Brower Forms Friends of the Earth Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Former Sierra Club executive director David Brower founded Friends of the Earth to broaden the scope of his environmental activities and to internationalize and politicize his conservationist beliefs.

Summary of Event

Created by conservationist David Brower and a handful of kindred spirits, Friends of the Earth (FOE) was incorporated in New York City in May, 1969. At age fifty-seven, Brower had long been widely recognized as one of the most uncompromising and effective conservation activists in the United States. For twenty-eight years, he had served as a member of the Sierra Club’s Sierra Club Environmental organizations;Sierra Club board of directors, as editor of its Bulletin, and as the organization’s executive director. Brower also had worked as an editor for the University of California Press. He significantly increased Sierra Club membership from 2,000 in 1952 to 135,000 in 1965, through sponsorship of more than fifty dramatically presented Sierra Club books and films and through his own descriptions of Western wilderness areas with which he had gained familiarity as an outstanding rock climber and mountaineer. Friends of the Earth Environmental organizations;Friends of the Earth [kw]Brower Forms Friends of the Earth (May, 1969) [kw]Friends of the Earth, Brower Forms (May, 1969) Friends of the Earth Environmental organizations;Friends of the Earth [g]North America;May, 1969: Brower Forms Friends of the Earth[10250] [g]United States;May, 1969: Brower Forms Friends of the Earth[10250] [c]Organizations and institutions;May, 1969: Brower Forms Friends of the Earth[10250] [c]Environmental issues;May, 1969: Brower Forms Friends of the Earth[10250] Brower, David Muir, John Olmsted, Frederick Law, Jr. Leopold, Aldo Pinchot, Gifford Douglas, William O. Adams, Ansel McPhee, John

Brower’s accomplishments allowed the Sierra Club and allies such as the Wilderness Society and the National Parks Association to wage a number of successful campaigns for wilderness preservation. National parks and national seashores were established from Cape Cod and Fire Island in the East to Point Reyes, the Redwoods, Kings Canyon, and the North Cascades in the West. Brower and his Sierra Club colleagues also played an important role in the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Of still greater importance was the fight Brower and his club cohorts waged against plans of the Bureau of Reclamation to construct hydroelectric dams in Utah’s and Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument early in the 1950’s and in Arizona’s Grand Canyon in the mid-1960’s.

The reasons for Brower’s decision to break with the Sierra Club and to found Friends of the Earth were cumulative and complex. Partly it was in consequence of one of his—and the Sierra Club’s—self-described failures, namely, a willingness to compromise with the U.S. Department of the Interior, dam builders, power companies, land speculators, and Western politicians on their plans for construction of the Glen Canyon Dam Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River in Utah. At a critical juncture in the fight against the planned dam, Brower later acknowledged, he had remained passive. Completed in 1963, the Glen Canyon Dam, as Brower belatedly perceived it, represented an immense aesthetic loss to future generations and entailed the irreversible destruction of a unique natural environment.

The Glen Canyon episode confirmed Brower in his convictions that he, and others like him, should not allow their conservationist principles to be compromised. Members of the Sierra Club, however, had always been divided on the club’s assumption of uncompromising stands, a position clearly stated by famed photographer and club member Ansel Adams in 1967. Adams and others argued for a continuation of the club’s seventy-five-year policy of strengthening its few uncompromising fights by otherwise seeking ad hoc agreements—trade-offs—over what was to be preserved and what was to be developed in less important or already partially developed environments.

Given Brower’s experience with the Glen Canyon compromise, his political differences with club policy were destined to come to a head. In 1967 and again in 1969, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) planned construction of a nuclear power plant amid California’s distinctive Nipomo Dunes; after lengthy discussions with club officials, the site was changed to Diablo Canyon. In February, 1967, Brower denounced the policy of trade-offs, in this instance the proposal to save Nipomo Dunes Nipomo Dunes by conceding the Diablo Canyon to PG&E. A majority of Sierra Club members voted both in 1967 and in 1969 to support the trade-off. Shortly afterward, in 1969, despite widespread admiration for Brower and genuine appreciation of his work for the club, Brower was asked to resign as the organization’s executive director.

