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What’s Going on at the Sierra Club Foundation?

Why are some Sierra Club Board members and Sierra Club Foundation staff refusing to provide information to Florida Chapter activists about the proposed transfer of a Florida nature preserve owned by the Foundation to a new land trust that will be controlled by adjacent landowners with no apparent connection or accountability to the Club or the Foundation?

Club leaders may have violated Club policies and procedures, and are refusing to answer questions posed by chapter leaders about a questionable land deal on the rapidly developing Northwest Florida coast.

The matter in question is the proposed disposition of a property known as the Coffeen Nature Preserve that is currently owned by Sierra Club Foundation. Club leaders, and especially delegates of the Gulf Coast RCC (GCRCC) have attended various Club functions at Coffeen over the years. Indeed, Coffeen has a reputation in the Southeast as the Sierra Club’s unofficial romantic matchmaking resort. [The land has been the site of at least one Sierra Club wedding, and is known as the meeting place for other marriages of Club leaders.]

Club activists are questioning whether some top members of Club management who are frequent visitors to and users of this property may have conflicted relationships with the Foundation and perhaps even with adjacent property owners who may be positioned to gain control of the preserve from the Foundation in the near future.

The Coffeen tract is located in a rapidly developing stretch of Gulf Coast “real estate” bounded on one side by a state park and on another by mega-mansions. There is a high likelihood that one or more listed endangered species are currently occupying the property. The Choctawhatchee Beach Mouse, for example, is a critically endangered species that likely inhabits the preserve and is the subject of a lawsuit recently filed by the Sierra Club against the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

The Foundation’s land transfer proposal is complicated and still shrouded in secrecy, but here is a quick summary, based on my admittedly limited knowledge. [Additional clarifying information is welcome.]

More than 200 acres of this environmentally sensitive site was donated by Ms. Dorothy Coffeen to the Sierra Club Foundation prior to her death some years ago. The donated lands had covenants and deed restrictions that specify the limitation on uses of the preserve she was creating. A key element of the restriction was that the land is to be used for nature study and preservation.

Dorothy Coffeen also bequeathed to the Foundation her stock in an entity known as the “Four Mile Village Corporation” which owned some additional adjacent land. Ms. Coffeen directed that her stock and assets in the corporation be “liquidated” and the proceeds be used by the Foundation. Florida Chapter leaders have tried to learn what the Foundation has done with the corporation’s assets, but the Foundation has refused all requests for this information.

Florida Chapter leaders have learned that the donor’s explicit wish–in her own handwriting–was that the land was to be transferred to a conservation organization that would continue to manage the tract for its intended uses (nature study and preservation).

Blind trust in the land trust?

The Foundation is now proposing to transfer ownership of the land to a new land trust that has been proposed to accept ownership from the Foundation of nature preserve lands. “Insiders” who are knowledgeable about this process have stated that there is to be nominal representation on the land trust board of Sierra Club and/or Sierra Club Foundation members. However there have been few verifiable facts released that would confirm the level of assurance or control afforded the Club or the Foundation on future management of the preserve. The Foundation has refused requests from Florida Chapter leaders about the specific terms of the proposed transfer and about the purpose, structure, and goals of the land trust, or any plans for future development or any restrictive covenants that may be attached to the deed.

Unconfirmed reports have already surfaced that the land trust plans to construct an interpretive nature center.

A majority of the members of the Board of the new land trust are reportedly owners of a number of adjacent residential properties known as the Four Mile Village Property Owners Association (not to be confused with Ms. Coffeen’s Four Mile Village Corporation). Some questions have arisen about the role of this property owners association in constituting and perhaps controlling the board of the proposed land trust. A number of these adjacent owners have recently constructed mega-mansions.

The Florida Chapter recently passed a resolution by an overwhelming vote, questioning key details of Foundation’s tentative agreement with the land trust. Reactions to the chapter’s resolution by certain Sierra Club Foundation staff and Sierra Club board members has been swift and heated. Rather than provide a reasoned response to the chapter’s concerns, the “insiders” have engaged in an aggressive stonewalling campaign worthy of Richard Nixon.

About five years ago the GCRCC, without explanation, asserted itself as the official Club arbiter on issues surrounding disposition of the preserve and on related matters of Club policy. No information has yet been offered to indicate why or when or who among the “powers that be” in upper Club management decided to bypass the chapter and hand over all Club decision-making authority to the GCRCC. This move was apparently made to ensure that the GCRCC, not the Florida Chapter, would serve as the Sierra Club’s official “representative” to the Foundation on questions that might arise about the preserve’s disposition.

