A Brief Biography
David Ross Brower was born in Berkeley, California on July 1, 1912. He joined the Sierra Club in 1933, quickly establishing himself as a first class skier and mountaineer. Even more important, he soon became a leader of the fledgling movement within the Club to emphasize environmental protection, not only as a Club goal, but as a way of life in the wilderness.
When John Muir started the Sierra Club in 1892, he saw it as a group that would work for the protection of the mountains. But he was aware that people would only fight to save what they knew and loved so, under his guidance, the Club’s motto was “To explore, enjoy and render accessible,” theSierra Nevada. Starting in 1903, the Club sponsored an annual High Trip which saw hundreds of members with kitchen and camp staff and pack and riding animals camping in Tuolumne Meadows and exploring the surrounding peaks and meadows.
By the late 1930’s, the Clubs hundreds were joined in the high country by thousands more. Brower, along with other Club activitists such as David Brower, Richard Leonard, and Ansel Adams, believed it was time to scale back, lest the Sierra be loved to death. Brower wrote an article for the Club Bulletin, “Far from the Madding Mules.” He advocated small groups traveling with only what they could pack in for the fragile alpine and subalpine region. Within a few years, his reasoning and leadership had such an impact that he was voted onto the Board of Directors in 1941.
In 1952, Brower was hired as the Club’s first Executive Director. He set about creating a revolution within the Club as a springboard for his reformulation of the Club to it’s current status as the foremost conservation organization int he world. In 1952, the Club’s membership stood at about 2,000. When he left the Club to found Friends of the Earth in 1969, Club membership had climbed to 77,000.
Under his leadership, the Club moved into the publishing field, creating a series of magnificent photo books that spotlighted the beauties of the American continent and the dangers facing the natural world.
His first great battle, over the plan to flood Dinosaur National Monument, was fought with a book of great beauty, The Place Nobody Knows, and a series of raft trips to make dinosaur known to thousands, especially to some of the people in positions to influence the decision. In this “place no one knew” strategy, Brower was following in Muir’s footsteps, drawing people to the mountains to show them what they must fight to save.
Brower and the Club won the battle to save Dinosaur National Monument, but they lost something perhaps just as valuable. When the Bureau of Reclamation offered to move their planned dam to Glen Canyon, the Club reluctently agreed not to fight over this location. As a result, Brower and others were left with a lifetime of regret over the loss of Glen Canyon to the rising and falling waters of Lake Powell. Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang aren’t the only ones who hope that someday Glen Canyon Dam will be torn down. Brower himself now campaigns actively for the restoration of the canyon.
Despite the disappointment over the compromise necessary to save Dinosaur, Brower continued to lead the Club to an ever-larger membership through an ever-increasing outings program (especially small, low-impact outings), the publication of more Sierra Club Book, and support in the ongoing fight for a Wilderness Act, which finally became law in 1964.
Two years later, Brower led the Club in another fight over another dam at another national treasure. This time, it was the Grand Canyon.
It seems amazing now to think that the Bureau of Reclamation could have ever proposed flooding even a small part of one of the planet’s most awesome natural wonders. But at that time, Reclamation was still one of the most powerful agencies in the government and the American environmental conciousness was still building.Earth Day was three years off and the Bureau felt it had a mandate to dam every available source of water in the West. But the times they were truly a’changin’. under Brower’s leadership, the Club took out full page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post. One of the ads, the one that has gone down in history, said simply, succinctly and powerfully, “This time it’s the Grand Canyon they want to dam. The Grand Canyon.”
The next day, the IRS hand-delivered a suspension of the Club’s tax-exempt status. This action boosted the Club’s prestige and membership and helped in the fight to save the Canyon. Though many Americans may have formerly seen the Club as a radical environmental groups of do-gooders, they could hardly fail to feel sympathy for someone being picked on by the IRS. The Grand Canyon was saved, and the Club eventually regained its tax-exempt status.
But Brower was on his way out. Despite the success of the campaign to save the Canyon, Brower was too much of a radical activist for some in the Club, especially some of the Board. In 1969, he was fired by the Board for acting without their approval.
He went on to found first Friends of the Earth and then Earth Island Institute, which quickly became a leader in the ever-growing environmental movement. Friends of the Earth is particulary involved in helping to develop environmental activist organisations in other countries and broadening the perspective of Americans, to see how their actions affect the world ecosystem.
Brower never gave up trying to lead the Sierra Club to a more activist position. He was elected to the Board in 1983, 1986, 1995, and 1998. In 1999, he lead a fight to take control of the Board by running for election along with a slate of others from a group of Club activists called the John Muir Sierrans, who advocated a hard, non-compromising standce on some major environmental issues. He lost.
Despite this recent setback, Brower continued the good fight until his death late last year and his Earth Island Institute remains a force to be reconed with. Three times, Brower was nominated for the Nobel Prize. That honor eluded him. But we are pleased to be able to include him here with such greats as Muir, Thoreau, and the others, in the Ecology Hall of Fame.