On Capitol Hill, He Provided an Eloquent Voice for Conservation

Conservation Hall of Fame® Inductee: Morris King Udall

  • Michael Lipske
  • Apr 01, 2000
The National Wildlife Federation Conservation Hall of Fame was established in 1963 to honor Americans who have made major contributions to the nation's environmental and natural-resource protection efforts. In March, NWF added two new inductees to the list of 23 other people whose legacies were previously honored: Morris King Udall and Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Morris King Udall was not the first U.S. lawmaker to champion the cause of conservation on Capitol Hill. But the lanky Arizona native left a legacy in protecting America's natural heritage that few other members of Congress could ever hope to achieve.

was not the first U.S. lawmaker to champion the cause of conservation on Capitol Hill. But the lanky Arizona native left a legacy in protecting America's natural heritage that few other members of Congress could ever hope to achieve.

"Mo" Udall, as he was widely known, began to build that legacy not long after he was first elected to Congress in 1961. By 1974, the National Wildlife Federation named him its Legislator of the Year for his determined efforts to safeguard the natural world. But the former college basketball star hungered for an even stronger leadership role in resource protection. His opportunity came in 1977 when Jimmy Carter took control of the White House. Udall was asked to become chair of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. He didn't hesitate to accept. And over the next 14 years, he repeatedly asserted his leadership role on the committee, shepherding through Congress and into the nation's lawbooks a number of key measures.

The first of those measures became law in 1977 shortly after Udall's appointment to the committee: the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, a bill Udall had previously introduced into Congress. Twice vetoed by President Gerald Ford, the measure represented a pioneering effort by lawmakers to make coal companies reclaim scarred land.

Udall's greatest victory came three years later, with the passage of the 1980 Alaska Lands Act, which protected more than 150 million acres of federal land in the state. In one stroke, the act doubled the size of the country's national park system and tripled the size of the wilderness system. It was, recalls NWF President Mark Van Putten, "a monumental moment in American history, and Mo Udall deserves a lot of the credit for it."

Born in 1922 in rural northeastern Arizona, Udall was the grandson of Mormon pioneers who were sent by Brigham Young to colonize the harsh country near the Painted Desert. There, Udall learned a farmer's lesson "that nature had first laws," as he once explained, "and that nature was bountiful and generous if you handled it right."

"His connection to the land started in those years of his youth," says Udall's son, Mark, himself a U.S. representative from Colorado since January 1999. Growing crops in the desert and fishing on family camping trips in Arizona mountain country, young Mo Udall "developed a sense of stewardship," says his son, and "a sense of the West in all its rich environments."

As a youngster, Udall lost an eye after a playground accident. Nevertheless, he went on to become the top scorer on the University of Arizona basketball team and played a season of pro ball.

Udall not only kept his seat in Congress for 15 terms, but was a leader on a broad range of issues. In 1971, he sponsored the first real attempt to clean up financing of campaigns for federal office. But Udall is best remembered as an early, eloquent voice on many environmental problems that are still with us:

Warning of the danger of ill-considered technological advancement, Udall in 1972 said, "'Growth' and 'progress' are among the key words in our national vocabulary. But modern man now carries Strontium 90 in his bones ... DDT in his fat, asbestos in his lungs. A little more of this 'progress' and 'growth,' and this man will be dead."

In 1974, Udall urged an environmental community that was focused on wilderness and wildlife to start tackling society's "gut, controversial issues," such as racial discrimination and unemployment. Speaking at the height of the 1970s energy crisis, he warned that "most Americans will never see a wilderness area, park or wildlife refuge, and unless they are brought into the fold, when the crunch comes they can be expected to opt for power, light and heat at any cost."

In 1976, Udall asked, "What kind of society, given the choice between recycling a mountain of paper and denuding a mountainside of trees would make a decision to do the latter? The answer: our kind. And it is time to change that."

In 1985, Udall was selected by NWF as its Conservationist of the Year. He continued battling for the environment until his resignation from Congress in 1991 due to ill health. He died on December 12, 1998, of complications from Parkinson's disease, but many of the landmark measures he championed remain firmly in place today. 

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