Board Election Divides Sierra Club
Published on Wednesday, February 11, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Board Election Divides Sierra Club
Environmentalists renew bitter fight over controlling U.S. immigration
by Glen Martin
 

A not-so-civil war has erupted at the Sierra Club, the country's oldest and largest environmental group, and its leaders say the heart and soul of the venerable, San Francisco-based organization are at stake.

The fight centers on the club's policy on immigration. At issue is whether the club should adopt a position of strict U.S. immigration controls as a way to limit the environmental impact of overpopulation -- and risk alienating many of the progressive groups that typically ally themselves with the club.

The immigration issue has polarized club members before, but this time the battle has taken on an epic quality, involving a host of other issues, from animal rights to the club's own democratic traditions, and attracting the involvement of an array of outside groups trying to influence the club's policies.

Now, with five of the 15 seats on the club's board of directors up for grabs, a slate of insurgent candidates who favor tougher immigration controls could gain control in a March election.

On Tuesday, insurgent candidates filed suit in San Francisco Superior Court alleging that the club's leaders are illegally manipulating the elections by urging members to vote against the anti-immigration slate. The suit seeks a court injunction to delay the vote.

"This election would shame Tammany Hall," said former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, a board candidate on the anti-immigration slate. "I have been watching elections for 40 years, but I have never seen an election less just, less objective or less democratic.''

Larry Fahn, the club's president and a board member, dismissed Lamm's comparison as "ridiculous," saying the suit was "replete with inaccuracies and misstatements'' and that the club leadership "will not be muzzled in getting the word out to our members."

Club leaders, including Fahn and 12 former club presidents, say the conflict could change the essential character of the 112-year-old organization, which has 750,000 members.

Outside involvement

They note that many outside groups -- ranging from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to white supremacy organizations -- have waded into the controversy, urging their members to join the club simply to cast their votes for one slate or the other.

The bedrock issue, they say, isn't immigration, but whether the club should be controlled by insiders or outsiders.

"The fact that outside organizations, especially anti-immigration groups, are trying to recruit our members has alarmed many people in the club,'' said Carl Pope, the club's executive director.

Pope said the club strives to "be a big tent, where people of all views can come together in their desire to protect the environment. This kind of change on immigration policy would polarize our membership. It would make it extremely difficult if not impossible to maintain that big tent, and it would greatly reduce our effectiveness."

Immigration has become an increasingly divisive issue in the environmental community in recent years. Some favor strict immigration controls as a way to hold down U.S. population, which they view as the country's single most pressing environmental problem.

But opponents of immigration controls say a much better approach is the promotion of "fair trade" policies that encourage higher wages for workers in developing countries. That, they say, would reduce the intensive economic incentives that compel people to cross U.S. borders illegally in search of employment.

Six years ago, Sierra Club members voted on a bitterly contested referendum on immigration, with a majority ultimately favoring a neutral policy. The matter came up again in the 2002 board elections, and three candidates who favored strict immigration controls were elected.

Douglas LaFollette, a board member elected in 2002 who is the secretary of state for Wisconsin, opposes liberal immigration quotas. He said the Sierra Club's official neutral position on immigration is a relatively recent development.

"Until 10 years ago or so, the club's position was that the stabilization and reduction of the U.S. population was a priority, and that both fertility and immigration should be considered in meeting that goal," said LaFollette, a former University of Wisconsin chemistry professor who helped found the first Earth Day.

"Now, when people want to talk about returning to the club's historic position, the board won't hear about it."

But Robert Cox, a former club president and current board member, said it's not for the board to decide. "If a majority of the board decided to reverse that, it would show utter disrespect for the Sierra Club's democratic traditions of governance by the members."

Cox said the club must form broad-based coalitions if it is to prove effective in influencing regional and national environmental policies. An anti- immigration stance, he said, would alienate many traditional partners.

"We have partnerships with progressive groups, with labor, with organizations representing people of color," Cox said. "An anti-immigration message would send a shock through many of our existing allies and divert us from our core conservation mission."

The anti-immigration slate has attracted its own allies in the fight for the Sierra Club board. In a classic case of strange bedfellows, they have joined forces with animal rights groups, which hope to force the club away from its neutral position on hunting and fishing to a policy condemning blood sports.

Supremacist groups

More alarming, club leaders say, is that white supremacy organizations have waded into the controversy.

A club spokeswoman said about 20 racist groups have urged their members to join the club and participate in the club's board elections, including VDare.org, named after Virginia Dare, the first white child reputedly born in a U.S. colony; Overthrow.com; and the National Coalition of White Writers.

Chuck McGrady, the Sierra Club's vice president, a former president and a board member, said he is middle-of-the-road on immigration, and has no problem with the debate.

"But I'm very concerned about all these outside groups, from all across the political spectrum, getting involved,'' he said. "There're racist groups on one side and the Southern Poverty Law Center on the other. You have the fur industry, and you have animal rights groups. It all sets a very bad precedent."

But the insurgents say they are being smeared by the club's establishment simply because their views don't jibe with those of the current leadership. Especially invidious, they say, are claims that the anti-immigration candidates themselves are racist.

"If it wasn't so sad, it'd be comical," said Frank Morris, a board candidate and retired college professor who lives in Texas. "I'm African American. I'm a past president of an NAACP chapter, and I was executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation from 1983 to 1986. And yet, they just hammer us with these absurd, ad hominen attacks."

Morris said that immigration is one of the most pressing environmental issues facing the nation today, and that it must be addressed by the club if the organization is to retain any credibility.

"I don't think you can be concerned about the environment without being concerned about immigration," Morris said. "The idea that the moral position is to have everyone move to the U.S. simply doesn't make sense. We have 4 percent of the world's population, but we consume 25 percent of the resources. The more Americans there are, the more environmental stress there is on the planet."

Instead of a liberal immigration policy, Morris said, "What we should be doing is encouraging trade throughout the world so everyone can make a decent living."

Democratic principles

Ironically, it is the Sierra Club's democratic traditions that make radical policy shifts possible. Anyone can join the club and immediately run for its board of directors. But typically, directors are longtime activists who filter up from the club's grassroots of semiautonomous chapters.

Fahn, the current president, said the candidates on the anti-immigration slate "have never been club activists. They're certainly running within our rules, but it has been my experience that the most effective board members are those who have come through the ranks."

No matter how the March election shakes out, immigration is sure to remain a divisive issue for club members. And in the end, Pope said, it will probably be the membership rather than the board that determines the club's policy.

"The board of directors has agreed to put the matter to the membership in another vote in 2005," Pope said. "I think it's likely that the Sierra Club position will be settled in that form, not by the board."

2004 San Francisco Chronicle

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