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Doing for clean energy what John Muir did for preservation

In September 2005, thousands of Sierra Club members gathered at the Moscone Center in San Francisco for the largest-ever gathering of the venerable organization.

Amid outings to parks and presentations by environmentalists, pundits and comedians, more than 700 delegates from around the country voted to make climate change their No. 1 priority.

The importance of the vote was not lost on the club's leaders.

"That was a major shift," said Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director at the time. "That was a statement that in the 21st century, you can't protect local places without protecting global systems."

That vote has set the basis for the club's activities since, and the group is waging the fight on several fronts, including halting coal-fired power plants, battling natural gas and oil production, and advocating for renewable energy. Climate change has also been the driving force behind increased partnerships with outside groups and the club's work to fight Senate rules on filibusters and increase voter access to polls.

The goal: Do for clean energy what John Muir did for wild lands preservation more than 120 years ago.

"The campaign they're involved in now related to energy and climate change is a different type of challenge from previous battles," said Paul Sabin, an environmental historian at Yale University. "To look at earlier struggles that might have been targeted on a particular park or dam conflict -- that model is not necessarily one that can be effective on an issue as broad-based and central to the entire economy."

Interviews with staff members and volunteers, though, show an organization that has tried to retain historical underpinnings even as it takes on new frontiers in the fight to address climate change. Club leaders say they recognize that its strength lies within members around the country, many of whom joined because of its connection to the outdoors.

Unlike most other modern environmental organizations, the club toes the line between a finely tuned national environmental organization focused on climate change and a grass-roots group composed of members who care deeply about local issues.

Local membership is "the source of the Sierra Club's power. Always has been over our 120-year-plus history," said Michael Brune, the club's executive director. "At the same time, we're generating that political capital. We have extensive lobbying operations, both in statehouses and in D.C."

The Sierra Club now counts 2.1 million members and supporters. For a look at financial information for five major environmental groups, click here. In 2011, the group reported revenue of nearly $98 million and spent more than $91 million, according to tax documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service. The club employed 678 people that year.

But the club's strength can also be a hindrance. The sheer number of members and the heavy reliance on volunteerism means it can take the club a while to really move on an issue; as a result, the club tends to be more reactive than proactive. And while it has an easy time mobilizing members around stopping fossil fuel industries, it has difficulty getting people to mobilize around their replacements.

"Stopping huge skyscrapers in a neighborhood is sexier than making sure the skyscraper that does belong has efficient windows," Pope said.

'Well-to-do San Franciscans who liked to go out hiking'

The Sierra Club's road to the modern environmental movement began in 1892, when naturalist Muir organized the group to protect the Sierra Nevada mountains. In its early years, the club focused solely on advocating for national parks. Famously, Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt camped at the newly formed Yosemite National Park in California in 1903; two years later, the government expanded the park to include the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley.

For decades, the organization persisted as a club of "well-to-do San Franciscans who liked to go out hiking," said Adam Rome, an environmental historian at the University of Delaware.

The Sierra Club lost its first major battle in 1913 with the approval to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley by San Francisco to bring better-quality and cheaper water to the city. Club members fought tooth and nail against its construction; Muir himself appealed to Roosevelt.

After the loss, the Sierra Club vowed to fight harder to preserve the nation's natural spaces. But the club did not become a national organization until after World War II, when its leaders returned home from the war and went to college under the G.I. Bill of Rights. Many settled where they went to college, extending the club's reach and forming chapters in places like New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Then along came David Brower.

"You have to see the Brower leadership as being the key moment of the Sierra Club becoming the more political organization," Sabin said.

Beginning in 1952, Brower, a charismatic mountaineer, author and editor, served as the club's first executive director. During the Brower years, the club became more active politically, fighting the creation of dams in scenic places such as the Grand Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument and helping pass the Wilderness Act in 1964, which preserved 9 million acres and created the process for designating wilderness areas.

The political activities during the Brower years, though, resulted in the IRS temporarily revoking the club's tax-exempt status, and Brower was forced out in 1969 after several internal struggles. He went on to form Friends of the Earth and its spinoff League of Conservation Voters. He also formed the Sierra Club Foundation, which remains the club's main fiscal sponsor today.

As pollution became a pressing public issue in the late 1960s, the Sierra Club -- now about 100,000 strong and much more politically adept -- changed from an old-fashioned conservation club to one with more a general environmental focus. It took on a nuclear power plant for the first time and, of the old-line conservation groups like the National Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation, was the first to recognize that young people were a powerful constituency.

