Nature’s mightiest defender in these United States died Sunday in Berkeley, California, 88 years after he entered the world in that same city. His life thus briefly interesected with that of the greatest green champion of the nineteenth century, John Muir who died in 1914. Thus the aged Muir and the infant Brower were both alive at the moment of an event that profoundly shaped the imagination of American environmentalists: the flooding of the Hetch-Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park in 1913.
The inundation of Yosemite’s most beautiful feature taught Brower’s generation of conservationists that without uncompromising defenders, the industrialization of the West would obliterate everything in its path; even the designation of a national park was no guarantee. As Brower famously put it, When they win, it’s forever. When we win, it’s merely a stay of execution.
When Brower was born there was but a handful of national parks across the country. The national forests were in their infancy and had yet to be abused by logging. Nature had its eastern champions in the form of Thoreau, Emerson, George Perkins Marsh and Gifford Pinchot. As westerners respectively bred and born Muir and Brower ranged themselves on a battlefield infinitely greater in scale. Until Muir no one had fought for an entire regional ecosystem as he did for the Sierras. With far more political agility than the flinty Muir, Brower fought for the entire west, then for the environmental stability of the planet.
Muir and Brower knew their mountain ranges first hand. Muir would take a bag of oatmeal and a plaid and hike for weeks. Brower was a rock climber. He made no less than 70 first ascents in the Sierra ranges. He was the first to climb Shiprock in New Mexico, later lamenting that he felt bad about treading on a Navajo sacred site. He was mountain-climbing in the Himalayas above 18,000 feet in his early seventies.
As a Sierra Club activist Brower spent the 1930s watching one vast federal scheme after another scar or drown the western landscapes, from the mines abetted by the Bureau of Land Management, to the Hoover dam on the Colorado, to the opening of the national forests to corporate logging.
In 1952 Brower became the first executive director of the Sierra Club, at that time a 2000-strong group of well-connected, mostly upper-crust Californians. Before long he was plunged into his own most traumatic struggle, as dire as Muir’s over Hetch-Hetchy. The battleground was Glen Canyon, on the Colorado river on the Arizona-Utah border.
The history of the submerged Glen Canyon and its dam, how
it came to be, and its cultural and environmental legacy, has
shaped the development of the modern West and, perhaps more
than any other single issue, haunted the conscience of the
American environmental movement. At the center of the story
was Brower, whose trip down the canyon with Floyd Dominy the dam-building head of the Bureau of Reclamation, was
immortalized in John McPhee’s book, Encounters with the
Archdruid. It was Brower, the most creative and radical
green of his generation, who signed off on the building of
Glen Canyon dam in 1956, as part of a deal to keep
the Bureau of Reclamation from building the Echo Park dam
inside Dinosaur National Monument in northern Utah on the
Green River. The decision shadowed him heavily from that day on.
The first big dam to go up on the Colorado had been Hoover in 1935, designed to funnel water to ever-expanding Los Angeles and the fields and ranches of the Imperial Valley. At the time, Hoover dam was the biggest structure ever built and
behind it was Lake Mead, the world’s largest reservoir, holding
back two year’s worth of the Colorado’s annual flow.
Speaking at the dedication ceremony, President Franklin
Delano Roosevelt, extolled the project, touting it as the
first move toward “altering the geography of the region.”
FDR’s words were prophetic, though, one suspects, hardly in
the way he had hoped. The raising of that dam sanctified a
certain mindset toward the arid lands, what the western
historian Donald Worster calls in his book Rivers of Empire
“a world view of permanent subordination”. Nature submerged
is nature subordinated.
The Hoover dam project also inaugurated another grand
tradition of western water schemes: corporate profiting from the
government porkbarrel. The Bureau of Reclamation didn’t
actually build dams: it planned them, lobbied for them,
fudged numbers to make them seem more efficient and fended
off attacks against them from Congress and conservationists.
Dam building is big business and those billions of dollars
were predestined to end up in the coffers of corporations,
not the bureaucracy. The lucrative contracts for Hoover dam
alone transformed three relatively obscure firms
(Kaiser, Bechtel and Morrison-Knudsen) into corporate
Goliaths that have rampaged across the globe causing
ecological mayhem and human misery ever since. Bechtel would
build Glen Canyon dam and oversee the excavation of one of the
world’s biggest coal mines, Peabody Coal’s Black Mesa mine
on the adjacent Navajo Reservation.
