It's Not Easy Being Green

Look who's mad at Dick Lamm now!

It had been a long time since Dick Lamm last visited the Colorado Senate.

Dressed in a dapper suit and tie, he glowed as he prepared to speak at a Senate event honoring the late Dr. Abe Kauvar, who created Denver's public-clinic system. As Lamm entered the chamber, the senators rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation. It was an obviously touching moment for the three-term former governor who had often clashed with the legislature when he was in office.

"They used to greet me with a victory sign one finger at a time," he said to laughter.

Brian Stauffer
Dick Lamm
Mark Manger
Dick Lamm

In his years as a politician, Lamm was always known as a champion of civil rights, a crusader for a woman's right to have an abortion, and -- more than anything else -- a stalwart defender of the environment. As the state's governor from 1975 to 1987, Lamm railed against developers and the greed-driven sprawl devouring the state he loved. He badgered a conservative state legislature to change the laws that governed growth -- to no avail -- and earned a national reputation as a maverick willing to take on the pro-growth forces that most politicians approach on bended knee.

It would seem that Lamm would have the ideal pedigree for the board of directors of the Sierra Club, the nation's largest environmental group. But since he announced his intent to run for the board last fall, the environmentalists he always considered his best allies have attacked him, some even going so far as to link him to white supremacists. Because he's an anti-immigration crusader, the 68-year-old Democrat has been portrayed as a tool of the right wing, part of a nefarious plot to undermine the Sierra Club and divert its resources.

"This is the worst election that I've ever run," Lamm says. "What's the worst thing you can call somebody in this day and age? A racist. Now they're saying I'm in bed with the Ku Klux Klan."

The Sierra Club is perhaps the most powerful environmental lobby in existence today, but its Colorado headquarters looks more like a combination student union/ funky coffeehouse.

Located in a building just behind the Tattered Cover Book Store in lower downtown, the offices have exposed red-brick walls, forest-green carpeting, and pictures of wilderness areas adorning the walls. Beat-up sofas are scattered along the corridors, providing space for volunteers who periodically show up to assist with several ongoing projects. Cardboard boxes filled with legal documents are stacked in the corners, and posters and bumper stickers advocating renewable energy and other Sierra Club causes are stuck on doors and bulletin boards.

Right now, the Colorado Sierra Club's main priorities are renewable energy and transportation. Local leaders have played a big role in pushing a bill, now before the state legislature, mandating that renewables account for an increasing percentage of Colorado's power supply. The club is also gearing up to campaign for RTD's planned FasTracks initiative in November, which would expand the metro area's light-rail system. Even though the proposal is not yet officially on the ballot, members are already scheduling presentations at senior centers and churches and sponsoring a "tour de sprawl" to talk about the perils of auto-dependent development.

There are 20,000 members in the state, with twelve local chapters scattered from Durango to Fort Collins. Four full-time staffers oversee the lively organization, which, in addition to its political mobilizing, sponsors dozens of monthly hikes, has special outings for singles and gays, and plans wilderness expeditions for inner-city children. "The Sierra Club is pretty complex," says Colorado director Susan LeFever. "It has the right combination of democracy and citizen involvement."

The Sierra Club was founded in 1892 by legendary naturalist John Muir, a Scottish immigrant who worked for years to protect Yosemite. As such, the club played a crucial role in the establishment of America's first national parks and has been involved in almost every victory posted by the environmental movement, from the creation of wilderness areas to the passage of the first clean-air and clean-water laws.

Today the Sierra Club is a major force in national politics, taking out television ads attacking the environmental record of President George W. Bush, donating millions to ecology-friendly candidates and mobilizing thousands of volunteers during elections. Its influence extends across the country, with 400 chapters (at least one in every state), an annual budget of $95 million; hundreds of employees, and large offices in Washington, D.C., and at its San Francisco headquarters.

It's this power and influence that make the seats on the fifteen-member board of directors so coveted. The club's bylaws are unusually democratic, allowing any member to run for the board after gathering just 360 petition signatures from other members. Elections are held every year, and although any member can vote, few of them do; typically, only about 60,000 of 750,000 members turn out, meaning a well-organized coalition can have a big impact.

There is always a slate of candidates put on the ballot by a nominating committee appointed by the current board. All of these candidates have years of experience with the club and the general support of the leaders. As a result, those who petition their way onto the ballot often present themselves as champions of grassroots causes and critics of the establishment. But rather than quash those opinions, the Sierra Club is one of the few advocacy groups that disseminate annual candidate statements openly criticizing the current leadership.

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