Since then, the club has survived a controversial anti-immigration push in the 1980s that divided members and a revolt in the 1990s by the faction of so-called John Muir Sierrans, who thought the group should return more to its conservation roots.

Pope, who presided over the club for 17 years as its executive director beginning in 1992, said the group learned important lessons during the Clinton administration. It first got a taste of the power of Senate filibuster rules that allow a single senator to hold up what it expected would be steps forward for the environmental movement.

The club also realized that it couldn't count on Congress to pass environmental legislation and that it had to use the executive branch to move an environmental agenda. The Sierra Club successfully advocated for the Clinton administration to pass a rule that set aside 68 million acres of wild forests on public lands -- the most since the days of the Theodore Roosevelt administration.

Enter climate change

But while it had modern successes, Pope points to one great failing of the club: not jumping onto the climate change bandwagon sooner.

"We tend to hold onto the past because change is hard," he said. "An old organization, a big organization like the Sierra Club, has a particularly difficult time adapting to the future. If you look at climate change, the club was not the first national organization to embrace climate change as an actual urgent necessity. That's true in spite of the fact that probably more climate scientists belong to the Sierra Club than any other organization."

The structure of the modern club and its sheer size -- there are currently 63 state and regional chapters, and all work proceeds on a democratic basis -- have made it difficult in the recent past to choose a cohesive direction.

"The Sierra Club, we always joked as a staff, we had somewhere between 12 and 30 priorities," said Maggie Fox, who spent 20 years there, including five years as deputy executive director, before leaving in 2006. "Because every year the membership votes on their priorities, and the votes would vary very little in the top 20. So you, as a staff person, if you sat down with another partner organization, they would say, 'Listen, these are our top two priorities.' And we would say, 'These are our top 20.'"

The vote on climate change in 2005 provided focus.

"I think the significance of that vote maybe was not as apparent to regular people who didn't know the organization voted every year and always had hundreds of priorities over the years," said Fox, who is married to Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and is currently the CEO of Al Gore's Climate Reality Project. "People don't stop caring about other things -- they just realized for the first time that climate change was touching everything."

Beyond Coal

The greatest manifestation of the club's emphasis on climate change is the increased focus on its 2002 Beyond Coal campaign, through which it has vowed to stop all new coal plants and force the retirement of existing plants throughout the country.

The campaign was spawned when Sierra Club volunteers in Illinois began noticing a spike in permit applications. The plants were among the new coal facilities called for in the 2001 George W. Bush energy plan.

"We saw that and we knew that if those new coal plants were built, they would run for another 150 to 200 years and it would be game over for the planet," said Mary Anne Hitt, the campaign's director.

Since then, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups have seen 182 new coal plants halted, and more than 150 existing coal-fired power plants have announced their retirements; in the most recent, the Tennessee Valley Authority announced last month that it would shut down eight coal-fired generating units at power plants in Alabama and Kentucky.

Hitt said the strength of the campaign, which received a $50 million funding boost from Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2011, lies in the Sierra Club's historical presence in local communities around the country that stretches back to the Muir days.

"The strategy in a nutshell has been to go where the pollution is and to influence decisions about the pollution at the level where the decision is made, which is often the state level or local level," Hitt said. "As a grass-roots organization, the Sierra Club was everywhere. And everywhere a new coal plant was proposed, we had members in their backyard."

Brune's leadership

Brune, who took up the Sierra Club's executive director mantle when Pope retired in 2010, cites Beyond Coal as the Sierra Club's biggest achievement in recent years. His top priority for the club is to be as effective at creating market opportunities for solar, wind and energy efficiency, and shutting down fossil fuel operations, as it has been in the past at preserving wilderness.

In short, the club wants to be the John Muir for clean energy.

"At the club, I, along with the board, set very high standards that are on the edge of what's achievable, i.e., to move our country off fossil fuels starting with coal," he said, "and then fully expect our staff and volunteers to meet or exceed those standards."

Brune grew up on the New Jersey Shore; while a teenager, he developed a rash while spending the summer on the beach. He started a petition to raise awareness of water contamination that got the attention of local community groups. A hike down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon at age 14 cemented his calling.

