Sierra Club Shenanigans
by Bill Berkowitz

February 19, 2004

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(This column is dedicated to the memory of Jeannette Sherwin, a longtime environmental activist who died in early January at the age of 55. Jeannette worked for several years with the Sierra Club in San Francisco. During the past few years she published OaklandNews.com, a pull-no-punches online newsletter scrutinizing Oakland's government officials.)

"Anti-immigration candidates trying to take over the Sierra Club's governing board have filed a lawsuit against the national environmental organization, alleging that its leaders are breaking state law by using club money and resources to oppose them in upcoming board elections."
-- Los Angeles Times, February 11, 2004

For the second time in less than a decade, anti-immigration advocates have been operating under the radar waging a campaign to take over the nation's oldest environmental organization. This time they've added a small group of animal rights activists to their team. This unlikely coalition is hoping to elect several of its candidates to the Sierra Club's Board of Directors.

In March and early April, the Sierra Club's 750,000 members will vote for five new members for its 15-person governing board. If the anti-immigration candidates prevail, the Los Angeles Times reported in mid-January, they will control eight of the 15 seats on the board and the Club's $95 million budget. (The results will be made public sometime after April 21.)

The anti-immigrant bloc claims that the greater the population, the bigger threat to the environment. "Those opposed to immigration on environmental grounds," the Santa Fe-based New Mexican recently editorialized, are "playing into the hands of the vigilante types fighting immigration not only along our borders, but also along the ethnic and racial front."

Animal-rights supporters, which make up a smaller part of the alliance, are looking for the club to officially discourage hunting and fishing, despite the fact that nearly 20% of the membership engages in those activities. They also want the Club to take a position against the practice of raising animals for human consumption.

This year's controversy at the Sierra Club is a repeat of a similarly hotly contested election in 1998. Then, by a 60-40 margin, club members voted against taking a position that immigration is a threat to the environment.

Groundswell Sierra has been fighting back. The organization, a "volunteer network of concerned Sierra Club members" is working to "protect the Sierra Club from an outside takeover threat and to support qualified, experienced candidates in the 2004 Board of Directors election."

As is typical of organizational governance elections, most eligible voters don't bother to cast a ballot. (The deadline for joining the Club and being eligible to vote passed on January 31.) Recognizing that most members don't vote, the small but determined group of activists spent the past several months urging their constituents to join the Club.

Three of the candidates are being supported by a group called SUSPS (which has variously stood for Support U.S. Population Stabilization and Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization). They are former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, former director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Frank Morris, and Cornell University entomology professor David Pimentel, all of whom have had little to do with the Sierra Club in the past.

Pimentel admits that if he were to be elected, "his first Board of Directors meeting would be his first ever Sierra Club meeting." According to Groundswell Sierra, Lamm, the coauthor of The Immigration Time Bomb: The Fragmenting of America, "joined the Sierra Club at the same time he filed as a petition candidate. And Frank Morris, like the other two, has held no role within the Club."

Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope told the Los Angeles Times that the organization's "dominant perspective has been to protect nature for people." He goes on to say that "by pulling up the gangplank on immigration, [the candidates for the Board] are tapping into a strand of misanthropy that says human beings are a problem."

According to Groundswell Sierra, Lamm, Pimentel and Morris have connections to some of the nation's high-profile anti-immigrant organizations including the Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America (DASA), the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). Lamm is on the Board of DASA and is Chair of FAIR's Board of Advisors. Morris is on the Board of DASA and of CIS. Pimentel is on the DASA Advisory Board. In its November newsletter FAIR specifically encouraged its members to join the Sierra Club so that they would be eligible to vote in the Board election. "I don't think that [they] are racists," Pope said. "But they are clearly being supported by racists."

Devin Burghart, a Sierra Club member who works with the Chicago-based human rights group the Center for New Community, told AlterNet in an email, "The [Sierra Club] board has already agreed to put an anti-immigration resolution (like one that failed in 1998) up for a vote by the entire membership of the Sierra Club. [While] the SUSPS candidates elected last year attempted and failed to get the board to overturn the vote of the membership in 1998 -- which called for an official position of "neutrality" on immigration -- if the anti-immigrant forces win this year, they've vowed to overturn the vote of the membership."

