He was a poet and a connoisseur of Native American art. He was an eloquent writer who published nine books, including a New York Times bestseller. He was a climber who ascended Mount Kilimanjaro in east Africa and Mount Fuji in Japan. He was a rafter who explored the nation’s rivers, and a hiker who, in his mid-eighties, trekked the famously steep Bright Angel Trail and celebrated with a martini when he reached the rim of the Grand Canyon. He was an explorer who retraced the 1500s expedition of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado through the American Southwest — accompanied by his book editor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and sponsored by a little-known Arizona judge named Sandra Day O’Connor.
He was a lawyer who waged a long court battle representing thousands of Navajo uranium miners and nuclear weapons workers unwittingly exposed to radiation. He was a syndicated Newsweek columnist who wrote about energy reform and climate change. He spearheaded the beautification of the nation’s capital with “Lady Bird” Johnson that led to the planting of thousands upon thousands of cherry trees, dogwoods, magnolias, and daffodils native to the mid-Atlantic region. He traveled the world, encouraging other nations to conserve the planet’s resources. A Renaissance man, he set in motion the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
And yet, all of this only begins to capture the legacy and accomplishments of this remarkable public servant and beloved citizen of Santa Fe, Stewart Lee Udall (1920-2010). Readers of Scott Raymond Einberger’s definitive new biography will appreciate the impact this great figure had during a bygone era of political bipartisanship and civil discourse. Einberger believes Udall has been unfairly neglected in the national dialogue of environmental history, climate change, oil independence, energy sustainability, and Cold War history. As interior secretary for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Udall was “the highest-ranking public official fully dedicated to the causes of natural resource conservation and environmental protection.” Einberger writes of his determination to elevate Udall to his rightful place in history, alongside such environmental icons as Rachel Carson, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. “This book is an attempt to explain why,” Einberger writes, Udall belongs within that rarefied club. With Distance in His Eyes: The Environmental Life and Legacy of Stewart Udall hits the mark.
Most writing about Udall has been narrowly focused on his interior secretary years, between 1961 and 1969. Einberger describes his book as the first “cradle-to-grave” biography of Udall’s life. From the 1960s until his death in 2010, “few individuals wrote more eloquently and passionately about — or fought more ardently for — protecting the environment.”
It is hard to argue with Einberger’s premise as he thoroughly examines Udall’s many accomplishments. The array is stunning. As a JFK and LBJ cabinet member, Udall “fully embraced the 1960s environmental movement and in some ways helped create it and steer it along.” He was literally there at the creation of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and under his stewardship he expanded the national park system; established the national trails system; expanded the national wildlife refuge system; modernized the Bureau of Land Management; established the national wild and scenic rivers system; and led the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 — all while bringing ecology to the forefront.
A progressive Mormon Democrat from rural Arizona, Udall began his political career with a successful bid for Congress in 1954. At thirty-four years old, he headed to Washington to represent a state that at the time had more national parks, more acres of Native American reservations, and a larger percentage of federally owned and managed lands than any other state. Stewart and wife Lee — both descended from Mormon pioneer stock — immediately fell in love with Washington. They moved their family (including son Tom, the current U.S. senator from New Mexico) to a home in Virginia near the banks of the Potomac River that they filled with Native American arts and antiquities, prompting The Washington Post to once describe its unusual décor as a “Museum of Indian Art.” Udall’s lore includes him paddling a canoe across the Potomac to work.
As a congressman, Udall sponsored legislation to outlaw false mining claims on federal land throughout the country, which he saw as a loophole for developers to seize picturesque landscapes. He pushed the U.S. Forest Service to expand its commitment to outdoor recreation and protection of wild lands. He passionately believed that scenic trails should be available to the public in every corner of America. He quickly made a name for himself as a conservationist who wrote and spoke against the widespread use of pesticides that were bringing 78 of the nation’s numerous bird, mammal, fish, and amphibian species to the brink of extinction, including the bald eagle and the grizzly bear. “Our lives made us natural conservationists,” he once wrote about his upbringing in Depression-era St. Johns, Arizona, a tiny arid community on the Colorado Plateau near the New Mexico border. “Our parsimonious land put a premium on wise stewardship; so naturally, recycling and stretching was a way of life.”
In Congress, Udall gravitated toward then-Sen. John F. Kennedy because of Kennedy’s efforts to remove corruption and racketeering from the nation’s labor movement. Udall especially appreciated how Kennedy surrounded himself with quality people from across both aisles. Udall also identified with Kennedy as a Catholic political outsider, much as Udall felt himself to be an outsider because of his Mormon faith. He was one of Kennedy’s earliest supporters for president, lining up delegates in his home state to support the Massachusetts senator against Lyndon Johnson at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, which helped Kennedy to an upset against the powerful senate majority leader. Kennedy repaid him with the Interior appointment — Kennedy’s first cabinet selection — and Udall became the first cabinet secretary ever from the state of Arizona.
One of Udall’s first recommendations to President-elect Kennedy was that Robert Frost — the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress — read a poem at the inauguration, establishing a tradition that many incoming presidents have continued. He also convinced Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner to leave Stanford University for a semester to serve as “writer in residence” at the Department of Interior. Udall’s 1963 book, The Quiet Crisis, was described as the first book ever written about America’s environmental history — what Udall called “the land-and-people story of our continent.” A historian described it as one of the most important books ever written by a sitting politician.
Still, for all of his accomplishments, Udall was not without his detractors within the environmental movement of the day. Udall’s complicated and vacillating advocacy for dam building was most legendarily at odds with Sierra Club director David Brower. Udall once explained his pro-dam views: “I instinctively identified my values more with the Sierra Club than with dam-building, except that I was from Arizona, and so you had to be for water.” He also believed the dams of the West provided water necessary to allow impoverished Native Americans to irrigate their reservations, and that a balance was necessary between dams and wild rivers. While Einberger judiciously addresses these controversial aspects of Udall’s sometimes conflicting agendas, he leaves the criticism to other biographers to judge.
With Distance in His Eyes is an impressive dive into the life and times of a Western native son. That it is an unabashed valentine is something that most Santa Feans will welcome and eagerly embrace. ◀
With Distance in His Eyes: The Environmental Life and Legacy of Stewart Udall by Scott Raymond Einberger is published by University of Nevada Press.