He graduated from West Chester University in Pennsylvania in 1993 with bachelor's degrees in economics and finance and began his environmental career as an organizer for Greenpeace. He most recently served as executive director of Rainforest Action Network, where he oversaw the inking of more than a dozen commitments from large corporations, including Home Depot, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs, to green their operations.

In a recent interview, 350.org founder Bill McKibben called Brune the "real deal" and the "most significant organizational leader" for the club since the Brower era.

"Mike Brune, he is everything you would want," McKibben said.

Brune lives in Alameda, Calif., with his wife, Mary, the co-founder of the environmental group Making Our Milk Safe, and their three young children with whom he spends free time camping, hiking, bike riding and playing sports. Over the summer, the family piled in the minivan for an almost three-week road trip to Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona; Brune said he's doing all he can "to make sure that our kids are not future oil and gas executives."

Since the failure of Congress to pass cap-and-trade legislation in 2010, which he calls a low point for the environmental movement's legislative strategy, Brune said he's worked to refocus the club on its historical core strength -- state and local chapters -- to meet the goal of creating a Muir-like revolution in clean energy.

Part of the Sierra Club's modern work on the legislative front also involves dipping its toes into the recently successful push to reform Senate rules that lead to filibusters and holdups of nominations, as well as voting rights. To that end, the club was a co-founder earlier this year of the Democracy Initiative along with Communication Workers of America, Greenpeace and the NAACP. It jumped into the immigration debate this year and also launched an internal democracy program this past summer.

"This is about access, and if our voice is being drowned out at the ballot box, that hurts all of us," said Courtney Hight, the organization's new democracy director.

The modern Sierra Club now also has aggressive campaigns against both oil and natural gas. Its campaign Beyond Natural Gas, through which it's advocating for the end of hydraulic fracturing and liquefied natural gas exports, has driven a wedge between the club and the Environmental Defense Fund, which has sought for improved fracking rather than its elimination. Earlier this year, the club blasted a plan by EDF to support fracking if companies agree to abide by stringent air and water regulations.

Supporters of natural gas as an alternative for clean energy have been highly critical of the club's position, which represents a reversal from earlier support for natural gas. Pope himself was a strong supporter of natural gas as an alternative to coal.

The club's current goal is to get the nation off natural gas in the electricity sector by 2030.

"We did talk about natural gas being a bridge, or a transition fuel," said Deb Nardone, director of Beyond Natural Gas, who lives in the Marcellus Shale region of central Pennsylvania. "We strongly disagree with that notion now. And part of that, we were just starting to see the impacts on the ground of what communities were feeling from extensive industrial activity taking place in their backyard."

The club stumbled last year, though, when Brune was forced to admit that his organization had taken more than $26 million from subsidiaries or individuals associated with Chesapeake Energy -- one of the country's largest natural gas companies -- for its anti-coal efforts between 2007 and 2010. Brune said he learned of the funding shortly after he came on board and moved to end the practice.

At the time, the United Mine Workers blasted the club, saying the group used natural gas money to suppress efforts at developing clean coal technologies. The union questioned the club's independence.

"They've cynically put people at risk for years to come with this campaign, and made themselves little more than tools of an energy industry competitor in the bargain," the union said. "Let's get real here -- just like any business, the gas companies are about selling gas, period. And they will gladly funnel cash to any organization that will help them do it."

Shoring up union support

In the spring of this year, the Sierra Club hired Dean Hubbard to be its labor director; his sole job is to foster the relationship between the club and labor unions. Hubbard came to the club from the Transport Workers Union; previously, he was a union-side labor lawyer.

"I think that ultimately it's because the club recognizes that we can't win alone. It can't be just people who self-identify as environmentalists," Hubbard said. "In order to end climate disruption, in order to build a clean energy future, we need millions of working families to help us."

The Sierra Club's relationship with labor extends back to at least the 1970s, when the group worked with United Steelworkers on the Clean Air Act. The Sierra Club and USW throughout the years have worked largely on chemical and trade issues together, particularly those involving China.

"Far too often, the people on the trade side throw both labor rights and environmental rights under the bus," United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said of the historical common ground between his organization and the Sierra Club.

USW and the Sierra Club formalized their relationship in 2006 with the creation of the BlueGreen Alliance, an organization whose mission is to address climate change in a manner that's a plus for the economy and workers.

The BlueGreen Alliance currently has 14 members: 10 labor unions and four environmental groups.

