Mutiny at the Sierra Club

As the nation's most powerful environmental group reaches for ever more Washington clout, rebels accuse the club leadership of abandoning grassroots battles and wimping out on big ideas--and the club cracks down

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

John Muir was no stranger to politics. Though he would have preferred to spend his time in the high Sierras pondering the wonders of nature, Muir reluctantly dove into national politics to save what was, even in his day, a vanishing wilderness. It was Muir who lobbied Congress to create the National Park system, and convinced Teddy Roosevelt to protect the Yosemite Valley. When Muir and a group of fellow mountaineers formed the Sierra Club in the spring of 1892, a primary goal of the group was to green the politicial establishment.

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But even the visionary John Muir could never have predicted that his little hiking group would one day boast 550,000 members and an annual budget of $40 million, or that it would be staffed with hundreds of professional environmentalists, not just a bunch of hiking buddies evangelizing in their spare time. Today, it is the club's ability to influence voters, rather than the charisma of its leaders, that makes it a political force to be reckoned with.

Sierra Club chief Carl Pope shows off a TV ad attacking environmental bogeyman Rep. Frank Riggs (R-Calif.). Photo: AP/Wide World
In 1996, the Sierra Club spent some $6.7 million on elections. In 1998, it will spend another $6.5 million. It is widely believed the club's hard-hitting radio and television ads, which tout or berate candidates' environmental voting records, influenced a number of key congressional races in 1996. Even more dramatic was the effect the Sierra Club's campaigns had on that year's Congress, considered one of the most anti-enviro in history. During the summer session Congress ceased pushing for most legislation that environmental groups opposed, and even voted for some bills the groups supported. In a recent survey, members of Congress said the most effective organization in America on environmental and regulatory issues is the Sierra Club.

"The club at this point is probably as healthy and effective as it's ever been," says Carl Pope, the club's executive director. "We are doing a better job connecting the American people to the environmental policy process than we've ever done. People feel it."

Not everyone, however, feels comfortable with the club's inside game. A small but growing number of rebel Sierra Club leaders feel that in its zeal to become a political force in Washington, the club is sacrificing its commitment to grassroots activism and chickening out on bold measures to protect America's endangered places. Some of them feel that the club, though governed by democratic principles, is using repressive means to silence their views. And in just the last two years, these rebels have made a move for power that could change the direction of the nation's most powerful green group.

Rebels in the Ranks
The renegades call themselves the John Muir Sierrans. They say they are a "grassroots network of Sierra Club leaders who advocate stronger stances on conservation issues," and they say the club is investing too much in inside-the-beltway tactics while starving environmental campaigns that members are keen on supporting. "We're just trying to call attention to the fact that the leadership has been out of touch with the membership for many years and that if they really cared about supporting grassroots environmentalism, they wouldn't be doing a lot of the stuff they're doing," says David Orr, one of the faction's founders.

The band of reformers, which is 100-400 strong depending on who you talk to, first emerged in the late '80s and early '90s when Sierra Club forest activists became frustrated with what they say was the club's tacit and even active support of government-brokered timber sales on public land [see sidebar "At Loggerheads"]. The John Muir Sierrans battled with the club's leadership to get them to support a "zero cut" campaign to end to commercial logging on the national forests -- after all, they pointed out, even the government admits the timber program is a boondoggle, and just 4 percent of the nation's timber comes from public lands anyway. When they got the cold shoulder -- the leadership deemed the idea too radical -- they took advantage of the club's unique ballot initiative process to put the issue before the entire membership. Whatever the outcome, the leadership must carry out the wishes of the majority. (The most publicized instance of this process was the club's recent immigration vote.)

In 1996, their no-commercial-logging initiative won: Club members voted for it 2 to 1 over the objections of Pope and most of the board. However, the John Muir Sierrans claim that even though their initiative passed, the club has done almost nothing to make it a serious priority.

So, when some seats on the Sierra Club's board of directors were up for grabs in 1997, the John Muir Sierrans made a real move for power within the club: They nominated five candidates. Their platform was critical but polite. "We are five dedicated Sierra Club activists who share a common belief that the Sierra Club is the most important environmental organization in the nation," read a flyer they mailed to about 135,000 members on behalf of their candidates. "We also believe, though, that the 105-year-old organization could use some new energy and enthusiasm at the top." They also chastised the board for their lack of support on the logging initiative: "The reason we put this issue to a vote is that a majority of the sitting directors were unwilling to act upon your desire for stronger forest protection...that's why it's important that experienced grassroots activists serve on the board." The membership responded: Three of the John Muir Sierrans candidates, all aged 30 and under, won seats.