Hoover was California’s deal. Now the Clorado’s Upper Basin states — New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming — wanted their
shot. Their scheme was grandiose, including mega-dams at
Flaming Gorge, Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument and
Glen Canyon. It looked as though the water barons would get
exactly what they wanted. They always had in the past. But
then in 1952 along came Brower, the newly hired
executive director of the Sierra Club. Over the next few
years, Brower would come to know more about the region than
nearly anyone, including Dominy and the ill-tempered Rep.
Wayne Aspinall, the pro-dams Colorado Democrat who ruled the
House Interior committee with an iron fist during the great
fights over the fate of the river. Brower was fond of saying
that though he dropped out of Berkeley, he “graduated from
the University of the Colorado River.”
Brower was outraged by the Bureau of Reclamation’s plan to
erect a dam on the Green River inside the stunning canyons
of Dinosaur National Monument in northern Utah. The proposal
reeked of the terrible defeat over Hetch-Hetchy in 1913. After that travesty, the
Club made a pact: no more dams inside national parks or
Brower may not have known just how good he was. At hearings
on the Upper Colorado Storage Act, the bill that was to
authorize the Upper Basin dams, Brower ran circles around
the Bureau of Reclamation and its congressional allies,
pointing out distortions and outright fabrications in their
testimony before the committee. “How can you trust an agency
to build dams when they cannot add, subtract, multiply and
divide?” he asked the dumbstruck committee.
Brower was also a master organizer, generating one of the
first great national campaigns in the history of the
environmental movement. But from the beginning Brower’s
focus was fixed on keeping a dam out of Dinosaur National
Monument. At all costs he feared the precedent of
Hetch Hetchy. So Brower proposed a compromise. In exchange
for keeping a dam out of Dinosaur, the Club wouldn’t oppose
a dam at Glen Canyon. Indeed, Brower even supported a scheme
to raise the height of Glen Canyon dam to accommodate more
In hindsight, it seems clear that Brower might well have been
able to beat back both dams. A few years after Glen Canyon
was authorized, Brower and the Sierra Club crushed a
proposal to build two more dams downstream in the Grand
Canyon itself, a campaign that made public relations history
with full-page ads in the New York Times under the banner,
“Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel, so tourists can
get nearer the ceiling?” The Grand Canyon dams were dead the
moment those papers hit the street. And so was the Club’s
tax-exempt status. Brower believed Steward Udall, then LBJ’s
Secretary of Interior, pushed the IRS to take action against
the Sierra Club in retaliation.
For two years the concrete poured nonstop into the towering
pilings of the dam and the town of Page sprung up on the
canyon’s rim. It’s now a city of 5,000 people, famously
describe by Edward Abbey as “the shithead capital of
Arizona.” The floodgates on Glen Canyon dam closed on March
23, 1963. From the observation deck outside Page,
quarter-mile downstream from the dam, the 710-foot tall
structure appears as a sleek blonde colossus sunk into the
blood-red Navajo sandstone.
As the dam began to be raised, David Brower and the photographer
Eliot Porter took one last float down the river. They
documented their trip in a book, archly titled The
Place No One Knew. It was a elegaic testimony to what had
been lost, fully capturing the haunted beauty of the canyon.
But the book’s title was also somewhat self-serving and
deceptive. Many people knew and loved Glen Canyon,
intimately and passionately, among them folksinger Katie
Lee, river guide Ken Sleight and Kent Frost, Abbey,
University of Utah historian Gregory Crampton, and the
thousands of people who had floated the Colorado and San
Glen Canyon was not a
wilderness, per se. People had been living there for
centuries, farming the bottomlands of the Colorado and
San Juan. Those people were the Navajo and Ute tribes and
before them the Anasazi. As is so often the case, dams
displace people, swallow whole communities. Despite its
remoteness, Glen Canyon dam was no exception. In fact, the
dam site itself was on land owned by the Navajo Tribe. The
Navajo were given in exchange the so-called New Lands, a
couple hundred miles to the south near Chambers. Nuclear
lands would be a better description, since they ended up
being contaminated by a big uranium spill into the Rio
Another person who knew what would be lost with Glen Canyon
dam was the writer Wallace Stegner, a close friend of
Brower’s who had floated through Glen Canyon twice. Indeed,
before the deal was finalized Stegner told Brower that it
was a mistake to trade Glen Canyon for Dinosaur National
Monument. “Between us, Dave, Dinosaur doesn’t hold a candle
to it,” Stegner said. By then it was too late. The die had
been cast; the fatal deal struck.
