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Ruckel has watched over the years with a certain degree of amusement as Lamm has jumped into the middle of one controversy after another. But this is the first time Lamm has taken on the Sierra Club, and he doesn't like what he sees. "He's a strong environmentalist; I'd never impeach his environmental credentials," Ruckel says. "I've known Dick Lamm for a long time. He's a wonderful person to talk with, but he'll run ahead of his own thinking. The positions he's taken have a germ of truth to them, but this one is not well thought out."
Instead, Ruckel and most of the club's leadership believe the best population policy is to encourage sustainable development and family planning in poor countries. He says Lamm's position attacks the symptoms of economic failure rather than the cause, and helping countries like Mexico start to improve their standard of living is a better strategy. Ruckel predicts that "governments that are improving their people's lives" will see fewer of their people emigrate. To that end, the Sierra Club has been working with Mexico and several other Latin American countries to develop nature preserves and save endangered forests and jungles, thereby helping to boost eco-tourism and improve the economy. "We've made a lot of progress in Latin America by working with the governments," Ruckel says. "I worry that if we take a more hostile approach to immigration, it might affect our ability to work with them."
He also worries about the risk of polarization if the group takes a stand on immigration. Ever since the 1980s, conservatives in the Republican party have attacked the environmental movement, and the Sierra Club has become unpopular in much of the rural West, where it is blamed for job losses in mining and timber cutting. Colorado's congressional delegation reflects this change. Strong environmentalists such as Gary Hart and Tim Wirth used to represent the state in the U.S. Senate, but Colorado's current senators, Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Wayne Allard, have weak voting records on green issues.
"The club has to work in an intensely political environment, and we need allies," Ruckel says. "The Republican party has adopted a hostile attitude toward the environment. The leadership of both houses of Congress are hostile, and the Bush administration certainly is. We absolutely need to have allies, and that includes minorities and Hispanics."
The Sierra Club has worked to build bridges to minority lawmakers, focusing on issues such as the tendency of polluting industries to locate in black and Latino neighborhoods. Several lawsuits have been filed against power plants that were emitting high levels of pollution in low-income areas, and utilities have been forced to install more pollution-control equipment. As a result, Ruckel says, "many of the minority community's representatives will vote with us, assuming we don't piss them off."
This is not the Sierra Club's first go-around with the immigration issue. In 1998, Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization, which was started by Lamm backer Kuper, submitted a ballot initiative to the membership calling for the club to have an official policy to reduce immigration. The board of directors offered an alternative initiative that emphasized family planning and sustainable development in the Third World to lessen the pressures that foster immigration. That proposal passed and became official policy, but the SUSPS initiative still got 40 percent of the vote.
Many Sierra Club leaders hoped that would be the end of the issue, but Kuper and his allies refused to go away. They helped elect Ben Zuckerman to the board in 2002 and Doug LaFollette and Paul Watson in 2003.
Watson is the most controversial Sierra Club boardmember because of his willingness to use violence to advance his causes. A co-founder of Greenpeace, in 1977 he went on to start the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, where he gained fame as the swashbuckling captain of vessels that confronted and sank whaling ships. The group claims to have destroyed ten whalers and was banned from attending meetings of the International Whaling Commission after sinking half of Iceland's whaling fleet in the Reykjavík harbor in 1986.
"One of the reasons that I'm on the Sierra Club board right now is to try and change it," Watson said in a speech at an animal-rights conference last year in Los Angeles. "We're only three directors away from controlling that board. We control one-third of it right now. And once we get three more directors elected, we can use the resources of its $95 million-a-year budget to address some of these issues. And the heartening thing about it is that in the last election, of the 750,000 members of the Sierra Club, only 8 percent of them voted. So, you know, a few hundred, or a few thousand people from the animal-rights movement joining the Sierra Club -- and making it a point to vote -- will change the entire agenda of that organization."
Watson's agenda, however, is less about immigration than animal rights, and there is widespread concern that his supporters will try to get the Sierra Club to officially oppose hunting, perhaps driving out thousands of members (an estimated 18 percent of the group's members either hunt or fish). "We need to have useful alliances with hunters and fishermen," Ruckel says. "The hunters, through their license fees, support the rehabilitation of much of the wildlife in this country. Anybody is blind not to recognize that."