Board member David Brower says he wants the Sierra Club to be as bold as its founder John Muir was. Photos: Michael O'Neill/Outline (Brower), Arttoday (Muir)
The Return of Brower
In the 1998 election, things got downright raucous. Heady from last year's victory, the John Muir Sierrans ran a new slate of candidates for the board. Knowing they needed just five more seats to get a majority on the 15-seat board, they went full-tilt. The legendary David Brower, 86, joined the fray and ran as a John Muir Sierran candidate. (Brower led the Sierra Club in its radical heyday in the '50s and '60s, saving the Grand Canyon from dams and helping to pass the Wilderness Act of 1964 before being booted by the club's board. He later founded Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, and Earth Island Institute, where he is chairman. Last Thursday he received the world's richest environmental award, the Blue Planet Prize, in Tokyo.)

Brower's ballot statement was a virtual diatribe against the club's entrenched leadership. "The Sierra Club is at its most important crossroads in decades," he wrote. "On the one side, longstanding incumbent directors resistant to change. On the other, a new generation of Club activists and an elder (me), informally known as the 'John Muir Sierrans,' who want the Club to take stronger stands on conservation, refocus on grassroots organizing and John Muir's vision. ...[T]he board has been fiddling while the earth burns." Brower won, receiving more votes than any other candidate.

Other John Muir Sierrans used similarly strong language:

"The Emperor says everything's fine, the Club's in good hands with its "mature and professional" directors. But they've steered the Club toward bankruptcy for years and have failed to articulate any conservation vision."

"Currently we allocate less than one-half of 1% of our budget to volunteer national conservation campaigns, while the Board meets in opulent hotels. Unacceptable."

"By continuing to choose talk over action and political compromise over strong advocacy the directors are failing in their mission to protect the environment for future generations and are selling our members short."

"We cannot afford to compromise with those who exploit public lands for private profit. We cannot afford to trade our children's future for the illusion of political access. If we do, we will have nothing left."

The John Muir Sierrans knew that, unlike in years past, their 1998 position statements would be posted on the Sierra Club's Web site, easily accessible to members and anyone else with a modem. That was fine by them. The John Muir Sierrans have unabashedly aired the club's dirty laundry in recent years. They've gladly told the press how the Sierra Club is selling out, and they've used the Internet to post their critiques in various news groups. John Muir Sierran Tim Hermach, who founded the Native Forest Council out of frustration with the Sierra Club's inaction on the zero-cut issue, has a whole section on his group's Web site titled "The Sierra Club Chronicles" where internal documents which paint the Club in a negative light are posted. "They just don't want to fight," cries Hermach.

The Censorship Committee
After reading the 1998 ballot statements, however, Sierra Club leaders decided to fight -- fight the John Muir Sierrans. After all, the rebels were just five seats shy of a majority on the board. With a majority, they could take over the club, fire its executive director, and basically set the agenda. All hell was about to break loose. The club's official "Ballot Statement Review Committee" instructed Brower and other John Muir Sierrans to change their candidacy statements because club policy forbids any statements the committee deems inaccurate.

Some of the John Muir Sierrans buckled and modified their statements. Three, including Brower, did not. "They continued to insist that the assertions be published exactly as submitted," reads an internal Sierra Club e-mail memo by a miffed committee member, obtained by the MoJo Wire. "The disturbing aspect of their insistence was that in each instance the hostile tone and factual inaccuracy of the assertion seemed likely to damage the candidate's prospects for success, as well as harming the Sierra Club as an organization...their actions suggest that their primary motive may have been to damage the Club, and not to get their candidates elected." In the same e-mail, the committee member calls for an investigation of the John Muir Sierrans, calling them a "secretive organization" possibly engaged in a "civil conspiracy."

