Brower Becomes Executive Director of the Sierra Club Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As executive director, David Brower helped transform the Sierra Club into a major force in environmental politics and inspired environmental awareness and activism throughout the world.

Summary of Event

The appointment of David Brower to the post of executive director of the Sierra Club marked a turning point in the history of the club, as well as the beginning of the modern American environmental movement. For the Sierra Club, the appointment marked the group’s transformation from a regional club of outdoor enthusiasts to a professionally staffed political force. On a larger scale, Brower’s imagination and personality helped spur the nation to a new level of environmental awareness and grassroots action for the protection of nature. Many observers came to regard Brower as the most influential conservationist since John Muir. [kw]Brower Becomes Executive Director of the Sierra Club (Nov., 1952) [kw]Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Brower Becomes (Nov., 1952) [kw]Sierra Club, Brower Becomes Executive Director of the (Nov., 1952) Environmental organizations;Sierra Club Sierra Club Conservation;organizations Environmental organizations;Sierra Club Sierra Club Conservation;organizations [g]North America;Nov., 1952: Brower Becomes Executive Director of the Sierra Club[03910] [g]United States;Nov., 1952: Brower Becomes Executive Director of the Sierra Club[03910] [c]Organizations and institutions;Nov., 1952: Brower Becomes Executive Director of the Sierra Club[03910] [c]Environmental issues;Nov., 1952: Brower Becomes Executive Director of the Sierra Club[03910] Brower, David Muir, John Adams, Ansel McCloskey, J. Michael

Muir, a nineteenth century naturalist and writer, was one of the founders and the first president of the Sierra Club. Muir’s articles and books introduced the public to the natural wonders of California’s Sierra Nevada, Yosemite Valley in particular. He was instrumental in the creation of Yosemite National Park Yosemite National Park National parks, U.S.;Yosemite , and he saw the need for an advocacy group to protect the area from ranchers, timber companies, and others who coveted its natural resources. The Sierra Club was formed in 1892 to meet this challenge and to promote public awareness and enjoyment of the mountain wilderness. The club’s first significant political battle, and first major loss, was over a proposed dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite. The dam was built in 1913, over protests from the club, and a magnificent scenic canyon was flooded.

By 1950, the Sierra Club’s membership had grown to seven thousand, and its sphere of interest had expanded as well. A major water-storage project on the Colorado River system involved the proposed construction of two dams in Utah and Colorado that would flood spectacular wild river canyons at Echo Park and Split Mountain in Dinosaur National Monument. Remembering the loss of Hetch Hetchy, the Sierra Club board of directors decided to fight the proposed dams. To guide this campaign and to help lead the growing and increasingly national club, Brower, a longtime volunteer, was hired as executive director in November, 1952.

Brower had discovered his love of wilderness as a young boy on the grounds of the University of California at Berkeley. His father, a professor at the university, was an avid outdoorsman and mountain climber. Brower soon followed in his footsteps, becoming a mountain guide and climber. This interest naturally drew him to the Sierra Club, in those days primarily a climbing club, which he joined in early 1933. He went on to make seventy first ascents of peaks in Yosemite and the Sierras. Supporting himself as an editor for the University of California Press, Brower was an active volunteer for the club, serving as Outings Program chairman, editor of the Sierra Club Bulletin, and a member of the board of directors.

Brower’s first task as director was to plan the campaign to stop the dams in Dinosaur National Monument Dinosaur National Monument National monuments, U.S.;Dinosaur . He started by publicizing the attractions of the area. Drawing on his experience as an outings leader, he organized float trips on the rivers for the press, government officials, and influential citizens; drawing on his skills and contacts as an editor, he promoted articles in national newspapers and magazines such as Sunset, Life, and National Geographic. Another campaign tool was a film, Wilderness River Trail, which revealed the beauties of an area few had seen. Finally, in moving testimony before Congress, Brower not only played upon his listeners’ emotions but also challenged some of the underlying technical assumptions of the water-storage efficiency of the dams in Dinosaur. He recommended raising the proposed dam at Glen Canyon Glen Canyon Dam Dams , in southern Utah and Arizona.

This last policy decision proved to be significant. In narrowing its focus to the principle of protecting designated parts of the National Park Service, in this case Dinosaur National Monument, the club agreed to support, or at least not oppose, other dams in the proposed system. No one in the Sierra Club leadership, including Brower, had seen Glen Canyon until it was too late. The victory was won, the dams in Dinosaur were stopped, but the spectacular sandstone formations in Glen Canyon, arguably the most beautiful in the world, were hidden beneath the waters of Lake Powell.

Several years later, in opposing dams that would affect Grand Canyon National Park Grand Canyon National Park National parks, U.S.;Grand Canyon , the club backed a compromise plan to replace the proposed hydroelectric power with electricity to be supplied by coal-burning plants in the four-corners area of the Southwest. In later years, air pollution from these plants would make this another compromise that Brower deeply regretted, hardening his attitude against any concession in defense of nature.

During Brower’s tenure as executive director, the Sierra Club went from a by-invitation-only club of seven thousand members to a national grassroots political power of seventy-seven thousand people. In addition to the decision actively to solicit memberships from the public, Brower put the Sierra Club in the public eye through an aggressive publications program. In 1960, at Brower’s urging, the club published a large, expensive volume of photographs by Ansel Adams and others entitled This Is the American Earth. This Is the American Earth (Sierra Club) This was but the first in a long series of richly illustrated books, some of which became integral parts of campaigns to preserve specific areas, including the redwood forests of California and the North Cascade mountains in Washington State. Brower was also responsible for creating the Sierra Club calendars, an advertising art form that would be imitated by many other organizations and publishing companies.

