A tradition to conserve
They have been called the “Kennedys of the West,” and today two members of the Udall family ” cousins Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mark Udall of Colorado ” are hoping to make the next jump together to the U.S. Senate.
The cousins grew up together in Tucson, were both in Outward Bound, and then arrived in Congress together as freshmen congressmen in 1998. As well, both of their fathers are revered even today in conservation circles for their accomplishments involving public lands and natural resources
A central question is how this new generation of Udalls may shape the decisions involving public lands and natural resources moving into the future. Both Udalls, if elected, would replace Republicans who have favored few limits to energy extraction and have been skeptical of the need for a climate change policy.
“I think they will have a lot of influence from the start,” says Steve Smith a former congressional staffer who is now the Denver-based assistant regional director of The Wilderness Society.
The Udall cousins “bring a family tradition and family style of being able to bring people together who might not otherwise think they have much in common or reason to work together,” Smith adds. “They are real coalition builders.”
Tim Wirth, a former U.S. senator from Colorado who now heads Ted Turner’s United Nations Foundation, says the Udalls would bring an uncommon understanding of public lands to the Senate.
“They grew up among the public lands, and they understand them better than anybody in the Senate has for a long, long time,” says Wirth. “If elected, these two guys will become Mr. and Mr. Public Lands.”
Not everyone agrees, of course. Even Republican politicians chummy with the Udall elders suggest lingering philosophical divides. A key issue: drilling and other uses of public lands.
“There will be much more reality pumped into the issue,” said former U.S. senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming. He was interviewed in late June, as gasoline prices were rising above $4 per gallon.
The reality for Mark Udall was a blistering of advertisements run by his opponent, Bob Schaffer, during the summer. Udall, in response, shifted his own advertisements to cautiously shift his embrace from renewables to a broader menu of energy choices.
Unelected politicians don’t get to vote today or tomorrow. It’s a balancing act – and a family tradition. The Udalls don’t get too far ahead of their electorate.
The Udall lineage has made its mark on the West since 1848. The paternal antecedent for the cousins Mark and Tom – and also their second cousin, Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican who is already in the Senate – was David King Udall. Originally from Utah, he was sent by the Mormon Church in 1880 to establish a settlement among the Hispanics at Saint Johns in northeastern Arizona.
That agriculture frontier was difficult, but the Udalls survived and eventually prospered, with family members becoming prominent in Arizona politics. None have left such a strong legacy as two of David King’s grandsons, Stewart and Morris.
Stewart Udall – Tom’s father – represented Arizona from 1955 to 1961 in the U.S. House of Representatives. There, he supported creation of the interstate highway system and construction of dams in the West. At one time, he favored damming of the Grand Canyon, but later recanted.
His passion for conservation came to the fore when he served as secretary of the Interior from 1961 to 1969 in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
One of his several books, “The Quiet Crisis,” originally published in 1963, was a history of the American conservation movement but also a call for restraint during a time when the United States had become enamored with its new technological process. Underlying this crisis, he said, was the “myth of superabundance.”
As interior secretary, Stewart Udall championed the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, helped guide creation of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and took part in establishing four national parks (including Utah’s Canyonlands) plus six national monuments, and nine national recreational areas.
After leaving office, Stewart Udall worked as a lawyer, often representing Navajos and other former uranium miners who suffered from radiation poisoning. Now 88, he lives in Santa Fe, N.M.
A 2005 story in the Los Angeles Times described the iconic Udall as “perhaps the politician most responsible or the public lands you hike, the rivers you kayak, the mountains you climb, and the wilderness you contemplate.”
Stewart’s younger brother, Morris, who was commonly called “Mo,” assumed his older brother’s congressional seat in 1961 and kept it for 30 years. Before that, he lived in Colorado briefly.
Despite the loss of an eye in a childhood accident, the 6-foot-5 Mo Udall played basketball well enough to be recruited to a new professional basketball team called the Denver Nuggets. Professional basketball then was very different. The team had to drive to games in Davenport, Iowa; Sheboygan, Wis., and Hammond, Ind. He made $3,000 for his one season.
But along the way he also lugged law books, as he used travel time to continue studies at the University of Denver School of Law. That was during the winter of 1948-49.
In Congress, Mo Udall was a key figure in creating the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, which designated almost 80 million acres as public lands, of which a third were set aside as wilderness. He also helped ensure that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be barred to oil and gas exploration unless expressly authorized by Congress.
But Udall also made the necessary choices to stay in office. One of those was support of the Central Arizona Project, a federally funded diversion of water from the Colorado River to support the growth of Tucson. It was, wrote Udall biographers Donald W. Carson and James W. Johnson, a matter of political survival.
