It was reported that the day before David Brower died, the father of the modern American conservation movement punched his absentee ballot for Ralph Nader. Through nearly six decades of activism, Brower never once relaxed his militancy. He wasn‘t one to cut his conscience to accommodate the needs of power. Though he lay dying, he wasn’t about to yield.
Brower‘s uncompromising radicalism was shaped, paradoxically, by his greatest victory. In 1956, he stopped a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation plan to build four dams along the Colorado River and, as he famously remarked, turn America’s Sistine Chapel, the Grand Canyon, into a bathtub. As part of a compromise to keep the system of dams from flooding Utah‘s Dinosaur National Monument, Brower signed off on Glen Canyon Dam, his ”greatest mistake, greatest sin.“ He spent the rest of his life opposed to environmental trade-offs.
His credo was ”Without wildness the world is a cage.“ As the first executive director of the Sierra Club, he took John Muir’s group of 2,000 genteel mountaineers and made it into a potent, 77,000-member champion of conservation. He was responsible for passage of the Wilderness Act, which is all that stands between deforestation and wildcatting across millions of acres of pristine federal land. He fought, often alone, to set aside the North Cascades in Washington, Kings Canyon in California, the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, the Allagash Wilderness in Maine, and the Everglades in Florida.
Brower‘s impassioned, feisty opposition to nuclear power — years ahead of its time — turned his more timid friends in the Club against him. In 1969, the board ousted him. Undaunted, he founded Friends of the Earth and made the arms race a Green issue. Tossed out of FOE, in 1982 he opened Earth Island Institute.
There, in his last incarnation as a conservationist, he again redefined and broadened the movement. Pledged to ”a minimum of bureaucracy,“ Brower’s umbrella organization incubated direct action. On his agenda when he died: sustainable agriculture and urban decay, abiding problems that Brower helped bring into the realm of environmentalism.
By 1939, at age 27, Brower had made many of his nearly 70 ascents of Sierra Nevada peaks. He had been a shy, quite literally toothless youngster, and the Sierra treks toughened him physically and imbued him with a pre-emptive, at times intolerant, temperament. He was angry, indignant, at mankind‘s destruction of his only homestead. The uninhabited wilds, especially those throughout the West that Brower knew intimately, were the wellspring of his political identity. He was untamed, like the landscapes he fought to preserve.
Because he’d won several monumental congressional victories, when meeting Brower one expected to encounter a man either brimming with the details of this or that fight or a lofty, self-possessed don. Brower was neither. He was craggy, irreverent, mildly profane. He wanted a drink. And he had no time for detumescent environmentalists. I remember him saying, offhandedly, as if it should be obvious to anyone worried about the fate of the Earth — this was during the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro — that too many ”so-called environmentalists have never hiked the Sierras.
“They‘re risk-averse,” he told me. “They don’t take chances, because they don‘t know what it’s like to be out in the wilderness, to have to confront yourself. Go climb a mountain,” he harrumphed, hinting that if the leaders of America‘s well-financed, professional conservation groups peeled off their Ferragamo loafers and laced up their Vasque boots, they’d probably lose their footing on the shale and granite slopes.
David Brower was fond of quoting Goethe: “Anything you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” Amen.