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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
Indeed, Jezer’s run for chair of the Atlantic Chapter was truly a campaign. She wrote letters and made calls, contacting all 11 of the state’s regional groups. Once in office, she concentrated on bringing in her own people to head the various chapter committees. There are about 26 seats on the Atlantic Chapter’s board of governors. The New York group automatically gets five. Given its constituency, it should also have been able to elect some of its members to the board’s five at-large seats. Instead, Jezer controlled those votes. When she was done, she had the majority necessary to outvote the New York group.
“She put a lot of energy into con-solidating power and influence in the state,” says Blechman. “The rest of us never bothered because we’re more interested in environmental issues. She has basically outmaneuvered us and is in charge.”
Jezer tapped a well of hostility toward the city group. For years, the New Yorkers dominated the Atlantic Chapter, leaving the other groups to feel like “forgotten stepchildren,” as David Orr puts it. “They had long meetings that went till midnight, which effectively removed anyone who came from distances,” says Jezer. “It was kind of like New York City would wait for everyone to leave and they would vote in everything.”
The New York group perceived Jezer as high-handed, authoritarian, and a phony environmentalist. She, in turn, thought their agenda was “more and more myopic.” Its leaders had spent years fighting the official vision for the development of Hudson River Park, which they called “Son of Westway.” It is a lonely position. The park has now been endorsed by the governor, the mayor, government agencies, and numerous mainstream environmental groups brought together by the Hudson River Park Alliance. That group is chaired by Albert Butzel, an attorney who in the 1970s represented the Sierra Club in its landmark lawsuit against Westway.
Being in the minority, however, “doesn’t make them wrong,” says Lower Manhattan assembly member Deborah Glick. “There were very monied interests on the other side. And what a surprise—real estate in Manhattan won.”
The relentless resistance by members like Jim Lane, Brandstein, Blechman, and Young came at a cost. Former state senator Franz Leichter, often a friend of underdogs, recently sent out a letter claiming the group had been rendered “ineffective by disunity and factionalism.” There were violent feuds even within its ranks. When Frank Eadie, as chair of the water and oceans committee, defied the group’s position on the Hudson River Park, “we voted to remove Frank,” Young says. Both Eadie and another disgruntled group member, John Klotz, signed up with other state Sierra Club groups, wound up on the Atlantic Chapter’s board of governors, and became Jezer’s allies. “It was just too acrimonious,” says Klotz.
Recent years have been marked by endless skirmishing. In 1998, Jezer was picked to join a Pataki task force on refinancing the Superfund program, which cleans up toxic sites. The New Yorkers spent months fretting about what horrors Jezer might sanction during closed-door meetings. The chapter had no official position on the Superfund. “None of the real activist groups that actually do work on Superfund were on the task force,” Hays says. “There were people like NRDC, EDF—bought-and-paid-for foundation puppies—and Rhea Jezer.”
“What I’m proud of is I was able to get the respect of the governor,” Jezer says.
The task force ultimately made no recommendations, but the New York group members are convinced they had reason to fear. Aaron Mair, whom Jezer had recruited to serve as chair of the chapter’s environmental justice committee, showed up in print endorsing a policy The New York Times‘s Raymond Hernandez said would be “heresy” to some environmentalists. “He believes it would be easier to attract a developer if the law didn’t require that the land be cleaned to a pristine condition, but rather just enough for another industrial plant,” Hernandez reported.
To make matters worse, both Jezer and Mair have been named to the board of the New York League of Conservation Voters. The NYLCV, says David Orr, “is really created in Carl Pope’s image. Endorse candidates in as many races as you can,” with emphasis on backing winners, even if they are sometimes environmentally flawed. The NYLCV endorsed Pataki in 1998, and group leaders made it clear they would raise a stink if Jezer attempted to do the same.
“If you lock up the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, you lock up the environmental endorsement. That’s all you have,” says Young. “The potentials are immense.”
Endorsements were a continual source of tension, particularly since 1998 was an election year. Blechman says the New York City Group fought to endorse Lower East Side progressive Margarita Lopez for a City Council seat in the Democratic primary. “[Assembly speaker] Sheldon Silver’s assistant was running against Lopez and Rhea wanted to be in good with Silver, so they would not honor our endorsement,” says Blechman.
Jezer insists the problem was that the group hadn’t interviewed Lopez’s opponents, as club rules indicate. That was no good under any circumstances, says Jezer, and especially not “when she happens to work for Silver! It’s politically stupid!” Blechman went ahead and praised Lopez in the group’s newsletter, the City Sierran. “We were being feisty,” she says.
The New York leaders also believe they played a key role in denying a congressional endorsement for Sherwood Boehlert, an upstate Republican incumbent. (Many upstaters also opposed Boehlert, who was weak on wetlands.) That irked the Sierra Club’s president, Chuck McGrady, a Republican who has been lobbying the chapters to widen their audience by endorsing more Republicans.
