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Phil Berry

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Philip Berry's family will welcome attendance at a celebration of his life on Friday, October 11, 2013, at 1:00 pm at Shiloh Church, 3295 School St. Oakland, CA 94602.

Celebrating the Life of Phil Berry

The Sierra Club celebrates the life and accomplishments of Philip S. Berry, our friend, colleague, and a lifelong conservationist, who passed away on September 22, 2013. A member of the Sierra Club for more than 60 years, Phil's influence upon the Club and the modern conservation movement was gigantic -- particularly in the field of environmental law, where he was a pioneer. As the Sierra Club's president during a time of significant upheaval, he was also instrumental in steering a course for the Club that led to it becoming nation's largest and most effective environmental organization.

Born in Berkeley, California, in 1937, Phil gained his real experience of the Sierra Nevada high country as a boy, when his father took him and his two brothers on a backcountry trip to Little Yosemite Valley and Merced Lake High Sierra Camp. Thus began a lifelong love of wilderness.

After the trip, Phil learned about the Sierra Club from a fellow boy scout, whose father was a member: "[He] told me of the wonders of the Sierra Club burro trips," recalled Phil in one of two oral histories that he participated in for the Club. "So I wrote the then-leader of the High Trips, Dave Brower, and told him that at age 13 I wanted to go alone, but had my parents' permission. That interested Dave, so he asked me up for an interview to make sure that this kid wasn't utterly nuts."

David Brower, who in 1950 was still a couple of years away from becoming the Sierra Club's first executive director, not only granted Phil's request to join the six-week long High Trip but also became an important mentor for him -- at first on climbing and wilderness skills, but eventually on principles of conservation, too. "Dave, at campfires, would talk about the philosophical and political side of what the experience meant," recalled Phil, "and how through enjoying these things we acquired an obligation to fight for them if threatened."

Some lessons were learned the hard way. On one Yosemite High Trip, the young Phil 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, owing to a miscommunication, the boys ended up spending the night alone on the trail without shelter, food, or matches. It was an experience Phil vowed never to repeat.

Phil worked for the Sierra Club every summer during high school and was especially active with the Club's rock climbing group. He continued to participate in backcountry outings through his college years at Stanford, and led High Trips himself for years afterward.

At college, he completed two majors -- English and premedical -- before graduating in 1958. Fortunately for the Sierra Club, Phil decided against following his older brother into medicine and chose to study law instead. After receiving his J.D. from Stanford in 1961, he went into practice with his father: "I was always interested in politics, and law I saw as an instrument in that direction," he recalled. During the turbulent decades to come, both Phil's legal and political acumen would serve him and the Sierra Club well.

Once David Brower became the Sierra Club's executive director, it didn't take long for Phil to become involved in the Club's conservation agenda. In 1953, he was selected to join two trips to Dinosaur National Monument, which was under threat from a proposal to dam the Green River. He worked as a "swamper, or pot boy" for three weeks. It was during that trip, he said, that "conservation became more immediate to me. Here we were in the very place the dumbbells wanted to dam." Phil was never one to mince words.

Phil's first mark on Sierra Club legal history occurred before he had even completed law school, when David Brower became concerned about the possibility that the Club might lose its tax-deductible status. "Dave…wondered what the Club could do," said Phil years later. "Ironic that he should speak to me because if ever a law student found income tax boring, it was me." Phil agreed to talk to his professors at Stanford, who assured him that the Club could indeed form a separate tax-deductible entity. This advice proved accurate and led to the establishment of The Sierra Club Foundation.

It was also while still a law student that Phil became interested in forestry law, writing a paper on California's Forest Practice Act that was published in the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1961. Years later, after the act was found to be unconstitutional, Phil helped draft a new one. That led in 1974 to his appointment by Governor Ronald Reagan as the conservation representative to the California State Board of Forestry. Phil definitely began as the odd man out: "There were eight Republicans and one Democrat, and there was one conservationist. Total of nine," he recalled. He described his initial role on the board as: "Making motions that never got seconded." Phil persevered and served on the board for a dozen years and under three governors, patiently helping to steer policy by degrees toward more sound conservation practices.

Throughout the 1960s, Phil became increasingly involved in Sierra Club conservation issues, serving on the Bay Chapter Excom for a couple of years, and beginning to attend national board meetings. In 1966, he became the chairman of the Sierra Club Legal Committee -- just one week before the Internal Revenue Service finally followed through on the threat of revoking the Club's tax-exempt status. One of tax-law hating Phil's first tasks: Find a top-notch tax lawyer.

Phil would remain deeply involved in the Sierra Club's legal program for nearly five decades. The program began with the decision to retain counsel for the Club. Frederic Fisher and Don Harris, who were co-chairing the Legal Committee after Phil became president, filled this role for a couple of years before, as Phil said, before the work became too much to expect from "a semi-pro-bono effort." Thus was born the idea of creating the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (which later changed its name to EarthJustice). Phil was always modest about his own role: "They [Fisher and Harris] did most of the work on it. I encouraged them and led the thing through the board, but give most of the credit to the two of them and to the first executive director, Jim Moorman."

Most of the time, Phil saw his role as advisory, although, former Sierra Club Executive Director Michael McCloskey recalls that "occasionally he did take cases. He spent many years handling the case on Upper Newport Bay, which was very demanding. And from time to time, he defended Club officers who were caught up in SLAPP [strategic lawsuit against public participation] suits. He also made sure we had good defending counsel in the many damage suits designed to intimidate us. Thanks to him we never felt abandoned at those tense moments."

