Interview of the Week: Senator Tom Udall

About Tom

Today would have been Stewart Udall’s 100th birthday and to honor the occasion we wanted to ask his son, Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, about his father’s legacy and the ways in which it resonates in today’s world. We wanted to thank the Senator for his touching words, we hope you enjoy!


ODP: Your Dad was one of the fathers of our modern environmental movement, and his book The Quiet Crisis was a wake-up call to his generation that a new wave of conservation laws was needed.  Do you see parallels between that time and today?

TU: Just over 50 years ago, my father, Stewart Udall, sounded the alarm about the quiet loss of nature and the looming threat of climate change. In just a few years as Secretary of the Interior – and as part of an environmental awakening in this country in the 1960s – he helped lead an effort to deepen our nation’s commitment to the land and waters that sustain us by creating some of our most successful conservation programs. But with the explosion of natural resource development, population growth, and technology, the existing laws and conservation programs are struggling to prevent the widespread destruction of the natural world. I am proud that my father was on the front lines to defend nature, but that work is not done, and we continue to face the crisis that he predicted all those years ago.

One major difference is that the climate crisis is not just looming anymore—it is upon us and we are seeing the negative effects today. And meanwhile, the nature crisis has accelerated: we are losing a football field worth of  natural land every 30 seconds. If we don’t act now to protect biodiversity, we are in danger of forever losing millions of animal and plant species. And if we don’t achieve net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century, the planet will suffer even more with truly catastrophic impacts of global warming. Our very future is in doubt.

In a letter to his grandchildren, Stewart Udall wrote of the “Two interwoven energy trends [that] are converging to define the parameters of a different world. The first involves the peaking of world oil production and the impacts it will have on our nation’s vaunted ‘most mobile society on earth.’ The second relates to the warming of the earth’s atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—which are already altering the climates of continents.”

My father recognized human damage to our ecosystems as a “quiet” crisis. There are of course parallels to today, and it is our job to listen to that quiet crisis and make sure the public and decision-makers hear it too. In the face of environmental destruction and loss of species, Stewart Udall worked with Congress and the president to get the Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act enacted into law. 

My father took action by pushing our government to establish four national parks, six national monuments, eight national seashores and lakeshores, and fifty-six national wildlife refuges among other conservation programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund.  He was personally responsible for the protection of 3.85 million acres during his time as Secretary.  And after his time in office, he kept up the fight, playing a leadership role in the enactment of the landmark environmental legislation.

But he also knew that we needed even bolder action and called for a conservation program that “must have an unprecedented scope and scale and have funding that will make it the most ambitious, visionary research and development project in human history.” I believe that we can and must implement a program like this now.

Last year, I introduced the Thirty by Thirty Resolution to Save Nature. Globally, one million species are at risk of extinction – many within decades — as a result of factors like habitat destruction and climate change. These species are critical to our rich natural inheritance and our economic success. We are writing a new playbook to address the climate and nature crises and setting a national goal of protecting and restoring 30 percent of our lands and ocean by 2030 to stem the collapse of our natural world. I’ve introduced legislation to protect wildlife corridors and I’m also looking forward to introducing bold legislation to tackle the plastic pollution crisis. This is the mass mobilization we need – the collective action that will save the planet.

ODP: As Secretary of Interior, your Dad led the creation of four national parks, six national monuments, eight national seashores and lakeshores, and fifty-six national wildlife refuges – a feat that seems unimaginable today.  What do you think was the key to his amazing success in preserving so many natural wonders in the U.S. for the benefit of the public?

TU: My father believed that to accomplish his bold vision for conservation, he had to create a sense of shared stewardship for public lands. He knew that the only way to accomplish the broad protections that our natural environment deserved was to work with colleagues across the aisle and from all political and personal backgrounds. He did not compromise on his fundamental values, but he also worked with private landowners to help them recognize that protecting public lands served their interests as well. He was also focused on building broad public support for environmental stewardship.

I believe that every American has in some way felt the benefit of the programs he created, and that is why he was so successful. He involved a diverse array of interests from the start, advocated for change, and made sure more and more people benefitted from those changes. He expanded the notion of who cared about the environment, empowering the people who enjoy our public lands to fight to defend them. He also worked in Washington at a time when corporate greed had not yet infiltrated our politics at the level it does today. The environment was a bipartisan issue because it was—and still is—a human issue. That’s the spirit that I think we should all be working to recapture and what informs my work in the Senate. Many of the key conservation bills that I’ve introduced—like the most recent Reforestation Act of 2019, are cosponsored by Republicans. It’s about finding what you can agree on and open up enough space for everyone to work together—and that’s more important right now than it has been before.

ODP: Your Dad was also a strong advocate for civil rights for minorities and Native Americans. What would he have thought of the emphasis on frontline communities in proposals like the Green New Deal?

TU: My father understood that, ultimately, all environmental issues are environmental justice issues. Everything we undertake must be done with equity and inclusion as our north star. We can’t ignore the legacy of toxic pollution that has harmed so many low-income communities and communities of color.  We cannot ignore the centuries of desecration of Native heritage and lands.

I cosponsored the Green New Deal, and I believe my father would have been equally inspired by the energy that young people are putting behind this issue. Climate change is the most urgent problem in human history, and I am continuing the work that my father started to advocate for strong solutions that put frontline communities at the center of climate action.

The Green New Deal is an important idea advanced by a number of concerned citizens combining goals of 100% clean energy, investing in communities on the front lines of poverty and pollution, and ensuring good jobs of the future.

