Courage and Caring — Documentary Celebrates Environmental Icon Stewart Udall

April 3, 2024

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A new documentary explores the life and work of former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, who contributed to many landmark environmental laws.

Feature: Courage and Caring — Documentary Celebrates Environmental Icon Stewart Udall

By Francesca Lyman

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

Having first 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 landmark environmental laws

that we now take for granted can be

traced back to Udall’s leadership.


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

De Graaf’s feature documentary, “Stewart Udall and the Politics of Beauty,” captures the trajectory of Udall’s life and career, highlighting not just his highly effective conservation campaigns but also his advocacy of civil rights and environmental justice, nuclear disarmament and support for the arts, especially poetry. [Read an interview with De Graaf below.]

This 78-minute film is an eye-opening and sometimes intimate portrait of the man whose name adorns the Department of Interior building in Washington, D.C.

It also chronicles the birthing pains of the environmental movement in the 1960s, notably the arguments between the Sierra Club’s David Brower and Udall, which eventually pushed the latter to stop a plan to dam the Grand Canyon.


A visionary land steward

Many environmental journalists will recognize Udall’s name, but they may not know it was he who introduced author Rachel Carson to the Kennedys and elevated the visibility of such writers as Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg and Wallace Stegner.

They may also be unaware that Udall enacted groundbreaking environmental justice policies (in a time of national segregation) and voiced controversial positions on oil and gas development, the interstate highway system and America’s car culture.

Or that he 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 of melting polar ice caps and flooding in coastal cities.

“He did more than almost anyone to give us clean air and water, protect wild rivers and protect national parks,” says de Graaf.


Transforming values in interior

Udall, during his tenure at interior, shifted from being a promoter of dam building and development to being a strong advocate for conservation.

A view of Upheaval Dome at Canyonlands National Park in Utah, one of four national parks whose founding was overseen by Udall. Photo: National Park Service, Nicole Segnini (public domain).

He oversaw the founding of four national parks (Canyonlands, Redwood, North Cascades and Guadalupe Mountains), 56 wildlife refuges and eight national seashores and lakeshores, as well as the enactment of environmental legislation that includes the 1964 Wilderness Act and the Land and Conservation Fund Act, the 1966 Endangered Species Preservation Act and the 1968 National Trail System Act. He also laid the groundwork for the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, which were passed in the early 1970s.

Along the way, Udall transformed values within the Department of the Interior. 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 remarks: “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 Texan had grown up on a ranch with an appreciation for nature and wildlife.

First lady Lady Bird Johnson, recruited by Udall, became the face of a massive national beautification campaign. Planting flowers and shrubs along roadsides connected the countryside to cities and shifted the environmental movement’s focus to polluted urban areas, particularly those that were home to poor Black people. Today the National Park Service highlights sites where junkyards were turned into gardens.

One of the film’s most interesting revelations is that President Johnson needed the conservation messages as a tonic against the tumult of civil rights and anti-war protests. “When Stewart Udall appeared before the press, he was talking about places of beauty, places of spirituality, good, beautiful things,” says Udall biographer Thomas G. Smith.


Committed to righting wrongs

The film opens with sweeping vistas of majestic landscapes, from red-rock canyons to glacier lakes, accompanied by plaintive woodwind strains of “America the Beautiful.”

It then circles back to Udall’s early life in the tiny town of St. Johns, Arizona, where his Mormon parents raised their six children. Among these was his brother Morris, who went on to become an Arizona congressman from 1961 to 1991 and ran for president in 1976, losing narrowly to Jimmy Carter.

Some of the most riveting footage highlights Udall’s World War II military service, during which he flew 50 missions as a gunner over Western Europe.

Dramatic in a different way was the story of the survivor’s return to the University of Arizona, where he shone as a basketball star, along with Morris. Using their athletic cachet, the two persuaded the university to end its policy of racial segregation in the student cafeteria and across campus.


When Udall learned that the

National Park Service only allowed

Black rangers in the U.S. Virgin Islands,

he quickly desegregated that agency.


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.

Robert Stanton, director of the National Park Service from 1997 to 2001, was one of the first Black park rangers recruited and says he owes his park service career to Udall. In the film, Stanton notes that Udall “had the courage and had the vision to recruit young African Americans even while we ‘practiced,’ as a nation, segregation.”

Udall also used his political clout after he discovered that the Washington, D.C., football team did not hire Black football players. Since they leased their home stadium from the National Park Service, he was able to force the team to integrate.

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

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

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 massive consequences of our Cold War development of nuclear power and the cover-up of its health dangers to millions are the subject of “The Myths of August,” one of Udall’s nine books.


‘His life is a lesson’

The issues Udall confronted — from rampant consumerism and the climate crisis to redress for victims of atomic radiation — loom even larger now than they did in his time.

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

Former Park Service Director Stanton, reached by phone for this story, emphasized the need to elevate Udall’s courage and leadership as a model for our times.

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

“His life is a lesson, in itself, in how one can be courageous.”


Q&A: Udall's Lesson — Surround Yourself With Those Who Disagree

Contributor Francesca Lyman spoke with filmmaker and author John de Graaf about his new documentary, “Stewart Udall and the Politics of Beauty,” in January 2024. The interview, edited for space, follows.