By founding Friends of the Earth that same year, Brower more cleanly delineated his philosophical location within the evolving and expanding range of American environmental movements. Like many other Sierra Club members, including the Scotch-born Californian John Muir, who established the organization in 1892 and served as its first president, Brower was a self-styled conservationist. Conservationists, who set themselves apart from people who manage resources for profit (but may also conserve them as well), were concerned primarily with the preservation of natural scenery and wildlife.

Preservationists such as Brower and his predecessors John Muir, John Wesley Powell, and Frederick Law Olmsted, as well as contemporaries such as Aldo Leopold and William O. Douglas, distinguished themselves from other conservation pioneers such as Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot, a forester by training, who had made “conservation” a household term during the first half of the twentieth century, advocated the scientific management of the American environment—the land, forests, water—for rational economic use, that is, for profit over the long term. Worried by the nation’s dwindling stock of resources, yet unwilling to lock them up, Pinchot argued for a utilitarian approach that ostensibly sought to make resources available for more people over a longer period of time.

Brower’s view, on the contrary, was that the world’s complex, interconnected environments were an inheritance that should not be disturbed or destroyed by mandates of economic growth, consumerism, economic greed, or political ambitions. Undisturbed wilderness, Brower felt, was more important to humankind than bread and comfort alone, supplying it with vast opportunities for self-awareness, peace of mind, and deep, singular, aesthetic understanding of a world for which humans had been designed primarily—and at best—as stewards. It was this outlook that Brower hoped to enhance through Friends of the Earth.


Together with his friends Stewart Ogilvy Ogilvy, Stewart , David Sive Sive, David , and Max Linn Linn, Max , Brower organized Friends of the Earth and Friends of the Earth Foundation (FEF), as well as his long-desired League of Conservation Voters League of Conservation Voters (LCV) in May, 1969. This was accomplished in suites made available to them in Time-Life’s Essex House in New York City. The FOE’s proposed course of action was comprehensive. Seeking to use the leverage of cohesiveness supposedly inherent in small groups, something that was not feasible in the far larger Sierra Club, Brower sought to politicize—some critics suggested, to radicalize—environmental issues. This task was made easier by a growing number of environmental and ecological spokespersons and organizations that had appeared on the American scene during the turbulent 1960’s.

To heighten public visibility of both the FOE and FEF, Brower’s attorney and friend Ogilvy enlisted support from a galaxy of prominent show business personalities, authors, journalists, scientists, and well-known environmental activists. Among these public figures were Candace Bergen, Barry Commoner, Jacques Cousteau, Norman Cousins, John Denver, Duke Ellington, Milton Glaser, Konrad Lorenz, Karl Menninger, Paul Newman, Linus Pauling, Robert Redford, Pete Seeger, C. P. Snow, Gary Snyder, Mark Van Doren, and Joanne Woodward.

Ensured of visibility, FOE swiftly produced an expansive agenda. Its scope was international, in recognition of the entire planet’s ecological fragility. Eventually the organization operated through members located in fifty countries. The range of issues that it almost immediately began to address was equally wide-ranging. Among these issues was FOE’s opposition to the further development of nuclear weapons, a fight joined by such figures as national consumer-rights activist Ralph Nader and Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. FOE also moved vigorously to end international whaling and the decimation of dolphin populations by tuna fishing.

In addition, Brower’s organization attacked the pending development of the Trans-Alaska pipeline (which was completed in 1977), arguing that construction of an American-Canadian railway carrying Alaskan oil overland directly to the lower forty-eight states would be far safer in limiting spills than the combined pipeline- and seaboard-loading process, a point confirmed by the tragic and costly Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 in Prince William Sound. Also in connection with Alaska—considered the last wilderness frontier—Brower led FOE in what proved a successful fight to preserve and extend the Arctic National Wildlife Range Arctic National Wildlife Range Wildlife sanctuaries . FOE also persistently attacked policies instituted or announced by President Ronald Reagan’s interior secretary, James Watt, among them Watt’s proposed expansion of oil-drilling rights along the Continental Shelf. By the 1970’s, FOE had added coastal and ocean pollution, the greenhouse effect, chemical waste hazards, ozone layer depletion, corporate accountability in environmental matters, groundwater contamination, and the destruction of tropical rain forests to the list of global problems it sought to ameliorate.

