David Brower at a light table. Photo courtesy of Earth Island Institute.
One thing I love about working for the Sierra Club is its rich legacy. Since John Muir's time, countless Club leaders have carried the torch and fought to protect our parks and wildlands for future generations. Looking back in appreciation makes us all grateful for our country’s natural heritage and motivates us to continue that legacy.
That’s why this week we're recognizing David Brower, one of the country's most important environmental heroes, who would have turned 100 on July 1. Not only was he the Sierra Club's very first executive director, serving from 1952-1969, he also started Friends of the Earth, Earth Island Institute, and the League of Conservation Voters. He was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.
But David Brower was more than a resume. He led a movement.
"Before him there were no large grassroots-based environmental campaigns on a national scale," says Bruce Hamilton, Sierra Club's deputy executive director, who first joined the Club in 1969. "There were only a handful of national conservation groups -- us, the Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society, the Izaak Walton League, and some others. The Sierra Club was more like a California hiking club. There were no environmental groups in Washington, DC, focused on national policy. Dave changed all of that."
David Brower (left) and legendary photographer Ansel Adams. Photo courtesy of Earth Island Institute.
Have you ever gazed at the Grand Canyon? Rafted through Dinosaur National Monument? Hiked the North Cascades? Wandered the beaches at Point Reyes National Seashore? Who knows what those places would look like today without Brower?
"He invented a way of tapping into people's emotions and imaginations, and transformed the way grassroots activism happened," Bruce says.
Take the Grand Canyon. In the early 1960s, the Bureau of Reclamation drafted plans to build dams just upstream from Grand Canyon National Park and back up the Colorado River into a portion of the park. Brower and his team responded with an unprecedented full-page newspaper ad with a screaming headline: "SHOULD WE ALSO FLOOD THE SISTINE CHAPEL SO TOURISTS CAN GET NEARER THE CEILING?"
"A full-page ad in the New York Times was a really big deal back then. And it created a huge sense of outrage," Bruce says. "The bureaucrats and pencil-pushers in Washington had no idea how to respond. And they lost."
Brower also pioneered publishing large "exhibit format" books and made Sierra Club films to promote protecting wilderness, the redwoods, and wild rivers.
"Those types of books didn’t exist before. And there was no National Geographic Channel," Bruce says.
The environmental movement has come a long way since Brower was at the helm. These days, multiple green groups in Washington, DC, and in state capitals nationwide hold our representatives accountable. And we use social media to reach our supporters. But today's campaigns for clean air and healthy drinking water still follow the blueprint first laid out by David Brower. We still have environmental disasters. And we still have to take on greedy corporate polluters -- and their pals in Congress and state legislatures.
"Dave would be appalled by things like mountaintop removal," Bruce says. "It's always a fight. Dave would say, 'When we win, the victory is never permanent. When polluters win, it's permanent.' And that's why we keep fighting."