LIKE THE BEST AMERICAN SAGAS, this one begins on the Mississippi River.
David King Udall was born in St. Louis in 1851 to English immigrants venturing upriver from New Orleans. Mormon converts, they had been called to forge a holy civilization in the West, so they crossed the ungrazed grasses of Nebraska in wagons pulled by oxen. "The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them," said the Book of Isaiah, "and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as a rose."
Baby David made the journey in swaddling clothes. The child who would one day sire a political dynasty peered out from his bonnet as the wagon train climbed the jagged Rockies and descended into Brigham Young's settlement on the Great Salt Lake. He would indeed make the desert blossom, ingrained as he was with a belief that the land's bounty was to be nurtured and shared. As a teenager, David caught a man drawing water from the town canal out of turn. "He and I had words and finally came to a hand-to-hand tussle," he wrote later, "in which it happened that I, being a husky youngster, threw the fellow into a deep hole in the ditch."
In 1880, at the church's behest, Udall and his family traveled overland to help settle Arizona, where he was elected to the territorial legislature, starting a tradition of stewardship and public service that would become a Udall trademark. His descendants have included four U.S. representatives, a U.S. senator, a secretary of the Interior, two chief justices of the Arizona Supreme Court, a handful of mayors and judges, and a candidate for president.
What has distinguished the family most is conservation, a legacy built by two of David's grandsons, brothers Stewart Udall and Morris "Mo" Udall, who stepped onto the national stage in the early 1960s just as the modern environmental movement was taking shape. As secretary of the Interior under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Stewart helped pass America's most visionary conservation laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Mo, a 30-year member of Congress from Arizona and longtime chair of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, was the force behind the nation's single most sweeping preservation law: the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which added more than 56 million acres of wilderness, 54 million acres of refuges, and ten new national parks. Congress has dubbed both America's easternmost point, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and its westernmost, in Guam, Point Udall—for Stewart and Mo, respectively.
In recent decades, however, a lot of the Udalls' work has met with a backlash,one led by oil, gas, and coal industries and anti-regulatory western senators like Pete Domenici of New Mexico, Ted Stevens of Alaska, and Orrin Hatch of Utah. President George W. Bush has aligned himself with this cause, overturning the Roadless Area Conservation Rule and appointing coal and timber lobbyists to high posts in the departments of Interior and Agriculture. The pendulum swung farthest in 2003, when Richard Pombo, a California Republican who wanted to gut the Endangered Species Act and drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,became chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Mo's old post.
These days the momentum is shifting again. Our binge on natural resources has left us with a bad case of morning-after shakes. Pump prices have spiked. The war in Iraq illustrates every day the cost of our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Hurricane Katrina provided a grisly glimpse of the worst-case projections about climate change. With Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize and all the major presidential candidates sounding greener than the incumbent, conservation is returning to the mainstream.
Yet the one thing this revitalized movement still lacks is strong leadership in Washington. While the battles are not strictly fought along party lines—Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine often vote green, while Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu frequently sides with oil and gas interests—the role of western Republicans has been consistent. With the notable exception of Arizona's John McCain, they have marshaled their power against conservation. And although Alaska and the states of the Intermountain West—Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico—are home to just 7 percent of the country's population, their senators control 18 percent of the chamber, giving them broad power to derail legislation.
As Randy Udall—Mo's 56-year-old son and director emeritus of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE), an energy nonprofit in Colorado—puts it: "The future of climate policy will be determined by western senators."
Which is where the Udalls come in—again. In 1998, Mo's son Mark, from Colorado, and Stewart's son Tom, from New Mexico, were elected to the House. This year both men are running for Senate, and if they win, their victories might decisively tip the balance of power. For the first time in a generation, the Udalls could be the ones tossing bad guys into the ditch.
CAPITOL HILL WAS atwitter. It was January 4, 2007, the first hundred hours of the 110th Congress, and Democrats were taking the reins after 12 years of Republican rule. Among other things, the Dems were promising to pass the most significant energy bill in memory, one that would end oil and gas subsidies, limit oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico, and promote investment in renewable energy sources.
I was stomping down the marble corridors of the Cannon House Office Building, hurrying to keep up with Mark Udall. A rangy six foot one, Mark wore polished cowboy boots and pleated slacks secured with a tooled silver buckle. His graying hair was disheveled and his eyebrows bushy—by Hill standards, he looked positively windblown. Now 57, he's the only member of Congress to have attempted Mount Everest, getting turned back 3,000 feet below the summit by storms. He did, however, climb the world's third-highest peak, 28,169-foot Kanchenjunga, in 1990. And he summited solo.