In October, McGrady had dinner with New Yorkers Brandstein and Cappadocia, among others. He urged them to back Boehlert. They eventually declined. “McGrady vowed to get even with us,” claims Brandstein. “He wrote quite a nasty little e-mail to our group chair at that time. It was quite clear we were going to face some reprisals.”
THE NEW YORKERS ARE CONVINCED THE CHAPTER was exacting its own revenge by squeezing the group in various bureaucratic ways. Jezer, says Blechman, “set about effectively making war on the New York City Group. We were strangled, starved for funding progressively.” For years, the group and the chapter had joint office space. In 1998, Jezer abandoned the group share for a far more friendly cubicle in the national’s brand-new New York office. The move helped cripple the New York group financially. In addition to rent, it was forced to cover the costs of telephones, xeroxing, and administrative chores once handled by the chapter’s staff. That year the executive committee fought back: it sent out a letter pleading for funds in March, the same month the club designates for chapter solicitations. Technically legal or not, there was little doubt the chapter would be outraged. The following year, though they’d promised the chapter they wouldn’t, the New York group did it again.
“That was the straw,” says Jezer.
On March 27, 1999, the chapter voted to dissolve the New York City Group. In an e-mail two weeks earlier, the chapter’s vice chair, Stuart Auchincloss, had explained the group was “a cancer on the Sierra Club. Living organisms have mechanisms to control or eliminate rogue elements that do not serve the whole.”
The New Yorkers were stunned. “There was so much emotion,” says Cappadocia. The group appealed, and the national appointed two fact finders who dug up no documentary proof that the city group had violated club bylaws or that the chapter had the right to dissolve the group. Nonetheless, the national board of directors upheld the decision. Pope had had enough of the rebellion in New York.
“All of this controversy has been quite damaging to our effectiveness in New York City,” Pope says.
It fell to the national to manage the new elections. For three or four months, Pope says, the crisis in New York took a third of his time—and a considerable chunk of Sierra Club money. Some of the club’s efforts made matters worse. First, it hired a law firm, Perkins Coie, to investigate what the New York City Group had done with the money it had raised. In their newsletter CounterPunch, Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair have declared that the firm’s client list is “larded with some of the most vicious and noxious corporations in America,” including chemical companies Monsanto and W.R. Grace. “This is what it has come to with this once admirable organization,” they wrote. “It is hiring a firm of legal goons for corporate thugs to attack its own grassroots environmentalists.”
The club also hired an “intervenor”—Catherine Tinker, an administrative law judge—to oversee new elections. She vetted candidates, banning those former group officers who’d refused to respond to Perkins Coie’s questions about the management of the group. Local members of the Sierra Club, the vast majority of whom have no involvement with the club, were besieged with mailings. There was one from Franz Leichter, another from the leader of the Fresh Start slate, John Klotz. The former group members say they were the victims of a smear campaign.
“It was the Atlantic Chapter that came around asking me to run,” said winning candidate Cathy Drew, director of the River Project, a Manhattan monitoring station for the Hudson’s marine biology, a week before the election concluded. “Rhea Jezer and [national staff member] Susan Holmes, they all came around. I told them no several times just ’cause I was afraid of all this mess.” What she’s heard, she said, is that “basically these people have been thrown out for misbehavior and I think there’s even, I’m not sure, a criminal thing against them for financial impropriety.”
The Fresh Start slate won by a landslide—1200 votes were cast, 10 times more than usual. But they have to delay doing business until Judge Wilk resolves the questions surrounding a motion to overturn the election.
DAVID ORR IS DOUBTFUL THE LAWSUITS WILL succeed, since there is “just no case law on this.” But the group’s defiant actions may still roil the Sierra Club. The John Muir Sierrans don’t intend to let the matter drop. Orr, for one, says he will persist in trying to have the New York group declared its own chapter. Only California has more than one chapter—a structure Pope says is unwieldy, because yet another bureaucratic layer has had to be created to resolve the chapter’s political endorsement disputes. And the last thing he wants is for the New Yorkers to have ongoing license to address the city’s major donors by mail.
The fact that the New York group has fought the national to a standstill is also a very clear indication of how much power a determined grassroots group can have in fighting the system. But at what cost? New York’s Sierra Club has languished for eight months: major issues, like malathion spraying, have gone unaddressed. “There is a price to be paid when folks choose to take an internal matter and turn it into a public guerrilla war,” says Pope.
To many Sierrans, it is nonetheless essential to reassert the principles of grassroots power within the club. “There may be some good that comes out of this,” says New York’s Jim Lane. “I hope the Sierra Club will end up examining the procedures by which it deals with these conflicts when they arise. To say we will prevent them from arising is a pipe dream.”
Says Sierra Club legend David Brower, who is now 87 and still on the club’s board: “It happens in democracies that they forget to be democratic now and then. I’m in favor of the local group in New York.”