopped the dam projects, at great political cost in Arizona.  

Udall warned that America was too materialistic, too devoted to economic growth and the gross national product. Instead, he advocated an economics and politics of beauty, where spiritual values might supersede the quest for wealth. He was also the first American public official to warn about climate change, in the 1960s.

Stewart Udall died in 2010. “But his legacy lives on,” says Deb Haaland. “I feel like the politics of beauty is still there, and it’s up to us to keep it alive, giving children opportunities to surround themselves with beauty so they realize that it’s up to them to protect these spaces.”

John de Graaf is a filmmaker and the author of “Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic.” He is the director of “Stewart Udall and the Politics of Beauty,” a documentary now in production. He can be reached at jodg@comcast.net