SAN FRANCISCO — At a time when many activists fear that the environment is threatened by the Bush administration, the Sierra Club--the nation's oldest nonprofit environmental group--is rejecting criticism that it is slow and ineffective.
Despite such accusations from other environmental groups and from within its own ranks, Executive Director Carl Pope said the club's strength comes from its important role as liaison between radical activists and the overall system.
And now, after a 40-year national discussion about goals for the environment, which started when Americans began to rethink their ideas about environmental protection, Pope says the time has come to work toward achieving them.
"We don't want this continent to become a second Europe. We want wildness. We want corporate, social and political leaders to pay attention," Pope said.
"I think the environmental debate in this country is over--we know what we want. Now that we know that, how do we get it? That's going to be hard."
Many say the Sierra Club, especially under the Bush administration, needs to use its strength and name recognition to be a force for environmental protection. But while critics say the 650,000-member club is effective once it makes a decision, they say that often takes too long.
"They literally can move mountains," said Mark Palmer, a club member and assistant director for the International Marine Mammal Project of the Earth Island Institute. "They really do talk through things and really do have a lot of involvement at various levels of the organization. But, at some point, that needs to move forward."
The club, founded in 1892, has played a prominent role in American environmental policy, helping to enlarge Grand Canyon National Park, for example, and to pass the National Environmental Policy Act and create the Environmental Protection Agency.
But some say that the club's decisions don't go far enough.
"It's a big organization, and if it really wanted to throw its weight around, it could [make] a big difference," said Paul Watson, founder and president of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which deploys ships around the world to oppose such things as illegal fishing. He also is a member of the Sierra Club.
"I think the organization tends to be overly cautious, overly conservative and more concerned with marketing trips and products than with making changes," Watson said.
On the other hand, the Sierra Club's place closer to the middle ground is an asset to getting things done, said John Grasser, spokesman for the National Mining Assn.
The tension between opposing sides on environmental issues gives the Sierra Club its strength, Pope said.
"I think we need organizations whose strength is [that] they are completely inside the process. I also think we need organizations that are on the outside being way, way ahead," he said.
"I think the Sierra Club is an organization that straddles that."
And the club's role in this new century will be to keep an eye on government, Pope said.
"This blind mantra that markets are always smarter than government isn't true," he said. "In California today, you have a singularly odd combination of dumb markets and dumb government."
The organization could have significant impact.
"If you want to get environmental legislation passed and you don't have the Sierra Club behind you, you're moving uphill because they still are the largest environmental lobbying presence in Washington D.C.," said Mikhail Davis, of the Earth Island Institute.
Now, with a new administration, the club's goal of preserving wildness will be more difficult, Pope said.
"The American people have an enormous battle on their hands, to prevent the new administration from foreclosing the options and rights of their children and grandchildren to a continent that still contains wildness," he said.