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Sierra Club: Agendas, Activities, and Worldviews

By Jacob Laksin

Founded in 1882 by Scottish immigrant John Muir, the Sierra Club today ranks among America’s most influential environmentalist groups; and with nearly 750,000 members, it is also among the largest. A force for land conservation upon its establishment, the Sierra Club was intended, in Muir’s formulation, to “do something for wildness and make the mountains glad.” In recent decades, however, the organization has sought to expand its agenda, lobbying vigorously for an ever-wider net of federal regulation to enmesh an opposition that runs the gamut from small industries to the very notion of technological progress.

This shift toward a more ambitious agenda may be properly credited to David Brower. A radical environmental activist from Berkley, California, it was Brower who, as the Sierra Club’s first executive director, in the 1950s and 60s breathed new life into the then-wilting organization, expanding it from a ragtag assortment of 2,000 nature enthusiasts, hikers and trailside conservationists into an influential organ of the environmentalist movement with an activist base of over 77,000 and financial reserves topping $3 million. Marshalling this newly gathered strength, Brower, who died in November 2000, turned the Sierra Club into an unfailing foe of development firms, portraying any new construction initiative as a fundamentally shameless effort to exploit natural resources—a tack that would later become the Sierra Club’s clarion call, and which culminated in the patently political organization’s loss of its tax-exempt status. Prior to Brower’s leadership, however, the Sierra Club’s accomplishments had been limited to blocking the construction of dams on protected land and convincing Congress to establish a national park in Washington State.

To Brower must also go the credit for another contribution to Sierra Club history: More than any other Sierra Club leader, it was Brower (who once denounced childbearing as “a punishable crime against society”) who laid the seedbed for the environmental extremism for which the Sierra Club has come to be known—and which has attracted more than a few radicals to its ranks. It is one measure of the extremism roiling within the organization that, in 2003, the Sierra Club elected Paul Watson to its board of directors. The Canadian-born Watson, who in the 1970s founded the extremist Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, also enjoys a dubious reputation as one of the most radical activists in the so-called “animal rights” movement. His presence among the highest echelon of the organization’s leadership serves to refute the Sierra Club’s assertion that its mission is to “use all lawful means” to carry out its environmentalist objectives: Watson, who bitterly opposes the fishing industry, oversees a small fleet of ships outfitted with cement-filled bows built for the sole purpose of violently ramming and sinking vessels he considers to be enemies of the environment – be they large whaling ships or small commercial fishing boats. Each of Watson’s boats is equipped with a high-powered water cannon and is protected by electrical barbed wire. Watson has also used acid, explosives, and an AK-47 assault rifle to disable and sink “enemy” ships. Far from a departure from his normative tactics, Watson’s maritime militancy was consistent with his declaration, at a 2002 Animal Rights convention: “There’s nothing wrong with being a terrorist, as long as you win. Then you write the history.”

Though the Sierra Club has shied away form overtly embracing eco-terrorism of the Watson stamp, its environmental campaigns showcase the same maximalist aims. While the organization continues to lobby for land conservation—in 2002, for instance, Sierra Club activists mounted campaigns against Arctic Refuge oil drilling and worked to thwart construction on Utah’s 120-mile freeway, the Legacy Highway—it is in technological progress that the group sees its newest adversary. Examined in this regard, the Sierra Club’s unbending opposition to genetically modified food crops is telling. Taking literally David Brower’s 1992 comment that “All technology should be assumed guilty until proven innocent,” the Sierra Club has in the past pressed for “a moratorium on the planting of all genetically engineered crops and the release of all GEOs [genetically engineered organisms] into the environment, including those now approved.” Despite the fact that GEOs hold out numerous environmental advantages (including the potential for farmers to grow more food on less land and cut down on pesticide use) and humanitarian benefits (such as their capacity to curb hunger), the Sierra Club, unwilling to abandon its dogmatic belief that technology is necessarily the enemy of the environment, continues to advocate against their cultivation. Instead, the organization contends that the solution to hunger lies in its leftist agenda. According to the Sierra Club, “genetic engineering solutions should never be used to divert attention from the solutions to the problem of hunger that carry less biological risk (e.g., better distribution of food, land reform, sustainable soil conservation strategies, promotion of regional sustainability, reduced consumption of animal products, and stabilization of population).” Actuated by such arguments, the Sierra Club in 1998 filed a suit against the Environmental Protection Agency, demanding the suspension of genetically modified crops. The suit came to naught, however, and neither Democratic nor Republican administrations have proven fertile ground for the Sierra Club’s arguments. Support for genetically engineered crop production continues to transcend the political divide.

