David Brower's Legacy

Following in the Footsteps of a Giant

Editors’s Note: A century ago, conservationists such as John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt left behind a legacy of achievements that changed America forever. Through the turn of this century, in more recent years, one man stands out as perhaps another leader of this stature. The late David Brower, who during his long life successfully campaigned to preserve countless natural wonders, was the creative force behind some of the most powerful environmental organizations in the USA. But David Brower is also remembered as a man who loved people, and enjoyed life to the fullest, and as someone who could broker agreements between bitterly opposed interests. It is this ability, to articulate a solution that everyone can find acceptable – businesspeople, government and environmental activists – that is most inspiring about his life, and will be most sorely missed.

David Brower
David Brower
photo: F.O.E.

David Brower was one of those rare and exceptional people, someone it would have been an honor to spend a day with. He is described by author John McPhee, in his book Encounters with the Archdruid, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), as “the most powerful voice in the conservation movement in his country.” After interviewing three people who knew David Brower, one of them being his son Ken, it was clear that McPhee’s statement is indeed true. To say that David Brower accomplished a lot in his lifetime is an understatement. He was a single force that led thousands of people in a fight to preserve the Earth’s wilderness. Though often described as shy, he was a leader of people and a voice for nature. This article can only begin to describe some of his accomplishments and his legacy today.

Denali National Park
Denali National Park
photo: National Park Service

John McPhee described Brower in his fifties as being a “prepossessing figure” with a “delicate, handsome, ruddy face.” Brower was born in Berkeley, California in 1912, and his love for nature was apparent even when he was very young. His major accomplishments, which came much later in life, stretch all the way from preventing planned dams along the Grand Canyon, to preserving Alaskan wilderness, the Redwoods, the North Cascades, and more. One of his greatest victories, described in McPhee’s book, was known as “The Dinosaur Battle.” In this “battle,” Brower was able to draw together “sportsmen, ecologists, wilderness preservers, park advocates, and so forth” in a common cause that prevented a dam from being built that would have flooded large parts of Dinosaur National Monument.

Friends of the Earth Logo

Dr. Brent Blackwelder is the President of Friends of the Earth (www.foe.org), one of the organizations founded by David Brower. Friends of the Earth is the largest environmental advocacy organization in the world, spanning 70 countries. Dr. Blackwelder described David Brower as “a visionary thinker for our movement, who challenged modern technology and was rooted in traditional land conservation.” Blackwelder called Brower a “pioneer thinker with global vision.” I asked Dr. Blackwelder about some of the current projects and strategies that Friends of the Earth is currently working on. He mentioned campaigns against genetically engineered food, global warming, and some of the uses of World Bank funds. He stated that Friends of the Earth campaigns on every level to achieve success, from the community level all the way to the top officials of governments worldwide. One of the ways FOE informs the public is through extensive use of the media. The organization utilizes local members of every community to mobilize campaigns and get the ball rolling, gradually working with local government representatives and then top government officials to motivate earth-friendly change.

Brent Blackwelder
Dr. Brent Blackwelder
Friends of the Earth
photo: F.O.E.

Mikhail Davis is a representative of another powerful organization created by Brower, the Earth Island Institute (www.earthisland.org). He was Assistant to the Chairman and Project Manager for Brower, and was able to work directly with Brower in his last 2 1/2 years. He states, “it was an amazing experience to work with David on a daily basis and to meet all of his brilliant friends.” Davis is the director of the Brower Fund, which is dedicated to carrying on Brower’s legacy of environmental leadership. The fund awards money to youths who have shown extraordinary promise as conservationists. The third annual Brower Youth Awards took place in the fall of 2002. Monetary awards of $3,000 and a trip to Yosemite go to six carefully selected environmental activists in the US who are between the ages of 13 to 22 years. Davis describes the Brower Youth Awards as a way to inspire and encourage youth conservationists, and he is dedicated to continuing on the Brower legacy through the awards and other Earth Island Institute programs. He says David was “always a big believer in youth leadership. He believed if people have their ideals straight it makes them better leaders than those with more experience who might compromise their values.”

Earth Island Institute Logo

The Earth Island Institute is an organization that has a unique organizational structure, in which projects are headed by local experts within the organization and in the project area. This is to allow the people who know the issues best to work on each project instead of being led from afar by central office. Right now EII it is working on about 30 projects that are largely autonomous. Davis says, “David never liked having to focus on only one issue, and didn’t try to control anyone from a central office. The projects raise their own money, and the people who know the issues best make the decisions. This reduces bureaucracy, and increases the effectiveness of grassroots advocacy.”

