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A 'hostile' takeover bid at the Sierra Club

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 20, 2004



The Sierra Club - America's premier environmental group, with 750,000 members and considerable political clout - is the target of an unfriendly takeover attempt.

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A combination of animal-rights and anti-immigrant activists is aiming to take control of the organization - and change its philosophy and direction - by getting their slate of candidates elected to the group's board of directors. They already control several seats, and more are up for grabs. The dispute gets to two core questions among environmental activists.

The first is whether population growth (which in the US mainly means immigration) is a key contributor to environmental degradation because more people mean more pollution and greater consumption of natural resources. Some critics say this country's liberal immigration policy acts as a safety valve for high-population countries, making it easier to avoid dealing with their environmental problems, and adding to the problems here.

But for many environmental activists, it's hard to take a tough stand against those immigrants - especially when such a platform could dissuade other progressives from joining or contributing. Some critics say national environmental organizations have become too elite, ignoring the needs of the urban poor, many of whom are immigrants.

A second question is whether rights of animals - in the wild or on farms - are as important as preserving wilderness. To answer "yes" would alienate "hook and bullet" organizations, hunters and fishermen who often ally with environmentalists on issues like forest and wetland conservation.

Merging of anti-immigrant sentiment

The most charged debate, by far, is the one on immigration - and it's far more than just an argument among well- meaning idealists.

Leaders of the anti-immigration faction are mainly establishment types - former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, the former director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and university professors from around the country. Paul Watson, co-founder of Greenpeace, president of the antiwhaling Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and an advocate of zero population growth, gathered enough club support to get himself nominated and then elected to a board position last year. So did two other population activists.

But hardcore opponents of immigration - including groups with allegedly racist philosophies - have joined in, urging their supporters to send in $25 checks so they can join the Sierra Club and vote for the anti-immigration slate of board members.

Even the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have joined the fray, citing a dangerous, right-wing influence - what civil rights lawyer Morris Dees warns is the "greening of hate."

In a recent letter to the Sierra Club's current board of directors, 13 past presidents of the group expressed "extreme concern for the continuing viability of the club."

Your tired, your poor, your environment

The combination of birth rates and immigration mean the US has the highest population growth of any developed country. This includes one million legal immigrants, plus an estimated 700,000 illegal immigrants, each year. Without change, predicts the US Census Bureau, the country's population could double this century - and nearly 70 percent of that increase would be immigrants.

America has always been a land of immigrants, but their numbers swelled after 1990 when the Immigration Reform Act opened the country to the families of many immigrants.

Ten years ago, Californians overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure (later declared unconstitutional) denying social services to illegal immigrants.

Since then, xenophobia linked to the war on terrorism, plus continuing concern over the cost of providing government services to immigrants, have added to tension. The immigration dispute within the Sierra Club reflects this, but it also predates it. Some members have pushed the club to confront immigration as a part of overpopulation and to take a stand; others have said it should remain neutral.

A fraught and fractured membership

Hallmarks of the Sierra Club since its founding in 1892 have been grass-roots activism and a democratic structure right up to the top. This can mean political effectiveness at all levels of government. But it can also lead to internal squabbles over policy, organization, and management.

At the moment, the membership has fractured into subgroups over the immigration issue. Through special websites, newspaper columns and letters, and e-mails to members, the two sides accuse each other of unethically - maybe even illegally - trying to manipulate the board vote, which will be conducted through March until mid-April.

Recently, three "reform-oriented independent candidates," as they call themselves, sued Sierra Club president Larry Fahn, CEO Carl Pope, and other "old guard" directors for abusing their positions by influencing the election. On Tuesday, though, the three board candidates - Mr. Lamm, Frank Morris and David Pimentel - dropped the suit.

"I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that their attempts to demonize some directors and candidates remind me of the McCarthy era 50 years ago," says UCLA physicist Ben Zuckerman, a longtime Sierra Club member and advocate of immigration control who was elected to the board two years ago.

It's not lost on either side that John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, himself was an immigrant from Scotland.

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