The Invasion of the Elegant Trogons | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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The Invasion of the Elegant Trogons 

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

Thursday, Apr 1 2004
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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?

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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.

Dick Lamm is far more well-known than Tanton. From 1975 to 1987, the affable Lamm served three terms as the Democratic governor of Colorado. By the 1980s, though, the ex-governor was veering outside the political mainstream by calling for draconian measures to control population. In 1984, Lamm made national headlines when he talked about the elderly’s “duty to die.”

Yet in an interview, Lamm sounds like the same laid-back, outdoorsy guy who helped give the New West a good name back in the 1970s. “The population issue in the U.S. is immigration,” Lamm says. “The Sierra Club has made a deal — you can call it a Faustian bargain — that they will stay away from population and immigration in return for votes. It’s an unconscionable sellout of an important environmental issue, like saying I’m the head of the women’s movement in America and I believe in the women’s movement but I don’t believe in equal pay for equal work.”

Lamm is right that population growth helps drive nearly every environmental dilemma, from soaring energy consumption to marauding snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. At the same time, the related issue of controlling immigration in the U.S. leaves proponents open to charges of First World arrogance — if our quality of life is the result of exploiting developing nations, why shouldn’t their people share in the benefits? — or, at worst, outright racism. Politics also play a role, as the Hispanic vote becomes a sought-after prize for politicians and interest groups alike.

The issue becomes even more complicated when it turns into a culture clash with the organization itself. Like that of many venerable conservation groups, the Sierra Club’s history is rife with white Protestant elitism, according to Michael Cohen, author of The History of the Sierra Club 1892–1970. “A long time ago, the Sierra Club was indistinguishable from the Bohemian Club,” Cohen said in an interview. “The members were elite, white Protestant professionals or academics who believed they were leaders of the renaissance of California. They were filled with all of the phobias of the time, including xenophobia.” Even the club’s founder — the Scottish immigrant John Muir, whose flowery prose made him the first popularizer of the wilderness ethic — had moments of panic when his daughters seemed too friendly to Chinese workers, Cohen said.

By mid-century, the Sierra Club had attracted a more diverse constituency, but the club retained the ambiance of a haute WASP summer camp. Even Jews who became prominent activists were still viewed as outsiders. More recently, the club, which remains 90 percent white, has had difficulty attracting African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics, despite well-intentioned efforts.

If the environmental movement is to remain viable in a world of radically changing demographics, WASP snobbery has to go the way of the dodo, Cohen believes. “Environmental organizations in the 21st century have to accommodate wider demographic and cultural concerns,” Cohen said.

Before the Sierra Club moves toward its 21st-century future, though, it will have to face down its past. Back in the days of cute bumper stickers and the newly discovered wonders of the birth control pill, the club embraced the cause of population stabilization — and that included limits to immigration. In 1969, the Sierra Club’s board called for stabilization of the U.S. population. In 1978, the board urged Congress to study the effects of immigration on population growth and environmental quality in the U.S., according to an article in the online environmental magazine Grist.

Soon mainstream environmentalists realized that while population control was something most liberals could rally around, immigration was a different story. The history of immigration in the U.S. had been marked by a series of attempts to keep out specific ethnic groups. “America has always had a schizophrenic view of immigration,” said Devin Burghart of the Center for New Community, a Chicago-based human rights organization. “We’re always either shutting the door or it’s the Statue of Liberty myth. The fact is that nativists have always been there and it’s always been racist.”

By the end of the 1970s, environmentalists were promoting family planning rather than dramatic immigration limits. People like John Tanton faded into the background. But they didn’t give up. In the late 1970s, Tanton established his own organizations: the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies, U.S. English, and the journal The Social Contract. In 1988, Tanton, who remains a life member of the Sierra Club, co-wrote a memo to anti-immigration activists in which he flirted with overt racism, asking questions like: “As Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion? Why don’t non-Hispanic Whites have a group identity, as do Blacks, Jews, Hispanics?” In a strategic twist, Tanton cast himself as a defender of African-Americans, whom he claimed were adversely affected by immigrants willing to work for low wages. But it was something else in the memo that caught the attention of Mark Potok at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who unearthed the memo last fall. “The Sierra Club may not want to touch the immigration issue, but the immigration issue is going to touch the Sierra Club!” Tanton wrote.

Tanton’s words seemed, at the very least, prophetic. In 1997, a handful of Sierra Club members managed to get a measure on the ballot endorsing a reduction in immigration. In a 60-40 vote, the membership decided to remain neutral on immigration, favoring instead a “comprehensive approach” promoting international economic security, women’s rights and reproductive health.