The Upper Newport Bay lawsuit was one that Phil accepted pro bono in 1970 after six local people in Orange County ("interveners" in a "friendly" lawsuit to determine the legality of a proposed land swap between The Irvine Company and the State of California) found themselves without a lawyer just ten days before going trial. After three years, the "friendly" case, which the appellate court noted had evolved into "a truly adversary litigation of substantial proportions," was finally won on appeal. This not only saved important tidelands from development but also prevented California from accepting land in trade that, constitutionally, Phil was able to show the state already owned. The Irvine Company, in essence, had been trying to sell the Brooklyn Bridge back to New York City.

That Phil accepted, tried, and won the Upper Newport Bay case is all the more extraordinary given that, when it began, he had his hands full as the president of the Sierra Club. He had joined the Board of Directors in 1968 and was elected secretary on his first day. He became president the following year at the age of just 32, making him the youngest president up to that time.

To describe Phil's first three-year term as the Sierra Club's president as tumultuous would be an understatement. It began with the resignation of the Club's executive director, Phil's boyhood mentor, David Brower, who had polarized the Club. Phil's term also included the first Earth Day, the passage of landmark environmental legislation like of the National Environmental Policy Act, and the establishment of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The Sierra Club that emerged from these years was essentially the organization we know today -- dedicated to principles of sustainability and protecting the environment in the broadest sense.

The man who succeeded David Brower as executive director, Michael McCloskey, remembers Phil's leadership during those years: "He provided key guidance as the first Club president following Brower’s departure. If I had been the only one in a leadership position wanting us to pursue a vigorous environmental policy, that course would have been in trouble. The new board was intent on taking control of all programs and was very suspicious of staff. But Phil made it very clear that he wanted us to be no less vigorous than Brower had been."

As Phil said during one one of his oral history interviews: "We knew precisely where we were going to take the Club: We were going to broaden the agenda as far as we could go. We were going to take every tough and pure position we could." That meant widening the scope of the Club's agenda from wilderness conservation to include population, pollution, energy, and urban issues. Certainly, Phil was the first Sierra Club president to picket an oil company's headquarters (Chevron). His views on the fossil-fuel industry were prescient: "If oil money pollutes Congress, they've stolen democracy from us," he said, decades before most Americans would ever hear of the Koch brothers.

Phil also worked hard during his presidency to heal any lingering doubts or resentment among Sierra Club chapters: "I can remember the first half-year that I was president: I visited at least half the chapters and made what turned out to be the same speech to each one of them, declaring emphatically that we could win."

Although Phil believed as passionately in conservation as David Brower did, he did not learn all of his principles from the man he had once regarded as almost a second father: "I always looked upon Aldo Leopold's writings, particularly Sand County Almanac, as being central to modern conservation thought, along with Muir, " he said. "There was strong emphasis upon … the ethical ideal, the notion that our ideas are basically ethical ideas."

Whether as a young turk or a seasoned campaigner, Phil was never afraid to espouse those ideals -- be it in court or in a legendary confrontation with Richard Nixon during a conservation-group meeting at the White House. "I am afraid I disrupted the whole meeting by declaring that I didn't think he believed the same things we did at all," Phil recalled years later. "There then began an argument between myself and Nixon …We argued over population and energy and a variety of things. And then the meeting ended. I've heard about it ever since. But mostly I heard about it in the next three to six months -- people saying either Nixon was amazed or angry or both." Not surprisingly, the man who wasn't afraid to challenge the president of the United State in the White House was also a strong supporter of the Sierra Club's increasing political activity during the past few decades.

In all, Phil spent 30 years on the Sierra Club Board of Directors, serving a total of 10 three-year terms: 1968-1974; 1975-1981; 1982-1988; 1990-1996; and 1997-2003. He was also elected president of the Club again in 1991. In addition, he served as the Club's vice president for legal affairs and as chair of the Litigation Committee until his death. In the latter role, he worked tirelessly, helping to oversee the tremendous expansion of the Club's climate litigation efforts, including landmark cases such as Sierra Club v. Cheney, Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, and the phenomenally successful Beyond Coal campaign.

Phil became a Sierra Club leaders at an unusually young age, but it's a testament to how quickly he earned the respect of his contemporaries that he received the Sierra Club's highest honor, the John Muir Award, in 1978, when just 41 years old. Throughout his life, however, Phil gave the Club far more than he received. He was unfailingly generous with his time and with financial support for the Club, its volunteers, The Sierra Club Foundation, and the Sierra Club's legal programs.

No recollection of Phil would be complete without a mention of his infamous wit and calculated irreverence. Beginning in the sixties, he authored several "mock dramas" that satirized Sierra Club board meetings, some of which "went viral" in an era where mimeographs were the closest thing to email. In later years, Phil was a fixture at the Sierra Club's annual awards banquet, where he offered up his own "alternative awards" that lampooned political figures.

Along with his keen intellect, Phil's background and character are what made him such an important leader in the Sierra Club's history. As Michael McCloskey put it, "He was almost unique in having grown up in the Berkeley environment of the old Sierra Club but nonetheless embodying the new, younger outlook of the flourishing, national Sierra Club. He was an important architect of the new Club, while never leaving that environment. He had a foot in both worlds and wanted us to lead."

Perhaps Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund cofounder Frederic Fisher, who first met Phil in law school and went backpacking with him in the Sierra every summer for many years, put it best in the introduction he contributed to the second volume of Phil's oral history: "Phil reminds me of the bulldozers he has fought against over the years. In his case, however, the world that we live in is a lot better for his being there."

Philip Berry's family will welcome attendance at a celebration of his life on Friday, October 11, 2013, at 1:00 pm at Shiloh Church, 3295 School St. Oakland, CA 94602.

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More Photos of Phil Berry:

On a Sierra Club High Trip in 1955.

Photo above: On a Sierra Club High Trip in 1955.

Picketing Standard Oil in 1970.

Photo above: Picketing Standard Oil in 1970.

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