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April 2001

David Brower’s Last Interview

Activist and former backpacker David Brower reflects on his life in the political trenches and on the trails.

As a wall of fog passed through the Golden Gate Bridge 1,000 feet below Anne and Dave Brower’s Berkeley Hills home, the man writer John McPhee called “an emotionalist in an age of dangerous reason” was just hitting his stride. This time, it was Wall Street and Alan Greenspan. “We should revoke his right to use the word green’ in his name until he learns what all this mindless growth is costing the Earth!” Brower declared. And off he went, in a rant befitting the most successful evangelist of the environmental movement.

David Ross Brower was born in 1912 and grew up in the hills of Berkeley when the Golden Gate described a water passage between San Francisco and Marin County, not a world-famous bridge. After dropping out of the University of California in 1931-he was more proud of this than of his 9 honorary degrees-he became a mountaineer, making 70 first ascents in Yosemite and the High Sierra. Much as he would do in the world of environmental politics later in his life, he found 19 new routes on the sheer granite walls of Yosemite. He was an instructor in the U.S. Mountain Troops in World War II, served as a combat-intelligence officer in the Italian campaigns, and earned the Bronze Star.

But it was his 65 years campaigning on behalf of the planet and its wild places and inhabitants that defined David Brower. As an editor, filmmaker, and writer for the Sierra Club, he broadened environmental awareness as few others have. As its first executive director (1952-1969), Brower helped transform the Sierra Club into a political force, and its membership grew from 2,000 to 77,000. He led the successful efforts to protect Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument, prevent the Grand Canyon from being dammed, and establish the National Wilderness Preservation System. His influence also helped add nine wild areas to the National Park system, from the Point Reyes National Seashore in California to New York’s Fire Island and areas around Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He was the instigator of the Sierra Club Foundation, Friends of the Earth, and Earth Island Institute, and with Marion Edey, co-founded the League of Conservation Voters. Three times he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

During this late-summer interview, Dave was sitting in his dining room surrounded by photos taken by his friend Ansel Adams: Shiprock, Tenaya Lake, Yosemite Valley, and Aspens in New Mexico. Other shots, of the Grand Canyon, the Himalayas, Mono Lake, and Dave on a minaret in 1937, stood alongside posters and bumper stickers calling for restoring Glen Canyon and draining Lake Powell. I sensed a certain urgency in his voice. He had known that the cancer he was battling had returned and had mentioned to me that his time was limited.

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