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Election Becomes a Fight Over Sierra Club's Future

Animal-rights activists and anti-immigration advocates are teaming in a bid to control the board, to the dismay of traditionalists.

January 18, 2004|Miguel Bustillo and Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writers

An unusual alliance of anti-immigration advocates and animal-rights activists is attempting to take over the leadership of the Sierra Club, America's oldest national environmental group, in what is emerging as a bitter fight over the future of the 112-year-old organization founded by Scottish immigrant John Muir.

Leaders of a faction that failed to persuade the club to take a stand against immigration in 1998 are seeking to win majority control of the group's 15-member governing board in a spring election -- this time, as part of a broader coalition that includes vegetarians, who want the club to denounce hunting, fishing and raising animals for human consumption.

In response, 11 former Sierra Club presidents have written a letter expressing "extreme concern for the continuing viability of the club," protesting what they see as a concerted effort by outside organizations to hijack the mainstream conservationist group and its $95-million annual budget.

Some of the insurgent candidates vying for the five available seats on the governing board only recently joined the Sierra Club. If they win, they will control eight of the 15 seats. Members will vote in the board elections in March, with the results tallied in April. People who join the club by the end of January should be able to vote.

The election has attracted the interest of anti-immigration groups, which are encouraging their members to join the club to help elect the insurgent candidates.

"What has outraged Sierra Club leaders is that external organizations would attempt to interfere and manipulate our election to advance their own agendas," said Robert Cox, a past Sierra Club president.

Moreover, club officials argue that members of the two insurgent groups share fundamentally anti-human views, in their opposition to immigration and in their belief that people should take a backseat to other species.

The Sierra Club's "dominant perspective has been to protect nature for people," said Executive Director Carl Pope. "But by pulling up the gangplank on immigration, they are tapping into a strand of misanthropy that says human beings are a problem."

Pope noted that 18% of Sierra Club members like to fish or hunt, and he worried they could be driven out by the new agenda from animal-rights advocates. "It's important to have hunters and fishermen in the Sierra Club," Pope said. "We are a big-tent organization. We want the Sierra Club to be a comfortable place for Americans who want clean air, clean water, and to protect America's open spaces."

The list of insurgent candidates features some high-profile names, including former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, Cornell University entomology professor David Pimentel, and Frank Morris, former director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. All three have been outspoken advocates of controlling population growth or restricting immigration. Lamm is coauthor of "The Immigration Time Bomb: The Fragmenting of America."

Club officials say the campaign got underway quietly with the recent election of three activists, including UCLA astronomy professor Benjamin Zuckerman, a longtime champion of curbs on immigration; and Paul Watson, head of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a marine environmental group perhaps best-known for ramming whaling ships. During their campaigns, the candidates downplayed the views they are now advancing.

Club members who support the insurgent candidates accused the organization's old guard of trying to demonize them as radicals to head off the increasingly popular efforts to win a new majority.

"I really think we ought to be judged on our merits and what we've done in the past, and not divide the Sierra Club," Pimentel said.

Political squabbles are hardly new to the 750,000-member Sierra Club, whose members squared off just last year over whether to take a stand against the war in Iraq. But the dispute over this spring's elections is becoming especially rancorous.

Some longtime Sierrans worry that a takeover by the insurgents would brand the organization as bigoted and xenophobic.

"I don't think that Lamm, Pimentel and Morris are racists," Pope said. "But they are clearly being supported by racists."

Zuckerman and Watson call those claims ludicrous. They argue that the club has a responsibility to take strong positions on the issues affecting the health of the planet.

"Everything else the Sierra Club is doing is doomed to fail if the United States continues on its rapid population growth," said Zuckerman, 50, who was the leading vote-getter in the Sierra Club board election two years ago.

"There are people who are being born today who will see a California that has more people than the entire United States when I was born," he said.

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