SAN LUIS OBISPO — Delegates to the annual convention of a new statewide Sierra Club organization convened here Saturday, determined to wield greater influence in California politics and a bigger voice in club affairs.
The newly organized "Sierra Club California" was formed by the club's 13 California chapters. On Sunday, the 95 delegates are scheduled to elect an 11-member state executive committee, which will include a state chairman.
A measure of the new group's potential importance was the appearance Saturday of U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.). While his presence provoked some controversy within the club on the grounds that it would enhance Wilson's standing among conservationists, it was also clear that the senator's attendance was seen as proof of the group's political influence.
"I think the (reorganization) will make the Sierra Club's voice louder and clearer on public policy questions. One evidence of that is Sen. Wilson's coming to talk to us," said Daniel F. Sullivan, a San Francisco attorney who was one of the prime movers of the reorganization.
Wilson told reporters the new statewide organization would give Sierra Club volunteers "greater clout and greater coherence" and provide a focus for office seekers.
Of the club's total membership of 410,000, an estimated 150,000 live in California. The national club has a 15-member board of directors--five of them from California.
But among some members there has been concern that the Sierra Club, which was organized in 1892 in California by naturalist John Muir and others, has increasingly drifted eastward in its interest and policies.
For example, while the club's national office in Washington has been bolstered, the national board of directors has over the last several years reduced its financial support to the club's legislative office in Sacramento to $55,000, a cut of more than 25%. California chapters have made up the difference.
One club leader who asked to remain anonymous, observed: "Slightly less than 40% of club members are from California. But resources have been exiting California and going into projects elsewhere. There hasn't been a problem with that in a lot of ways. It's important to send money to Alaska even though they have just a few hundred members there. But it's reached the point where more resources seem to be going out of California, given the membership needs of California."
Not everyone shares the concern that the club has lost contact with its California origins.
Broader Vision Cited
Larry Downing, a Minnesota attorney and national president of the club, observed: "I think the club over the past 20 years has not turned its back on California, but broadened its vision. Environmental problems are no respecters of state boundaries."
For many, the difficulty of effectively mobilizing the club's 13 California chapters to bring their influence to bear on statewide political races and legislative action in Sacramento has been the paramount reason for the new group.
Each of the 13 chapters has been autonomous in raising funds and electing its own executive committee, and many members said that the club's volunteers--as opposed to the paid staff--had no effective mechanism for speaking with one voice on important issues.
"Now, instead of hearing 13 disparate voices they'll hear one united voice on issues that come up before them," said Michael Paparian, head of the club's Sacramento legislative office.
Looking for Clout
Some said that the club should have had far more clout in Sacramento, given its growing membership. Yet, they complained, grass-roots support has been ineffective in backing up their paid lobbyists in Sacramento to resist Gov. George Deukmejian's cuts in the California Coastal Commission budget or to insist upon environmental protections in bills now before the Legislature for exporting Northern California water to the Southland.
"If you're going to be a serious player in state politics you have to be able to act decisively and be able to clearly follow through on commitments if you're going to extract commitments," said Jim Dodson, a national regional vice president of the club.