The committee's solution was to insert their own corrections to "factual errors" right at the bottom of the offending statements. Where David Orr's statement asserted that the directors have "steered the club towards bankruptcy for years," the committee's "correction" reads that, on the contrary, the Sierra Club "has completed the past three years with operating surpluses." So, did Orr make the whole thing up? According to a 1997 audit conducted by KPMG Peat Marwick and obtained by the MoJo Wire, the club's cumulative fund deficit grew $565,000 to a total of $5.3 million of red ink in 1996. "The Club has made efforts to control costs and improve revenues," the auditors write, "however these continuing losses are putting the long-term viability of the Club at risk."

Nasty Rumors
During the election period, some John Muir Sierrans felt the Sierra Club national leadership engaged in a concerted effort to discredit them. Rumors were started. One suggested they were a group of terrorists -- that at one time they had planted a bomb at the club's San Francisco headquarters. Another rumor, still floating around, is that the leaders of the John Muir Sierrans are actually part of a covert effort by Earth Island Institute to take over the club, and that they are getting funding from Earth Island to do so.

Indeed, there are close ties between Earth Island and some prominent John Muir Sierrans. Brower founded Earth Island. Orr and Chad Hanson, a John Muir Sierran who was elected to the Sierra Club board in 1997, run a nonprofit associated with Earth Island called the John Muir Project, devoted to ending timber sales on public lands.

But the John Muir Sierrans say the accusation is ludicrous and deny that Earth Island is their sugar daddy. Earth Island executive director John A. Knox has heard the rumor. "It's just not true," he says. "It's silly. We have checked our records just to make sure, and there's no evidence of that." Even Pope acknowledges that the rumor has never been substantiated.

So why does it persist? According to Hanson, the rumor was fueled by a long-standing board member, Michele Perrault, during the last election. In Perrault's ballot statement, she accused the John Muir Sierrans of being "from an outside group" who "refused to disclose the ultimate source" of the $35,000 they spent on their 1997 board election mailing. Perrault told club insiders that the money came from Earth Island -- she claimed she had read "an e-mail" that said so -- but according to Hanson, when pressed, Perrault could never substantiate her statement. Nonetheless, it was not deemed inaccurate by the election committee, and no correction appeared on her ballot.

When the MoJo Wire reached Perrault, she reiterated that two of the John Muir Sierrans have dealings with Earth Island, but she wavered on the charge that Earth Island had given them money, and she failed to produce the alleged e-mail evidence. The money "may have been from Earth Island," she said, "but the information I have doesn't show that.... I will not deal with Chad Hanson's comments on a story to the press. This is between Chad Hanson and me."

So where did the $35,000 come from? It came from the Constitutional Law Foundation, a little-known nonprofit in Oregon dedicated to using constitutional law to protect the environment. But interestingly, its executive director, Charlie Ogle, is also vice-chair of the Sierra Club's Oregon chapter. In fact, all of the foundation's board members at the time of the mailing were "deeply involved" in the Sierra Club, according to Ogle. "We figured that supporting change on the board was a good thing. The [John Muir Sierrans ] came along at a point where there was a need to push democratic reform in the club. There's still that need." Ogle adds that for those still suspicious that Earth Island funneled money through his organization: "It flat out isn't true -- to the best of my knowledge, Earth Island has never made a donation or provided funds." The upshot seems to be that the CLF is not so much a group of meddlesome outsiders, as it is another group of disgruntled Sierra Club leaders who don't like how their club is being managed.

A number of the John Muir Sierrans interviewed for this story feel they have been blacklisted by the club because they openly criticize its leadership. "I'm on their blacklist, and I've been there for years," says Orr. Hanson says the club has threatened him with legal action four or five times in the last nine months alone. "They're trying to stifle detractors," says Margaret Hays Young, conservation chair of the club's New York City Group. Young, an outspoken critic of the club's fiscal secrecy, has received letters from board members asking her to refrain from talking to the press. One Sierra Club staffer interviewed for this story, who asked not to be named, said he's afraid of being fired because of his views.

Despite all the nastiness, however, the membership again responded to the John Muir Sierrans' message and elected them to three more board seats this year, leaving them just two seats short of a majority. (Orr lost.) In the next election, which takes place in early 1999, they hope to take control of the board.

Carl Pope directs a news conference at Sierra Club headquarters in San Francisco. Photo: AP/Wide World
Pope's View
How does Carl Pope feel about the insurrection? He's surprisingly cool. "I don't think the club needs to be concerned about the [John Muir Sierrans] because they're club members and they're club activists and they've got the same interests as everyone else," he says. "Some people portray this as some great struggle over the future of the Sierra Club. I don't see the differences between John Muir Sierrans collectively and any other group of Sierra Club members as being terribly profound."

