Our Son of a Bitch

Remembering David Brower, a complex man who took it upon himself to complete a simple task: save the planet

Feb 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

With tributes from John McPhee, Julia "Butterfly" Hill, Stewart Udall, Barry Lopez, Roderick Nash, Don Kegley, Doug Peacock, and Dave Foreman

IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE HE PACKED IT ALL INTO ONE LIFE. Posting 33 first ascents in the Sierra Nevada; earning a Bronze Star with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy during World War II; transforming a regional hiking society called the Sierra Club into a national political powerhouse (then getting himself booted from same); keeping dams out of Dinosaur National Monument and the Grand Canyon; founding Friends of the Earth and the Muir Institute and the League of Conservation Voters and the Earth Island Institute; leaving his fingerprints all over the Wilderness Act, as well as the creation of Point Reyes National Seashore, Redwood National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, North Cascades National Park, and dozens of other wild places that remain wild because he thought there ought to be some places civilization shouldn't go. In sum, a spectacularly creative life with a crowning achievement: inventing environmental activism as we know it. By the time David Brower died of bladder cancer in his Berkeley, California, home on November 5, 2000, he'd crammed a dozen lives into his 88 years.

He was not, to say the least, universally beloved. He could be arrogant and impractical, drove the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth up the wall and nearly into the ground, and left scores of shattered relationships in his wake. He made a point of being the most unreasonable son of a bitch in the room. Floyd Dominy, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner who dammed the West, once said, "I can't talk to Brower, he's so goddamned ridiculous." Brower wore Dominy's scorn (and later, his grudging respect) as a badge of honor.

By playing the extremist, he knew he'd make other environmentalists look downright conservative. He could be angry and bitter and smugly righteous; too often he equated compromise with corruption, sometimes to the detriment of his own cause. Brower often invited comparison with John Muir, and nowhere were their similarities more striking than in the cross each man bore. In 1913, Muir lost the Hetch Hetchy Valley, Yosemite's twin, to a dam and reservoir that supplies San Francisco; in 1963, Brower lost Glen Canyon, the Grand's more subtle sibling, in a bout of geopolitical horse-trading that kept Split Mountain and Echo Park, in Dinosaur National Monument, from being flooded. He never got over it.

Despite all that, he was the most significant champion of American environmentalism in the 20th century. He stopped enormous federal dams with a small army of hikers and his own stubborn voice, and nobody had ever done that before. Full-page ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post are now standard weapons for enviro campaigns, but no one had thought of using advertising as a cannonade before Brower. (And what ads! When the feds suggested the proposed Grand Canyon dams would let tourists float closer to the cliffs, the Sierra Club asked, "SHOULD WE ALSO FLOOD THE SISTINE CHAPEL SO TOURISTS CAN GET NEARER THE CEILING?" Game over.) Others preached the gospel of environmental activism, but none did it louder or longer than he. Above all, Brower showed the rest of us why we needed to save wilderness—and how.

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