But the assault by the immigration reformers, as they call themselves, had only just begun. In 2002, USC astrophysics professor Ben Zuckerman won a seat on the Sierra Club board of directors. The following year, Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug LaFollette joined him there. Both were hardcore proponents of limiting immigration.

The third insurgent candidate was Paul Watson, the self-styled “master and commander” of the whale-ship-ramming marine protection group Sea Shepherd. Watson was on board with the anti-immigration zealots, but not exactly of them. Watson, who was kicked out of Greenpeace decades ago for his lack of Gandhian restraint, says he doesn’t dislike Hispanics or Chinese — he just dislikes people.

“I don’t give a damn if California’s 100 percent Mexican,” he said. “My position on population and immigration is motivated by purely ecological concerns. I don’t associate with any social groups. I don’t get involved with social-justice issues. I’m on the board to represent non-humans and to represent habitat.”

Though Watson claims “it’s pretty much useless” for anybody to try to influence his votes, Ben Zuckerman does hold a seat on Sea Shepherd’s board and presumably had a pretty good idea that he could count on support from Watson on the immigration issue. Although Watson, ironically, is a Canadian who spends much of his time in Santa Monica and Malibu courting celebrity supporters like Martin Sheen, Pierce Brosnan and Linda Blair.

Under pressure from Zuckerman, the Sierra Club’s board voted to consider placing another population question on the ballot in 2005 — after the presidential election. But Zuckerman’s fellow true believers were already recruiting anti-immigration candidates for the 2004 Sierra Club board election. One was Dick Lamm, whose name still carried weight with liberals unfamiliar with his more recent incarnation as the environmental movement’s Dr. Kevorkian. The others were David Pimentel, a professor of insect ecology and agricultural sciences at Cornell University, and Frank Morris, a former director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Each had impressive résumés, but little or no track record with the Sierra Club.

To collect the 360 signatures necessary to get on the ballot for the board of directors, candidates counted on a new group that sounded like it was part of the Sierra Club — only it wasn’t. The Web site of Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization (SUSPS) is registered to Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform (CAIR). CAIR’s co-director, Fred Elbel, is also the Webmaster for a Proposition 187–style initiative called “Protect Arizona Now” that anti-immigrant groups are trying to get on the ballot in Arizona in 2004, according to Devin Burghart.

As the campaign heated up, white supremacist Web sites began to carry exhortations to join the Sierra Club and vote for Lamm, Pimentel and Morris. These included VDare, run by Brenda Walker, who once wrote in John Tanton’s journal The Social Contract: “That belief that all cultures are equal — the central tenet of multicultural society — does not bear even the most cursory examination.”

In January, Morris Dees, the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors these groups, announced his candidacy for the Sierra Club board. Like most of the anti-immigration candidates, Dees had no previous Sierra Club experience. Dees made it clear that he was running not to serve on the board but to use his marquee value to alert club members to what he viewed as the threat of a “hostile takeover” by racists.

By that time, the word chaos no longer seemed appropriate. Clusterfuck was more like it. Zuckerman, Pimentel and Lamm went into PR overdrive in an attempt to downplay their associations with white supremacist groups. Zuckerman, who many believe is the main organizer of the so-called hostile takeover, said he was running out of concern that the environmental movement was no longer an effective force in American politics.

“It would be one thing if the environmental movement in the United States was really doing great under establishment directors like Carl Pope but it’s not,” Zuckerman said. “In the past 10 years, we’ve gone into the toilet. We’ve got the worst Congress and president in the history of our country.

“If the club had been willing to try more courageous things, maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation now.”

What Zuckerman neglected to mention — or perhaps genuinely didn’t know — is that a group whose board of directors he had served on, Californians for Population Stabilization, was supported by the Pioneer Fund, a foundation that has funded race-based science dedicated to demonstrating white intellectual and moral superiority since the 1930s, when it was tied to Hitler’s eugenics program.

Still, Zuckerman and his colleagues are not insensitive to criticism. The insurgents have hired a PR firm. When asked if he felt uncomfortable being associated with racist groups, Zuckerman said, in scripted fashion, “Politics makes strange bedfellows.”

Board candidate David Pimentel’s bedfellows are at least as strange as Zuckerman’s. According to “Hostile Takeover: Race, Immigration and the Sierra Club,” a report issued by the Center for New Community, Pimentel sits on the board of the Carrying Capacity Network. The board president is Virginia Abernethy, who also sits on the editorial board of The Citizens Informer, the house organ of the overtly racist group the Council of Conservative Citizens. One of the CCC’s founders, Robert Patterson, wrote in 2000, “Any effort to destroy the (white) race by a mixture of black blood is an effort to destroy Western civilization itself.”

