David Brower Dies At 88
Militant visionary inspired a generation to save the Earth
by Eric Brazil
David R. Brower, who inspired and led the American environmental movement during the last half of the 20th century, died of cancer Sunday at his home in Berkeley. He was 88.
Monuments to Brower's militant and creative drive to preserve Earth's remaining wilderness areas abound.
They include nine national parks and seashores, a Grand Canyon free of dams, the Wilderness Act and a generation of environmental activists around the world for whom he was a mentor and role model.
Brower, an energetic, resourceful man with a magnetic personality and a flair for publicity, was responsible, more than any other individual or institution, for putting the environment on the American agenda.
He was also the catalyst for transforming the Sierra Club from a genteel group of affluent, nonpolitical hikers into an major player on national environmental issues.
His living legacy also includes Friends of the Earth, the California League of Conservation Voters and Earth Island Institute and the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment.
Jay Watson, western regional director of The Wilderness Society, said "America and the American wilderness wold be a very different place today without David Brower. There would be less wilderness, more dams on our wild rivers and fewer people to care about our environment and willing to work to make a difference."
David Phillips, executive director of Earth Island Institute, who worked with Brower for 25 years, called him "the greatest environmentalist that our time has ever seen." He added, "He really was a latter-day John Muir. He never lost his ability to see the cutting edge of environmental protection, and even at 88 he had a mind that was young and alive."
Brower, called "the most effective single person on the cutting edge of conservation in this country" by former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, was born and reared in Berkeley and stamped with singular individualism from his youth.
"Brower is a visionary. He wants literally to save the world. He has been an emotionalist in an age of dangerous reason," wrote John McPhee in his 1971 study of Brower, "Encounters with the Archdruid."
"He thinks that conservation should be 'an ethic and conscience in everything we do, whatever our field of endeavor' in a word, a religion," McPhee wrote.
As an infant, Brower lost several baby teeth in a fall from his carriage, and he was 11 years old before a second set of teeth grew from his damaged gums. He told McPhee that he was known as "the toothless boob" as a boy and grew up painfully shy, afraid to smile, as a consequence.
When Brower was eight years old, his mother lost her sight, and he began taking her on walks around Grizzly Peak and Strawberry Canyon in the Berkeley Hills. "Looking for someone else may have sharpened my appreciation of the beauty in natural things," he once told an interviewer.
As a young man, Brower developed a keen interest in butterflies and became an expert lepidopterist. It was while watching butterflies emerge from their chrysalises that he learned an abiding lesson about wild nature: Don't interfere.
Noticing the butterflies' struggle to emerge, Brower "lent a helping hand" by widening the split in the chrysalis to facilitate their emergence. That well-intentioned interference prevented the flow of fluid from abdomen to wings, which "stayed shriveled, and the poor things began running around helplessly until they died," Brower wrote in his autobiography. "Freeing them, I had denied them their freedom."
Although he was laden with honorary doctorates and became a masterful editor, Brower never did graduate from college. He attended UC-Berkeley for two years after his graduation at 16 from Berkeley High School.
It was in 1933, during a long backpacking trip through the Sierra Nevada, that Brower found his true vocation as a mountaineer and all-around wilderness man. He also joined the Sierra Club.
Two years later, having lost his job as a candy factory clerk because he often returned late from wilderness trips, he was hired by Yosemite National Park, first in its accounting department, then as publicity manager, where he fine-tuned a natural talent for promotion.
Brower held that job for six years, during which he made some 70 first ascents of Sierra Nevada peaks. In 1939, at age 27, he led the first expedition to ascend Shiprock on the Navajo Reservation, a perilous, exposed climb which required intricate route finding. It became a landmark of American climbing annals.
During World War II, Brower's exceptional mountaineering and climbing skills were put to use by the Army, first as an instructor training American troops in the Rockies, then in combat with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy, where he won a bronze star.
Brower, first elected to the Sierra Club's board of directors in 1941, was made its executive director in 1952.