Udall at Havasu Creek on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon in 1967. He changed his mind about a dam project there after rafting the river and debates with Sierra Club’s David Brower. Photo: Grand Canyon National Park via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

Francesca Lyman: Your film makes the case that Stewart Udall had a very important role in supporting the conservation movement in the United States through his policies in government, but that his role has been perhaps overlooked or underplayed. Is this a fair summary?

John de Graaf: Udall is still recognized by people who have a sense of that history. He was not ignored during his time and wrote a bestselling book, “The Quiet Crisis.” But a lot of time has passed, so we remember the things he did, but not him as a person.

Lyman: What can we learn about the history of the conservation movement in the U.S. through looking at Udall’s career?

de Graaf: Many, especially young people, don’t have any understanding of what a bipartisan time the ‘60s and ‘70s were [for environmental issues]. The wilderness bill was passed by wide majorities. Yet Stewart got a lot of opposition from southern Democrats, being a civil rights champion. Still, when he discovered that the National Park Service didn’t have any Black rangers, which was pretty shocking, he changed that. Civil rights and environmental rights were seen together. Stewart was part of that thinking.


He took strong stands but

was very willing to compromise. ...

Stewart tried to push things forward,

to reach people where they are.


He took strong stands but was very willing to compromise. So, in setting up Canyonlands, he only got a third of the acreage he wanted for the park. But he understood that progress continues in stops and starts. Today, with the sides so ideological, there’s no compromise, from the far right and also from the left. Stewart tried to push things forward, to reach people where they are.

Lyman: What aspects of his thinking and policies are worth looking at again?

de Graaf: Don’t make people into enemies just because you don’t agree with everything they say. Stewart Udall was great personal friends with conservatives Barry Goldwater and John McCain. Stewart was [also] unusual for a politician in being willing to change his point of view when circumstances warranted it.

Lyman: What was it about Udall that inspired you to devote an entire film to his life?

de Graaf: No one in the political world did as much for the environmental movement, with all those laws we take for granted. The Land and Water Conservation Fund alone, which gave money to create trails, greenspaces, historic and cultural heritage, outdoor recreation — it’s maybe his most enduring legacy.

As interior secretary, he was in charge of oil and gas production [on leased public lands]. So he pushed to tax oil and gas and use that money to allow communities to restore the environment. And he supported using the Highway Trust Fund to earmark money for mass transit. Money didn’t flow until Nixon came to power for some of these initiatives. But it was Stewart who proposed those things. For example, the Endangered Species Act was finally passed under Nixon, but it started with the endangered species list of 1966.

Udall was also a world peace advocate, supporting the banning of nuclear testing. [We] could have devoted a whole hour to that.

Lyman: He regarded the environment as being more than a science and policy issue, that it extended to everything, didn’t he?


Stewart was one of the first people

to recognize the problems with

America’s rampant consumerism.


de Graaf: Stewart was one of the first people to recognize the problems with America’s rampant consumerism and emphasis on the gross national product. He convinced Johnson that GNP measures so little in judging the worth of things. So Johnson used those ideas in his speeches, as did Bobby Kennedy [Sr.] in his famous speech about GNP on March 18, 1968, in his early run for the presidency. That was where he said GNP counts air pollution, cigarette ads, ambulances, the destruction of the redwoods, Napalm, nuclear warheads: “It measures everything except what makes life worthwhile.”

Lyman: A major theme in your film is “the politics of beauty” and how Udall was influenced by the Navajo concept of hózhó. Are these ideas particularly relevant now?

de Graaf: [In 1968,] Udall said: "An increasing Gross National Product has become the Holy Grail, and most of the economists who are its keepers have no concern for the economics of beauty." He wasn’t just talking about scenery. He was talking about beauty more holistically. He was influenced by the Navajo concept of hózhó, as “living in balance.” Also about relationships and conversation.

He thought the beauty of the country was something that could bring us together and reach beyond these divisions. He supported and promoted the Youth Conservation Corps, set up in 1970. And, of course, he worked with Lady Bird Johnson on a huge campaign of beautifying the country, which continues to this day with Keep America Beautiful.

Hózhó is the opposite of the kind of politics we’re experiencing [now], of disorder, chaos, rudeness. Making enemies out of people. Disdain. [Hózhó] is the politics of grace. Living in beautiful surroundings, treating people right, kindness and balance. Understanding nuance.

The lesson for politics today? Surround yourself with people who disagree with you — instead of surrounding yourself with people who agree with you.

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[Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly identified Rebecca Adamson. The new version also clarifies the types of jobs that Black employees of the National Park Service were limited to.]

Francesca Lyman is an independent journalist living in Seattle, where she contributes to such local publications as Crosscut and InvestigateWest. She is the author of an early book on global warming, “The Greenhouse Trap: What We’re Doing to the Atmosphere and How We Can Slow Global Warming” (with World Resources Institute), and a children’s book, “Inside the Dzanga Sangha Rain Forest” (with the American Museum of Natural History). She has served the Society of Environmental Journalists as a conference tour leader and moderator, and as a contributor to SEJournal, most recently with a Freelance Files story about writing for nonprofit ecology and conservation magazines.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 14. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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