Getting in bed with people who promote hate speech can’t be dismissed with a soundbite, says former Sierra Club board member Michael Dorsey. Dorsey was part of an earlier insurgency of rabble-rousing 20-somethings who managed to get the Sierra Club to endorse a visionary policy of banning logging on Forest Service land in the mid-’90s. Dorsey, who is African-American, went on to serve six years on the Sierra Club board of directors. Now a grizzled veteran of 33, he is a professor at Dartmouth College.

“Dick Lamm is the David Duke of the environmental movement,” Dorsey said. “This is not about immigration. This is about a threat to democracy, to humanity. These are proto-fascists. We know for a fact that they have ties to neo-Nazis. We know the neo-Nazis in this country are talking to neo-Nazis in Europe. The minute you start having conversations with fascists, you are completely outside the realm of political credibility.”

The attempted coup at the Sierra Club may not be part of a vast right-wing conspiracy to discredit the environmental movement in an election year, as one staff member joked. But it may be evidence of a resurgence of the anti-immigrant sentiment that has darkened (as it were) several chapters of American history. Successive waves of immigration seemed to bring up the same arguments: The new arrivals won’t assimilate, they breed too much, they’ll create divisions that will destabilize the country, and, in extreme cases, they’re genetically inferior. In March, Harvard professor Samuel Huntington recast many of these arguments in a controversial article published by the journal Foreign Policy attacking Hispanic immigration to the U.S., another sign that the resurgence of U.S. nativism may be reaching beyond small groups of right-wing nuts.

If well-educated, upper-middle-class anti-immigration zealots have joined forces with jackbooted thugs, they would argue it’s because they’ve become marginalized by the mainstream environmental movement. Carl Pope says, in effect, they’re just sore losers.

“Look,” Pope said, “global population growth, U.S. population growth and forced migration are all problems. But they have underlying causes. The U.S. putting up a fence or lifting the gangplanks is quite literally like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. U.S. immigration quotas are a tiny little symptom of the problem and a very divisive symptom. The Sierra Club would rather deal with the causes, not the symptoms.”

Pope ran down a long list of those causes, including lack of education and empowerment for women, lack of basic health care for poor and rural families, the U.S. domestic gag rule limiting financial assistance to family-planning programs, human rights abuses, civil wars, violence, ecological collapse in various parts of the world, and unfair global trade and economic policies.

Pope’s beliefs were formed in a small village in India called Barhi Barhi, where he worked as a Peace Corps volunteer. “Let me tell you a story,” he said. “I was bicycling along the road one day. I wore local clothes and I could speak Hindustani, which was the local language. There was an old man, about 65, which was old for rural people in that part of India. He waved me down and he said to me, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m in the Peace Corps, I’m working for the state health department, and I’m working in the family-planning program. Do you know what family planning is?’

“He said to me, ‘Oh. I know what a family is. Mothers and fathers and sons and daughters.’

“Then he said in Hindustani: ‘But that English word, what’s that?’”

In village Hindustani, Pope says, there was no word for planning.

“Those are the kinds of things we have to deal with,” Pope said. “Not what we do in Tijuana or JFK International.”

Many see Tanton as the godfather of the activists behind the so-called hostile takeover of the club. Tanton, who is at home in Michigan and far away from the action, denies that he is directly involved. But, he allowed, “A sympathetic friend called me the master gardener, selecting, fertilizing, watering, harvesting, planting. I’m a fairly well-organized person.”

When asked if he felt comfortable working with groups that advocate white supremacy, Tanton said, “It’s hard to be holier than thou and get anything done in the world. You try to put together a coalition that’s diverse.”

As the interview wound down, Tanton became slightly less guarded. He talked about the excitement of seeing an elegant trogon, a rare bronze-and-scarlet bird rarely spotted in the U.S. He sounded like any other conservation-minded guy in his 60s.

They may share an interest in nature, but there is a fundamental difference between people who see the world’s environmental dilemmas through the single lens of immigration — men like Zuckerman, Tanton and Lamm — and your average Prius driver. Still, it isn’t impossible to understand why these men would want to hold on to a simpler time. In the good old days, well-mannered white males could meet with their counterparts in Washington, D.C., and, damn it all, get a law passed. Now, like the rest of us, they face odds that too often seem insurmountable: a presidential administration that encourages polluting industry to write policy, a corrupt Congress that refuses to pass environmental laws, and a citizenry stunned into inaction by celebrity nipple piercing.

This month, when the Sierra Club ballots filter in, even old white guys with lots of money and clout may discover they can’t turn back the clock. The stiff-necked manners and harshly drawn lines of John Tanton’s conservation movement just don’t mean much anymore. Even the elegant trogon — the bird Tanton was so happy to see — is a migrant that drifts over the border from Mexico.

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