I learned from my father about the importance of listening to communities that are most affected by climate change. And I have learned from listening to Native Pueblos in New Mexico and Native American communities across the nation. One of the greatest honors of my career has been to serve as vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. In this role, I’ve spearheaded efforts to reach out directly to Native communities to hear from them about how climate change is affecting Indian Country – which is on the front lines of this crisis.

I can give you an example of how frontline communities have pushed legislation that intersects with climate action and environmental protection. In December, the entire New Mexico congressional delegation took a strong step forward in protecting Chaco Canyon, an irreplaceable, natural landscape that is sacred to Tribes and holds deep meaning for people in New Mexico and around the country. For years, I have been proud to partner with the Navajo Nation and Pueblos who consider this land sacred to help secure critical protections against industry and human development and to uphold the long-standing buffer surrounding Chaco Canyon. The provision respects the concerns of Tribes and the greater public, and it means protection for Chaco’s singular history and natural beauty from development – without affecting existing operations and respecting Tribal sovereignty over Tribal mineral rights within the 10-mile buffer zone.

I have also developed new legislation to create Clean Energy Victory Bonds that would help local, state and federal governments raise billions of dollars in capital that Americans can purchase to support clean energy infrastructure — like solar fields, geothermal systems, and energy-efficient building upgrades, which could create millions of new jobs in our country while solving the climate crisis. With my time left in the Senate, I will continue to work in Congress and our communities to develop a plan to meet the climate challenge as soon as possible.

ODP: Your Dad helped to create the Land and Water Conservation Fund that pays for much of the upkeep for our parks.  You have been one of Congress’ strongest advocates for the $900 million needed to permanently fund it, which is close to finally becoming law.  What do you think it will take to pass it? Are you optimistic?

TU: My father fought to create LWCF because he believed that all Americans should be able to enjoy the beauty of our public lands. It has become one of the most successful conservation programs in our history. Today, LWCF is critical for improving recreational access to our public lands, protecting iconic landscapes, creating urban parks like Valle de Oro, and monuments like Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico. As the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee responsible for LWCF funding, I have been proud to secure major funding for this essential program. But without permanent funding, states like New Mexico face yearly uncertainty about funding that is critical in preserving the wild places that drive our thriving outdoor recreation economy. The strong bipartisan vote last year in the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources helped build the momentum to fulfill the original promise of America’s most successful conservation program. It brings us one big step closer to what my father envisioned: reliable, ongoing protection for America’s most treasured open spaces for future generations. I am hopeful that Congress will come together and pass this bill so that all Americans can continue to enjoy the beauty and recreational opportunities that our collective backyard provides.  It’s a heavy lift but I am optimistic that the momentum and opportunity in 2020 is the best it has been in a long time.

ODP: Looking at 2020 and the coming decade as a key time for conservation, what do you think of the effort to achieve the set aside of 30% of the planet for conservation by 2030?  What will it take to achieve this ambitious goal?

TU: Today, the environmental and conservation crisis is dire – and we need to meet it with the urgency it demands. That’s why I introduced the Thirty by Thirty Resolution to Save Nature and I am hopeful about the growing momentum for that target at the United Nations, thanks to the strong advocacy of people like Enric Sala at National Geographic
and many others.

Now, there’s no question that we must undo the environmental damage caused by the Trump administration. But let’s be clear: humans are destroying nature at a devastating rate and were doing so before the president came into office. Only reversing the Trump administration’s wreckage would be like be putting a Band-Aid on a life-threatening wound. We must, as a global community, write a new playbook to address the climate and nature crises. We must set a national and international goal of protecting and restoring 30 percent of our lands and ocean by 2030 to stem the collapse of our natural world.

It starts with working with  local communities, Native communities, States, and private landowners to conserve and restore our natural places. We need to use, leverage and expand existing federal tools—like LWCF, wilderness, the Antiquities Act, and other authorities—but in an inclusive way.  And we need to further incentivize meaningful private conservation—because what works in some states does not work in others.  The goal the resolution sets is doable—but it’s not a top-down prescription—it is the start of a collaborative strategy.

It means improving access to nature for all people including for communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities. It means preventing extinction by recovering and restoring animal and plant species, stabilizing ecosystems and the services of ecosystems, restoring degraded ecosystems, and maintaining ecological functions. It is up to us to do our part to work together towards our common goal with other nations to preserve space on this planet for nature. To those who say environmental protection is economic destruction, I believe that history has shown us the opposite. Our planet, though generous, does not have an endless supply of resources. We have pushed it to the brink.  It is up to us to continue my father’s legacy now—the health and safety of future generations depends on it.

ODP: BONUS: We know you and Dad and your extended family spent lots of time together in parks and wilderness. What was a favorite place for you and why?

TU: “Go well, do well, my children! Cherish sunsets, wild creations, and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth!” That’s what my father wrote in his letter to his grandchildren.

That’s the spirit my father carried forth throughout his life. My favorite memories from growing up are spending time outdoors with my father and my family, enjoying all the natural beauty this great nation offers.

There are simply too many stunning landscapes that I have enjoyed with my family, in New Mexico and across the West, to choose just one. I remember fondly our many family vacations across the southwest and the West as a teenager. Of course Canyonlands in Utah was one of his signature accomplishments and always had a special place in his heart and it does in mine. Chaco Canyon was always a favorite stop of ours – it was fascinating to look at our history through the eyes of these early residents. Family rafting trips down the Colorado River, visits to the Grand Canyon and the broader landscape around the Grand Canyon we are still trying to protect, trips to Grand Teton National Park, the Wind River Range in Wyoming, and so many other places – all of these are etched in my memory. And these treasured experiences are all the more special knowing that our public lands would not be what they are without the leadership of my father. 

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