David Brower has widely been considered one of the most dedicated, enthusiastic and influential leaders the environmental movement has known. He played a huge role in the formation of several environmental organizations and was instrumental in the designation of numerous wilderness areas around the country. Many believe his fierce approach as an environmental activist was radical and potentially detrimental to the movement's reputation, yet he worked to save wild-lands through a sense of deep commitment and perseverance that flourished throughout his life.
Brower was born on July 1, 1912 in Berkeley, California. He was the third child of four born to Mary Barlow and her husband Ross J. Brower. His parents fostered his love of wilderness at an early age by regularly taking the family on outings and camping trips to the mountains of the nearby Sierras. After losing his job as a mechanical drawing instructor at the University of California, David's father worked as a landlord and janitor. The desire to escape these mundane positions lead him to drive his family into the woods on weekends in a 1916 Maxwell fitted for camping when David was only five years old.
Though David Brower would later grow to become a talented mountaineer and wilderness guide, during these initial trips he rarely strayed far from his parents' watchful eyes. Later in life he recalled being afraid of the deep ravines and rushing rivers that bordered trails on which his family hiked. On one trip to Sentinal Dome, a steep hike in Yosemite National Park, his fear so deterred him, he refused to even get out of the car.
When Brower was eight years old, a brain tumor took his mother's sight after the birth of his younger brother. Though tragic, this occurrence helped Brower develop his budding interest in the wilderness his parents had exposed him to several years earlier. Brower became his mother's guide, leading her initially around the neighborhoods of Berkeley and eventually into the surrounding hills. By giving "sight" to his mother, Brower too was able to appreciate the views from high places and the beauty of the natural world. In his book, Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run, he recalls:
"Then she got bold, and I got bold, and together we walked from our house, about 200 feet above sea level, to Grizzly Peak - at 1,759 feet, it was the second- highest point in our Berkeley Hills…At the top, I described the vista for her: the hills; the galaxy of wild flowers; the few new houses; a red-tailed hawk floating on the wind, looking for field mice; the fog coming over San Francisco Bay; the glimpse of the open sea through the Golden Gate."
Aside from time spent in the outdoors with his family as a young boy, and acting as eyes for his mother, Brower attributes his appreciation for nature to a childhood accident in which he lost his front teeth. The embarrassment of having no teeth and the ridicule from his classmates led him to spend much of his childhood alone, playing outside in the woods. In nature he found solace and peace and grew to feel safe in the world away from other humans.
Brower entered the University of California at Berkeley at the very early age of 16 with an interest in studying entomology. Due to financial hardship he only spent a short time in college, leaving the University after his sophomore year to work not far from home at a concession stand in Yosemite. Being immersed in park life allowed Brower to explore his surroundings and hone his skills as a mountain climbing enthusiast, having finally overcome his childhood fear of heights. During this time he also befriended renowned nature photographer Ansel Adams, who would later inspire Brower to become a member of the Sierra Club.
In 1930 he was hired as a clerk at Echo Lake Camp, one of three summer camps run by the city of Berkeley on the outskirts of Yosemite. Here he ventured into the wilderness with guests of the camp, met other outdoor enthusiasts and had ample time in the off season to ascend peaks in the area. It was a guest at Echo Lake Camp who initially introduced Brower to the Sierra Club Bulletin, a publication that Brower read often and used as inspiration for trips into the mountains.
In 1933, after three years spent working at Echo Lake Camp, adventuring in the wilds and diligently reading back issues of the Bulletin, Brower became an official member of the Sierra Club. A short two years later, in 1935, he was hired as publicity manager for Yosemite National Park where he would work for the next six years, all the while becoming a more ardent and outspoken advocate for the protection of wild places.
Throughout his adult life Brower has been credited with 70 first ascents of peaks around the United States. In 1939 he led the first successful climb of New Mexico's dangerous Shiprock. While his mountaineering accomplishments mounted, so did his ideals as an environmentalist. Time spent in the wilderness fueled his passion for preserving it, and in 1941 Brower was elected to the Sierra Club Board of Directors. During this time he was also hired as an editor at the University of California Press. Here he shared an office with his future wife Anne Hus.
A year later he enlisted in the army as a mountaineering guide, training troops stationed in the Italian Alps during World War II. He proposed to Anne via mail after a brief courtship and the two were married during Brower's leave from the army on May 1, 1943. The couple built a home on Grizzly Peak in Berkeley, where Brower had led his mother on hikes as a child. Here, the two raised their four children and resided for the entirety of their lives.
