The uncompromising environmentalist behind the Sierra Club

A new book details the rise of the Sierra Club from hiking group to political force.

 

In June 1966, a full-page advertisement appeared in The New York Times and Washington Post, warning readers: “Now Only You Can Save Grand Canyon From Being Flooded … For Profit.” David Brower, Sierra Club executive director, was blasting two proposed dams that would have backed up the Colorado River into Grand Canyon National Park. The attack sounds tame in our vitriolic era, but it triggered such an unprecedented wave of anti-dam letters to Congress that the Internal Revenue Service revoked the club’s tax-exempt status as a non-political organization. When dam backers argued that a reservoir would make it easier to admire the canyon, Brower’s next ad notoriously asked, “Should We Also Flood The Sistine Chapel So Tourists Can Get Nearer The Ceiling?” By summer’s end, his public relations barrage had killed the huge project.

In The Man Who Built the Sierra Club, Robert Wyss details how Brower transformed the club from a modest Pacific Coast hiking network into America’s most prominent environmental organization, in the process elevating the conservation movement into a national political force. Wyss portrays a true believer who fought relentlessly to protect the natural world. He succeeded, Wyss says, “because he made people care.” And he did so by becoming a deft public-relations pioneer.

Born in 1912 in Berkeley, California, Brower discovered the Sierra Club through mountain climbing. (He made 130 first ascents.) He honed his rhetorical skills leading the club’s popular 1930s backcountry outings, playing his accordion and telling campfire stories.

After serving in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division during World War II, Brower became the Sierra Club’s first-ever executive director. His tenure, from 1952 through 1969, marked the country’s most successful environmental protection achievements, and Brower’s outreach was essential, starting with his campaign against a proposed dam in Dinosaur National Monument in the 1950s. Brower inspired supporters through short films and an oversized book of panoramic photographs. At a time when color TV and interstate highways were novelties, Brower presented vivid and breathtaking scenes of remote natural landscapes few had visited, countering claims the region was a wasteland.

David Brower, center, leads a successful protest against the proposed construction of dams on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, in 1966.
Arthur Schatz/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The films, screened from garden clubs to the Capitol, were “the most important thing we did in offsetting the Bureau of Reclamation’s propaganda,” Brower said. The book, edited by Wallace Stegner, launched Sierra Club’s signature coffee-table book series. “(Brower) had created a new genre, an expensive, sprawling book that openly touted an environmental message,” Wyss writes. His films, books and ads not only boosted membership; they helped protect Redwoods and North Cascades national parks and pass the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Those campaigns, Wyss writes, showed how environmental and advocacy groups could use media and public relations “in a way never seen before to win over sympathizers and outrage opponents.” Brower, however, always regretted the compromise that spared Dinosaur, since it led to the damming of the Colorado River and the creation of Lake Powell. Eventually, he opposed nearly all development.

His no-compromise message and natural charisma made Brower a hero on 1960s and 1970s college campuses. He gave what he called “The Sermon” hundreds of times, asking listeners to imagine the Earth’s 4-billion-year geologic history as an abbreviated six-day creation tale. If humans arrived on Earth just minutes before the end of the sixth day, he said, then the Industrial Revolution started one-fortieth of a second before midnight, vividly symbolizing our brief but massive impact on the planet. “Brower was the evangelist, the apostle, the messiah,” Wyss writes, “drawing the young, who would become pilgrims to the cause.”

Brower’s fiery stubbornness would also be his undoing. As director, Brower publicly contradicted the Sierra Club’s support for California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, and later published new books without board approval. In 1969, Sierra Club leaders forced his resignation. Brower started other environmental groups and later reconciled with the Sierra Club, but he never again wielded the same power. He died in 2000, age 88. Wyss laments Brower’s downfall, and argues the conservation movement still suffers from “a leadership vacuum.”

Today, cable news and social media allow people to instantaneously spread information and communicate with officials. Environmentalists still buy newspaper ads, give campus presentations and publish photography books. They also Snapchat, fire off email blasts and give TED talks. This past spring, Patagonia Inc. launched a virtual-reality-enabled multimedia website to defend Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which the Trump administration has since slated for a massive reduction. The website allows a visitor to listen to a Hopi archaeologist talk about Bears Ears’ cultural significance while scrolling around 360-degree views of slot canyons and rock art, as if on a hike. It’s a novel and evocative online experience, even without VR glasses, and the site is still gaining nationwide attention and support for the monument. As you click through the scenes, you see the digital legacy of David Brower’s PR successes — a sermon still being preached.

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