Some issues examined by FOE were more specific than the broad issues of nuclear weapons, whaling, the loss of dolphins, the ecological impacts of a Trans-Alaska pipeline, or global environmental degradation. Always profoundly concerned by the fate of wildlife, for example, FOE publicly questioned the approaches of several programs that had been instituted to save the California condor. Rather than handle, trap, or attempt to breed the last of the condors while in captivity, FOE advocated extending and securing the condors’ remaining environments, confident that these shy creatures thereby would be encouraged to breed and adapt themselves to their ranges naturally. Similarly, while FOE and the National Rifle Association did sometimes join forces, FOE always protested the ethics of high-technology hunting practices and decried the damage hunting inflicted on wildlife and its habitats.

Before founding and leading FOE, Brower had as Sierra Club director and editor enjoyed great success in sponsoring and producing publications and films to enhance public appreciation of the values of wilderness areas and natural scenery. He repeated these successes by launching FOE’s own publications. Prominent among them was The Earth’s Wild Places, a series of books that appeared between 1971 and 1981 covering such topics as Micronesia, New England’s White Mountains, whales, and condors.

As founder and leader of FOE, Brower accepted the need for dramatic confrontational approaches, which sometimes entailed boycotts, illegal secondary boycotts, marches, and demonstrations, as well as a heavy reliance on the popular media to publicize his organization’s views. By the mid-1980’s, however, political styles had changed. A majority of FOE members were more interested in presenting their positions with rational arguments produced by expert staff than in relying on the power of moral rectitude and raw idealism. Consequently, they believed that lobbying Congress and securing environmental legislation would prove more effective than confrontation. This shift was reflected in the move of FOE headquarters from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.

Brower, twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and loaded with honors from the Sierra Club, universities, publishers, the Public Broadcasting Service, and environmental groups, resigned in 1986 to direct two other organizations he had founded, the Earth Island Institute and the International Green Circle. FOE continued to make impressive contributions by influencing environmental legislation and by integrating the efforts of human rights, consumer, and environmental organizations. Friends of the Earth Environmental organizations;Friends of the Earth

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. The first of a two-volume autobiography and chronology of Brower’s life. Includes important information about aspects of American conservation and environmental movements. An essential book, with many illustrations, a brief bibliography, and a useful index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Work in Progress. Salt Lake City, Utah: Peregrine Smith Books, 1991. This second autobiographical volume focuses on Brower’s work with the Earth Island Institute and International Green Circle; his preparations for the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; a journey to Russia’s Lake Baikal; and efforts to launch a World Restoration Fair at San Francisco’s Presidio. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brower, Montgomery. “David Brower.” People, April, 1990, 103-104. A concise, useful introduction to Brower for general readers. Includes illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. 1982. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. An updated, classic analysis of the American idea of wilderness. The author was associated with Brower and FOE. Includes some notes and an index. A gracefully written and essential study.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    Sierra 77 (May/June, 1992). A beautifully illustrated and well-written centennial edition, which includes ample material by and about Brower.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Bob Pepperman. Our Limits Transgressed. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991. An excellent, well-written analysis of American environmental political thought, which provides an analytical framework for Brower’s activities. Includes notes, a good bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wapner, Paul. Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. Part of the International Environmental Policy and Theory series, this work explores the role of nongovernmental organizations in the realm of environmentalism and politics. Includes a chapter on FOE. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Brower Becomes Executive Director of the Sierra Club

Mission 66 Plan Is Implemented

Echo Park Dam Proposal Is Defeated

Controversial Glen Canyon Dam Is Completed

Sierra Club Helps Block Dams on the Colorado River

National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 Is Signed

Categories: History