Upon his return to California in 1945 after serving duty, Brower continued to work for the University Press and became editor for the Sierra Club Bulletin, the magazine that had inspired many of his outdoor trips in and around Yosemite.
In 1952 he was employed as Executive Director of the Sierra Club. Brower's leadership during this time is considered to have been extreme and somewhat controversial. Though membership grew from 2,000 to 77,000 during his seventeen year tenure, he was often thought of as militant and opinionated. Brower did however play an instrumental role in many of the organization's successes. With Ansel Adams he published This is the American Earth, the Sierra Club's first book, and was instrumental in lobbying for the 1964 signing of the Wilderness Act.
Upset, however, at the failure of the club to prevent the construction of Glen Canyon Dam across the Colorado River in 1963, Brower spent large amounts of time and money on the prevention of dam construction in the Grand Canyon. This included running a controversial full-page advertisement on the back of the New York Times calling for wide-scale opposition to the dam's construction. Unfortunately, Brower's aggressive lobbying backfired and the Sierra Club lost its tax-deductible status in 1967. Two years later Brower was fired from his position as executive director.
Widespread controversy did not deter him from his passion as an influential, albeit fiery, environmentalist and soon after losing his Sierra Club position he founded the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth and its sub-organization the League of Conservation Voters. Today, this organization has several branches around the globe and is still a well-known conservation entity.
Throughout the following years, Brower continued to fight for the preservation of wild landscapes. He had a large impact on the formation of national parks across the nation, from Alaska to Cape Cod. Always passionate about the prevention of dams, he continuously worked to keep construction out of the Grand Canyon, the Yukon and Dinosaur National Monument. In 1982 he founded another environmental organization, the Earth Island Institute whose mission includes working for environmental and social justice.
At times, Brower's strict and extreme viewpoints on wilderness protection made the road for him rocky, but he never strayed from his ultimate goals of preservation. In honor of his dedication to wild-lands preservation, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, in 1978, 1979, and 1998. Though often isolating, his commitment never wavered and he still remains one of the environmental movement's most respected advocates.
David Brower passed away on Sunday, November 5, 2000 at the home he and Anne built on the Grizzly Peak. His voice lives on through the numerous organizations he had a hand in creating and his legacy still inspires the thoughts and actions of today's wilderness lovers around the world.
"Do you have magic in you? You bet. Magic is that little genetic genius that has been evolving for three billion years: It connects us all to each other and to everything that has come before and still lives on the planet. That is some magic, and it was formed in wilderness. Let us begin. Let us restore the Earth. Let the mountains talk, and the rivers run. Once more, and forever."
- David Brower (Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run)
1912 Born to Mary Barlow and Ross J. Brower, Berkeley, California
1918 First camping trip to Yosemite National Park with family
1933 Joins Sierra Club
1939 Leads first ascent of Shiprock in New Mexico
1941 Becomes editor at the University of California Press, Voted to Board of Directors of Sierra Club
1942-1945 Called to duty WWII, 10th Mountain Division
1943 Marries Anne Hus
1952 Hired as Executive Director of Sierra Club
1956 Defeat of proposal to put dams in Dinosaur National Monument
1960 Formation of Sierra Club Foundation
1963 Completion of Glen Canyon Dam on Colorado River
1964 Wilderness Act signed
1967 Construction of Grand Canyon Dams stopped, Sierra Club loses tax-deductible statue due to aggressive lobbying
1969 Fired from Sierra Club, Founds Friends of the Earth and League of Conservation Voters
1970 Friends of the Earth established in the United Kingdom and France
1978 Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize, Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize for the second time
1982 Founds Earth Island Institute
1998 Elected to Board of Directors of the Native Forest Council
1994 Co-Founds the Ecological Council of the Americas
1998 Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize for the third time, Receives Blue Planet Prize from the Asahi Glass Foundation of Japan
1999 Founds Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment
2000 Passes away at home in Berkeley, California
Brower, D. (1990). For Earth's Sake: The life and Times of David Brower. Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs-Smith Publisher.
Brower, D. (1995). Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
David Brower. People Weekly, 33(17), 103-106. CNN. (2000). Environmentalist David Brower Dead at 88.
Earth Island Institute. (n.d.). David Ross Brower: 1912-2000.
Schrepfer, S. (Interview). (1974-1978). Personal Interview with David R. Brower: Environmental Activist, Publicist, and Prophet. Berkeley: Regents of the University of California and the Sierra Club, 1980.
Weiss, D. (2002). Ecology Hall of Fame: David Brower 1912 - 2000.
Wikipedia. (2007). David R. Brower.