Online! with David Kupfer
The Final Interview: David R. Brower
An interview with our generation's John Muir, the late David Brower
August 5, 2000 (at his home)
Across the Bay, the soon setting sun hit the fogbank's looming mass as Dave quickly warmed up to his subject. He was expressing justifiable outrage with ongoing economic policies that shortchange nature and leaders who succumb to short term political and economic compromises. He was in fine form. Three months to the day after this interview, Dave Brower passed away on November 5 at sunset, at home surrounded by his wife and children. The day before, he filled out his absentee ballot for Ralph Nader, who he'd publicly endorsed. When I last saw Dave in the hospital the week prior, he was aggressively berating the merit of nuclear fission with his nurse intern, who'd had the nerve to suggest that fission was the solution to our energy crisis. Dave won that argument.
To the very end, he remained indefatigable.
The late Arizona Congressman Mo Udall recalled that "debating Brower -- as clever, tough, and tenacious an opponent as you could want -- on damming the Grand Canyon at the Grand Canyon was comparable to debating the merits of chastity in Hugh Hefner's hot tub in front of an audience of centerfold models, with me being on the side of abstinence."
An interview with our generation's John Muir,
the late David Brower
by David Kupfer
Dave was upset, angry, speaking in a defiant tone. Knowing him over the
years, I learned long ago that it is not hard to crank him up. This time,
Dave, who John McPhee (author, of the epic Brower biography, "Encounters
with the Archdruid") called an emotionalist in an age of dangerous reason,
a visionary...(who)...wants - literally - to save the world," was raging
on about Wall Street and Alan Greenspan. Anne, his partner of 57 years,
calmly listened on. The legendary icon of the environmental movement
declared "we should revoke his right to use the word "green" in his name
until he learns what all this mindless growth is costing the Earth!" There
was never any stopping Dave when he started ranting. He was a raver who
changed the world.
It was a late summer afternoon in Anne and Dave Brower's home, 1,000' high
in the Berkeley hills, built by them 55 years ago and where they raised
their four children. Out the window, to the West, I spied a wall of fog
slowly starting to creep through the Golden Gate as Dave sat in his dining
room, the walls surrounding him adorned by photos by his friend Ansel
Adams, of Shiprock, Tenaya Lake, Yosemite Valley, and Aspens in New
Mexico. There were other photos, of the Grand Canyon, the Himalayas, Mono
Lake, and Dave on a minaret in 1937, along with posters and bumper
stickers calling for restoring Glen Canyon and draining Lake Powell. In
our talk that day, Dave was poignant, and in his tone I heard no uncertain
urgency. We both knew that the cancer he'd been battling had progressed.
His life was evangelical, inspiring, prophetic, turbulent on occasion and
profoundly effective. In his own unique, crusading manner, he built a fire
under the environmental community and kept it stoked for half a
century. While he didn't invent backpacking, he most certainly was one of,
if not the leader in mainstreaming the activity. Brower was also one of
the most articulate, compelling, non-compromising individuals in the
environmental movement. The number of people he personally inspired is
incalculable. He was a political animal, ground in the natural world.
Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd recently said, " Mr.Brower was an
agitator and a stinging gadfly. His drive was relentless. He insisted on
the urgency of the environmental peril and the need for action as the
first, last, and only concern. Throughout his life, Mr. Brower struggled
against two breeds of Homo Sapiens: Those who do the actual environmental
raping and pillaging, and those "boardroom environmentalists" who aid and
abet them by tailoring the tone of their voices and the magnitude of their
actions in defense of the natural world to fit the prevailing political
By both his example and spirit, his lifework reminds us that "boldness has
genius, power and magic in it."
David Ross Brower was born in 1912, and grew up in the hills of Berkeley
when the Golden Gate described a water passage between San Francisco and
Marin County, not a world-famous bridge. After dropping out of the
University of California in 1931-he was more proud of this than of his 9
honorary degrees--he became a mountaineer, making 70 first-ever ascents in
Yosemite and the High Sierra. Much as he would do in the world of
environmental politics later in his life, he found 19 new routes on the
sheer granite walls of Yosemite. He was an instructor in the U.S. Mountain
Troops in World War II, served as a combat-intelligence officer in the
Italian Campaigns, and was awarded the Bronze Star.
