Udall on quest to get the real West appreciated | AspenTimes.com

Udall on quest to get the real West appreciated

The man who was instrumental in getting 9.1 million acres of public lands declared off limits to mechanized vehicles in 1964 wonders if The Wilderness Act would fly today.

Stewart Udall, who was secretary of the interior from 1961 to 1969, said the attitude in Congress at the time he worked in the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were far different than they are today. There was bipartisan support in the 1960s for curing the ills that humans had created for nature.

Elected officials banded together to clean the major rivers that had been turned into sewers and clear the air, which was clogged by heavy industry.

“We didn’t play politics with the environment,” said Udall. “Now they play politics with it every day.”

Current events bear him out. The Bush administration is under fire for allegedly editing material on climate change that was part of an EPA report on environmental conditions. A New York Times article said the section was altered to a degree that it was meaningless.

Udall placed blame squarely on President Bush for many battles over environmental issues.

“He’s more anti-conservation than any president since Teddy Roosevelt, in my opinion,” said Udall. Although he is a former Democratic Congressman from Arizona, Udall noted that he has given credit when credit is due to Republicans. He said he deeply admires Theodore Roosevelt for what he did for conservation.

Udall also has some impressive accomplishments under his belt. Highlights of his public service career include passage of the Wilderness Act and The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Four new national parks, six new national monuments, 56 wildlife refuges, eight sea shores and lake shores and nine recreation areas were added while he was secretary of the interior.

Since retiring from public service Udall has concentrated on writing books and articles on environmental issues, practicing law and promoting alternative sources of energy.

He acknowledged that he feels a sense of accomplishment when he sees some of the great protected lands of the West. Many Westerners don’t realize what treasures their part of the country possesses and how different it makes it from the eastern United States.

“The glory of the West, in my view, is the public lands. … You can do what you want to do as long as you don’t do harm. It’s for all of us. We all own it, not just the government.

“They are there, they are permanent, unless we make great mistakes,” he said.

This father of our wilderness lands will be the closing speaker during the State of the World Conference being held in Aspen today through Sunday. Nationally renowned speakers will be discussing environmental, social and historical issues affecting the world, the United States and the American West throughout the weekend.

More information on the conference can be found at http://www.soprisfoundation.org.

Udall’s presentation will feature a topic dear to his heart ? the true heroes of the West. His presentation shares a title with his latest book, “The Forgotten Founders, Rethinking the History of the Old West.”

He said the West is remembered for the gunslingers and the rough-and-tumble cowboys. To him, “the real heroes and heroines” were the people he calls the “wagon settlers” ? the people who reduced their belongings to what fit in wagons and headed west to make a new life prior to the Civil War.

True stories of settlement of the West has been largely pushed aside for the more dramatic stories, and he is on a quest to try to give credit where due. Arizona, for example, “was not won by guns but with the shovel.”

Modern society also romanticizes the cowboy as a rugged individual who preferred to be a loner. But the people that started building the territory before the railroads started coming through were anything but loners.

“With them, the family was most important, community was most important,” said Udall. “It’s time to recognize who really built the West.”

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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