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David Brower, crusader for the environment, dies at 88

Nature: 'Soul of the movement' made the Sierra Club a force and led fight to reject Grand Canyon dams.

November 07, 2000|By John Balzar | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

David Brower, an oracle for wilderness and the most indomitable environmental warrior of 20th century America, has died. He was 88.

Brower, who died of bladder cancer Sunday at his home in Berkeley, was a combative, prickly, inspirational and visionary figure who led the transformation of an easygoing culture of nature lovers into a hardened army of nature defenders.

Among his achievements, Brower spearheaded the fight to save the Grand Canyon from dams. He also organized successful opposition to dams that would have flooded Dinosaur National Monument--although paying a price he would always regret: acquiescing to Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, above the Grand Canyon.

Brower, with flyaway hair and piercing blue eyes, sounded the rallying cry for Redwood National Park and Point Reyes National Seashore, among others. He was influential in making nuclear power an issue for environmentalists, and he was among the first to insist that the environment was a matter of global concern.

He instituted the publication of the large-format books and full-page advocacy advertisements in newspapers that are commonplace today as a means of driving home warnings of the threats to wild places. In countless other fights, right down to preservation of community gardens in big cities, Brower's influence altered the landscape and the values of contemporary America.

He became the first executive director of the Sierra Club, remaking a quiet organization of hikers and picnickers into the nation's leading conservationist organization. Later, he founded Friends of the Earth, a more pugnacious group. In both instances, his fiery temperament and audacity ultimately led to his estrangement from those organizations, but did little to diminish his reputation.

"Judged by his life and his career, he was, in his time, the soul of the movement to save the Earth. He became its flag bearer," said Martin Litton, a fellow crusader for more than five decades. "More than anyone else, including John Muir, he endowed the Sierra Club with greatness. Dave lived in a time when you couldn't just rhapsodize about nature. You had to be hardheaded about it, and he was."

Denis Hays, international chairman of Earth Day, called Brower "the gold standard by which many leaders of the environmental movement judged themselves, and usually came up short."

One of Four Towering Figures

In 20th century America, four towering figures shaped what is now regarded as environmentalism: the trailblazer John Muir, who died in 1914; the writer Rachel Carson, who forced the country to fathom the dangers of industrial pollution; the philosopher Aldo Leopold, who championed wilderness and popularized the science of ecology; and the activist Brower.

He came to prominence 50 years ago, just as America's mood about the outdoors was ready to shift. Ingrained ideas about reclamation and gentleman conservationists were yielding to concerns about ecosystems, about the impact of industrialization, about sustainability and human responsibilities to nature. In a simplified sense, as the ideas of Muir, Carson and Leopold ripened, Brower undertook the harvest.

He was a tireless crusader who recruited untold thousands of converts to the cause. Hardly anyone with a position of influence in the environmental movement today was untouched by his passion.

Basically shy, sometimes aloof, frequently arrogant, Brower would loosen up in the outdoors with his engraved Sierra Club steel cup in his hand and the sound of wind in the trees, or likewise at his favorite watering holes with a Tanqueray martini before him. For a while, ground zero for his work was a neighborhood hangout, Enrico's Sidewalk Cafe in San Francisco's North Beach, where Brower held court in his own booth, complete with private telephone.

In his book "Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run," Brower told how he wanted to be remembered, and summed up his conservation philosophy. At the time, he was in the nation's capital, and a fellow environmentalist had asked him the source of the quotation, "We do not inherit the Earth from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our children."

"I have no idea," Brower replied.

Why, said the friend, those words are chiseled in stone at the National Aquarium in Washington "and your name is underneath them."

Brower was pleased but puzzled. "At home in California, I searched my unorganized files to find out when I could have said those words. I stumbled upon the answer in the pages of an interview that had taken place in a North Carolina bar so noisy I could only marvel that I was heard at all. Possibly, I didn't remember saying it because by then they had me on my third martini."

Brower continued: "I decided the words were too conservative for me. We're not borrowing from our children, we're stealing from them--and it's not even considered to be a crime.

"Let that be my epitaph, when I need it."

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