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Honoring the Archdruid

Monday, July 28, 2008

postcard_final.jpgDavid Brower, more than anyone else except possibly Rachel Carson, was the creative force behind the modern American environmental movement. As the first executive director of the Sierra Club, he transformed it from a Northern California hiking club into a potent national political force. When the Sierra Club started compromising too much to suit him, he resigned and founded Friends of the Earth, then went on to help start the California League of Conservation Voters and Earth Island Institute. (He liked to say that each organization was founded to make the one before it seem reasonable.) The subject of one of the best books ever written about the movement, John McPhee's Encounters With the Archdruid, Brower died in 2000 at age 88 in his hometown of Berkeley, where Earth Island is building a super-green center for eco-activism in his honor.

Brower was also a world-class mountaineer. So at the urging of some constituents, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have introduced legislation to change the name of North Palisade Peak to Brower Palisade. Brower was on the first team of climbers to make a winter ascent of the peak, which at 14,242 feet is the fourth-highest in California.

“Our nation owes David Brower a significant debt for his role in shaping the modern environmental movement during the 1950s and 1960s," said Feinstein. "He helped to preserve vast acres of wilderness in California and across the country. And he has inspired new generations of activists to the cause of safeguarding America’s rich natural heritage."

Not so fast, said Rep. Devin Nunes of Visalia, a Republican whose district includes North Palisade, on the edge of Kings Canyon National Park in Fresno County. He told the Los Angeles Times that Brower wasn't a hero to him, or to the people he represents.

"I most likely wouldn't support it. If you look at a lot of these radical groups that were formed, they've cost my district thousands of jobs. Take the timber industry: We let our forests burn up and meanwhile buy all our wood from Canada -- it's kind of a sad deal."

Even some of Brower's admirers have mixed feelings about the idea. Craig Dostie, senior editor of Backcountry magazine, who lives in the northern Sierra, said he has a "sentimental attachment" to the name North Palisade, that it evokes memories of notable ascents.

The prospects for renaming North Palisade are mixed at best. The head of the U.S. Board on Geographical Names says the government is reluctant to rename physical features.

I've never climbed North Palisade and probably never will, but I'm a bit taken aback to find myself on the same side as Nunes – for very different reasons. Brower loved the Sierra so deeply, and so firmly rejected the idea of himself as a hero, that I bet he wouldn't want his name attached to a mountain. (I'll also bet the notion didn't come from the circumstances Brower often said were the source of the environmental movement's best ideas: scrawled on a bar napkin at last call.) The organizations David Brower founded, and their tireless work to protect public health and natural resources, are monuments enough.