“Udall surely would have been voted out of office had he opposed the project,” they wrote in a 2001 book, “Mo: the Life and Times of Morris K. Udall.”
Mo Udall ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, coming in second to Jimmy Carter.
His skill in forging compromise and consensus is perhaps his most enduring legacy. Among those testifying to that skill is Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee for president. In a story in Newsweek published in June, McCain recalled Udall’s willingness to share credit and the spotlight when McCain was first elected to Congress from Arizona.
“I didn’t know a copper mine from a cotton farm. I was nobody,” McCain said. “It was an incredibly generous gesture on his part.”
Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Mo Udall spent his final years at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Washington D.C. Among his regular visitors were McCain and Wyoming’s Simpson.
“Here I am,” Simpson would announce. “I’ve got a crappy story to tell you, and you’ll love it,” he would say, and always there would be some faint sign – a blink of the eye, a gentle squeeze of the hand.
“I cared deeply about Mo,” says Simpson, the conservative, speaking about his friend, an unabashed liberal.
The secret to Mo Udall’s success, he says, was that “he dealt with things issue by issue. He was a pretty practical guy.”
Among Mo Udall’s four children is Randy Udall, of Carbondale and formerly of Crested Butte.
The younger Udalls both entered politics in their 40s. Tom, now 60, had previously served as New Mexico’s attorney general. Mark had spent 20 years with Colorado Outward Bound before entering the Colorado Legislature.
Both cousins like to sweat. Mark, 58, has climbed often in Asia’s Himalaya Mountains. He summited Kanchenjunga, the world’s third tallest peak, and tried to climb the highest, Everest. The two cousins once met by accident while one was ascending and the other descending Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, located on the Argentina-Chile border.
Last year, they together climbed Culebra, near the Colorado-New Mexico border. It was the only 14,000-foot peak among Colorado’s 53 that Mark had not yet climbed.
If elected to the Senate, bearing the name Udall may attract a measure of attention, but both will have to make their own ways. “They bury their dead quickly in Washington,” says Wyoming’s Simpon.
Mark Udall, like his father, has a reputation for seeking common ground with fellow legislators. With anti-gay crusader Marilyn Musgrave, he co-sponsored line-item veto legislation. With immigration warrior Tom Tancredo, he worked for mass transit. With state water rights defender Scott McInnis, he found a compromise that created a national recreation area along the Colorado River west of Grand Junction.
Udall brokered the deal that created the James Peak Wilderness Area, which straddles the Continental Divide just east of Winter Park. Snowmobiles and mountain bikes are allowed on the west side, but none on the east side, both in accordance with local wishes. Timber operations and mining are banned throughout.
Such fence-straddling compromises don’t always set well with supporters in the environmental community. But the Wilderness Society’s Smith credits the Udalls with keeping their sights on the big picture.
“That seems to be how their thinking works, to consider everybody involved and keep the broadest coalition going, rather than picking one side,” he says.
Perhaps the most prickly issue now is the terms of access to the vast – but not unlimited – energy resources of the West. Everything from oil shale to solar farms are at play.
Mark’s brother, Randy, an energy activist, sees the elections as potentially pivotal in determining what kind of climate change policy is implemented, if any. “In the Senate you need 60 votes to get anything done,” he observes. “As long as Republicans don’t believe in climate change, and control most of these Western seats, they can block any climate policy, or weaken it beyond belief.”
Equally important, he adds, is the amount of coal, oil shale, and other hydrocarbons found in Western states, but also its renewable energy sources. In short, the West has the lion’s share of energy resources in the United States. Most involve the public lands. Which ones get developed and how, he says, will largely define the U.S. climate policy.
“I do think these Western senators have a role in climate policy beyond what you might think,” he says.
Historian Patricia Nelson Limerick sees the Udalls as being spokesmen for this landscape, senators who could connect the dots between consumption and impacts.
“It seems the West is a place where articulate, effective and thoughtful political figures could bring us back to our senses, and to a connection with our actions and their impacts on particular places,” she says.
From her position at the University of Colorado-Boulder, she has had an opportunity to observe Mark Udall, whom she describes as a “fine example of generational continuity of thinking.” Udall, she says, trims his sails when he needs to, strikes compromises, and revises his goals to fit new situations.
“They’re acting today and thinking in terms of long-term consequences, and that’s the best kind of decision-making,” says Jim Spehar, a former mayor of Grand Junction, one of the West’s energy boom towns. “In public policy, you don’t see that nearly enough.”