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

Robbie Cox, former Sierra Club president, discusses the ongoing attempt to turn the environmental organization into an anti-immigration group.

Anti-immigration activists have pondered trying to take over the well-known environmental group, the Sierra Club, going back at least to the mid-1980s. The basic idea, suggested in a once-secret 1986 memo by anti-immigration leader John Tanton, was to seize the reins of a respected and well-financed liberal group to express immigration restriction arguments that might otherwise draw accusations of racism.

Led by a group then called Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization (it is now known only by its acronym, SUSPS), anti-immigration activists including current Club director Ben Zuckerman made their first attempt in 1998. Their proposed resolution failed in a bitterly fought 60%-40% vote of the Sierra Club's membership.

Last fall, as predicted earlier in these pages, it became clear that a second major attempt, led again by Zuckerman and his allies, had begun. SUSPS and other anti-immigration groups and individuals are now pushing to elect a board majority that agrees with them.

Since that fact became public, 13 former Sierra Club presidents have signed an open letter warning that the Club is facing the most serious threat in its 112-year history.

J. Robert Cox, a two-time former Club president (1994-96 and 2000-01) and a current board member, is in the forefront of those opposing the anti-immigration campaign. A professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Robbie Cox studies the role of discourse in social change, including environmental change, and is a veteran of the immigration wars that have convulsed the Sierra Club.

INTELLIGENCE REPORT: What was your first personal contact with anti-immigration activists interested in the Sierra Club?

ROBBIE COX: When I was president of the Club for the first time. In 1996, volunteer leaders in the Club's population program approached the board of directors to alert us that new members were coming into the Sierra Club wanting to push immigration as an issue. These leaders thought this was simply inappropriate for the Club, because we had no evidence that U.S. immigration was detrimental to the environment.

These new members were asking that we update our policies on population and immigration, because immigration had never been a focus of our work. Our focus had been on population growth, particularly global population growth.

Globally, we understood that population had serious consequences for air, the land and the food supply, of course. But we were not persuaded that the evidence was at all clear on the United States.

So we agreed that year to refine the existing policy by adopting a statement of neutrality on U.S. immigration.

IR: That wasn't the end of it, right?

COX: Once the board adopted the neutrality policy, it apparently motivated what we thought was simply a small group of Sierra Club members who began to object. The board held steadfast — we simply did not see the evidence. This group then initiated the ballot proposition process.

The Sierra Club is very open and democratic in its governing structure. It not only allows all its members, over 700,000 people, to elect its board of directors. It also allows members to put forward a ballot proposition, if they gather enough signatures, that can alter the Club's existing policies.

So this group organized itself as SUSPS, or Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization, and began a petition drive to get their proposition on the ballot. This happened in 1997, and the election occurred in the spring of 1998.

IR: Do you know who the principals of SUSPS were then?

COX: One principal actor was Ben Zuckerman. Zuckerman had formerly been a director of an anti-immigration group called Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America, which is a group whose name does not suggest its goal of restricting immigration into the U.S. Zuckerman was also an officer on the board of another group called Californians for Population Stabilization, or CAPS.

We frankly didn't know some of the people working with him at the time. I think we underestimated how serious this was in 1998.

IR: Were you aware then of the 1986 Tanton memo that specifically mentioned the Sierra Club as a potential target for anti-immigration activists?

COX: No, we only became aware of that recently, as a result of the [Oct. 21, 2003] letter that the Southern Poverty Law Center sent to our president.

IR: The Club's policy in 1996 did say something about seeking to stabilize and ultimately reduce U.S. population, didn't it?

COX: That's true. And SUSPS' argument was that we can't achieve that stabilization without reducing immigration. Once we understood that that was their interpretation of the policy, we realized that we were being pulled into a very divisive and potentially ugly political battle. We refused to go down that path.

One of our primary concerns was that we would find ourselves less effective in working on population stabilization if our allies in Congress began to view us as more of an anti-immigration group than as having anything to do with the environment.

We had also begun working very closely with coalitions in the United States that arose out of the environmental justice movement and with the Congressional Black Caucus.

IR: What happened during the ballot proposition campaign?

COX: Once they qualified it for the ballot, we realized that it was somewhat deceptive in that it suggested that the Sierra Club had not been working seriously on population issues. So, to present our voters with a clear choice of policy in the area of population, the board of directors placed its own initiative on the ballot that was an alternative to the SUSPS initiative.

