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Brower, Davidfree

(01 July 1912–05 November 2000)
  • Frank Van Nuys

Brower, David (01 July 1912–05 November 2000), editor and environmentalist, was born David Ross Brower in Berkeley, California, the son of Ross John Brower, an instructor in mechanical drawing at the University of California, and Mary Grace Barlow Brower. After dropping out of the University of California in 1931, Brower worked as a clerk in a Bay Area candy store and did publicity work for the Curry Company in Yosemite National Park, where he also filled in as an occasional tour guide. An accomplished mountain climber, he participated in first ascents of seventy peaks in the Sierra Nevada range and led the first ascent of Shiprock in New Mexico in 1939. Brower joined the Sierra Club in 1933 and eight years later was named a member of the club's board of directors. In 1943 Brower married Anne Hus, an editor with the University of California Press, which had hired Brower as an editor in 1941. The Browers had four children. As a member of the Tenth Mountain Division in Italy during World War II, Lieutenant Brower was awarded the Bronze Star for service as a combat intelligence officer during the final assaults on German positions in the Apennines.

His publicity and publishing experience seemed to make Brower the ideal choice, in 1952, as the Sierra Club's first executive director. At the time, many Sierra Club members crusaded against the proposals of the Bureau of Reclamation to construct two dams within Dinosaur National Monument in Utah as part of its massive Colorado River Storage Project. While some members of the Sierra Club supported or were undecided about the proposals, Brower was unequivocally opposed. A joint emergency committee, which included Brower and representatives from the Wilderness Society and the Isaak Walton League, initiated a campaign to educate the public through pamphlets, articles, speeches, and films.

At congressional hearings in January 1954, Brower compared Dinosaur to the Hetch Hetchy Valley within Yosemite National Park, which had been dammed in the early twentieth century. While this project had provided water and power for the city of San Francisco, the reservoir behind the Hetch Hetchy dam had also obliterated a pristine valley and failed to live up to grandiose predictions of its potential for recreation. Brower also pointed out errors in the Bureau of Reclamation's calculations on evaporation at one of the Dinosaur dam sites, demonstrating that an alternative location—Glen Canyon, farther downstream—would be more efficient.

In the spring of 1956 the Colorado River Storage Project received congressional authorization, but without a dam in Dinosaur National Monument. The Dinosaur victory set the tone for keeping dams out of Kings Canyon in California, the Grand Canyon, and elsewhere. However, to keep Dinosaur dam-free, Brower and fellow conservationists agreed not to protest the building of Glen Canyon Dam. For years Brower felt guilt-stricken about the compromise. He hoped this perceived mistake could be rectified by draining Lake Powell.

Brower's style and tactics, displayed to maximum effect during the Dinosaur campaign, transformed the Sierra Club into a potent national organization. Under Brower, the Sierra Club branched out, moving beyond parks and wilderness towards policies on wildlife, pollution, and pesticides. His provocative Sierra Club books and bold full-page newspaper advertisements had immense impact upon conservation campaigns. During the 1960s, for instance, Brower authorized the “battle ads,” the most famous of which, concerning an especially inane rationalization for damming the Grand Canyon, asked if the Sistine Chapel should be flooded so that tourists could get closer to the ceiling.

Brower's innovative and abrasive style, while important to many key conservation victories, simultaneously alienated more staid members of the Sierra Club. Tension simmering over many years finally boiled over in 1969 in what Sierra Club historian Michael Cohen called “The Brawl.” Some influential members were concerned over the costs of Brower's coffee-table books. More serious was a flap over the loss of the organization's tax-exempt status, which the Internal Revenue Service revoked after publication of the Grand Canyon advertisements allegedly brought the Sierra Club into direct involvement with congressional legislation. In 1967 photographer Ansel Adams, who had sponsored Brower's membership in 1933, officially withdrew his support for Brower's continued tenure as executive director. In 1969 a contentious club election resulted in the defeat of Brower and his colleagues. That year Brower resigned during a board meeting at which he was going to be fired.

Along with much of the Sierra Club's staff, Brower immediately formed Friends of the Earth, which quickly emerged as an influential lobbying group for environmental causes. Its Brower-penned motto, “Think globally, act locally,” became standard bumper sticker fare for activists worldwide. The organization added arms control, nuclear proliferation, and population growth to more customary green debates concerning natural resources and environmental degradation. In 1986 Brower left Friends of the Earth, too, because of disagreement over the group's increasing emphasis on lobbying and legislation and a planned move from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Moreover, as with the Sierra Club in 1969, he concluded that the organization's radicalism had dissipated.

In 1982 Brower was reelected to the Sierra Club board, only to resign in May 2000 due to his perception of the organization's passivity in the face of global environmental crises. He remained the director of Earth Island Institute, which he founded in 1982, until his death. On the international scene, Brower founded Friends of the Earth International and many Friends of the Earth organizations around the world. He received Japan's Blue Planet Prize in 1998 and was thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1978, 1979, and, with Paul Ehrlich, 1998). He died in Berkeley.

Brower played a key role in transforming the apolitical, genteel conservationism of the early Sierra Club into the comprehensive and savvy environmental activism of the postwar era. Brower was in the vanguard of the dramatic battles waged by the Sierra Club and other groups for the integrity of national parks and the preservation of wilderness during the 1950s and 1960s. Without his efforts, national treasures such as the Grand Canyon, the Redwoods, and Dinosaur National Monument would have been irrevocably altered if not completely destroyed. In his long post–Sierra Club career, he remained a principled and uncompromising advocate of wilderness and ecological values. Reviled by many on the opposite sides of debates over dams and progress, respected and admired by both moderates and radicals within environmentalism, Brower was arguably the most influential environmental activist of the twentieth century.


Archival materials pertaining to Brower include the Sierra Club Records, Friends of the Earth Collection, and the David Ross Brower Papers housed at the Bancroft Library on the University of California campus at Berkeley, and collections held by the Sierra Club in San Francisco. The Regional Oral History Office at the Bancroft Library also possesses the transcript of an interview with Brower conducted by Susan R. Schrepfer in 1980. A two-volume autobiography, For Earth's Sake: The Life and Times of David Brower (1990) and Work in Progress (1991), mixes his recollections of growing up, climbing mountains, and fighting bureaucrats with reprinted book forewords, articles, and congressional testimony. John McPhee, Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), is a rollicking account of a year spent with Brower as the conservationist sparred with a geologist, resort developer, and his archnemesis, Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Floyd L. Dominy. Michael P. Cohen, The History of the Sierra Club, 1892–1970 (1988), provides a comprehensive survey of Brower's years as executive director of the Sierra Club. Obituaries are in the New York Times, 7 Nov. 2000, and Sierra, Jan.–Feb. 2001.