The Sierra Club is threatening to disband a Utah chapter whose leaders are speaking out against the U.S. threat of invading Iraq, openly defying a decision by the venerable environmental group to avoid a formal stance on the war issue.
The board members of the Sierra Club's 175-member Glen Canyon chapter in southern Utah are challenging what they call a gag order on antiwar opinions imposed by the executive board of the San Francisco-based organization, the nation's oldest environmental group.
Although the club hasn't taken a poll, the Glen Canyon group says its views mirror those of most of the 700,000 members and should be reflected in the organization's official position on war with Iraq. The Utah contingent believes that the Sierra Club should join with other activists to strongly oppose the Bush administration's moves toward a conflict with Iraq. They note that in 1981 the Sierra Club adopted a resolution opposing war in general because of its environmental consequences.
''War is not healthy for children and other living things,'' Dan Kent, secretary of the Sierra Club's Glen Canyon Group, said in a recent statement. ''It is the ultimate act of environmental destruction.... For the board to compel our silence plays right into Bush's mad world, where a nation of police, prisons, bombs, bunkers is better than lowering oneself to diplomacy to save lives.''
Sierra Club representatives say that contrary to those assertions, the potential war with Iraq is controversial among its members, and that is why no stance was taken. They contend that the so-called gag order is really just an attempt to ensure that the Sierra Club speaks with one voice and does not publicly divide into bickering factions on important issues.
Last month, the Sierra Club's 15-member ruling board came out in support of stripping Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, but declined to take a position for or against a war. The decision was the result of a long, open and fully democratic process, according to the board, and club members should now respect the leadership's decision, even if some disagree with it.
Citing the need for unity, Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director, has threatened to remove the Utah activists from their regional ruling board and disband their group.
''Civil disobedience is an honorable tradition,'' he said in a recent e-mail, ''but you can't continue serving as sheriff while practicing it.''
The dispute, reminiscent of a similar Sierra Club spat over immigration policy a decade ago, illuminates the ideological fissures that often divide the group's membership. The Glen Canyon board members are part of a faction that contends that the Sierra Club compromises far too often and has strayed from the uncompromising activism of its founder, naturalist John Muir. Known as the John Muir Sierrans, some of the faction's members have pushed for more aggressive stands in recent years, such as a referendum to prevent all commercial logging on public lands.
Thirteen former Sierra Club board members joined with the activists in October and asked the board to pass a resolution urging the United States to seek a peaceful compromise with Iraq. But some members opposed taking an antiwar stand, considering it outside the scope of the environmental group's mission, and some leaders questioned claims that opposition to war among Sierra Club members was widespread.
Instead, Sierra Club leaders adopted a resolution stating that the organization is ''concerned about the global dangers presented by possible Iraqi aggression and about the dire environmental consequences of war.'' The resolution concluded that the Sierra Club ''supports disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction,'' and believes in disarmament inspections as a way to peacefully resolve the dispute. That upset some activists, who argued that the leadership should at least have polled members. What particularly disturbed some activists, however, was another resolution that attempted to ''clarify'' the Sierra Club's 1981 stand against war, calling it a ''broad general policy framework'' that ''does not authorize members, leaders, or club entities to take positions on military conflicts.'' Supporters of a tough antiwar resolution considered it a brute attempt to muzzle their views.
''The board action was extremely divisive,'' one of the Glen Canyon board members, Patrick Diehl, said Monday. "I sincerely believe that the majority agrees with our position. I think we are expressing the general disagreement with the board's action.''
Asked if he considered whether the antiwar position might lead to criticism of the environmental group at a time when polls suggest most Americans support war with Iraq, Diehl demurred.
''We realize that there is a risk that the Sierra Club will appear unpatriotic,'' he said. ''But it's patriotic to prevent one's country from doing something really stupid.''
Sierra Club officials said privately that nothing is likely to happen to the board members of the Utah group unless they force the issue by ratcheting up their criticisms.
''Everyone in the Sierra Club is opinionated; that is why they join, because they care passionately about the issues,'' said Sierra Club spokesman Allen Mattison. "But there is only one Sierra Club, and when the group comes up with a position, whether it is on logging or factory farming, that is going to be the position the members have to honor.''