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Looking A little Green 

Taking the Sierra Club's helm, boy wonder Adam Werbach confronts more than his own inexperience

Wednesday, Jun 19 1996
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"They can't spread their legs, like, outward," the woman on-screen is explaining. She is staring right into the camera, holding a Barbie doll. The doll has its legs split, a broad-jumper in the Olympics of love. The curtains of the room in this trendy Tenderloin hotel are drawn against the late-afternoon light. The television set shines like the white of a long-dead eye. "Like, straddling someone. My Barbies," the woman on the TV says, "always had sex like scissors."

Outside, beyond the perimeter of the hotel, life goes on. Drug deals, hookers, broken glass. Inside the hotel, in the open-air courtyard that frames a pool, the management broadcasts bird calls, which ricochet off the concrete walkways as if tropical creatures had somehow found their way here and were trying to get back home. As if it's possible to erase pain with beauty. Or present-day life with the recorded recollection of another time and place.

"It's definitely not fuckable," another woman on the TV says. She's looking at her Barbie doll with disdain. As, indeed, John Muir might have.

John Muir?
In a chair in a corner of the room in the dark, Adam Werbach is sitting and watching the TV screen. At 23, Werbach has a title: President of the Sierra Club. On this Tuesday afternoon, he's had the job for one week and one day. Tomorrow, he'll get his cellular phone. The day after that, he'll visit the White House. Werbach made this Barbie movie in college last year. Directed it, shot it, the works. It's a post-structural look at an American icon, he explains. "It was not regular Barbie. It was hooker-agency Barbie," another woman on the television says. "Ken was the pimp."

The pimp? Exactly what is this Werbach person doing running the nation's pre-eminent environmental organization? The Sierra Club isn't just a gold star on someone's resume -- it's 104 years old, for heaven's sake. It protected Yosemite. It stopped the government from turning the Grand Canyon into a reservoir. Parks for the people. American icons.

These days, though, the Sierra Club is at a crossroads. Decades of lobbying in Washington have given the club a place at the political table, but that seat has been earned with compromises that don't sit well with more progressive, grass-roots environmentalists. And recently, the club's national leaders have been seen to waffle on the issues, which has caused an uproar in the club's membership. Allow commercial logging on nationally owned lands? Well, hell, if you have to, the board says. Over our dead bodies, the membership declares.

Enter Werbach. Younger and hipper than most Sierra Club members, Werbach's not your typical Volvo-driving green bean.

"If I hadn't decided to take this position I'd sort of be in film school next year," Werbach says. "That's sort of where my passion lies."

Werbach wants to transfer that passion to reshape the image of the environmental movement. And already, his election as president has sparked a spate of gushing stories -- everywhere from Newsweek to the New York Times -- about the club's rebirth. After all, Werbach's environmental record is impressive: While still in high school, he formed a national student coalition within the Sierra Club that has grown to 30,000 members and given the club new life among younger people. While in college at Brown University, he mobilized a savvy telephone campaign widely credited with turning the U.S. Senate vote that won crucial protections for California desert lands.

But image is one thing, and impact is another, especially given the labyrinthine structure of the Sierra Club and the powerful political forces at odds with each other in its national leadership. Werbach now finds himself surrounded by equally determined and more experienced people who will try to use him for their own ends.

Will he be able to effect real change? Or will Werbach find that, like Barbie, he's just a plastic pleasure figurine in other people's hands?

The last few years have been rough for the Sierra Club, which, with 600,000 members, is the nation's most famous environmental organization. To start with, the Republicans in Congress have taken it upon themselves to denude American lawbooks of environmental protections. In Washington, the group's legal wizards have been working overtime to at least gain a draw in the political chess game. But the club's successes have been overshadowed by one very big loss: In 1995, President Clinton signed into law a bill that allowed publicly owned lands to be pillaged for lumber. Big setback for the green team, needless to say. Bad enough that it happened at all, but that it happened on a Democrat's watch was appalling to some activists.

Congress isn't, however, the only thorn in the Sierra Club's garden. On the money front, according to the most recent documents filed with the California Department of Justice in Sacramento, the Sierra Club was managing to lose $1 million a year as recently as 1994. That's not a bad party trick, given that the club has yearly revenues of some $40 million, two-thirds of which come in the form of donations and dues from the environmentally minded public. The club spent a total of $33 million on lobbying; on producing books, a magazine, and catalogs; on its outing programs; and on support for its 63 volunteer chapters and 400 groups. Another $8 million, or one-fifth of the total budget, went for management expenses and fund raising; $1.4 million was spent on travel alone. During that same time, the Sierra Club gained some surprising stock investments, including two separate holdings of Fruit Of The Loom stock. Fruit Of The Loom is a company that, for obvious underwear reasons, depends on cotton for its profits. Cotton and salmon feed off the same water sources, in California at least. One wins, the other loses. If you're the money-losing Sierra Club with a financial interest in skivvies, what do you do?

Then came the whole flap over immigration. In March of 1993, the Sierra Club found itself on the brink of endorsing a measure that basically said newcomers and the United States environment were a bad match. Keep those folks south of the border, you see, and they won't be standing on line in Wal-Marts across America getting ready to buy aerosol sprays that could deplete the ozone layer.

About The Author

Ellen McGarrahan

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    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
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    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
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    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
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    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

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