In 2005, when he was 85 years old, former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall was the subject of a feature-length profile in the LA Times.
The Times rightly tagged Udall, one of the architects of the Wilderness Act, as "perhaps the politician most responsible for the public lands you hike, the rivers you kayak, the mountains you climb, and the wilderness you contemplate. And it is this legacy that he is most fearful will be lost."
The Wilderness Act called for "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." In 1964, it was one of three pieces of legislation—along with the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act—that essentially determined what kind of country we were going to be.
My mom clipped that 2005 article out of the Times and sent it to me. She cut her teeth on political activism around the time the Wilderness Act was passed, and Stewart Udall held a special place in her heart. He was the real deal. Per the Times profile, at age 84 "he rafted down the Colorado River from Lees Ferry—named for Udall's grandfather—and, with a grandson, trekked from the floor of the Grand Canyon up Bright Angel Trail some 7,000 feet to the South Rim. His family had cautioned against it, and he rejected a Park Service offer of a mule. 'They wouldn't have liked it if I hadn't made it,' he recounted, 'but what a way to go.' Once at the South Rim, Udall marched straight to the bar at the Tovar Lodge and ordered a martini."
As I've previously noted here, "We are among the top five countries in the world that still have a plentiful amount of land in a largely natural condition. With the right agenda and leadership, the U.S. can conserve a meaningful portion of its remaining wildlife habitat and natural areas." At that time, the country didn't have that agenda or the leadership. Now we do.
The Wilderness Act protected about 5 percent of the country's land, encompassing more than 100 million acres in 44 states.
That total may soon rise.
On Feb. 26, the Protecting America's Wilderness and Public Lands Act was passed in the House of Representatives. One of the bills in that package was the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act.
If passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Biden, the act will protect 290,000 acres in the Los Padres National Forest and Carrizo Plain National Monument as new wilderness or potential wilderness and two new national scenic areas covering 35,000 acres, establish the 400-mile Condor Trail from LA to Monterey and secure wild and scenic river status for 159 miles of streams—all with levels of protection from industrial and extractive activities significantly greater than what these areas have now.
Back in the day, it took 10 years of organizing and struggle to craft the Wilderness Act and set it before Congress. It took eight years for the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act to get where it is today, first introduced by U.S. Rep. Lois Capps, then reintroduced by her successor, Rep. Salud Carbajal. The Feb. 26 vote by the House was the result of those years of effort and coalition work across Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties, involving business leaders, conservationists, elected officials, ranchers, mountain bikers, and other stakeholders.
Carbajal tenaciously kept the bill alive during a hostile political era, when the proposed legislation passed the house twice but failed in the Senate. Those who repeatedly killed the bill were the usual Republican lawmakers who wish to secure an endless future for rampant logging, mining, and drilling, despite all the evidence that this is not sustainable and is amplifying the impacts of the extinction and climate crises. They are now in a bare minority. The act is strongly supported by the Biden administration, which has adopted the goals of "30x30": protecting 30 percent of the nation's landscape and coastal waters by 2030.
But the deal is not done. Your assistance is required. Thank our Senate champions and urge them to do all they can to persuade their colleagues to vote for the Senate version of the Protecting America's Wilderness and Public Lands Act, which includes seven other bills covering a total of 2.7 million acres and more than 1,000 miles of wild and scenic rivers in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Washington:
• Sen. Dianne Feinstein, United States Senate, 331 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20510; Phone: (202) 224-3841.
• Sen. Alex Padilla, B03 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20510; Phone: (202) 224-3553.
• On Twitter: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, @SenFeinstein; Sen. Alex Padilla, @SenAlexPadilla.
• Hashtags: #ProtectCAPublicLands; #CentralCoastWild; #Protect30x30.
And thank Rep. Carbajal. We may assume the spirit of Stewart Udall, always fearful for the loss of a priceless legacy, is resting a little easier tonight. Δ
Andrew Christie is the director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Send a response for publication to firstname.lastname@example.org.