There They Go Again, by Martin Litton

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There They Go Again

The Sierra Club Board Rigs Another Election

January, 1998

The Board's present population/immigration position--or, actually, non-position--is not the first example of timidity and indecision over which the Sierra Club later had to eat crow. And the consequences of being politically correct, "realistic," "reasonable," or even what may be perceived as compassionate go far beyond subsequent embarrassment and loss of credibility: Getting back on track is costly in time, energy and funds that could have been working for our causes.

"Overpopulation is the Sierra Club's business... The Board's argument is full of irrelevancies and generalizations."

And this is not the first time a board of directors has tried to hoodwink the members into accepting a foolish position it has taken on an issue.
Although direct reversal of a Board position has not been achieved by a membership vote, new boards of directors have come along, in periods as short as two years, to overturn bad decisions and set things right. And members have been able to get the jump on a weak board of directors before it could go wrong (Zero Cut); the Board itself may provide a brave surprise now and then (Drain Lake Powell).
In 1949, the Sierra Club Board of Directors not only accepted, but its President advocated, the construction of monster dams at Mile 39 and Mile 237 of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, anticipating clear blue recreational lakes to replace the dangerous muddy river. That position became a political millstone about our necks when we came to our senses, with a much different board, in 1966--and it was cited by our adversaries to discredit us throughout our eventually successful campaign.
Also in 1949, the Sierra Club Board of Directors was on record favoring mechanical downhill skiing development at Mineral King, a national-forest enclave in the wild heart of Sequoia National Park. Not until 1965 did we get our heads straight on that one, finally winning an exhausting, costly struggle against the might of the Forest Service and the Disney Corporation and getting Mineral King into the safety of the park. We spent hard years of litigation, legislative effort, demonstrations, and wear and tear on shoe leather just trying to undo the damage that undecisive boards of directors had done simply by failing to live up to stated Sierra Club ideals.
But the most notorious example of board misdirection which had to be reversed was the shameful endorsement of the siting of a Pacific Gas and Electric Company nuclear power plant on the wild coast (California's last) of San Luis Obispo County, where the installation would be "in a remote place, not seen by the general public." The war that ensued is said to have torn the Sierra Club apart; certainly it cost the Club its courageous Executive Director, David Brower, who actively took up the side of wilderness. Misled by a majority of the 1966 Board, which sided with industry and controlled dissemination of printed materials by the Club, the membership failed to right the wrong that had been done. Making amends for the incredible abandonment of Sierra Club principles was left to a new board majority which came into control only two years later, in 1968. But it was too late; the monster plant was under construction, and Diablo Canyon was lost.
Soon crowds of demonstrators tried to block the road to the construction site; many of them were members of the Sierra Club. Meanwhile, the Board of Directors passed a resolution stating that the Board "regretfully acknowledges its belief that it made a mistake of principle and policy in attempting to bargain away an area of unique scenic beauty in its prior resolutions in regard to Diablo Canyon and environs."
Overpopulation is the Sierra Club's business. At the same time we're hoping to do something about it worldwide, we can do something here at home. The Board's argument is full of irrelevancies and generalizations. Let's advocate what should be done by passing Position A.
          Martin Litton


Martin Litton is former National Club Director. He has received the Sierra Club John Muir Award; and is a former Senior Editor of Sunset magazine.


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