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

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org