The Sierra Club that David Brower joined in 1933 was a friendly group of outdoors enthusiasts; he became a leader in the outings program. Three decades later, the organization he ultimately led was drawing the wrath of the IRS (for political advocating as a nonprofit) in a fight against putting dams in the Grand Canyon -- a fight the Sierra Club won, obviously. On the flip side, his great regret was acquiescing to the Glen Canyon Dam that created Lake Powell.
Brower's rise tracked a basic shift in the American posture toward wilderness. He had shepherded a conservationism of leisure into a robust, disciplined political force.
Brower wasn't just an activist or an executive. He was an inventor, an oracle (as his lively Times obituary by John Balzar puts it), a vivid and charismatic prototype of what we now think of as the environmentalist. The obituary places Brower in the company of John Muir, Rachel Carson and the philosopher Aldo Leopold as the "four towering figures" of the 20th century environmental movement. Martin Litton, a fellow crusader, called Brower, "in his time, the soul of the movement to save the Earth."
But his biography isn't all steely passion or first-up-the-mountain triumph. Brower was good at getting fired -- it happened at least three times, including at the Sierra Club and then at Friends of the Earth, which he founded to "make the Sierra Club appear reasonable." And when a friend asked him about a quotation inscribed at the National Aquarium -- "We do not inherit the Earth from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our children" -- Brower didn't recognize the words as his. He later figured out he had uttered them in "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."
-- Michael Owen
Photo: David Brower, climbing a Pinnacles National Monument formation in the Salinas Valley in 1934. Credit: Brower family collection