Environmental stalwart Stewart Udall celebrated in new documentary

The former Secretary of the Interior helped establish the Pacific Crest Trail, four national parks – including one in Washington – and many groundbreaking environmental laws.

Stewart Udall sits behind the desk in his Washington law office

Stewart Udall sits behind the desk in his Washington, D.C., law office, one block from the White House, Aug. 13, 1977. After serving as Secretary of the Interior to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Udall opened a private legal practice, specializing in environmental, energy and Indian affairs. (AP Photo/Jeff Taylor)

Rachel Carson. David Brower. Aldo Leopold. These luminaries are often credited with igniting the modern environmental movement. Yet there’s another monumental figure, now sometimes overlooked, who spearheaded many of the movement’s most important ideas and initiatives: Stewart Udall. 

A Westerner who fought what he called “the myth of superabundance,” and a prevailing attitude of growth for its own sake, Udall appealed for a new “land conscience” to conserve public lands already threatened by deforestation and exploitation. Washingtonians of a certain age may remember this conservation icon, a secretary of the interior through the 1960s, for establishing the North Cascades and Redwood national parks, among others, and for creating the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, part of the massive National Trails System Act that now comprises a network of more than 86,000 miles of trails across the country.

Having entered public office as a Congressman representing Arizona, Udall was appointed Secretary of the Interior by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. He later served under President Lyndon Johnson until 1969.

Many of the landmark environmental laws that we now take for granted can be traced back to Udall’s leadership, making him, according to Seattle filmmaker John de Graaf, “one of the unsung heroes of 20th-century American history.”

De Graaf’s feature documentary about him, Stewart Udall: The Politics of Beauty, captures the trajectory of Udall’s life and career, highlighting not just his conservation campaigns but his advocacy of civil rights and environmental justice, nuclear disarmament and support for the arts, especially poetry.  

Left: Secretary of the Interior Stewart Lee Udall and President John F. Kennedy at the White House in 1961. Right: Udall and poet Robert Frost stroll through the woods at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., following ceremonies commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of Henry David Thoreau in 1962. (Courtesy of Special Collections, The University of Arizona Libraries)

The 78-minute film, directed and written by de Graaf and photographed by Greg Davis, is an eye-opening and sometimes intimate portrait of the man whose name now adorns the Department of the Interior building in Washington, D.C. Despite the passing decades, Udall is “considered the most successful interior secretary in American history,” according to historian Douglas Brinkley. 

While many residents of the Pacific Northwest will recognize his name, they may not know that it was Udall who laid the groundwork for the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, as well as helping enact the Wilderness Act, Endangered Species list, and many more.

Raising the greenhouse alarm

Udall introduced Rachel Carson to the Kennedys and elevated the visibility of Robert Frost, Wallace Stegner, Carl Sandburg and others. He also enacted environmental justice policies for the first time (even in a time of national segregation), and voiced controversial positions on oil and gas, as well as on the unintended impacts of the interstate highway system and America’s car culture.

Significantly, Udall was one of the first government officials to sound the alarm on the “greenhouse effect,” tipped off by scientist Roger Revelle, who warned about the ominous possibility that we could see the polar ice caps melting and coastal cities flooding. “He did more than almost anyone to give us clean air and water, protect wild rivers and protect national parks,” said de Graaf.

An early proponent of compensating “downwinders” and other victims of atomic radiation, Udall’s name has resurfaced recently as Congress has considered extending and expanding the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), due to expire this June.

Interior Secretary Stewart Udall looks down on Pottawatomie County, Kansas, on Monday, Dec. 4, 1961 as he views the site of the proposed 57,000-acre Grasslands National Park. (AP Photo/mbr/Rich Clarkson/Topeka Capital-Journal)

“Stewart Udall is a hero to us,” activist Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, in Albuquerque, N.M., told Cascade PBS. “He dedicated a big chunk of his life to fighting for this cause, to the point of practically bankrupting himself. We feel so grateful for what he did [in advocating for RECA].” RECA extends to 12 states across the American West, including Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

During his tenure at Interior, Udall shifted from being a continued promoter of dam-building and development to being a strong conservation advocate.

