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Fighting for the Wild Places: The Life and Legacy of David Brower

Grand Canyon - View from Rim Trail east of Mather Point

This article was written to accompany "A Fierce Green Fire," a film included in our annual collection of environmental documentaries Earth Focus Presents.

A government agency begins the review of a monument in the American West, encouraged by Congressional representatives and business leaders looking to profit from the area. Journalists shine a light on the plans, examining the ruinous effects of the proposals. Environmentalists are so concerned by what they read in the press that they fight back, effectively ending the project. The year was 1952.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation proposed to create dams at the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. Even though the dams would have flooded a national preserve, some leaders in Congress and business interests supported the idea, seeing it as a way to secure water rights and bring tourist dollars to the area by creating reservoirs.

Dinosaur National Monument - downstream view of Outlaw Park
The Yampa River flows among spring greenery and around a slight bend as it flows along the face of a cliff in Outlaw Park at Dinosaur National Monument. | Jacob Frank/National Park Service/Public Domain

It should have been an easy sell, but they had not met the likes of the newly appointed executive director of the Sierra Club, the late David Brower. For years, Brower and the Sierra Club fought against the construction of the dams and, in 1956, Congress finally eliminated the project. Many historians see Brower’s early success as a turning point for the environmental movement, eventually leading to landmark protections such as the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Born in Berkeley, California in 1912, David Brower first came to prominence as a world-class mountain climber. It was through climbing that he became involved with environmental activism and conservation. After serving in World War II, Brower returned to Berkeley to work, editing the Sierra Club Bulletin and organizing the club’s “High Trips” wilderness excursions, mostly held in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Having been a mountaineer, hiker and restless explorer of the West, Brower was a conservationist who knew deeply of the lands he spoke of (in fact, at the end of his life, he lamented the influence corporate boards had on environmental work). But unlike the archetype of the unsophisticated, rugged loner in the wilderness, Brower was a widely read, highly intelligent raconteur who loved to invite a crowd to a restaurant and regal them with tales.

He had the voice for storytelling. In a mercurial profile for Outside Magazine, writer Daniel Coyle describes Brower’s voice as both “vigorous” and “intimate,” writing:

Brower begins each sentence in the tenor register and slides into a velvet baritone, looping melodies around themselves, hitting words with unexpected emphases so that the listener has the sense of hearing them for the first time.

From 1952 to 1969, Brower grew the membership of the Sierra Club tenfold, growing from 7,000 members to more than 70,000. His battles with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation fired up over dams again, as the Bureau looked to create two dams in Grand Canyon National Park, flooding large sections of the park. He teamed up with the late environmentalist and Los Angeles Times journalist Martin Litton, who wrote in opposition of the Dinosaur National Monument dams. The Sierra Club published ads opposing the Grand Canyon dams in major newspapers and galvanized the public against the project (Brower’s early work as a book editor gave him a valuable media savvy). In the shadow of the Sierra Club’s founder, writer and conservationist John Muir, Brower and his team became influential and strategic government lobbyists, wrangling Congress to get on board to focus on conservation issues.

The dam project was blocked and Brower won again, but all was not well at the Sierra Club. Wrangling over tax status with the Federal government led to a reduction in revenues and the Sierra Club’s board of directors clashed with Brower over the Club’s stance on nuclear power, among other issues (Brower was against it). The board was split on Brower’s leadership and in 1969, Brower was charged with bungling the Club’s finances, causing a split between Brower and one of his closest friends on the Board, photographer Ansel Adams.

David Brower
David Brower as seen in "A Fierce Green Fire,"   |  

After leaving the Sierra Club, Brower – an unstoppable workaholic – started the organizations Friends of the Earth and the Earth Island Institute respectively. He returned to the Sierra Club, as well, joining the board of directors during most of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Brower worked tirelessly on a wide variety of environmental and social justice issues until his death on Nov. 5, 2000. He was 88 years old.

David Brower
David Brower | Courtesy of Sierra Club

His legacy lives on at the David Brower Center, located in Berkeley, California. Open to the public, the center focuses on three major commitments: the arts and education, providing resident organizations a space to do their work, and maintaining a conference center that hosts more than 300 events every year, with the expectation that nonprofits and private businesses that use the center abide by the Brower Center green principles. Even the building itself is a testament to his innovative spirit. According to the Center’s website: "The base [of the building] is formed by awnings, arcades, and entrances for the various ground floor uses, while the middle of the building is defined by exposed structural columns and various light control devices. A projecting upper floor and sculpted awning structure that orients photovoltaic panels southward toward the sun delineates the building’s top."

According to Laurie Rich, the Center’s executive director, the Brower Center works to be “the home of the environmental movement.”

“Part of our recent work at the Brower Center has been to engage new generations of environmentalists,” she said. “David Brower believed greatly in the power of youth to further the movement.”

One of the center’s core programs is Art/Act: Youth, an annual exhibition and mentorship program that showcases the intersection of environmentalism and art, geared toward high school students. The program seeks to inspire and support young people by giving them the opportunity to learn, then educate the public on environmental issues.

“[The goal is] to build long-lasting relationships that will extend far beyond the Brower Center’s walls,” Rich said. “We want to have a significant impact on the lives that are changing the world.”

Top image: Summer storm clouds over the Grand Canyon. View from Rim Trail east of Mather Point. | W.Tyson Joye of Grand Canyon National Park/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Historic photos of Grand Canyon, circa 1935
Historic photo of the Grand Canyon, circa 1935. | Grand Canyon National Park/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

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