Where there is a difference, though, is in strategy. The John Muir Sierrans feel that the Sierra Club is a sleeping tiger, that it should use its power and influence now, today, to make dramatic changes for the environment. "We [at the Sierra Club] haven't passed new nationwide legislation to protect our federal public lands since the Wilderness Act of 1964," laments Brower. The John Muir Sierrans want the club to go for the gusto, to play bold offense rather than incremental defense, to fight for passage of landmark bills on the level of the zero-cut legislation.

But the club has been working hard to appeal to the mainstream as a way of getting more clout in Washington. "I'm a very strong believer in incremental progress," says Pope. The John Muir Sierrans strategy, Pope believes, may be great for activists but totally ineffective for the general public. "Our primary focus is on mobilizing the American people in the middle. We are trying to broaden the base of public support. Congress knows that environmentalists don't like what the Forest Service does. What Congress doesn't know yet is that people down at the coffee shop are talking about how the national forests are getting mucked up. Our challenge is to get people in the coffee shop talking about how the national forests are getting mucked up, because that's what will translate into votes and that's what Congress cares about."

Starved in New York
The Sierra Club spends millions each year convincing ordinary Americans to wield their votes to elect and punish politicians, with some notable successes. But millions for elections means less for activists, and many activists in the club say they can't get funding for their grassroots efforts which, given some backing, would also have mainstream appeal.

The club's New York City Group, numbering some 12,000 members, was so desperate for funds that it recently sent out a fundraising letter asking for a one-time-only $12 donation from local Sierra Club members. The letter explained that the group couldn't do effective conservation work with a budget of just $1,000 a year trickling down from the national office to cover all its conservation expenses, including grassroots organizing, volunteer training, and campaigning. "We need to have the money to fund our committees and the work they do," says Moisha Blechman, the group's political chair. "The activists pay out of their own pocket."

So the group was happy when its fundraising letter brought in more than $17,000. The happiness however, was short-lived. The local chapter determined that the fundraising plea had violated club policy since it had been sent outside of a designated "March window." The Sierra Club's national office, or to be specific its "director of the Office of Volunteer & Activist Services and staff liaison to the Organizational Effectiveness Committee," demanded a written statement from the NYC group "acknowledging wrongdoing and a pledge to never knowingly violate Sierra Club policy in the future." It also insisted that the group turn over all the money raised in response to the letter. Finally, the group was threatened: If they didn't comply, the national office would pursue a "breach of leadership trust" lawsuit against those in New York City who approved the mailing of the letter.

"The Sierra Club's role should be to support the little groups that are taking the hard line, not disown them," says Margaret Hays Young, the group's conservation chair and a John Muir Sierran who's been at odds with the national leaders for years (see "At Loggerheads"). "Why are they making war on us?"

Zero Cash for Zero Cut?
Despite tight-fisted funding from the national office, Sierra Club activists manage to get things done. After the club membership voted for the no-commercial-logging initiative in 1996, a group of John Muir Sierrans actually got a bill going in Congress. The National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, if it passes, would end all commercial logging in national forests. That the bill even exists in a House of Representatives notorious for kowtowing to extractive industries is a surprise. That it was introduced by a Democrat and a Republican, Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), and has 34 signatures, including New York Republican Michael Forbes, is a minor miracle.

Chad Hanson helped write the bill and wooed its sponsors. The bill has the endorsement of more than 250 grassroots (mostly local and regional) environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, and the American public seems receptive to the idea. A recent public opinion poll showed that 69 percent of Americans oppose continuing to allow timber companies to log in national forests, up from 55 percent in 1996. Yet, according to Hanson, the Sierra Club hasn't made passing the bill a priority and has provided virtually no funding to promote the bill to the public or to lobby Congress.

A July fundraising letter seems to affirm the club's commitment to the cause. Pope writes, "I can promise you that we at the Sierra Club will redouble our efforts to stop the destruction of our National Forests. Specifically, we've taken the lead in promoting the McKinney-Leach bipartisan National Forest Protection Act in Congress that would stop the wasteful, subsidized destruction of our forests by ending all commercial logging in our National Forests."

