SAN FRANCISCO — The Sierra Club on Wednesday named longtime environmental executive Michael L. Fischer as its new executive director, ending a five-month search for its second director in less than two years.
Fischer, 46, a former executive director of the California Coastal Commission, will assume leadership of the Sierra Club at a time when the 410,000-member environmental group, known for its grass-roots activism, is trying to adjust to being what club officials have called a "mini-conglomerate."
"We needed somebody with the experience and skills to manage a $23-million operation," Sierra Club President Lawrence D. Downing said. "We also wanted somebody sensitive to the fact that in contrast to other environmental organizations, we have such a strong volunteer presence."
Fischer's selection appeared to signal a reaffirmation of the Sierra Club's activist tradition at a period when some environmental groups are moving away from confrontational tactics and toward a strategy of alliance with industry and government agencies.
"The Sierra Club is an aggressive, gutsy, grass-roots organization," Fischer said in an interview at the club's national headquarters in San Francisco. "What it does well, it does with lots of people. Success in negotiating with corporations . . . requires that deals be made by really few people, and by professionals. That's not the club; that's not the club's strength."
Some Sierra Club officials predicted that Fischer will have an easier time working with the organization's membership than did his predecessor, Douglas P. Wheeler, who resigned last November after 16 months as director.
"The volunteers felt that (Wheeler) had a corporate Sierra Club and not an activist Sierra Club in mind," said Bob Hattoy, the organization's regional representative for Southern California and Nevada. "Michael Fischer will be more comfortable with the activist nature of the Sierra Club than Wheeler was. I know that's what the volunteers wanted."
Wheeler, a native New Yorker who served as a deputy assistant secretary of the interior in the Nixon and Ford administrations, also predicted a "better fit" between members of the organization and Fischer, a resident of Mill Valley, Calif.
"Unlike me, he's someone from the West, an identified Democrat, more familiar with the culture of the club than I was," Wheeler said. "That may make for a better fit."
Array of Problems
But Fischer will be facing the same array of problems that confronted Wheeler, including a budget deficit last year of $300,000 and a split within the organization over how much effort should be devoted to opposing the nuclear arms race.
"The anti-nuclear activists (within the group) say the Sierra Club hasn't spent enough time and money on nuclear war, the ultimate environmental issue," Hattoy said. "Others say that other people are working on that issue and we need to choose our fights carefully."
Fischer, who said he planned to spend more time on the club's internal operations than on outside speaking and fund-raising, said he was not worried by disagreement on issues such as anti-nuclear activism.
"The board of directors' job is to argue and to debate and to come to a vote," Fischer said. "The power of the club rests with its broad-based membership. . . . Given the breadth and diversity of the Sierra Club, the board is not going to be unanimous on all issues."