For Peak’s Sake

Honoring David Brower

Earth Island News

The founder of Earth Island Institute, David Brower, died in November 2000 of complications from cancer at the age of 88, a champion of environmental causes until the very end.

A week before his passing, my friend – farmer, author, and photographer Michael Ableman – and I went to see Brower at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley. When we left, I told Dave I looked forward to seeing him leading environmental campaigns again after he left the hospital. He looked at me and said quietly, “I don’t think that’s in the cards, but it’s been a great 88 years.”

Indeed, it had been. David Brower was perhaps the 20th century’s greatest advocate for the environment. He helped create nearly a score of national parks, kept dams out of the Grand Canyon and the Super Sonic Transport out of American skies, was a key player in the passage of the Wilderness Act, and inspired thousands of young Americans to help save the planet.

Since Brower died, he has been honored in his hometown of Berkeley. His memorial attracted more than a thousand people. The Brower Center will open officially in May and serve both as a remembrance of him and a home for many environmental organizations, including Earth Island Institute.

But David Brower also deserves national recognition, and none would be more appropriate than naming a prominent Sierra peak and/or the new Eastern Sierra Wilderness Area in his honor.

As the leader who took the Sierra Club from a California hiking organization with a membership of 7,000 to the most powerful conservation organization in the country, Brower has been more closely associated with the Sierra Nevada than anyone since the Sierra Club’s famous founder, John Muir.

In 2008, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer introduced legislation that would rename a prominent Sierra Peak – North Palisade – for Brower. At 12,242 feet, North Palisade is the apex of Kings Canyon National Park. Brower had been instrumental in persuading Congress to create the Park in 1940, producing a film called Skyland Trails of the Kings that allowed Congress to see how magnificent the area was.

But the legislation to rename the North Palisade in honor of Brower had no House sponsor and did not come up for a vote last year. The idea also – despite strong support from many prominent Sierra lovers, including former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and climber and Patagonia clothing company founder Yvon Chouinard – ran into some strong local opposition. It is my hope that the legislation will be revived this year, and passed in time for the opening of the Brower Center.

I climbed North Palisade with my friend John Ellsworth in 1964, when I was 17 years old. In the summit register were the signatures of earlier climbers. One was David Brower’s. John and I recognized his name from the beautiful coffee-table books he edited and the conquests the Climber’s Guide credited him with making. One was the first winter ascent of North Palisade; another, the first ascent of its imposing Northwest Ridge. Brower’s daughter Barbara says North Palisade was his favorite peak.

While it’s a general rule to name unnamed summits for prominent people, honoring Brower with a bump on a ridge – there are no unnamed major peaks – would scarcely do justice to his memory. Renaming North Palisade “Brower Palisade” would. This seems like a stretch to some, because North Palisade is so well known. But North Palisade isn’t even the northernmost peak in the Palisade group. And since there is no South Palisade, there is no symmetry to the Palisade name anyway. Calling the peak “Brower Palisade” would retain its connection to its original name.

Moreover, renaming North Palisade after Brower would honor his memory in another important way. He was one of the first to warn of the dangers of global warming, a phenomenon that is causing the rapid melting of the North Palisade’s great glacier, the largest in the Sierra.

—John de Graaf

John de Graaf is an Earth Island board member. He produced the 1990 PBS film For Earth’s Sake: The Life and Times of David Brower.

Take Action:
Write to Senators Feinstein and Boxer and thank them for their proposed legislation in honor of Brower. If you live outside of California, please contact your senators and encourage them to support the proposal to rename North Palisade. Additionally, ask your members of Congress to consider renaming the new Eastern Sierra Wilderness Area the ”David Brower Wilderness.”

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