At Loggerheads

How the Sierra Club's forest compromises sparked rebellion

| Tue Nov. 3, 1998 4:00 AM EST

The struggle over the Sierra Club's support of the McKinney-Leach bill to end logging in the national forests really goes back to the core of how the whole John Muir Sierrans thing got started. It was a logging issue from the beginning.

The Sierra Club's endorsement of a salvage logging rider in 1989 was key to the formation of the John Muir Sierrans. The club supported a plan that mandated the Forest Service to sell to industry 8 billion board feet of old-growth timber in the Pacific Northwest, and suspended all environmental law (court injunctions and legal challenges), in exchange for protecting "significant" old-growth areas. When the Oregon Natural Resources Council and other environmental groups opposed the deal, the Sierra Club's negotiator told a local newspaper, "Some conservationists in Oregon aren't schooled in political compromise." According to Chad Hanson, this angered the club's forest activists, who were kept in the dark about the deal. "There was so much outrage over this," he says. "The justification that was given was that it could have been 10 billion [board feet]."

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In 1991, many of the club's forest activists wanted the club to endorse a bill, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), that would end most logging on federal land in the Rocky Mountains region. When it didn't, the Atlantic Chapter (New York and surrounding area) went ahead and did so on its own. For breaking ranks, the national office threatened to revoke the chapter's charter. "They went ballistic," says Margaret Hays Young, who led the chapter's charge to support the bill. Club activists, upon hearing of the crackdown, became enraged at the way Young and her colleagues were treated.

Not long afterward, forest activists Tim Hermach, David Orr, and others launched the Association of Sierra Club Members for Environmental Ethics. When the national office threatened to sue them if they used "Sierra Club" in the name of their group, they changed the name to the John Muir Society. That brought another cease-and-desist letter (John Muir Society was the club's name for major donors), so they became the John Muir Sierrans in 1994.

Following the NREPA melee, the club's forest leaders decided to take matters into their own hands and put a "zero-cut," or no-commercial-logging, referendum to end all logging on public lands before the entire club membership. They gathered the 1,300 required signatures and got it qualified. The board and national staff strongly opposed the initiative, believing that it was too radical, that it would marginalize them politically. In 1994, the members voted it down, 59 to 41 percent. The John Muir Sierrans blamed the loss on the way the question was worded on the ballot, where voters had to vote "no" in order to vote for the initiative.

But in 1996 the same initiative, this time carefully worded, passed by a 2 to 1 margin. It was a huge victory for the John Muir Sierrans—now the club would have to support their cause, like it or not. At the time it seemed peace was at hand. Both sides agreed to bury the hatchet. Carl Pope and Chad Hanson even authored an article together on the club's new stance on forest issues. But, as recent events have shown, the honeymoon was soon over.

Leora Broydo is a San Francisco freelance writer and frequent contributor to Mother Jones and the MoJo Wire. She has written recently for the New York Times Magazine, Spin, and Utne Reader.

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