Wilderness, Wiretapping And War—Oh My!

An Interview With Rep. Tom Udall

Christie Chisholm
13 min read
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Tom Udall’s been around the block a few times. Starting his nearly 30-year political career in New Mexico in 1978, he climbed the proverbial ladder as quickly as any aspiring politico possibly can. It started with an appointment as the assistant United Stated attorney for our state, followed by two terms as attorney general. In 1999, he landed himself a spot in the U.S. Congress, where he has remained ever since. This November, he plans on holding onto that seat.

Earlier this month, our Northern New Mexico representative found some time to come by the office and sit down with Marisa Demarco, Amy Dalness and myself to talk about the state of the state, the U.S. and the world. What with rising gas prices, a war and a “conflict” in the Middle East, a Supreme Court ruling declaring our government out-of-line, and all this uncanny rain, there was a lot on the table.

Let’s start by talking about what’s happening with Valle Vidal. You’re the author of the Valle Vidal Protection Act, which was passed in the House last month.

One of the most powerful things about the Valle Vidal is that an oil company, Pennzoil, owned the land for a number of years and in 1982 gifted it to the United States. They never drilled it. They used it for a retreat for executives. In one part, they had a substantial area where people would go out and fish and hunt. So they thought it was a great resource and they chose not to drill it and donated it to the United States. I think what my bill does in terms of protecting the Valle Vidal is focus on the true meaning of their gift in [protecting] it from drilling.

The real issue is if you want to permanently protect the land—only Congress can do that and can only do it by a piece of legislation. So we’re trying to focus our effort so that by the end of the year we get the bill passed.

Valle Vidal has been a hotly contested area for some time. Why has this been such an important issue for you?

Well, Valle Vidal has a very significant ecosystem. It’s got one of the largest, if not
the largest, elk herds in New Mexico. Its trout streams are just full of fish. One of the ways to measure trout streams is the number of fish [present in the stream] per mile, and in that area the ratio is one of the highest in the Southwest, so it’s pretty special.

We also have this very broad coalition of people who want to protect the area. You have groups you would maybe call the “hook-and-bullet club,” people who like to hunt and fish. Then you have the Philmont Scout Ranch, which is an operation that has been set up there for a number of years. They’ve sent 3,000 young scouts up into the Valle Vidal. They have a waiting list of 35,000. This is the premier wilderness area if you’re a boy scout and you want to go someplace. So that’s why the coalition was so broad, and I think that’s why we were so successful in pushing this through. You have the Boy Scout groups, you have the hook and bullet club, you have recreationalists, you have others that just like the solitude and peacefulness of Valle Vidal. And the ranchers are supportive of this.

Jim O’Donnell, who’s been the coalition director, has done a marvelous job at every point, expanding the coalition. I think almost every county in the city and surrounding areas has passed a resolution supporting permanent protection for the Valle Vidal.

Are there other areas of New Mexico you’d like to see congressional protection for?

One of the big projects in New Mexico is preserving land from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that’s been designated as potential wilderness areas. There are 900,000 of those acres in the state, but wilderness groups think they have found 2.4 million acres (including the 900,000) that should be saved. So we have to make the decision: Should some of them be designated wilderness? Should some of them be released? Because of their designation, they’re in wilderness study right now, they’re protected. One of those I’ve toured and spent time in is the Sabinoso wilderness. In fact, a couple months ago, I took a horseback ride with some BLM officials into that area. That’s probably going to be on our priority list for next year.

On another topic, what’s happening in the country right now with regard to wiretapping?

The crux of the whole situation is that we looked at this once before. Basically, there’s a 1978 law that says if you’re going to do this kind of surveillance, you have to go to the FISA Court. There’s no doubt about that. Now the excuses we’re hearing from the Republican majority are things like, “Oh, well, this is an old law and it’s out of date.” I don’t buy that at all. There’s the idea that we need to update it because of technology, but I don’t buy that either.

The proposals that come up are going to say, “Let’s authorize the program and say it’s OK, and then send it to the court and then have the court rule whether it’s a good program or not.” That completely misses the point. This is a secret court. If you’re going to have any court rule on whether this is valid, it shouldn’t be a secret court set up to do surveillance. It should be a regular federal court and follow up should be through the appeals process.

The one big, courageous step by the other branch of government was the Guantanamo ruling by the Supreme Court. Finally, we’re getting to the point where the strongest branch of government, the executive, is out there pushing and asking for more and more power—the president is doing signing statements and all these kind of things—and we have the Supreme Court saying it’s gone too far.

Is there a way for Congress to come together to ask questions of the NSA? For instance, to find out how it operates?

Sure, no doubt about it. Congress is set up in every area to do oversight. And what oversight means is that you can call government officials. Sometimes people forget what oversight is all about. Oversight is government officials in the executive branch coming before Congress under sworn oath to tell the truth. You get to ask them any question.

We haven’t seen that robust kind of oversight from this Congress. In fact, it’s really been a rubberstamp Congress in many ways. You see the president asserting more authority in all these areas—in Guantanamo, talking about how you can hold enemy combatants and they don’t have any due process, they don’t have any rights, and that we’re just going to hold them forever. The Supreme Court said, “No, you can’t do that. They’re entitled to a lawyer, they’re entitled to rights.” They have these signing statements, where the president says, “Well, I’m not going to enforce this law.” In all these areas, you see the executive pushing out.

