The Siege of the Sierra Club

Anti-immigration ideologues must not be allowed to hijack John Muir's vision.

| Mon Mar. 22, 2004 3:00 AM EST

Long, long ago, in a decade that now seems far away, terrorists were a non-issue and immigrants were the brown peril of choice, particularly in Pete Wilson's California. In 1994, Californians voted into law Proposition 187, a measure to deny basic healthcare and educational access to undocumented immigrants, and a whole host of demagogues ran around blaming various social and economic woes on immigrants, which degenerated into animosity to Latinos, whether they were immigrants or citizens whose ancestors beat the US to the area.

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In 1998, anti-immigrant activists forced the Sierra Club to put a referendum on immigration on the annual membership ballot. Having been blamed for every other sin under the sun, immigrants were now to be scapegoated for our environmental problems as well. By the time the Club's membership had voted the measure down, a lot of participants were embittered, and the environmental movement was tarnished in the eyes of many onlookers. The 1990s saw the rise of the environmental justice movement, which did address environmental racism -- just who gets poisoned by dumps and incinerators, among other things -- but the mainstream environmental movement is not always so good at the racial politics that lurk within its own priorities and assumptions.

Still, this is a long way from the politics of the anti-immigration activists attempting an openly hostile takeover of the Club, with three candidates for the March board elections looking to form a majority with some of the more dubious current board members, and various outside organizations -- some clearly racist and white-supremacist -- encouraging their members to join the Club and sway the vote. "Without a doubt, the Sierra Club is the subject of a hostile takeover attempt by forces allied with ... a variety of right-wing extremists," said the Southern Poverty Law Center in a warning letter. "They hope to use the credibility of the Club as a cover to advance their own extremist views."

The three are Frank Morris, David Pimentel and Richard Lamm, all with links to the anti-immigration organization Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America. Former Colorado Governor Lamm is also a longtime board member of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which receives funding from the pro-eugenics and "race betterment" Pioneer Fund. Lamm, who has talked about the elderly's "duty to die," has made statements such as, "[T]he rash of firebombings throughout the Southwest, and the three-month siege of downtown San Diego in 1998 were all led by second-generation Hispanics, the children of immigrants." (One wonders if he or any other anti-immigration activist remembers that the reason the Sierra Club's name is half-Spanish is because California used to be Mexican territory.)

The vision of a relatively homogenous place overrun by disruptive, destructive outsiders is a better picture of the Sierra Club under siege than the United States in relation to immigration. Outside groups such as the National Immigration Alert List encouraged their members to join the Club to force it to endorse an issue rejected six years before and so perhaps permanently warp its identity and image; further, most candidates for a seat on the Club's board are active longtime members, but these three outsiders seem to have become members specifically to stage the nonprofit equivalent of a hostile corporate takeover. That hostility is underscored by the fact that they filed, then petulantly dropped, a lawsuit against the Club and its current president, which sought an injunction that would prevent the club, the board, and other board candidates from commenting on their agenda. Current board president Larry Fahn writes that "the lawyer for Lamm, Morris and Pimentel had hired a high-powered corporate public relations firm (which also represents the American Chemical Council) to try their case in the media." Thirteen past presidents of the Club have come out in opposition to the coup; eleven of them issued a statement that included these remarks: "These outsiders' desire is to capture the majority of seats so as to move their personal agenda, without regard to the wishes or knowledge of the members and supporters of the Sierra Club, and to use the funds and other resources of the Club to those ends…. We believe that the crisis facing the Club is real and can well be fatal, destroying the vision of John Muir, and the work and contributions of hundreds of thousands of volunteer activists who have built this organization." (Of course Scottish immigrant Muir was a racist too -- he said some pretty astounding things about Native Americans-- but that's another story, and era.)

A lot of leftists have already written off the 112-year-old Sierra Club, and though I've occasionally thought its slogan should be Earth First's "No compromise in the defense of Mother Earth" without the No, it remains what it has been for so many decades: the flagship of the environmental movement dealing with everything from clear-cutting and global warming to endangered species and water pollution. If it is discredited and disempowered, so will be much of the movement. And it seems that the goal of these anti-immigration activists has little or nothing to do with the protection of the environment. After all the links between immigration and environmental trouble are sketchy at best.

During the 1990s, the border was always talked about as though it was a tangible landform, a divinely ordained difference. I grew up with a clear picture of the Iron Curtain too, since it was spoken of as though it were as coherent an artifact as the Berlin Wall. But the Berlin Wall was made out of concrete, while the Iron Curtain was not made out of metal, despite the vision of a continental cyclone fence I'd had. Like the US-Mexican border, it was a political idea enforced by a variety of structures, technologies, and people with guns. In 1998, I spent a couple of weeks on the border in Texas. There, the border is a river, the Rio Grande, and there I realized that in most senses it is also a fiction. As our raft floated downstream, Mexico was the stark expanse to the right, the United States the bleak expanse to the left, and crossing songbirds and cattle seemed indifferent to the idea that the Chihuahuan desert was really two countries. The toxins from American agriculture and Juarez maquilladoras mixed indiscriminately in the slow, brown river, even as plant and animal life clustered and bloomed on its banks. It was not a boundary but an oasis. Not quite a Berlin Wall, even if you're not a swallow or a cactus wren.