Mark's father died in 1998, but Mo lives on in his son's office. A campaign poster from his 1976 presidential bid dominates a wall, and up on a shelf sits a pair of his size 16 basketball sneakers—six-foot-five Mo, a star at the University of Arizona, played a season for the Denver Nuggets.
When Mark was elected, western Democrats were an endangered species in the House, holding just three of the 25 seats in the Intermountain West. "We formed the Coyote Caucus," he told me. "Sometimes it was just my cousin Tom and I having a beer." But Democrats have surged in the region, picking up nine more House seats, two Senate seats, and five governorships. They've positioned themselves as conservationists, forging alliances with sportsmen and farmers while painting Republicans as tools for mining and gas.
Mark's buzzer vibrated and I followed him at a trot into a system of underground tunnels beneath the Capitol. We leaped into an elevator, where we ran into Tom.
"Marcus!" cried Tom, slapping Mark on the shoulder.
"Tomás!" said Mark.
The two have a knack for chance meetings. In 1989, Mark was descending from the summit of Argentina's 22,834-foot Aconcagua when he encountered another group of Americans. "I see this guy coming up towards me and think, That guy looks familiar," Mark told me. "It was my cousin Tom!"
Tom, who has also climbed 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, the highest point in North America, had on a plain dark suit with cowboy boots. At 59, with slightly stooped shoulders and thinning hair, he looks like an earnest country lawyer. Tom has been a federal prosecutor and New Mexico's attorney general. Having once watched him grill the chief of the Bureau of Land Management at a congressional budget hearing, I had seen firsthand his encyclopedic recall of environmental law.
During their years in the minority, the Udall cousins had managed a few small victories: Mark helped win wilderness designation for Colorado's James Peak and, with Republican cosponsors, the Spanish Peaks, and in 2005 Tom wrote a successful bill to protect New Mexico's spectacular Valle Vidal from mineral leasing. They'd also introduced a few ambitious bills that went nowhere, including the Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) Act, which would have required power companies to generate 20 percent of their juice from sources like wind and solar. They cosponsored the Peak Oil Resolution, which would have prioritized the search for alternatives to the world's dwindling oil supply, and they brought up a bill forcing mining companies to clean up abandoned sites. None made it out of committee.
Now, with a sympathetic Congress, the Udalls saw a chance to gain traction. In their first eight days of business, the House passed every part of the Democrats' "100 Hour" plan, including the energy bill. But each of those bills would be blocked by the Senate. One January morning I found Mark in the basement deli grabbing a plastic-encased snack.
"Sometimes I think this is a colossal waste of time," he told me, swiping his pay card. "I mean, ten years ago I was on Mount Everest. Things move so slowly here. It's hard to get anything done. But to be honest—and I don't mean this to sound too self-important—I think we need more people here with values like mine."
I AGREE, AND I SHOULD confess that I'm not exactly neutral. As someone who resides in the West, I don't see conservation as an abstraction. I live in Missoula, Montana, downriver from the nation's largest cluster of Superfund sites, and when I hear that obstruction in Washington has further delayed their cleanup, I get angry. I worked for ten years as a river guide and Outward Bound instructor in the Utah canyons, and when President Bush relaxed regulations for gas exploration, I watched the results up close: 32-ton thumper trucks stomping a landscape that said more about God than a thousand cathedrals. After that I moved east to work for Howard Dean's presidential campaign. We all know how that turned out.
So when I began following Mark and Tom Udall, I hoped they would fill their fathers' shoes. An unfair expectation, perhaps, but such is the downside of being born into a dynasty. I wanted them to rise up and lead—partly because I liked their politics and pedigree, but also because at a time when environmentalism has been sequestered in big coastal cities, I think its next wave of leaders has to come from the rural West. It will never get anywhere—and didn't for years—without support in the states whose resources and landscapes inspired the whole idea of conservation in the first place.
The Udalls epitomize that western ethic. "Stewart and Mo had a land connection," Randy Udall told me. "They grew up in this rural conservative Mormon community, and they got this stuff at some sort of visceral level. If you're not connected in a primal, natural way with the land, then you're gonna screw up."
Mark and Tom aren't the only ones in the current crop of Udalls to work in conservation. Randy's nonprofit, CORE,cooperates with local government to promote renewable energy and enact green laws. Another brother, 50-year-old Brad, a former Grand Canyon boatman, is director of Western Water Assessment, a joint program of the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Though the best-known Udalls have been staunch Democrats, the family has a Republican side. The split dates back to the days of Mormon polygamy—and the three wives and 15 children of David King Udall. His first wife, Eliza, gave him nine children, including Levi, a Democrat who became chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court and fathered Stewart and Mo. His second wife, Ida, had six kids, including Jesse, a Republican who succeeded his half brother as chief justice and whose grandson is Gordon Smith, a two-term Republican senator from Oregon. Unlike his cousins, Smith is a practicing Mormon. He has turned out to be a conservationist himself, defying his party on key environmental issues like ANWR. "When Gordon voted against drilling," Mark told me, "I sent him a note that said, 'My dad would be proud.'"
