Adam Werbach fidgets in his dressing room, swilling bottled water and waiting to tape a talk show called The Couch. A wardrobe guy pops in to eyeball Werbach’s corduroy cargo pants and his wide-lapeled Naugahyde blazer, donned en route to the Burbank studio. The guy nods and Werbach relaxes — he’s captured the MTV look.
Moments later, Werbach is sharing sofa space with Moon Unit Zappa. The theme today, according to the host of this MTV pilot, is people who did something really impressive when they were really young. Zappa, of course, recorded “Valley Girl,” immortalizing, for better or worse, the gestalt of the Southern California mall bunny. Somewhat more obscurely, Werbach (pronounced WER-back) is the youngest person ever to be elected president of the Sierra Club. At 23, he won the job with a pledge to bring in a new generation of environmentalists by meeting them on their own terms.
True to his word, here he is, slogging away at ground zero in his quest to capture the imagination of America’s youth.
Zappa turns to Werbach. “I,” she tells him boastfully, “don’t even know what the Sierra Club is.”
“Clean air, clean water, clean food,” Werbach replies. “And a little more wilderness than your parents left you.”
As he speaks, Zappa grabs his hand. “I’m happy about what you do,” she says. “But if it doesn’t work out, you could be a hand model. Your nail beds are so good.”
This leaping departure from “the message” doesn’t fluster Werbach. In fact, he seems pleased with the compliment, and he and Zappa embark on a freewheeling discussion of the effects of vegetarianism on skin tone, the relative merits of armpit hair, lesbianism, and the thrill of guilty pleasures. (At one point, Zappa flops her head into Werbach’s lap, declaring, “This is what you call chemistry.”) Werbach even manages to slip in another plug for the cause. “My job is to get young people to feel they can do something,” he says. “To actually change things, we need people who don’t know the old ways.”
After the show, Werbach scribbles something on his business card (a home number?) and hands it to Zappa. “Just call me,” he tells her. “Any time.”
It’s all in a day’s work for Werbach, a 25-year-old Jewish kid from Tarzana who launched his environmental career at age 8 by collecting his classmates’ crayoned signatures on a petition to unseat then–Secretary of the Interior James Watt.
Tall and dark-haired, he has the kind of earnest good looks and slightly awkward stance that tend to draw comparisons to Robby Benson and David Schwimmer — not quite the seasoned pro you’d expect to see leading the environmental movement into the 21st century. Yet that is exactly what Werbach aims to do. By shouldering the presidency of one of the oldest, largest and best-respected environmental groups in the world, he is fashioning himself the standard-bearer for the cause.
Job one: redrawing the battlefield. He disdains the environmental movement’s traditional come-ons: the direct-mail appeals, the Yanni-esque ballads, the 50 simple things you can do to save the Earth. That stuff, he says, is of little or no interest to your average 20-something. In their place, Werbach is prescribing a pop-life panacea for a club no longer at the forefront of the movement.
“Instead of bashing kids for watching MTV,” he says, “let’s use MTV to our advantage.” He’s also working on a Sierra Club–sponsored CD called El Niño, meant to raise awareness about global warming. It’s slated for an April Earth Day release, and Werbach is counting on a “We Are the World”–type mobilizing moment. “We want to focus on this as a political movement,” he says, the idea being to “get people out of their chairs and into their communities.”
That won’t be easy. At a time when recycling is as universal as taking out the trash, it’s hard for an environmental group to build a constituency around the standard green agenda. The presence of a Democrat in the White House has only made matters worse, lending an appearance of environmental well-being and draining the movement of its urgency. After Clinton took office, most of the major environmental organizations began hemorrhaging members; the Sierra Club alone lost more than 100,000. Even where activists are still rallying around environmental issues, the focus for many has shifted from global and national issues to their own NIMBY concerns.
