By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Some of Brower’s most famous battles were chronicled by John McPhee in Encounters With the Archdruid, a book Werbach read in high school and was so moved by that he wrote Brower a letter. Brower wrote back, advising young Adam to heed Walt Whitman’s credo: "Resist much, obey little."
At the Sierra Club, however, that stance ended up getting Brower fired. Even those who admired him complained of his inflexibility, saying, "He heard no one but himself." Upon leaving, Brower formed Friends of the Earth, but ended up getting fired there, too. He then created the forward-thinking Earth Island Institute, which has, among other things, crusaded to save Lake Baikal in Siberia, the world’s oldest, deepest lake.
Through it all, Brower maintained his membership in the Sierra Club. In 1983, having decided that the best way to fix the club was to help run it, he won election to the board. Now 85, he remains active, despite having suffered a stroke two years ago. His demeanor a mix of gentility and puckishness, Brower purposely maintains a vexing presence on the board. "I think the club needs to move in a different direction," he says.
In Brower’s view, the club careened off course in the 1980s, when movement leaders were busy basking in the accomplishments of the previous decade. During the 1970s, 23 major federal environmental acts had been signed into law, the Clean Air and Endangered Species acts among them, and environmentalists were so thrilled to have won a seat at the lobbying table that they began bargaining away their most basic beliefs. A year after Reagan’s election, the Sierra Club hired as its executive director a Republican who was a former Nixon appointee. Not long after, it backed a pro-logging timber-industry initiative. "The club is so eager to appear reasonable that it goes soft," Brower wrote in a widely distributed letter to the club’s conservation director in 1989. He compared the camaraderie environmentalists were cultivating with politicians and businesspeople to "a union between Bambi and Godzilla."
To Brower, it was clearly a time for change. In early 1996, when Adam Werbach stood before the board and declared that the club was out of touch, that he held the key to the next generation, to the club’s very survival, Brower was impressed.
He remembers first meeting Werbach during the formation of the Student Coalition and observing his quick ascension to the board. While still in high school, Werbach had single-handedly created a youth wing of the club. By the time he graduated from Brown, with a degree in modern culture and media, the boy from the Valley had nursed the Sierra Club Student Coalition into a vital body 30,000 members strong. "I admire his boldness," says Brower. "He has the confidence to speak well and take on a subject and talk about it."
Brower also knew that it was high time for new blood. "The average age of a Sierra Club member was going up one year each year," he says. "So I was totally delighted when Adam came along." Brower took young Werbach under his wing and, in a hotly contested race for the club presidency, led his candidate to an 8-7 victory.
The next day, papers nationwide carried the story, along with a photo of Werbach and Brower together at Yosemite. It was a shot that Werbach had arranged the week before, picturing what he hoped people would view as the former and future champions of the movement, side by side.
At the time of Wer bach’s election, he was the only board member under 40 in a 550,000-member organization that was largely white, affluent and aging. Publicly, his ascendance was presented as a major moment in the club, a recognition of the need to change or risk falling into ir recoverable irrelevance ("He’s Young, He’s Hip, He’s Your President," ran the headline in the Planet, the Sierra Club’s in-house newspaper).
Privately, many longtime members bristled. It’s one thing to get a bunch of bored, idealistic kids to run around dorms drumming up support to save the Earth. Transforming a major environmental organization is quite another. "You could easily combine my generation and [Werbach’s] generation and end up with the worst of both," says Carl Pope, the club’s 51-year-old executive director. "I hope that doesn’t happen."
During his presidential tenure, Werbach does seem to have made some headway against the doldrums that have plagued the mainstream environmental movement for the past several years. Under his leadership the club has shifted 80 percent of the money it once spent on direct lobbying to grassroots work, hiring 50 new community organizers across the country. It has helped prevent the damming of the American River, preserve 1.7 million acres of Utah wilderness and secure funding for the restoration of Yosemite Valley. In 1996, after the club spent $7.5 million on TV ads and community campaigns targeting 18 anti-environmental members of Congress, 14 were defeated.
But above all else, there is one change to which Werbach can indisputably lay claim. Since he took office, the average age of Sierra Club members has dropped a decade, to 37. In a memo presenting the results of a readership survey of Sierra, the in-house magazine sent to all members, Bruce Hamilton, the club’s conservation director, refers to "the new, youthful image of the club represented by Adam." When selling ads for the magazine, Hamilton writes, "The sales team uses the ‘Adam Factor’ in every presentation."