Hostile Takeover

Members of the Sierra Club, the nation's oldest and largest grassroots environmental group, will receive ballots this month to elect their board of directors, and with that vote will cast their views in the most contentious immigration battle of the year.

Immigration is not a new debate for the Sierra Club. In 1998 the membership voted overwhelmingly to stay out of the issue, restating that the most effective way to deal with the impact of population on the planet is to reduce levels of American waste and to raise the global status of women.

But for some, tackling immigration is a moral imperative, and their quest to bring the Sierra Club into the debate has resulted in a slate of board candidates with significant ties to right-wing groups.

Former President Robert Cox, a communications professor at the University of North Carolina with deep ties to the environmental justice and labor movements, is a leader in the organization's effort to fight off this "hostile takeover attempt" through an unprecedented public education campaign called Groundswell Sierra (www.groundswellsierra.org).

"The far more effective way of slowing the growth of population worldwide is by addressing women's access to healthcare and family planning, and by building economic sustainability for the world's poor," Cox says. "As long as people are driven from their home countries by hunger or political strife we will see migration, period."

Although many who support Sierra Club's involvement in immigration policy are concerned about the environmental effects of population, Cox says, "We're concerned by a darker side of the movement."

The national board of the Sierra Club received a letter in October 2003 from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) alerting it to efforts by right-wing racist organizations to encourage their members to join the Sierra Club and back anti-immigration candidates. SPLC traced the effort to a 1996 memo written by anti-immigration leader John Tanton, who stated that although "the Sierra Club may not want to touch the immigration issue ... the immigration issue is going to touch the Sierra Club!"

The three immigration-control candidates running for the board have interlocking ties to organizations funded by Richard Mellon Scaife, a leading conservative who funds the Heritage Foundation and other groups that have written the playbook for President Bush's attacks on the nation's environmental laws.

The Sierra Club is vulnerable to this type of attack because, unlike most national environmental organizations, the entire board is elected by its 750,000 membership. Three immigration-control advocates won seats on the board in the last two elections: Paul Watson, Doug Lafollette and Ben Zuckerman. If the three candidates backed by Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization are elected this year, the immigration-control faction will have enough votes on the 15-member board to move the issue.

Watson says efforts to gain seats on the board are "being blown out of proportion." Watson was a founder of Greenpeace who went on to create the Sea Shephard Conservation Society, a direct-action organization responsible for ramming and sinking numerous illegal fishing vessels.

"I'm not here to represent people, people are well represented," Watson says. "I'm here to represent non-human species and ecosystems."

For Watson, immigration is simply a matter of numbers. Too many people in the United States leaves no room for the habitat he wants to protect. "I don't allow any human politics to influence my decisions," he says.

But Cox says the Sierra Club can't ignore politics. "We have come so far in raising questions of environmental impacts on people in our work with labor and communities of color. As a result we have forged partnerships with a broader progressive coalition in America." This coalition is partly responsible for the club's growing political effectiveness, he says, and "all of that is now at risk."

Even if none of the candidates is elected, Watson says the immigration-control faction has won. "It's a fait accompli," he says. "The goal was to make the Sierra Club get the national press to write about immigration. And look what you're writing now."

Adam Werbach is the executive director of the Common Assets Defense Fund and a member of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. He is a former president of the Sierra Club, a position to which he was elected at the age of 23.

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