Hostile Takeover

Anti-immigration coalition seeks control of Sierra Club

Adam Werbach

Mem­bers of the Sier­ra Club, the nation’s old­est and largest grass­roots envi­ron­men­tal group, will receive bal­lots this month to elect their board of direc­tors, and with that vote will cast their views in the most con­tentious immi­gra­tion bat­tle of the year.

Immi­gra­tion is not a new debate for the Sier­ra Club. In 1998 the mem­ber­ship vot­ed over­whelm­ing­ly to stay out of the issue, restat­ing that the most effec­tive way to deal with the impact of pop­u­la­tion on the plan­et is to reduce lev­els of Amer­i­can waste and to raise the glob­al sta­tus of women.

But for some, tack­ling immi­gra­tion is a moral imper­a­tive, and their quest to bring the Sier­ra Club into the debate has result­ed in a slate of board can­di­dates with sig­nif­i­cant ties to right-wing groups.

For­mer Pres­i­dent Robert Cox, a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na with deep ties to the envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice and labor move­ments, is a leader in the organization’s effort to fight off this hos­tile takeover attempt” through an unprece­dent­ed pub­lic edu­ca­tion cam­paign called Groundswell Sier­ra (www​.groundswellsier​ra​.org).

The far more effec­tive way of slow­ing the growth of pop­u­la­tion world­wide is by address­ing women’s access to health­care and fam­i­ly plan­ning, and by build­ing eco­nom­ic sus­tain­abil­i­ty for the world’s poor,” Cox says. As long as peo­ple are dri­ven from their home coun­tries by hunger or polit­i­cal strife we will see migra­tion, period.”

Although many who sup­port Sier­ra Club’s involve­ment in immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy are con­cerned about the envi­ron­men­tal effects of pop­u­la­tion, Cox says, We’re con­cerned by a dark­er side of the movement.”

The nation­al board of the Sier­ra Club received a let­ter in Octo­ber 2003 from the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter (SPLC) alert­ing it to efforts by right-wing racist orga­ni­za­tions to encour­age their mem­bers to join the Sier­ra Club and back anti-immi­gra­tion can­di­dates. SPLC traced the effort to a 1996 memo writ­ten by anti-immi­gra­tion leader John Tan­ton, who stat­ed that although the Sier­ra Club may not want to touch the immi­gra­tion issue … the immi­gra­tion issue is going to touch the Sier­ra Club!”

The three immi­gra­tion-con­trol can­di­dates run­ning for the board have inter­lock­ing ties to orga­ni­za­tions fund­ed by Richard Mel­lon Scaife, a lead­ing con­ser­v­a­tive who funds the Her­itage Foun­da­tion and oth­er groups that have writ­ten the play­book for Pres­i­dent Bush’s attacks on the nation’s envi­ron­men­tal laws.

The Sier­ra Club is vul­ner­a­ble to this type of attack because, unlike most nation­al envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, the entire board is elect­ed by its 750,000 mem­ber­ship. Three immi­gra­tion-con­trol advo­cates won seats on the board in the last two elec­tions: Paul Wat­son, Doug Lafol­lette and Ben Zuck­er­man. If the three can­di­dates backed by Sier­rans for U.S. Pop­u­la­tion Sta­bi­liza­tion are elect­ed this year, the immi­gra­tion-con­trol fac­tion will have enough votes on the 15-mem­ber board to move the issue.

Wat­son says efforts to gain seats on the board are being blown out of pro­por­tion.” Wat­son was a founder of Green­peace who went on to cre­ate the Sea Shep­hard Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety, a direct-action orga­ni­za­tion respon­si­ble for ram­ming and sink­ing numer­ous ille­gal fish­ing vessels.

I’m not here to rep­re­sent peo­ple, peo­ple are well rep­re­sent­ed,” Wat­son says. I’m here to rep­re­sent non-human species and ecosystems.”

For Wat­son, immi­gra­tion is sim­ply a mat­ter of num­bers. Too many peo­ple in the Unit­ed States leaves no room for the habi­tat he wants to pro­tect. I don’t allow any human pol­i­tics to influ­ence my deci­sions,” he says.

But Cox says the Sier­ra Club can’t ignore pol­i­tics. We have come so far in rais­ing ques­tions of envi­ron­men­tal impacts on peo­ple in our work with labor and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. As a result we have forged part­ner­ships with a broad­er pro­gres­sive coali­tion in Amer­i­ca.” This coali­tion is part­ly respon­si­ble for the club’s grow­ing polit­i­cal effec­tive­ness, he says, and all of that is now at risk.”

Even if none of the can­di­dates is elect­ed, Wat­son says the immi­gra­tion-con­trol fac­tion has won. It’s a fait accom­pli,” he says. The goal was to make the Sier­ra Club get the nation­al press to write about immi­gra­tion. And look what you’re writ­ing now.”

Adam Wer­bach is the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Com­mon Assets Defense Fund and a mem­ber of the San Fran­cis­co Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion. He is a for­mer pres­i­dent of the Sier­ra Club, a posi­tion to which he was elect­ed at the age of 23.
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