Immigration Issue Sparks Battle at Sierra Club; Groups Vie to Reshape Nonprofit's Board
The Washington Post
March 22, 2004 Monday
Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post Staff Writer
The Southern Poverty Law Center is known for fighting hate groups but is
not usually a player in environmental politics. Neither is the neo-Nazi
group White Politics Inc. But in the Sierra Club's current board
elections, they are just two of a potpourri of groups seeking to
the outcome of a contest that could radically reshape the 112-year-old
On one level, the battle for control of the Sierra Club board is a
over the impact on ecological concerns of population pressures fueled by
immigration. More broadly, however, it is a tale of how the organization,
buoyed by a rich treasury and a savvy grass-roots outreach effort, has
become enmeshed in a bitter fight over how to best leverage the
nonprofit's influence in national politics.
The stakes are high: Bolstered by anonymous gifts totaling more than $100
million, the group founded by John Muir, himself an immigrant from
Scotland, now boasts an annual budget of $83 million and a membership of
"The Sierra Club is the most prominent and influential group in America
terms of environmentalism," said Mark Potok, editor of the Southern
Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report, who said the center got
because it discovered hate groups were urging followers to vote in the
board election. "That's why it's seen as a prize. The aim is to hijack
credibility, the reputation, the membership and the finances of a very
important political player."
Other environmental groups attest to the Sierra Club's influence. "They
have tremendous clout, and they're hugely important allies in our
environmental battles," said Greg Wetstone, director of advocacy for the
Natural Resources Defense Council.
Potok is just one of many activists weighing in on the election, which is
taking place by mail over the next month. The controversy centers on
insurgent candidates, including former Colorado governor Richard Lamm
who are intent on curbing immigration to the United States in the name of
"I feel very strongly population and immigration is an environmental
issue," Lamm said in an interview. "Sierra Club has avoided this issue
The battle has spawned at least three lawsuits, a flurry of mailings to
members, as well as two outside groups devoted solely to shaping the
future of the Sierra Club. The battle intensified last week when the
Internet-based liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org urged its members to
defeat the three insurgent candidates, triggering the latest in a series
of complaints from both sides about the involvement of outside groups.
"I'm outraged that MoveOn.org would get involved in the Sierra Club
elections and others are as well," said Marcia Hanscom, who is allied
the anti-immigration cohort.
The Sierra Club has confronted the immigration question before: In 1998,
members voted 60 to 40 to remain neutral on the issue. In 2001, they
rejected a proposal to promote "regional and national population
stabilization" as part of the club's agenda.
One of the new groups, Groundswell Sierra, represents members of the
club's old guard bitterly opposed to the anti-immigration drive.
Immigration opponents "have a right to express their views and try and
like everybody else," said Groundswell's campaign manager, Clayton
Daughenbaugh. "What they don't have a right to do is to bring in
candidates with no experience in the Sierra Club as part of an effort to
overthrow a membership-voted position."
In a private talk to the board of directors in late February, the club's
executive director, Carl Pope, described the anti-immigrant advocates as
"a virus" that threatened to infect the organization.
"It's hate," Pope said, according to a transcript of his speech. "It was
very sad moment for me when I had to recognize that hate wasn't just
something out there in American society that the Sierra Club had to
but that hate had gotten dangerously close to the club itself."
The anti-immigration candidates accuse Pope of using smear tactics to
damage their candidacies. They sued Pope along with board President Larry
Fahn and the club for unfair election practices in February; they later
dropped the suit, but the defendants countersued to recover their
attorney's fees. That case is still pending.
Frank Morris, the former executive director of the Congressional Black
Caucus Foundation, who with entomologist David Pimentel of Cornell
University is on the insurgents' ticket with Lamm, said he suspects a
group of anonymous donors who gave more than $100 million in 2001 and
is behind the countersuit.
"We've never been able to figure out the intensity of the attack," Morris
said. "The issue might be those who had given large donations want to
control the agenda of the Sierra Club."
Fahn and Pope deny that claim and note that the money went to the Sierra
Club Foundation, an affiliated but independent entity that makes grants
about $15 million a year for club projects. John DeCock, who heads the
foundation, said he has never discussed immigration with the dozen
anonymous donors who made the gifts.
For an election in which candidates cannot spend more than $2,000 each,
the costs are spiraling. Daughenbaugh said his group spent more than
$100,000 on a mailing urging members to reject Lamm and his allies.
Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-Calif.) said in an interview that "the credibility
in terms of the Latino community is going to be lost. This is very
The outcome of the election remains in doubt: Ballots went out to members
at the beginning of the month, and it is unclear how many will vote. In
the past, about 10 percent have cast ballots, but the controversy
around this year's election makes it likely that more will take part.
Meanwhile, many Sierra Club stalwarts worry the battle will undermine the
group's effectiveness on its core issues.
"This whole episode is a regrettable distraction from our mission to
educate the public as to how the Bush-Cheney administration has been
dismantling 40 years of environmental progress," Fahn said.