Thursday, October 15, 2009


Thank goodness for documentarian Ken Burns who helps us understand that the real American spirit lies somewhere outside the halls of power and the relentless militarism of recent decades.
It is significant that the creator of "The Civil War" and "War" about WWII awarded the title of America's best idea to the simple act of taking care of what we all ready have.
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” Burns latest documentary is a stunning example of his work.
But Burns left a gaping hole in the historical record of the Parks System by giving David Brower, founder of the modern conservation movement and spiritual heir of John Muir, only a bit part. I knew Brower and was associated with the Sierra Club during the growth of the conservation movement. Since this is part of my personal history and I'd like to do my part to fill in the historical record.

With his signiture style of documentary, Burns has discovered how to make history as engaging and immediate as today’s news. His unique style of documentary weaves together the ragged fragments of the past into a compelling narrative.

“The National Parks” is well worth setting aside the 10 hours it takes to watch. Not only will you be bathed in beauty but you'll learn to appreciate a whole new class of American heroe. You will understand that it has never been easy to protect even a small corner of our nation from the rapacious appetite of big business and the ignorance and corrupton of decision makers.

Sadly few of us will have the same quality of experience Burns reminisces about or be allowed the unrestricted access he and his film crew enjoyed.
Time and a lack of political will have taken their toll on aging infrastructure. Many of the Parks have been degraded by neglect, inappropriate development, penny pinching, under staffing, mismanagement and the power of special interests. Burns and his fortunate crew did not have to contend with seasonal closures, capricious restrictions, limited visiting hours, irritating traffic congestion and the hub bub of peak season crowds that afflict most visitors today.
Given the state of many of our best loved parks, is Burns film a celebration or a eulogy?
Burns skims over uncomfortable facts such as the majority of park employees being underpaid, seasonal help or that luxury homes crowd the borders of parks. He ignores the gas and oil leases that threaten Park integrity and transfer even more public wealth into private hands. Many Park boundaries were drawn before the word ecosystem was in the dictionary. Vital food sources for animals and migration routes were inadvertenely cut off. Park boundaries sometimes left sensitive areas unprotected or at the mercy of multi-use agencies like the BLM and Forest Service.
Perhaps Brower ended up on the cutting room floor because he was never a man to sugar coat unpleasant realities. He spoke in defense of downtrodden park employees and spoke out against the "Corporate takeover of nature and the Disneyfication of Wilderness".

