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Conservation News

David Brower's Last Interview

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

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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.

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.

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.

BP: Besides changing the mandate of the Forest Service, what else do you think should be done to improve the stewardship of U.S. recreational land?

DB: My bright idea is that we should take the BLM, rename it, and give it a new mission. As the National Lands Service, it would have to be concerned with not only public land, but also private land. People have to get the idea that land is not theirs. For the generations down the line, we can’t trash (those lands) now-we owe it to the people who are not here yet, not to mention all the other species. The planet’s too beautiful to screw up.

We need a new conservationism. It has to mean more than using up resources at a slower rate. We have to hang on to the things we cannot replace and restore nature as best we can.

BP: So what is it that keeps you motivated to keep fighting for change?

DB: I go back to a quote from Father Thomas Berry. He said, “Put the Bible on the shelf for 20 years and read the Earth.” I’ve spent a great deal of time reading the Earth and have found that I am still a “gee whiz” kid. Even at my advanced age of 88.1, I’m still impressed with it.

BP: What are your favorite quotes about wilderness?

DB: “Wilderness holds answers to more questions than we yet know how to ask.” That quote is by Nancy Newhall from This is the American Earth. “When man obliterates wilderness, he repudiates the life force, which put him on this planet in a bad way, and in a truly terrifying sense, he is on his own.” That’s from J.H. Rush. Thoreau said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Without wilderness, the world is a cage.

BP: What groups do you think are on the cutting edge of wilderness preservation?

DB: Earth First!, The Sierra Club, California Wilderness Coalition, Friends of the Earth, Earth Island Institute, Conservation International.

BP: What do you read to stay abreast of preservation issues?

DB: I read Wild Earth; it is the best of the bunch, along with Earth First! News and the publications of the organizations I mentioned.

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.


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:

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

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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