I wanted to meet the last member of that storied generation, so in April I traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to see Stewart Udall. At 88, the patriarch has a full head of silver hair and a glint in his eye. "I've been a pretty hearty type," he said, tapping his cane, when he met me at the door of his hillside adobe home. That was a bald understatement. Though he'd broken his hip over the winter, three years earlier he'd rafted through the Grand Canyon and hiked out. He lost his wife, Ermalee, in 2001, and has lived alone since, next door to Tom and his wife, attorney Jill Cooper.
It was a clear spring day; through the living-room window, we watched the sun drop. "I grew up about 300 miles over there," Stewart said, waving toward the horizon in a casual way that made me think he hadn't strayed too far in his mind from St. Johns, Arizona, the dusty town on the Little Colorado River where his grandfather settled. Stewart had been a Mormon missionary, an Air Force gunner in World War II, and a U.S. representative. During his term at Interior, the National Park Service added Canyonlands and three other parks, six monuments, nine recreation areas, 20 historic sites, and 56 wildlife refuges. He also found time to write a book, The Quiet Crisis, debunking the "myth of superabundance," that Old West idea that we could never deplete our water, trees, and minerals.
Which isn't to say he was on the green side of every debate. "The Udalls come out of an ethic that is very Old Testament," Gordon Smith told me. "If they didn't divert rivers and irrigate fields, they died."
Early on, this notion led Stewart and Mo to support massive engineering projects like Glen Canyon Dam, the Central Arizona Project (a 336-mile aqueduct that diverts the Colorado River), and even dams in the Grand Canyon. But their positions evolved in the late sixties, reflecting a national shift of values triggered in part by the Sierra Club's protests against dams on the Colorado. After a family float trip through the Grand Canyon in 1967, Stewart used his influence to kill the dams.
"I presented [the Central Arizona Project] in four different Congresses as a way to rescue farmers," Stewart told me, his voice rising. "Farmers were going to get all the water. Then the bill passed—and this whole sprawl! Phoenix is trying to be another Los Angeles, and the longer it goes on the more it makes me sick."
Stewart is alarmed about the state of the environment today, particularly global warming, and he's not optimistic about Congress's ability to stop it. In his day, he said, conservation wasn't as partisan, and many of its proponents were Republicans. "Then we hit a stone wall with Reagan," he said. "And the current president has been the worst in our nation's history in terms of conservation. Mark and Tom were on the committees, but what could they do? You have to have executive leadership."
OVER THE MEMORIAL DAY recess, Mark and Tom Udall took a break. Congress wasn't budging, and the fiddling feds were being put to shame by state and local governments.
"I would love it if Congress would do something, but they won't and they haven't," says Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat whose state is one of 25 that have enacted renewable-energy standards. California's Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed the nation's most aggressive bill to reduce greenhouse gases, and, last April, California and 11 other states prevailed in their lawsuit against the EPA, arguing that the Bush administration had violated the Clean Air Act by refusing to regulate CO2 emissions. That month, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed to transform Gotham into the "first environmentally sustainable 21st-century city," and in May the U.S. Conference of Mayors got its 500th city to agree to meet the Kyoto global-warming protocol.
For the Udalls, the antidote to D.C. inertia was a climb up Colorado's Culebra Peak. At 14,045 feet, Culebra is not the tallest or most difficult of the state's 54 fourteeners, but Mark had wanted to climb it for 35 years. On an Outward Bound course in college, he summited his first fourteener; Culebra was the last one on his list.
I met the cousins at a steel ranch gate off a dirt road in the San Luis Valley, where the farmland is divided into neat green squares and ranchera music tumbles across the airwaves. Mark's wife, former Sierra Club deputy director Maggie Fox, had come along, as had Tom's nephew Seth Cohen and two other friends.
Mark and Tom Udall have gone on wilderness trips together for years. Each the oldest of six siblings, they grew up in Tucson's cactus foothills, riding horses, floating rivers, and climbing in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Mark became an instructor and later executive director of the Colorado Outward Bound School (he retired the year before I began working there), while Tom graduated in the inaugural class of Arizona's Prescott College, whose curriculum includes wilderness leadership and whose credo is "Education is a journey, not a destination."
