The Invasion of the Elegant Trogons 

Is Sierra Club’s anti-immigration insurgency for the birds?

Thursday, Apr 1 2004
Illustration by Julie West

More than 30 years ago, three men worked together at Zero Population Growth, a Washington, D.C., environmental group founded by scientist Paul Ehrlich. In 1969, Ehrlich’s best-selling Malthusian rant, The Population Bomb, had alerted the world to the dangers of overpopulation. The Stanford biology professor was enjoying his 15 minutes of celebrity, cracking wise on the Johnny Carson show. Zero Population Growth captured the spirit of the times with bumper stickers like “Control Your Local Stork.” Ehrlich left the running of the organization to others.

Dick Lamm, an up-and-coming attorney with political ambitions, was one of Zero Population Growth’s first presidents. Lamm had his eureka moment while traveling in India, where the spectacle of human suffering on the streets of Calcutta had shocked both him and his pregnant wife, Dottie.

John Tanton, a Michigan ophthalmologist who had been active in the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, followed Lamm as the group’s president in the mid-1970s. Handing out birth control pills wasn’t enough for Tanton; he believed immigration should be curtailed, too. Tanton was described by a colleague as a “soft nativist,” someone who wasn’t exactly a racist but thought that white Anglo-Saxon Protestants had founded a pretty darn good country, so why mess with success?

A bright young man named Carl Pope joined the staff of ZPG in 1970, fresh from a Peace Corps stint in India. Like Dick Lamm, Pope believed the experience of being in India had changed him profoundly. But Pope, who was about a decade younger than the other two, had immersed himself in the life of India, learning to speak Hindustani fluently while spending two years working in a rural health clinic. His job? Handing out condoms.

Today these men are opponents in a pitched battle for control over the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club’s $95 million budget, 750,000 members and high-powered lobbying apparatus make it arguably the nation’s premier environmental organization. But in a quirk of fate, the club is incorporated in California, which means its board is subject to the same low-bar election laws that enabled former child-actor Gary Coleman to get on the ballot in last year’s gubernatorial election. Over the past three years, an oddball coalition of anti-immigration zealots and animal-rights activists has gained three seats on the Sierra Club’s board of directors as petition candidates. Now five more insurgents, including Dick Lamm, are running a well-funded campaign, threatening to take control of the club’s 15-member board of directors. Many Sierra Club leaders, including more than a dozen former presidents, are worried that should the insurgents prevail when election returns are counted this month, the club’s credibility and political effectiveness will be seriously threatened.

Carl Pope, the former Peace Corps volunteer, is now executive director of the Sierra Club. He has decisively cast the country’s pre-eminent environmental group as a “big tent” organization, taking on issues of globalization, corporate responsibility and environmental justice. The club’s stance is not only intellectually hep, it also solves the marketing problem plaguing the nation’s graying environmental movement — how to attract Gens X, Y and Z. Under Pope’s leadership, the club’s membership has grown by nearly 50 percent and its budget has tripled, a rate of growth comparable to the heady days when environmentalism was as popular as Mom, apple pie and headbands. The Sierra Club Student Coalition has 14,000 members, making it the largest student environmental coalition in the country.

Not everyone is happy with these changes. For one thing, Pope isn’t a guy who inspires the gut-level passions evoked by his predecessors, quasi-messianic leaders like David Brower, who ran the Sierra Club in its 1960s glory days. Pope doesn’t feel your pain, or at least he doesn’t act like he does. Some of the club’s Young Turks criticize Pope for consolidating power at the expense of the club’s commitment to grassroots activism. Pope himself acknowledges that the number of politically active Sierra Club members has remained flat while the total membership has grown.

But the struggle over the club’s policy on population is separate from these complaints. The question of how to grapple with population growth is an old, bitter and personal fight, with resentments dating back 30 years.


John Tanton is regarded as the éminence grise of the country’s anti-immigration movement, a phenomenon of the political fringe that appears to be gaining some ground with the explosion of illegal immigrants from Mexico. Today, Tanton, the good old farm boy who once rang doorbells as a Sierra Club volunteer in his home state of Michigan, runs a nonprofit organization called U.S. Inc., which has received at least $2.7 million from family foundations associated with right-wing activist Richard Mellon Scaife. Tanton’s behind-the-scenes influence inspired the Southern Poverty Law Center to call him “The Puppeteer” in an investigative article published in its magazine. He has either funded or helped organize a spate of immigration “reform” groups that run the gamut from ostensibly nonpartisan think tanks in Washington, D.C., to outright wackos predicting the collapse of the United States under an onslaught of dusky, fecund hordes.

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