He presided over vast extensions of America’s national park and public lands holdings, including the founding of four national parks – Canyonlands, Redwood, North Cascades and  Guadalupe Mountains – plus 56 wildlife refuges, eight national seashores and lakeshores, six national monuments, nine recreation areas, 20 historic sites, and the enactment of the 1964 Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, the Land and Conservation Fund, and other laws. 

Birth of a movement

De Graaf’s in-depth documentary chronicles the birthing pains of the early environmental movement of the 1960s, notably the arguments between Udall and the Sierra Club’s David Brower that pushed the “conservation secretary” to stop a plan to build hydroelectric power dams in the Grand Canyon. The film was recently screened in Spokane. De Graaf previously created documentary films for KCTS 9, which is now Cascade PBS.

The documentary also reveals how Udall transformed values within the agency to prize the beauty of nature over just its utilitarian worth as a resource. Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt declares in the film that Udall changed the agency from one dedicated to development, road building and dams, to one that understood the transcendent values of conservation.  

Historian Douglas Brinkley says in the film, “Udall worried about a philistine class that only saw dollar signs when they looked at a landscape,” feeling that Americans were “all about the profit motive of capitalism and the gross national product – and were willing to destroy America’s natural beauty.”

In Johnson’s Cabinet, Udall discovered a president even more receptive to his conservation ideas than Kennedy had been, because this Texas native had also grown up on a ranch with an appreciation for nature and wildlife. 

Udall’s secret weapon, though, may have been first lady Lady Bird Johnson, another underappreciated historic figure. She became the face of beautifying America, says Sharon Francis, who served as special assistant and speech writer to Udall but who was also “lent” to the first lady as part of the interior secretary’s big-picture vision to “beautify America.” And Lady Bird enthusiastically carried out that task.  

“The beautification movement, initially advocated by garden clubs who brought the balm of urban landscaping to areas the public might see, was extended by Lady Bird to everywhere:  ghettos, industrial areas, shopping streets and centers, roadsides,” wrote Francis, in an email.

These campaigns to plant flowers and shrubs along roadsides connected the countryside to the cities but also shifted the movement’s focus to urban areas for the first time. Parts of the city inhabited by African Americans “became most important to Lady Bird,” Francis recalls.

Today the National Park Service highlights where blighted and abandoned places, and junkyards, were turned to gardens during the beautification project.

Like Udall, Francis came from the West, having grown up in Seattle. Having been a junior board member of the Mountaineers Club, after years of hiking and mountain-climbing as a teenager, she remembers Udall consulting her long before he championed creation of the North Cascades National Park.

“‘Those North Cascades – should they be a national park?’ he’d asked me, very early on in the discussions,” Francis chuckles, reflecting on the alpine grandeur of “America’s Alps.” It is an immense park of jagged peaks crowned by more than 300 glaciers abutting two recreation areas that extend the wilderness to nearly 700,000 acres.

And by the end of Udall’s tenure at Interior, more acres of public lands, wilderness and recreation areas, wild rivers, lakeshores, seashores and scenic trails had been added than ever before. “Wilderness, like the national park system, was an American idea,” Udall believed.

First Lady Lady Bird Johnson (in red) with Udall and others on the Snake River at Jackson Lake Lodge, Wyoming, in August 1964. (AP Photo)

One of the film’s most interesting revelations is that President Johnson needed those conservation messages as a tonic against the tumult of the times – the civil rights and anti-war protests that filled the streets.

“When Stewart Udall appeared before the press, he was talking about places of beauty, places of spirituality, good, beautiful things,” says historian and Udall biographer Thomas G. Smith in the film.

America the Beautiful

The film opens with sweeping vistas of majestic landscapes, from red-rock canyons to glacier lakes, alongside plaintive woodwind strains of “America the Beautiful,” followed by stirring quotes from the presidents Udall served and converted to the conservation cause. 

It then circles back to Udall’s early life in the tiny pioneer town of St. Johns, Arizona, where his Mormon parents raised him and his five brothers and sisters. Among them was brother Morris Udall, who became an Arizona congressman from 1961 to 1991 and also ran for president in 1976, losing narrowly to Jimmy Carter during the primaries.

