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.
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.
Marijuana Deals Near You
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.
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."
Regardless of how they got on the ballot, a group of organizations with alarming names -- The Center for American Unity's VirginaDare/Vdare.com Collective for "white nationalist writers (Virginia Date was supposedly the first white child born in North America); the National Alliance, which offers "ideology from a white racial perspective"; Overthrow.com; and White Politics Inc. -- all came out in support of their efforts. As did groups Lamm has been involved in, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The associations began posting messages on their websites' bulletin boards urging their members to join the Sierra Club so they could vote for the anti-immigration slate. The board took notice and warned members of their involvement in the notice they sent out about Lamm and the other anti-immigration candidates.
Lamm was angered by the notice, which he sees as an unfair attempt to influence the vote by aligning him with purported racists. "I was shocked the thirteen presidents signed that letter," he says. "I've been active in the environmental movement a long time, and I've won every major environmental award in this state."
Lamm and his allies were further outraged when Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope was quoted in the Los Angeles Times saying, "I don't think Lamm, Pimentel and Morris are racists, but they are clearly being supported by racists."
In response, the three filed suit against the Sierra Club last month in California, asking for an injunction to delay the April vote because, they claimed, the note to members was a violation of Sierra Club rules prohibiting official communications from being used in a one-sided manner. Sierra Club president Larry Fahn told the San Francisco Chronicle the lawsuit was "replete with inaccuracies and misstatements" and that the leaders "will not be muzzled in getting the word out to our members."
By the end of the month, however, the effort was abruptly abandoned. "We dropped our lawsuit because I can't risk $200,000 in legal fees," explains Lamm, who believed that Fahn and other leaders would sue under a California law that protects freedom of speech and requires whoever loses in court to cover the other parties' legal expenses.
While no one has suggested that Lamm or the other candidates have direct ties to white supremacy -- that would be especially difficult for Morris, who is African-American -- the messages of support on racist websites were enough to alarm the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors the radical right wing. The SPLC put out an alert in October, warning the Sierra Club that its board election was vulnerable to outside influence. Mark Potok, editor of the Intelligence Report, wrote Sierra Club president Fahn that "without a doubt, the Sierra Club is the subject of a hostile takeover attempt by...a variety of right-wing extremists. By taking advantage of the welcoming grassroots nature of the Sierra Club, they hope to use the credibility of the club as a cover to advance their own extremist views."
For Lamm, being linked to racists is particularly galling. As governor, he was known for appointing minorities to state office and was widely seen as an ally of the civil-rights movement. He helped organize a chapter of the NAACP when he was at Berkeley, and he and his wife, Dottie, scraped together their money so she could go to Selma, Alabama, when civil-rights activists were gathering there to challenge racist officials in 1965.
"When we didn't have any money, we bought Dottie a ticket so she could go to Selma," Lamm says. "It's guilt by tenuous association."
The appearance was enough, however, for former Colorado senator Tim Wirth to pull his endorsement of Lamm at the behest of Sierra Club leaders, as did former U.S. Interior Secretary Stuart Udall, uncle of Colorado congressman Mark Udall, whose wife, Maggie Fox, is the national club's deputy executive director. (Udall's cousin, Tom Udall, is a congressman from New Mexico.)
In 1975, when Lamm started his twelve-year stretch as governor, one of the most popular bumper stickers was a mock Colorado license plate with the word "Native" on it. The environmental movement had recently taken flight, and Coloradans were becoming anxious as thousands of people poured into the state, drawn by the mountain splendor that singer John Denver celebrated in a series of sappy songs.
Lamm eventually became the spokesman for those wanting to preserve Colorado even though he was not a native. He went to high school in Pittsburgh, where he failed to make the football team -- a "shattering" event that Lamm credits with making him more willing to be an outsider. "I made up for it by becoming an adventurer of sorts," he recalls. During summers in high school and college, Lamm took jobs working at a lumber camp in Oregon, on an ore boat on the Great Lakes and as a runner on the New York Stock Exchange.
"Those jobs were the best thing that ever happened to me," he says. "They taught me to be independent and to take risks."
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin on an ROTC scholarship, Lamm was sent by the Army to Fort Carson, where he indulged his love of skiing. When he finished law school at Berkeley in 1961, he returned to Colorado and has been here ever since.
Lamm was a state representative from south Denver in 1972 when he helped organize a ballot initiative to stop the planned 1976 Winter Olympics from coming to Colorado. Environmentalists argued that the Olympics would further spoil the mountains, and they were joined by fiscal conservatives who opposed state spending on the games. Much to the shock of the state's political establishment, the initiative passed, and Lamm rode that success right into the governor's mansion.
During his three terms in office, Lamm came to be known as "Governor Gloom" for his pessimistic assessments of America's prospects. He often predicted disaster for Social Security, the health-care system, the federal budget and the environment. During one famous speech to seniors, Lamm said that everyone had a "duty to die" so that the next generation wouldn't be burdened with their care. Speculating about just why the governor was so gloomy became a hobby for armchair psychologists. Some pointed to his frequent battles with the Republican state legislature, while others thought it was Lamm's own bitterness over the "financial sacrifice" he made when he gave up his law practice and entered public office.
Even in those years, out-of-control immigration was a favorite Lamm topic, one he attributes to a trip he and Dottie made to India in 1967. "We both came back vowing to work on the problem of human population," says Lamm, who sponsored the country's first liberalized abortion bill in the state legislature that same year. He was also influenced by Paul Ehrlich's books warning of the dangers of overpopulation.