But Hanson says all this is lip service, pointing out that the club has spent no more than $3,000 so far in 1998, and only $10,000-$15,000 in 1997. "There's an impression out there that Sierra Club at the national level is not allocating money to this campaign," says Hanson, who would like to see the club allocate $1 million -- about 2 percent of the club's budget -- towards NCL. "A number of congressional staff members are wondering why Sierra Club isn't doing more. Why should I stick my neck out if Sierra Club isn't going to back me up?" Hanson's constant harping for grassroots funding, he believes, led the club leadership to kick him off the Forest Reform Campaign Steering Committee, which makes recommendations on forest campaign spending. (A few weeks later, the board booted Hanson off the Finance Committee too -- only to reinstate him two days later when many club leaders voiced outrage.)

According to Pope, the club's strategy does not include funding for specific legislation. "That's just not how we budget, that's not how we spend money," he says. "Over the last two years we've probably spent more on defending forests than any other issue we work on. Most of that money, on that issue or any other issue, doesn't mention the specific piece of legislation. Some people say, well that's not money that's being spent promoting no commercial logging. I disagree. If we're saying to people, 'They are cutting down the Sequoia National Forest, and that means you're losing wildlife habitat and recreational opportunity and your water quality is threatened and there might be mudslides,' those are the reasons that eventually cause people to say we should stop logging in the national forests."

Pick a Winner
Perhaps the simple truth behind the Club's reluctance to get behind the bill is that it doesn't look like a winner right now. "The reality is, as long as the Senate is put together the way it is, it is going to be very difficult to actually pass that bill," says Pope. "Passing that bill nationally is going to have to wait for a different political climate."

And that's exactly the problem, critics say: The Sierra Club is really only interested in winners. Take the club's criteria for endorsing federal candidates -- a process controlled by the national office. "Club leaders say that an open seat vacated by a retiring incumbent is often our best chance to elect a great green candidate," reads a guide to making endorsements in the Planet, Sierra Club's publication for activist members. "But due to limited resources, the Club is unlikely to endorse a pro-environment candidate who is a long shot."

This pragmatic approach has led critics to call the Sierra Club "the environmental wing of the Democratic Party." With a single exception, the club has never supported a Green Party candidate for federal office, because a vote for a Green is most likely a vote taken away from a Democrat. (This year the club is endorsing Green Bill Belitskus in Pennsylvania for U.S. House of Representatives, over the Republican incumbent; no Democrat is running.) In general the club, like many voters, uses a lesser-of-two-evils strategy that usually results in an endorsement for a Democrat over a Republican -- even if members object, as a few chapters did when the club endorsed the Clinton/Gore ticket in 1996.

For today's election, the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club voted to endorse Green candidate Karyn Moskowitz for U.S. Senate, but the national office spiked the idea. "The conventional wisdom at the club is not supporting people that can't win," says one Sierra Club leader who asked not to be named. By doing so, he says, "[the club] becomes part of the system we can't change." Dan Hamburg, the Green candidate for California governor, grouses that the club is "a Democratic organization" but admits: "Do I wish I'd been endorsed by Sierra Club? You bet."

So why don't all the club's critics quit their bitching and organize a revolution somewhere else? Because, like it or not, Sierra Club is the most influential environmental group in the country. "You could not get stuff moving nationally without the Sierra Club," says Hanson. A few years ago Hanson says he tried to get his zero-cut bill introduced as a mere member of the Native Forest Council, but no one in Washington was interested in publicly supporting it. "People in Congress would say, 'Where's the Sierra Club on this?'"

Critics also stick with the Sierra Club because of the extraordinary committment and passion of its volunteers. "I don't attack the Sierra Club. I criticize the staff and directors who are doing things that are contrary to Sierra Club's mission and what's best for the [environment]," says Hanson. "The best activists I've ever met are in the Sierra Club," he continues, "but they are shunned at the national level. That's why I'm still here."

Just how far grassroots activists can go in the Sierra Club's democracy may well depend on the struggle between the John Muir Sierrans and the current leadership. "Leaders need to be stewards of the whole organization," says Pope. "They need to have a broader vision than the thing that brought them here. You promote people who do it, and you don't promote people who don't do it. I don't think saying bad things to the press will help them move up the ladder."

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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