Thank you, Sierra Club

  The last time the Sierra Club was shaken into life, it was at the vigorous hands of the late David Brower. He took an insular, elite conservation group and made it grassroots, activist and environmentalist.

The Sierra Club was transformed because Brower led it to act. The club first saved Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Colorado from a huge dam at Echo Park, and then the Grand Canyon in Arizona from being flooded by two dams. The club's success enraged the federal government and the water buffaloes, and it lost the club both its clubby nature and its federal tax deduction.

To this day, you can’t deduct a gift to the Sierra Club from your federal taxes. Because it is not under the thumb of the Internal Revenue Service, the Sierra Club is one of the few environmental groups that can endorse political candidates and back or oppose proposed laws.

Now, once again, the Sierra Club is being shaken into life. This time, the shaker isn’t a green giant like David Brower, but a peculiar mix of "outsiders" — the Sierra Club is still a club in many ways — concerned about an issue the club’s mainstream desperately wants to avoid: illegal immigration into the United States.

But the club’s democratic form has thrust it into the discussion. All members get to vote by mail ballot on elections to its 15-person governing board, and you can join for $15 to $25 (the club has periodic sales, and often throws in daypacks with a new membership). The rebels, mainly newcomers to the club, claim to have elected five members to the board in past elections, and need only three more for a majority. At that point, the centrists say, the Club’s $81 million budget will be in the hands of racists, vegetarians and animal-rights extremists.

It is too late to join the club for this election, but if you’re already one of the club’s members, you have until April 21 to vote. (A small percentage of Sierra Club members vote in these elections.)

Your mail ballot gives you the right to vote for five candidates. The Club itself, through a nominating committee, has put up eight establishment candidates, and nine candidates have gotten on by petition. The best-known petition candidate is former three-term Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, aka Gov. Gloom, for his midnight-in-America views on population, sprawl and the bankrupting expense of medical care. Unfortunately, Lamm seems farseeing today rather than dyspeptic, as he did 30 years ago, when he began expressing these ideas.

Issues, of course, are never allowed to be about themselves: They are always spun into something else. To the mainstream leaders of the Sierra Club, the immigration debate is about racism. Swedes and Germans aren’t sneaking into the United States; dark-skinned people are. So those who oppose immigration really oppose the browning of America.

Some of those who oppose illegal immigration are racists. Others are people who think our 3.5 million square-mile nation has enough people, enough pollution, enough general activity. Without illegal immigration, the nation’s population would be close to stabilizing, instead of zooming upward.

Others oppose illegal immigration because they are opposed to a world without borders; a globalized world in which capital and jobs and people flow from "nation" to "nation" without restraint. I put nation in quotes because if a geographic area does not have borders that control people and capital and jobs, it is not a nation, it is a place.

We are well down this road. President George Bush may have embroiled himself in Iraq because he can’t govern the United States. He can cut taxes, but he can’t direct jobs to us or help us keep the jobs we have; he can’t force or convince individuals or corporations to invest in the United States rather than in China or Mexico; and while he can keep U.S. residents from visiting Cuba, he can’t keep Cubans or anyone else sufficiently determined from moving here.

This porosity and slow-motion anarchy may be an excellent thing. Perhaps we should welcome the ongoing collapse of nation states, and the transformation of the U.S. government into an entity no longer helpful or even loyal to its citizens. But it is the nature of our democracy and traditions that before we complete the dissolution of the United States, we discuss and then vote on it. Thankfully, we still have institutions and media to allow us to do this.

The current Sierra Club election may not be the ideal vehicle for holding this discussion and election, but it is a pretty good one. Thank you, Sierra Club, for being helpful in our hour of national need.

Ed Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org) where he is a writer and downtown developer.