Sierra Club Logo

Brower’s son, Ken Brower, is a well known writer who has written articles for many prestigious magazines, including Smithsonian and National Geographic. He is also a board member for Earth Island Institute. I asked him what it was like to have a father who was always in the limelight. He said, “it always seemed kind of natural. I was proud, I knew that he was great. He had amazing physical energy, and was a really driven guy.” Ken Brower helped his father create the “exhibit format” books that David Brower and the Sierra club became famous for. These were oversized books featuring magnificent, large format photos of wilderness. David believed size was important for impact, and Ken helped him edit the books and select some of the pictures for these unique books. Ken states that his father traveled a tremendous amount. He said it was tough on the last two of David’s four children, for David “couldn’t save the world and be a perfect father at the same time. He traveled 80% of the time.” Yet, he is still proud of his father, and of his father’s fundamental belief that individuals can make a difference.

Bluewater Network

Dr. Blackwelder, Mr. Davis, and Mr. Brower all mentioned Brower’s instrumental leadership that brought about the great success of the Sierra Club (www.sierraclub.org), for which Brower was Executive Director for 17 years. He made the organization the force it is today, raising it from about 2,000 to over 70,000 members. Ken Brower says, “He was one of the primary shapers in the history of the Sierra Club, and it would not be the organization it is today without David Brower.”

Brower used and encouraged many different strategies to bring environmental issues to public attention. Some of these strategies included full-page ads in the paper, editorial boards, TV publicity, and environmental advocacy films. These strategies helped to bring about successful consumer boycotts and the ability for general consumers and environmental experts to unite in conserving the environment. Mikhail Davis says, “The core of this work is education and advocacy, to give the public the opportunity to effect change.”

Sea Turtle in Ocean
nature’s Turtle soup
photo: Richard Wollocombe, WildAid

David Brower was also a three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, a renowned mountaineer, and a World War II veteran. He was also awarded the Blue Planet Prize, called by the Earth Island Institute website as “the richest environmental prize in the world.” Such a pioneer for environmental conservation should not be forgotten. It is true that David Brower, along with his many supporters, also made his fair share of enemies. While his preservation efforts stemmed from his belief that the rest of the world’s wilderness should be left untouched and unaltered, he knew that society would continue to administer its immense demands on the Earth. He fought for nature and in his lifetime helped curb the disastrous effects of some of these demands and slow down others.

Rainforest Action Network Logo

The Brower legacy lives on, not only through such programs as the

Brower Youth Awards,

and through the work of his children, but also through the numerous organizations that were influenced by or have been created directly from existing organizations that Brower founded. Thus, besides such giants as the

Sierra Club,

Earth Island Institute,

and Friends of the Earth

which are directly linked to Brower – he either founded them and/or directed them – there are now several other organizations that have been influenced by these larger organizations to cater to specific environmental areas. One of these is the

Rainforest Action Network (www.ran.org). Others are the

International Rivers Network (www.irn.org), the

Bluewater Network (www.bluewaternetwork.org), the

Sea Turtle Restoration Project (www.seaturtles.org), the

Pesticide Action Network (panna.igc.org), and the

International Marine Mammal Project (www.earthisland.org/immp).

International Rivers Network Logo

There are many ways to find out more about the work of David Brower. John McPhee’s book, “Encounter with the Archdruid” is a terrific place to start. Brower’s work lives on through the exhibit-format books made popular by the Sierra Club,

Arch Druid Book Cover

and reprised by his son Robert Brower on a new website

Wildness Within. Earth Island Institute also maintains a memorial site at


David Brower has left a legacy of organizations and followers that will help lessen the impact of technology today by allowing it to coincide more peacefully with the environment. We can learn from his ability to bring together businesspeople, scientists and environmentalists in a positive way to help put nature and technology in harmony.


—–Original Message—–

From: anonomous

Sent: Wednesday, February 12, 2003 9:04 PM

To: editor@ecoworld.com

Subject: Luna Tree

What happened to Julia “Butterfly” Hill’s “Luna” Tree? All the articles that I can find on the internet are years old, saying that they (all of the scientists, etc…) are doing their best to save it after Luna was attacked with a chainsaw. I do hope that Luna survived!

The Redwood tree known as “Luna” had about 60% of its trunk sawn away, but the tree was stapled back together along the gash from the chain saw, and “collars” around the trunk higher up have been installed and used to cable the tree to the trunks of neighboring tall Redwoods, in order to prevent the tree from falling. In 1999 Julia “Butterfly” Hill formed the Circle of Life Foundation, which is “building a movement of social and environmental change which is rooted deeply in love and respect for the interconnectedness of all life.” In the “scrapbook” section of Hill’s website you can view photos of the repaired Luna tree. The prognosis for the tree when undergoing treatment in late 2000 was that it would probably survive. In June 2000 Julia’s foundation officially became a project of, you guessed it, the Brower-inspired Earth Island Institute.

Ed Ring, Editor of EcoWorld

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