This shift toward the pressing crises of the urban environment is of little interest to many Sierra Club stalwarts, who adhere to a nature-preservation ethic. Werbach tends to see this division along generational lines. Older environmentalists, schooled in the preservation tradition, look at the world as a place of finite natural resources constantly imperiled by their worst enemy: people. Younger environmentalists, raised in a global, post–Earth Day world — Werbach primary among them — view humanity as an essential part of the solution. (EarthFirst!, then, would become EarthandPeopleFirst!)
Corralling these diffuse groups is an important element in Werbach’s plan. He’s concocted the term “radical locals” to attract activists who are battling environmental ills in their own back yards. At the same time, he has to avoid alienating the preservationists and the armchair environmentalists — those legion members whose activism is limited to annual donations, calendar purchases and the reuse of grocery bags. His mantra, “Clean air, clean water, clean food,” seeks to encompass them all.
All this forms a formidable backdrop for Werbach’s present task: running an environmental organization with 550,000 members and a heap of troubles. Werbach assumed the presidency at a time when the club was struggling with financial woes, staff and program cuts, and a relentless congressional assault on environmental regulations. A year and a half later, Werbach’s performance has garnered mixed reviews. He looks and sounds good for the cameras, but when confronted with the deeper, more complex aspects of leadership, he has faltered.
In some ways, Werbach is truly a man for our times, the environmental movement’s Bill Clinton, leaning more to style than substance, opting for conciliation over confrontation. Indeed, in 1996 Werbach led the club in an endorsement of Clinton, despite the president’s signature on a national-parks logging measure characterized as ä “disastrous” in the club’s own magazine. Many environmentalists, including a majority of the Sierra Club’s membership, want a total ban on such logging. Werbach defended his support of Clinton by pointing to the president’s 11th-hour national-monument designation of the Grand Staircase–Escalante area in southern Utah.
Now, nearing the end of his second one-year term, Werbach is considering running again. If he does, he stands to become the first Sierra Club president since founder John Muir to hold the post for three consecutive terms. But does Werbach have the vision to breathe new life into the environmental movement? It’s something Tony Ruckel, a member of the club’s board, worries about. “In the ’90s, progress has been hard,” Ruckel says. “The question is, ‘Are we going to regain momentum?’”
It’s a foggy, chill evening, and Gail Wer bach has accompanied Adam to a silent auction for the Wilderness Coalition at the Patagonia store near San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. An educational therapist, she is tall like her son and shares his cropped dark hair and direct, open expression. She is clearly proud of both Adam and Kevin, his older brother, who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law and is now in charge of developing the FCC’s Internet policies.
As bidders sip Merlot and peruse bikes, backpacks and snowshoe bindings, Gail modestly attributes her two sons’ success to “good genes, good parenting and luck,” then mentions that she and her husband are thinking about writing a book on child rearing. “He’s a psychologist and I’m in education,” she says. “So you can imagine.”
Adam wanders by, fixes his mom with an intense, hazel-eyed stare and says, “Stop it.” She waves him away, takes a sip of wine and continues right along. Adam, it turns out, “was a messy child,” and Gail and her husband gave him an ultimatum — clean his room at least once a week or no allowance. Adam refused. “He said it was a matter of principle,” Gail recalls. “Even at a very young age he had piles of mail from environmental organizations all over the globe. Plus he had adopted a small, impoverished child he was sending money to each month.”
So Adam went without an allowance. Instead he started buying old guitars, refurbishing them and then reselling them to aspiring musicians through ads in the Recycler. “You can imagine,” she says, rolling her eyes at the memory of the scraggly rock & rollers who appeared at their Tarzana ranch-house door.
For a while there, she says, the whole environmentalist thing was a bit hard to take. “We have traditional Jewish gefilte-fish-and-brisket roots,” she says. “And here’s Adam. Twelve years old and says he’s a vegetarian.”
Then there was the anti-leather period. Just as Gail is about to expound, Adam appears at her side. “No, Mom, no,” he pleads. She forges ahead. “He got these ugly plastic shoes. Oh, they were terrible.” Adam looks pained. “Mom!” Gail smiles. “Thank God that’s over with,” she says, gesturing toward Adam’s brown leather oxfords. “Adam is a reasonable environmentalist.”
