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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.

BP: How were you introduced to wilderness?

DB: Through the reading of John Muir. Muir told me about wilderness. I liked the general idea about wilderness that he picked up from Thoreau. My first visit-that was very early…we didn’t call it wilderness then-was in 1918, along Highway I-80, across the Sierra, on a one-lane dirt road. No road kill; you couldn’t go fast enough.

BP: How has it inspired you?

DB: I look at wilderness to see what the world does when it is left to its own natural devices. There is not much of the world that has been left to its own devices. I’ve treasured places not exploited by technology and wheels.

BP: The Sierra Club’s outings program was one of the earliest programs aimed at getting people into the backcountry for a real wilderness experience. Was it just a way to get out into the woods, or was there more to it?

DB: Too many of the places Muir loved were being lost because too few people knew about them. John Muir and William E. Colby, his very close associate, got the idea that if you wanted people to support wilderness, they needed to know what it is was like. There was no way to prevent Sierra meadows from being overgrazed and devastated by sheep, for instance, unless people saw the damage firsthand and also visited unspoiled meadows so as to evaluate the loss. So they started the outings in 1901, exposing people to wilderness, to help make people aware of it and give it some political clout. They were the world’s first ecotourists.

BP: Did it work?

DB: John Muir was primarily interested in getting rid of the introduced sheep. They were his biggest worry-very destructive of meadows, watersheds, water itself. He wanted to get them out of the wilderness, and he drove the sheep out.

BP: What did you do to promote backpacking in the Sierra Club?

DB: I initiated the Sierra Club backpack trips because I’d been a backpacker myself in 1933 and 1934, for 2-month trips. Over 14 years, I personally led 4,000 people on more than a million person-miles (the cumulative miles hiked by all participants) of wilderness trails. We worked hard to keep our impact to a minimum. That was the challenge. It is still the challenge.

BP: What were the benefits that wilderness trips provided your family?

DB: It is part of the memory of every one of my four children, etched into them, all the many places where we have been. Exposure to the high country was part of their growing up and magic for every one of them. I never was growing up anyway. I kept enjoying it. To see them love it made sharing it with them very worthwhile.

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