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The Original Green Activist Keeps Going

An old fighter for the environment is still a thorn in the side for many.

May 20, 1999|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

It's been three decades, but he's making one last charge. Thirty years ago this spring David Brower, the man later dubbed "the Arch-Druid," stood at what seemed the apex of his vocation as America's most effective green crusader. Under his leadership the Sierra Club had turned from an elite hiking club of some 2,000 members into a vibrant movement of 77,000. When Brower's Sierra Club stood up for a river, a canyon, a mountain range or a forest, or against a nuclear power plant, politicians had to listen. Brower kept dams out of the Grand Canyon. He engineered passage of the Wilderness Act, setting aside tens of millions of acres of public lands. If not for Brower, Alaska would have become a back lot of the oil and timber corporations.

Brower made some deals he learned to regret: He traded Glen Canyon, up river from the Grand Canyon, to keep a dam out of Dinosaur National Monument. But unlike many of his environmental progeny, he acknowledged the blunder, remarking famously, "Never trade a place you've seen for one you haven't."

Ultimately, his audacity proved too much for the club he'd built from almost nothing. On May 3, 1969, in one of the most notorious evictions in American environmental history, the board of the Sierra Club threw out its leader.

Brower didn't slow down. He founded Friends of the Earth, which globalized environmental issues and made arms control a green concern. In the end, Brower's aversion to compromise proved too much for this organization, too, and he was driven out. Off went Brower to Earth Island, where his astounding organizational creativity fostered an umbrella for grass-roots activists working on issues ranging from the threat to the Siberian forests to the plight of dolphins and turtles.

Along with drive and vision, there's a humanity to Brower markedly absent in many green crusaders. Earth Island became an advocate for environmental justice, bringing social issues--urban population, toxic dumping, the environmental degradation of poor communities--within the purview of green organizers.

Brower, who is 86, has not slowed up. The last few weeks have seen him in New York, battling Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who wants to sell off the city's communal gardens; then in Houston where he's helping cement an unusual alliance between steelworkers and Earthfirsters, both of whom have a common enemy in Maxxam boss, Charles Hurwitz.

Above all, he's in the last moments of a drive to be elected president of the Sierra Club's board. Brower sets forth his vision in a letter to friends and supporters, in which he attacks the present board as "too comfortable with closed-door sessions," not wanting "too much democracy to get in the way of the process." The Sierra Club's board, he says, is seen "as a bit smug, arrogant, with overweening pride. . . . We would make a bigger difference. We'd reverse what we all have lately been doing--merely slowing the rate at which things get worse."

Brower's campaign has explosive potential. Since Brower was fired 30 years ago, the club has all too often stumbled, victim to one unrewarding bout of political expediency after another. There's been open civil war between the business-as-usual Old Guard, mustered around Executive Director Carl Pope, and the thousands of militant grass-roots club members in chapters across the country.

To the Sierra Club's Old Guard, the prospect of Browerian irruption is horrifying. The vote, by the club's board, scheduled for Saturday, will be a squeaker. The pro-Brower forces were jubilant earlier in the month when the reform faction, known as the John Muir Sierrans, captured some crucial slots, but the Old Guard is exerting tremendous pressure on these new board members to reelect the incumbent, Chuck McGrady, a pliant status-quo type from North Carolina.

Watching the struggle with considerable trepidation is Vice President Al Gore, whose prime political card in his stumbling bid for the Democratic nomination is his claim to the green vote. Brower, the man who originally led the Sierra Club into direct political endorsements, remarked on the eve of the 1996 presidential election that Clinton-Gore had done less for the environment than Ronald Reagan or George Bush.

Brower is the last link to Muir. He is still the liveliest and most radical of environmental thinkers. As president of the Sierra Club board, he could refresh the organization's vision. And, as Brower himself says, "No one should count on or worry about me sticking around to bask much longer. . . . As I explained in the centennial issue of Sierra, 'Risk is the spice of life.' "

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