The Sierra Club's Civil War
Patrick Diehl still hasn't gotten around to replacing his front door. Pieces of plywood cover the holes kicked in the door three summers ago by neighbors upset with Diehl's environmental activism. He jokes that it's a kind of shrine to the green movement in Escalante, a small southern Utah town that lends its name to one of the most controversial national monuments in the country--the Grand Staircase-Escalante, which is the center of a dispute over development and resource extraction.
Diehl and his long-time partner Tori Woodard smile incredulously as they remember the summer of 1999, when the local Mormon bishop declared religious war on the two environmentalists.
"They threw beer bottles through the window, cut the phone lines and tore up the garden," Woodard says. "They held an anti-wilderness rally with a parade down Main Street. The mayor told us we weren't welcome anymore."
But the two have no plans to pack up and leave the 800-person town, nor does Diehl think he ever really will get around to replacing that front door. They might just be two voices calling out in the wilderness, eating lotus and honey, but a couple of shattered windows aren't going to silence them.
Nor will the newest knocking coming from the front porch. This time it's from the Sierra Club, once the unparalleled leader of this country's environmental movement. But critics say the 700,000-member strong organization with an estimated $80 million annual budget is now nothing more than a glorified hiking club that has sold out the environment to get buddy-buddy with Democratic politicians.
Diehl and Woodard are two of those critics, and the message they're getting from the club sounds a little like the one from their local mayor--if you don't shut up, you're not welcome anymore.
Members since 1999, Diehl and Woodard are both leaders within the Glen Canyon Group, one of the Sierra Club's most remote enclaves--and definitely one of its most rebellious. The two, along with Moab colleagues John Weisheit and Dan Kent, rekindled a debate over the Sierra Club's apparent willingness to make compromises when it's politically expedient, even if it means agreeing to commercial logging in national forests or giving tacit support to a potentially environmentally devastating war in Iraq. They released a statement to the press--violating club policy--condemning Sierra Club leadership and criticizing the organization's failure to take a strong anti-war stance on the Iraq issue.
That one press release thrust the so-called Glen Canyon Four into the forefront of a dissident movement within the Sierra Club. It also earned them threats of expulsion from club leadership, and a hint from Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope that he might completely disband the 150-member group. Just before New Year's, the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club introduced a resolution that would require all members and local groups to clear comments intended for the media through a new Public Communications Comittee.
All this because Diehl, Woodard, Weisheit and Kent won't shut up and won't stop criticizing the Sierra Club for what they say is the selling out of its membership and possibly the entire environmental movement.
"Basically, we're muzzled. If we have criticisms we're told we should do it privately and in a nice way," Woodard says. "Outside of the club, all we can do is praise, so how is membership going to know there is a problem?"
Battle in the Black Hills
And there is a problem within the Sierra Club. It's a problem that has festered like a hiking-boot blister since the late 1980s. Grassroots activists who joined the club for more altruistic reasons than receiving a complimentary backpack with the $39 membership fee feel there's more to saving the environment than helping Democratic Party candidates win office. They feel that the Sierra Club should return to the straight-up, up-front, balls-to-the-wall activism of club founder John Muir and former executive director David Brower, who disdained political compromise almost as much as he did oil extractors and loggers.
Count the Glen Canyon Four among the growing resistance. The reform movement within the Sierra Club is loosely organized and has no official leaders. It's simply a gathering--mostly via e-mail--of like-minded individuals who are upset with the politically calculated direction the club has taken in the past 15 years. Calling themselves the John Muir Sierrans, they advocate a less political, more activist approach to environmental preservation, and have fielded candidates for national and local club elections. Nobody knows how large the reform movement is, but John Muir Sierran candidates for the club's national board of directors regularly receive approximately 10,000 votes each.
Weisheit, for now the executive director of the Glen Canyon Group, is a John Muir Sierran. Like many reformers, he believes the club's willingness to compromise has emasculated the Sierra Club's environmental message.
"I think what the Sierra Club has become is a garden club or a hiking club," says Weisheit. "People want to do nice things for the environment, and they think if they join a national group and pay money, they think they're doing their part."