For over 65 years, Brower worked on a campaign on behalf of the planet,
its wild places and inhabitants. As an editor, filmmaker, and writer for
the Sierra Club, he broadened environmental awareness in the nation as few
others have. While the Club's first executive director (1952-1969), he
helped transform it from a group of hiking enthusiasts into a political
force as its membership grew from 2,000 to 77,000. He led the successful
campaigns to protect Colorado's Dinosaur National Monument, prevent the
Grand Canyon from being dammed, establish the National Wilderness
Preservation System, and helped add nine areas to the National Park
system, from the Point Reyes National Seashore in California to New York's
Fire Island, from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Alaska. He founded the Sierra
Club Foundation, Friends of the Earth International (on Earth day, 1970),
the Earth Island Institute, and with Marion Edey, the League of
Conservation Voters. Dave created the Exhibit Format books for the Sierra
Club. These were among the first coffee table books, which achieved
beautiful reproduction, revealing a variety of beautiful regions to be
saved and preserved. In topical publishing, Dave Brower brought to
mainstream America the messages of Dr. Paul Ehrlich (The Population
Bomb) and Amory Lovins (Soft Energy Paths). Three times he was nominated
for the Nobel Peace Prize. His incredible circle of friends links William
O. Douglas to Gary Snyder to the Dalai Lama to Julia Butterfly.
Dave had a single-minded defense and pursuit of environmental quality,
however it was threatened. He perceived what many were slow to realize,
that ecological concerns cannot be confined to on region or one
hemisphere. We live on a small, precious planet, where environmental
devastation in one area has an inescapable impact on other areas. His work
with the Sierra Club and subsequently Friends of the Earth and Earth
Island Institute emphasized that point. With his acutely infectious,
uncompromising dedication to his cause, the earth, he pushed and
challenged the norm of what was possible on the political battlefield. As
long as I knew him, he had the passion and energy of someone a fraction of
The Final Interview
Q: What was your introduction to wilderness?
DRB: Through the reading of John Muir. [John] Muir told me about
wilderness. I liked the general idea about wilderness that he picked up
from Thoreau. My first visit, that was very early--we didn't call it wilderness then, it was in 1918, along Highway I-80, across the Sierra, on a one-lane dirt road. No road kill, you couldn't go fast enough.
Q: How has it inspired you?
DRB: I look at wilderness to see what the world does when it is left to it's
own natural devices. There is not much of the world that has been left to
its own devices. I've treasured places not exploited by technology and
Q: The Sierra Club's outings program was one of the earliest programs
aimed at getting people into the backcountry for a real wilderness
experience. Was it just a way to get out into the woods, or was there more
DRB: Too many of the places Muir loved were being lost because too few
people knew about them. John Muir and William E. Colby, his very close
associate, got the idea that if you wanted people to support wilderness,
they needed to know what it is was like. There was no way to prevent
Sierra meadows from being overgrazed and devastated by sheep, for
instance, unless people saw the damage firsthand and at the same time,
also visited unspoiled meadows so as to evaluate the loss. So they started
the outings in 1901, exposing people to wilderness, to help make people
aware of it and give it some political clout. They were the world's first
Q: Did it work?
DRB: John Muir was primarily interested in getting rid of the introduced
sheep.They were his biggest worry, very destructive of meadows,
watersheds, water itself . He wanted to get them out of the wilderness,
and he drove the sheep out.
Q: What did you do to promote backpacking in the Sierra Club?
DRB: I initiated the Sierra Club backpack trips because I'd been a
backpacker myself in 1933 and 1934, for two-month trips. Over 14 years, I
personally led 4,000 people on more than a million - person miles of
wilderness trails. We worked hard to keep our impact to a minimum, that
was the challenge. It is still the challenge.
Q: What were the benefits that wilderness trips provided your family as
they were growing up?
DRB: With my four children, it is part of the memory of every one of them,
etched into them, all the many places where we have been. Exposure to the
high country was magic for every one of them while growing up, part of
their growing up. I never was growing up anyway. I kept enjoying it. To
see them take it on and love it made sharing it with them very much
Q: What is your thinking on the current state of backpacking and your
prognosis for the future of wilderness preservation?
DRB: That would be grim, very grim. Unless we do something about growth, it
won't matter. Unless we improve the number of people working to protect
the environment. Maurice Strong, who put together the UN Conference on the
Environment in 1972 in Stockholm and the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio says
that unless we change what we are doing, change our way of life, we have
only 30 years left. But Wall Street, the big investors, they just don't
want to hear that. They continue doing what they do, calling for more
economic growth, not realizing what economic growth as we know it is
costing the earth. When will we pay the earth back? Unless we change our
attitudes and make change possible, it will not happen. So I find myself
engaged in activities not nearly as enjoyable as backpacking. But in
effect if you want to save backpacking, we have to make some changes.
For example, I am very anxious to save the National Parks from the
National Park Service. I am anxious to save the forests from the Forest
Service. It would be nice if we had a Forest Service instead we have a
timber service. I have had that bias since 1938. The Forest Service has
been very busy trying to build roads. I've been watching the Forest
Service do very strange things... Also, if you want to save wilderness,
you have to pay attention to what happens outside the wilderness as well
as inside wilderness. What Detroit is doing is unacceptable. The pollution
taking place is having a major effect on wildlife and trees, and they
won't be able to handle it. It would be nice if Alan Greenspan understood
what wilderness is about.
