Mark Emery Udall (1950–) is a former US representative (1999–2008) and senator (2009–14) from Colorado. A member of the Democratic Party, Udall comes from a prominent political family in the American West. His father was former senator Morris Udall; his uncle was three-term congressman Stewart Lee Udall, and his brother is current New Mexico senator Tom Udall.
Like the rest of his family, Mark Udall has deep sympathies for the American West, and he is considered one of the most environment-friendly politicians in the region. He is known as a progressive but pragmatic politician who is open to compromise, as well as a staunch defender of public lands. One of his signature achievements as a senator came in 2015, when he helped spur President Barack Obama to create Browns Canyon National Monument in Chaffee County.
The Udall family roots run back to the Mormon occupation of Utah in the mid-nineteenth century. David King Udall, the family patriarch, was born in St. Louis to a family of English immigrants, and the family converted to Mormonism and moved to Utah in the early 1850s. David King Udall later served as a Republican in the Arizona Territorial legislature in 1899. The Udalls have been involved in regional politics ever since.
Mark Udall was born in Tucson, Arizona, on July 18, 1950, to Morris “Mo” King Udall and Patricia Emery. In 1961 his father was elected US senator from Arizona, and in 1976 he sought the Democratic presidential nomination. His mother was a Buddhist who struggled with arthritis but nonetheless became a pilot and flight instructor in Nepal, joining the Peace Corps in her fifties.
Udall spent his childhood in Arizona, where fishing, climbing, and kayaking excursions built a strong affinity for the landscapes and hardscrabble pragmatism of the American West. After graduating from Williams College in 1972, Udall moved to the Aspen area. Two years later, he worked as a field organizer in New Hampshire for his father’s presidential primary campaign. In 1975 he taught physical education for one semester at Antioch College in Ohio before returning to Colorado and joining the youth outdoors organization Outward Bound as an instructor.
Udall worked for Outward Bound for twenty years, eventually becoming the organization’s executive director in 1986. It was there that he met his future wife, environmentalist Maggie Fox. The two were married in 1982 and have two children, son Jedediah and daughter Tess.
Early Political Career
In 1997 Udall was elected to the Colorado legislature as representative of the state’s Thirteenth District, which includes the city of Longmont. One year later, he was elected to Congress as representative of Colorado’s Second district, which at the time included Boulder, Clear Creek, and Gilpin Counties, as well as parts of Adams and Jefferson Counties. He defeated Republican Boulder mayor Bob Greenlee by two percentage points.
As a US representative, Udall was one of fifty-eight members of Congress who opposed the Iraq War. He supported a variety of environmental and clean-energy policies, including a cap-and-trade agreement to limit carbon emissions and protecting the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) right to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. He has said that climate change “presents a major environmental challenge that requires an immediate response for our state and national government.”
Although a champion of progressive ideas, such as expanded early childhood education and protection of immigrant rights, Udall was known to work with his ideological opponents on a variety of issues, including mass transit and the environment. One such compromise created the James Peak Wilderness Area near Winter Park along Colorado’s Great Divide.
While in the US Senate, where he was narrowly elected over Republican Bob Schaffer in 2008, Udall served on the Armed Services and Energy and Natural Resources committees, as well as the Select Committee on Intelligence. Much of his time in the Senate was concerned with the typical western states issue of managing tensions between his constituents and the federal government. In 2013, for example, Udall ended a ten-year standoff between ranchers and the US Army in Las Animas County when he helped the former retain rights to land in Piñon Canyon. Overall, about 33 percent of Udall’s legislative involvement in both the House and Senate dealt with public lands and natural resources.
As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Udall helped investigate the George W. Bush administration’s torture program and was a vocal critic of federal surveillance activity under the Patriot Act. Udall also opposed President Barack Obama’s expansion of drone strikes. For his congressional career, Udall received a rating of 43 percent from the US Chamber of Commerce, a lukewarm but not terrible rating from the conservative-leaning institution. He earned higher ratings from liberal and environmental groups, such as the League of Conservation Voters (96 percent) and the American Civil Liberties Union (100 percent).
In 2013 Udall’s brother Randy died on a hiking trip, and his son Jed was arrested for auto burglary and heroin possession. These incidents adversely affected Udall’s ability to campaign the following year. In 2014 he lost his Senate seat to Republican challenger Cory Gardner by two percentage points. It was the first time in thirty-six years that an incumbent senator from Colorado was defeated.
At the time of Udall’s defeat, the senator had been making progress on legislation to create Browns Canyon National Monument, which would encompass nearly 22,000 acres of scenic and ecologically important canyonland along the Arkansas River in central Colorado. Udall’s bill was approved by a Senate subcommittee, but Udall feared that newly elected Republican Senators would kill the bill. Before he left office, Udall and fellow Colorado senator Michael Bennet sent a joint letter to President Obama, urging him to use his powers under the 1906 Antiquities Act to create the national monument. Obama proclaimed the monument on February 19, 2015.
In his farewell address to the Senate in 2014, Udall said he has always been “guided by the rugged independence, strength, and cooperative spirit that defines who we are as Coloradans and westerners.” Udall subsequently retired from national politics and moved back to Eldorado Springs, Colorado.
While Udall has quietly continued to advocate for the issues he worked on as senator, he has made few public appearances in his postpolitical life. He has also avoided for-profit work, telling the Colorado Independent in 2019, “My parents raised me to never look at public service as something you go on to monetize.”
Udall keeps busy climbing Colorado Fourteeners and going on other outdoor expeditions. In 2015 he and his wife, Maggie Fox, hiked some 400 miles from Bears Ears National Monument through the Navajo Nation to Lees Ferry, Arizona. Udall said the hike, which compelled him and his wife to go long distances without access to water in a drought-stricken region, made him more viscerally aware of the effects of climate change in the US Southwest.
Even though he has traded legislating and fundraising for hiking and climbing, Udall has not remained completely detached from politics and the issues that motivated him in public service. He serves on the boards of the Grand Canyon Trust, Council for a Livable World, and former US representative Gabrielle Giffords’s gun-control Political Action Committee.