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Human Nature : For Sierra Clubbers, Conservation Has Always Gone Hand-in-Hand With Conversation

January 11, 1987|BOB SIPCHEN | Bob Sipchen writes for The Times' View section.

As she trekked along the coast in Laguna Beach, a Fullerton woman revealed why she belongs to the Sierra Club--widely regarded as the vigilant (some would say rabid) guard dog of our fragile environment. "I'm here to meet hunks," she said with an honest leer, as 40 or so members of the Orange County Sierra Singles trooped through the tide pools.

On a rock-climbing trip in the desert, an engineer for a major defense contractor confessed that he sends in his dues only because he's into the aerobic benefits of "peak-bagging." Most of the club's political stands sicken him, he said, but he covets its "100 Peaks" pin.

As the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club wraps up its 75th anniversary celebration, naturalist John Muir may be thrashing about in his grave because of what Southern Californians have done to the club that was inspired by his love and concern for the "mountains of light," the Sierra Nevada.

With 48,000 members in Los Angeles and Orange counties, the Angeles Chapter is by far the largest in the 400,000-member club. It also has a bureaucracy that rivals the state Legislature, with nearly 80 committees, subcommittees, task forces, regional groups and special sections and more than 1,500 volunteer leaders.

The chapter claims to be the largest "outings-oriented" organization in the world, and it is widely recognized as the most popular--and effective--singles scene in Southern California.

A look at its fat schedule of events shows that in one week alone, a Southern Californian might choose from among 75 activities, including "power hiking," gourmet or non-gourmet pot-lucks, folk dancing, ice-skating, sailing, skiing, sketching and car camping. The thousands--literally--of activities listed for the year include hot tubbing, bicycle touring, whale watching, mushroom hunting, sing-alongs and--of course--nature walks, day hikes, backpacking trips and trail-building. There are often more people in each group than Muir might have met in a month of wandering through the High Sierra. And some members complain that the frantic pace of the excursions and apres -hike socializing leaves little time to see the forest or the trees.

As it turns out, though, the chapter's apparent emphasis on the social can't be blamed on the indulgent '80s.

Recently, about 400 Sierra clubbers showed up at Griffith Park for a Diamond Jubilee Birthday Party. As portrayed in a historical slide show by Muir Dawson--a lifetime member named after the great man himself--the early years of the club were fun-filled and smog-free. Women in bloomers and men in neckties rode in horse-drawn wagons to idyllic picnics in the San Gabriels. Later, Pacific Electric Red Cars hauled members to hiking trails and comfortable lodges in the mountains.

What the black-and-white slides only hinted at was the clubbiness of the chapter in those days. The Angeles folks didn't work too hard on the last part of the Sierra Club's "Explore, Enjoy, Preserve" credo, chapter historian Bob Cates explains.

But the small membership was dead serious about the social aspects of the organization. Mainly college-educated professionals, they held monthly meetings at Boos Brothers Cafeteria on Hill Street. Prospective members sat at a separate table, where their behavior and manners could be observed.

"They were quite choosy," said John Nienhuis, 86, a retired mailman who was asked to join in 1948. "They wanted to know whether we had nice personalities, whether we were good-

looking. They didn't want people who maybe snored or didn't smell too good."

They also didn't want blacks and, in most cases, Jews, Nienhuis and others say.

The chapter stopped discriminating in the '50s, but the surge in membership didn't come until the next decade, when plans were being made to dam the Grand Canyon. Between 1960 and 1970 the chapter grew from 3,600 members to 15,000.

As early as the late '40s, chapter activists had begun to crusade for local environ-

mental issues, notably to set aside a Mt. San Gorgonio Primitive Area (they won) and to prevent construction of a tram and resort on Mt. San Jacinto (they lost on the tram but won, more or less, on the resort). Now, members rattle off a litany of accom-

plishments, among the more recent being the chapter's work on creation of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in 1978 and passage of the California Wilderness Bill of 1984.

Elden Hughes, Angeles Chapter chairman, boasts that the group can be instrumental in getting politicians elected, as Sen. Alan Cranston would attest. And members are working on such issues as protecting the coast from offshore drilling and untreated sewage and urging the Forest Service to come up with ecologically sound 50-year plans for the state's 18 national forests.

"If he were alive now, John Muir . . . would thoroughly approve" of the political clout the chapter wields, Hughes says. But, he adds, Muir might "go off in the mountains by himself " rather than attend the chapter's jampacked monthly meetings.

Cates argues, however, that "John Muir knew that if you get people out into the wilderness, eventually a certain number will be converted and will want to preserve the wilderness. When I first joined, I was only interested in peak-bagging and mountaineering. But I gradually became indoctrinated in conservation--it sort of sinks in by osmosis."

Cates and his wife--whom he met on a Sierra Club hike--have become embroiled in a variety of the chapter's struggles. A few years ago, they were among those who helped persuade the state to purchase 400 acres in the Simi Hills, which they hope will become Santa Susana Mountain State Park. Even members interested only in getting a workout or finding a mate wind up in the wilds. From their ranks will emerge the next generation of watchdogs, Cates believes. And if they happen to be pot-lucking, power-hiking, hunk-hunting watchdogs, so what?

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