Like many of the club’s actions these days, Wer bach’s election was seen alternately as bold or desperate — a last-ditch maneuver by an organization trying to regain lost ground. Though the club’s finances and membership had improved somewhat since the early ’90s, it had not managed to rejuvenate itself in other elemental ways.
For the first half of the century, the Sierra Club served as an elite gathering of high-minded conservationists. Founded in 1892 by a group of progressive thinkers led by naturalist John Muir, the club was primarily known for its successful crusade to save Yosemite and for its socially oriented hikes and camping trips.
It wasn’t until the mid-1940s that the club assumed a broader mission, with the help of a mountain climber named David Brower. Under his leadership, the Sierra Club became a household name, battling against the damming of rivers and helping create the Wilderness Act of 1964, which has since been applied to more than 90 million acres of land.
To a generation of environmentalists, Brower symbolized limitless possibility. In the 1970s he was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. “David Brower compelled Americans to talk around their dinner tables about big dams, wilderness, air and water quality,” says Robert Elliott, a longtime river-rafting guide who accompanied Brower on trips down the Colorado River in the 1960s. He “taught me that one person can make a monumental difference in the world, and to question conventional wisdom.”
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.”
Last spring, with Werbach’s encouragement, a slate of three younger candidates — one of whom is just a year and a half older than Adam — won election to the club’s board of directors. “The environment,” Werbach says, “can serve as the issue that ignites a newborn faith in politics.”
The transfer of power has been difficult for Pope, the club’s executive director and a 25-plus-year veteran of the movement. Though, technically speaking, Werbach is the boss, it is Pope, a Harvard graduate who worked his way up through club ranks to his current post, who is responsible for the club’s $45 million budget and its 350 staffers scattered across the land. Meanwhile, Werbach’s official duties amount to tending a relatively small cadre of volunteers and a tiny fraction of the club’s budget. While Pope makes $100,000 a year including benefits, Werbach gets by on a stipend of about a third of that.
Werbach hasn’t let this stand in his way. His skimpy job description has allowed him to write his own ticket, and he has fashioned his position into a bully pulpit as few have before. He has hobnobbed with the president, written a book, crisscrossed the country visiting club outposts (the club covers travel expenses), and met personally with thousands of members and perhaps as many reporters — he is by far the most photographed and interviewed president in club history.
But the height of environmental relevance to which he aspires, a pinnacle attained by the likes of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson and Brower, is still far beyond his grasp. Just how far is most clearly evident in his book, Act Now, Apologize Later, released last fall. A pastiche of proclamations, anecdotes and moralistic tales, it reads like a collection of class assignments, a mere dip in the ocean of environmentalism.
“If I were appointed secretary of the interior,” he writes, “the first thing I would do is throw the biggest party America has ever seen to celebrate our national parks.” A few pages later, he describes meeting Vice President Al Gore. “I’m going to throw an outrageous party the night this guy takes over.” He describes his first snowmobile ride as “all of my best Evel Knievel stunts — jumps from snowdrifts, fishtails on a frozen lake, anything I could do to piss off my mom.”
Board member Anne Ehrlich seems to find Werbach almost amusing. “He’s energetic, that’s for sure,” she says with a chuckle. “And he has done a lot to recharge some of us older folks, who sometimes get a little jaded.”
Tim Hermach, a Sierra Club member who founded the Native Forest Council in Oregon out of frustration over the club’s ineffectiveness in protecting old-growth forests, is sharply critical of Werbach’s performance. “I like people who are willing to fight, like Jesse Helms,” Hermach says. “I hate everything he stands for, but he stands up for his beliefs and he doesn’t back off. We don’t have anyone like that protecting the environment, and that’s what we need. That’s not Adam. He’s a nice kid, period.”