Looking back on it, Brower himself soon came to learn that
Stegner was right. He called the deal his “greatest mistake,
greatest sin.” In one way or another, Brower, the archdruid,
spent the past forty years attempting to atone. Glen
Canyon has become a testament to the perils of political
dealmaking when it comes to the environment. “Never trade a
place you know for one you don’t,” Brower again and again warned
Glen Canyon steeled Brower, making him not only more militant but more politically creative. He kept more dams out of the Grand Canyon. He engineered
passage of the Wilderness Act, setting aside tens of
millions of acres of public lands. If it had not been for
Brower Alaska would have become a back lot of the oil and
With the Sierra Club’s tax exempt status gone Brower swiftly shed the sedate manners of genteel conservationism. The fiery stance of today’s green militants owes everything to Brower, whose widening areas of concern began to vex his colleagues in the Sierra Club moree and more as he he threw himself into battles against nuclear power and the big utilities, whose executives were tied into the same San Francisco establishment that had nourished the Sierra Club. On May 3, 1969, in one of the most notorious evictions in American environmental history, the board of the Sierra Club threw out their leader.
Brower didn’t slow down. He founded Friends of the Earth
which globalized environmental issues and made arms control
a green concern. Ultimately 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
creativity as an organizer fostered an umbrella for grass
roots activists working on issues ranging from the threat of
the Siberian forests to the plight of the dolphins and
Along with his drive and vision there was always 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 — with
the purview of green organizers.
In his mid-80s Brower didn’t slow up. He was in New York, battling Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s plan to sell off the city’s communal gardens; then in
Houston where he helped cement an unusual alliance
between steelworkers and Earthfirsters, both of whom have a
common enemy in the form of Maxxam boss, Charles Hurwitz.
He launched a drive to be elected
president of the Sierra Club’s board.
Brower set forth his vision in a letter to friends and
supporters, in which he attacked 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 wrote, “is seen “as a bit smug, arrogant,
with over-weening pride.. We can do something about those
perceptions. 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. The reversal is overdue.”
To the Sierra Club’s Old Guard, conservative and timid, the
prospect of Browerian irruption was horrifying. There was open civil war between the business-as-usual Old Guard, mustered around executive director Carl Pope, and the thousand of militant grass-roots club members in chapters across the country. Brower was beaten off. A few months later he resigned from the board, saying bitterly thast it had connived at dozens of betrasyals of the environment in the 1990s, when in his opinion Clinton and Gore had done more damage than Reagan or Bush.
Just under a year ago the 87-year old Brower was in Seattle, ranged alongside demonstrators against the World Trade Organization two and three generations younger than himself and owing much of their inspiration to him. In the spring of this year Brower, battling cancer, returned
to the Four Corners region to inaugurate a new campaign
aimed at decommissioning Glen Canyon dam, draining Lake Powell and restoring Glen Canyon. “It’s time to correct one of the most egregious errors of the last century,” Brower said. “The decommissioning of that dam will give the restoration era its big break and bring a lot of joy to the 1600 miles of Glen Canyon and its side canyons that are magnificent gestures of the Earth, in_Ansel Adams’ phrase,_unmatched on Earth or anywhere else. They are
waiting eagerly to be born again. I know, I asked them all.”
“David Brower’s seeds will never die,” said Brower’s friend Tim Hermach, executive director of the Eugene, Oregon-based Native Forest Council. “They are scattered all over the globe. It’s our job to make sure that his legacy continues to inspire now as Dave did in life.”
Brower’s wife Ann, who did more than anyone to put the steel in Brower’s spine, to bring his soaring ego down to earth, and to teach him the organizing and fund-raising possibilities green journalism and photography, talks about a rock on Brower’s desk. It’s from the bottom of Glen Canyon nand it sat there in front of him as a reminder of what had been lost and what can yet be won. Brower was always an optimist. How could a conversationist not be an optimist and fight through most of the twentieth century? The rock is there to inspire the millions he led and taught. CP