But what many members--and most of the general public--don't realize is that the Sierra Club might not always do its part to save the environment. Critics contend the club has been all too willing to make political compromises--such as a sleep-with-the-devil deal with Tom Daschle that permitted logging in the Black Hills for a little bit of political leeway--at the expense of national forests, wilderness and the club's ultimate ability to influence environmental policy.
"Staff and national club members have a lot of access to politicians," says David Orr, a long-time Sierra Club member and an early John Muir Sierran who lives in Tennessee. "The theory has been to play this political in-game, but the politicians can end up playing the Sierra Club. Theoretically, it gives the club more clout in the next Congress. But we can't say what we really want because if we do say what we really want or what we believe in, it makes us less politically viable."
One of those political games occurred last summer, when Daschle and Tim Johnson, both Democratic senators from South Dakota, attached a timber rider to a Defense appropriations bill. With Johnson's re-election campaign sagging amid accusations from his opponent that he was too green, Daschle and Johnson helped engineer a plan that would allow the commercial logging of large trees in the Black Hills' Norbeck Wildlife Preserve and the Beaver Park Roadless Area under the guise of "fire protection." The rider also shielded timber sales in the area from environmental lawsuits.
If this sounds familiar it's because passage of the bill and its rider formed the foundation of President George W. Bush's controversial, already-in-progress Healthy Forests Initiative. Critics contend it all stems from a desire to get Johnson re-elected, and God willing, keep the Senate in the Democrats' hands. And we all know how that turned out.
An unlikely player in this summer's backroom deals was the Sierra Club, which supported the rider. Denise Boggs was on the front lines of the Black Hills battle. Now the executive director of the Utah Environmental Congress, Boggs got involved with the decade-long struggle to prevent commercial logging in the Black Hills while she lived in Montana. Boggs and a group of grassroots environmentalists filed a lawsuit in 1992, which eventually made its way to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, and holy of holies, the greens won, putting a stop to the chainsaws. But then Daschle, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society stepped in with a plan to reverse the court's decision with new legislation, which would allay conservative fears in South Dakota and eventually help get Johnson re-elected in what would be an extraordinarily close vote.
"We worked for 10 years to protect that area," Boggs says, "and after all that hard work, the Sierra Club and Daschle go in with a sweep of a pen and undo it all. When they cut that deal, they basically sold out every national forest in the country."
Repeated efforts to contact Carl Pope were unsuccessful, but Jennifer Ferenstein, president of the Sierra Club, did comment. Ferenstein appreciates the no-compromise passion of people like Boggs and the Glen Canyon Four. But she says it's sometimes crucial to take a pragmatic approach to delicate issues like the Black Hills logging debate.
Ferenstein, a volunteer, has been the national president of the club for the past two years. She's been a member of the board of directors for four years, running on a reform platform with a heavy emphasis on passing strong conservation policies. The Black Hills deal is anything but a strong conservation policy, something Ferenstein says doesn't bother her.
"It's hardball and you don't always get what you want," she says, adding that "compromise doesn't have to be a dirty word. When you want something, you rarely get it in one fell swoop."
Critics like Boggs say that the club is as big of a hindrance to environmental protection as the Forest Service and the other drag-their-feet government agencies that the club finds itself in bed with when it reaches such compromises.
"The Sierra Club has lost its foundation at the national level and is out of touch with its grassroots people," she says. "We spend a lot of time battling the deals cut by the Sierra Club that are bad for the environment, deals that stem from the leadership of the Sierra Club, beginning with Carl Pope. A lot of people think he needs to go."
This Means War
John Weisheit is one of them, even though saying so likely means he will be removed from his own leadership position. He doesn't care anymore. "They're going to remove me for doing what they should have done," he says.
He isn't surprised by the club's political in-games--"I would have joined a long time ago if I hadn't been upset about their politics"--but his words are still tinted with disgust and disappointment. The idealism that motivated his decision to join the Sierra Club in 1999--the bleeding-heart desire to drain southern Utah's Lake Powell--has been replaced with head-shaking cynicism.
Weisheit was initially pleased, if not surprised, with the Sierra Club when it announced in 1996 that it supported draining Lake Powell. The progressive stance angered some club members who felt the directive came from the top down, but Weisheit was intrigued--so much so that when the club decided to form the Glen Canyon Group in 1999 to advocate the preservation and restoration of the Colorado River from the ground level, he joined and eventually became the executive director of the group.
