The Lost Sierra Club

Earth Day came and went as usual this year, with the renewed hope that our elected politicians and conservationists are indeed concerned with the environmental welfare of our planet. George W. Bush boastfully exclaimed that his administration, if re-selected, “will expand the wetlands of America.” And his presidential opponent John Kerry, claiming to be greener than Bush, declared that if victorious in November he, unlike GW, will not allow environmental legislation to be “written by polluters in exchange for campaign contributions.”

This may all sound satisfying, but in reality Earth Day has turned into the Valentine’s Day of the corporate environmental movement — where April 22nd has become the token feel good holiday for oily politicians and corporate conservationists to tout their commitment and love for the natural world.

It’s no wonder then that Carl Pope, director of the Sierra Club and the poster boy for the suited conservation movement, used Earth Day to release his new book titled, “Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress.” In his not so seminal manuscript Pope writes, “This is what the American people do not know: The Bush administration is full of officials who believe — from the bottom of their hearts, not just their wallets — that weaker laws on clean air, less funding to clean up toxic waste dumps, and national parks and forests run for private profit are actually good for the country.”

Unfortunately Pope has it all wrong. It’s compromising organizations like his that have allowed Bush and his Democratic brethren to destroy a century’s worth of environmental progress.

Here is a small scale example, for which there are many.

Wisconsin’s Clean Water Action Council had their own battle with club Sierra just last summer. The conflict ensued over the “governments’ plan to unnecessarily allow significant public health risks to persist on the Fox River” near Green Bay. Clean Water Action Council contended that they had “consistently [stated] over two years that the sediments must be removed down to .25 ppm PCBs in order to reach average PCB levels low enough to eliminate the need for fish consumption warnings.”

“However”, the group contended, “the government has chosen to dredge down to 1 ppm PCBs, a level which is 90 times higher than PCB sediment concentrations that are fully protective of human health. [This] policy will leave a large mass of PCBs behind in the river, which will continue to bleed toxic contamination for many decades into the future. Roughly 40,000 people are currently eating unsafe quantities of fish from the Fox River and Green Bay. We must take action to protect these people and future generations.”

Despite Fox River Watch’s ardent efforts to clean up their local stream, the Sierra Club undermined many months worth of discussions. In a statement released by the Sierra Club following the EPA’s announcement they stated, “the fundamental cleanup plan is solid” and “We applaud the EPA [for] developing a protective cleanup plan that is based on good science.”

The Clean Water Action Council was less then thrilled. “The odd thing about the Sierra Club’s news releases is that they are inconsistent with the Sierra Club’s own position on the clean up standard,” the Council wrote following the saga. “Many times over the past 2 years, the Sierra Club has advocated for the same .25 ppm PCB cleanup target that we support. Their testimony at the public hearings, their formal written comments to the agencies, and their action alerts for their members — all promoted the .25 ppm standard … they should be helping us. Instead, the Sierra Club is squandering its resources and actively working against the local citizens along the Fox River and Green Bay who are most damaged by the PCB contamination.”

As noted, this story is certainly not an isolated incident. The Sierra Club’s leadership time and again has undermined grassroots efforts by flexing their negotiating muscle and compromising positions at crunch time. Such concessions gave birth to Earth First! in 1979, when a few radical environmentalists including Dave Foreman and Mike Roselle (now with the Ruckus Society), out of irritation and loathing, decided to form an unyielding organization to counter such enviro stooges.

Regrettably, the Sierra Club never reverted back to its radical John Muir roots, and instead became even more skilled at cutting deals under the guise of stewardship.

In 1989 David Brower, founder of the Earth Island Institute, Friends of the Earth, and the first executive director of the Sierra Club wrote Doug Scott, then acting conservation director of the Club about the role of dreadful “compromise” within the organization: “My thesis is that compromise is often necessary but that it ought not originate with the Sierra Club. We are to hold fast to what we believe is right, fight for it, and find allies and adduce all possible arguments for our cause. If we cannot find enough vigor in us or them to win, then let someone else propose the compromise. We thereupon work hard to coax it our way. We become a nucleus around which the strongest force can build and function.”

Brower went on, “The Sierra Club compromised enough to lose its best antinuclear group. The club has compromised enough to be of little force or effect in slowing the arms race. The club was asked to act four years ago about environmental concerns in Nicaragua, but has remained silent. The club backed away from saving the California condor in the wild. The club did not join in the fight to block the new San Onofre reactors (a failure of which, quite possible, could make Southern California uninhabitable). The club so misjudges the arms race that it discourages the San Diego Chapter from protesting in Nevada, as if such a global problem must be left exclusively to the Toiyabe Chapter. The national club, and Sierra Club California, seem to think that the inexcusable charring of giant sequoias in Sequoia National Park and the terminal isolation of giant sequoias of Sequoia National Forest, and the monocultural new plantations being planted around them, is the province of the Kern-Kaweah chapter and severe damage continues. The club thinks that stopping the charring of sequoias in Yosemite is the business of the Tehipite Chapter, and the damage continues … The Club is so eager to appear reasonable that it goes soft, undercuts the strong grassroots efforts of chapters, groups, and other organizations.”

And now we have Carl Pope and John Kerry claiming that all environmental disasters have been exacerbated by the Bush administration, not taking any of the blame on themselves. But in fact it’s compromises by both of these men’s representative clubs that have failed the natural environment. It was Kerry’s skipped vote on Bush’s Forest Plan and his trade record that give us a good idea of his environmental posture. Not to mention his support for the Iraq invasion and chemical fumigation in Colombia.

“In my mountaineering days,” Brower rounding out his letter to Mr. Scott wrote, “I learned that when one is lost, one must stay calm, retrace steps to the last known landmark, and proceed from there on a different course. Has the Club leadership lost its way?”

Indeed a whole generation of so-called environmentalists has lost its way — including the director of the Sierra Club and the Democratic nominee for President.

JOSH FRANK is a writer living in New York. He is the co-author with Sunil K. Sharma of an upcoming book on the rise and fall of Howard Dean to be out this summer, as well as the author of the forthcoming book Left Out, How Liberals Helped the Bush Administration, to be published by Common Courage Press in December. He can be reached at:


JOSHUA FRANK is the managing editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of the new book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, published by Haymarket Books. He can be reached at You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.