In 1963, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall published “The Quiet Crisis,” a book detailing the threats facing the nation’s wildlife and natural resources at the time.
Nearly 60 years later, the planet is facing a rapidly worsening climate and extinction crisis ― and that man’s son, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), is sounding the alarm.
“The crises aren’t so quiet anymore,” Udall told HuffPost in a Tuesday interview. “We have a sixth mass extinction, with 1 million species threatened because of human activity. In New Mexico, we recently saw one of the largest migratory bird die-offs in recent decades. The U.S. is losing a football field worth of nature every 30 seconds.”
At 72, Udall says he’s still optimistic we can stem the disasters ― but a “troubled optimist.” He’s retiring from Congress after 20 years because, as he’s put it, he wants to try out something else in public service. He is reportedly on President-elect Joe Biden’s shortlist to lead the Interior Department, the federal agency responsible for 500 million acres of federal land, or roughly one-fifth of the country’s landmass.
As someone born into a family of conservationists and who has spent his career championing environmental causes, Udall said it’s been painful to watch President Donald Trump spend the last four years gutting environmental rules, dismantling public land protections, abandoning U.S. climate action and undermining Native American tribal sovereignty.
On top of all that, his actions have tanked morale among career public servants, including the 70,000 who work for Interior.
“They’ve taken a wrecking ball to the Interior Department,” he said.
But after years of Trump’s efforts to cut regulations and boost fossil fuel production in a quest for so-called “energy dominance,” Biden is pledging to put the U.S. on track to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and make massive investments in clean energy research. Biden is also vowing to not only restore the national monuments that Trump dismantled but establish new protected sites to safeguard ecologically important landscapes.
“The best thing that could have happened for the planet was Joe Biden getting elected president,” Udall said. “Our planet really couldn’t have survived four more years of Trump.”
The Democratic senator has high expectations for the Biden administration to right the wrongs of the Trump era ― regardless of whether he ends up with a Cabinet spot.
“Who wouldn’t want to serve in President Biden’s administration?” he said of the speculation that he is up for the job. “I think he’s heading in the right direction.”
Udall’s conservation vision is already part of Biden’s plan. The president-elect has committed to signing a Day One executive order to conserve 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030 ― a target in line with the United Nations’ plan for protecting biodiversity. Udall has championed the “30 by 30” plan in the U.S., introducing a resolution last year to make it a national goal.
That target should be the “organizing principle” of the incoming administration, he said, and if Biden is serious about achieving these conservation and climate goals, he’ll have to work closely with Native American tribes.
“We know there is a very intimate tie with tribes and nature,” he said. “Their traditions around the usage of land are something that we can really learn from. There’s a lot of wisdom there.”
“Many of these Indian nations have a lot to say about where we should head on our management, our stewardship, all of those kinds of things,” Udall added.
“We know there is a very intimate tie with tribes and nature. Their traditions around the usage of land are something that we can really learn from.”
In addition to overseeing federal land, the Interior Department is responsible for honoring the government’s commitments to tribes, which it has failed to do time and time again. It also oversees the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the latter of which manages more than 55 million acres of land held in trust for Native Americans by the government. Both agencies are notoriously underfunded and have failed to adequately serve Indigenous communities.
As partisan as Congress is these days, Udall said he thinks Biden will find strong support on Capitol Hill for advancing tribal priorities. Most legislative activity on tribal matters begins in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, of which Udall has been vice chair for the last three years, and the panel has been remarkably collegial and productive in that time.
Some of the bills it passed that went on to become law include legislation targeting the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, providing billions in COVID-19 resources for Native health systems, preserving Native American languages, and providing seed money for business incubators in Indian Country to help cultivate Native American-owned small businesses.
“It’s kind of a little island of bipartisanship that I don’t think people recognize,” Udall said of the committee. “When we start talking about accomplishments, I can’t even list all the things.”
This all happened despite the “disaster” that Trump has been for tribes, he said. Yes, the president signed those bills into law, but Udall said he couldn’t remember hearing a word from the president on whether he liked any of those bills, whether he was pushing for any of them or if he was helping to bring particular Republicans on board with any of them.
Trump’s legacy on tribal matters is “nothing more than callous disregard and often outright hostility to Native peoples,” said Udall, becoming as animated as it gets for this otherwise unshakably mellow senator. “The border wall. Destroying sacred sites. ... Arguing against upholding treaty rights before the Supreme Court. Wanting to leave tribes out entirely in the COVID-19 relief bill.”
The Biden administration will be a sharp contrast to this, he added, namely because Biden understands and respects tribal sovereignty.
Udall remained coy on his Interior prospects. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and former Deputy Interior Secretary Michael Connor are also reportedly on the shortlist, either of whom would make history as the first-ever Native American Cabinet secretary if chosen.
“I’m honored to be considered for an opportunity to continue my public service,” Udall said. “I think I’d just leave it at that.”