Letter Scolding Wilson Stirs a Row Within Sierra Club

Times Staff Writer

Top officials of the Sierra Club have stirred a heated debate among environmentalists by writing a stern letter to Republican Sen. Pete Wilson telling him they do not buy his election year claim that he has been a staunch friend of the environment.

The letter, which has been widely circulated, says Wilson must do “better, much better” in the environmental arena, according to one person who read it, and it faults him in an area where club officials have praised him in the past.

Several people who have read it say the letter takes Wilson to task on issues ranging from wilderness protection to the cleanup of nuclear waste dumps to environmental leadership, in general telling him that he should work harder to bring pressure on the Reagan Administration.


The letter has enraged Wilson, who regards it as an unwarranted attack by Democratic partisans inside the Sierra Club. It also has caused consternation among some club members, who see it as a partisan gesture that could backfire, imperiling the club’s efforts to gain Wilson’s support on environmental issues.

Wilson has sided with environmentalists in the fight against oil drilling off the California coast. He also joined forces with Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston four years ago to expand the state’s inventory of protected forest land.

“The letter did cause a row inside the club,” said a club official who asked not to be named. “We have been building bridges to Pete Wilson for years, and this could do real damage to that effort. Political partisanship clearly did enter into it (the letter). It has made some of the members question the process by which the club makes political judgments.”

One of those members is Melvin Lane, editor of Sunset magazine, a member of the national advisory committee of the Sierra Club Foundation and a Republican.

“Pete did call me, terribly upset about that letter, and I did wonder if it was such a good idea to write it,” Lane said. “I think it hurts the club if it makes them look partisan or beholden to a candidate or a party.”

Lane said he had not made up his mind whether to support Wilson or his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy.

The letter also caused a stir in Cranston’s office. It was sent just as Cranston and Wilson began negotiations over a new wilderness bill, sponsored by Cranston, that would give wilderness protection to several million acres of desert land in the state.

“From the standpoint of that bill, the Sierra Club’s letter couldn’t have come at a touchier time,” said a Senate aide who works closely with both Cranston’s and Wilson’s offices.

Wilson, so far, has not agreed to support the bill.

The letter to Wilson was written less than two months before the Sierra Club plans to hold an endorsement meeting on the Senate race. The club’s endorsement can play an important role in influencing the votes of California’s many environment-minded voters.

Many club members regard Wilson as something of a fair weather friend whose support can be counted on when it comes to causes, like offshore oil drilling, that enjoy broad bipartisan support. But on more controversial matters, such as the pending desert bill, which is opposed by a host of mining, ranching and commercial recreation interests, the Sierra Club is less confident of Wilson’s backing.

When the letter was written late last month, Sierra Club officials said they had merely written Wilson to ask him to stop using the club’s name in a campaign commercial that praised the senator’s record on the environment.

Letter of Thanks

The TV commercial mentioned a 1984 letter from the club thanking Wilson for his support for legislation giving wilderness protection to 1.7 million acres of California timberland. Club officials said that people viewing the commercial might interpret it as an endorsement of Wilson when, in fact, the Sierra Club has not endorsed anyone in the Senate race.

After Wilson complained about the letter, and after a copy of it fell into McCarthy’s hands, Sierra Club officials conceded that the letter went beyond discussing the campaign commercial.

“It was a pretty tough letter. It read sort of like a bill of particulars,” said a club official.

Michael L. Fischer, national executive director of the Sierra Club and a co-signer of the letter, has refused to say much about it, insisting that it was meant to be a confidential communication with Wilson.

Goal Accomplished

“The purpose of the letter was to secure the withdrawal of our name from a TV spot, and that purpose was served,” Fisher said.

Richard Cellarius, president of the club’s board of directors, said he found out about the letter only after it was written and referred questions about it to the club’s main office in San Francisco. Cellarius lives in Olympia, Wash.

Aides to Wilson said the letter was particularly galling because they said it attempted to undercut the good things that Sierra Club officials had said about Wilson in the past.

“Now that Pete’s a candidate for reelection, the Sierra Club is singing a different tune,” said Otto Bos, who is managing Wilson’s campaign.

Bos pointed out that the 1984 letter cited in Wilson’s campaign commercial was one of four complimentary notes the senator received from Sierra Club officials since he took office in 1982. Two of the letters praised Wilson for his work on the 1983 wilderness bill.

Some Disappointment

The most recent letter, however, expressed disappointment that Wilson had not gone far enough on the 1983 wilderness bill.

A first draft of the letter to Wilson that was widely circulated and made its way into the McCarthy camp read: “In 1983, you helped broker a compromise California wilderness bill in a hostile political climate--for which we thanked you. We were saddened at the time that you deleted from the bill (number omitted) hundred thousand acres of California’s wild heritage, which are now open to the chain saw.”

That draft was not sent to Wilson, but the draft he did receive expressed a similar opinion, but in milder language, about the wilderness bill, according to Carl Pope, the club’s deputy conservation director.

Pope was asked why it was that two drafts of a letter meant to be confidential had been broadly circulated.

“There are many members who are very supportive of Sen. Wilson, and others who are very skeptical of him. At any time, we would make sure people of both points of view saw what we were writing,” Pope said.