Sahara Club Revving Up to Claim Ecology Groups’ Turf : Environment: The group came to public attention last month when five members were arrested for racing motorcycles on protected desert land.
Rick Sieman recycles his aluminum cans, grows his own vegetables and calls himself an environmentalist.
But don’t mistake the Granada Hills man for an “eco-freak"--one of the politer terms he uses to describe members of Earth First!, the Sierra Club and even the National Audubon Society. In an office next to his back-yard vegetable patch, Sieman plots their undoing.
Sieman, 50, is president of the Sahara Club, an upstart organization of mostly off-road racing and riding enthusiasts that received its first major dose of public attention last month when five members--including Sieman--were arrested for defying federal authorities and racing their motorcycles through protected land in the Mojave Desert.
Sieman publishes the caustic Sahara Club newsletter, which reports on activities of the environmental groups. He says he has spoken to off-roader clubs, logger organizations and gatherings of Sahara members from Arkansas to Northern California to share his wisdom on nonviolent protest, surveillance and even a few dirty tricks. The purpose, he says, is to reveal the “disinformation campaign” that environmental groups are engaged in.
“We want to be the organization that people can come to to get the real facts,” Sieman said of his year-old group, which claims 4,000 members. “We want people to be able to get under one umbrella organization to fight the eco-freaks.
“We are monkey-wrenching with the monkey-wrenchers,” he said, referring to environmental defense tactics in Edward Abbey’s novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” The novel helped inspire the founding of Earth First!
Sieman and three other Sahara Club bikers were arrested Nov. 24 as they sped their motorcycles around federal rangers onto land closed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. “I felt like Abbie Hoffman,” Sieman said afterwards. A fifth member was arrested when he tried to block a U.S. Army tank from crossing the closed lands from nearby Ft. Irwin.
The cyclists were protesting the cancellation of the world-famous Barstow to Las Vegas race. Conservation groups had doggedly fought the “B to V,” as it is also called, charging that it crossed environmentally sensitive lands and endangered the desert tortoise. The cyclists vigorously deny that the race harms the land or animals.
Though dismissed by some critics as a group of “motorcycle thugs,” the Sahara Club now appears to be addressing a wide range of environmental issues, said Jim Eaton, executive director of the California Wilderness Coalition. But Eaton bristles at the club’s insistence that its members are concerned about the environment.
“Any group can call themselves environmentalists,” said Eaton, whose group has been criticized by the Sahara Club. “But the Sahara Club doesn’t show an inkling of environmentalism. It’s pretty clear they have no respect for the laws that protect the environment.
“To them, the environmental movement is kind of the symbol of all that is wrong.”
Sieman is a professional off-road racer and a writer for magazines that cover the sport. He said he was inspired to start the Sahara Club last year when the BLM began trying to cancel the race and his son was knocked off his motorcycle by a “tripwire” strung between two Joshua trees while off-road riding near Lancaster. Sieman blames “eco-pigs” for putting the wire up. His son was not injured.
Though Sieman insists the fight against the environmentalists is largely a war of words, part of the advice he gives to groups involves what he darkly refers to as “top-secret dirty tricks,” which he declines to reveal. He does, however, claim with amusement that after one of his talks to families of timber workers in Northern California in August, the cars of several Earth First! members in the area had license plate registration stickers altered, resulting in their being pulled over by sheriff’s deputies.
The license plate prank could not be confirmed in Humboldt County, where Sieman appeared at the invitation of the loggers group known as Mothers’ Watch. Candy Boak, a spokeswoman for the group, said Sieman was invited because members “wanted to see what we could do to end the terrorism in our community.”
Although Earth First! has denied involvement, loggers accuse members and sympathizers of responsibility for the injuries a logger suffered in 1987 when a saw blade hit a large spike that had been driven into a tree at a Cloverdale timber mill.
Boak said Sieman’s speech “helped a lot of people decide to fight. When you have been the recipient of so many Earth First! tactics it is good to see it going the other way. It makes them furious. They don’t know what to do.”
The Sahara Club also has drawn attention with a variety of publicity stunts.
In September, when a representative of Earth First! was addressing about 200 people on the campus of California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, about 40 Sahara Club members stood in the audience and stripped off outer shirts to reveal T-shirts with caricatures of an Earth First! member getting choked and a Sierra Club member being “planted” head first in the desert.
Sieman said members of his group also infiltrate meetings of environmental groups and attempt “sting operations,” in which they impersonate members of groups such as Earth First! in telephone calls to members of other conservation groups.
