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The 2004 elections, however, have been a test of those democratic ideals.
In January, thirteen former club presidents -- including Denver attorney H. Anthony Ruckel -- wrote to the board and expressed their alarm at a possible "takeover" by outsiders and criticized the group's failure to alert members to this danger. In response, the board voted to insert an "urgent election notice" in every Sierra Club ballot, which went out in early March for voting by April 21.
The notice warned members that "this year there is an unprecedented level of outside involvement and attention to the club's board election. Outside, non-environmental organizations have endorsed candidates in the board elections...and are urging their supporters to join the club as a means to influence club policy."
Dick Lamm was one of the main targets of the alert.
Lamm hasn't been a member of the Sierra Club since the 1960s, when he attended law school at the University of California at Berkeley and was inspired by Dave Brower, the club's legendary executive director. Together the two testified before Congress against damming the Grand Canyon and became lifelong friends. Lamm let his membership lapse, but he counted on Sierra Club support during his years as governor. Now he wants to get involved again -- this time to take on the issue of immigration.
"Now our future is at stake, as America is led by an environmentally disastrous President and Congress," Lamm wrote in his candidate statement. "Grassroots Club activists have gained some magnificent local environmental triumphs, but nationally our great country slides downhill. The Club's current approaches are not working. Dave Brower said, 'The Board has been fiddling while the Earth burns.' We need new innovative leaders who can get things done.
"My priorities are wilderness and biodiversity loss caused by habitat destruction and resource extraction -- overpopulation and overconsumption are critical root causes. The Club's population programs -- global and domestic -- must be strengthened."
Lamm has long been on the forefront of the immigration debate. In the mid-1980s, he wrote The Immigration Time Bomb, which questioned why environmental organizations were reluctant to take on the issue. He considered writing another book on the subject but decided instead to jump into the fray and go for a Sierra Club board seat, which he'd had in the back of his mind for several years.
"I decided I could raise the immigration issue better running for the Sierra Club board than any other way I could think of," Lamm says.
He has waded into a fierce battle over immigration that has split the Sierra Club for years. A large minority has pushed a policy that would support reducing the number of immigrants allowed into the country, arguing that immigration causes sprawl and the destruction of wilderness. With an estimated one million people immigrating to the U.S. every year, Lamm and his supporters envision a country with twice the current population and all of the pollution and congestion that go along with it. Conversely, many activists within the club are concerned that taking such a stand would alienate important allies and fuel the notion that environmentalists are largely upper-middle-class white elitists. They're especially worried about angering Hispanics, an increasingly important voting bloc.
"You can't set policy for an organization you don't know and understand," says Ross Vincent, former chairman of the Colorado chapter. "[Lamm is] utterly clueless about the Sierra Club."
Like many veteran members, former Sierra Club president Ruckel is upset over "outsiders" trying to influence the board. He is also distressed that Lamm hadn't been involved before running for office, having joined only weeks before launching his campaign. "Everybody in the Sierra Club in Colorado knows Dick Lamm," he says. "I wish he'd joined the Sierra Club long ago.... We're not a government agency; it's a group of volunteers, and we can't enforce edicts from on high. The only way it works is to have all of our members supporting our policies."
Lamm, however, was encouraged to push his position after talking extensively with longtime Sierra Club member Alan Kuper, a Cleveland-based retired physicist who has been pushing the immigration issue for years. Kuper persuaded him to run, and Lamm was soon joined by two other anti-immigration candidates: Frank Morris, former director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and a retired college professor living in Texas, and David Pimentel, a professor of entomology at Cornell University.
The reaction from critics was swift. "A hostile takeover of the club by radical anti-immigrant activists is in the making," warned Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a prominent civil-rights think tank, and a candidate for the Sierra Club's board.
But despite attacks suggesting that the three formed a ticket of hate, Lamm says he's never met Pimentel and had no idea Morris was running for the board. "I know Alan, and he helped me get the signatures to get on the ballot," Lamm says. "It was a surprise to me to find myself accused of forming a slate."
Kuper claims that Lamm, Morris and Pimentel all decided to run on their own, but he was willing to help out. "In Dick's case, he told me he was considering running, and we discussed the pros and cons, time commitment, etc." Kuper says. "They were petition candidates, so I worked to get their petitions signed."