After witnessing Werbach in action, even Brower has his concerns. All Werbach’s talk of television causes him great dismay. To him, television is “destructive of the mind and of human relationships,” and the cause of “cerebral gridlock across America.” MTV, in particular, is “a monster.” And he wants Werbach to focus more on the problems of the future, such as unfettered growth across the globe. “He’s picked up on the buzzwords of the movement,” Brower says. “But he hasn’t picked up on some of the most important things, and I need to sit down and have some long sessions with him.”
When asked whether he thinks Werbach has a vision, Brower is uncharacteristically reticent. First he says that Werbach’s vision is being “stifled by the present staff.” When pressed on the vision question, Brower expresses regret that because of his age, he has not been able to “guide Adam as much as I would like.” He pauses. “Adam does write well, speak well and look good, and he gets a lot of following among the young people.”
If the honeymoon is over for Brower, it is for Werbach, too; allying himself with Brower has in many ways turned out to be more than he bargained for. A week after Werbach started his new job, he got a dose of what was to come. Brower called a newspaper reporter and an nounced his resignation from the board. He was, he said, fed up with the club’s bureaucracy and wishy-washy ways. Werbach drove to Brower’s home in the Berkeley Hills and begged him to return, which Brower did, apologizing and calling his resignation “immature.” “I love David more than anyone in the club,” Werbach says. “But he’s a pain in the ass.”
On an unseasonably warm November morning, Werbach sits at his desk, flanked by dueling portraits of John Muir and Marilyn Monroe. As his phone trills urgently, joining the street noise pressing in through the open window (air conditioning is verboten here at the Sierra Club’s San Francisco headquarters), he broods over the unlikely and particularly sticky issue of immigration.
A few weeks earlier, in a highly critical syndicated column, Alexander Cockburn accused the club of “immigrant bashing” and “apocalyptic hysteria” — a “middle-class do-gooder movement paddling in the most polluted waters of American political life.” Werbach was incensed. “He’s a butt,” Werbach says. “He did a lot of damage.”
The impetus for Cockburn’s diatribe was a club initiative, to be voted on by the membership in February, asking whether the club should “adopt a comprehensive population policy for the United States that [advocates] an end to U.S. population growth . . . through reduction in net immigration.” Since just 1,300 signatures were needed to qualify the initiative for the club ballot, Werbach has tried to portray the anti-immigration push as a fringe effort by a small faction of members somewhere in Ohio.
On this fall morning, he’s about to learn otherwise. There’s a sharp rapping at the door, followed by the ap pearance of a youngish woman with a furrowed brow. And a slightly desperate plea. “Adam, can you please come here?” Werbach hurries off to handle the crisis: The much-loathed immigration petition has just been signed by David Brower.
For the next 20 minutes Werbach parleys with Brower on the phone, eventually persuading him to drop his support for the proposal. But Brower’s fleeting endorsement hints at a depth of dispute most club leaders would rather ignore.
The anti-immigration effort is being led by Alan Kuper, a retired engineering professor who is Population-Environment Committee chair of the club’s Ohio chapter. At root, Kuper says, the initiative addresses concerns about a population that is growing too fast to be adequately sustained by the Earth’s resources.
But Werbach and other club leaders argue that restricting immigration is attacking a symptom, not a cause. That such quotas won’t end the human-rights abuses and economic inequities around the globe that drive people to America in the first place. That immigrants who move to America tend to have smaller families than they would in their native lands. That such restrictions won’t end pollution of air, water and soil, nor will they dampen U.S.-driven consumerist depletion of natural resources worldwide (with 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. consumes a quarter of the world’s energy). Opposing immigration, Werbach believes, would cripple efforts to broaden the club’s appeal and cause serious and possibly irreparable political damage.
Some club leaders disagree. Dave Foreman, the EarthFirst! co-founder who served on the Sierra Club board until September, once suggested that Ethiopians wracked by famine should be left to die to help reduce the global population. His name appears on the anti-immigration argument in this month’s issue of Sierra magazine.
