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Sierra Club leader dies at 88

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet Staff
Tuesday November 07, 2000

With his wife and children by his side, environmentalist and three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, David Brower, 88, died quietly Sunday afternoon in the Berkeley home he built a half-century ago. 

“His spirit and love for the earth and wilderness lives on in all of us who were blessed to know him,” wrote his son, David Ross Brower.  

Even in the last days of his fight against cancer, “he remained so very engaged in the world,” said his daughter Barbara Brower, adding that her father had even  

voted absentee.  

“He got his Ralph Nader vote in.” 

Brower transformed the Sierra Club from a small hiking group into a political powerhouse during his nearly 70 years of environmental activism. 

Helen Burke, 16-year director on the East Bay Municipal Utility District and member of the local Sierra Club chapter’s executive board, worked with Brower for 30 years on environmental concerns.  

“It’s a great loss,” Burke said, “He is – was – an icon with the environmental movement.” 


Brower had a way of making people feeling uncomfortable, “of making you feel you should do more,” Burke said.  

Brower became the club’s first executive director in 1952, when it had 2,000 members. When he left, the first time, in a dispute with the board in 1969, it had 77,000 members. It now has more than 600,000 members and influence in Washington and in state capitals throughout the country. 

Burke told the Daily Planet, that among the criticisms Brower had of the Sierra Club, was that it had become too bureaucratic and had lost its activist edge. “He was always pushing the Sierra Club to the left. He wanted the club to be more radical.” 

He rejoined the Sierra Club and helped it celebrate its 75th birthday last year, but once again broke with the club in May over its endorsement of Al Gore for president and other issues. It was the third time he left the club. “He was always breaking with the Sierra Club,” Burke said. 

Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader counts himself among Brower’s devotees, calling him “the greatest environmentalist and conservationist of the 20th century. He was an indefatigable champion of every worthwhile effort to protect the environment over the last seven decades.” 

Despite the Sierra Club’s ups and downs in its relationship with Brower, the organization claims the environmentalist as its own. 

“The world has lost a pioneer of modern environmentalism,” Sierra Club President Robert Cox said. “Like the California redwoods he cherished, David towered above the environmental movement and inspired us to protect our planet.” 

Brower also drew praise from President Clinton, who called him “one of the earliest and most ardent defenders of the extraordinary natural heritage that enriches and unites all Americans.” 

“Over more than half a century, from Cape Cod to the Grand Canyon to the Alaska wilderness, he fought passionately to preserve our nation’s greatest national treasures,” Clinton said. “His fiery activism helped build and energize the modern environmental movement, rallying countless people to the defense of our precious planet.” 

An avid mountain climber and skier who dropped out of college as a sophomore after studying butterflies, Brower served in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II and had an outdoor adventure career that took him around the globe. He joined the Sierra Club in 1933 and quickly moved into its leadership, but his greatest influence came after he became executive director. 

He led a campaign to block construction of dams in the Grand Canyon and persuaded skeptical board members to go ahead with the expensive, but successful, “coffee table” books of Ansel Adams’ photographs of park and wilderness areas, which awakened environmental leanings in thousands of readers. 

Brower also led Sierra Club efforts to pass the Wilderness Act, halt dam construction in Dinosaur National Monument, and create Kings Canyon, North Cascades and Redwoods national parks and Point Reyes and Cape Cod national seashore. 

Brower dropped his opposition to construction of a dam in Arizona’s Glen Canyon in order to stop dam construction in Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado. The trade-off haunted him, said his son Ken Brower. 

“Glen Canyon was what he considered his biggest mistake and the worst loss that happened on his watch,” Ken Brower said. “It ate at him considerably and it became an object lesson that he taught, which was ’Don’t compromise.”’ 

He was forced out of his job as executive director in 1969 by board members unhappy that he made major decisions without consulting them. But he went on to found Friends of the Earth and the League of Conservation Voters. 

He resigned from the board of Friends of the Earth after a battle for control in 1986. He also founded the Earth Island Institute. 

“The world is burning and all I hear from them is the music of violins,” Brower said, when he resigned from the Sierra Club in May. “The planet is being trashed, but the board has no real sense of urgency. We need to try to save the Earth at least as fast as it’s being destroyed.” 


The Associated Press contributed to this story