(UPDATE: A memorial for Phillip Berry will be held at 1 p.m., Friday, Oct. 11 at Shiloh Church, 3295 School St., Oakland, CA.)
The Earth has lost one of its greatest defenders, Phillip Berry, a founder of Earthjustice and former president of The Sierra Club. He died early Sunday.
Berry joined the club in 1950 when he was only 13 and the club had but 5,000 members. He came of age along with the environmental movement and played a guiding role as the club grew to its current membership of 2.3 million supporters.
It was Berry who saw the growing potential for using the law in environmental defense and helped start the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, which later became Earthjustice, recalled Fred Fisher, a co-founder of the defense fund and its chair for many years.
“Phil thought it up and moved it forward. I have been credited for starting SCLDF, but Phil was the unacknowledged father of both SCLDF and its pro bono legal counterpart,” Fisher said. Former Earthjustice Executive Director Buck Parker remembers it much the same way:
“Although many people worked together to establish the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, it likely would not have happened at all without Phil Berry. Phil was among the first people to see the important role of lawyers and the courts in protecting environmental values and the need for an organization like Earthjustice to enforce environmental laws.”
A young Phil Berry (left),
with Fred Fisher in the Sierras.
Parker said Berry was a brilliant lawyer so respected by other club board members that they supported creation of the defense fund. Berry enlisted Fisher—his law school classmate and life-long friend—and Don Harris in setting up the new organization.
Friends and associates variously describe Berry as kind and thoughtful, a man of great personal integrity, generous at letting others take credit for his ideas, someone who worked hard to bring others together to achieve common goals—and a man of great wit.
Berry was known for his mock dramas parodying club board meetings and debunking pomposity. In later years he appeared annually at the club’s annual awards banquet to offer up his own “alternative awards” lampooning political figures.
The man’s remarkable legacy of environmental achievement began at age 12 when his dad took him on his first backcountry camping trip to Yosemite. They backpacked into the Little Yosemite Valley and stayed at Merced Lake.
He was hooked.
A year later, after hearing of the Sierra Club’s multi-week High Trips in the Sierra supported by burros, he wrote the head of the High Trips program—a World War II veteran and famous rock climber named David Brower—and convinced him to let Berry come along alone. At the conclusion of that 6-week trip, Brower sponsored Berry’s club membership. He went on to teach the fledgling environmentalist the ways of the woods, rock climbing, mountaineering and ultimately conservation.
On a Yosemite High Trip, young Berry volunteered to move the base camp and serve as a bear guard for the supplies. When the outfitter failed to show up to relieve Phil and his teenage companion, they tried to return to camp but ended up spending the night alone on the trail without shelter, food or matches. An experience he vowed never to repeat.
Berry moved from club outings in the 1950s to joining its conservation programs and fighting dams and establishing wilderness areas in the 1960s. By then he had a degree in law and joined his father’s law firm in Oakland.
With his legal background he became chair of the club’s legal committee—a precursor move to founding the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.
Berry entered club politics in the late 1960s when Brower—the club’s executive director—had a series of confrontations with board of directors. Once elected to the board, Berry was torn between his loyalty to Brower and his loyalty to the club. He tried to bring the two sides together and avoid a showdown, but the conflict grew until Brower lost the support of a majority of the board and resigned.
In 1969, Berry was elected club president at the age of 32—at that time the youngest in club history. During his first presidency—which spanned the first Earth Day, the adoption of the National Environmental Policy Act and the establishment of the federal Environmental Protection Agency—Berry and the board broadened the club’s agenda to cover energy, population, pollution and urban issues.
During his second term in 1991–1992—at the tail end of the George H.W. Bush administration—the club experienced monumental growth as thousands joined to fight back the anti-environmental policies of Interior Secretary James Watt and EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch.