SI Vault
Harold Peterson
April 14, 1969
For more than a decade the Sierra Club, under Executive Director David Brower (right), has spearheaded conservation forces in many winning battles. Now Brower's job is on the line in an election fight between go-slow club members and his own go-for-broke adherents
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April 14, 1969

Brower Power Awaits The Verdict

For more than a decade the Sierra Club, under Executive Director David Brower (right), has spearheaded conservation forces in many winning battles. Now Brower's job is on the line in an election fight between go-slow club members and his own go-for-broke adherents

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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.

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.

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