Former Sierra Club Director Discusses Hostile Takeover Attempt by Anti-Immigrant Activists

A director of the Sierra Club discusses an ongoing attempt to turn the environmental powerhouse into an anti-immigration group

IR: In the next few years, anti-immigration candidates Ben Zuckerman and Paul Watson ran for the board — both of them unsuccessfully at first, but winning in the end. Did you realize then that the anti-immigration effort had not yet concluded?

COX: We weren't aware at the time of an organized effort, either within the Sierra Club or stretching beyond it with some of the outside allies that we now know they have. But this began to change in the last two years.

In 2002, Zuckerman ran a second time and was elected. This time, he dramatically altered his ballot statement and began to speak of his concerns about the Club being more visible on college campuses and about funding for our conservation program.

He did mention population, too, but he never talked about immigration, as he had in his first campaign. He was elected that year.

IR: Since winning, has Zuckerman discussed immigration with the board?

COX: He has asked for time in many board sessions to make speeches to us about the importance of immigration, often citing non-environmental reasons to reverse our neutrality policy, most recently having to do with post-9/11 security concerns. He has also cited concerns about U.S. workers being displaced by immigrants.

At one point, we asked about the link between the environment and a story that he sent us about illegal crossings on the southern border. As far as I could see, the only documented environmental impact was that they were littering the desert with water bottles and trash — there was a photo of discarded bottles at a campsite.

Most recently, he sent to several of us on the board an article from that claimed that Hispanics were spreading disease and crime in the U.S., and that "Hispandering politicians" were allowing this to happen. I was quite upset by that.

IR: What happened after Zuckerman's election in 2002?

COX: I think SUSPS realized they had a winning strategy.

The following year, 2003, they ran three more candidates, including Doug LaFollette, the Wisconsin secretary of state, and, once again, Paul Watson. They referred to many conservation issues and to population in general, but never mentioned immigration.

Two of them, LaFollette and Watson, were elected.

So by May of last year, we had begun to realize that we had an organized effort to put in place enough directors to take control of the board.

The turning point came last fall, at the annual meeting of the Sierra Club in San Francisco. By then, we had already discovered that Paul Watson was making speeches at animal rights conferences and boasting quite openly about an attempt to take over the Club.

One of the things that he said in one speech was that the "heartening thing" was that only 8% of the Club's members had voted in the last election, so that just a few hundred or a few thousand people from the animal rights movement joining the Sierra Club and making it a point to vote could change the Club's entire agenda.

In other words, we became aware that people outside the organization who had little interest in our issues were being invited to join the Sierra Club simply for the purpose of electing directors with their own agenda.

The other thing that really raised some eyebrows was that the Southern Poverty Law Center sent a letter [signed by Intelligence Report Editor Mark Potok] to our board of directors and president. A key part said, "Without a doubt, the Sierra Club is the subject of a hostile takeover attempt... . We think members should be alert to this."

Together, these things touched off something of a small firestorm at the annual meeting. Club leaders from around the country lined up at the open mike to ask a question of Watson: "Do you in fact intend to take over the Sierra Club?"

He said yes, openly admitting and in fact boasting that this was simply democracy at work and that they had the right to run candidates for the board and let the voters decide.

Of course, our concern was that these candidates weren't being completely frank with the voters because they had not disclosed their agenda, which was an anti-immigration agenda.

IR: What happened after the annual meeting?

COX: A small group of leaders began to organize their own independent research. We suspected that there was still a lot we didn't know about the forces behind Zuckerman and SUSPS.

The more we looked into their association with right-wing anti-immigration groups and the funding behind those groups, the more we became alarmed. We realized they were running additional candidates and trying to seize control of the board.

What's happened most recently is that members throughout the Sierra Club have become concerned and even outraged with this concerted effort to take over the Club. They have come together and organized themselves as a movement to protect the Sierra Club. It's called Groundswell Sierra [], and it is trying to provide information about the seriousness of this threat and the impact it could have.

If Watson is to be believed, the intent is not only to seize control of the board, but also of the Club's assets and credibility — the reputation of the Club itself.

We read the original Tanton memos and became even more alarmed as we began to put some of the pieces together — the convergence of anti-immigration groups and Watson's particular wing of the animal rights movement.

[Editor's note: Paul Watson co-founded Greenpeace but left because the group was not radical enough. He founded and still leads the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has claimed credit for sinking 10 fishing vessels by ramming them. In January, Watson's wife, Allison Lance Watson, was arrested by FBI anti-terrorism agents for allegedly lying to a federal grand jury about loaning a rental truck to animal rights arsonists. She could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.]

IR: Had Watson previously been interested in immigration restriction?

COX: Well, he ran as a SUSPS candidate, and he made his views clear once he joined the board. Watson supported Zuckerman, who had been floating resolutions to the board to reverse the immigration neutrality policy since he'd been elected the prior year.

Zuckerman was consistently defeated, but Watson signaled his support of Zuckerman's agenda. We also found out that Zuckerman was actually on Watson's board of directors at the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.