Sierra Club Head Warns Group Is Attracting ‘Racists’

Published March 1, 2004

This spring, the Sierra Club will hold elections to fill five open seats on its 15-member board of directors. What should be a celebration of democratic principles has instead turned into a divisive and potentially ugly situation.

“There are racists coming into the Sierra Club and trying to influence the election,” warned Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope in a January 22 telephone interview with reporters.

Offering the media a rare glimpse into the group’s internal politics, Pope said a sizable number of Sierra Club members believe the organization should include immigration controls as one of its core principles. Already, according to the Tampa Tribune, three of 10 sitting directors hold that view. If proponents of immigration controls can organize sufficient support in the upcoming elections, they can take majority control of the board of directors.

Pope expressed dismay that immigrant-bashing from Sierra Club members has been quoted on racist Internet sites. He also warned the organization may be losing its central focus on environmental issues.

“It’s a country of free speech and we can’t control what people are trying to do with anything we’re trying to do,” countered Ben Zuckerman, a University of California at Los Angeles professor and member of the Sierra Club’s board.

The spirit of the insurgent immigrant-control movement is symbolized by Sierra Club board member Paul Watson, a cofounder of Greenpeace and a vegetarian who is aggressively pushing an animal rights platform for the Sierra Club. Watson’s support of an immigration-control platform is viewed by many in the Sierra Club as a predictable step in leading the organization away from its traditional environmentalist vision.

Many rank-and-file Sierra Club members have expressed deep concern at the rift developing within the national organization. “We’ve got enough on our platter at this point without taking on these other special interests,” said Lynn McGarvey, chairwoman of the organization’s Tampa, Florida, branch.

“I’m having trouble here in Tampa just stretching myself to cover the issues we have here. To add animal righters and aliens is just too much.”

However, advocates of immigration control and other non-traditional platforms have found support from many rank-and-file members. Greg Kalmbach, chairman of the organization’s Florida chapter, said he believes population growth is harming the environment. Kalmbach believes the Sierra Club should support family planning and other population stability programs, perhaps including immigration controls. He blamed Pope for taking the internal rift public and for playing the race card.

“He feels this is a real danger to the Sierra Club and as executive director, he needs to get out there and ward off the damage,” Kalmbach said. “But I think it’s really inappropriate for him to meddle in an election.”

Lesley Blackner, a former lawyer for the organization, scoffed at Pope’s criticisms of the anti-immigrant agenda. “They’ve got a population policy that tells people they should have only two children, and they advocate facilitating birth control, and promoting family planning in the Third World. But if they don’t tie it to immigration, they just have their heads in the sand.”

“It’s an important issue to discuss,” responded Pope, “but we just don’t think it’s an issue that can be resolved on the basis of environmental values. Our members are deeply divided on it so we said let’s work on things we agree on.”

Neil Hrab, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, observed that the growing anti-immigration movement is a predictable development, considering the Sierra Club’s core values.

Said Hrab, “Both the Sierra Club’s present leadership and Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization’s leaders share a basic pessimism about the future. They are neo-Malthusians. That is, they are all unwitting followers of Robert Malthus, an 18th century British thinker who hypothesized that population growth will always overtake mankind’s ability to find adequate food, water, and other resources to sustain the resulting extra population. Malthus did not believe mankind could innovate its way out of this predicament–our species would always be stalked by starvation.

“Whatever differences they may have when it comes to immigration,” Hrab continued, “there doesn’t appear to be even a dime’s difference between the two sides when you stack up their neo-Malthusian credentials. From this perspective, whether [immigration opponents] end up running Sierra, or whether the current board stays in charge, will make little difference to the Club’s overall policy direction. The Club will continue to spread a neo-Malthusian attitude towards the supposed limits of technology.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].