I organized

Gunnison County Friends of the Earth

While Crested Butte was fighting the molybdenum mine proposed for Mt. Emmons by mining giant Amax in the late 1970s, our mayor, W. Mitchell, invited famous environmentalist David Brower to visit. Brower served as executive director of the Sierra Club from 1952 to 1969, when he fell out of favor with the club’s board. He then founded an excellent organization, Friends of the Earth. A fine book about him is “Encounters With the Archdruid,” by John McPhee.

portrait of David Brower, who founded Friends of the Earth and was Sierra Club executive director in the 1950s and '60s
David Brower

I hung out with Brower at Mitchell’s house and went to his public events. His charisma totally inspired me. Then I checked out FOE’s publications and was impressed, especially its newsletter “Not Man Apart” and its book “Progress As If Survival Mattered.” In 1982 I founded a Gunnison County chapter of Friends of the Earth (FOE). I was young and full of enthusiasm for political action to save our planet. I managed to gather a small coterie of supporters and put on some small events. For a focus issue, I chose acid rain. Alpine lakes and creeks in Colorado were getting acidified by emissions from copper smelters in southern Arizona and powerplants west of us. As a FOE chapter leader, I attended a big acid rain conference in D.C. in 1984. Every Democratic candidate for president came to that conference to try to impress us.

Brower’s deep influence on me actually began much earlier. In the 1960s, as Sierra Club E.D., he invented the coffee table book with the Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series. These big size, high-quality books presented photography by Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and other greats, accompanied by poetry and prose old and new. They changed me from a kid who liked cameras and trains to a person who explored and photographed nature in my Chicago suburb. They opened my eyes and I eventually earned a B.A. in Art. 

Brower loved young activists like me, and we became friends. He even kissed me! On the lips! I visited him in San Francisco three times. He once invited me to brunch at his Berkeley home with Anne, his wife, and Kenneth, his son. At work, most days he would gather some staff or visiting friends and stroll to lunch at his favorite restaurant in North Beach. I got to join that ritual twice. He would buy two liters of wine and get everyone loose and talking and he used FOE funds to pay for everyone’s meal. That eventually got him in trouble with FOE’s board and there was a revolt, like the problem he faced with Sierra Club in the late ’60s. I must argue with the critics: Those lunches brought many people together, communicated vital information, and inspired everyone who participated.

Around 1985 Brower spoke at the annual Colorado Workshop in Gunnison. Afterward, I drove him in my pickup truck with a promise to show him beautiful Horse Ranch Park, which is between two gorgeous, designated Wilderness areas. I had married my Anne there a few years earlier. Crested Butte is on the way to Horse Ranch, so we procured some sandwiches at The Bakery Café and David bought a big jug of wine at nearby Mountain Spirits. Then we headed up Kebler Pass Road. Five minutes after leaving town, David opened the jug. I quickly was driving illegally under the influence. But the traffic was light and the journey uncomplicated. We made it to Horse Ranch Park and reveled in nature. A light rain fell and made it all the more beautiful. When I pulled my off the road onto a dirt patch to turn around, it turned out to be mud. My truck got stuck, wheels spinning. But not too deep. The archdruid got out and pushed the truck!  We escaped.

Around that same time, FOE suffered a fracture. The Wikipedia article on Brower puts it this way: “FOE’s growing debt and tension between Washington lobbying and grassroots action led to a crisis between Brower and a majority of the board that recalled his conflict with the Sierra Club board.” I would not argue about the debt, but I’ll take grassroots action over lobbying any day. See my letter to the FOE board. 

The D.C. lobbyists won. They closed the San Francisco office. FOE then became just another D.C. lobbying organization. Friends of the Earth today has a lot of staff and produces some excellent information and argument. But I believe they lack the people power to back up their political arguments. Who actually pays attention to them in D.C?

Brower had inspired creation of Friends of the Earth in other countries. Friends of the Earth International was founded in 1971 and now there are FOE organizations in 73 countries. They are leaders in the Green party and are effective in their societies. Check out FOE Europe.

Thank you, David Brower. I’m so honored to have shared some time and experience with you.

David and Anne Brower and Gary Sprung in 1987
Gary with David and Anne Brower. I became friends with David, the Sierra Club “arch druid” and founder of Friends of the Earth.
David Brower at his daily lunch with coleagues in San Francisco, including Gary Sprung
I was fortunate to twice enjoy lunch with David Brower at his favorite San Francisco restaurant. Critics thought he wasted money on those lunches, but I think he inspired many people and got much accomplished over those meals.