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Planning and The Politics of Beauty: Reflections on Stewart Udall

By Russell Arben Fox at Front Porch Republic

Photo by Nicole Geri / Unsplash

John de Graaf, an author, filmmaker, and friend of Front Porch Republic, has recently completed a documentary tribute to a hero of his: Stewart Udall, the pioneering conservationist who in many ways defined (almost entirely for better, though perhaps, in a small way, partly for worse) the environmental agenda of the U.S. government and, more specifically, the Democratic party for the past 60 years. Stewart Udall and The Politics of Beauty is a gorgeously shot and highly informative short movie, a wonderful introduction to a fairly unique and entirely admirable figure from 20th-century American history: a crew-cutted WWII veteran and New Frontier liberal whose passion for the natural world literally changed the landscape of this country–but also an open-minded thinker, a lover of poetry, family, and community, whose conservationist passions led him to be ever more conscious, as the decades went by, of the complications inherent to the liberal statism through which he did his greatest work (even if he never did turn against it entirely). In an essay last year, de Graaf called Udall a “true conservative,” someone who “really wanted to conserve things: land, air, water, beauty, the arts and graces, gentle human relations, the best of tradition, democratic ideals.” This movie reflects that aspect of Udall’s life very well.

Udall’s early history—his birth into the Udall family in 1920 (which was already by then an expanding political clan), his life as a young Mormon in Saint Johns, Arizona, and the poverty, the conflicts, and the fellowship which existed in that arid farming community—is by no means the focus of de Graff’s film, but I was entranced by those opening shots and the story it told, complete with comments from Udall’s surviving siblings. It put me in mind of my own maternal grandfather, Joseph Arben Jolley, who was born just four years before Udall in Tropic, Utah, a similarly remote and tiny Mormon hamlet on the Colorado Plateau (though 300 miles, a couple of mountain ranges, and several Native reservations separate the two towns). Like my grandfather, Udall’s early years were without electricity or running water, something which FDR’s New Deal (specifically the Rural Electrification Act) changed, with radical consequences for the Udall family—among other things, they became Democrats, convinced that government action really can improve human lives.

It was that conviction, tied to his passion for racial and, especially, environmental justice, which shaped his public career, first as an elected representative, and then as Secretary of the Interior under both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. During those years, Udall orchestrated the establishment of more national parks, historical monuments, wildlife refuges, and recreational areas than any other Interior Secretary either before or since; if you’ve ever visited Canyonlands National Park, or hiked the Appalachian Trail, or spent time at over a hundred other similar locations across America’s beautiful and diverse ecosystems and geography, it’s likely that you have Stewart Udall at least partly to thank. His years of government service were not restricted to what he did to strengthen and expand the conservationist mentality in Washington D.C.; de Graaf’s documentary does an excellent job highlighting Udall’s broad engagement with cultural issues, as well the tensions and frustrations he faced as a leading government official during the heights of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and all the protests both unleashed. But still, it is the lessons he learned in Saint Johns, the way he applied those lessons, the things he learned from his struggles over them, and how his own take on those lessons thus evolved over the decades, which strike me as most valuable to America today.

In 1963, Udall published his first book, The Quiet Crisis. An idiosyncratic and unsystematic but still deeply insightful history of conservation attitudes and efforts throughout American history, its perspective on the role of government in protecting wilderness, particularly in the American West, was in some ways superseded by later books of his. But the original remains something of a lost classic, regularly rediscovered and praised by those trying to understand the development of American society’s relationship to the land. Reading it in conjunction with watching de Graaf’s film both complicates and deepens our understanding of this indefatigable public servant.

In these pages, there are a fair number of embarrassing paeans to the presumed virtue and wisdom of American planners and policy-makers. Among others, the book begins with Udall presenting the national government’s Indian Claims Commission, which is generally understood to have utterly failed in its task to treat Native land claims justly, “as a singular gesture of atonement, which no civilized country has ever matched,” and then towards the conclusion includes some glowing praise for Robert Moses, the devastating over-builder of American cities, highlighting his efforts to “overcome earlier failures to plan” and bring to American urban areas “asphalt for beach parking lots, for playgrounds, and for roads” (pp. 11, 163-164). But between such missteps, there is much worth admiring and pondering.