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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 involved in the founding of the wilderness preservation movement in the United States?

DB: I became one of the principle lieutenants for Howard Zahniser when he was executive director of the Wilderness Society; I carried out his efforts over a period of many years.

Before that, in the 1920s, the Sierra Club had been in the doldrums on the issue of preservation. The Sierra Club had forgotten, it seems, what John Muir had to say about wilderness-it was advocating new roads in the Sierra. It took the conservative Commonwealth Club in San Francisco to straighten them out. The Commonwealth Club put on a conference “Should We Continue Building Roads in High Mountains?” around 1935, and the conservative members of the Club said, “No!” The National Park Service was so excited about roads that in the process of updating the National Park transportation system, instead of going to the environmental movement for help, the director of the NPS went to the American Automobile Association and came up with some spectacular ideas for more and more roads in the parks-very damaging roads that were not necessary. There’s no need to go 70 miles per hour through a national park. I like 30 mph.

BP: Are you more optimistic or pessimistic today?

DB: Unless changes in the attitude of major corporations and big investors can be made, I have to give up on my optimism. I’m not beyond still trying to get them to change. I think it can be done, we just have to get more hands on deck.

BP: Any final words of advice?

DB: Persevere…that’s where it’s at.

Postscript:

Three months to the day after this interview, on November 5, 2000, David Brower passed away at sunset, surrounded by his four children and wife, Anne, in their home of 55 years. The day before, he filled out his absentee ballot for Ralph Nader, whom he’d publicly endorsed. When I last saw Dave in the hospital earlier that week, he was aggressively debating the merits of nuclear fission with his nurse intern, who had had the nerve of suggesting that fission was the solution to our energy crisis. Dave won that battle. To the very end, he remained indefatigable.

For more about David Brower and his legacy:

David Brower’s personal Web site: www.wildnesswithin.com.

John McPhee’s epic Brower biography: Encounters With The Archdruid (Noonday Press, 212-741-6900; $13).

The three volumes of his autobiography: Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run (New Society Publishers, 250-247-9737; $14.95). For Earth’s Sake, The Life and Times of David Brower (1990), and Work in Progress (1991), both out of print, originally published by Gibbs Smith.

David Brower’s final book, for children: Reading the Earth: A Story of Wildness (Berkeley Hills Books, 888-848-7303; $16).

Two of David Brower’s classics (out of print): The Sierra Club Handbook (1947) and Going Light-with Backpack and Burro (1951, 1968).

All of the above in-print books are available from www.backpacker.com/bookstore.


Freelance journalist David Kupfer grew up backpacking in the Sierra Nevada on Sierra Club trips led by his family, and now lives near Santa Cruz, California. He met and became friends with Anne and Dave Brower in 1978.

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