As early as 1959, Brower’s uncompromising nature and outspokenness brought him into conflict with the club’s board of directors. After a series of publications criticizing the U.S. Forest Service, the board passed resolutions that prohibited public club statements that implied criticism of a public official or agency.

Part of the reasoning behind this conservative policy concerned the protection of the club’s tax-exempt status. Membership dues and donations to the Sierra Club were tax-deductible for the donor only so long as the club refrained from lobbying or otherwise attempting to influence government actions and decisions. Brower responded to this situation by engineering the creation of the Sierra Club Foundation in the 1960’s. The foundation was to be an arm of the club that dealt only with education projects and thus could retain its tax-exempt status. The club itself would then be free to conduct full-scale lobbying and letter-writing campaigns in its own name.

Predictably, the Sierra Club’s tax-exempt status was challenged in 1966 (and revoked in 1969), after Brower placed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times harshly criticizing a proposed dam that would flood part of the Grand Canyon. This was a politically aggressive move, as the construction of the dam was being pushed by the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. The project was stopped, however, and the resulting publicity caused the club’s membership to soar, regardless of its tax status.

Brower’s publicity campaigns made “environmental protection” and “the Sierra Club” household words. In transforming the Sierra Club, he also raised the level of environmental awareness in the general public and demonstrated that government plans could be changed by grassroots action and letter-writing campaigns.


Eventually, the same outspokenness and concern for wild places that made Brower successful brought him into conflict with other club leaders and the board of directors. Many of his innovations began to be viewed in another light.

The publications program had begun to lose money, and sales had decreased; some titles were considered too strident and propagandistic, some subjects too obscure. To publicize a new series of photography books on worldwide environments, Brower used another large newspaper advertisement that seemed to advocate the establishment of an “Earth National Park.” Though Brower claimed that the approach was an advertising gimmick, members of the board considered it unauthorized, extremist policy making.

Brower’s distaste for compromise brought him into a final confrontation with the club board over the siting of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant . In the early 1960’s, many club leaders supported nuclear power as a preferable alternative to hydroelectric dams and coal-burning plants. In 1963, the club objected to the siting of a nuclear facility near Santa Maria on the California coast, primarily because the scenic area had been recommended for a state park; it agreed, however, to an alternate location at the mouth of Diablo Canyon, north of Santa Barbara. Again, few club leaders had visited the site.

When it was discovered that Diablo Canyon was the last large roadless area on the California coast, Brower and a few others advocated reversing the club’s position and opposing that site as well. Several board members, including Ansel Adams, believed that it was more important to maintain the club’s integrity and credibility. The debate over this issue was contentious and quite public. As a result of these and other conflicts, Brower was forced out as executive director of the Sierra Club in May of 1969, to be replaced by Michael McCloskey, another longtime club activist. McCloskey would serve as executive director until 1985. Environmental organizations;Sierra Club Sierra Club Conservation;organizations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brower, David. For Earth’s Sake: The Life and Times of David Brower. Salt Lake City, Utah: Peregrine Smith Books, 1990. An unusual autobiography consisting of essays and heavily annotated reprints of letters and other writings. Covers Brower’s early life, war experiences, friends, and conservation topics. A useful reference tool on Brower and the environmental movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run: A Call to Those Who Would Save the Earth. New ed. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society, 2000. Part autobiography, part manifesto, Brower’s book sets out his plan for preserving the Earth and criticizes all those—including himself—who have so far failed to live up to that mission.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Work in Progress. Salt Lake City, Utah: Peregrine Smith Books, 1991. A supplement to For Earth’s Sake, this volume examines Brower’s approaches to specific conservation and political issues. Like the earlier book, it includes many reprints of letters, speeches, and essays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohen, Michael P. The History of the Sierra Club, 1892-1970. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988. An exhaustive institutional history, including details from specific meetings and policy documents. Though published by the Sierra Club, this book does not shy away from controversial episodes and portrays fairly the people and events that have shaped the club.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gottlieb, Robert. Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993. A scholarly examination of the environmental movement and issues such as human health, workplace safety, pollution, and land use. Also explores the political, philosophical, and feminist aspects of the movement. Though only a dozen pages specifically address Brower’s work with the Sierra Club, his career is defined in the context of the movement as a whole.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCloskey, J. Michael. In the Thick of It: My Life in the Sierra Club. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2005. Autobiography of Brower’s successor as the Sierra Club’s executive director, tracing the struggles and successes of his tenure and Brower’s legacy. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McPhee, John. Encounters with the Archdruid. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. A fascinating book by an acclaimed essayist recounting wilderness journeys with Brower and three of his “enemies,” developers and engineers. Describes the philosophical outlook of each of the participants and the relationships that develop between them on the trips.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turner, Tom. Sierra Club: One Hundred Years of Protecting Nature. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991. An attractive book of photographs that also contains an excellent history of the club. Less scholarly and more readable than the Cohen history of the club, but nevertheless a complete and detailed examination of the campaigns and major leaders of the club.

Echo Park Dam Proposal Is Defeated

Congress Passes the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act

Controversial Glen Canyon Dam Is Completed

Zero Population Growth Movement Begins

Brower Forms Friends of the Earth

Categories: History