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The Arch-Druid Passes

by Alexander Cockburn

If not for Brower, Alaska would have become a back lot of the oil and timber corporations
Nature's mightiest defender in these United States died Sunday in Berkeley, Calif., 88 years after he entered the world in that same city. His life thus briefly intersected with that of the greatest green champion of the nineteenth century, John Muir, who died in 1914. Thus, the aged Muir and the infant Brower were both alive at the moment of an event that profoundly shaped the imagination of American environmentalists: the flooding of the Hetch-Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park in 1913.

The inundation of Yosemite's most beautiful feature taught Brower's generation of conservationists that without uncompromising defenders, the industrialization of the West would obliterate everything in its path; even the designation of a national park was no guarantee. As Brower famously put it, When they win, it's forever. When we win, it's merely a stay of execution.

When Brower was born, there was but a handful of national parks across the country. The national forests were in their infancy and had yet to be abused by logging. Until Muir, no one had fought for a regional ecosystem as he did for the Sierras. With far more political agility than the flinty Muir, Brower fought for the entire west, then for the environmental stability of the planet.

In 1952, Brower became the first executive director of the Sierra Club, at that time a 2000-strong group of well-connected, mostly upper-crust Californians. Before long he was plunged into his own most traumatic struggle, as dire as Muir's over Hetch-Hetchy. The battleground was Glen Canyon, on the Colorado river on the Arizona-Utah border.

It was Brower, the most creative and radical green of his generation, who signed off on the building of Glen Canyon dam in 1956, as part of a deal to keep the Bureau of Reclamation from building the Echo Park dam inside Dinosaur National Monument in northern Utah on the Green River. The decision shadowed him heavily from that day on.

In hindsight, it seems clear that Brower might well have been able to beat back both dams. A few years after Glen Canyon was authorized, Brower and the Sierra Club crushed a proposal to build two more dams downstream in the Grand Canyon itself, a campaign that made public relations history with full-page ads in the New York Times under the banner, "Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel, so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?" The Grand Canyon dams were dead the moment those papers hit the street. And so was the Club's tax-exempt status. Brower believed Steward Udall, then LBJ's Secretary of Interior, pushed the IRS to take action against the Sierra Club in retaliation.

Looking back on it, Brower himself soon came to learn that Stegner was right. He called the deal his "greatest mistake, greatest sin." In one way or another, Brower, the arch-druid, spent the past forty years attempting to atone. Glen Canyon has become a testament to the perils of political dealmaking when it comes to the environment. "Never trade a place you know for one you don't," Brower again and again warned young environmentalists.

Glen Canyon steeled Brower, making him not only more militant but more politically creative. He kept more dams out of the Grand Canyon. He engineered passage of the Wilderness Act, setting aside tens of millions of acres of public lands. If it had not been for Brower, Alaska would have become a back lot of the oil and timber corporations.

The fiery stance of today's green militants owes everything to Brower, whose widening areas of concern began to vex his colleagues in the Sierra Club more and more as he threw himself into battles against nuclear power and the big utilities, whose executives were tied into the same San Francisco establishment that had nourished the Sierra Club. On May 3, 1969, in one of the most notorious evictions in American environmental history, the board of the Sierra Club threw out their leader.

Brower forthwith founded Friends of the Earth, which globalized environmental issues and made arms control a green concern. In the end, the fiery crusader proved too uncompromising for this organization, too. He was driven out. Off went Brower to Earth Island where his astounding creativity as an organizer fostered an umbrella for grass-roots activists working on issues ranging from the threat of the Siberian forests to the plight of the dolphins and turtles.

Along with his drive and vision there was always a humanity to Brower markedly absent in many green crusaders. Earth Island became an advocate for environmental justice, bringing social issues -- urban population, toxic dumping, the environmental degradation of poor communities -- with the purview of green organizers.

Just under a year ago, the 87-year old Brower was in Seattle, ranged alongside demonstrators against the World Trade Organization two and three generations younger than himself and owing much of their inspiration to him. In the spring of this year, Brower, battling cancer, returned to the Four Corners region to inaugurate a new campaign aimed at decommissioning Glen Canyon dam, draining Lake Powell and restoring Glen Canyon. "The decommissioning of that dam," he said, "will give the restoration era its big break, and bring a lot of joy to the 1600 miles of Glen Canyon and its side canyons that are magnificent gestures of the Earth, in -- Ansel Adams' phrase, -- unmatched on Earth or anywhere else. They are waiting eagerly to be born again. I know, I asked them all."

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor November 13, 2000 (

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