McCarthyism in the Sierra Club

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

— Philosopher George Santayana.

In the “Father Knows Best” decade of the 1950’s, the voice of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy echoed through the Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, “I have in my hand a list of 205 cases of individuals who appear to be either card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist Party.”

The visual from the black and white television era fades, but echoes of that dark moment in American history remain etched in citizens’ memories forever. Most Americans remember the McCarthy era as a lesson – not to be repeated. Apparently the moral from those bleak days was lost on thirteen former presidents of the national Sierra Club, who are interfering with this year’s election for the Board of Directors.

There are two types of candidates in Sierra Club elections: internally-selected candidates called, “nominating committee candidates” and candidates who get members’ signatures on a petition, abiding by all the rules in a grassroots, democratic process called, “petition candidates.”

The thirteen former presidents, who are part of the old guard within the Club, put the bureaucratic, self-perpetuation of the Club above environmental protection. Their work appears on a website called Groundswell Sierra, giving new life to the dictionary definition of “McCarthyism.”

They are indeed employing “the political practice of publicizing accusations of disloyalty or subversion with insufficient regard to evidence,” and using “methods of investigation and accusation regarded as unfair, in order to suppress opposition,” within the Club.

The main target of these McCarthyite tactics is a faction of Sierra Club members called SUSPS (formerly known as Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization), whose followers believe that limiting US immigration will stabilize population levels, thereby protecting the environment.

There are indirect links between SUSPS and some rather unsavory, right-wing groups also advocating immigration restrictions, along with white supremacy and racial

purity. The key words here are “indirect links,” because at least some individual SUSPS advocates seem concerned with human rights protections for immigrants. They support quota reductions from a deeply-held, environmental ethic, not from a right-wing political orientation, as has been charged.

The larger problem, which could have long-term, negative implications for democracy within the Sierra Club, is that any threat that may be represented by SUSPS-backed candidates has been imaginatively and indiscriminately expanded to include all petition candidates. The letter from the thirteen former presidents posted on Groundswell Sierra is a prime example and questions the credibility of all petition candidates with a broad brush of vague damnation.

The presidents’ letter says that there is an organized effort to elect “outsiders” who want to capture the majority of Board seats in order to “move their personal agendas” – making McCarthy style leaps of guilt by association and assumptions based on vague links instead of solid evidence. A San Francisco Chronicle article said, “The bedrock issue…isn’t immigration, but whether the club should be controlled by insiders or outsiders.”

Chuck McGrady and Robbie Cox represent the old guard viewpoint. 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.”

Former Sierra Club president and Board member Robbie Cox told the press that the organization “will be destroyed if ‘outside forces’ succeed in gaining control of the board of directors in April’s elections.”

Such attacks on petition candidates looks less like a defense against imminent peril and more like manipulation and election rigging aimed at candidates not hand-selected by the Club’s nominating committee. This damages the Club’s democratic and grassroots process – now and in the future.

Nothing in the Groundswell Sierra’s effort has enraged the Club’s rank and file activists like the presidents’ letter’s ultimate demand, directed to incumbent Club

president Larry Fahn. In stentorian prose soaring over the signatures of the thirteen past presidents, the letter asserts that the Sierra Club must intervene in the electoral process and smite down the unacceptable candidates who got onto the ballot by petition.

Beyond casting a vote, Sierra Club staff has always been strictly forbidden from any participation in Club elections, including the commitment of funds or other resources for or against any candidate. Nevertheless, the letter urged the Board to set aside the organization’s by-laws and to advise members of the dangers of this attempted take over by “outsiders” and use “Club staff, mailing lists, publications and all other means available,” to stop them.

Rodger Clarke, a member of the Club’s Northeast Ohio Group, agrees that “SUSPS’ anti-immigration agenda and candidates must be stopped and defeated,” but “I am just as committed to seeing that it’s done fairly and squarely. Otherwise, we risk doing very serious damage to the democratic nature of the Sierra Club that in turn could harm our credibility, and thus our work.”

The letter drew an even sharper response from Don Young, former chair of the Club’s Atlantic chapter in New York: “The people whom we have rightly perceived as top-down, staff-driven, control freaks are now prepared to take the ultimate step to control the Club, nakedly using our own dues money and the power of the staff to crush dissent.”

Tim Hermach, president of the Native Forest Council since 1988 says, “The old guard are using their usual tactics of interference and obstruction of grassroots activists in this election.”

Beyond these detrimental effects within the Sierra Club, the Groundswell tactics take the focus off of direct assaults on the environment posed by the Bush administration. Squelching all petition candidates’ chances won’t stop industry from taking the tops off of our mountains and dumping them into our streams or making our air and water human health hazards. The orangutan will still face extinction along with countless other endangered species and their unique habitat. Extractive industry will continue to destroy our public lands, profiting a few at the expense of many.