My reading of it is that the American people are now fed up. When 57 percent of the American people are saying they want a check on George Bush and his administration, and they want a Democratic Congress. It obviously goes further than the issues we’ve been talking about: the Iraq example, what’s happening in Afghanistan, and some of the other international policies that are very unpopular.

Do you think Congress would revisit the Patriot Act and would try to get an expiration date?

Under this Congress, I doubt it. You might get a hearing or two. But I don’t think our constitutional rights can be that easily brushed aside. My guess is that if we get a mostly Democratic Congress, or one branch or another (Senate or House) we will start having hearings and start educating the American public about what the issues are.

I think people understand that these sneak-and-peak searches can be executed on anyone, and that they’re secret and that the government can go into a person’s home and not even tell them and make an argument that it’s a national security issue. They’ll never know that someone’s been in their house and taken things, or downloaded things, and copied things and then left. I think there will be a human cry to say we’ve gone too far. Generally, we’ve had a history in this country, and probably most societies have, that in wartime situations we go too far on security. You’ve got Lincoln and habeas corpus during the Civil War, and you’ve got the actions taken against war protestors during World War I, and the internment of the Japanese, all those kinds of things. This is also one of those overreactions, in my opinion.

Speaking of war, I’d like to talk to you about Lebanon and Israel. A lot of people have been saying the United States should stop supporting Israel monetarily. State Rep. Miguel Garcia sent a letter a few weeks ago to the governor saying New Mexico should cancel its contract with the trade office in Israel. What’s your position on all of that?

Clearly, we are always supportive of Israel’s right to support herself. That’s just part of our foreign policy. Getting to the situation we have right now, I think we should have an agreement on the part of all sides to stop the hostility. I think this administration has been so disengaged over there. What we’re seeing is the fruits of a failed foreign policy in the area. We call for democracy, but then there are these radical Islamic fundamentalists who get elected in a democratic situation. It’s very problematic. I don’t know that they thought it all out.

We’ve made it through things like this in the past. I think there needs to be a big effort on the part of the president to have a team over there on the ground trying to deal with this situation. The best team I can think of is the three presidents in our history that have made significant progress in moving the Middle East toward peace: Jimmy Carter, Papa Bush and Bill Clinton. Those former three presidents have the ability to go into a situation, cut through all the conflict and the problems and try to pull the chestnuts out of the fire and get things moving in the right direction.

So you don’t think it’s so much a matter of no longer funding Israel, but just using diplomacy?

Well, I think it’s a matter of really, truly using all of our diplomatic tools. I don’t think we’re doing that right now. One of the things we’ve seen with this administration is that it seems like the solution, many times, is the military. You’re even getting the military people speaking up saying the military option is a blunt, last-resort option and that you have all these other tools in your toolbox, especially the diplomatic tools, that you should be working with before you get to a military option. So that’s really a failure on their part, and we’re seeing these failures of the Bush foreign policy come back and haunt us.

What happened in Iraq, in my opinion, was that Saddam Huessin was contained. It may not have been a good situation for his people in terms of how he was treating them, but there weren’t weapons of mass destruction, there wasn’t a threat. I think if we had sustained diplomacy, we could have kept the weapons inspectors in there and had an agreement. That situation would have been contained. We wouldn’t now be in the situation where we’re going to spend, most estimates are, $1 trillion on the war between Afghanistan and Iraq. What have we gotten for it? I don’t think a lot. And you may have a lot more discord in the region.

To shift topics, let’s talk about global warming; I know that’s an issue you’ve been really involved in.

Sure, thank you for bringing that up. I think the big issue facing the younger generation is going to be energy: Where we will get our energy and how we move to a new energy economy. It’s clear that human society on the planet has grown to the point where we are now using so much in the way of fossil fuels that it’s impacting the planet and the climate. And we’re looking at long-term solutions here. There are quick, easy things we can do to start us down that path.

I’m cosponsoring a global warming bill that caps CO 2 emissions. One-hundred and fifty-five countries around the world have already agreed to cap emissions, so we’re joining late. We cap emissions, we put a price on carbon dioxide emissions, and that would be the first time the U.S. has ever done something like that. As it gets more expensive, you’re basically trying to get business to be ingenious and creative and innovative and think of solutions that are out there.

The three big areas producing global warming emissions are transportation, the generation of electric power and all of our buildings. In the transportation sector, we could double the fuel efficiency of automobiles today. We have the technology. We can do it. We don’t have the political will.

Electric power is also a major emitter. We know we can make renewable energy. New Mexico’s been a model. We have geothermal, we have biomass, we have solar. In terms of buildings, there’s this architect up in Santa Fe named Ed Mazria [who’s been instrumental in green building]. He says 50 percent of our [CO 2] emission problems come from our buildings. He says, and I think he knows as an architect, that today we have the materials and the systems to cover that 50 percent—today. I think we can start making a difference. Put a cap and trade system in place and try and move down the road to having less of a carbon footprint on the planet; point ourselves in a new energy direction.

To contact the author, e-mail christie@alibi.com.

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