Several GCRCC delegates over the last five years have also held prominent leadership positions in the national Club (including at least one current national Board member and a former national Board member). At least one past GCRCC delegate is a member of the Sierra Club Foundation Board of Trustees.

Keeping secrets?

Many of the questions I’ve cited recently surfaced at the Board level as news of the Florida Chapter resolution trickled out to Club activists in other parts of the US. Subsequent events have revealed deep divisions in the Club’s Board and a vigorous effort by the Club President to censor discussion of the matter by fellow Board members.

One Board member from California requested that the Coffeen issue be placed on the agenda of the upcoming July Board meeting. Surprisingly, the Club President and some of the Coffeen “insiders” on the board reacted angrily and tried to block repeated attempts by the questioning board member to have some discussion at the Board level.

A provision in national Sierra Club bylaws mandates that any issue must be considered by the full board when five members request it. At least five board members have since signed on to the request for discussion of the Coffeen issue. It appears that the Club President admitted defeat this week, and has reluctantly agreed to accept the issue on the Board’s July agenda.

This request for a place on the agenda for Coffeen has resulted in repeated attacks by the Executive Director of the Sierra Club Foundation against the Club Board member who dared to request that the Coffeen controversy be discussed at the Board meeting.

What role the GCRCC?

The GCRCC apparently continues to support the transfer of the land to the land trust despite the expressed concerns of the Florida Chapter. And it is not clear why the GCRCC was given control over the Club’s policy on Coffeen in the first place. It should not have happened.

Under national Club policy, a conservation issue that arises around a location that’s entirely within the boundaries of a single chapter is considered to be a matter for the chapter to decide official Club policy or position on (see the Policy on Policies). It would appear that the GCRCC as a matter of Club policy has no authority to decide Club policy on questions about the Coffeen Preserve–especially over the Florida Chapter’s opposition.

The GCRCC seems to be acting out of turn not only from the standpoint of internal Club decision-making process but also because the unanswered questions raised by Florida Chapter activists suggest that the transfer may violate the express intent of the donor of the Coffeen Preserve. The GCRCC should be supporting the Florida Chapter in seeking answers to the important questions that would enlighten us all as to the details and terms of the proposed land transfer, the makeup of the land trust board, bylaws of the land trust, and other matters.

The GCRCC’s vote was, according to Florida Chapter activists, not to endorse the Florida resolution. However the Foundation and some Club Board members are apparently interpreting the GCRCC vote as overturning the Florida Resolution. These longtime Club leaders don’t seem to understand that this issue was not within GCRCC’s jurisdiction in the first place.

It is not clear why the Foundation has chosen to ignore the Florida Chapter’s objections nor is it clear why the GCRCC believes it has any authority to assert itself as the Club’s appropriate policy body.

The Foundation proposes to transfer ownership of this tract–not sell it–to the land trust, but the Foundation has offered no assurance that the land trust board would not violate the conservation easements in the future, nor has there been assurance that the board would be required to manage the tract in a manner appropriate for such environmentally sensitive lands.

The Foundation has stated they will put conservation easments on the property, so theoretically they should not be able to develop it. However, when Florida Chapter activists asked that they give the easements to an outside conservation organization, that would be able to enforce them, the Foundation refused.

No one disputes that the Foundation has legal control over the property nor is it in dispute that the Sierra Club may only advise the Foundation Board of Trustees on disposition of the tract. However this controversy raises a suite of questions about whether proper Club process was followed in determining what specific advice the Club should give the Foundation, and whether the Foundation is pursuing disposition of the property in accordance with the donor’s intent. There are questions about the apparent secrecy that surrounds the process and the aggressive attempts by Club management to obstruct key Club leaders from obtaining information and answers to important questions.

The Coffeen Preserve has been a regular and frequent meeting place for the GCRCC in recent years. Club activists presumably would want to ensure maximum protection for this sensitive locale. No one I’ve talked with can understand why the Club Board President and Foundation staff have actively shunned input from the Florida Chapter and rebuked the Club Board member who asked questions on behalf of the Chapter.

What’s the rush to unload the land? The Sierra Club would be threatening a lawsuit against the feds if this were public land that was going to be transferred to private hands without full disclosure and involvement in the process by local Sierra Club activists. It doesn’t make sense that top Club officials would stifle internal discussion and try to ram this transfer through when serious questions have been raised by local activists.

We need some answers!

DAVID ORR is a long-time environmental organizer. He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee and can be reached at: DavidOrr@aol.com

 

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