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Sierra Club leader departs amid discontent over group's direction

Sierra Club Chairman Carl Pope, whose leadership has stirred dissent, steps down. Some believe the organization has compromised its core principles.

November 19, 2011|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
  • Carl Pope, the leader of the Sierra Club, one of the nation's most influential environmental groups, is stepping down amid discontent that the group has strayed from its environmental roots.
Carl Pope, the leader of the Sierra Club, one of the nation's most influential… (David Butow / For The Times )

The chairman of the Sierra Club, one of the nation's most influential environmental groups, has stepped down amid discontent that the group founded by 19th century wilderness evangelist John Muir has strayed from its core principles.

The departure of Carl Pope, 66, a member of the club for more than 40 years, comes as the nonprofit group faces declining membership, internal dissent, well-organized opponents, a weak economy and forces in Congress trying to take the teeth out of environmental regulations.

Pope became chairman of the club in 2010, after serving for more than 17 years as executive director. He was replaced by Michael Brune, 40, a veteran of smaller activist groups, who has pledged to concentrate on grass-roots organizing, recruit new members and focus on such issues as coal-fired power plants. "We have different approaches," Brune said of his relationship with his predecessor.

Pope said he will leave his position as chairman to devote most of his time to "revitalizing the manufacturing sector" by working with organized labor and corporations. That emphasis caused schisms in the club, most notably when he hammered out a million-dollar deal with household chemical manufacturer Clorox to use the club's emblem on a line of "green" products and, more recently, with its support of utility-scale solar arrays in the Mojave Desert, the type of place the club made its reputation protecting.

"I'm a big-tent guy, " Pope said in an interview in the group's San Francisco headquarters. "We're not going to save the world if we rely only on those who agree with the Sierra Club. There aren't enough of them. My aim is getting it right for the long term. I can't get anything accomplished if people think: 'This guy is not an honest broker. He's with the Sierra Club.' "

Pope led the Sierra Club's efforts to help protect 10 million acres of wilderness, including California's Giant Sequoia National Monument, and brought litigation challenging the right of then-Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force to secretly hash out energy policy with major oil companies. Pope also co-wrote California's Proposition 65, which allowed citizens to sue polluters if they failed to comply with the law. More recently, he helped block 150 proposed coal-fired power plants.

But his tenure was marked by controversial decisions that revealed the costs and political consequences behind the brand of environmental activism he practiced. Acrimony remains over the 2008 Clorox deal, which brought the club $1.3 million over the four-year term of the contract, according to Pope.

Many of the rank and file felt Pope diminished the role of chapter experts and volunteers who have sustained the organization since Muir first championed California's Sierra Nevada and an expanding list of American wild places, favoring paid staffers and attorneys and chumming with political players such as United Steel Workers President Leo Gerard and attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

The longest-serving executive director in club history, Pope pulled the group closer to large donors and redirected efforts toward fighting climate change over narrowly focused campaigns to protect wild places. The group's support for utility-scale solar development, which threatens such species as the desert tortoise, captures the philosophical shift that occurred under Pope.

"If we don't save the planet, there won't be any tortoises left to save," Pope said.

The 66-year-old Harvard graduate acknowledged that big challenges await his successor, who will manage a budget of nearly $100 million and a staff of about 600. Pope earned a salary of $207,374 in 2010, the last year for which figures were available.

The Sierra Club leadership, which is elected by members, sought to minimize the issue of philosophical differences between Pope and Brune and to focus on a smooth transition.

"We're fortunate that the two of them work so well together, and that Carl has done such a great job of passing the torch," said Sierra Club Board President Robin Mann, who praised Pope's "groundbreaking work," including developing alliances with labor that "put us in a whole different position in terms of influence."

Brune, who has undergraduate degrees in economics and finance, previously worked for the Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace, groups known for scrappy and theatrical anti-corporate tactics. That background emerges in his view of the group's relationship with Clorox, a company that has had a checkered environmental past.

"We're done with Clorox," Brune said in an interview. "The contract with Clorox runs out in December, and by mutual consent it will not be renewed."

"I'm not going to bring any deals to the board that would negatively impact the Sierra Club brand," he added. "Nor will we associate with any company that has a green product line and also produces products that can damage the environment in ways they are not willing to address."

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