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December 2000

Brower, Environmentalist, Passes

By Louis Nuyens

Renown for his resistance to compromise any position he felt to be correct, and for extolling others to act to protect the Earth's natural environment, David Brower was perhaps the single most influential environmental organizer of the 20th century. He died at age 88 on 5 November 2000 in his Berkeley home, with his family close at hand, following a long battle with cancer. He is said to have remained sharp of mind, focused on future plans, and hopeful for the Earth's future until the end.

An activist for over 60 years, Brower's accomplishments include influencing the formation of national parks and seashores, establishment of the National Wilderness Preservation system, and preservation of areas in diverse locales such as Kings Canyon, the North Cascades, Great Basin, Alaska, Cape Cod, Fire Island, Olympic National Park, San Gorgonio, the Redwoods, and Point Reyes.

Without Brower's leadership and personal efforts, the Grand Canyon might have been dammed with hydro-electric facilities; he also helped to prevent construction of dams in the Yukon and in Dinosaur National Monument.

Brower was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, in 1978, 1979 and 1989. He is also credited with helping to launch the proliferation of large-format nature photography books as a way to better sensitize man to nature.

Along the way, Brower founded Friends of the Earth (FOE), Earth Island Institute (EII), the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), the Global Conservation, Preservation, and Restoration (CPR) Service, and the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment (ASJE). He also served twice as Executive Director of the Sierra Club (SC), helping to build it into the most influential environmental organization in the country and leading it in efforts to pass the Wilderness Act.

Both praised and criticized for his unwillingness to compromise on a position he felt was correct, Brower's purism was often not followed by the groups he helped create. He was fired as SC Executive Director in 1969, founded FOE, and was ousted from FOE's board in 1984.

Brower implored environmentalists to vote for Nader in the recent presidential election, saying, "Don't sell your soul to fear," and chastising the Clinton administration for having done more environmental harm to nature in four years than Bush and Reagan had done in 12. But he was not joined by the SC, FOE, or the LCV. Of the Sierra Club, Brower said, "I absolutely abhor going to their board meetings because the club wastes so much time examining its navel. And I just don't think the club's navel is that interesting. What is interesting and fascinating and urgent is what's happening to the Earth."

Brower once quipped that he formed successive environmental groups to make existing groups appear reasonable. But it would be more true to say that he formed each successive group when existing groups had become populated with leaders who did not share his sense of urgency or who he felt to be insufficiently committed to engage in the type of tooth-and-nail fight needed to prevent environmental degradation such as the dams proposed for the Grand Canyon. Each group he founded was visionary: inventive, timely, and enduring.

Although steadfast in his efforts for natural preservation, Brower was also deeply humanitarian. He was as soft-spoken and supportive with conscientious activists as he was vitriolic toward those he felt willfully succumbed.

And he was aware of the value of the natural environment to the human spirit. In a recent interview, Brower said, "I think people are getting tired of looking at stumps. They're starting to look for beauty... We have to accept the fact that we are trashing the Earth and start asking, 'when do we stop'?"

Recent Local Activism

While concentrating on conservation projects across the globe, Brower remained interested issues of various specific locales.

Concerned about potential trends away from conservationism in West Marin and the Russian River watershed, Brower kept tabs on local events through local friends and associates.

Earlier this year, terming it an exercise in "belling (his) own cat," Brower issued a scathing letter criticizing the Marin League of Conservation Voters (MLCV), an offshoot of the national LCV he himself had founded.

Brower wrote, "Industry and pro-development politicians grow increasingly skilled at adopting green camouflage... The Marin LCV has not simply been infiltrated by the opposition; it was created by them."

By Brower's reckoning, the MLCV, which was founded by a political consultant, and a handful of other non-environmentalists, and which has approximately nine active members, had behaved in a manner consistent with a group formed to promote or 'greenwash' anti- or non- environmentalist candidates. He reached his conclusion by reviewing recent MLCV endorsements (such as Joe Nation over Frank Egger for state assembly), and the prior contributors and records of those endorsed (Kinsey, Nation and Rose), and determining that the MLCV had rarely followed its mandate to endorse the candidate most dedicated to environmental preservation.

An inspiration to many across the nation and beyond, David Brower 's vision and voice will be sorely missed. His mentoring of a new generation of uncompromising, environmental activists created new forces to speak to the importance of natural preservation.

Brower would be the first to say that ours is a time in which every one of us is needed, and every one of us must step forward to the best of our ability in order to protect the natural environment that sustains us: "We can't afford the luxury of pessimism. There is something we can do about it. We can make sure all of our women become Rachel Carsons and all of our men become Aldo Leopolds."

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