Burghart pointed out that "SUSPS is the official group leading the charge and interestingly enough their website is registered to Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform (CAIR) whose co-director is Fred Elbel, who is also the webmaster for the proposition 187-style initiative called 'Protect Arizona Now' that anti-immigrant groups are trying to get on the ballot in Arizona in 2004."

Groundswell Sierra charges that the anti-immigration leaders are working with three current Sierra Club Directors: Ben Zuckerman, Paul Watson, and Doug LaFollette. "Zuckerman is a past Director of DASA and an officer for Californians for Population Stabilization, where Lamm serves on the advisory board. LaFollette, along with Morris, is on the advisory board of the Carrying Capacity Network, of which David Pimentel is a Director."

According to the Los Angeles Times, UCLA astronomy professor Zuckerman is a longtime champion of curbs on immigration; Watson is the head of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a marine environmental group perhaps best known for ramming whaling ships.

In a speech to the 2003 Animal Rights Conference in Los Angeles, Watson explained his strategy: "I'm on the Sierra Club board of directors right now ... to try and change it ... 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 [its] $95-million-a-year budget to address some of these issues. And the heartening thing about it is that, in the last election, of the 750,000 members of the Sierra Club, only 8 percent of them voted. 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."

Two other SUSPS-supported candidates collected signatures on petitions and are on the ballot. They are Kim McCoy, described by Groundswell Sierra as a Club member and animal rights advocate from Chicago who is endorsed by Watson, and Robert van de Hoek, a member from Los Angeles.

How real is the threat to the organization? In a letter to Sierra Club President Larry Fahn, dated October 21, 2003, Mark Potok, the editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report warned: "Without a doubt, the Sierra Club is the subject of a hostile takeover attempt by forces allied with [John] Tanton and a variety of right-wing extremists. 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."

Tanton is the founder, adviser, and fundraiser for many of the country's anti-immigration groups. In 1986 he first discussed infiltrating the Sierra Club: "The Sierra Club," he wrote, "may not want to touch the immigration issue, but the immigration issue is going to touch the Sierra Club."

Tanton's publication The Social Contract spent much of the past few months urging their members to join before the deadline. Randy Gould, who runs a progressive listserv and has been following the issue, says "One site that has links to sites like those controlled by former Klan kingpin Don Black recently called for readers to join the Club and vote. Members of the neo-Nazi National Alliance have done the same." Brenda Walker, a SUSPS member, posted an article to a website called VDare -- which the Southern Poverty Law Center recently declared a hate site -- slamming U.S. immigration policy and urging readers to join the Sierra Club and vote for SUSPS candidates. That posting has since been picked up by hard core Nazi-like extremist websites, Gould pointed out.

To counter the anti-immigration candidates vying to be on the ballot, civil rights leader Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center joined the Sierra Club and is running for a spot on the board. "I'm not running to win a seat on the board," Dees told the Los Angeles Times. "I'm running to sound the alarm of an attempt to take over this organization by the radical element of anti-immigration people. They are interested in keeping this country white."

According to Groundswell Sierra, the Club's rules make it easier for an outside takeover to occur: Any member who joined by the filing deadline and collects a few hundred signatures can run as a "petition candidate," and be listed on the official ballot mailed to the Club's members. Official Club-recommended candidates are vetted by the Club's Nominating Committee which "devotes months to interviewing experienced grassroots volunteers from Sierra Club Chapters and conservation campaigns before announcing its choice of Nominated Candidates; petition candidates are not required to go through this careful interview process." In addition, "current election rules do not allow the Club to inform its members that petition candidates may have outside financial support or political agendas not disclosed in the short ballot statements allotted to each candidate."

Carl Pope, pointing out that nearly 20% of the members of the Sierra Club fish or hunt, was concerned that many would leave the Club if a new agenda was set by anti-immigration activists and animal-rights advocates. "It's important to have hunters and fishermen in the Sierra Club," Pope told the Los Angeles Times. "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."

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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