Sierra Club leader departs amid discontent over group's direction

Nov 18 2011 - 6:27pm

SAN FRANCISCO -- The leader of the Sierra Club, one of the nation's most influential environmental groups, has stepped down after 18 years amid discontent that the group founded by 19th-century wilderness evangelist John Muir has strayed from the woods and into to corporate boardrooms and has compromised its core principals.

The departure of Carl Pope, 66, chairman of the club and a member for more than 40 years, comes as the nonprofit group faces declining membership, internal dissent, well-organized opponents, a weak economy and hostile forces in Congress trying to take the teeth out of environmental regulations.

He has been replaced by Michael Brune, 40, a veteran of smaller, tightly focused activist groups, who has pledged to focus leadership on grass-roots organizing, recruiting new members and focusing on issues such as coal-fired power plants. "We have different approaches," Brune said of his relationship with his predecessor.

Pope said he will leave his position as chairman to devote most of his time to "revitalizing the manufacturing sector" by working with organized labor and corporations. That focus during his tenure caused schisms in the club, most notably when he hammered out a million-dollar deal with household chemical manufacturer Clorox to use the club's emblem on a line of "green" products, and more recently with its unflagging support of utility-scale solar arrays in the Mojave Desert, the type of wild place the club made its reputation protecting.

"I'm a big-tent guy," Pope said in an interview in the group's San Francisco headquarters. "We're not going to save the world if we rely only on those who agree with the Sierra Club. There aren't enough of them. My aim is getting it right for the long term. I can't get anything accomplished if people think: 'This guy is not an honest broker. He's with the Sierra Club."'

Pope led the Sierra Club's efforts to help protect 10 million acres of wilderness, including California's Giant Sequoia National Monument, and brought litigation challenging the right of then-Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force to secretly hash out energy policy with major oil companies. Pope also co-authored California's Proposition 65, which allowed citizens to sue polluters if they failed to comply with the law. More recently, he helped block 150 proposed coal-fired power plants.

But his tenure was marked by controversial decisions that revealed the costs and political consequences behind the brand of environmental activism he practiced. Acrimony remains over the 2008 Clorox deal, which brought the club $1.3 million over the four-year term of the contract, according to Pope.

Many of the rank and file felt Pope diminished the role of chapter experts and volunteers who have sustained the organization since Muir first championed California's Sierra Nevada and an expanding list of American wild places, favoring paid staffers and attorneys and chumming with political players such as United Steel Workers President Leo Gerard and attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

The longest-serving executive director in club history, Pope pulled the group closer to large donors, and refocused efforts toward fighting climate change, over narrowly focused campaigns to protect wild places. The group's unflagging support for utility-scale solar development, which threatens such species as the desert tortoise, captures the philosophical shift that occurred under Pope.

"If we don't save the planet, there won't be any tortoises left to save," Pope said.

The 66-year-old Harvard graduate acknowledged that big challenges await his successor, who will manage a budget of nearly $100 million and a staff of about 600. Pope earned a salary of $207,374 in 2010, the last year for which figures were available.

The Sierra Club leadership, which is appointed by members, sought to minimize the issue of philosophical differences between Pope and Brune, and focus on a smooth transition.

"We're fortunate that the two of them work so well together, and that Carl has done such a great job of passing the torch," said Sierra Club Board President Robin Mann, who praised Pope's "groundbreaking work," including developing alliances with labor that "put us in a whole different position in terms of influence."

Brune, who has undergraduate degrees in economics and finance, previously worked for the Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace, groups known for scrappy and theatrical anti-corporate tactics. That background emerges in his view of the group's relationship with Clorox, a company that has had a checkered environmental past.

"We're done with Clorox," Brune said in an interview. "The contract with Clorox runs out in December, and by mutual consent it will not be renewed.

"I'm not going to bring any deals to the board that would negatively impact the Sierra Club brand," he added. "Nor will we associate with any company that has a green product line and also produces products that can damage the environment in ways they are not willing to address."

Pope had blunt words for critics of the Clorox decision: "I could predict with 90 percent certainty where somebody would stand on the Clorox controversy by knowing one bit of demographic data. The people in the Sierra Club who had significant concerns were between 50 and 68. They were people who cut their teeth on the counterculture-greening-of-America-anti-business stuff of the 1970s."

That assessment rankled Brune, who will have to address a decline in paid membership, from 714,000 in 2005 to 616,000 today.

"Over the next year we will be adding a million members and supporters," Brune said. "In order to get off coal, one if the biggest sources of greenhouse emissions, we'll need an army of well-trained volunteers, as well as lobbyists and lawyers. Our members will be finding new members as tenacious and devoted to finding solutions as they are. We'll be activating and inspiring everyday people who genuinely care about the environment."

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That kind of talk "is refreshing," said Joan Taylor, a Sierra Club activist of 40 years.

"We desert activists felt the club had abandoned the desert in the name of ramping up utility-scale renewable energy projects," Taylor said. "We don't need the club beholden to big labor and big corporations. That's a huge error in judgment. Eventually, it can't help but affect what you can say and what you can do."

Ed Mainland, co-chair of Sierra Club California's energy-climate committee said, "I'm hopeful there will be a change of course. We shouldn't be in bed with industry and utilities. Big donors start dictating policy."

Pope agreed, to a point.

"The biggest source of legitimate unhappiness," Pope said, "has been that after 9/11 the Sierra Club and all other membership organizations started getting less and less individual donations -- so we became more reliant on money that came with strings. That's the reality of the world."

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The club has received hefty financial contributions over the past two decades, including more than $100 million from clean energy investor David Gelbaum. In July, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's main charitable organization announced it would donate $50 million over four years to the club's campaign to shut down coal-fired power plants.

Pope acknowledged that many people in the organization disagreed with his fund-raising philosophy. "But my view and the view of the board," Pope said, "was that accepting some loss of flexibility for some increase in clout was a risk worth taking."

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