John de Graaf

John de Graaf

It’s been 51 years now since the first Earth Day, when 20 million Americans saw clearly the destruction of paradise and determined to stop it. It’s time to honor the pioneers from that heady era of conservation. Perhaps the most influential was Stewart Udall, whose name now adorns the Department of the Interior building, where he presided throughout the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

As America’s most prominent interior secretary, Udall, who spent the last 20 years of his life in his beloved Santa Fe, 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. They include the Clean Air and Water Acts, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Pesticides Reduction and Mining Reclamation Acts, the Highway Beautification Act, the National Historic Trust, the Endangered Species List, the National Scenic Trails Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. “Udall must be seen as one of the great environmentalists of the 20th century,” says his biographer, historian Thomas Smith.

But as my team, including Santa Fe resident Zélie Pollon, interviewed people who knew Udall best for our documentary film, Stewart Udall and the Politics of Beauty, we’ve come to understand that he 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 of them throughout his life.

As a University of Arizona basketball star in 1947, he successfully challenged Jim Crow policies that kept Black students from the university cafeteria. As interior secretary, he forced the Washington football team, then the only segregated NFL team, to hire Black players. Discovering that the National Park Service hadn’t employed Black rangers since the famous Buffalo Soldiers of the late 1800s, he recruited dozens of 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. “He was the first political figure who didn’t work for or against us,” says Native rights advocate Rebecca Adamson, a Cherokee. “He worked with us.”

Though he was a machine gunner on B-24 bombers during World War II, Udall became an advocate of peace who traveled to the USSR in 1962 with poet Robert Frost to encourage Nikita Khrushchev to move toward a ban on atmospheric nuclear bomb tests. Later, after his stint at Interior, he fought (with sons Tom, Jay and Denis, and daughter Lori) for the victims of such tests — “downwinders” from rural Nevada and Utah who got cancer from radioactive fallout, and Navajos whose deadly tumors came from the uranium they mined without being warned of the dangers.

Udall was also the first American politician to warn of climate change in the 1960s, when almost no one considered it a danger. Because of fossil fuel emissions, he predicted, cities like Miami would be flooded by rising oceans from melting Arctic ice. It was a cause he pursued throughout his life, especially during his last years in Santa Fe. Encouraged by his wife, Lee, Udall also was an advocate of the arts.

Finally, Udall was known for his bipartisanship. Perhaps his strongest ally in passing the Wilderness Act and other conservation measures was John Saylor, a Pennsylvania Republican. He was also a close friend of Barry Goldwater, despite their opposing politics. “Barry loved the land,” Udall often said.

Still, the environment was where he made his mark. “Udall was a transformational figure in Washington,” 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.”

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. His ideas rubbed off on Lady Bird Johnson, who made “beautification” and conservation her passions as first lady.

Udall died in Santa Fe in 2010 at the age of 90. “His legacy lives on,” new Interior Secretary Deb Haaland told us. “I feel like the politics of beauty is still there, and it’s up to us to keep it alive. We have to make sure that we are giving children opportunities to surround themselves with that beauty outdoors, so they grow up to realize that it’s up to them to protect these spaces.”

John de Graaf is a writer and filmmaker. He can be reached at

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