Nation's premier environmental group is target of a takeover

  • Robert Cox

  Last year, over 750,000 people joined or renewed their membership in the Sierra Club, presumably because they believe in its historic mission to protect America’s public lands and wilderness for future generations. John Muir and a small band of conservationists founded the Club in 1892, and it’s been working for more than a century to protect our nation’s wild lands, wildlife, air and water.

But recent events now threaten to divert the Sierra Club from its mission. In early January, 13 past presidents of the Sierra Club wrote to the club’s current board of directors to express "extreme concern for the continuing viability of the club." They warned of an "organized effort" to take over the board of directors of the Sierra Club in order to move personal agendas, "and to use the funds and other resources of the club to those ends." Those agendas are narrow, focusing on animal rights and anti-immigration policies.

In a speech to the 2003 Animal Rights Conference in Los Angeles, newly elected Sierra Club board member Paul Watson boasted: "We’re only three directors away from controlling that board. We control one-third of it right now. And once we get three more directors elected ... we can use the resources of the $95 million-a-year budget to address some of these issues ... So, you know, a few hundred, or a few thousand people from the animal-rights movement joining the Sierra Club — and making it a point to vote — will change the entire agenda of that organization."

Last fall, the respected Southern Poverty Law Center wrote to Sierra Club President Larry Fahn to warn that "without a doubt, the Sierra Club is the subject of a hostile takeover attempt" by forces allied with immigration-reform groups.

The Sierra Club has chosen, wisely I believe, to stay out of the controversy over immigration, and to focus on its mission of public-lands conservation. Sierra Club members reaffirmed this decision in 1998, by a vote of 60 percent to 40 percent, choosing instead to address the root causes of global population and migration through education and women’s access to health care and family planning.

Unfortunately, a small group of directors is trying to overturn the vote of the club’s membership at the national board level. After failing in fall 2003, they recruited three highly visible leaders of immigration reform groups in the U.S., including former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, to run for the club’s board in its 2004 election.

Mr. Lamm and the others are respected individuals who undoubtedly care about conservation. Unfortunately, they are now lending their names to an attempted coup. Large immigration reform groups are urging their members to join the Sierra Club and vote for Mr. Lamm and other insurgents for the board of directors. One member of the anti-immigration forces has even posted similar calls on an unsavory Web site, VDARE.com, that are being echoed now on racist and white supremacy Web sites.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks these hate groups, warned Sierra Club leaders: "By taking advantage of the welcoming grassroots democratic structure of the Sierra Club, they hope to use the credibility of the club as a cover to advance their own extremist views. We think members should be alert to this."

It is certainly legal for these forces to try to recruit new members to join the club. Similarly, it was legal for the gun lobby to encourage gun advocates to join the National Rifle Association in the 1970s, and to use the support and funding of ammunition and gun manufacturers to do so. They took over the National Rifle Association and transformed it from a hunters’ group to a gun group. I suppose they did so "democratically." But, was it right?

The Sierra Club is an environmental organization. It is not an animal-rights organization, and although some members belong to animal-rights organizations, others belong to organizations promoting hunting and fishing. As for immigration, the club’s membership has already voted to stay out of the immigration wars.

Leaders of the Sierra Club, including virtually all of its living past presidents and former Executive Director Mike McCloskey, believe a takeover is the wrong way to go about changing the club. We have come together in www.groundswellsierra.org to alert members to what is at stake. It is sad that the nation’s oldest conservation group, by its very openness and commitment to democracy, is vulnerable to the machinations of narrow interests.

Robert Cox is a former president of the Sierra Club, a current member of its board of directors and professor of communication studies at the University of North Carolina.