By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Some of the nation’s most powerful Democrats were in town last week attending the two-day Project New West Summit, but a movie star stole the show.
After a morning of speeches by politicos and prepared videos promoting the Democratic Party, Robert Redford took the stage at the Colorado History Museum to join U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., for a discussion of ecology, politics and the long journey from Tinsel Town to environmentalism.
An overflow crowd packed the room wall-to-wall for an hour as Redford spoke.
As they sat on stage in leather chairs, Redford and Udall held the audience enthralled as they pondered whether the West can be rescued before overdevelopment destroys its sweeping vistas.
“I think the new West should return to the old West, when there was an emphasis on communities, on families and neighbors,” Redford said. “It’s time to think about what kinds of development we want — whether we want to develop more communities, or subdivisions and sprawl.”
Redford is a well-known commodity in the Udall family. He has actively campaigned for both Sen. Tom Udall and Tom’s cousin Mark, Colorado’s senior U.S. senator. In addition, Redford has a close personal relationship with Tom Udall’s father, 89-year-old Stewart Udall, who served as secretary of the Interior Department under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson from 1961 to 1969.
While running the Department of the Interior, Stewart Udall helped create the Wilderness Act, which puts him among the elite group of visionaries who acted early to protect public lands. His work in the 1960s preserved 400 million acres of natural habitat in 44 states.
Redford and Stewart Udall met in 1970, when Redford asked Udall to lead his nonprofit Sundance-based Institute for Resource Management.
In speaking to the New West Project audience, Redford urged the continuation of Udall’s seminal efforts to protect the nation’s remaining untamed areas — particularly in the West.
“Dams, all dams, should go away — the faster the better,” Redford said. “The Colorado River today has only half the flow it used to have. Time and resources are running out for the West. Compromises are needed. I hope we wake up before we lose it for our children.”
Among the many topics of conversation between Udall and Redford was the need for coal-fired power plants in America. Coal powers most of the American West today.
Redford, a Utah resident, was adamant in his criticism of the industry and the pollution it emits.
“It’s a tough shot, because coal has been such a mainstay of American development for so long,” he said. “It’s pretty hard for some people to change, particularly someone who runs a coal plant or people who are dependent on coal for their own industry.
“On the other hand, you’ve got that argument against the future of our planet,” Redford noted.
Sen. Tom Udall said he was hopeful that research in coming years would lead to so-called clean coal technology — an industry feat that would revolutionize America’s energy production.
But, he added, if it isn’t possible, America should take note.
“If (clean coal can’t be verified), then we shouldn’t be building any other conventional coal-fired plants,” Udall said.
Redford was less than optimistic about the future of clean coal technology.
“My hunch — and it’s just a hunch — is that I doubt they’ll be able to prove that it can be clean,” he said.
After Redford’s hour on stage, a number of people came up to shake his hand. The 72-year-old actor spent the better part of five minutes meeting people, having his picture taken and talking politics.
“I’ve been a big fan of yours since you did ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’” one woman said.
Redford, wearing a worn pair of blue jeans, a button-down shirt and brown loafers, thanked her and shook her hand. After he moved on, the woman turned to the man next to her and blushed.
“He’s even better looking in person than on the screen,” she said. “What a treat this was.”