As we waited by the gate, a few drops of rain splatted heavily in the dust. Then a mud-covered pickup hauling two dogs bumped up. Out hopped the caretaker of Cielo Vista Ranch, Carlos DeLeon, wearing jeans and boots and displaying Marine Corps tattoos on his arms. We were the first climbing party of the year, and he was unsure if the road was clear.
"We could go scout it," he said. Mark and Tom climbed in the truck, Carlos's dogs barking. The area behind the seat was small, so Tom had to sit sideways. He wore Wranglers, an oxford-cloth shirt, and cowboy boots. Mark sat in the front in shorts and flip-flops.
"What happened to Brad?" said Tom. Mark's brother had planned to join them.
"He's a bum!" Mark called over the whine of the engine. "He said he has to prepare to testify before Congress on the sixth. But I looked at my calendar. That's not till next Thursday!"
Tom laughed at the thought of someone needing a full week to prepare for Congress. "Well, Marcus," he said wryly, "he's the diligent one."
The road steepened, and Carlos shifted into four-wheel drive. Timbers were down across the trail, and he drove over them. The smell of gasoline wafted into the cab from a red plastic container in the bed. At the edge of a flat clearing we hit snow. By now we could see the peak.
We set up our tents in a stand of aspens and built a fire. Tom had stopped at a market in Taos for groceries, but it was closed. Dinner was Rice-A-Roni, baked beans, and chopped-up hot dogs.
"Is this 7-Eleven food?" someone asked.
"Gas station," said Tom.
With the low-rent familiarity around the fire, I could easily have forgotten that I was sharing a pot of dumbass with two sitting members of Congress. Tom told a story about skiing up California's Tioga Pass during Easter recess, in a blizzard, to meet Randy, who was traversing the Sierra. "Well, I skied up to the lodge where we were supposed to meet, and it was closed down," he said. "Then I got snowed in. They called us back early, and I missed the Terri Schiavo vote. I never did find Randy!"
The high altitude seemed to loosen up both congressmen, and as we hiked the next day I asked Tom about the Wilderness Act. More than 40 years after it was enacted, why hadn't it been implemented in Utah, arguably the state with the most wilderness needing protection? He answered in what I'd come to know as his careful, rational style, citing obstructionist tactics, voting patterns, and required periods of study.
"But doesn't it piss you off?" I asked. "Your dad passed these great things into law, and they've basically been ignored."
Even this didn't rile the unflappable Tom, but as he launched a treatise on the energy-extraction industry in the West, his voice rose as he complained about its undue influence over Congress and the difficulty in bringing change. Whipping his head around and stomping his boots, he had what might qualify as an outburst. "It's because you've got these western Republican senators," he sputtered, "who are just a bunch of … of … Neanderthals!"
THESE WERE THE FIRST real fighting words I'd heard from Mark or Tom. Both men know a lot about policy, and their voting records are stellar, but when I asked around, environmentalists spoke respectfully of the Udalls but singled out others—like Ed Markey, Henry Waxman, and Earl Blumenauer—as the real environmental leaders in Congress. This could be a matter of seniority—the three men have served a combined 75 years in the House. Or geography—Markey, Waxman, and Blumenauer represent big, liberal cities (Boston area; Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon) and don't have to accommodate the agriculture, mining, and drilling industries of New Mexico and Colorado.
Or maybe the Udalls just haven't hit their stride. With their nuanced positions and measured way of speaking, Mark and Tom sometimes come across as more wonkish than visionary. Mark's attempts at slogans—"Green is the new red, white, and blue!"—sound like recycled platitudes, while Tom seems too steady and fastidious for the daring frankness that might inspire a movement. When I pressed him about his achievements, he first mentioned his success preserving the Valle Vidal as well as the Valles Caldera, an 89,000-acre former ranch in the Jemez Mountains, but then shifted quickly into the minutiae of preventive health care and "finding creative ways to build the job base in my district."
Relieved though I was that folks in Gallup were getting their flu shots, I wanted a Udall who would fight. But the most pugilistic one, Randy, says he'll never run for office. "National energy policy has been stuck on stupid for a long time," he told me. "We've never been able to speak truth to power about energy. We're devouring the world. We're living like gods, and people think this is a normal state of affairs. Energy is warping our national policies, and it will for 40 years. If you get it wrong, you steer the nation into a ditch."
In Congress, however, tough talk doesn't always get you anywhere. Persistence may. Two months after our Culebra climb, Mark and Tom scored a big win. Their Renewable Electricity Standard bill, rewritten as the Udall-Platts Amendment by Republican Todd Platts of Pennsylvania, passed the House. "It's a major departure, and a signal that it's no longer business as usual," said Dave Alberswerth, senior policy adviser for the Wilderness Society. "And it would make an important down payment on stopping greenhouse gases."
