We're Still Not Listening

by Karsten Barde | 11/20/00 6:00am

On November 7th, a pair of dismal pawns took center stage in a melodrama that continues to unfold sluggishly and disgracefully, embarrassing our nation at every opportunity. Two days earlier, a great man who, ironically, detested the sloth of bureaucracy, died of cancer. David Brower was 88 years old.

A formidable presence even in old age, Brower was one of the 20th-century's most ardent and impatient advocates for wilderness conservation. The list of Brower's accomplishments is immense. Positions he held during his lifetime included: first executive director of the Sierra Club (1952-69), founder of Friends of the Earth (1971) and founder/director of Earth Island Institute (1982-2000). He was also an accomplished mountaineer and skier, credited with 70 "first ascents" of peaks throughout the West.

Brower fought to get the Wilderness Bill of 1964 through Congress and led campaigns to create national parks throughout the United States. These include: Kings Canyon, Point Reyes and the Redwoods

(Calif.), the North Cascades (Wash.), Great Basin (Nev.), Glacier Bay and Wrangell-St.Elias (Ark.), Cape Cod (Mass.) and Fire Island (N.Y.). He played a major role in preventing dams from being built in Dinosaur National Monument (Utah), the Yukon and the Grand Canyon.

In 1971, John McPhee's book, "Encounters With the Archdruid," portrayed Brower's face-to-face encounters with three prominent foes of the conservation movement. The circumstances are startlingly intimate; in fact, they seem fictional to some disbelieving readers. For example, the book describes Brower rafting down the Colorado River alongside the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, the man most responsible for the immense dams of the American West: Grand Coulee, Echo, Glen Canyon, Hoover Dam. Each of these dams, while providing hydroelectric power and storing water for important agricultural use, flooded canyon lands and concealed hundreds of spectacular landforms. McPhee remained remarkably even-handed in presenting the challenges of the discourse between Brower and his adversaries. As a result, the book is now in its 27th printing.

The Sierra Club, under Brower's leadership, ran expensive, full-page ads in The New York Times decrying a proposed copper mine: "AN OPEN PIT, BIG ENOUGH TO BE SEEN FROM THE MOON." The advertisement's untruth was of no significance to Brower, for, McPhee wrote, "In the war strategy of the conservation movement, exaggeration is a standard weapon and is used consciously on broad fronts."

The Sierra Club lost its tax-exempt status in the 1970's because of Brower's lobbying tactics, and investigation of this time period reveals episodes of Brower's history that aren't found in official eulogies. He was ousted from the Sierra Club board of directors and similarly relieved of his duties as director of Friends of the Earth, despite having been an integral part of the success of both organizations. Brower, by all accounts, was headstrong, self-assured and unwilling to compromise. Had he lived to see Election Day of 2000, his California vote would have been cast for Ralph Nader.

Environmental Studies department chair Andy Friedland relates the following anecdote: At the Fourth World Wilderness Congress in Colorado in the fall of 1987, Friedland stood in a cafeteria line behind Brower and overheard him say, "We know acid rain is killing the trees." Professor Friedland had just presented a paper at the conference describing his own research in the forests of the Northeast. A young "cautious, stick-to-the-data type" at that point, Friedland said to Brower, "We have to be careful not to jump to conclusions..." In typical form, the environmentalist firmly replied, "The science doesn't matter to me, we know it's killing the trees." It took the academic world nearly a decade to provide the evidence, Friedland says, but Brower was right on.

Brower came to visit Dartmouth a number of times, first in the 1960s and as recently as the 1990s. Dana Meadows, Dartmouth adjunct professor and director of the Sustainability Institute, who arranged one of his visits, eulogized: "Dave was just that large of a person: he couldn't be constrained. He was more comfortable in the wilderness than behind any board (of directors)." She then admitted wistfully, "I find myself feeling as though he's still alive ... and in a way, I think he always will be."

At the end of every lecture, Brower would provide "homework assignments" for his audience members, compelling them into action for the preservation of the environment. Some of Brower's final writings accused the National Park Service's Yosemite Valley Plan of "forgetting that protecting the Park, not the Yosemite Park Service revenues, is the most important thing." In addition, he fervently supported the Glen Canyon Institute with the goal of draining Lake Powell Reservoir to restore "a free-flowing Colorado River through Glen Canyon." Brower often regarded his inability to stop the Glen Canyon Dam as his biggest failure.

John Muir died a year after the loss of the Hetch-Hetchy battle in 1913, and one cannot help but compare Brower to the legendary figure. In her weekly column in the Valley News, Professor Meadows suggested that Brower was the very reincarnation of John Muir, expressing something which many of us feel: the hope that this same soul will continue to circulate until we begin to understand the message it brings. For, as Professor Meadows said sadly, "We're still not listening."