Board member Anne Ehrlich, who with her husband, Paul, wrote the apocalyptic Population Bomb in 1968, initially signed the anti-immigration petition and allowed her name to be used on its mailings. She later removed her name from the petition, at Werbach’s request.
But, she says, “Everybody in the club knows I would focus energy on immigration if the majority of the members wanted it.” The answer to that “if” will come in mid-April, when the votes from the members are tallied. For now, she says, “If I feel pushed to work on immigration, I can do it somewhere else.”
And she does, as an advisory board member at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a Washington, D.C.–based group that has accepted money from the Pioneer Fund, which supports study into Nazi-style eugenics.
FAIR is headed by John Tanton, a former Sierra Club member who also heads an English-only organization. He caused a ruckus in the mid-1980s when an internal memo was released in which he referred to “the Latin onslaught” and asked, “Is advice to limit one’s family simply advice to move over and let someone else with greater reproductive powers occupy the space?” In one prescient passage, Tanton predicted, “The Sierra Club may not want to touch the immigration issue, but the immigration issue is going to touch the Sierra Club!”
Another group pressing its agenda on the club is the Washington, D.C.–based Population-Environment Balance, which has tried twice in the past two years to pressure environmental groups into joining an anti-immigration coalition. Last fall, the group picketed Werbach during an appearance in Santa Barbara, calling him a “traitor” and a “sellout.”
Werbach calls the issue “the most divisive battle in my experience.” It is, he says, the embodiment of the “battle for the soul of the environmental movement that is going on right now.” A victory for the initiative would destroy his efforts to promote an inclusive, human-oriented movement, as well as his faith in the club. If it passes, he vows he will quit.
Some club members say it is a battle that would not have existed had someone else been in charge. A more experienced leader would have been able to quell the dissension within the club, preventing the very public airing that results from a vote of the membership. “It’s one thing to have an aura of ability to communicate,” says board member Tony Ruckel. “It’s another to have the skill to deal effectively with people who are fiercely independent and often fractious.”
Werbach bristles at any suggestion that he has not properly handled the immigration issue. “It’s hurtful to think I could have done something to stop this and didn’t,” he says. “I can’t think of anything I would have done differently.”
In fact, however, Werbach has already changed course. During an interview in November, he emphatically declared that he would not force-feed the club membership his own views on immigration. “I won’t use my position that way,” he said then. “It would be horrible. It would send the wrong message to the membership, that anytime the president didn’t like something, he could just throw money at it and make it go away.” A month later, he was using club funds for a letter to the membership reiterating his opposition. “I changed my mind,” he says. “We needed to get the message out. More needed to be done.”
One thing the immigration debate makes abundantly clear is that these are tough times for aspiring environmental champions. Without the easily excoriated “bad guys” of yore, the burning rivers and toxic seeps, it’s hard to snare the public’s imagination, let alone a segment on the 6 o’clock news. What the movement really needs, in times like these, is a good old-fashioned brawl.
Werbach recognized this, and found one, in the form of Lake Powell, the second-largest artificial lake in the country and a longtime Brower obsession.
Lake Powell exists because of Glen Canyon Dam, a massive concrete stop wedged into the sandstone walls of the Colorado River, upstream from the Grand Canyon at the Utah-Arizona border. The dam serves as a buffer for the so-called Upper Basin states, like Utah and Colorado, ensuring that in dry years they will be able to release their share of water downstream, to places like Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The lake, which holds 25 million acre-feet of water, also generates hydroelectric power, bringing the U.S. government more than $100 million a year and leading Brower to disparagingly label it a “cash register” dam.
The crazy thing is, the dam might not ever have been built without Brower. In 1956, acting in his role as then–executive director of the Sierra Club, Brower brokered a deal with the Bureau of Land Management allowing the construction of a dam at Glen Canyon in ex change for sparing the Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado from a similar fate. But Brower made the swap without having seen Glen Canyon, and when he did take time to venture into the mystical recesses of Navajo sandstone, he was filled with regret. “It was one of the most beautiful places on Earth,” he says. “I realized I had made one of the biggest mistakes of my life.”