A failure to convince, however, has not deterred the Sierra Club from pursuing its activist aims. This may be the lesson behind the Sierra Club’s efforts to convict the Bush administration of crimes against the environment. In June of 2004, for instance, the Sierra Club, a member organization of the so-called “Shadow Democratic Party” (or “Shadow Party”), published a “fact-sheet” alleging that the “Bush administration is weakening proven clean air protections and threatening the progress we have made over the last 30 years.” The organization further contended, “The [Bush] administration’s actions benefit polluting industries while recklessly endangering public health.”  Similar warnings were voiced by Sierra Club President Larry Fahn, a 25-year veteran of the organization. In May 2004, after bestowing Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry with the Sierra Club’s ringing endorsement, Fahn echoed claims that the Bush administration was in league with polluters: “[John Kerry’s] commitment to environmental progress stands in stark contrast to the Bush administration’s all-out assault on the environment and its record of putting polluting corporations before the American public’s health and safety.”

Yet the Sierra Club’s efforts to smear the Bush administration’s record on the environment more than muddied the facts. Contrary to the organization’s assertions, air quality has not worsened under the Bush administration’s stewardship. Quite the contrary: in keeping with longtime trends, air quality has steadily improved. Experts note that cleaner cars have reduced average vehicle emissions by 10 percent annually, while the presence of various toxins in the air has dropped by 55 percent since 1988. The Environmental Protection Agency continues to clamp down on polluters, and in 2003 the costs for 87 percents of the sites marked for cleanup were shouldered by polluters—the highest percentage ever. As much was conceded by Jessica Frohman, a national conservation organizer for the Sierra Club, who allowed that the Bush administration has indeed taken a hard-line with polluters. “If they find somebody, they’re going to go after them,” Frohman said in March 2004.

More recently, the most serious affront to the Sierra Club’s environmentalist mission has come not from the Bush administration, but from within its own ranks. For several years now, the question of immigration has left the organization riven by internal disagreements. In the spring of 2004, during national elections of the group’s 15-member board of directors, the Sierra Club’s historically neutral position on immigration became the subject of bitter internecine disputes. One side, favoring immigration, included the executive director of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope; a dissenting faction, opposing immigration (not as a threat to America’s national security or economy, but as a threat to the environment), was led by Richard D. Lamm, a former Democratic governor of Colorado who since the mid-1980s has campaigned against U.S. immigration policy. Lamm’s coalition included everyone from leftist radicals like Paul Watson, to activists like Brenda Walker, a Berkeley Sierra Club member whose arguments against immigration regularly found a hearing on the websites of the nativist right. The pro-immigration contingent has accused their Sierra Club adversaries of being “Nazis” and of “being in bed with racists.” The anti-immigration side has been equally unmeasured in its attacks: By far the biggest stir was caused by Brenda Walker, who referred to Vietnamese immigrants settling in California as “drug-addicted polygamists.”

