An Early Battle: Defending the Sierra Club

The recent efforts of nativists to swing environmentalists into the anti-immigration camp are hardly the first. Their most pitched battle in recent memory — and one that was beaten back only after a protracted struggle — involved a series of attempts between 1998 and 2005 to take control of the 750,000-member Sierra Club.

The club had been in the sights of the nativist movement going back to at least 1986, when movement maestro John Tanton first suggested in a private memo that the club would make a rich prize. When it shifted in 1996 from a long-held position similar to that of Tanton's to neutrality on the immigration question, Tanton and other activists urgently launched a major effort to reverse its position.

Ultimately, it came to a 1998 vote by club members on whether to stick with immigration neutrality or, as the Tanton forces hoped, move to an anti-immigration position under the theory that immigrants were largely responsible for environmental degradation. What amounted to an internal war quickly developed, with the club's nativist forces organizing under the rubric of Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization (SUSPS). And the battle was not entirely internal: Barbara Coe, the head of a hate group called the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, claimed she got 6,500 of her members to join and vote for the nativist plank — this despite the fact that she candidly admitted she was no "tree-hugger."

In the end, club members voted 60%-40% to retain its neutral stance on immigration, following the advice of then-executive director Carl Pope, who had described the nativist position as "wrong" and likely to be seen as racist. The newly adopted resolution called for action against the "root causes of global population problems" — like poverty — rather than scapegoating immigrants.

The next year, SUSPS decided to change its tactics and make an attempt to take over the club's board of directors. Over the next several elections, the group was able to get three of its nativist candidates onto the board. Then, in 2004, it put up five candidates in a bid to finally win a board majority.

A titanic battle ensued, prompted in part by a letter from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to Sierra Club officials warning of an imminent "hostile takeover" attempt by nativist forces. The SPLC's letter cautioned that hate groups were asking their members to join the club in order to vote for the nativist board slate. Before it came to a vote, at least 20 hate groups were urging their members to join in the struggle for control of the Sierra Club.

The SPLC, which believed that most club members would oppose the nativists if they fully understood what they stood for, worked to prevent the takeover. Morris Dees, co-founder of the SPLC, ran for a club board seat in the same election not to win, but so that he could use his candidate's statement (which is included on club ballots) to warn club members of the intentions of the nativist slate.

When it finally came to a vote, the SUSPS-endorsed candidates lost by remarkable 10-to-1 margins, enraging many on the nativist side.

The last attempt to take over the club came a year later, but by then club members had largely been inoculated against the views of the nativists. Another proposed policy change, similar to that rejected in 1998, was put on the ballot. But it was rejected easily, with votes running 5-to-1 against it.

The defeat was a bitter one for Tanton and his allies. Jerry Kammer, a senior fellow at the Tanton-founded Center for Immigration Studies who has also attacked the SPLC, presented a report in 2009 to denounce the club's alleged capitulation to "cynicism and political correctness." "Strategic Negligence," he titled his 4,000-plus-word jeremiad, "How the Sierra Club's Distortions on Border and Immigration Policy are Undermining its Environmental Legacy."