Many other environmentalists quickly came to agree. Brower colleague Martin Litton concluded that the leaders of the movement wound up “giving up the bigger value in return for the lesser.” And writer Wallace Stegner declared that, “In gaining the lovely and the usable, we have given up the incomparable.” The magnitude of the mistake gave rise to a generation of activists fundamentally opposed to environmental bartering, the dam their central rallying point. Edward Abbey’s 1976 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, chronicled the exploits of a group of eco-warriors determined to blow the dam up. Some years later, EarthFirst! lowered a 300-foot plastic sheet down the dam wall, simulating a crack.
It wasn’t until two years ago that Brower saw his chance to make things right. Bolstered by the formation of the fledgling Utah-based Glen Canyon Institute, a group devoted to draining the lake, Brower sought Werbach’s support. Werbach’s decision was an easy one. To drain the lake would restore a beautiful place, slap down human greed and give his own efforts to revive the environmental movement a sense of purpose he had not been able to muster on his own.
For both Brower and Werbach, it was a gratifying confluence, the ultimate vindication in an unlikely and often uncomfortable alliance. Brower would see this lifelong cause carried forward with youthful vigor, and Werbach would have his issue, infused with meaning by one of the movement’s most crucial figures.
At a board meeting in the fall of 1996, Brower and Werbach made the pitch. It is one Werbach has repeated many times since, telling doubters that “the spirituality of Glen Canyon is saturated and stifled by humanity,” and calling the lake “humanity’s most successful experiment in waste.”
Polluted with oil and gas residue and human waste, the lake loses nearly a million acre-feet of water each year through evaporation from its surface and seepage through porous canyon walls — enough to service all of Los Angeles. The dam prevents nutrient-filled silt from flowing downstream toward the Grand Canyon, causing the water to run cold and clear and depriving many native species of the warm, muddy waters they rely on for survival. The electricity and water supplied by the dam could, they argue, be made up through alternate sources and conservation.
On that fall day, Werbach told the board that it was time for this lake to be drained. They unanimously agreed. “I don’t want to be remembered,” he said later, “as part of the generation that destroyed the Grand Canyon.”
Instead, he’s fast becoming known as the leader of the generation that would destroy Page.
Situated at the lake’s southernmost tip, the town of Page was first created by the government to house the myriad workers needed to build the dam. Mike Woods, the town’s mayor, moved with his family to Page when he was a boy, his father taking work as a dam inspector. “The town lived and breathed by the construction of that dam,” he says.
Today, Page has grown to a population of nearly 8,500, providing services to another 8,000 beyond city limits. It has its own hospital, K-12 schools and junior college. Many of the students are drawn from the neighboring Navajo reservation, home to nearly 23,000 Native Americans. Melvin Bautista, executive director of the nation’s Division of Natural Resources, says the town, and by extension the lake, is the economic and social lifeblood for the Navajo Nation.
Each year, upward of 2.5 million visitors behold the glowing, multimillennial sandstone rising from Lake Powell’s silver-sheeted surface, a testament to the force of humanity and nature combined. So massive is this 186-mile-long lake that at the height of the summer tourist season, when hundreds of anglers are casting their lines into the world-class trout fishery and thousands of houseboats take to the water until it resembles a floating trailer park, it is still possible to retreat into stillness in one of the scores of secret side canyons. “Without Lake Powell,” Woods says, “Page would literally dry up and blow away.”
Werbach discounts this claim, says the town could find other ways to survive, even flourish. And perhaps this is so. But in downplaying the concerns of the town, Werbach has subordinated the potential human toll to the lure of visionary causes. Which leaves him standing in direct opposition to his professed quest for a more human-oriented movement.
