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 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
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.
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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