COMMENTARY: Bringing the Bus Around

Launching a Legacy Tour in Honor of Mo Udall

Speaking to potential Iowa caucus voters in Des Moines in 1975, then-Presidential candidate Morris "Mo" Udall (a Democratic congressman in Arizona from 1961 to 1991, and the man deemed "too funny to be president") made a statement as true today as it was then. "Convincing the American public of the only really sound energy course will not be easy," he said. "We will be blocked—we are today being blocked—by those who would profit in the short run from slowing down the environmental movement. I’m speaking of those in industries and in politics who have posed this phony choice for the nation between jobs and environmental quality."

The Udall Legacy Bus Tour hits the road June 12 to showcase young environmentalists around the country.© Udall Legacy Bus Tour

Starting June 12, I will be crisscrossing the country with 12 other college-age riders to honor Mo’s legacy by highlighting young public servants nationwide who are finding solutions to pressing environmental and Native American issues. In New York City, we"ll be looking at ecologically landscaped post-industrial sites; in New Orleans, we"ll be working with Replant New Orleans to restore soil health and the urban canopy; in Denver, our tour’s arrival is timed to coincide with the launch of an art show centered on the theme of sustainable transportation and urban planning. At each site, the initiatives we are highlighting are being moved forward by activists and advocates under the age of 30.

And each of the examples represents the fruit of projects pursued by Udall Scholars.

In honor of Mo’s legacy as an environmental leader, Congress established the Morris K. Udall Scholarship in 1992. Each year, the Udall Foundation awards 80 grants to college sophomores and juniors interested in environmental and Native American issues. Since 1996, the Foundation has awarded a total of $4.6 million in undergraduate educational grants to 916 scholarship recipients hailing from all 50 states. To mark the 10th anniversary of its educational programs, the Foundation kicked off a year-long celebration of public service which culminates with the summer’s Udall Legacy Bus Tour.

The bus tour, though, isn’t about Mo himself. It’s about spreading his belief that we can get out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into by showcasing those who are already doing it.

The world is rife with environmental problems and a daily drone of doom and gloom news. Yet alongside the problems, people are finding solutions. At the University of Vermont, the staff of the Tourism Data Center is launching a new "green coach" certification program that will encourage and recognize motor coach tour operators who reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by using alternatives fuels and purchasing carbon offsets. Lamoille Valley Transportation, the first group to become "green certified," will be fueling our bus with a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent ultra-low sulfur diesel. To make our tour carbon neutral, we"ll be purchasing carbon offsets from a variety of providers, including Native Energy which invests money in clean energy projects on tribal lands. And to help demonstrate both the viability and advantages of our fuel blend, we"ll be tracking our particle emissions straight off the tailpipe and posting the data on our website.

Far to the west, students and staff at both Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Reservation and the University of Montana in Missoula are, like numerous campuses nationwide, bringing local food back into their dining halls. And in Seattle, the EarthCorps program provides young public servants the training and support they need to implement environmental restoration all over the city. Individually, each project has a small impact. Collectively, they represent the larger movement of young people tackling issues of sustainability head-on.

Eli Zigas joins 12 college students on the bus tour to spread the message that "we can get out of the mess we"ve gotten ourselves into."© Eli Zigas

In many ways, these are some of the same issues that Mo himself tackled. In the mid-1970s, as Democratic Congressman Udall geared up for his presidential bid, he laid out his vision for a sustainable American environmental policy. Moving beyond the pessimistic and false dichotomy pitting job growth against environmental conservation, he envisioned an economic framework in which the two went hand-in-hand. As Udall said in a 1975 speech to the National Wildlife Federation,"[I]t seems to me that this is the central message of the environmental movement—that there are indeed limits to growth, to speed, to luxury. But those limits are not an indictment against all growth, against all science; it is not a call for a return to the rigid and uninteresting lifestyle of the Spartans or to the negative historicism of Malthus."

Although we still hear people today proclaim that environmentalism is antithetical to economic growth, there are young people across the country who disagree. Students in Montana who realize that you can support local agricultural jobs while reducing the amount of gasoline used to bring your food to the table. EarthCorps volunteers in Seattle who see from their work that restoring habitat for salmon can lead to more sustainable fisheries which provide sustainable jobs. And young artists in Boulder and Denver are illustrating a system for moving people and goods throughout the city, a plan that will spur new industries and new jobs.

America is full of young people who reject the idea that future sustainability necessarily entails the sacrifice of contemporary well-being. We will need to alter our habits, and we will need to alter our consumption, but neither change necessarily requires a lesser standard of living. As the Udall Legacy Bus Tour travels across the country, we will be highlighting scores of individuals, organizations, and communities who are demonstrating, at a local level, exactly how this is possible. We will be collecting examples that provide the basis for a growing optimism that we can indeed get out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

ELI ZIGAS is a 2004 Udall Scholar and one of the riders on the Udall Legacy Bus Tour.

CONTACT: The Udall Legacy Bus Tour and the Morris K. Udall