Under his leadership, the club's membership grew from 7,000 to 70,000, and it began waging big-ticket environmental campaigns against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In the defining battle of Brower's career, he faced off against U.S. Bureau of Reclamation chief Floyd Dominy and Rep. Wayne Aspinall, D-Colo., chairman of the House Interior Committee, the nation's two most powerful water politicians. At issue was whether the bureau should be allowed to build four Colorado River system dams in Dinosaur National Monument and in the Grand Canyon.
With most of the nation's water development establishment arrayed against him, Brower prevailed. Just one of the dams was built in Glen Canyon. He employed the full range of his public relations and promotional skills to marshal public opinion, including multimedia advertising and the publication of an "exhibition format" coffee table book of dazzling photographic quality on the areas to be dammed.
At the showdown in Congress in 1954, he out-talked and outsmarted his adversaries with bravura performances during crucial committee hearings.
"The axiom for protecting the park system is to consider that it is dedicated country, hallowed ground to leave as beautiful as we have found it, and not country in which man should be so impressed with himself that he tries to improve God's handiwork," Brower lectured a skeptical House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs.
Then, using simple arithmetic, Brower proved that Bureau of Reclamation Engineers had badly miscalculated and overstated the amount of water that the dam projects would conserve.
Thereupon followed this celebrated exchange between Brower and Rep. Wayne Aspinall, D-Colorado, who chaired the committee:
Aspinall: "And you are a layman and you are making that charge against the engineers of the Bureau of Reclamation?"
Brower: "I am a man who has gone through ninth grade and learned his arithmetic: I do not know engineering. I have only taken (the engineer's) own figures, which he used and calculated in error to justify invading Dinosaur National Monument."
Dominy, Bureau of Reclamation Director, a forceful, domineering man unaccustomed to losing fights, never forgave Brower for his use of hyperbole in arguing against the dams. Brower accused Dominy of wanting to turn the Grand Canyon into a bathtub.
"I can't talk to Brower because he's so God-damned ridiculous," McPhee quotes Dominy as saying in "Conversations With the Archdruid." "I can't even reason with the man."
Said Aspinall of the Sierra Club: "No group in the country has had more power in the last eight years." In large part because of Brower's furious and effective activism, the Sierra Club lost its tax-exempt status in 1969.
That same year, the Sierra Club Board of Directors, which included several of Brower's oldest and best friends including the late, great photographer Ansel Adams forced Brower to resign. They felt he had grown too big for his britches and overreached by committing the club to positions that the board had never taken and was financially irresponsible to boot.
Unrepentant, Brower went on to found Friends of the Earth later that year, and when its leadership, too, ousted him a decade later, he founded Earth Island Institute in 1982.
In 1999, Brower made a bid for the Sierra Club presidency, contending that the organization's board of directors had become preoccupied with procedure and had turned aside from its environmental activist mission. Incumbent president Chuck McGrady had the votes, though, and Brower retired from the contest without forcing the issue. "I wear a pacemaker, and sometimes I like to be a peacemaker," he said.
A strapping, handsome six-footer, with silver hair, a ruddy complexion, an athlete's stride, a fondness for the spotlight and immense charm when it focused on him Brower was a popular public speaker, particularly on college campuses.
"To put it mildly, there is something evangelical about Brower," McPhee wrote. "His approach is in some ways analogous to the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham's exhortations to sinners to come forward and be saved now because if you go away without making a decision for Christ, coronary thrombosis may level you before you reach the exit."
Brower liked to drill in his point about man's place in the scheme of things in what became known as "The Sermon," a feature of which was his version of the six days of creation.
It went this way: "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 starts 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 fortieth of a second before midnight, the Industrial Revolution. A hundredth 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."
In addition to his two-volume autobiography and the 19 Sierra Club books he edited, Brower also co-authored the 1995 book "Let the Mountains Talk, Let the River Run," with Steve Chapple. It is a book about making the world a better, greener place, printed on paper that didn't cause the cutting or pulping of a single tree. Kenaf paper is made from the fibers of a plant of the hibiscus family, which thrives in the American South and Southwest.
Brower is survived by his wife, Anne, daughter, Barbara of Portland and sons Ken of Oakland and John and Robert of Berkeley and three grandchildren.
Funeral services are pending.
Copyright 2000 SF Examiner