But in those three years, Weisheit's optimism and hopes that the club was finally thinking progressively have been replaced with complaints about the failure of the club to effectively lead its members, let alone help drain a 266-square mile reservoir.
Weisheit's latest beef with the club came in November. Members of San Francisco-area chapters approached the national board of directors with a proposed resolution regarding the impending war in Iraq. Concerned with Bush's apparent willingness to use nuclear weapons, and fearful of another environmental catastrophe in the Middle East just a decade after retreating Iraqi armies set fire to oil rigs and dumped oil into the Persian Gulf, volunteers asked the club to condemn U.S. invasion plans.
What resulted were three separate national club resolutions--one that instead condemned Iraqi aggression and called for the dismantling of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, another that encouraged club members to focus on energy policies, and a third that forbade club members from using the club's name to make public statements about military conflicts. The resolutions also called for a decreased dependence on oil.
Ferenstein says that the resolutions weren't worded more strongly because there was a debate as to whether the club should even weigh in on the war issue. She also refutes claims that members overwhelmingly wanted anti-war resolutions.
"We're not in a position to say no war, no when and no how," she says. "And plus, we felt it was a bit premature to say anything about it in the first place. We're not at war."
But it isn't a stretch to think of the club's war resolutions as another political calculation. After all, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Sierra Club asked its members to refrain from criticizing the president and also scaled back anti-Bush advertisements--a move that some believe led to Bush's move into the Alaskan oil fields.
One Voice Fits All
Opinion polls are in favor of some kind of action in Iraq, and if there's one thing critics say Pope pays attention to, it's polls. The club didn't release its November resolutions to the media as it normally does, and it wasn't until the Glen Canyon Four threw the first grenade in the club's latest sagebrush rebellion that most members heard about the resolutions.
"We believe the vast majority of Club members oppose Bush administration policy, including the plan to escalate the war on Iraq," Woodard wrote in the press release. "Many grassroots Club leaders asked the Board to oppose the war. By adopting these shameful resolutions instead, the Board betrayed Club members and breached its leadership trust."
The four also ripped the board of director's perceived attempt to impose a "gag order" on club members.
"That [third] resolution stifles free expression," Dan Kent says. "They said basically that if you want to say anything about the war, you have to pass it with the club first."
Sierra Club National Press Secretary Eric Antebi says the club needs to "speak with one voice." What that exactly means is unclear, and probably impossible to do, since Sierra Club members can't even reach consensus on immigration policy, let alone on war, zero-cut forest initiatives and wilderness preservation.
"We are one club," Antebi says flatly. "At some point the club has to come to a decision on national issues."
Diehl just doesn't get it, and he definitely doesn't buy that PR bullshit. "That bothered us a whole lot," he adds. "The club has to speak with one voice on everything? Why?"
Another question Diehl and other grassroots members have is why the resolutions were watered down, why that one voice is so increasingly mealy-mouthed. He thinks he has an answer, and not surprising, it involves politics.
"The donors and whoever Carl Pope is talking to in the Democratic Party have a big influence on club policy. How do you explain what happened to this resolution in November? The word from below wanted something that criticized Bush and the war and then we got a bunch of stuff about Iraqi aggression and disarming them of their weapons of mass destruction," Diehl says.
Bill Michel, vice chair of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Loma Prieta chapter, attended the November board meeting held in San Francisco. He says there "was no discussion about the merits of the proposals" introduced by the grassroots volunteers and that discussion "was centered around how it would look--'we might lose members.'"
Michael Dorsey, a member of the 15-person board of directors, shares in the frustration expressed by volunteers like Diehl and Michel. In an e-mail sent to Pope, fellow board members and "general distribution"--bearing the title "WAR PIGS * System Failure and Ways Out"--Dorsey blistered the leadership for failing to condemn a possible war in Iraq, at least on environmental grounds, because of the fallout such a statement would create both inside the Beltway and with the general public.
