David Brower on Wilderness, Dams and the Future:
An Interview with David Kupfer

I met Dave and Anne Brewer in 1978 and we've been good friends since. We shared time rafting on the Stanislaus River and at numerous events, as well as at their home in Berkeley. I loved the firebrand nature of their personalities--every visit with them was enlightening. Their worldview was so compelling and practical that it hardly seemed radical. And their energy and vitality transcended their years.

Dave was a trend-setter, far ahead of his time in regards to the population, technological, ecological and institutional limits of the planet.

Dave did not mellow with age. He remained radical, erudite and timely, impatient with the pace of change in the face of the impending, continuing ecological crisis. He remained angry and passionate through my final visit with him in October. He was a genius in his ability to catalyze, nurture, propagate and expand environmental consciousness. The number of people he awoke and inspired, from those he led into the Sierras in the 1930s to those who read his final book--a children's book, Reading the Earth: A Story of Wildness--is incalculable. He was the best teacher I ever had. Dave will live on as a permanent symbol for the movement. This final interview will give you a taste of his unique character. [David Brower passed over to the other side on November 5, 2000.]

David Kupfer: Tell me of your first exposure to wilderness.

David Brewer: It was through the reading of John Muir. Muir told me about wilderness. He liked it. I liked the description of the country he was in, once he hit the Sierra. I liked the general idea about wilderness that Muir picked up from Thoreau. My first visit was very early--we didn't call it wilderness then, that was in 1918, along Highway I-80, across the Sierra. There was a one-lane dirt road. No road kill, you couldn't go fast enough.

DK: How has wilderness inspired you?

DB: I generally am looking at wilderness to see what the world does when it is left to it's own natural devices. There is not much of the world that has been left to its own devices. We try to modify everything that we touch. I've treasured places not exploited by technology and wheels.

DK: What is your thinking on the current state of backpacking and your prognosis for the future and wilderness preservation?

DB: Grim, very grim. Unless we do something about growth, it won't matter. Unless we improve the number of people working to protect the environment. Unless we change what we are doing, change our way of life--we have only 30 years left. But Wall Street, the big investors, they just don't want to hear that. They continue doing what they are doing, calling for more economic growth, not realizing that economic growth as we know it is costing the Earth.

DK: When will we pay the Earth back?

DB: Unless we change our attitudes and make change possible, it will not happen. We have to make some changes. There are a lot of them. I probably won't get many done, but I keep trying. I am very anxious to save the national parks from the National Park Service. I am anxious to save the forests from the Forest Service. It would be nice if we had a Forest Service--instead we have a timber service. I have had that bias since 1938. The Forest Service has been very busy trying to build roads. I've been watching the Forest Service do very strange things. If you want to save wilderness you have to pay attention to what happens outside the wilderness as well as inside the wilderness.

DK:What should we do to improve the stewardship of national lands in the US that are being for recreation?

DB: My bright idea is that we should take the BLM and rename it, give it a new mission, not as just a national lands service, but have it be concerned not only with public land but also about private land. People have to get the idea that it is not theirs. They may have title, but it's not fair--there are a number of generations down the line, we can't trash them now, we need to give them a break. What we need is an understanding of what land is. I remember back in the book by Nancy Newhall and Ansel Adams, This is the American Earth, she wrote, that "we are a brief tenant." We owe it to the people who are not here yet, not to mention all the other species. Their genes are right here in our custody. We have a fairly big responsibility. It's too beautiful of a planet to screw up, and we're good at that. We know how to trash the place. We need a new conservationism. It's got to mean more than using resources at a slower rate. We've got to do something about restoration, hanging on to the things we cannot replace, and we have to restore nature as best we can. It takes quite a bit of confidence to try to restore nature. Nature knows what to do. At least we can get a start, instead of getting in the way. Conservation, preservation, restoration, restoration of our own human system. These are the challenges.

DK: What is it about the magic of wilderness?

DB: I go back to why I love that quote from Father Thomas Berry. He said put the Bible on the shelf for 20 years and read the Earth. I've spent a great deal of time reading the Earth. Still at 88 [I am] still impressed with the structure. It is pretty damn amazing, its design and how it works its way through evolution. You begin to admire it, seeing everything that nature provides us. Nature knows how to get water from the ocean, make clouds, rain and snow, and brings us drinking water.

DK: Let's talk about Hetch Hetchy.

DB: One reason we have a National Park Service is that back at the turn of the century, [it came about] as a consequence of the efforts by the city of San Francisco to build a reservoir in Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. John Muir very much opposed it. The Sierra Club initially had mixed feelings but finally, when it came to a vote, they opposed it. But it was too late...

So O'Shawnessy Dam was built early in the 1920s. I'd not exactly been there, but when I had my sixth birthday party we camped nearby where there was a little railroad built to bring supplies to the dam site. If I'd known then what they were up to, I would've derailed it. But I didn't know. I was only six.

But it should not have been built in a national park. There was no need to do it. There were other sites.

DK: Tell me of the campaign to remove Glen Canyon Dam.

DB: The biggest mistake I ever made in my life was when I didn't keep up the battle when I could have, so we got a dam at Glen Canyon. We had enough people, enough person power.

I got the Echo Park Dam removed from the Colorado River Project. I was [then] told by the board that the Sierra Club would withdraw opposition to the Glen Canyon Project. I was opposed to the whole thing because it was bad engineering, bad hydrology, bad conservation, bad energy, wasteful of water, all to build a big power plant to produce electricity. So, after the Sierra Club board dropped its opposition, since we happened to be the keystone of the Colorado River effort, the dam project went through easily. The dam was started, and then for the first time I saw the damage that I had done. When I saw the water start to rise in Glen Canyon and those incredible side canyons, I'd pretty much given up and regretted what was happening. In 1957 the dam started going higher and higher with more water--it was a major disaster. Then just four years ago I met Rich Ingersol, an MD in Salt Lake, and he told me about some new figures from the Department of Reclamation about how much water we were losing, about a million acre feet of water a year, which indicated that we are going to lose more as the reservoir filled. We're having enormous recreation pollution, and it won't be long before the reservoir is unfit to swim in because it has been so dumped in. It's caused all kinds of damage downstream to Grand Canyon...

I got all excited again and decided that if the dam was losing this much water from a river that doesn't have any water to waste, is polluting badly and is in danger of a fracture, they could get the power from other sources. If Lake Powell were full and [the dam] fractured, it'd probably empty Lake Mead too. So one of my arguments is drain Lake Powell while you still can, under control.

They should get the canyon back and develop a new relationship with the Indians living nearby. Develop it as a World Heritage Site so that the Navajo and the Hopi people can work as guides rather than servants to the people that come through the area. There are new numbers coming up about the weakness of the dam. There is the desperate need for that water in the Salton Sea, which is badly polluted. Mexico needs to be given a break so that they can have more water to make use of. There are all kinds of advantages, but there is also all kinds of opposition... The Bureau of Reclamation claimed they needed that water to store in case of dry weather. But they only need it once in a century! So, for that, they are losing 100-million-acre feet annually for a century; that is unacceptable, a very bad idea.

DK: Your favorite thoughts about wilderness?

DB: We can read the Earth. There are a lot of questions to be answered there. A lot of reading can be done in wilderness. Without wilderness, the world is a cage.

DK: Any final words for the direct action community Dave?

DB: Persevere. That's where it's at.

© Earth First! Journal, Yule 2001