Looking A little Green

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

"What we did two years ago when I first became president was make some very hard financial decisions to put our house in order," Cox says. "We actually laid off some staff and concentrated our resources on our core mission -- protection of our public lands and the protections of basic environmental quality."

"We've gone through a whole series of things," agrees Pope. "It's about community dialogue. It's quite a dramatic change."

Maybe. But the evidence isn't in yet. The process isn't far enough along, Pope says, to have actually produced results. They know it's going to happen; cross their hearts. Look -- the board elected Adam Werbach, didn't it? He's young, isn't he? Well, that's a difference right there.

Not that Cox is planning to give up control of the club's reorganization, you understand. "I will be largely supporting Adam and working with him on this 'stop the war on the environment' campaign. I will also be tending to some of the internal restructuring of the club we've initiated in the last couple of years."

But, Cox says, he's totally behind Werbach.
"I have the greatest confidence in the world that Adam is the right person at the right time," Cox says.

So does David Brower. But not, perhaps, for exactly the same reasons. And caught in the middle is the Sierra Club's destiny.

Next to Muir himself, Brower has been the single most important voice in the century-long history of the Sierra Club. He's also been one of its most incendiary members -- storming in and out of power and favor, quitting and rejoining, exhorting and admonishing. For 17 years, from 1952 to 1969, Brower was the club's executive director, its first. He was fired from the job, but during the time that he held it he built the club's membership from 3,000 to 80,000, increased its national reputation exponentially, and led the fight on some of the most important environmental battles this country has ever endured.

"In America, we stopped man's hubris in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, one of the planet's most sublime chasms," Brower writes in his newest book, Let the Mountains Talk; Let the Rivers Run. "There the battle was fought and won in the name of Beauty. They wanted to dam the waters."

Now, there's an idea. Damming the Grand Canyon. There's no way that would fly today. Defeating it seems simple. But back then, Brower's full-page ads against the project in the nation's major newspapers enraged so many powerful people that the Internal Revenue Service abruptly ended the Sierra Club's tax-deductible status. You don't want to sit and eat with us at the table? Then get the hell outside.

These days, Brower answers the door at his home in the Berkeley Hills with the pallor and red-rimmed eyes of old age. At 82, he has the mementos of a life lived outdoors on the walls of his house: Across from the couch, where he's sitting, hangs a photograph taken by Ansel Adams of a rock climber standing on the top of the world. The climber, of course, is Brower. Touching the sky is not, however, a feeling Brower has much anymore.

"Why, why do people capitulate?" he asks. "Why do they do what they do?"
The Sierra Club, Brower contends, has lost its nerve. Instead of drawing lines in the sand, the Sierra Club leadership is concentrating on being included, rather than being effective. "It's exactly what the Sierra Club shouldn't be doing," Brower says. "It's losing its effectiveness. I want it to be effective."

And nowhere is the debate over nice vs. tough more evident than in the current dispute over trees.

Trees, as you can imagine, are important, Sierra Club-wise. People in the club love them and want to protect them. In fact, people in the club seem to love trees more than the people who run the club love trees. Or at least, they're more willing to say so. And they want the club to do something about it.

Recently, a ballot initiative went out to all 600,000 Sierra Club members nationwide. It asked a simple question: Should the Sierra Club oppose all commercial logging on nationally owned lands?

The board of directors, you see, hadn't quite decided. Maybe scorching the earth was a reasonable compromise. Maybe taking such a hard stand against tree-cutting would piss off the lumber industry. Maybe it might be better to go along and get along.

Wrong, the membership said.
"The members are tough, and they want things done," Brower explains. "We were just surprised and pleased that the initiative passed by a 2-to-1 margin."

"There are times when compromise is called for," says Oakland's Ted Hamilton, who heads the Ancient Forests Committee for the S.F. Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, the local arm of the national group. "But there are times when one needs to take a really strong stand. Put your demands out there, and don't back away."

That's what the Sierra Club grass roots will be expecting from the new president, Hamilton warns: "In his position, he pretty much has to support it and promote it."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.