Immigration dispute spawns factions, anger in Sierra Club

Green to the core, Seattle attorney Michael McGinn joined the Sierra Club a decade ago while still in law school.

Clean water, clean air, preserving public lands sounded the drumbeat of his environmental agenda.

But now, as McGinn and other members of the nation's oldest conservation group elect five new people to the board of directors, they're weighing whether their environmental priorities — ending commercial logging, stopping sprawl, protecting wildlands — ought to include reducing U.S. immigration.

Amid a bitter debate are some high-profile personalities, including civil-rights leader Morris Dees, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Paul Watson, head of the anti-whaling Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

There's also a lawsuit against the Sierra Club's top officials that claims they're unfairly trying to influence the board elections. Some club leaders are sending letters warning that the nonprofit organization and its $100 million annual budget are being commandeered by extremists advancing an anti-immigrant, animal-rights agenda.

"What's really disappointing is that this entire debate is distracting and keeping us away from our primary focus in order to deal with squabbles like this," said Larry Fahn, president of the Sierra Club board.

The immigration question has been posed by a coalition of club members, self-described "reform activists" who argue that immigration reduction is environmentally responsible: Fewer people mean less sprawl and less impact to the natural environment.

"We understand what our population growth, together with high levels of consumption, does to the forests, to the oceans, to air pollution," said Bill Elder, 57, a former Boeing engineer turned health-care consultant who lives in Issaquah.

"We realize we need to ... not keep growing at 33 million people per decade as we did," he said, citing U.S. census statistics about the overall population increase from 1990 and 2000.

But to Sierra Club members like McGinn, the immigration-reduction stance being advocated by what he calls "outside " candidates is part of a misguided insurgency as insidious as any noxious weed.

"Everything gets related back to the environment in one way or another, but that does not make it an environmental issue," said McGinn, 44, the de facto local spokesman for Groundswell Sierra, which says its mission is to "save" the 112-year-old Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club's political influence could dissolve if its 750,000 members become divided by a stance on immigration, Groundswell warns.

"We could argue about whether I should take plastic or paper at the grocery store, but let me tell you, when it comes to what are high priorities for the Sierra Club, this (immigration) isn't one of them," McGinn said.

Evolution of club's stand

While most environmental groups typically have not tackled U.S. population growth, the stalwart Sierra Club addressed it as early as 1965.

The club persuaded Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich to write "The Population Bomb" (1968), which defined population as a national environmental issue.

Later, the group championed a national population policy, family planning programs and the availability of abortion. It also looked at population in developing countries, again advocating reproductive health and family planning services.

Limiting U.S. immigration was part of the club's "population-stabilization" platform.

"The U.S., by many measures, is the most overpopulated nation on the planet because of our consumption level, because of the number of resources we use and the way we contribute to the deterioration of the ecosystem," said Judy Kunofsky, a Berkeley mathematician who chaired the club's population committee in the 1980s.

"The Sierra Club believed that for everyone's sake around the world, the U.S. both needed to curb its consumption and stop increasing its numbers."

To that end, the population committee in 1989 noted immigration to the United States ought to be no greater than 507,000 people a year, about 100,000 less than the actual U.S. immigration levels in 1986 and 1987.

But as immigration became a political hot button, the club's immigration stance became controversial within its ranks, Kunofsky said. As the issue became increasingly divisive, she helped to lead the charge that the club should take no position on it.

In 1996, the board decided the Sierra Club would remain neutral on immigration levels and policies.

"The club remains committed to environmental rights and protections for all within our borders, without discrimination based on immigration status," the board said, noting it was time to put the debate to rest.

The vote, though, set the groundwork for the current controversy.

Issue 'too divisive'

Nonclub environmentalists said immigration cannot be addressed as a single issue or addressed effectively by an ecologically minded group.

"Immigration clearly has environmental implications," said Jim DiPeso, spokesman for Republicans for Environmental Protection, a national group. "But the way to deal with it is to look at the underlying drivers. What causes immigration? What are the underlying social and economic factors?"

U.S. immigration, some environmentalists said, isn't as pressing as some other national problems. And as a subject, it is too complex for an advocacy group to take on.

