Spokesmen for the landscape
Udall cousins make their bids for the U.S. Senate

U.S Representative Mark Udall speaks with a Front Range farmer on the campaign trail. According to current polls, Udall and his first cousin Tom Udall, of New Mexico, could be joining each other in the U.S. Senate next year. The two candidates come from a long-line of politicians and conservationists./Courtesy photo

by Allen Best

If the polls of September prevail, the U.S. Senate will have two first-cousins in January, Tom Udall, of New Mexico, and Mark Udall, of Colorado.

The cousins grew up together in Tucson, both participated in Outward Bound, and both arrived as freshmen congressmen in 1998. As well, both of their fathers are revered even today in conservation circles for their accomplishments involving public lands and natural resources.

A central question is how this new generation of Udalls may shape the decisions involving public lands and natural resources moving into the future. Both Udalls, if elected, would replace Republicans who have favored few limits to energy extraction and been skeptical of the need for a climate change policy.

“I think they will have a lot of influence from the start,” says Steve Smith, a former congressional staffer who is now the Denver-based assistant regional director of The Wilderness Society.

The Udall cousins “bring a family tradition and family style of being able to bring people together who might not otherwise think they have much in common or reason to work together,” Smith adds. “They are real coalition builders.”

Tim Wirth, a former U.S. senator from Colorado who now heads Ted Turner’s United Nations Foundation, says the Udalls would bring an uncommon understanding of public lands to the Senate.

“They grew up among the public lands, and they understand them better than anybody in the Senate has for a long, long time,” says Wirth. “If elected, these two guys will become Mr. and Mr. Public Lands.”

Not everyone agrees, of course. Even Republican politicians chummy with the Udall elders suggest lingering philosophical divides. A key issue: drilling and other uses of public lands.

The Udall elders

The Udall lineage has made its mark on the West since 1848. The paternal antecedent for the cousins Mark and Tom – and also their second cousin, Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican who is already in the Senate – was David King

Udall. Originally from Utah, he was sent by the Mormon Church in 1880 to establish a settlement at Saint Johns in northeastern Arizona.

That agriculture frontier was difficult, but the Udalls survived and eventually prospered, with family members becoming prominent in Arizona politics. None have left such a strong legacy as two of David King’s grandsons, Stewart and Morris.

Stewart Udall – Tom’s father – represented Arizona from 1955-61 in the U.S. House of Representatives. There, he supported creation of the interstate highway system and construction of dams in the West. At one time, he favored damming of the Grand Canyon but later recanted. His passion for conservation came to the fore when he served as secretary of the interior from 1961-69 in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

As interior secretary, Stewart Udall championed the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, helped guide creation of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and took part in establishing four national parks (including Utah’s Canyonlands) plus six national monuments and nine national recreation areas.

After leaving office, Stewart Udall worked as a lawyer, often representating Navajos and other former uranium miners who suffered from radiation poisoning. Now 88, he lives in Santa Fe.

The life of Mo Udall

Stewart’s younger brother, Morris, who was commonly called “Mo,” assumed his older brother’s congressional seat in 1961 and kept it for 30 years. Before that, he lived in Colorado briefly.

Despite the loss of an eye in a childhood accident, the 6-foot-5-inch Mo Udall played basketball well enough to be recruited to the former National Basketball League’s Denver Nuggets. Professional basketball was different back then. The team had to drive to games in Davenport, Iowa, Sheboygan, Wis., and Hammond, Ind., and Udall made $3,000 for his first and only season. But along the way, he also lugged law books, using travel time to continue studies at the University of Denver School of Law.

In Congress, Mo Udall was a key figure in creating the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, which designated almost 80 million acres as public lands, of which a third were set aside as wilderness. He also helped ensure that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be barred to oil and gas exploration unless expressly authorized by Congress.

Mo Udall ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, coming in second to Jimmy Carter. His skill in forging compromise and consensus is perhaps his most enduring legacy. Among those testifying to that skill is Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee for president. In a June story in Newsweek, McCain recalled Udall’s willingness to share credit and the spotlight when McCain was first elected to Congress from Arizona.

“I didn’t know a copper mine from a cotton farm. I was nobody,” McCain said. “It was an incredibly generous gesture on his part.”

Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Mo Udall spent his final years at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Washington, D.C., dying in 1998.

Fence straddling

If elected to the Senate, the name Udall may attract a measure of attention, but both heirs to the family legacy will have to make their own ways.

Mark Udall, like his father, has a reputation for seeking common ground with fellow legislators. With anti-gay crusader Marilyn Musgrave, he co-sponsored lime-item veto legislation. With immigration warrior Tom Tancredo, he worked for mass transit. With state water rights defender Scott McInnis, he found a compromise that created a national recreation area along the Colorado River west of Grand Junction.

Udall brokered the deal that created the James Peak Wilderness Area, which straddles the Continental Divide just east of Winter Park. Snowmobiles and mountain bikes are allowed on the west side, but none on the east side, both in accordance with local wishes. Timber operations and mining are banned throughout.

Such fence-straddling compromises don’t always sit well with the environmental community. But the Wilderness Society’s Smith credits the Udalls with keeping their sights on the big picture.

“That seems to be how their thinking works, to consider everybody involved and keep the broadest coalition going, rather than picking one side,” he says.

Perhaps the most prickly issue now is the vast – but not unlimited – energy resources of the West. Everything from oil shale to solar farms are in play.

Mark’s brother, Randy Udall, an energy activist, sees the elections as potentially pivotal in determining what kind of climate-change policy is implemented, if any. “In the Senate you need 60 votes to get anything done,” he observes. “As long as Republicans don’t believe in climate change, and control most of these Western states, they can block any climate policy, or weaken it beyond belief.”

Equally important, he adds, is the amount of coal, oil shale and other hydrocarbons found in Western states, but also their renewable energy sources. In short, the West has the lion’s share of energy resources in the United States. Which of these resources get developed and how, he says, will largely define the U.S. climate policy.

“I do think these Western senators have a role in climate policy beyond what you might think,” he says.

Historian Patricia Nelson Limerick sees the Udalls as spokesmen for the landscape, able to connect the dots between consumption and impacts.

“It seems the West is a place where articulate, effective and thoughtful political figures could bring us back to our senses, and to a connection with our actions and their impacts on particular places,” she says.

From her position at the University of Colorado-Boulder, she has had an opportunity to observe Mark Udall, whom she describes as a “fine example of generational continuity of thinking.” Udall, she says, trims his sails when he needs to, strikes compromises and revises his goals to fit new situations.

“They’re acting today and thinking in terms of long-term consequences, and that’s the best kind of decision making,” says Jim Spehar, a former mayor of Grand Junction, one of the West’s energy boom towns. “In public policy, you don’t see that nearly enough.” •



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows