The election of new board members in such an organization as the Sierra Club usually would attract the national interest as much as the minutes of a stamp collectors' meeting. But this week when club members stand up and are counted it may mark a dramatic turning point in the conservation movement. David Brower has taken leave as the club's executive director to campaign cross-country for a slate of directors pledged to his policies; if they lose he will be looking for a job.
There is no disagreement among the voters as to the strength of Brower's personality and very little about his effectiveness. "No group in this country has had more power in the last eight years," an influential Congressman, leader of the forces working for dams in the Grand Canyon, grumbled. Both friends and foes concede that Brower is the man who has given a conservation organization that power.
Yet the club retains its roots in the San Francisco Establishment. From Brower's standpoint, this has been both a strength and a weakness. As a coterie of gentlemen do-gooders, the Establishment has many members who would prefer to treat developers and exploiters as basically good fellows deep down, whose consciences could be aroused if only their feelings were not too badly bruised.
Brower's missionary evangelism has always prompted a certain unease within the club. As their stubborn hired hand has more and more directly confronted powerful opponents—the utilities, Arcata Redwood, the chairman of the House Interior Committee and the Internal Revenue Service, to name a few—the conservative older members have been more worried by the spiraling budget and commitments than they have been impressed by the rocketing membership and income. They have tended to argue, contrary to Thoreau, that in mildness is the preservation of the world. Nervously, they have chipped away at Brower's powers. Reacting defiantly, Brower has squeezed some of his programs through loopholes and others around the edges of restrictions.
April 14, 1969
Personally, David Ross Brower is a patricianly handsome, disquietingly intense, preternaturally young man of 56 with a magnificent shock of prematurely white hair—an amiable zealot whose reproach might shame the Angel Gabriel. He has been executive director of the Sierra Club for the last 16 years.
The terrible-tempered Sierrans are the self-appointed vigilante defenders of wilderness, wildlife and parklands. They have saved the Grand Canyon, some of the redwoods and, very possibly, your local fish. As the first conservation organization to move much beyond the penning of valentines to Mother Nature in the letters columns of weekly newspapers, the Sierra Club has forcefully impressed itself upon the sometimes reluctant attention of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon; the Bureau of Reclamation (so-called); assorted Congressmen; the beaverish Army Corps of Engineers; numberless highway, utility, oil and lumber lobbyists; Secretary of the Interior, Walter J. Hickel; and the Internal Revenue Service, which was so impressed by the club's success in influencing legislation that it paid it the compliment of reneging on the tax exemption customarily bestowed on harmless bird watchers.
Under Brown's direction the Sierra Club has grown more than 1,000%, a rate of increase greater than even that of the federal budget and common housefly combined. At present acceleration, it has been calculated, the membership of the club would be one million by 1975 and before 1995 would include every man, woman and child in the U.S. In 1952, when Brower became executive director, the membership was 7,000 and the budget was $75,000; in 1969 the club deploys nearly $3 million. It is reckoned that merely in the last two or three years the organization has stood in the way of $7 billion worth of construction it considered destructive to the environment.
The Sierra Club—and Brower—has provided Panzer divisions for the posy-pickers. In so doing they have won friends—and enemies—in the highest places. The Sierra Club values its enemies, for they are of a kind previously unknown to conservationists: scared ones.
Even physical descriptions of Brower reflect the emotions he arouses. He has been called ruddy-cheeked, athletic—and Brahmin-like. "Once some chuckle-head even called me lean," he grins. A skiing magazine once categorized him as a blend of "Captain Marvel, Disraeli and the White Tornado."
A skilled mountain climber with numerous first ascents to his credit (possibly the best American Alpinist of his decade before an injury), the conservationists' Gideon is also a fine pianist and a first-class photographer. He has been editor, director and chairman of books and organizations too numerous to mention. He was born and raised in Berkeley and still lives atop one of its highest hills in a modest house from which one can see the Bay, the bridges, Marin County and probably, on a clear day, a revelation.
"I dropped out of Cal in 1931 as a sophomore," Brower says. "It was a hard time anyway, and I didn't find the work challenging. In 1933, when I was 21, I joined the club. In 1936, Ansel Adams proposed me as executive director, three years after he sponsored me for membership and 26 years before the position was created."
Brower served in the Tenth Mountain Division in World War II, writing a basic manual and instructing troops in Colorado, France and Italy. "The Alps confirmed my belief in wildness," he says. "All those mountains in Switzerland punched so full of holes that they have to be held together with cables. They strengthened my desire to protect the places in the Sierra Nevada where 'the hand of man has not set foot,' as Mrs. Malaprop might have said.
"My exposure to the natural environment began humbly enough, car camping with my family each summer. When I was 8, my mother lost her vision. I think that did a lot for my ability to observe. I would take her for walks in the hills. That looking for someone else may have sharpened my appreciation of the beauty in natural things."
Whether he pulled his Excalibur out of the rocks of the Alps or the Sierra Nevada, his hand fits the hilt. When Brower returned home from the war, he plunged into a series of preservation battles, culminating in the fight to save Dinosaur National Monument. During this successful battle he became executive director. Since then, the onslaught has been unconditional and unremitting.
When the visionary, witty naturalist John Muir and his friends founded the Sierra Club in 1892, they succeeded in preserving Yosemite as a national park shortly thereafter and then helped add Mt. Rainier and Glacier National Parks. But from 1914 (the year of Muir's death) till Brower's advent, the club won no major battles. Since then, the roll of victories in large part attributable to the Sierrans has read like Caesar's Gallic wars. Besides working to save the aforementioned Grand Canyon, redwoods and endangered Dinosaur, the club and its allies have rescued the central Great Smokies, the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, the Allagash wilderness in Maine, the Everglades in Florida and Storm King in New York; established North Cascades National Park in Washington and Canyonlands in Utah; obtained National Seashores on Cape Cod and Point Reyes; successfully agitated for a Wild Rivers Bill safeguarding at least six forever free-flowing rivers, and initiated a Wilderness Bill under which 167 wilderness areas in 13 states have already been declared off limits to motor vehicles.
The club's massive publishing program has produced 50 books and proposes 100 more. For prices up to $25, buyers get the best photography being done anywhere, some very high-powered propaganda and a chance to subsidize their own conversion. The 19 big books have sold 255,000 copies and grossed $3,850,000; the paperback offshoots have been No. 1 on quality bestseller lists, selling some half a million copies. Ten films have been made, and the club will soon produce television spots and specials.
Now, at Brower's urging, the Sierra Club has shucked its last association with tennis shoes, butterfly nets and binoculars by taking on the ultimate project, a project of heroic, some say foolhardy, proportions. The Sierrans hope to preserve, for preservation's sake, one species in its essential natural habitat and ecology. It has chosen the wildest of Earth's wildlife, the predator Man.
"The Sierra Club," Brower says, "is not so much defending nature. In due course, nature can take care of itself. Our motives are more selfish: the preservation of our own lives and well-being.
"We are fighting the good fight, the war against man's own ignorance and cleverness. Against his ignorance, because he's got to stop piling people up deeper. Against his cleverness because he's got to control rampant technology. This society does not exist to serve its economy; the economy exists to serve society."
Brower is deeply troubled by the sometimes bitter opposition to his "shoe-banging" tactics, more so than he will confide to a stranger. ("Brower is human," a friendly board member says. "I've seen Dave choked up, virtually in tears. He's done things that have hurt Brower; he's never done anything that hurt the club.")
"Some people who are more objective than I could ever be read envy into it," Brower says, frowning unhappily. "If that's true, I can understand it. I was getting all the publicity. Others were getting very little. I was getting paid, and others worked hard as volunteers.
"The accusation of arrogance very well could have validity. But, in my defense, we've been badly understaffed, and I have been busy. There was a communications gap. I didn't keep the board informed. I kept things too self-centered, didn't spend enough time giving them the feeling they were involved. That was a fault on my part.
"Did I enjoy publicity? I'd have to lie to say no. But I don't think allegations about power have any substance. I just don't want to have to wade around in glue all day. I'm not grabbing for power, I just want to have enough authority to be able to work. Maybe I do need a man who can smooth the waves I make," Brower muses, "someone who can spot my glaring errors in judgment when they're just pinholes. But we conservationists can't go all willowy in the spine. We have miles to go and many promises to keep. Action, commitment, brings support. My creed is that W. H. Murray quote, 'Concerning all acts of initiative, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help that would otherwise never have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance.... I have learned deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:
Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.' "
Ansel Adams, one of the best black-and-white photographers in the world, author of some of the most striking pictures in the club's prizewinning books, is now Brower's bitterest critic and the spiritual leader of the opposition group (which calls itself CMC—Concerned Members for Conservation). "Brower is the Ziegfeld of conservation," Adams says. "Brower is the Zeckendorf of conservation."
Adams, a friendly, hearty gnome with a stubborn chin nearly concealed by a gray bush of a beard and a strong forehead concealed by no hair whatsoever, lives in a house looking down the magnificent, monochromatic Big Sur, south of Carmel. The patriarch still says splendid things: "Wilderness is to the great megalopolis what the commons was to the little village of bygone days. But if the wilderness is overused, it can no longer be a democratic commons. Take Yosemite as example."
Or, "The big enemy now is not the dam and highway builders. It's the damn unconcerned people. People want to take all their comforts, everything, into the wilderness. All they want is a different view out their trailer window."
Adams does not deny certain of Brower's qualities. "Brower is highly imaginative," he says. "He has elements of genius, if genius means ability to conceive and drive things through. I will concede the whole thing: he is a genius. He's a charmer. The Brower group is very passionate, almost inquisitorial. I think that may not be what we need now."
There is no doubt that Adams' concerns are now, rightly or wrongly, smaller than Brower's. "The central office of the club should only keep the fences together," Adams says. "Good Lord, the whole club was run on $9,000 or $10,000 when I began as a member. The Brower group has a tendency to resent every intrusion into the wilderness and to overlook the realities of life. They forget that utilities and highway people have their own obligations. Diablo, for example, is just another beautiful canyon. There are lots of those. If the Disney people put a resort in Mineral King, I don't see anything wrong with that. Brower is trying to set up an Eden. The Sierra Club has to roll with the punch, because the world is getting very tough."
Sierra Club President Dr. Edgar Wayburn, though he has hobbled Brower's white horse as much as anyone, has striven to maintain unity. "The controversy has been whipped out of proportion," Wayburn recently said. "There's not much real argument about our conservation objectives. I have long shared Dave Brower's ambitions for conservation. Dave has been extraordinarily valuable to the club. Our program has been big and bold, and that attracts people. Militance has been a strong factor in the growth of the club, and Brower has been a large part of that.
"I know the value of the image of a prophet or saint leading the legions of the righteous. There is no question that Brower personifies the burgeoning power of the conservation movement to the public.
"This is to some extent as much a religious organization as an ordinary club. I think there is some possibility of gaining a million members by 1975. When a species becomes dominant, it can grow at a very rapid rate.
"Brower has both the virtues and the vices of a man with a belief in his own destiny. David is a great man but he does have a profound disregard for administrative details. I reject as a red herring the charge that he is riding us into bankruptcy but I do object to his end runs around the board.
"For instance, I support Brower's international program except for his timing. With our present cash-flow deficit, we couldn't do it now if we had five Dave Browers, five representative prophets. We're not doing what we should here in the United States because we have limited resources."
Maynard Munger Jr., candidate for the board of directors and, ironically, the son of a state highway commissioner, states the case against Brower's priorities and policies as articulately as any of the critics.
"There are two kinds of conservationists. The first is the ironfisted type: 'By God, there isn't going to be one inch more development.' The second is my kind. I believe we can accomplish as much by friendly persuasion. I don't believe in total capitulation of the enemy or pounding your shoe on the table. I don't believe we should be negative. I'm a realtor and I've never sold a house yet by being negative.
"This is how gentle persuasion works: you don't take on a public utility in public; you take them out to lunch in private. I believe in setting up a 'bad guy' so the good guy can come in and get what he wants. You send out a noisy rabble-rouser to stir up publicity. Then you say to your friend in government, 'Look, John, we'll make a deal. We'll get the shoe-banger out of your hair, and you get this program through the legislature.' "
Munger scores Brower's publishing program. "The Galapagos set costs $55," he points out. "That's the average income of the average African. Those books are beautiful, but no one can afford them. And should we become the Book of the Month Club anyway? I don't want the Sierra Club to be a sedentary National Geographic Society whose members just sit back and look at pretty pictures. Books are fine, but where's our book on Mineral King, on Lake Tahoe, on San Francisco Bay? Our publishing should be in concert with our conservation effort. I'd rather see us give the plates and everything, lock, stock and barrel, to some major publisher and underwrite his book to the extent of $50,000. We'd say, 'With just one condition. We want this book sent to every library, every legislator, and to every member of every county commission in the country. We want you to give Governor Reagan 30 free copies to autograph and send out to his friends.' "
His points made, Munger relents. "There's an awful lot of good in Dave," he admits. "He's a hell of a salesman. I've met only three genius salesmen in my lifetime, and he is one of them."
Paul Ehrlich is a humble, titleless Sierra Club member. He isn't a candidate for anything. But, as a specialist in human population at Stanford, he is one of the most respected young biologists in the nation. He is also author of The Population Bomb, published by Ballantine, a book unusually candid about the consequences of present population policies.
"Though the oldtime conservationists may understand that there is a crisis," he says, "they still want to be gentlemen while the world is dissolving. We know what doesn't work: the quiet, gentle approach. If somebody told me there was a 50-50 chance Brower would destroy the Sierra Club, I'd say go ahead, it's a bargain. The world is going to tumble around its ears if the Sierra Club—or someone—doesn't do a job in the next five years. If the Sierra Club's main worry is the preservation of its own existence, there won't be any environment left for it to exist in."
