David Brower was among the most aggressive environmentalists in American history, and his leadership of the Earth Island Institute, Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club was defined by controversy. Though his unrelenting advocacy of wilderness preservation made him many enemies, he succeeded in saving vast tracts of pristine wild lands from development. Was Brower too confrontational, or was he a true champion of the environmental movement?
David Brower: His Early Years
He was born David Ross Brower on July 1, 1912, in Berkeley, California. His parents were avid hikers, and they took young David on many outdoor adventures throughout northern California's Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Eight years after Brower was born, his mother lost her sight as a result of a brain tumor. Brower began acting as his mother's guide, walking her around the neighborhood and eventually hiking into the rugged hills around Berkeley and Oakland. These trips helped to foster a deep, personal appreciation for natural beauty:
"... together we walked from our house, about 200 feet above sea level, to Grizzly Peak - at 1,759 feet, it was the second-highest point in our Berkeley Hills ... At the top, I described the vista for her: the hills; the galaxy of wild flowers; the few new houses; a red-tailed hawk floating on the wind, looking for field mice; the fog coming over San Francisco Bay; the glimpse of the open sea through the Golden Gate."
Part of the reason Brower enjoyed taking these long hikes with his mother was the ridicule he suffered at school after a childhood accident cost him his front teeth. Brower felt safer and happier when alone in nature than in the company of schoolyard bullies.
After spending two years at the University of California, Berkeley, Brower left without getting a degree. He instead began working in the Yosemite area, where he became one of the region's most celebrated backcountry skiers and mountain climbers. He was involved in dozens of "first ascents" in the 1930s, including Devil's Crag in California, Mount Waddington in British Columbia and Shiprock in New Mexico.
It was also during this period of Brower's life that he was exposed to the ethos of environmental stewardship, due in part to his friendships with many regional adventurers (including renowned photographer Ansel Adams) and to his reading of the Sierra Club Bulletin, which inspired many of Brower's trips.
Brower joined the Sierra Club in 1933; two years later, he began working as publicity manager for Yosemite National Park. The many years Brower spent in the Sierra Nevadas fueled his passion for environmental activism, and in 1941 he was elected to the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club. Brower also began working for the University of California Press, where he met his future wife Anne Hus.
David Brower and the Sierra Club
Brower served in World War II in the 10th Mountain Division, training soldiers in mountaineering and cross-country skiing; he also served in a combat role in the Italian Alps, where he earned a Bronze Star.
Following the war, Brower returned to Berkeley and built a house in the Berkeley Hills with his wife; this was to be his home for the rest of his life. He continued working for the University of California Press while also editing the Sierra Club Bulletin and remaining active in Sierra Club outings.
In 1952, Brower was named the first executive director of the Sierra Club; at the time, membership in the club was about 2,000. His leadership of the club was annealed during a bruising fight to save Dinosaur National Monument: The book This Is Dinosaur, published in 1955, was instrumental in saving that wilderness from being flooded beneath the waters of the Echo Park Dam.
But the price of winning the battle over Dinosaur was paid when the Bureau of Reclamation moved the dam to Glen Canyon, which is now flooded beneath the waters of Lake Powell. In the process, however, Brower and the Sierra Club learned how to galvanize interest in wilderness preservation through the publication of numerous lavishly illustrated books, including classics like This is the American Earth and In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World.
All those efforts were useful in preventing a Bureau of Reclamation project that now seems unthinkable: damming the Grand Canyon. In 1966, Brower and the Sierra Club placed full-page ads in The New York Times and the Washington Post arguing against the dam. As a result of this confrontational move, the Sierra Club lost its tax-exempt status -- but it saved the Grand Canyon.
Friends of the Earth
Brower's militant, take-no-prisoners approach won him many admirers among environmentalists and the general public, but behind the scenes, many Sierra Club officials found him abrasive and needlessly confrontational. As a result, Brower was removed from the club's leadership in 1969, despite his success at increasing membership up to 77,000.
After leaving the Sierra Club, Brower founded Friends of the Earth, which was well-positioned to address America's new-found environmental consciousness after the first Earth Day in 1970. Friends of the Earth lobbied aggressively against the Alaska Pipeline, nuclear power and the use of the defoliant Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. Friends of the Earth also helped to develop the League of Conservation Voters and the Environmental Policy Center.
Earth Island Institute
In 1982, Brower founded the Earth Island Institute, dedicated to environmental causes and social justice in the United States and internationally. According to the group's mission statement, Earth Island "acts as an umbrella organization, providing individual projects with the freedom to develop new initiatives by offering a wide range of professional services."
Groups as diverse as the Rainforest Action Network, the International Marine Mammal Project and the Environmental Project on Central America (EPOCA) owe their existence in part to Brower's legacy with the Earth Island Institute.
Brower, never one to rest on his laurels, continued to work with political and environmental activists worldwide; he also returned to the Sierra Club to serve on their board throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
For his tireless efforts on behalf of the world's wilderness areas, Brower was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, though he never won. Brower died on November 5, 2000, in the home he built in the Berkeley Hills.