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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: What is your thinking on the current state of backpacking and your prognosis for the future of wilderness preservation?

DB: That would be grim, very grim, unless we do something about growth, unless we improve the number of people working to protect the environment. Maurice Strong, who put together the United Nations Conference on the Environment in 1972 in Stockholm and the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, says that unless we change what we are doing, change our way of life, we have only 30 years left. But Wall Street, the big investors, they just don’t want to hear that. They continue doing what they do, calling for more economic growth, not realizing what economic growth as we know it is costing the Earth. When will we pay back the Earth? Unless we change our attitudes and make change possible, it will not happen. So I find myself engaged in activities not nearly as enjoyable as backpacking. But in effect, if we want to save backpacking, we have to make some changes.

BP: What sort of changes?

DB: For example, I am very anxious to save the national parks from the National Park Service. I am anxious to save the forests from the Forest Service. It would be nice if we had a Forest Service. Instead, we have a timber service. I have had that bias since 1938. I think that it would be helpful if we could switch the timber operations into the Department of Commerce and reinstate the Forest Service to be concerned with the entire forest…. The Forest Service has control over a great deal of wilderness, and it is more concerned about (keeping out) human feet than how many bulldozers, chainsaws, and roads are in it. That’s because it is a timber service.

The forest needs wholeness, in its thinking. It consists of many trees of many species and age groups. It needs water and saves water-p;it needs soil and it really needs the wild species that are associated with it. It needs its beauty. That’s what turns me on. But the Forest Service doesn’t care about this; they care about how you get the timber out.

We’ve lost a huge amount of forests in this country and globally. Forests are, in large part, the way the earth breathes. We have to become aware of what the wild forest is doing for us: It is releasing oxygen, storing carbon dioxide, taking care of water and soil and habitat, and giving us beauty. The marketplace doesn’t count any of those things into its thinking. We must admire and credit nature’s services.

Gretchen Daily, who teaches at Stanford, wrote a book called Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems, which everyone should read. The gist of the book comes from a separate economics study, which says that something like 34 trillion dollars of nature’s services are used every year. There is no program to pay nature back. Before too long, nature will say your credit is no damn good. That is the part they need to remember about wilderness.

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