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He Joined the Club, and Now He Runs It

Environment: He's the son of members, so he's been involved with the cause nearly all his life. Which is why Adam Werbach was a natural candidate to be Sierra Club president--at 23.


SAN FRANCISCO — When Adam Werbach was 8 years old, he picked up a piece of mail at his Tarzana home. It was a letter from the Sierra Club and asked for help in petitioning President Reagan to dump his much-loathed Secretary of the Interior, James Watt.

The young boy didn't quite understand the finer points of the controversy ("I thought it had something to do with electricity"), but he was motivated enough to circulate the petition at his Encino school. "I was asked to make a difference," he said the other day, 15 years later. "I was given a chance to help. I was hooked." Werbach has been helping the Sierra Club ever since, and last week, the environmental group elected the precocious 23-year-old its president.

The average age of a member is 47. John Muir, the famed naturalist who founded the club in 1892, was 54 when he became its first president. But then, Muir, with his penchant for wandering around the mountains for months, was something of a slacker compared with Werbach, who graduated from Brown University in December, moved to rural Vermont to write a novel and had been preparing to go off to film school at Columbia University in the fall.

Instead, the lanky Werbach, whose blue suit and conservative tie make him look more like a Young Republican than the successor to a bearded mountain man like Muir, will run an organization with 600,000 members, its own political action committee and a track record that includes successful campaigns to block dam construction in Yellowstone, pass the Endangered Species Act and protect large swaths of the California desert.

David Brower, a board member, praised his young admirer's combination of drive and diplomacy. "It's amazing to me to find someone with the environmental sense he's got and the social grace as well," said the 83-year-old. "That usually doesn't happen in 23-year-olds. I haven't picked it up yet."

Indeed, Werbach's first exercise in diplomacy was persuading Brower not to resign hours after the board unanimously named its new president. An environmental legend, Brower spent 17 years as the club's executive director until he was forced out in 1969 for his freewheeling style. He then formed Friends of the Earth and the Earth Island Institute, and returned to the club as a board member several times.

At the May 18 board meeting, Brower grew upset that he couldn't get the other directors to discuss a matter dear to his heart: whether to move a club ski hut that happens to be within a federal wilderness area near Lake Tahoe. Following Brower into the hallway, Werbach told the octogenarian how much he means to the organization and to Werbach. Brower, who calls his threat "an immature act," decided to stay on the board.

Werbach assumes leadership of a mature institution. In 1990 it had 630,000 members, a peak that has since leveled off slightly. The club hit some financial turbulence in the last few years, running a deficit that forced it to cut costs and staff, but now boasts a surplus. At the same time, some members have criticized it for growing staid and too willing to compromise, a charge symbolized by the club's decision seven years ago to support a timber industry initiative in the Pacific Northwest.

Two years ago, a group of dissidents known as the John Muir Sierrans tried and failed to get the organization to adopt a strict policy in opposition to any commercial logging in national forests. In the past the club has vigorously opposed cutting old-growth trees or those in roadless areas, but had never supported a total ban. The opponents of the ban included Dave Foreman, the in-your-face founder of Earth First! who noted that in New Mexico, poor Latino communities had been hanging in effigy environmentalists responsible for a court injunction protecting the habitat of the spotted owl. Brower favored the ban.

Last month the club let its members vote again and the measure passed overwhelmingly. "It's a very, very strong statement about how mad people are at Congress," said the earnest and enthusiastic Werbach. "This is the worst Congress ever. Period." In January the club fired its first shot in an election-year campaign to defeat environmentally unfriendly candidates: It spent $250,000 to help send Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden to the Senate in a special mail-in election. Members protested almost every appearance by his GOP opponent, Gordon Smith. One poll found that environmental concerns gave Wyden the edge in the narrow race. "We hope to make the environment the No. 1 issue people will vote on," Werbach said.

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