The Sierra Club
The Sierra Club
Incorporated : 1892
Employees : 325
Sales : $52.88 million (1996)
NAIC : 813312 Environment, Conservation & Wildlife Organizations; 511130 Book Publishers & Printing
The Sierra Club occupies a unique place in American culture. One of the most influential U.S. environmental activist groups, it has been supported by such legendary members as photographer Ansel Adams and founder John Muir. Though some picture it a bully, the group employs less extreme measures than Greenpeace and lacks the financial prowess of The Nature Conservancy.
California’s Sierra Nevada mountains became the site of a mountaineering community in the last half of the 19th century. Legendary naturalist John Muir was active in promoting the creation of the Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant National Parks to protect the High Sierra from grazing sheep and other means of destruction.
Professor J.H. Senger, of the University of California, conceived a repository of maps and books of the area. By 1890 Senger and his students and colleagues had been discussing the idea of a “Sierra Club,” with a headquarters in the remote, unspoiled Yosemite Valley. Muir, attorney Warren Olney, and artist William Keith began discussions at Keith’s studio. Several professors from the University of California and Stanford, and other interested parties, soon joined the group, which counted 182 members at its inception. Olney drafted the club’s articles of incorporation, which were signed in his law office on June 4, 1892. Muir was chosen as the first president.
The Sierra Club immediately began printing maps and newsletters, maintaining trails, and defeating legislation aimed at reducing Yosemite National Park’s boundaries. The group also succeeded in lobbying to turn the Yosemite State Park over to the federal government, which incorporated it into the national park. At the time, however, exploring the area’s rivers and mountains was the club’s primary focus.
Hetch Hetchy and the 1910s: The Sierra club’s First Major Controversy
A planned dam at Hetch Hetchy Valley to secure hydroelectric energy for the San Francisco community flared into a national controversy in 1910 that raged for a decade and left dividing scars. Hundreds of newspapers expressed (generally conservationist) opinions on the project and Congress held two sets of hearings on it.
Even one of the club’s founders, Warren Olney, who had been voted mayor of Oakland after receiving both Republican and Democratic nominations, felt the dam was necessary. He resigned from the club in the wake of the painful confrontation. The dam was built eventually.
John Muir died on Christmas Eve, 1914, crestfallen over the outcome of the Hetch Hetchy affair. Its memory produced a generation of more politically savvy leaders, however, and highlighted the need for better organized campaigns to save such wilderness areas. The Sierra club’s own reputation seemed enhanced by its role in the struggle, ensuring its influence in future public land management decisions. Part of Muir’s legacy was the National Park Service, founded in 1916. Its first director, Stephen Mather, was a Sierra Club member. Thus began an era of cooperation with governmental agencies.
Joseph LeConte, son of one of the original founders, followed Muir as president in 1915. In the 1920s and 1930s the club continued the annual High Trips into the Sierra begun in 1901 and documented in Bulletins. They brought dozens of campers as new chapters sprouted up around California. Some were documented by legendary photographer Ansel Adams, who joined in 1919. He served as Sierra Club director from 1934 to 1971.
The Sierra Club helped turn the management of the Kings Canyon area away from the Forest Service, which allowed logging, and into the hands of the Park Service. The Kings Canyon National Park would escape much of the development of other national parks. When the Park Service plans recarved an existing road there, however, it highlighted a conflict between the club’s goals of preserving nature and making it accessible.
In the 1940s chapters across the country came into being, not only in California but in the Northwest and New England. Membership stood at about 4,000. During World War II the club helped develop Army training materials for traversing mountainous terrain.
The Sierra Club board updated its motto in 1951—“To explore, enjoy, and protect the Sierra Nevada and other scenic resources of the United States”—omitting the “rendering accessible” prerogative of the original version. The Sierra Club had 7,000 members at the time. One of the club’s main concerns was the intense demand on timber brought about by postwar housing construction.
Dave Brower, a publicist for the Yosemite Park hospitality operator, became the club’s first executive director in 1953— the beginning of professional Sierra Club staff. Already a volunteer, and a board member since 1941, he was hired to campaign against the Upper Basin project that threatened to place seven dams in the Colorado River basin.