Even as it is torn by infighting, the Sierra Club remains a model of unity in pushing its agenda. This is has much to do with the fact that its propagandists have proven proficient at disseminating the organization’s message. To this end, they employ the group’s vast arsenal of literature. In addition to publishing everything from calendars to books for children as well adults (proceeds from which underwrite sundry Sierra Club initiatives), the organization publishes Sierra magazine, a bi-monthly periodical that couches the group’s active environmentalism in innocuous-seeming general interest articles. Additionally, the Sierra Club distributes the Sierra Club Insider, a bi-monthly newsletter informing subscribers of the club’s ongoing campaigns. With an eye to staking out a presence on the Internet, the Sierra Club now publishes its own blog, called “Field Notes.” Authored by Carl Pope, the blog is yet another mouthpiece for the organization, taking aim at the alleged environmental transgressions of the Bush administration. (Pope also bears the dubious distinction of authoring Proposition 65, a 1986 California law that mandates warning labels for products containing any of several hundred identifiable carcinogens, even if they appear in quantities too paltry to pose a health threat—a condition that makes the Proposition less an advantage to California consumers than a boon to lawyers on spoiling for payoffs from frivolous suits.)

Another factor accounting for the Sierra Club’s enduring influence is the organization’s considerable pool of financial resources, which bankroll both its activist campaigns and its lobbying initiatives in Washington, D.C.  In 2002, the Sierra Club reported $23,619,830 in revenues, and disclosed $107,733,974 worth of assets to the IRS. This financial support is a testament to the fact that the Sierra Club—despite its fissures on the question of immigration, and despite the fact that donations to it are not tax-deductible—remains a favorite cause of leftwing philanthropists. Among its many faithful grantors are the Bauman Family Foundation; the Bullitt Foundation, the Energy Foundation, the Foundation for Deep Ecology, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Blue Moon Fund; the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation; the J.M. Kaplan Fund, Pew Charitable Trusts, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Turner Foundation. This steady stream of philanthropy has emboldened the Sierra Club’s more extreme members. After his election to the organization’s board of directors in 2003, for example, Paul Watson telegraphed his intention to convert the Sierra Club into an instrument of the radical animal rights movement. In a 2004, Watson told the New York Times, “once we get three more directors elected, the Sierra Club will no longer be pro-hunting and pro-trapping and we can use the resources of the $95-million-a-year budget to address some of these issues.”

The Sierra Club is a member of the Save Our Environment Action Center, a leftwing coalition that describes itself as “a collaborative effort of the nation’s most influential environmental advocacy organizations harnessing the power of the internet to increase public awareness and activism on today's most important environmental issues.”

The Sierra Club - Canada is a member of OneWorld Network, an umbrella organization of more than 1,500 leftwing groups that, according to the OneWorld website, seek “to promote sustainable development, social justice, and human rights.”

The Sierra Club was a signatory to an April 2001 petition opposing further development of nuclear technologies; this petition was presented to the Chairman of the United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development. It read, in part: “We, the undersigned NGOs, active in environment, development, disarmament and human rights issues, express our deepest regret and extreme concern that nuclear energy has been included in the draft agenda of the ninth session of the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development, and that this dangerous and unsustainable technology might, in effect, be given a fresh start by the actions of the CSD.

The Sierra Club recently endorsed a document called the Earth Charter, which blames capitalism for many of the world’s environmental, social, and economic problems. The Charter maintains that “the dominant patterns of production and consumption are causing environmental devastation, the depletion of resources, and a massive extinction of species. The benefits of development are not shared equitably and the gap between rich and poor is widening.”

The Sierra Club also endorsed the Heritage Tree Preservation Act, which seeks to ban all logging in old-growth forests.

The Sierra Club was also a Cosponsoring Organization of the April 25, 2004 “March for Women’s Lives” held in Washington, D.C., a rally that drew more than a million demonstrators advocating that women be granted unrestricted access to taxpayer-funded abortions at any stage of pregnancy. 

Moreover, the Sierra Club has joined other leftwing groups in opposing the U.S. war on terror. It is a member organization of the Win Without War and Abolition 2000 anti-war coalitions.

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