Last September, in a hearing before two congressional subcommittees, Werbach faced off against his foes. In his appeal, Werbach called the now-submerged canyon one of the “crown jewels of the Colorado plateau” and “a place more mysterious than the Grand Canyon.” He declared that the dam and the lake are overtaxing the river, and will lead to its destruction. “We are not being good stewards of this resource,” he said. “Nor are we providing a safe future for our children in the way we are abusing water.”
And he insisted that draining the lake is of critical importance to the future health of the environment. That comment peeved Larry Tarp, a Page resident and head of Friends of Lake Powell, who also testified at the hearing. “Tell me the critical importance,” he says. “Other than perhaps to Adam Werbach’s friendship with David Brower.”
It’s a relevant question, especially given what Werbach knows that most other people don’t, not even those who live in Page and follow these matters closely: Lake Powell is not the first body of water to fill Glen Canyon. Some 1.8 million years ago, another lake existed there, formed by the lava flows of a nearby volcano. Prospect Lake, as it has come to be known among geologists, was more than twice as large as Lake Powell. Over the course of several hundred years, the lake filled with sediment, and the river gradually washed the dam away. Altogether, there were 13 such volcanic dams along the Colorado. They are long gone, and the river appears to have survived their incursions unscathed.
Of course, Werbach didn’t mention any of this at the hearing, which ended in something of a draw. Afterward, both sides vowed to dig in their heels for what will likely be a lengthy battle — even the most optimistic dam busters acknowledge that draining Lake Powell won’t be easy.
Within the Sierra Club and beyond, few activists have rallied to the cause. Says Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society: “It’s hard to take it seriously in the near-term.” Ann Weschler, head of the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club, calls the push “a whimsical and capricious act,” especially since she and her clubmates fear that a highly publicized campaign might distract resources and attention from a yearslong campaign to protect large tracts of Utah wilderness. “It’s a function of the age of David Brower and the youth of Adam Werbach,” she says. “When you put those two together, it’s combustible.”
None of this has shaken Werbach’s resolve. “If we can reclaim Glen Canyon from the jaws of our past folly, we can restore the rest of the destroyed environment,” he says. “No problem is too large, no challenge insurmountable. This is our chance to move beyond putting Band-Aids on problems. This is our chance to make things better.”
For some longtime club members, though, proj ects like Glen Canyon are not what the club is about. Past Si erra Club president and current board member Michele Perrault acknowledges, “We have to find ways to capture people’s attention.” But, she says, “I’m not sure these symbolic issues are the way to do it. You have to develop lifelong interest. That takes more than something symbolic.”
Back at the Burbank tele vision studio, Werbach returns to his dressing room — across from Zappa’s — and is swarmed by well-wishers. His second one-year term as president of the Sierra Club ends in May, and he hasn’t decided if he’ll seek another. He’s also been discussing the possibility of becoming the executive director of the beleaguered Greenpeace. (“They tell the story well, and with passion,” he says. “For that they are better than anyone else.”) Or maybe he’ll have his own TV show and become the world’s first enviro-superstar. After all, TV is where he very much would like to be. “That’s where my heart is,” he says. “The immediacy of it, the power of it.”
Whatever Werbach decides, it will certainly mark a turning point in his own career, and perhaps in the life of the club as well. It’s not certain that the rest of the board would go along with a third Werbach term, but it may well consider one of the other young members who recently joined its ranks. “If a movement cannot rejuvenate itself with the energy of a new generation, that movement will die,” says Pope. “I think we’re right in the middle, where it happens or it doesn’t. We’re not there yet. We’re wrestling with that challenge.”
As the Burbank crowd thins, a short, balding man with an important air about him approaches, rests a hand on Werbach’s shoulder and fixes him with a meaningful gaze. “That was good,” he says. “You have . . .” he considers. “Something special. I can see this going somewhere. I’ll call you. We’ll talk.” The man disappears.
Werbach smiles, tucks the Naugahyde jacket into a shopping bag and strolls out into the afternoon haze.