"Union members, a lot of them care about addressing climate change. There are a lot of benefits to addressing climate change," said Michael Williams, the alliance's director of policy and legislation. "On the flip side, environmentalists see the benefits of ensuring a worker's right to collective bargaining and a healthy and safe environment."

The Keystone XL factor

Battles over the Keystone XL pipeline, though, threaten to delay -- and in some cases, undo -- the long-term progress the club has made in recent years in finding common ground with factions of the labor movement.

The Sierra Club has partnered with 350.org on several KXL fronts and, earlier this year, broke its long-standing tradition of opposing civil disobedience when club members tied themselves to the fence outside the White House. Brune, McKibben and several other environmentalists were arrested.

Michael Marx, director of the club's Beyond Oil campaign, was the original author of a 2008 paper outlining the strategy for the Tar Sands Campaign, a coalition of environmental groups opposed to Keystone XL and other pipelines originating in Canada's oil sands region.

In response to environmental groups' opposition to the pipeline, the 500,000-member-strong Laborers' International Union of North America pulled out of the BlueGreen Alliance last year.

"We're repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women," LIUNA General President Terry O'Sullivan said then.

Sierra Club leaders see KXL as only a stumbling block and point to causes they're taking on -- such as working with labor to fix leaky gas and water pipes throughout the country -- where they can find agreement.

"We're going to disagree, and partners disagree all the time," Brune said. "We don't expect to have 100 percent unanimity on every single issue."

Nationally, both the labor and environmental movements are struggling to find their footing after realizing that the legislative strategy they've been pursuing hasn't panned out, said Erik Loomis, a professor of environmental history at the University of Rhode Island whose research focuses on the relationship between labor and the environment.

"The environmental movement, beginning in the '60s, had so dedicated itself to a legislative strategy, big groups had dedicated themselves to a legislative strategy based upon expert testimony to pass regulations, convince congressmen and senators of the correctiveness of the position using science. What the cap-and-trade battle showed was that doesn't matter anymore," Loomis said. "Like labor, the strategy they've used for many decades is not working."

While the Sierra Club has made strides in recent years to pair with labor -- earlier this year, AFL-CIO announced a partnership with the group -- Loomis said it's also fallen in the trap that many environmental organizations do: failing to promote new industries with the same zeal it approaches tearing down existing ones.

Club leaders, though, say they're focused on the jobs that can be provided by a clean energy economy. Hitt of Beyond Coal said the group is always advocating for wind, solar and energy efficiency to replace shuttered coal facilities. She cited a settlement with American Electric Power Co. Inc. in which the utility agreed to both retire a coal plant and purchase 600 megawatts of wind power.

Kate Colarulli, associate director of the Beyond Oil campaign, which is focused on both the KXL pipeline in the near term and on stopping the development of oil sands in the long term, said the club is equally focused on reducing demand for oil through finding new fuels and embracing electric vehicles.

"We are 100 percent clear that in order that we have a living planet, on which people can have jobs and enjoy sustainable lives, we have to stop climate disruption and [that] means a transition to a clean energy economy," Hubbard said. "What that means is potentially millions of new jobs and a new economy."

Muir's legacy

Though the Sierra Club judges success now more on the transition to clean energy than on the number of acres preserved, traces of the group formed more than 120 years ago by John Muir still exist. Aside from having a campaign, Our Wild America, devoted to protecting public spaces and creating national monuments, the club is trying to stress the connection between halting fossil fuel expansion and preserving lands for hiking and other outdoor activities.

"Our tag line is to 'explore, enjoy and protect the planet.' We put a lot of resources into the first couple parts, exploring and enjoying," Brune said.

Pope believes the club has retained its grass-roots origin.

"We're not a policy shop. ... Most public policy sectors have a grass-roots player like the Sierra Club," Pope said.

David Scott, a disability rights lawyer and the club's current president, said he's an excellent example of the grass-roots nature of the club and how the structure of the organization makes it possible for a longtime volunteer like him to sit at the decisionmaking table with paid leadership.

Scott started out in the Sierra Club as a local hike leader and became chairman of the Ohio chapter in the early 1990s before holding national volunteer positions. Earlier this year, he was elected board president.

"I really do believe we're the most effective environmental organization in the country," Scott said. "We have 2 million members and supporters, we have been around since 1892. I think we have, by far, the strongest recognition of any grass-roots environmental organization."

Reporter Elana Schor contributed.

Tomorrow: a look at Environmental Defense Fund.

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