Some of the most riveting footage highlights Stewart’s military service, during which he ran 50 missions as a World War II Army Air Forces gunner over Western Europe.

Dramatic in a different way was the tale of the war veteran’s return to the University of Arizona, to shine as a basketball star, alongside brother Mo. Using their cachet as star athletes, the two persuaded the university to overturn its racial segregation policies in the student cafeteria and across campus. 

Fast forward to his time as interior secretary under Kennedy. When Udall learned that the National Park Service only allowed Black rangers in the U.S. Virgin Islands, he quickly desegregated that agency. 

“He had the courage and had the vision to recruit young African Americans even while we ‘practiced,’ as a nation, segregation,” Robert Stanton, director of the National Park Service from 1997 to 2001, says in the film. Stanton, one of his first young park-ranger recruits, now says he owes his career at NPS to Udall.

Udall also wielded his political clout after he discovered that the football team in Washington, D.C., did not hire any Black players. Since the team leased the stadium from the National Park Service, he was able to force the team to change its policy to one of integration. 

Udall and Johnson on a raft in Grand Teton National Park, 1964.

Udall saw firsthand discrimination against Native Americans with whom he grew up in the Arizona desert. Later, he became the first federal official since the 1860s to name a Native American as commissioner to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, when he appointed Robert Bennett to that role. 

“Stewart was with us in heart, mind and spirit,” Rebecca Adamson, a Cherokee activist, says in the film.

Another kind of public service

After leaving government service in the 1970s, Udall devoted his life to righting the wrongs done to the Navajo people, downwinders of the atomic testing and victims of uranium mining in the Southwest.

The consequences of the United States’ Cold War development of nuclear power, and the coverup of its health dangers to millions, were covered in The Myths of August, one of Udall’s nine books. 

Redress for the victims of atomic radiation, still not fully accomplished, is one under-appreciated issue he championed. The blockbuster movie Oppenheimer, winner of seven Oscars, failed to even mention the real human scars of the Trinity test and atomic ground testing, argues activist Tina Cordova of New Mexico.

“The first people in the world who were ever exposed to an atomic bomb have never been compensated,” Cordova told Cascade PBS, noting that New Mexico was omitted from the states compensated for downwinders under the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. “People are still dying and getting diagnosed, all the time.”

RECA was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in 1990. It offered “an apology” and compensated uranium miners, ranchers and others exposed to nuclear radiation from mining or above-ground atomic tests in certain counties in the late 1940s through the 1960s. Since 1992, when the fund was created, more than $2.6 billion in claims have been paid, according to the Department of Justice.

“Stewart Udall was the godfather of RECA, and if everybody had the same moral compass as Udall, Congress would have added us to the compensation,” said Cordova.

Were he alive today, what would he be speaking out about? Francis told Cascade PBS that Udall might be critical of the climate movement for not being loud enough. “He’d be railing against the willful destructiveness of too-wealthy people who’d rather continue with our petroleum-based, plastics-based economy than save the planet upon which we all depend.”

Many closest to Udall stress that Udall’s legacy ultimately comes down to his dogged courage and caring for the land as well as his fellow human beings.

Former National Park Service director Stanton, reached by phone, insists there’s a need to elevate his courage and leadership as a model for our times. “His life is a lesson, in itself, in how one can be courageous.”

“I’m sure he got pushback,” says Stanton. “‘You’re going to do what?’ Sometimes you’re out there by yourself.”

That’s a lesson for all of us, says Stanton, to have the conviction to stand up and be courageous even while others may not agree.

This story is adapted from a story published previously in the Society of Environmental Journalists Journal Online.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the quantity of trails that are part of the National Trails System. Due to an editing error, the introduction of the story originally incorrectly stated how many national parks Udall helped establish in Washington. This article has been corrected.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Francesca Lyman

Francesca Lyman is a Seattle-based journalist and author of The Greenhouse Trap: What We're Doing to the Atmosphere and How We Can Slow Global Warming.