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
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. Brower deserved a starring
role and here's why.
Ken Burns is to be commended. He 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 hero.
You willsee 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 corruption 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
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
inadvertently cut off. Park boundaries sometimes left sensitive areas
unprotected or at the mercy of multi-use agencies like the BLM and Forest Service.
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,
Brower's 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.
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.
Brower's 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
was not someone to wait around or ask 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 large format 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.
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
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 bothhe and thetreefalling together but 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 against the wishes of Dominy
who insisted that a free flowing Colorado River was "no good to
anyone". Even those in the Sierra Club who voted against Brower
believed that saving the Grand Canyon from 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.
achievements are the equal of any of Burns' brightest stars. In
addition to preventing dams from being built in the Grand Canyon, he
prevented dam construction insideKing'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
intelligent, engaging, charming, forthright, impatient and
inconvenient. Almost no one could match his energy and drive.It 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.
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.