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Saving the Sierra Club

“As long as I live,” John Muir wrote, “I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing.... I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” Nearly 25 years of running “wild” in the Yosemite Valley and its environs had left the Scottish immigrant so smitten with the Sierra Nevada mountains that he resolved that other Americans should have the chance to see and experience what he had. By 1892, he and friends founded the Sierra Club, with goals at once modest and hugely ambitious. Its incorporating mission was “to explore, enjoy and render accessible the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast; to publish authentic information concerning them” and “to enlist the support [and] cooperation of the people and government in preserving the forests and other natural features of the Sierra Nevada.”

The “cooperation of the people,” now numbering 750,000 members, and the club’s record of activism have made the Sierra Club one of the world’s most respected environmental groups. But with a nasty internecine battle looming -- the second in six years -- its clout is on the line. To save their venerable organization, members must do more than just mail in dues and thumb the trip listings in Sierra magazine.

An odd alliance of anti-immigration and animal-rights activists aims to hijack the club for its narrow agendas. The faction won three of 15 board seats at the last election -- with just 8% of members voting -- and hopes for majority control in spring elections. In 1998, some of the same folks tried to get the club to abandon its neutrality on immigration and pushed for tougher curbs as a way to conserve natural resources; members resoundingly defeated this. Attempts in the 1970s to seat board members sympathetic to a planned Walt Disney Co. ski resort near Sequoia also failed.

This time, anti-immigrant activists have teamed with vegetarians, who also want the Sierra Club to denounce hunting, fishing and raising animals for human consumption. In response, a letter now circulating from 12 of the group’s past presidents voices “extreme concern for the continuing viability of the club” and urges members to vote to save it.

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The Sierra Club is hardly alone among large advocacy groups vulnerable to the push-pull of single-issue activists. Two years ago, four challengers ran unsuccessfully for the Automobile Club of Southern California board -- the first contested election in 30 years -- on a platform of big tax cuts for motorists. The AARP took heat from its members after it enthusiastically lobbied for President Bush’s recent Medicare rewrite.

There’s a clear lesson in this turmoil for millions of Americans who consider themselves members of advocacy organizations. For these groups to play a constructive role in a democracy, members must pay attention to them. Paying dues should be a first step, not the last.

Read the mailings. Discuss the issues. And vote.


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