"There are a lot of things that we can't do," said Ben Beach, spokesman for The Wilderness Society, which focuses on protection of public lands. "We take on the ones (the issues) we feel we can do something about."

And then there's the subtext of race and ethnicity, which comes up whenever U.S. immigration is debated.

"You end up with a very emotionally charged issue," said Mitch Friedman, of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance in Bellingham. "It's so much easier for people like me to duck and hide than to have to deal with it."

Too often those advocating less immigration are branded as racist, noted Kunofsky, a longtime club leader. She is a former national president of Zero Population Growth and a former advisory council member of FAIR, Federation for American Immigration Reform.

For 10 years, she urged the Sierra Club to champion less immigration until she realized the subject, no matter how she felt, wasn't one the club ought to tackle.

"Every group is uniquely suited to do well on certain things," she said. "And when an issue is so divisive within the Sierra Club, the Sierra Club can't be effective."

Success of petition candidates

A hallmark of the Sierra Club has been how members can drive policy and run for any open board seat. Get enough signatures on a petition, and your agenda, or your candidacy, will be put up for a vote.

In 1998, unhappy with the board's decision to be neutral on immigration, some club members put immigration limits on the ballot. The measure was soundly trounced.

Undeterred, members who had formed Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization — now known by the acronym SUSPS — then championed several petition candidates for the board of directors — and won. The winners: Doug LaFollette, a former Wisconsin state senator; Benjamin Zuckerman, an astronomy and physics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles; and Watson, co-founder of Greenpeace and president of the Friday Harbor-based Sea Shepherd. All advocate reducing U.S. immigration so that the nation's net population growth is zero.

"I'm an immigrant. I'm from Canada," said Watson. "All we're saying is we shouldn't have a neutral position on the most critical issue affecting the environment." Watson called the Sierra Club's current neutral stance "a cowardly act."

The trio's ascendancy, which required beating candidates who had been nominated by a board-appointed committee, was a notable and, to some, uncomfortable change.

But in talking to some longtime club members, it's not clear whether the candidates' immigration stance or that they were petition candidates is more bothersome.

Another group of petition candidates is challenging committee-nominated candidates in next month's election.

They include Richard Lamm, the former 12-year Democratic governor of Colorado; David Pimentel, an entomology professor at Cornell University; and Frank Morris, former director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

The three are endorsed by SUSPS, and their views have been celebrated by anti-immigration groups. If they win, advocates for immigration restrictions will account for eight of the Sierra Club's 15 board seats.

Groundswell and several former Sierra Club presidents contend that these candidates have no previous club involvement. Moreover, they say the candidates have ties to extremist groups.

"A hostile takeover of the Club by radical anti-immigrant activists is in the making," wrote Dees, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a letter to members.

Dees said a white-supremacist Web site had urged its readers to join the Sierra Club to vote for the Stabilization candidates. As a countermeasure, Dees announced his candidacy for the board, not to win but to draw attention to "the greening of hate."

Last week, Lamm, Morris and Pimentel filed suit, claiming the Sierra Club, its president and executive director are violating California state law governing nonprofits by supporting nominated candidates over petition candidates.

Watson, who is endorsing the SUSPS candidates and two vegan candidates, said the majority of his board colleagues have voted to send 1,000-word mailers to every club member warning them against candidates backed by "outside" interests.

Ballots will be mailed in two weeks to the club's 26,000 local Cascade chapter members and the rest of the affiliates nationwide. Election results will be announced April 21.

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or

Sierra Club

Founded: 1892 by naturalist and conservationist John Muir

Membership: 750,000

Annual budget: $100 million

Web site:

Mission statement:

• 1. Explore, enjoy and protect the wild places of the earth.

• 2. Practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources.

• 3. Educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment.

• 4. Use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.

Board of directors and the years their terms expire:

Nick Aumen, 2004; Jim Catlin, 2005; Jan O'Connell, 2004; Robbie Cox, 2006; Ed Dobson, 2004; Larry Fahn, 2005; Jennifer Ferenstein, 2004; Lisa Force, 2006; Marcia Hanscom, 2005; Doug LaFollette, 2006; Chuck McGrady, 2005; Paul Watson, 2006; David Wells, 2004; Bernie Zaleha, 2006; Benjamin Zuckerman, 2005.

Source: Sierra Club