"Certain elements wanted to wait post-the election. Others did not even want to raise the matter and still don't, for fear that 'Bush's War' is 'off message' or 'not part of our mission,'" Dorsey wrote. He added that it is his hope "that the ED [Pope] can move away from the niggardly, tit-for-tat politics--that are now shape-shifting in the public domain seemingly beyond his control--and get on with the spirit of the board resolution: Get out in public against the war and get out against the rouge [sic], President-select and the other Mayberry-Machiavellis!"
Dorsey, a John Muir Sierran who was elected to the board by the general club membership in 1997, told City Weekly that "sometimes [Pope's] adherence to opinion polls disables his abilities to come out publicly and vociferously about the antics of the White House."
Voices In the Wilderness
The Glen Canyon Four had no such qualms. Apparently, those opinion polls don't get down Moab and Escalante way. After learning about the board of directors' stand on a potential war in Iraq, the four started communicating via phone and e-mail with each other about what they were going to do. Woodard says her first reaction was to resign, even if that meant wasting more than a year of 40-hour weeks volunteering for the Sierra Club in an effort to stop nuclear waste from ending up in southeastern Utah. That initial anger has evolved into a determination by the Glen Canyon Four to help lead the fight for a change in the club's philosophy. Maybe there's just something about living in a desert that does that to people, something that makes them smile everytime they look at their bashed-in front door.
"I was really shocked and really upset," Woodard says, "but then I felt I needed to fight it. I feel it's very important for me to show some leadership and turn this around."
So the Glen Canyon Group launched a revolution on Nov. 26 with that musket ball of the 21st century, the press release. In it, the four eviscerated the national club for its failure to condemn Bush's plans to invade Iraq and for attempting to silence dissent. The Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Associated Press jumped on the story, and before the Sierra Club knew it, those resolutions the leadership didn't think were worthy of media attention were getting a ton of it. The day the foursome released its statement, Diehl stayed up until 3 a.m. to read all of the e-mails that flooded his in-box. They were, almost without exception, from Sierra Club volunteers in favor of their civil disobedience. One said, "National Sierra Club, get with it or you'll end up being little more than a travel agent for yuppies." Another proclaimed that the Sierra Club "is an enabler of a psychopath," referring to Bush.
One was from Carl Pope. In it, he threatened the Glen Canyon Four with a breach of leadership trust action, a club process that would remove the four from their elected positions within the Glen Canyon Group. He then dropped a not-so-subtle hint aimed at the group itself: "I personally prefer such action--against these individuals--in preference to dissolving the Group. I would leave dissolving the Group as a means of last resort if acting against individuals who won't adhere to Club policy fails to resolve the situation." He ended the e-mail by saying, "Civil disobedience is an honorable tradition, but you can't continue serving as sheriff while practicing it."
The controversy has made Weisheit an unintentional leader in the club's reform movement, as it has Kent, Diehl and Woodard. Kent's converted RV camper is miles away from the swanky San Francisco hotels where the board meets and the plush backrooms where political deals are cut, but it and Diehl's cramped house in Escalante are centers of the dissent swelling within the Sierra Club. Orr says the Glen Canyon Four's actions over the past two months have made them leaders within the reform movement.
Pope has since backed off his threat--partly due to the media coverage it received--but the four still expect something to happen when the heat dies down. Weisheit doesn't really give a damn if he's removed from his executive director position. He says he knew what the consequences were when those first words of dissent trickled back and forther along the barren deserts of southern Utah, but says he had an obligation to take a principled stand--something he believes the Sierra Club hasn't done enough of over the years.
"If we didn't take the stand that we did, we'd have to look our friends and neighbors in the eye and say we support the short-sighted, weak resolution coming from the Sierra Club. We're supporting our constituency. My email is 99 percent in favor of what we've done, and so are the phone calls and first-class mail," he says. "I feel I'm responding as a leader and doing what's best for my constituency. They can remove me but it's not going to stop my dedication to the community. I'm responding to their lack of leadership."
Weisheit's new-found role--along with a flood of positive e-mails, phone calls and letters--has kept him and the rest of the Glen Canyon Four from quitting. There is also a feeling that it's possible for the club to change.
"The Sierra Club needs progressive, courageous activists because that's how things will get done," Weisheit says. "There's a virus in the environmental community and we're like little white blood cells."