Meanwhile, House Democrats passed a bill that would reform the Mining Law of 1872, and Mark Udall sponsored bills to block oil-shale leases on public land and to protect Colorado's Roan Plateau from drilling. But it seemed unlikely these bills would make it through the Senate.
Randy Udall's remark that climate policy would be determined by western senators had sounded like hyperbole until I watched what happened to the Renewable Electricity Standard in June. The top dogs on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources are both from New Mexico—Democrat Jeff Bingaman serves as chair and Pete Domenici is the ranking Republican. Bingaman introduced the RES; Domenici blocked it. Thus, the most significant step in decades toward ending American oil dependence rose and fell with the two gentlemen from New Mexico.
The weakened bill was blocked again when 39 Republicans and one Democrat, Mary Landrieu, objected to the end of oil subsidies. Only one vote shy of the 60 required to force a vote (one of the few Republican defectors was Gordon Smith), Democrats had an opportunity to show some bare-knuckled political courage by forcing the Republicans into an embarrassing pro–Big Oil filibuster or by twisting the arm of a single senator. Instead, in a move Mark Udall called "shortsighted, misguided, and beyond disappointing," Majority Leader Harry Reid stripped out the oil-subsidies ban as well as the renewable-energy standards, leaving a modest fuel-economy increase, a boon to corn-based ethanol, and a mandate to change your lightbulbs. The bill passed in December.
While even the greenest Senate may not be able to solve the climate crisis, 2008 could be a historic period of realignment. Four seats held by anticonservation Republicans are considered toss-ups. Green-leaning challengers are leading in Virginia and New Hampshire, and Tom and Mark were early favorites to replace Domenici and Wayne Allard, who are both retiring.
"If you turn Allard into a Udall and turn Domenici into a Udall," says Ned Farquhar, energy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, "there's going to be a gigantic change in the West's influence, both on climate and on energy."
The Udalls see that. "[Mine] is a crucial race to generate a 56- or 57-vote majority in the Senate so that we can really grab the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Mark told the political blog MyDD.com in December. In the same interview series, Tom said part of his reason for running is "trying to push forward the things we wanted in 2006 that the president and the minority in the Senate have blocked."
While this brand of steady teamwork may not capture the same headlines as a self-styled maverick like Montana's Brian Schweitzer, it may be the bureaucratic slog, not the cowboy on a white horse, that wins the war. After all, Mo Udall's Alaska Lands Act bounced around committees for years before alignment between the House, Senate, and President Jimmy Carter allowed it to become law. This generation of Udalls are consensus-building policy whizzes who love the outdoors, and maybe that's precisely what we need.
WE WOKE BEFORE DAWN and fired up coffee on the camp stove, then set out toward Culebra. The morning was chilly but not cold enough for the snow to have frozen solid, so we sank through the crust to our knees. When we reached a crossroads, Mark said we needed to turn right. Tom thought we should go straight. Mark produced a scrap of paper with a topographical map. After some discussion, no one could even identify the peak.
"I should have brought that guidebook," Mark said with a laugh, "but I wanted to go light!" Finally they elected to go straight, and after another half-hour we traversed up a snow slope to a ridge from which we could see jagged peaks rising in every direction over the flat farms of the valley.
We sat on talus, eating salami and cheese, then pressed on. Yesterday's rain clouds had evaporated, and soon we got our first glimpse of the peak, with its shimmering couloirs and windswept cornices. We picked our way up a sharp arête and by noon stood huddled on the summit. Mark pointed to a cluster of fourteeners off to the east. "Tomás," he said, "there's the Spanish Peaks. You voted to make them wilderness!"
I remembered something Randy Udall had said. "When was the last time a U.S. president slept on the ground?" he asked. "Probably Roosevelt and Muir, 100 years ago. That's telling, in a way. They debate this stupid shit, and a lot of it's because they haven't been for a hike in the woods."
Or, as Mo once put it: "God help us from presidents who can't be a little bit gentle, and who can't gather friends around and play poker and climb a mountain."
From inside a plastic tube left on the summit, Mark pulled out a register. In the space for comments he wrote, "Last One!"
Tom took the pencil next. "Everyone just writes the number of peaks they've bagged," he said. "That's a strange way of thinking about it." But even as he spoke, he jotted a number beside his name. Then he thought better and scribbled it out. As the clouds poured in and the wind whipped overhead, he pondered for a moment and scrawled, "It's the journey."