Legacy or Sham?

I've been through legislation creating a dozen national parks, and there's always the same pattern. When you first propose a park, and you visit the area and present the case to the local people, they threaten to hang you. You go back in five years and they think it's the greatest thing that ever happened. You go back in twenty years and they'll probably name a mountain after you.

--late U.S. representative Morris K. Udall

Please, somebody, name a mountain after Mo Udall.

That would be a fitting tribute to a man who spent 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, where much of his toil went toward preserving the environment.

Instead, the late congressman's name is on concrete, at the Morris K. Udall Foundation in Tucson. A hallmark of the foundation is the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution, which Congress recently created in Udall's name and funded, this year, at $4.25 million.

Sounds good, right? After all, Udall will go down in history as a great environmentalist; but it was really his skill as a great compromiser that created laws to protect our water and air. Udall, who died December 12, will be remembered for championing legislation that saved millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness and preserved Arizona mountains like Four Peaks outside of Phoenix and the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff.

Even the environmentalists who loved the land as he did couldn't escape Mo Udall's gentle wit. He called them LOLITAS (Little Old Ladies in Tennis Shoes) and THUPPS (Tree-Hugging Posy Pickers), but the secret of Udall's success was his willingness to invite the old ladies and the posy pickers to the table, and seat them right alongside the bureaucrats and the big-business types, to hash out the environmental issues of the day.

Udall didn't always vote the environmentalists' way, and yet he won most everyone's respect by listening to all sides and forging compromise. That is the idea of the conflict-resolution institute--to avoid litigation by bringing federal agencies, industry and environmentalists to the table to talk through their problems. It will all be refereed by trained, neutral arbitrators.

But what if one side refuses to participate?

You might be surprised to learn that it's environmentalists, not industry barons, who are uneasy about playing along. The directors of the Tucson-based Southwest Center for Biodiversity, which files about 70 percent of the environment-related lawsuits in Arizona, have said they don't want anything to do with the institute. The Southwest Center is at the far end of the spectrum--industry types love to call them "eco-terrorists"--but other, more mainstream Arizona environmentalists are wary of the institute, too.

The environmentalists have many reservations about the institute. They ask, if the goal here is really cooperation, why weren't they consulted when the institute was being developed?

They say their groups don't have the staff to sit through long negotiations, and, that in any case, there are already federal mediation programs in place through the courts. They say they're wary of the institute's creator, Senator John McCain, who, unlike Udall, they do not consider an environmentalist. Some greens are uncomfortable with the institute's close ties to the University of Arizona, which convinced Udall--in one of his last monumental decisions in Congress--to vote to put telescopes atop Mt. Graham in southeastern Arizona.

The environmentalists' biggest reservation, however, is the simple fact that they are so successful in court; they don't see a reason to negotiate.

Institute director Kirk Emerson points out that her new organization is national in scope, and that the Southwest Center is just one of many, many stake holders in a process that won't always lend itself to negotiation.

"This [institute] is no panacea. This is in no way in opposition to the legal system," she says.

But that's how the environmentalists see it. And if this institute is to work, it will take someone who can cajole the competing interests into giving it a chance. John McCain is not the guy to do it.

Sadly, the U.S. Environmental Conflict Resolution Institute is missing a key, irreplaceable ingredient, and that's Mo Udall himself.

In the seven years since Udall left office, industry and environmentalists have become so polarized they might as well be on different planets.

Big business has used the Gingrichized Congress--and in Arizona, the right-leaning State Legislature--to get its way.

In response, environmentalists like Peter Galvin, Kieran Suckling and Robin Silver of the Southwest Center and David Baron of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, have honed their legal skills, using the courts to enforce environmental laws.

Suckling, whose group just filed its hundredth lawsuit, puts his success rate at 82 percent. In recent years, the Southwest Center helped to secure a federal injunction halting logging in the Southwest while the U.S. Forest Service examined its impact on the threatened Mexican spotted owl. They've petitioned to get dozens of species of plants and animals listed as threatened or endangered, and successfully sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, forcing the agency to reconsider the Northern goshawk as a threatened species.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at