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All this forms a formidable backdrop for Werbach’s present task: running an environmental organization with 550,000 members and a heap of troubles. Werbach assumed the presidency at a time when the club was struggling with financial woes, staff and program cuts, and a relentless congressional assault on environmental regulations. A year and a half later, Werbach’s performance has garnered mixed reviews. He looks and sounds good for the cameras, but when confronted with the deeper, more complex aspects of leadership, he has faltered.
In some ways, Werbach is truly a man for our times, the environmental movement’s Bill Clinton, leaning more to style than substance, opting for conciliation over confrontation. Indeed, in 1996 Werbach led the club in an endorsement of Clinton, despite the president’s signature on a national-parks logging measure characterized as Ã¤ "disastrous" in the club’s own magazine. Many environmentalists, including a majority of the Sierra Club’s membership, want a total ban on such logging. Werbach defended his support of Clinton by pointing to the president’s 11th-hour national-monument designation of the Grand Staircase–Escalante area in southern Utah.
Now, nearing the end of his second one-year term, Werbach is considering running again. If he does, he stands to become the first Sierra Club president since founder John Muir to hold the post for three consecutive terms. But does Werbach have the vision to breathe new life into the environmental movement? It’s something Tony Ruckel, a member of the club’s board, worries about. "In the ’90s, progress has been hard," Ruckel says. "The question is, ‘Are we going to regain momentum?’"
It’s a foggy, chill evening, and Gail Wer bach has accompanied Adam to a silent auction for the Wilderness Coalition at the Patagonia store near San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. An educational therapist, she is tall like her son and shares his cropped dark hair and direct, open expression. She is clearly proud of both Adam and Kevin, his older brother, who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law and is now in charge of developing the FCC’s Internet policies.
As bidders sip Merlot and peruse bikes, backpacks and snowshoe bindings, Gail modestly attributes her two sons’ success to "good genes, good parenting and luck," then mentions that she and her husband are thinking about writing a book on child rearing. "He’s a psychologist and I’m in education," she says. "So you can imagine."
Adam wanders by, fixes his mom with an intense, hazel-eyed stare and says, "Stop it." She waves him away, takes a sip of wine and continues right along. Adam, it turns out, "was a messy child," and Gail and her husband gave him an ultimatum — clean his room at least once a week or no allowance. Adam refused. "He said it was a matter of principle," Gail recalls. "Even at a very young age he had piles of mail from environmental organizations all over the globe. Plus he had adopted a small, impoverished child he was sending money to each month."
So Adam went without an allowance. Instead he started buying old guitars, refurbishing them and then reselling them to aspiring musicians through ads in the Recycler. "You can imagine," she says, rolling her eyes at the memory of the scraggly rock & rollers who appeared at their Tarzana ranch-house door.
For a while there, she says, the whole environmentalist thing was a bit hard to take. "We have traditional Jewish gefilte-fish-and-brisket roots," she says. "And here’s Adam. Twelve years old and says he’s a vegetarian."
Then there was the anti-leather period. Just as Gail is about to expound, Adam appears at her side. "No, Mom, no," he pleads. She forges ahead. "He got these ugly plastic shoes. Oh, they were terrible." Adam looks pained. "Mom!" Gail smiles. "Thank God that’s over with," she says, gesturing toward Adam’s brown leather oxfords. "Adam is a reasonable environmentalist."
Like many of the club’s actions these days, Wer bach’s election was seen alternately as bold or desperate — a last-ditch maneuver by an organization trying to regain lost ground. Though the club’s finances and membership had improved somewhat since the early ’90s, it had not managed to rejuvenate itself in other elemental ways.
For the first half of the century, the Sierra Club served as an elite gathering of high-minded conservationists. Founded in 1892 by a group of progressive thinkers led by naturalist John Muir, the club was primarily known for its successful crusade to save Yosemite and for its socially oriented hikes and camping trips.
It wasn’t until the mid-1940s that the club assumed a broader mission, with the help of a mountain climber named David Brower. Under his leadership, the Sierra Club became a household name, battling against the damming of rivers and helping create the Wilderness Act of 1964, which has since been applied to more than 90 million acres of land.
To a generation of environmentalists, Brower symbolized limitless possibility. In the 1970s he was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. "David Brower compelled Americans to talk around their dinner tables about big dams, wilderness, air and water quality," says Robert Elliott, a longtime river-rafting guide who accompanied Brower on trips down the Colorado River in the 1960s. He "taught me that one person can make a monumental difference in the world, and to question conventional wisdom."