We've lost a huge amount of forests in this country and globally. Forests
are, in large part, the way the earth breathes. We've got to become aware
of what the wild forest is doing for us: It is releasing oxygen, storing
carbon dioxide, taking care of water and soil and habitat, and giving us
beauty. The marketplace doesn't count any of those things into its
thinking. We must admire and credit nature's services.
Gretchen Daily, who teaches at Stanford, wrote a book called "Nature's
Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems," which everyone
should read. The gist of the book comes from a separate economics study,
which says that something like 34 trillion dollars of nature's services
are used every year. There is no program to pay nature back. Before too
long, nature will say your credit is no damn good. That is the part they
need to remember about wilderness.
The Forest Service has control over a great deal of wilderness and it is
more concerned about how many human feet rather than how many bulldozers
chainsaws and roads are in it. That's because it is a timber service. The
forest needs wholeness, in its thinking. It consists of many trees of many
species and age groups. It needs water and saves water it needs soil and
it really needs the wild species that are associated with it. It needs its
beauty. That's what turns me on. But the Forest Service doesn't care about
this, they care about how you get the timber out. I think that It would be
helpful if we could switch the timber operations into the Department of
Commerce and reinstate the Forest Service
to be concerned with the entire forest..
Q: Besides changing the mandate of the Forest Service, what else do you
think should be done to improve the stewardship of U.S. recreational land?
DRB: My bright idea is that we should take the BLM and rename it, give it a
new mission. As the National Lands Service, it would have to be concerned
with not only public land, but also about private land. People have to get
the idea that it is not theirs. They may have title but it's not fair,
there are a number of generations down the line, we can't trash [those
lands] now, we need to give them a break. We need an understanding of what
land is. We owe it to the people who are not here yet, not to mention all
the other species, all the billions of people not yet born. Their genes
are right here in our custody. It's too beautiful of a planet to screw up
and we're good at that. We sure know how to trash the place.
We need a new conservationism. It's got to mean more than using up
resources at a slower rate. We've got to do something about restoration,
hanging on to the things we cannot replace and we have to restore as best
we can. It takes quite a bit of confidence to try to restore
nature. Nature knows what to do. At least we can get a start instead of
getting in the way. Conservation, preservation, restoration, restoration
of our own human system.
These are the challenges, some of the things I am working on.
Q: What groups do you think are on the cutting edge of wilderness
DRB: Earth First!, The Sierra Club, California Wilderness Coalition, Friends
of the Earth, Earth Island Institute, Conservation International.
Q: What is it about the magic of wilderness?
DRB: I go back to that quote from Father Thomas Berry. He said put the bible on the shelf for twenty years and read the earth. I've spent a great deal of time reading the earth, and found I am still a 'gee whiz' kid. Even at
my advanced age of 88.1, I'm still impressed with its structure, it's pretty damn amazing, its design and how it has worked its way through
evolution. You begin to admire it. You just start looking at how the world
works, seeing everything that nature provides us. Nature knows how to get water from the ocean, make clouds, rain and snow, and brings us drinking water, and there isn't that much of that on the planet.
Q: Your favorite thoughts about wilderness?
DRB: Wilderness holds answers to more questions than we yet know how to ask. That quote is by Nancy Newhall from "This is the American Earth."
When man obliterates wilderness, he repudiates the life force, which put
him on this planet in a bad way, and in a truly terrifying sense, he is on
his own. That's from J.H. Rush.
Thoreau said, " in Wildness is the preservation of the world."
We can read the earth. There are a lot of questions to be answered
there. A lot of reading can be done in wilderness. Everything else is
messed up. They've found DDT in the Antarctic, so our damage has spread
out pretty far.
Without wilderness, the world is a cage.
Q: Any final words of advice?
A: Persevere....That's where it's at.
* * *
The three volumes of David R. Brower's autobiography:
For Earth's Sake, The Life and Times of David Brower (1990), Gibbs Smith,
Work in Progress (1991), Gibbs Smith, Publisher.
Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run (1995), Harper Collins, revised
edition, 2000, New Society Publishers.
David Brower's final book, for children: "Reading the Earth," 2000,
Berkeley Hills Books.
Two of David Brower's classic books:
The Sierra Club Handbook, 1947.
Going Light - with Backpack and Burro, 1951, 1968.
David Brower's personal website: www.wildnesswithin.com
Earth Island Institute: The Brower Web
David Kupfer grew up backpacking in the Sierras every summer as his family
led Sierra Club Family Backpack/Wilderness Threshold trips for the Sierra
Club. He met and befriended Anne and Dave Brower in 1978. Shortly
thereafter, Brower dubbed him a hyperactivist. As a freelance journalist
and photographer, his work has appeared in the Progressive, Whole Earth
Review, Earth First! Journal, and Earth Island Journal. As an
environmental consultant, his clients have included HBO, Bill Graham
Presents, Hollywood Center Studios, and Tassajara Zen Center. He was the
Executive Director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. He
lives on a small organic farm near Santa Cruz, CA, and works for the
Ecological Farming Association.