The old guard’s tactics damage qualified candidates who are not long-time members and smear candidates only tenuously linked to SUSPS. Roy van de Hoek awoke one morning to find he had been transformed into a right-wing, anti-immigration zealot bent on taking over the Sierra Club. It said so on the Groundswell site.

Van de Hoek, a petition candidate and an immigrant who prizes his green card, was apparently the last to get this startling news. As a biologist and park supervisor, he advocates for urban parks and the steadily shrinking lot of California’s natural flora and fauna. More recent political attacks called him a left-wing menace to the rights of property owners when he ran for the Malibu City Council.

“I’ve never taken a position on the immigration issue,” he says. “I guess I’m on the hit list because people who belong to a Sierra Club group that works on population and immigration (SUSPS) and who also share my concern for wildlife asked if they could help collect petition signatures – they told me they didn’t care about my position on immigration.”

Fingering individuals like van de Hoek and other petition candidates is a bad strategy, because the mud-slinging, old guard do get some things right: Reducing the ranks of the rabble is – as claimed by the old guard – dear to the heart of reactionary demon-king Richard Mellon Scaife, – who has indeed donated generously to the population-immigration control groups on whose Boards several of the SUSPS candidates sit.

The “restrict immigration” folks are indeed eager to press their case in the Sierra Club. Thus, there really is a move afoot to put some SUSPS candidates who may have connections to individuals and groups that advocate a public policy idea that is philosophically muddled, politically obtuse and morally deficient into positions of power in the Sierra Club. If this move is successful, it may have negative consequences for the organization.

Instead of taking on this issue at a policy level, the old guard’s response has been a clumsy, smear campaign, insulting the intelligence of the general membership, damning all petition candidates and attempting to pound the square pegs of left/right political ideology into the round holes of environmentalism.

The siren song of “immigration controls,” has proudly liberal, deep-ecological adherents. Immigration control advocates currently on the Board are some of the people most consistently voting for strong, environmental protection. Attempting to tag the debate as a right-wing conspiracy is to lose the argument before they have begun.

In an unprecedented and outrageous move, the old guard on the current Board of Directors led by Chuck McGrady, caught on to the reality that the square pegs were not fitting into the round holes and entered the fray, passing resolutions that stopped short of authorizing the promotion of any particular candidates, and instead mandated that an insert accompany the candidates’ ballot statements mailed to members that says:

“Outside, non-environmental organizations have endorsed candidates in the Club’s Board elections and… are urging their supporters to join the Club as a means to influence club policy in line with their non-environmental agendas.” A lengthy list of organizations followed, including <>.

This caught my eye. As a Sierra Club petition candidate, I have 18 years of progressive statewide and national, grassroots advocacy experience on environmental and women’s issues; executive-level skills in all aspects of nonprofit management; and international speaking and training experience.

When I sent out a notice about my candidacy, the webmaster of HempflagUSA, a casual friend, wrote to me and asked how he could help. I asked that he simply post my candidate e-mail on his various websites. And I put a link to the Sierra Club website telling people how they could become a member of the Club.

The old guard had already painted me as an outsider, but they were struggling to find a way to diminish my progressive leadership record. They sought a link between me and an outside group supposedly trying to take over the Sierra Club – they discovered HempflagUSA.

Voila! An outside group that advocates the legalization of marijuana was recruiting members to join the Sierra Club to support my candidacy. If the Communist Party happened to post my article, they would be listed as one of the invading groups as well – and so goes McCarthyism. Like victims of the blacklists, the Hempflag webmaster was shocked to discover that he’s part of a plot – unbeknownst to him – to take over the Sierra Club.

For the record, legalizing marijuana will not be one of my platform issues at the Sierra Club. I will lead the way toward stronger enforcement of the Endangered Species, Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. I’ll work to end logging, mining, grazing and drilling on public lands; replace fossil fuels with renewable energy; and assure universal access to abortion, family planning and education. I’ll advocate for slow growth and toxic waste site clean-up. I’ll encourage increased funding and support to Club Chapters and Groups. While open, democratic debate remains crucial, I support continued Sierra Club neutrality on the issue of immigration.

The former presidents’ letter was mysteriously leaked to the press. With articles espousing their viewpoint appearing in papers from coast to coast and around the world, their challenge has become international news, adding the publicity necessary to strictly conform to the dictionary’s definition of McCarthyism.

Have you no decency, sirs? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

KARYN STRICKLER is the former Director of the National Endangered Species Coalition and is a petition candidate for the Sierra Club Board of Directors. Learn more at: . Strickler can be reached at:

Copyright 2004, KARYN STRICKLER.