Lamm is well aware that today's Americans were yesterday's bedraggled and scorned immigrants. "Ben Franklin thought America was taking too many Germans and they would never assimilate," he says wryly. And even as he expresses alarm over whether the Hispanics now flocking to Colorado will become part of the culture -- "Today you can live your entire life in west Denver and never speak English. Are we becoming a Hispanic Quebec?" -- Lamm is sophisticated enough to know that the exact same things were being said about Italian immigrants a century ago. And even about his own family: His maternal grandparents were from England, and his paternal grandparents, who were from Germany, had their house in northern Illinois stoned during World War II because they spoke German.
"The last group of large-scale immigrants we had questions about were the Italians," he says. "They were fruit peddlers; their children dropped out of school. Now the average Italian family has a higher income than the average WASP family. Are Mexicans the new Italians? All of American history is on the side that the people of west Denver can and will assimilate."
The real difference today, Lamm insists, is that the United States no longer has the vast expanses of empty land it once did. "There's a psychological carrying capacity," he says. "The best thing for us to do would be for the U.S. to stabilize its population and reduce consumption. We have to become a sustainable society."
The United States admits more newcomers than any other country in the world -- more than a million per year since Congress boosted immigration in the 1980s, allowing a wave of new residents into the country. If current trends continue, the U.S. population could double by the middle of the century.
During the past decade, more than 200,000 people from other countries have settled in Colorado, most of them from Latin America. According to the census bureau, one out of every seven Denverites is not a U.S. citizen, and the numbers are almost as high in suburbs such as Aurora. The metro population is now 20 percent Hispanic, and statewide, the Latino population numbers more than 800,000. Colorado has also been affected by the immigration of several million new residents into California. High home costs and congestion prompted many longtime residents of that state to move to areas such as Douglas County, helping to make Colorado one of the fastest-growing states in the country.
"At our current rate, we'll double America and double it again in my grandchild's lifetime," Lamm says. "The difference is Colorado growing from 16 million to 20 million people. I've never met a Coloradan who wants that kind of population."
Lamm feels so strongly about the bulldozing of the West that he serves on the national board of advisors for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which is pushing to restrict immigration. His critics within the Sierra Club have pointed to funding FAIR received from right-wing Pittsburgh billionaire Richard Mellon-Scaife as proof of a conservative conspiracy to undermine the Sierra Club. Mellon-Scaife was a million-dollar contributor to President Richard Nixon, bankrolled many of the investigations targeting President Bill Clinton, including Paula Jones's lawsuit, and helped found the New Right conservative movement twenty years ago.
But Lamm dismisses claims that the two are tied as a smear, saying an environmental organization that ignores the immigration question is guilty of malpractice. "This issue trumps the others," he says. "If the Sierra Club wins every battle over the next fifty years and doesn't face immigration, it will be a Pyrrhic victory."
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."
Hunters are also often an important ally when the Sierra Club fights to defend wild lands, providing support in areas that might otherwise be hostile. "The Sierra Club is overwhelmingly urban and suburban," Ruckel says. "The hunting community is more rural. We need every ally we can find."
In addition, many veteran club activists believe that Lamm and the other anti-immigration candidates don't understand how the Sierra Club functions.
"They seem to believe it's appropriate for members of the board of directors to dictate policy," says former chairman Vincent, who worked with the Pueblo Sierra Club chapter to defeat a proposal by the U.S. Army to build a chemical-weapons incinerator just outside the southern Colorado town. "That's not the way the Sierra Club works. It's a bottom-up organization. The board doesn't decide from the top what our policy will be. It gets passed up through the system from the grassroots. The thing that's most frightening is these people feel they can tell the rest of the club what its position can be."
He points out that another ballot question on immigration is set for next year. "That's the appropriate way for these people to pursue their agenda," he adds. "Running people who don't know much about the Sierra Club for the board is not the way to get things done."
Lamm and fellow immigration candidate Morris, however, are questioning how the board does business. They recently attacked the current leadership for accepting more than $100 million from contributors and then not divulging who made the donations or how the money will be spent.
"The Board is approving confusing budgets which contain millions of dollars that the fiduciaries of the Club do not know the source of, nor the legitimacy of. This is an irresponsible and reckless policy, which risks the good reputation of the Sierra Club," the two wrote in an open letter.
"One of the hottest seats in Hell is always reserved for people who defame falsely other people's characters, knowing such claims are false. It goes without saying that this was extremely painful to us, but it also made no sense to us, until we discovered that the club might well have something of Enron proportions to cover up and which they don't want to see exposed. A small group of people now control a large amount of money, without adequate controls or accounting. That is dangerous for the club and for the environmental movement. Vote for us, or against us, but please clean up the creeping corruption of the club we all love."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope defends the board's action, pointing out that the donations were made to the Sierra Club Foundation, which is independent of the Sierra Club. The foundation is a charity that gives money to environmental causes (including grants to the Sierra Club), while the club is an advocacy group focused on influencing public policy.
All of these disputes trouble Ruckel, because they are preoccupying the board and its members at a time when ecologists are facing the most hostile national government in half a century. President Bush has repeatedly snubbed environmentalists, making a point of opposing the Sierra Club on virtually every issue it holds dear, from relaxing pollution controls on power plants to refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol to reduce climate-altering gases. Proposals for new wilderness areas have been deep-sixed, and Congress has given huge tax subsidies to the oil and gas industry for new drilling on environmentally sensitive lands.
"We're having to focus on this internal dissent and distraction," Vincent says. "That's a major part of why this whole thing is so regrettable."
Lamm also agrees that the November election should be the Sierra Club's number-one priority, but he insists that the days of the environmental movement ducking the immigration question have to end. "They're definitely ignoring a major environmental problem for political reasons," he says. "I'm not trying to change their priorities; I just want immigration on the scale. Do we really want to live in an America that has 500 million people?"