If Brower is ahead of some of the board, he scarcely surpasses the zeal of much of the membership. A sample poll showed that 85% of the members wanted the Sierra Club to do more and do it faster. For example, in Colorado the club has done very little, and the list of depredations is alarming: Black Canyon, the Fryingpan Valley and Clear Creek, to name a few. Even Brower's campaign to prevent dams in Grand Canyon sacrificed five valleys in the most beautiful Alpine section of the state.
And Brower, too, must defer to the militance of some of the directors, such as Martin Litton, who has "had to give Brower a little backstage pushing sometimes. Militance does not come entirely naturally to Dave."
Litton, who resembles a very angry Walter Cronkite, is not one to compromise under the most personal pressure. He recently parted ways with his magazine, Sunset, because of a too passionate defense of the redwoods, "And," says an awed staffer, "Martin won't even stop at a filling station out in the middle of the country because he doesn't think it ought to be there."
Actually, neither the latter attitude nor Martin's militance is unique. But Litton does speak eloquently for the angry. "The old liners are all right on most issues," he says, "but not those that come in conflict with their personal lives, their friends, the people they see at cocktail parties. They argue, 'We must have pleasant and fruitful discussions with the people trying to wreck the landscape so they won't do it so bad.'
"We should appeal not to the lobbyist but to the public at large—on TV, in the press. Gentle persuasion does not work. The utilities have to be controlled, not reasoned with.
"We militants are the practical ones. If conservationists agree on total conservation, we are united. But if we decide to give up some things, we'll always be fighting over exactly which. Then, when we have given up all we can stomach, what will we have left to bargain with against still greater population pressure? Only the few treasures we have saved."
In essence, Litton contends, the CMC directorial faction is weak—not wise. "They rationalize and yield to expediency because deep down they think that the club is inherently weak," he says. "But the club is not weak. It is strong. In five more years it can be strong enough to shake the excavators' steel teeth."
Actually, the Sierra Club—even under Brower's leadership—is not the most militant force in the field. An organization called ACT (Active Conservation Tactics) advocates sterner resistance. People have tied themselves to trees or lain down in front of bulldozers. Some have sawed down billboards. Busloads of students—the other ones, with short hair and conventional clothes—have been organized to tear up highway stakes. The Sierra Club may soon be on the moderate side of the middle.
Even now, the California Highway Department virtually has to relocate the proposed road to Mineral King (through Sequoia National Park) every morning. "I was walking along the Kaweah River this summer and kept meeting an unusual number of fishermen," a pillar of San Francisco society says. "One group asked me, 'You getting any?' I said I wasn't fishing. 'We don't mean fish,' they said. 'Stakes, man, stakes.' I started pulling them up, too. It was fun."
The younger Sierra Club members—mostly supporters of Brower Power—find fun in the fray, partly as necessary comic relief. "Working for the Sierra Club is uniquely depressing," Administrative Assistant Tom Turner smiles. "One sees just how bad things really are. Our little band of conspirators in the plot to build a better environment needs some gallows humor to keep us going."
"There are moments," says staffer Bob Golden, "when I expect to wake up next morning and find out the mountains have been repealed, the U.S. Park Service has become the U.S. Parking Service and the Sierra Club has lost its name in a trademark suit to a night spot by the same name in Angel's Camp, Calif. We could then call ourselves the Sahara Club, as some already call us.
"Ah, yes. We are known to the pesticide people as the Bambi Group, the highway interests call us the 'proselytizers, prophets and priests of the pinnacles,' and the lumbermen refer to us as the Daffodil Fringe. One of our own packers says we've got hoof and mouth disease. We hoof all day and mouth off all night."
Under the pseudonym Robert Red-nose, Golden issues such literature as the Sierra Club's First Annual Fuss Budget. The Fuss Budget reads, in part, "In recent months various Sierra Club officers and departments have far exceeded their quotas for cantankerousness and we are now forced to ration what was once free to everyone. Allocations are as follows: George Marshall, 3,752 trifles; Ed Wayburn, 17 frets, 3 ados, 1 tumult; Martin Litton, 1 rout, 3 stampedes, 6 diversions; Fred Eissler, 5 commotions; all other directors, 3 confrontations, 14 redundancies, 7 contretemps."
Any group of zealous men will eventually be rent by schisms over isms. Because they believe so fervently in the essentiality of the cause, they tend to denounce as heretic any of the brethren who seem to weaken it. Because they believe so ardently in its righteousness, they dispute the doctrinal purity of those who seem to compromise the creed. Because each feels his revelation so strongly, there will be disagreement over which prophet to follow.
"Conservationists," said one member, quite unprompted, just before he mailed off his ballot, "are still like the Christians in the catacombs, waiting for a Constantine. But one of these days the emperor is going to get religion, and then they're going to be baptizing the Army Corps of Engineers en masse in one of its own reservoirs. Maybe Brower is the man to do the converting, too."