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Udalls' Legacy

It takes people with vision to preserve our natural beauty

July 1, 1998 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

In an era when government is ruled by small ideas, it's fortunate that moments of clarity occur to recognize genuine leaders and real triumphs of democracy. Just such a moment happened late last month when Stewart L. Udall, the Secretary of the Interior during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, visited Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore which he and the late Sen. Phil Hart helped to found in 1970 after nine years of struggle.

Udall, who is now 78, had never stepped foot in the park until early one afternoon when he stood quietly on the beach near the mouth of the Platte River. Trim and vigorous, Udall looked south, then north, then up to the clear sky, not uttering a word for five or six minutes. Every acre of green forest. Every towering dune. Every mile of sand and blue water spread before him was part of the national park. He smiled and his eyes grew wide.

Then, visibly moved, he described how in the weeks after President Kennedy had asked him to join the cabinet he had sought the counsel of Oscar Chapman, who was President Truman's Interior Secretary. Chapman told Udall he had the best job in Washington. When Udall asked why, Chapman said, "Well, if you stay long enough, and do a good enough job, when you leave you'll have protected places that people will love and thank you for."

It's hard to imagine that 30 years from today people will love any environmental initiative that Lansing lawmakers produced during the 1990s. The small steps forward by the Engler Administration — quickening cleanups of urban toxic waste sites, undertaking research on exotic species, working to reduce mercury levels in lakes, encouraging voluntary pollution prevention measures — are overshadowed by the many steps backward.

These include awarding cozy multi-million dollar subsidies to the oil industry, signing into law a bill that will accelerate the subdividing of farm land, championing the property rights movement, and issuing misguided development permits like the one in 1997 to allow mining in the Minden Bog, the state's largest wetland.

Contrast this record with Udall's and it's easy to understand why he was so warmly received during a weekend visit when he addressed a banquet in Traverse City, hiked in Sleeping Bear Dunes, and spoke to a standing room only audience at the National Lakeshore headquarters in Empire. Everywhere he went he was hugged by men and women who thanked him for the park. Children wanted his autograph and to have their picture taken with him.

The 20th century has produced four truly great conservationists: John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and protector of the Sierra Nevada range in California; President Theodore Roosevelt, who vastly increased the number of national parks and established the National Forest system; Rachel Carson, the author of "Silent Spring," which introduced the idea that natural systems are interconnected.

And Stewart Udall. During his eight-year tenure as Interior Secretary, Udall helped to establish four national parks, six national monuments, nine national recreation areas, twenty national historic sites, and nine national lakeshores and seashores including Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula and Sleeping Bear Dunes in Benzie and Leelanau counties.

He was the Kennedy and Johnson administration's principal champion of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which preserved tens of millions of acres of wild land, and he helped pass the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which has safeguarded thousands of miles of the nation's most beautiful rivers.

"It was an extraordinary time," Udall said. "It was as though all the stars were lined up. People talk about me and my leadership. In some ways it was easy because there was in Congress at that time a group of 25 or 30 of what I used to call United States senators. One of the most notable was Phil Hart. We saw an opportunity to strike a blow for the nation by buying units for national parks, or lakeshores or seashores or anything else."

Mr. Udall's surpassing success as Interior Secretary helped to give birth to American environmentalism and set the foundation for laws to clear the air, clean the water, and protect species. It also sparked a flurry of lawmaking in the states in the 1970s led by Gov. William G. Millken who protected sand dunes, natural rivers, the Jordan Valley, wetlands, cleaned up toxic wastes and established the Natural Resources Trust Fund to purchase wild and recreational land.

"If I make a list of five or six states, Michigan is on the list of the states that were providing new leadership, new policies, leading the nation, setting examples for the nation," said Udall. "Michigan flowered under Bill Milliken. It was, perhaps, the leading state in the nation."

Indeed, the joint federal and state program for protecting the state's environment is a testament to the value of big ideas and the courage of true leaders. No place has benefited more than northern Michigan. The region's natural landscape has produced a flourishing economy. It's also given rise to an astonishing number of professionally-staffed and all-volunteer conservation groups intent on enhancing opportunity and advancing the tradition of environmental protection.

"I'm here because I have seen what's happening in this part of Michigan and I wanted to be a part of it," Udall said to civic leaders and advocates in Traverse City. "At least to applaud."

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