Green vs. Green

A Bitter Struggle in New York City Splits the Sierra Club

"The stakes are really high," says Rufus Cappadocia, an ousted member of the New York group's executive committee. "The Sierra Club can tilt an election."

The Sierra Club is important to grassroots organizers not only because it offers incomparable power, but because it is the only major environmental group in the country they have any hope of controlling. It is structured as a "grassroots democracy," which means there's always the potential for an energized membership to gradually vote out an existing board of directors and radically shift the direction of the organization. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund are supported by contributions but entirely run by staff. The National Audubon Society has local chapters whose members fight various environmental battles—but it doesn't attempt to combine that with nationwide lobbying for political candidates.

"Every other organization has either given up on one voice, or let the grassroots wither," says Pope. "We have tried to manage this tension."

illustration by Jeff Crosby

The tension frequently borders on the explosive, for this is in effect a democracy without free speech. The club allows groups and chapters to set policy at the city and state level, but forbids them from publicly criticizing each other or the national. A Congress member who loses an argument in committee can blow off steam in a press conference on the Capitol steps; not so in the Sierra Club. Speaking out is occasionally punished. Both Pope and his critics believe that the no-criticism policy enforces a necessary unity, but grassroots activists complain it is also used to reinforce staff control. "It's very selectively enforced," says Seattle Sierran David Orr, a founder of a network of internal dissidents called the John Muir Sierrans. "It's okay to say the Sierra Club is taking too strong a stand, but not okay to say it's too weak."

"They treat volunteers like Christmas decorations at the celebration party when the deal gets done, but don't let us bother them in the interim about the deals they are making," says Margaret Hays Young, a member of the disbanded executive committee.

As a longtime leader in New York, Young has challenged the Sierra Club hierarchy repeatedly. In 1990, when she was chair of the group's conservation committee, Young became so frustrated by the national's refusal to oppose clearcutting or old-growth logging in national forests that she broke ranks and joined with more radical environmental groups in endorsing a "zero cut" policy. According to Mark Dowie in Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century, the national leadership "cut her budget and forbade her to contact donors" in New York. It also threatened to remove her and suspend the Atlantic Chapter, which had backed Young. But that never happened, in part because dissidents found a way to open up the issue with two nationwide referendums, which in 1996 forced the national to change its stance. "We got the thing passed on a two to one margin," says Orr. The John Muir Sierran movement, whose followers now hold seven of 15 seats on the national board, sprang up in the wake of Young's uprising.

The current dispute, Orr says, "has a lot to do with what's going on with the Sierra Club at the national level, which is essentially a philosophical and strategic struggle over what kinds of conservation policies the club is going to run and who's going to be making the call on these."

THE RUMBLE IN NEW YORK WAS A CONFLICT NOT only of philosophy, but of philosophy filtered through personality. "I have been accused by Pope and others of being a true believer—that's an insult?" says Margaret Hays Young. "I love land and wildlife and nature and I want it back! That's my motivation. Period. I do temp jobs for money, theater for love, this because it's morally necessary."

"The potential to make a difference is so exciting. Instead we've got this ho-hum kind of attitude," says Moisha Blechman, the New York group's deposed chair, who once asked Ruth Messinger to contemplate the effects of West Side development from the point of view of a scarlet tanager flying down the Hudson. "The reason why Margaret and I care is we'd like to see one major environmental organization be democratic and not compromise on the environment. In any way."

"My philosophy perhaps is different," says Jezer. "Thank God for NYPIRG who stands out there and screams, but somebody has to be inside at the table."

The Brooklyn-raised Jezer makes no bones about being a politician. In the early '90s she twice ran for Congress as a Democrat in a heavily Republican district in Syracuse—and lost. The environment wasn't part of her platform then, because "that was not on the table. That wasn't the biggie," she says. She became the Atlantic Chapter's chair in 1996. Last summer, Jezer met Hillary Clinton, who said, " 'Boy, do I have to sit down and talk to you!' " Jezer says.

As Jezer discovered, the Sierra Club is one of the few places where, without money or connections, it is possible to amass considerable political clout. "Because you can just join, it tends to be something of a magnet for political groupies," says Young.

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