Under Brower, the club boated observers along the rivers. Brower also testified before the U.S. House that Bureau of Land Reclamation engineers had simply miscalculated their water evaporation figures. As with Kings Canyon, they filmed trips through the area and produced a photo/text album, which included a chapter by legendary publisher Alfred A. Knopf. News magazines across the country began documenting the controversy unfolding at Dinosaur National Monument, which was saved, though at the expense of Glen Canyon. President Eisenhower was able to trigger dynamite in the canyon wall from the White House in 1963.
In 1960 The Sierra Club published the ambitious, large-format photo-and-text book This Is the American Earth, which sold well in spite of its steep $15 price. Other photo books followed in this unique program. Another innovation that would become ubiquitous in bookstores was the club’s nature calendar, developed with Ballantine Books.
The Wilderness Act became law in 1964, though it still allowed mining. The Sierra Club championed the cause of a Redwood National Park on the northern California coast to protect some of the country’s last virgin forests. The club published controversial open letters in national newspapers and by 1968 the beginnings of the park were in place.
A 1967 campaign to prevent dams in the Grand Canyon echoed The Sierra club’s earlier protests. The group produced three books as articles appeared in major consumer magazines. After running a confrontational ad in the New York Times, The Sierra Club found the IRS investigating and finally withdrawing its tax-exempt status.
The IRS action inflamed the press and the public. Club membership doubled in the next three years to 78,000. The group spent the rest of thé decade fighting what it deemed inappropriately placed ski lodges and nuclear reactors. Its early vacillations on the latter issue allowed for the development of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
Brower began to receive criticism for turning too much of the club’s attention to publications, which were now losing money. To promote them, he ran an ad in the New York Times that called for making the whole Earth a national park. The board did not appreciate the gesture, and within a few months he had been replaced by attorney Mike McCloskey as executive director. Brower later formed the Friends of the Earth.
Sierra Club in the Space Age
The Earth pictures taken from space in 1969 seem to have precipitated a shift in public perception, causing the planet to be seen as vulnerable, fragile, and unique in the universe. The National Environment Policy Act, which became law in January 1970, required impact studies for future federal projects. The Clean Air Act also was passed, the Environmental Protection Agency was created, and April 22,1970 was designated the first Earth Day. For its part, The Sierra Club published a mass market activist’s guide that sold 400,000 copies and began distributing a tip sheet from Washington.
The Sierra Club fought Walt Disney’s plan for a massive ski resort in the Mineral King area of the Sierra Nevada range. In the process, it crossed paths, not for the last time, with Ronald Reagan, then governor of California. After a legal battle that extended to the U.S. Supreme Court, the proposed development was defeated.
Threatened coastlines and forest areas gave The Sierra Club more cause to rally in the 1970s. Logging, mining, and construction interests coveted pristine land, and others wanted to dissect national parks with motorized vehicles and power lines.
To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.
The energy industry—with its oil slicks, radioactive waste, and so on, became a particular concern of the 1970s. The club also challenged a Boeing proposal to build a supersonic aircraft similar to the Concorde, complaining of sonic booms and damage to the ozone layer. World population control also became a popular topic, discussed at a U.N. environmental conference in Stockholm in 1972.
The decade ended with a bang: the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act doubled the national park system.
The Reagan Years
The Sierra Club motto was revised yet again in 1981 to reflect global concerns such as the newly revealed legacy of industrial pollution behind the Iron Curtain. The club also fought against development in the Amazon rain forest by lobbying the World Bank. Membership had reached 182,000 by this time.
Hoping to gain more sway with elected officials, the group began funding electoral campaigns in earnest (thanks to a 1974 campaign finance reform law), during a time that also saw the emergence of more radical groups such as Greenpeace. In 1980 the club donated $100,000 to various Democratic candidates for the U.S. and California legislatures who opposed Reagan’s environmental policies. Ansel Adams died in 1984 while working on “Manifesto of the Earth,” a response to these policies.
Reagan’s interior secretary, James Watt, was the bane of many a conservationist. He attempted to reopen the nation’s most beloved natural sanctuaries to mining. Ironically, Watts and other Reagan appointees helped spark a renewed interest in environmental activism that doubled Sierra Club membership. Outrageous public comments finally cost him his job.
