Sierra Club Faces Intense Fight Over Leadership

by Miguel Bustillo and Kenneth R. Weiss, LA Times 1/18/04

(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association February 2004 Newsletter)

An unusual alliance of immigration foes and animal-rights activists is attempting to take over the leadership of the Sierra Club, America's oldest national environmental group, in what is emerging as a bitter fight over the future of the 112-year-old organization founded by Scottish immigrant John Muir.  Leaders of a faction that failed to force the club to take a stand against immigration in 1998 are seeking to win majority control of the group's 15-member governing board in a spring election -- this time, as part of a broader coalition that includes vegetarians, who want the club to denounce hunting,  Fishing and raising animals for human consumption.


In response, 11 former Sierra Club presidents have written a letter expressing what they call "extreme concern for the continuing viability of the club," protesting what they see as a concerted effort by outside organizations to hijack the mainstream conservationist group and its $95 million budget.


Some of the insurgent candidates vying for the five available seats on the governing board only recently joined the Sierra Club. Members will vote in the board elections in March, with the results tallied in April.


The election has attracted the interest of extremist groups, which are encouraging their members to join the club to help elect the anti-immigration candidates.


"What has outraged Sierra Club leaders is that external organizations would attempt to interfere and manipulate our election to advance their own agendas," said Robert Cox, a past Sierra Club president.


Moreover, club officials contend that members of the two insurgent groups share fundamentally anti-human views, in their opposition to immigration and in their belief that people should take a back seat to other species.


The Sierra Club's "dominant perspective has been to protect nature for people," said executive director Carl Pope. "But by pulling up the gangplank on immigration, they are tapping into a strand of misanthropy that says human beings are a problem."


Pope noted 18% of club members like to fish or hunt, and he worried they could be driven out by the new agenda from animal-rights advocates. "It's important to have hunters and fishermen in the Sierra Club," Pope said. "We are a big-tent organization. We want the Sierra Club to be a comfortable place for Americans who want clean air, clean water and to protect America's open spaces."


The list of candidates features some high-profile names, including former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, Cornell University entomology professor David Pimentel and Frank Morris, the former director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. All three have been outspoken advocates of controlling population growth or restricting immigration.


Club members who support the insurgent candidates accused the organization's old guard of attempting to demonize them as radicals in order to head off the increasingly popular efforts to win a new majority.


"I really think we ought to be judged on our merits, and what we've done in the past, and not divide the Sierra Club," Pimentel said.  "I don't think that Lamm, Pimentel and Morris are racists," Pope said. "But they are clearly being supported by racists."


Benjamin Zuckerman, a longtime champion of curbs on immigration, contends the club has a responsibility to take strong positions on the issues affecting the health of the planet.


"Everything else the Sierra Club is doing is doomed to fail if the United States continues on its rapid population growth," said Zuckerman, who was the leading vote-getter in the Sierra Club board election two years ago.


Asked what the Sierra Club could do to curb population growth, Zuckerman said the group must "talk about the numbers -- how much immigration we should have and how many babies -- so the mix of fertility and immigration is debated and we can come to a level where the population will stabilize."

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