Green vs. Green

A Bitter Struggle in New York City Splits the Sierra Club

It is late on a recent afternoon, and the front rows of Judge Elliot Wilk's courtroom at 60 Centre Street are lined with weary-looking attorneys. Behind them are 20 or so whispering civilians, men and women, young and old, in jeans and sneakers and carrying knapsacks. They gather in clusters, irritating the court officers by lounging along the windowsills. Though it's barely apparent, they're all wearing protest armbands—lengths of green ribbon, hastily tied on outside the courthouse.

"Who are all these people?" Wilk asks. He soon finds out—when Brandstein v. Sierra Club is called, the ragtag army swarms toward his bench. Wilk waves them back. They're supporters of the dissident New York City Group of the Sierra Club. In March, the 12,000-member group's executive committee was dissolved by the state chapter after defiantly, and for the second time, sending out their own fundraising letter. And a month ago, the Sierra Club held an election to replace the fired officers. It also flung vague charges of "fiscal improprieties" against the vanquished leaders. Howard Brandstein, former treasurer for the New York City Group, has filed suit on behalf of himself and 14 other plaintiffs, demanding not only that the original officers be restored but that the Sierra Club pay $20 million in damages for defamation. (Another lawsuit, by longtime city Sierran Jim Lane, is also asking that the New York City Group be reinstated.)

In court, the Brandstein faction is represented by Charles Rudd Mackenzie, a young private practitioner from Westchester. As the flustered lawyer stumbles his way through the judge's questions, Brandstein slips into a chair beside him, scribbling helpful notes. The San Francisco-based Sierra Club itself, meanwhile, is represented by Dennis Orr of Mayer, Brown, and Platt, a huge international law firm. Smooth and self-assured, Orr insists that since the New York City Group broke the rules, the Sierra Club has every right to shut them down, "the way any other company would close any office." If the uppity New Yorkers don't like it, they can take their renegade activities elsewhere. One thing's for sure: They can no longer invoke the considerable power of the Sierra Club. "That," the dark-suited lawyer says, "is us."

illustration by Jeff Crosby

The ousted New Yorkers don't get to make their case that day. Indeed, as of this writing, Wilk is still waiting for the exiled Sierrans to produce any case law that shows he is entitled to meddle in the affairs of a private, California-based organization. And that, say the New Yorkers, is a shame. They're itching to explain that what they're really being punished for is a vocal, continuing resistance to the namby-pamby environmentalism of Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director, and Rhea Jezer, the Atlantic Chapter's chair.

The Sierra Club "is putting in place a corporate-style crackdown and a corporate structure that can squash dissidents," says Brandstein. "The whole notion of grassroots democracy is basically out the window."

The underlying problem, insist the New York group members and other critics, is that the Sierra Club is increasingly part of the status quo. They say the club has become far too moderate in its dealings with business and political interests—that you shouldn't wheel and deal with the fate of the earth. This divide echoes divisions in the environmental movement as a whole: a split between pragmatists and purists, insiders and outsiders, or, as Pope puts it, between "incrementalists" and "visionaries." Critics date that friction back to the 1980s, when fear of the harm president Ronald Reagan might bring to the environment brought a massive influx of members and donations to groups like the Sierra Club. That money, ironically, helped to tame its combativeness.

"With access to vast new funds," writes Brian Tokar in Earth for Sale: Reclaiming Ecology in the Age of Corporate Greenwash, "the major environmental organizations assumed a conspicuously top-down corporate structure. Internal battles in organizations like the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and, in those years, even Greenpeace were invariably won by those advocating a more corporate style and attitude along with an avoidance of issues and tactics that might prove alienating to wealthy donors."

To Jezer and Pope, such theories are so much sour grapes. "We have an enormous amount of democratic process," says Pope. "That only works if people respect the outcome of this process."

"If you don't like the rules," adds Jezer, "join Audubon!"

It's clear why the prize is so hotly desired. The Sierra Club has 600,000 members, chapters in 50 states and Canada, and a yearly budget of at least $39 million. Its founder was John Muir, who in 1892 rallied advocates to save California's Sierra Nevada mountains. The club sponsors hikes, sells books and calendars, and lobbies on a wide range of issues. Much of its reputation was forged in the 1950s and 1960s, under the leadership of David Brower, when it blocked dams in Dinosaur National Monument and the Grand Canyon. Those battles were fierce and political, so much so that in 1966 the IRS revoked the club's tax-exempt status.

It has since evolved into a formidable political force. The Sierra Club's direct mail makes much of its having been crowned "America's most effective environmental organization" by the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan public policy group in Washington, D.C. With its huge membership, including 35,000 in New York State, the club boasts a series of powerful voting blocs. And Sierra Club members relish their influence. During each election, they say, candidates send faxes, lobby officers over the phone, demand endorsement interviews. "The Sierra Club got Chuck Schumer over" in his closely contested 1998 Senate race against Al D'Amato, claims the Atlantic Chapter's Jezer.

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