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Immigration Issue Sparks Battle at Sierra Club; Groups Vie to Reshape Nonprofit's Board

The Washington Post
Copyright 2004
March 22, 2004 Monday
Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post Staff Writer

The Southern Poverty Law Center is known for fighting hate groups but is not usually a player in environmental politics. Neither is the neo-Nazi group White Politics Inc. But in the Sierra Club's current board elections, they are just two of a potpourri of groups seeking to influence the outcome of a contest that could radically reshape the 112-year-old organization.

On one level, the battle for control of the Sierra Club board is a dispute over the impact on ecological concerns of population pressures fueled by immigration. More broadly, however, it is a tale of how the organization, buoyed by a rich treasury and a savvy grass-roots outreach effort, has become enmeshed in a bitter fight over how to best leverage the nonprofit's influence in national politics.

The stakes are high: Bolstered by anonymous gifts totaling more than $100 million, the group founded by John Muir, himself an immigrant from Scotland, now boasts an annual budget of $83 million and a membership of 750,000.

"The Sierra Club is the most prominent and influential group in America in terms of environmentalism," said Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report, who said the center got involved because it discovered hate groups were urging followers to vote in the board election. "That's why it's seen as a prize. The aim is to hijack the credibility, the reputation, the membership and the finances of a very important political player."

Other environmental groups attest to the Sierra Club's influence. "They have tremendous clout, and they're hugely important allies in our environmental battles," said Greg Wetstone, director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Potok is just one of many activists weighing in on the election, which is taking place by mail over the next month. The controversy centers on three insurgent candidates, including former Colorado governor Richard Lamm (D), who are intent on curbing immigration to the United States in the name of environmentalism.

"I feel very strongly population and immigration is an environmental issue," Lamm said in an interview. "Sierra Club has avoided this issue for too long."

The battle has spawned at least three lawsuits, a flurry of mailings to members, as well as two outside groups devoted solely to shaping the future of the Sierra Club. The battle intensified last week when the Internet-based liberal advocacy group urged its members to help defeat the three insurgent candidates, triggering the latest in a series of complaints from both sides about the involvement of outside groups.

"I'm outraged that would get involved in the Sierra Club elections and others are as well," said Marcia Hanscom, who is allied with the anti-immigration cohort.

The Sierra Club has confronted the immigration question before: In 1998, members voted 60 to 40 to remain neutral on the issue. In 2001, they rejected a proposal to promote "regional and national population stabilization" as part of the club's agenda.

One of the new groups, Groundswell Sierra, represents members of the club's old guard bitterly opposed to the anti-immigration drive. Immigration opponents "have a right to express their views and try and win like everybody else," said Groundswell's campaign manager, Clayton Daughenbaugh. "What they don't have a right to do is to bring in candidates with no experience in the Sierra Club as part of an effort to overthrow a membership-voted position."

In a private talk to the board of directors in late February, the club's executive director, Carl Pope, described the anti-immigrant advocates as "a virus" that threatened to infect the organization.

"It's hate," Pope said, according to a transcript of his speech. "It was a very sad moment for me when I had to recognize that hate wasn't just something out there in American society that the Sierra Club had to fight, but that hate had gotten dangerously close to the club itself."

The anti-immigration candidates accuse Pope of using smear tactics to damage their candidacies. They sued Pope along with board President Larry Fahn and the club for unfair election practices in February; they later dropped the suit, but the defendants countersued to recover their attorney's fees. That case is still pending.

Frank Morris, the former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, who with entomologist David Pimentel of Cornell University is on the insurgents' ticket with Lamm, said he suspects a group of anonymous donors who gave more than $100 million in 2001 and 2002 is behind the countersuit.

"We've never been able to figure out the intensity of the attack," Morris said. "The issue might be those who had given large donations want to control the agenda of the Sierra Club."

Fahn and Pope deny that claim and note that the money went to the Sierra Club Foundation, an affiliated but independent entity that makes grants of about $15 million a year for club projects. John DeCock, who heads the foundation, said he has never discussed immigration with the dozen anonymous donors who made the gifts.

For an election in which candidates cannot spend more than $2,000 each, the costs are spiraling. Daughenbaugh said his group spent more than $100,000 on a mailing urging members to reject Lamm and his allies.

Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-Calif.) said in an interview that "the credibility in terms of the Latino community is going to be lost. This is very disturbing."

The outcome of the election remains in doubt: Ballots went out to members at the beginning of the month, and it is unclear how many will vote. In the past, about 10 percent have cast ballots, but the controversy swirling around this year's election makes it likely that more will take part.

Meanwhile, many Sierra Club stalwarts worry the battle will undermine the group's effectiveness on its core issues.

"This whole episode is a regrettable distraction from our mission to educate the public as to how the Bush-Cheney administration has been dismantling 40 years of environmental progress," Fahn said.

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