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Sierra Magazine

By Joan Hamilton

Environmental hero David Brower died of cancer last November at 88. Brower joined the Sierra Club in 1933, and served as its executive director from 1952 to 1969. As author John McPhee wrote in his popular 1971 profile, Encounters With the Archdruid, Brower was the Sierra Club's "leader, its principal strategist, its preeminent fang." He lit a fire under what was then a serene hiking club and later sparked the first flames of other influential organizations, such as the League of Conservation Voters, Friends of the Earth, and Earth Island Institute.

He helped pass the Wilderness Act and halt construction of a dam in Dinosaur National Monument. He also helped win protection for Kings Canyon, North Cascades, and Redwood National Parks, along with Point Reyes and Cape Cod National Seashores. In the article at right, McPhee reflects on the year he spent traveling with Brower in the late 1960s while researching the book that helped bring Brower to national prominence.

A man of multiple talents, Brower was a master of persuasion. He convinced several generations of idealistic youth, through speeches, images, and the printed word, that saving the earth was an urgent spiritual matter. Legions of young people donned backpacks and headed for the Sierra Nevada after reading On the Loose, a 1967 Sierra Club book Brower published about two brothers coming of age in the wilderness. Thousands more were converted by the stunning details of his nature calendars and big pictorial books. (Both were forms of public persuasion he invented and perfected.)

Millions witnessed his successful crusade to keep dams out of the Grand Canyon, when he famously asked in a New York Times ad, "Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?" And many were captivated by seeing him in person and hearing his "sermon," in which he'd wave a photo of our planet and say, "This is the sudden insight from Apollo. There it is. That's all there is. We see through the eyes of the astronauts how fragile our life is, how thin is the epithelium of the atmosphere."

Tom Turner, who now works for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in San Francisco, was hired by Brower shortly after college, in 1968. "He brought me into the movement on impulse as he so often did with people, hiring me to edit a book-something I had no training for," Turner says. "I stayed on as his assistant, then moved to Friends of the Earth, where he made me editor of its journal, Not Man Apart. I learned how to write from him, and how to edit, how to listen, how to ask questions. He always encouraged people to pursue what interested them and what they were good at. He asked the world of you, but never asked anyone to do something he wouldn't do (and be able to do better) himself."

Brower's biggest regret was the damming of Glen Canyon in Arizona. "Glen Canyon died, and I was partly responsible for its needless death," he wrote in The Place No One Knew, a Sierra Club book published in 1963. He said he wore "sackcloth and ashes" for years, convinced that he could have saved Glen Canyon had he worked hard enough on its behalf. In recent years though, he took a new tack, proposing that the Bureau of Reclamation drain the water from behind the dam.

"The fact is, Glen Canyon is still there," he wrote in the March/April 1997 issue of Sierra. "With that thought in mind, I've turned from regret to restoration." In his frequent public appearances, Brower began to advocate a three-pronged approach to environmental activism-something he called Global CPR-conservation, preservation, and restoration. He would no doubt have thoroughly enjoyed what his son Kenneth wrote on the topic for this issue of Sierra (Leopold's Gift).

By the end of the century, Brower was a cultural icon. He'd written three autobiographies, been profiled by dozens of magazines, and been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. Among his many awards was the international Blue Planet Prize in 1998, for his contributions to solving global environmental problems. He doggedly ignored his failing health, taking his environmental gospel to acolytes around the country.

"There's a big constituency out there of people who like to eat, who like to breathe," he told the E. F. Schumacher Society at a meeting in 1992. "We've got to organize this group." In October his doctors told him he was dying and asked if he wanted them to intervene to prolong his life. Brower said, "Hook me up to everything. I've got a lot of work to do."


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