David Brower: Remembering the Archdruid

  • Intrepid: David Brower climbing in California's PinnaclesNational Monument in 1934.

    Earth Island Institute
 

I was 20 years old and an undergraduate wildlife biology student when I first heard David R. Brower deliver "The Sermon" at the University of Colorado. I had come to Boulder to hear the famous Archdruid, whom I had only known through Sierra Club books and magazine articles before. I knew him by reputation as the man who led the fight to stop the dams in the Grand Canyon. I knew I had to meet this latter-day John Muir.

The sermon was Brower's version of the six days of creation. It captivated my imagination. Here's how John McPhee summarized "The Sermon" in his 1971 book Encounters With the Archdruid: "The Earth is created Sunday midnight. Life appears Tuesday noon. At four in the afternoon Saturday the great reptiles appear; at nine in the evening they're finished. Four minutes before midnight something like us begins to appear. One and a half seconds before midnight we invent agriculture. A third of a second before midnight, Buddha. A third of a second, Christ. A 40th of a second before midnight, the Industrial Revolution. A 100th of a second, Ross and Mary Grace Brower discover David Brower. In less than his lifetime, the population of the Earth trebles and the appetite for resources quadruples. Since then, we've used up more resources than were used in all previous history."

And now David Brower's too-brief, remarkable lifetime is over. While they lasted less than the blink of an eye in Brower's Earth timeline, the 88 years that he spent on this planet are truly inspirational. His lifetime environmental accomplishments read like the resume of six or eight top environmental advocates - not that of a single man.

Yet he would be the first to say that "all I did was to slow the rate at which things are getting worse." No matter what had been accomplished, there was always more to do, new battles to engage, new initiatives to launch. Up until the very end, Brower was hatching new schemes. His son, Ken, reported that when his father was hospitalized a week ago and was asked if he wanted the doctors to employ extraordinary methods to extend his life, "he replied, "Yes, do anything you can.' I think there was still a lot more he needed to do to protect the Earth."

Brower had a remarkable climbing career as a youth, making 70 first ascents in the Sierra Nevada, the Southwest and Canada. In World War II he wrote a mountaineering manual and was in the famed 10th Mountain Division in Italy, where he earned a bronze star. Brower was the Sierra Club's first executive director, serving between 1952 and 1969. During that period he transformed the Club from a small California outdoor organization to a large national environmental lobby that successfully stopped dams in Dinosaur National Monument, helped enact the Wilderness Act and, most notably, led the national campaign to keep dams out of the Grand Canyon.

In full-page New York Times ads, Brower chastised the Bureau of Reclamation dam-building scheme for the Grand Canyon as the equivalent of flooding the Sistine Chapel. Using his ninth-grade arithmetic skills - Brower never completed college - he successfully challenged top economists in congressional hearings. In the end, the dams were stopped, and angry Southwest politicians reacted bitterly by lobbying the Internal Revenue Service to revoke the Sierra Club's tax-exempt status.

I think losing the Club's tax-exempt status was the greatest gift Brower could give to the Sierra Club. No longer hampered by concerns about being too political, the Club was freed to exercise and build up its political muscle. It ventured where other charitable environmental groups feared to tread - growing a formidable lobbying presence in Washington, D.C., and the state capitals and creating a political action committee to get involved in local, state and federal elections.

Into a movement that at times seems confined by scientific data and cold, hard facts, Brower would regularly mix humor, passion, guilt, hyperbole, inspirational stories and clever turns of phrase. His moralistic positioning would exasperate his foes. He was renowned for arguing against compromise - especially among his friends and colleagues. Our role is to stake out the high ground, he would lecture his colleagues, and let the politicians cut the deals.

"Thank God for Dave Brower," said Nixon's Council on Environmental Quality chairman Russell Train, "he makes it so easy for the rest of us to be reasonable." Dave Brower's fights with the Club were legendary, but they happened partly because he loved the Club so dearly, and this is hard for outsiders to understand. He was difficult to deal with at times because he was so dogmatic and so determined. But those same qualities are what enabled him to win the battles that he waged with exploiters.

David Brower's impact was felt far beyond the Sierra Club. He founded Friends of the Earth after leaving the Club, and helped found the national League of Conservation Voters and the California League of Conservation Voters. He also founded Earth Island Institute, and promoted a "blue-green" coalition called the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, and co-founded the Ecological Council of Americas as a network of organizations in the Americas focused on problems of environment and economic integration. No environmental problem was too large or too remote to draw his attention and his passion.

His biggest dreams were to undo two failures: John Muir's failure to stop Hetch Hetchy Dam in Yosemite National Park, and his own failure to stop Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. In his final years he sought to build campaigns to drain both reservoirs and restore the forgotten wilderness that has been inundated all these years.

Brower's life can best be summed up by the Goethe quote that he would recite at the closing of every public speech I ever heard him make: "Anything you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it." We will all miss the magic and the boldness that David Brower brought to our lives and our movement.

Brower is survived by his wife, Anne Brower; his four children: Kenneth Brower, Robert Brower, Barbara Brower, and John Brower; and his three grandchildren: Anne Katherine Olsen, Rosemary Olsen, and David C. Brower.

Bruce Hamilton is conservation director of the Sierra Club and was an editor at High Country News from 1973 to 1977. He lives in Berkeley, California.

Copyright 2000 HCN and Bruce Hamilton

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