Burns blows by Brower's enormous contribution to the Parks System itself and the populist conservation movement he founded that has been crucial in defending it. Instead he focuses on the battle for Dinosaur National Monument, unaware or uninterested in the fact that Brower considered it "the greatest sin of my life". The scrapping of the Echo Park dam , slated to built in the middle of Dinosaur was not the triumph Burns described. It was a trade. Brower and other key members of the conservation community agreed not to oppose two other dams slated to be built in Colorado River Basin. One of them was Glen Canyon.
Dam building was very popular with western states congressmen. Dams provided water storage for the arid west, cheap but unneeded electricity and gas powered, mass recreation. In all, eight dams were planned for the Colorado River Basin. Floyd Dominy, Browers arch rival in the Bureau of Recreation, poorly educated in the more delicate art of nature and scarred by a hard scrabble life in Wyoming, believed in the sanctity of dams and dam building.
Brower, like John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, was drawn to wild places and spent as much of his life in them as possible. In 1952 when Brower took over the reins of the Sierra Club, he was an accomplished mountaineer and guide. He had 70 first ascents, stretching from Canada to Ship Rock on the Navajo Indian Reservation. But the Sierra Club Brower inherited was not the dynamo of conservation justice we think of today. There were only 2000 well-heeled members, whose interests were limited to keeping mountains nice for their outings and happily nursing a portfolio of blue chip stocks. What the new Executive Director had in mind was something entirely different.
Browers passion for preservation was awakened in Europe during WWII, where he trained members of the 10Th Mountain Division in mountaineering and cross country skiing. He saw first hand the fate of Europe's wild places and feared that the US was heading down the same path. He knew that a handful of private outdoor clubs could not stand against the powerful interests that threatened America's last wild places. Brower set out to build a national consensus; a powerful and effective conservation movement.
One of his projects was to publish a series of exhibit format books with stunning photography, interwoven with poetry and prose that delivered a strong conservation message. He agonized over ever print, wrote much of the copy and searched the world for the best printers. He wanted readers to weep over the beauty of our last wild places and rush to save them.
Brower was not someone to wait around for permission. He committed a substantial amount of Sierra Club resources to the publishing venture without formal Board approval.
The books were extremely successful. They became the gold standard for coffee table books and they sold like hotcakes. Sierra Club membership swelled to 77,000.
Brower's messianic zeal was hard on the people around him. There was a level of chaos that followed in his wake and his methods sometimes bruised egos. The fact that his unconventional methods were so successful made it even harder for his antagonists to swallow.
Brower had never visited Glen Canyon, located in a near roadless area on the Utah Arizona border, when he helped to seal its fate. After the dust had settled from the Dinosaur battle, he and his family floated the canyon, past its red walls and side canyons with names like Ticaboo Rapids, Sundog Bar, Music Temple and Cathedral Canyon. He realized that he'd made terrible mistake. He saw that it was an amazing place, fragile and unique and no place for dam; especially a dam that would back water up 187 miles, completely drowning the canyon and destroying the unique ecosystem. Unfortunately, the dam was nearly completed.
Never one for hand-wringing , Brower launched a vigorous campaign opposing Glen Canyon Dam. He published the large format book “The Place No One Knew” with stunning photographs by Eliot Porter and shuttled back and forth between San Francisco and DC imploring Congress to reconsider. He bombarded them with facts and figures.
Brower was the first conservationist to use paid advertising in national newspapers to affect public opinion. He bought advertising in newspapers culminating in a full page ad comparing the flooding of Glen Canyon to “the flooding of the Sistine Chapel so visitors could get closer to the ceiling”. It was a response to the one of Dominy's claims that people could enjoy the canyon better from motor boats.
The ads sparked a huge public protest against the dam. Dump trucks full of letters from citizens arrived in Washington; 95% were against the dam. They also caused outrage in the halls of power. The IRS took away The Sierra Club’s tax-exempt status, citing the "Sistene Chapel" ad and claiming it constituted lobbying. Since many other tax exempt groups were engaging in similar activities unimpeded by the IRS, the decision was almost certainly politically motivated. Brower claims it was Morris Udall, congressional ally Stewart Udall's brother.
Over time, pro and anti-Brower factions had formed on the Sierra Club Board. The 1968 election put the conservative anti-Brower faction in the majority. The tax issue provided a convenient way to push him out which the following year.
It was a crushing blow. Brower's protege, Ansel Adams and almost all his friends voted against him. Brower looked stunned as he emerged from the meeting room, brandishing a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle. On the front page of the paper were the headlines "A Giant Falls" and underneath a picture of the giant Wawona Tunnel Tree in health. The photo was taken by Ansel Adams and standing beside tree was a much younger David Brower. He quipped about both of the tree and himself falling together and you could see the disappointment and sadness on his face.
The campaign that cost Brower his job did not prevent the flooding of Glen Canyon but it did prevent two dams being built in the Grand Canyon, even though Dominy insisted that a free flowing Colorado River was "no good to anyone". Even those who voted against Brower believed that saving the Grand Canyon from development was worth the loss of their tax exempt status.
Europe may have awakened the Brower but it was the Bureau of Reclamation that radicalized him. Bloodied but not bowed, Brower founded Friends of the Earth within a year of leaving Sierra Club. Today Friends of the Earth continues to be influential and boasts independent affiliates in 68 countries. Brower did more to export the idea of parks than almost anyone else. Brower helped create the League of Conservation Voters and later founded the Earth Island Institute, both flourishing as we speak.
Brower’s achievements as a Park benefactor are the equal of any of Burns's brightest stars. In addition to preventing dams from being built in the Grand Canyon, he prevented dam construction inside saved King’s Canyon National Park. He spearheaded the establishment of Redwood National Park, the North Cascades National Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, Cape Cod National Seashore, Glacier Peak Wilderness Area and more. He was key in getting the Wilderness Act passed and establishing the National Wilderness Preservation System, a whole new paradigm in conservation and preservation.
Brower was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1998 he was awarded the Blue Planet Award for lifetime achievement, an even richer prize than the Nobel. He used some of the generous proceeds to establish the Glen Canyon Institute whose primary goal is the draining of Lake Powell and the restoration of Glen Canyon. Brower passed away in 2000 but even in death he fights on. The Brower Institute in his hometown of Berkeley provides scholarships and education.
Brower was intelligent, engaging, charming, forthright, impatient and inconvenient. Almost no one could match his energy and drive. That was his gift and his curse. He'd fly to DC, lobby all day, fly back that night, dump a manuscript he'd written on the plane, full of run on sentences on someone's desk and call you up at midnight and ask you to run an errand. He demanded a great deal of those around him but no more than he demanded of himself.
His unwillingness to bow before the altar of corporate or political power made him dangerous man and a shining example to us all.

His critics called him raucous and brash and unreasonable; the exact combination of personality traits required to penetrate the armour and egocentric venality of the ruling elite. Compared to killer instincts of the corporatocracy, Brower was sweet reason itself. His accomplishments are legion and everything he did benefited everyone of us.
Brower chastised those who did less than he was willing to do. “Polite conservationists leave no mark except the scars upon the earth that could have been prevented had they stood their ground”
He was the enemy of any technology that produced large-scale environmental degradation. He was one of the first to uncover the hidden costs of hydroelectric power and to recognize the negative environmental impact. He stood firmly against America’s worst idea, nuclear energy. He was fond of saying “any technology should be assumed guilty until proven innocent” and he was right. He was not afraid to take on the third rail of conservation, population control.

The Park System and the conservation movement itself are expressions of a deeper philosophy that challenges most corporate, economic and religious thought; that we are stewards of the earth and not its masters. It is an observable belief that places us within the web of life and challenges the magical thinking that places us apart from the rest of the natural world. Brower's genius was his ability to articulate this in a way that resonated with millions of people around the world.
That we are nature and nature, inextricably linked, is us is not just America’s best idea, it’s the planet’s best idea. As Brower himself said, “there is no business to be done on a dead planet”. Fighting for ideals you believe in is the next best idea.
To me Brower is important not just for his accomplishments but as a model for confronting the destructive powers that threaten not only the wild places but our very existance. He accused his adversaries of treating the planet "as if we had a spare". That remains true to this day.
His life is a reminder that the most important battlefield is not in some foreign land but close to home. If we follow in his footsteps it will require each of us to be just as exasperating, just as courageous and just as uncompromising.
Carol DW

1 comment:

Matt said...

Bravo for your great homage to David Brower and the wild places he sought to protect.

I found your piece on Oped News through the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a group that I am proud to be a part of, and one that tries to put into action the ideals that Brower espoused.

I hope to keep reading more from you!