The Sahara Club newsletter to members is replete with sarcasm and personal attacks on environmentalists, government agencies and public officials.
It recently referred to Sierra Club members as “Nature Nazis” and pondered whether they were all on drugs. The publication includes coupons for buying the club’s “Choke an Earth Firster” T-shirts. And other issues have published the names, phone numbers and vehicle descriptions of conservationists, with advice to members to watch out for them or call them to express Sahara Club views on issues.
“The same clowns who were warning you about the planet freezing over 20 years ago are now babbling about global warming,” a recent newsletter editorial said. “Hysterical psychobabble and knee-jerk reaction to unproved allegations is now starting to dominate the media.”
Critics say it’s all sophomoric. “They are putting out a lot of rhetoric that incites people--it’s a lot of name-calling,” said Judy Anderson, a San Fernando Valley teacher who is a Sierra Club member and co-director of the California Desert Protection League.
“Nobody in Sahara Club makes much sense,” said Mark Williams, a Los Angeles representative of Earth First! who has debated Sieman on a local radio program. “They berate people in an adolescent schoolyard manner. They are a very paranoid, wacko bunch.”
Williams said the newsletter gives a group of “nutty guys” a venue for espousing racist, homophobic and anti-environmental views. He said many environmentalists--himself included--have received telephone threats after their names and numbers appeared in the newsletter.
Sieman denies encouraging threats.
“Whether or not they are violent, the implication is there,” Anderson said. “I don’t think of the Sahara Club as being benign.”
Although Sieman foresees the club shifting toward conventional tactics--like lawsuits--to effect change, he said its “rowdy” approach is carefully planned. “Everything we do--including the name Sahara Club--is designed for maximum irritation.”
Pat Martin, a Sepulveda engineer and one of the so-called “Barstow Five,” said the club will become “more involved in mainstream issues, legislative issues” in the future. He recently set up a Sahara Club computer bulletin board to help members exchange information.
Sieman said the organization plans to file a class-action suit against the BLM over the closing of the desert to the “B to V” race. Not all off-road enthusiasts are aboard, however.
Bill Fuentes, president of the Van Nuys-based Checkers Motorcycle Club, which has 75 professional off-road racers as members, said Sieman has spoken to his group but picked up few new Sahara Club members. Fuentes said the message may be right, but he does not agree with the harsh method of spreading it.
Gerald Hillier, manager of BLM’s California Desert District, said the Sahara Club fails to recognize the need for controls on some desert lands. “They are saying, ‘Public values be damned. We are not going to be controlled,’ ” Hillier said. “Their views are not as large as they think they are.”
Sieman is undismayed. “Remember,” he said, “in 1945 the Sierra Club had 4,000 members. Now, they have over 500,000.”
EXCERPTS FROM THE SAHARA CLUB NEWSLETTER
* “Somebody says that Spotted Owls can only live in old growth forests. Then they find a pair of them nesting in the rafters of a K mart store, raising a chick. Must be an old growth K mart.”
* “Remember the big stink raised over the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and how it was going to destroy all the wildlife and fish for generations to come? Well, all that doomsaying proved to be so much hot air, as the largest catch ever was realized in Alaska just recently. . . . The eco-nuts have refused to accept the position that the damage was reversible in order to justify their zero-risk approach to the environment.”
* “ACID RAIN STUDY YIELDS STOMACH ACID TO ECO-FREAKS. Ohh, they’ve been crying and sniveling about acid rain for years now, but a 10-year study concluded: ‘If there were no change in acid deposition from the current levels, we would expect that in the Northeast the chemical status of the lakes would stay approximately the same over the next 50 years.’ In other words, we have squandered yet another titanic sum of money to placate the groundless accusations and claims of the Nature Nazis.”
* “The eco-nuts always like to quote John Muir, and in fact, base much of their movement on his thoughts. . . . Muir was a human-hater and one of the sickest screwballs to ever walk the trails. It’s only fitting that the Sierra Club should look to his immortal words for guidance.”
* “BAMBI BIMBOS ON THE MOVE! Deer hunters in Florida will have to deal with animal rights fruitcakes in the woods this year, as the protesters plan to badger the hunters during a legal state-sponsored deer hunt.”
* “Boy oh boy, are we wasting tons of trees on junk mail. Well, guess who is the single biggest offender? Right. The eco-freaks! . . . For example, the Sierra Club mailed out over 20 million pieces of junk mail. . . . Greenpeace, those fun-loving guys who ram ships and support Earth First!, mailed out 47 million pieces last year.”