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Political Shades of Green Clash

The battle for leadership in the Sierra Club reflects a broad dispute over immigration.

March 24, 2004|Miguel Bustillo and Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writers

The bitter wrangle over immigration now threatening to topple the leadership of the Sierra Club has exposed a rift in the nation's environmental movement itself and placed prominent conservationists, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a founder of Earth Day, in opposing camps.

At the dawn of the modern environmental movement four decades ago, conservationists widely embraced the goal of global population control. They still do. But as they confront the prospect of a 50% increase in the U.S. population by mid-century -- mostly composed of immigrants and their children -- they are bitterly divided over whether to call for immigration restrictions.

On one side of the debate are Nelson and former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, who argue that it's not enough for environmentalists to support worldwide population stabilization. They believe the United States needs to set an example by stabilizing its own population -- in part, by taking a strong stand against the flood of newcomers.

On the other side, movement leaders, including Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope and Kennedy, head of Waterkeeper Alliance, say taking a stand against immigration risks alienating Latino and Asian immigrants who may represent the future of conservation.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 27, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Sierra Club -- An article on Page 1 on Wednesday about the Sierra Club debate over immigration restrictions erroneously referred to author Paul Ehrlich as a former Stanford professor. He remains a member of the university faculty.

Pope says that, although a global effort to control population is desperately needed, a national campaign against immigration will expose environmental groups to accusations of racism and xenophobia.

The issue is so sensitive that the leaders of some organizations, such as the National Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council, declined to venture opinions, while others admitted to being thoroughly conflicted.

Stewart Udall, who served as Interior secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and helped establish the nation's wilderness system, was an early proponent of global population control. He continues to hold those views, but worries about making immigration into a cause celebre.

"I just don't flatly disagree with the idea of slowing immigration," said Udall, now 84 and living in New Mexico, "but making it a big emotional issue is a mistake."

Leaders of the conservation movement have been warning about the perils of unchecked population growth since the 1960s.

Udall was one of the first conservationists to draw attention to the subject in his 1963 book "The Quiet Crisis." Former Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich followed more provocatively with "The Population Bomb," which was co-published by the Sierra Club.

Today, environmentalists fear they are losing their fight to protect natural resources. Unchecked human consumption, most environmentalists are convinced, is the driving force behind climate change, atmospheric pollution, loss of wildlife habitat and urban sprawl.

"You keep wondering if the places that you saved really will be saved," Udall said.

The U.S. population, now at 292.8 million, is expected to surge by 50% over the next 50 years, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau projections.

About 40% to 45% of the projected growth will come from immigration, said Gregory Spencer, chief of the bureau's population projection branch. Add the children of immigrants who are born as U.S. citizens, and the percentage will jump to 60% to 65%, he said.

The United States has the highest birth rate and highest rate of teenage pregnancy of any wealthy industrialized nation. Although the club advocates family planning to stabilize birth rates, its efforts are aimed primarily at developing nations.

So far, its leaders have not wanted to spar with anti-abortion groups over programs to promote birth control and sex education in the United States.

Americans make up less than 5% of the world's population. But they consume roughly 25% of the world's oil and other natural resources, and are responsible for 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are contributing to global warming, a disparity that has angered other nations.

Many environmental leaders insist that the problem is not an overabundance of people, but a stubborn refusal of an affluent society to live within its means. The alternative to pulling up the drawbridge on immigrants, they say, is smarter urban planning and increased emphasis on conserving resources and reducing pollution.

"We can't escape into Eden," said Roger Kennedy, former national parks director under President Clinton. "We have to continue to have restrictions on immigration, but that is less important than the question of how we humans live with nature. This other issue is a distraction."

Immigration has reemerged as a flashpoint of debate among conservationists because of an insurgent campaign to take over the leadership of the 112-year-old Sierra Club, one of the nation's most influential environmental groups.

A slate of candidates for five available seats on the club's 15-member board wants the group to push for stronger limits on immigration.

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