Borders don't exist in nature. I learned that a second time in northern Canada, up where British Columbia meets up with the Northwest Territories. I was traveling by raft again, and the ornithologist with us would get up at dawn to identify, band, and free the songbirds that she caught in her mist nets. She liked to point out that a lot of them wintered in the tropics of Central America and so conservation efforts needed to be transnational. Canada's remotest wilderness was not a place apart; it was intimately tied to the tropics.

Borders don't exist in nature, but they can be made. In San Diego and Tijuana shortly after last year's devastating October fires, friends pointed out to me how a single bioregion had sharply diverged because of distinct human practices. On the Baja side, the resources to put out fires never really existed; the fire cycle had never been seriously interrupted; and so the colossal fuel loads that would incinerate so much around San Diego had never accumulated. Besides Mexicans are less interested in moving into locations remote from their fellows. The upshot is not only that they didn't have such devastating fires but that they didn't have mansions in canyons and on mountaintops for which firefighters would have to risk their lives and the state squander its dwindling funds.

This is not the only place where the ecology is better preserved south of the border than north of it. Consider the case of the nearly extinct Sonoran pronghorn. About ten times as many survive on the Sonora side, while on the Arizona side, they're pretty much confined to the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range -- not the healthiest habitat for the last couple dozen of their kind in the U.S. I traveled there too, amid signs warning of live ordnance and the sound of distant bombing operations.

The takeover of the Sierra Club will only succeed if the invaders convince people to believe again that the border marks a coherent environmental divide and that the US is, or can be, a place apart. The official idea is, of course, that immigrants are bad for the environment, but you can reframe that a couple of dozen ways. One is to point out that we don't need help being bad for the environment. The US consumes the world's resources in huge disproportion to its percentage of the global population, and most of us work overtime to do our bit for global warming. (My mother got caught up in the same arguments the last time the immigration issue roiled the Sierra Club's waters and exclaimed to me, "But what if they come here and live like us?" to which the only possible reply was, "What if we stay here and live like us?") If you care about the environment, there are more relevant issues you might choose to take up before immigration. If you care about stopping immigration, on the other hand, the environment is a touchstone of conventional goodness, or at least of liberalism, you can hide behind.

The poor nonwhite immigrants who are the real targets of this campaign are generally building and cleaning those big houses in remote places and mowing the lawns and fueling up the snowmobiles, but they tend not to own them, or to make the decisions to de-list an endangered species, or defund the Superfund cleanup program, or lower emissions standards. (We elect people to do that, actually.) In fact, if sprawl and resource consumption are the immediate threat population growth poses, then the new immigrants who live frugally, densely, and rely on public transport are a rebuke to the suburbanite majority in the US.

The fantasy that the US can be sealed off from the world like a walled garden in a slum overlooks dozens of other inconvenient facts, like the role of our country, with tools such as agricultural dumping and the World Bank, in making those other nations slummier, or the fact that they too have their gardens and we too have our slums. Sometimes it's the destruction of their gardens that set them on the immigrants' path in the first place -- certainly that's the case with Mexican farmers bankrupted by NAFTA. But it's also dismaying because setting gardens apart is how the conservation movement began back at the turn of the twentieth century when it was far more closely affiliated with racist, nativist, and eugenicist movements. Behind the early national parks and wilderness areas was the idea of scenery segregation -- that it was enough to save the most beautiful and biotically lush places, a few dozen or hundred square miles at a time.

Setting one piece apart always implied that the rest of the environment was up for grabs, and into the 1960s the Sierra Club's basic strategy was doing exactly that. They fought a nuclear power plant in California's Nipomo Dunes but agreed it was okay to put one in Diablo Canyon instead; Club activists like David Brower came to bitterly regret that they had secured protection of Utah's Dinosaur National Monument from damming by letting Glen Canyon Dam go forward. Now most environmentalists are against big dams and nuclear power, so that the debates are about policy, not just geography.

Back then, Rachel Carson had only recently brought us the bad news about pesticides -- that they didn't stay put but moved through the environment into both wild places and into our own bodies, and with that it began to become clear that you couldn't just defend places. You had to address practices; you had to recognize systems; you had to understand that, in John Muir's famous aphorism, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." When he said that, of course, he wasn't imagining plastic detritus being ingested by seabirds in the center of the Pacific Ocean or polar bears far beyond the industrialized world becoming hermaphroditic from chemical contamination, but we can.

More and more things come under the purview of environmentalism these days, from what we eat to where our chemicals end up. Immigration, unless it's part of a larger conversation about consumption, birthrates, reproductive rights, agriculture, international economic policy and trade, sprawl, and dozens of other issues, isn't really one of them. It seems instead that environmentalism is a cloak of virtue in which anti-immigration activists are attempting to wrap themselves. But they're better looked at naked.