SUSPS' Alternative A called for a reversal of the neutrality position and urged a reduction in net immigration into the United States.

The board, which put forward Alternative B, tried to make clear that the way to address the root causes of not only population but also migration was to address such things as the reproductive health and rights of women, their empowerment, and also by encouraging sustainability in other countries — economic security, health and nutrition, human rights.

There is less pressure for migrations across borders when populations have a secure existence and are not driven by desperate poverty to seek work elsewhere.

In the end, the membership overwhelmingly rejected the SUSPS initiative. At that point, we thought SUSPS had had their opportunity and the Club had spoken. Frankly, we turned our attention elsewhere.

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.

IR: Does Watson's role signal some kind of alliance between anti-immigration activists and the more radical fringe of the animal rights movement?

COX: I wouldn't go so far as to bring in the whole radical animal rights movement. I don't want to speak for animal rights groups, but in my own association with them I have not seen an interest in immigration issues.

Paul Watson is a very opinionated and charismatic individual committed to a range of issues including opposition to immigration, and he found a convenient alliance with Zuckerman. These forces have now converged and are willing to vote as a bloc on the board.

IR: What is SUSPS' strategy in the current election?

COX: One of their strategies has been to run high-profile candidates. This year, they are backing former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm, who in recent years has been working very closely with anti-immigration groups and U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo [R-Colo.], who chairs the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus and is one of the most vocal anti-immigration leaders in Congress.

Their second candidate is Frank Morris, a former head of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, who is making his second attempt backed by SUSPS. Morris has become very involved in the same anti-immigration groups that Zuckerman is involved in. Morris sits on the board of the Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America, as does Lamm, and that's the organization that Zuckerman is a past director of.

The third well-known SUSPS candidate, David Pimentel, is on the advisory board of the same group.

It goes further. Dick Lamm is also the chairman of the board of advisors for the large anti-immigration group the Federation for American Immigration Reform [or FAIR, a group originally started by John Tanton].

Morris is on the board of another anti-immigration group, the Center for Immigration Studies [also founded by Tanton] and, along with Zuckerman, is on the Californians for Population Stabilization board. Lamm is on that group's advisory board.

Finally, the Carrying Capacity Network, another anti-immigration group, has David Pimentel on its board. Doug LaFollette and Frank Morris sit on its advisory board. So we're seeing something of an interlocking set of directors with all these anti-immigration groups.

IR: You also looked at the funding of some of these groups, didn't you?

COX: We did, and what we discovered simply blew us away. We found out that one of the primary players behind this movement is Richard Mellon Scaife, the right-wing Pittsburgh billionaire who financed a number of anti-Clinton activities [the so-called "Arkansas Project"] as well as a number of anti-immigration groups.

In fact, we've been able to document that the Scaife family foundations and other foundations on whose board Mr. Scaife sits have provided a combined total of $2,720,500 to organizations that are directly tied to the current SUSPS candidates: Lamm, Morris and Pimentel.

IR: What do you think lies down the road?

COX: I think there's a Plan A and a Plan B. If the SUSPS folks fail to take over the board of directors, then their Plan A is to initiate another ballot proposition next year that would reverse the Club's policy of neutrality, similar to the 1998 effort.

IR: What ultimately is at stake here?

COX: I think the very identity and character of the Sierra Club is at stake if these outside forces succeed in taking it over. We will lose the historical values that have made the Club what it is — a grassroots-driven organization whose members care deeply about the protection of the wild places of the Earth, human health and the quality of the environment overall.

Just recently, I was deeply distressed to discover that a Sierra Club member and SUSPS advocate had posted something on what I consider a racist Web site, The article was an explicit and detailed set of instructions for how to join the Sierra Club and for whom to vote — a call for the readers of this Web site to sign up and vote for these candidates because of their position on immigration.

I noticed the other articles posted on the site, too. One, called "Routing the Race Deniers," talked about the differences in racial groups based on skull measurements and compared the skulls of Northern European whites and Africans — just disgusting stuff. These are very alarming groups.

A victory by the anti-immigration forces would damage the credibility of the Club. We would be less trusted on mainstream environmental issues, and those who have supported the Club with their donations would feel betrayed.

I expect that a number of senior staff would probably resign. But I think you would probably also see a rebellion of Sierra Club local leaders throughout the country.

If we lose this election, by the next election a sleeping giant will have been awakened.