A modern Thoreau with sharp elbows

He's been called this generation's John Muir or Henry David Thoreau.

As an uncompromising champion of the environment, David Brower has, in fact, become one of the most influential people in the modern history of the environmental movement.

Now as he moves on to a new role as a sort of activist emeritus, Mr. Brower is once again sending a message in a characteristically Brower way: by being a contrarian.

Last month when the silver-thatched octogenarian resigned from the board of directors of the Sierra Club - a group he has belonged to since the days of Franklin Roosevelt - many inside and outside of the fold were shocked.

But for those who know him, his dramatic exit was just another clever move from the playbook of modern activism he helped write. His goal - as it has always been - was to warn against too much lethargy when it comes calling attention to problems jeopardizing the health of the planet.

"The world is burning and all I hear from them is the music of violins," Brower said in resigning. "May the Sierra Club become what John Muir wanted it to be and what I have alleged it was."

It's a stubborn attitude that has gotten him nominated for three Nobel Peace Prizes, and helped transform the Sierra Club from a group concerned mainly with providing weekend hikes to one with considerable clout in Washington. More than anyone else, he has pioneered the concept of citizens writing elected officials, attending public meetings, buying coffee-table picture books to support preservation, and taking edgy stands on green issues.

Yet the movement Brower helped spawn is today far more complicated and diverse than the one that existed in 1933 when he joined it. While some groups work through the political system - which means inevitable compromise - Brower, feisty as ever, continues to push for change by mustering citizen support for divisive causes.

"The thing that stands out in my mind about Dave is he's always pushing for change - and often times faster than either politicians or the establishment are ready for," says Lester Brown of World Watch Institute. "This, in a profound sense, is the definition of a real leader."

Brower's path has taken him from the transcendental ideology of John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club and exalted nature, to Rachel Carson, whose book "Silent Spring" helped spark the modern environmental age by recognizing the processes that keep ecosystems healthy.

"Unfortunately, only when he dies will he be elevated to sainthood and recognized as the historic environmental hero that he is," says Hunter Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo. "In the meantime, he'll remain a thorn in some people's side."

Even Brower's biggest foes have grudging respect. Back in 1969, Brower was warring with Floyd Dominy, chief of the US Bureau of Reclamation, over damming the Colorado River at Glen Canyon to create Lake Powell. Their confrontations became fodder for John McPhee's book, "Encounters with the Archdruid." Of all the battles Brower fought and lost, it is the submerging of Glen Canyon that haunts him most. Yet his rival still holds him in high esteem.

"[Brower] is a highly dedicated man very willing to go to the mat for what he believes in," says Mr. Dominy. "Dave has no inhibition to defend his position and can be rather sanctimonious at times. [But] I hold no resentment."

A past with pitons

Brower's passion for nature began early, before he fought in Italy during World War II with the storied 10th Mountain Division, a special combat unit of the Army trained to fight on skis. That experience, however, solidified his affinity for the mountains, and when he came home he became an activist. Before rock climbing was in vogue, Brower made 70 first ascents in his beloved Sierra Nevadas.

Reverence for the natural world has often led Brower to take controversial positions - some viewed as antihuman. He maintains, for example, that there are simply too many people on the planet, living in the wrong places, crowding out other species and depleting limited resources. As a result, he's also staked out a tough stand against high levels of immigration, saying the flood of people into the Southwest is putting too much pressure on stressed ecosystems. It's led to charges of racism and intolerance.

But many people who know Brower refute those allegations. "Those who try to diminish his effectiveness portray him as a radical environmentalist who is anti-people, which isn't true," says Mikhail Davis, who oversees The Brower Fund, which supports grass-roots conservation efforts. "No one who has ever met or known him thinks of Dave that way."

Ironically, some of the fiercest attacks on Brower over the years have not come from industry but from other green groups. In recent weeks, Brower has drawn flak from conservation-minded Democrats for supporting Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. Brower says as a conservationist, loyalty is not owed to a party, but to the candidate who will do what is right for the land, air, and water, and the species inhabiting them.

Loyalty to mavericks

Within the Sierra Club, he has aligned himself with the younger, more maverick members - those pushing to end all commercial logging and livestock grazing on public land. "We've forgotten about the public-trust doctrine," says Brower in an interview, referring to the notion that governments steward resources on behalf of current generations and those yet unborn. "Public trust was in Roman law, it was in the Magna Carta, but we've been reluctant to talk about it."

His recent challenge to the Sierra Club hierarchy was not the first time Brower resigned from the board. A few years ago, he quit when the club refused to take a stronger antinuclear stand. Before that, he was ousted after serving 17 years as the club's executive director.

Regardless of the clashes, though, Brower is adored by the club's membership, gaining 15,000 more votes than the nearest candidate in the last election. Today, he notes, he remains a Sierra Club member, and there is little doubt that if the 600,000 members were to compel him to run again, he would be swept into another board term.

To be sure, Brower isn't looking for a retirement party. He wants to keep agitating through his Web page (www.wildnesswithin.com), and he still sits on the boards of half a dozen environmental organizations. Whatever he does, people will be watching, and listening.

"Every now and again, David Brower takes a position that some around him say is wrong, but it always turns out he's right," says Ms. Lovins. "We learned a long time ago that whatever course he's on, it's best to follow."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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