The virus is already retreating, even if it is just a minor pullback. Last month, the Sierra Club Board of Directors voted to join the Win Without War coalition, a national alliance of major social groups in favor of a diplomatic solution in Iraq. It's a significant step for a club that was decrying Iraqi aggression a month before.
"That was fantastic," Kent says. "That's exactly the kind of shift of momentum we were looking for."
But once again, many members feel the club still hasn't done enough, that it has simply found a viable political solution by aligning itself with a mainstream peace alliance that boasts a who's-who list of bloated social organizations like the NAACP, NOW and the National Council of Churches.
"The coalition consists of a press release," Diehl says. "It's obviously not enough. All we got is that the club is in a mainstream peace group."
Meanwhile, the resolutions passed by the board of directors stay on the books and the club continues to ignore calls from different chapters to lend its support to the national anti-war mobilization scheduled for Jan. 18. Still frustrated by the club's seeming lack of progressive ideals, Sierra Club members, led by the Glen Canyon Four, are banding together to introduce a strongly worded anti-war referendum that the general membership will vote on in the spring, likely after war breaks out.
Hope for the Future
In the meantime, the Glen Canyon Four continue their volunteer efforts for the Sierra Club, even though their experience the past two months has left them jaded.
Dan Kent sees a world where the corporations have sucked dry our natural resources, a world full of bunkers and bullets, but he manages a smile as he walks along the snow-covered banks of Moab's Mill Creek. He still believes in the power of the grassroots, and recalls Moab's history of civil disobedience, no sheriffs involved. He remembers when locals banded together to stop a planned dumpground just outside of Canyonlands National Park, and when activists and neighbors united to kill a toxic-waste incinerator planned for the nearby Cisco Desert. He thinks that same ground-level passion can effect change within the Sierra Club, helping the organization retain its ability to lead a principled environmental movement.
"We're definitely seeing a shift and I do think we played a small part in that," he says.
Woodard still plugs away on her nuclear-waste research for the Sierra Club. She knows the club's staffers and leadership are more concerned about high-profile and relatively safe political issues like urban sprawl--even seemingly more concerned about speaking with one voice. She wonders if the grassroots will ever dictate club policy, and as a result, if the club will ever lead again.
"People send in their money and think the Sierra Club is going to take care of things, but they're not going to take care of things," she says. "It's not a leader anymore. They'll follow once it appears safe. They still have a lot of power because they have a lot of members and they have the power of their numbers. That's all they have left."
Patrick Diehl takes a look at the door, getting up from his chair to demonstrate where the neighbors' boots did their damage. Out on the porch, his Green Party campaign signs are starting to fade, and he lifts one up and says he didn't mind being the sacrificial lamb this past November if it meant getting the word out.
Weisheit takes a sip from his licorice tea and laughs at how he ran into David Brower a few years before he died in 2000. The renegade former national executive director, who took no prisoners in his opposition to proposed dams in the Grand Canyon even if it meant getting booted from the board of directors, gave Weisheit an important bit of advice. Weisheit was upset with Brower's political compromise--not even Brower was immune from politics--which prevented the destruction of Dinosaur National Monument but allowed for the creation of the Glen Canyon Dam, built between 1960 and '63. To Weisheit, the best river guide on the Colorado, that decision was blasphemy and he let Brower know how he felt.
"I was angry about the Glen Canyon Dam and the Sierra Club's compromise. I met David Brower and talked to him about it and he said 'Why don't you do something about it?'"
Weisheit took that advice and applied it not to just fighting the Glen Canyon Dam but to struggling for the soul of the club itself. But that long tradition of selling out, whether to save a national treasure at the expense of another or selling old-growth trees for Beltway access, keeps getting in his and the grassroots' way. Weisheit still dreams of a day when he can run the Colorado from Moab all the way down to the Grand Canyon, and if the Sierra Club isn't going to help him achieve that goal, so be it. But he can't quit, because he says he still hears Brower's advice.
He also remembers other words from Brower, spoken in the early 1980s when Brower helped spark the nuclear-freeze movement: "If we greens don't broaden our thinking to tackle war, we may save some wilderness but lose the world."