The club also lobbied in support of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund, allocated by Congress to clean up toxic waste sites. In 1985 the club bought a new office building in downtown San Francisco, where it kept its staff of 250. Two years later Michael Fischer was elected the club’s fourth executive director.
The Earth-Friendly 1990s
One of The Sierra club’s main challenges, according to Fischer, was to remain responsive while avoiding the pitfalls of bureaucracy. It also sought to attract more minorities. Its San Francisco chapter established a gay and lesbian group. In 1992 the club’s 625,000 members celebrated its 100th anniversary. The Sierra Club estimated its election budget that year at $1 million. Though membership growth slowed in the early 1990s, the group became more aggressively political. It lobbied hard to elect Democrat Ron Wyden to fill one of Oregon’s senate seats in 1996 after the retirement of Senator Bob Packwood.
The group had begun endorsing credit cards, long distance service, stuffed animals, and other merchandising. It also stepped up its direct mailing efforts. The Sierra Club won a couple of favorable tax rulings regarding the sale of mailing lists and its Affinity Card royalties.
In the mid-1990s the club also focused its efforts on giant hog and poultry farms and their attendant pollution. Land conservation remained another important concern. In 1997 The Sierra Club proposed that after 100 years of commercial timber harvesting in national forests, the government should no longer allow the practice. Loggers argued that restrictions already had cost thousands of jobs and forced numerous mills out of business.
The Sierra Club sued the Environmental Protection Agency after its loosened medical waste controls. It also found itself on the opposite side of the courtroom. Bluebird Systems sued the group for $10 million after finding its web sites connected to the Bluebird local area network, as Inc. magazine reported.
A 1997 survey picked The Sierra Club as the most effective environmental lobby on Capitol Hill. The group spent $7 million on the 1998 elections, including advertising and its first get-out-the-vote campaign. Long a fixture on the national landscape of politics and the environment, The Sierra Club could be expected to continue into the next millennium the pursuit of its original cause: protecting and preserving the earth’s natural resources.
Sierra Club Foundation; Sierra Club Political Committee; Sierra Club Property Management, Inc.; Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.
Carr, Clifton, and Tom Turner, Wild by Law: The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and the Places It Has Saved, San Francisco: Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund/Sierra Club Books, C 1990.
Cohen, Michael P., The History of the Sierra Club, 1892-1970, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, C 1988.
Ember, Lois R., “Environmentalists Regroup to Protect Their Agenda After Painful Defeats,” Chemical and Engineering News, February 27, 1995, pp. 26-30.
Esterson, Emily, “Bluebird’s Unhappiness,” Inc., March 17, 1998, p. 20.
Forbes, Steve, “Not a Bathtub,” Forbes, March 23, 1998, p. 28.
Gilliam Ann, Ed. Voices for the Earth: A Treasury of the Sierra Club Bulletin, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1979.
Hamilton, Joan, “A Civil Society: Sierra Club Voted Most Influential,” Sierra, January 1999, p. 11.
Hileman, Bette, “Environmental Leaders Give EPA Mixed Reviews on Its Performance,” Chemical and Engineering News, October 30, 1995, pp. 30-37.
Hjelmar, Ulf, The Political Practice of Environmental Organizations, Aldershot, England; Brookfield, Vt.: Avebury, 1996.
Hopkins, Bruce, “Tax Court Opens Up New Fund-Raising Options,” Fund Raising Management, September 1993, pp. 55, 58.
Jones, Holway, John Muir and the Sierra Club: The Battle for Yosemite, San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1965.
Kriz, Margaret, “The Big Green Election Machine,” National Journal, October 24, 1998.
McClure, Ronnie C, and Kenneth H. Silverberg, “Tax Breather, Thanks to the Sierra Club,” Association Management, December 1993, p. 26.
Schlossberg, Howard, “Sierra Club Finds Direct Marketing Harder to Do, But Vows to Improve,” Marketing News, March 29, 1993, p. 18.
Turner, Tom, Sierra Club: 100 Years of Protecting Nature, New York: Harry N. Abrams/Sierra Club, 1991.
Vanchieri, Cori, “Burning Issues,” Hospitals and Health Networks, March 5, 1998, p. 38.
Wexler, Robert A., “Affinity Card Income Was Royalty, Not UBI,” Journal of Taxation, November 1994, pp. 316-18.
—Frederick C. Ingram