|Motto||Explore, enjoy and protect the planet.|
|Formation||May 28, 1892|
|Type||501(c)(4) nonprofit advocacy organization|
|Headquarters||Oakland, California, U.S.|
|3 million (self-reported)|
|Affiliations||Sierra Club Foundation, Sierra Student Coalition, Sierra Club Books, Sierra Club Canada|
The Sierra Club is an environmental organization in the United States. It was founded on May 28, 1892, in San Francisco, California, by the Scottish-American preservationist John Muir, who became its first president.
Traditionally associated with the progressive movement, the club was one of the first large-scale environmental preservation organizations in the world, and currently engages in lobbying politicians to promote green policies. In recent years, the club has gravitated toward green politics and especially toward bright green environmentalism. Recent focuses of the club include promoting sustainable energy, mitigating global warming, and opposing coal. The club is known for its political endorsements, which are often sought after by candidates in local elections; it generally supports liberal and progressive candidates in elections.
The Sierra Club is organized on both a national and local level. The club is divided into large chapters representing large geographic areas, some of which have tens of thousands of members. These chapters are divided into regional groups, and special interest sections, committees, and task forces. While much activity is coordinated at a local level, the Club is a unified organization; decisions made at the national level take precedent.
In addition to political advocacy, the Sierra Club organizes outdoor recreation activities, and has historically been a notable organization for mountaineering and rock climbing in the United States. Members of the Sierra Club pioneered the Yosemite Decimal System of climbing, and were responsible for a substantial amount of the early development of climbing. Much of this activity occurred in the group's namesake Sierra Nevada. The Sierra Club does not set standards for or regulate alpinism, but it organizes wilderness courses, hikes, and occasional alpine expeditions for members.
The Sierra Club's stated mission is "To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources; To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives."
The Sierra Club is governed by a 15-member Board of Directors. Each year, five directors are elected to three-year terms, and all club members are eligible to vote. A president is elected annually by the Board from among its members. The Executive Director runs the day-to-day operations of the group. Michael Brune, formerly of Rainforest Action Network, has served as the organization's executive director since 2010. Brune succeeded Carl Pope. Pope stepped down amid discontent that the group had strayed from its core principles.
Sierra Club members belong to statewide chapters and local groups. National and local special-interest sections, committees, and task forces address particular issues. The national Sierra Club sets the organization's policy agenda and overarching rules.
Journalist Robert Underwood Johnson had worked with John Muir on the successful campaign to create a large Yosemite National Park surrounding the much smaller state park which had been created in 1864. This campaign succeeded in 1890. As early as 1889, Johnson had encouraged Muir to form an "association" to help protect the Sierra Nevada, and preliminary meetings were held to plan the group. Others involved in the early planning included artist William Keith, Willis Linn Jepson, Willard Drake Johnson, Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan.
In May 1892, a group of professors from the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University helped Muir and attorney Warren Olney launch the new organization modeled after the eastern Appalachian Mountain Club. The Sierra Club's charter members elected Muir president, an office he held until his death in 1914.
The Club's first goals included establishing Glacier and Mount Rainier national parks, convincing the California legislature to give Yosemite Valley to the U.S. federal government, and preserving California's coastal redwoods.
Muir escorted President Theodore Roosevelt through Yosemite in 1903, and two years later the California legislature ceded Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to the federal government. The Sierra Club won its first lobbying victory with the creation of the country's second national park, after Yellowstone in 1872.
In the first decade of the 1900s, the Sierra Club became embroiled in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir controversy that divided preservationists from "resource management" conservationists. In the late 19th century, the city of San Francisco was rapidly outgrowing its limited water supply, which depended on intermittent local springs and streams. In 1890, San Francisco mayor James D. Phelan proposed to build a dam and aqueduct on the Tuolumne River, one of the largest southern Sierra rivers, as a way to increase and stabilize the city's water supply.
Gifford Pinchot, a progressive supporter of public utilities and head of the US Forest Service, which then had jurisdiction over the national parks, supported the creation of the Hetch Hetchy dam. Muir appealed to his friend U.S. President Roosevelt, who would not commit himself against the dam, given its popularity with the people of San Francisco (a referendum in 1908 confirmed a seven-to-one majority in favor of the dam and municipal water). Muir and attorney William Edward Colby began a national campaign against the dam, attracting the support of many eastern conservationists. With the 1912 election of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who carried San Francisco, supporters of the dam had a friend in the White House.
The bill to dam Hetch Hetchy passed Congress in 1913, and so the Sierra Club lost its first major battle. In retaliation, the Club supported creation of the National Park Service in 1916, to remove the parks from Forest Service oversight. Stephen Mather, a Club member from Chicago and an opponent of the Hetch Hetchy dam, became the first National Park Service director.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the Sierra Club functioned as a social and recreational society, conducting outings, maintaining trails and building huts and lodges in the Sierras. Preservation campaigns included a several-year effort to enlarge Sequoia National Park (achieved in 1926) and over three decades of work to protect and then preserve Kings Canyon National Park (established in 1940). Historian Stephen Fox notes, "In the 1930s most of the three thousand members were middle-aged Republicans."
The New Deal brought many conservationists to the Democratic Party, and many Democrats entered the ranks of conservationists. Leading the generation of Young Turks who revitalized the Sierra Club after World War II were attorneys Richard Leonard and Bestor Robinson, nature photographer Ansel Adams, and David Brower.
Adams sponsored Brower for membership in the Club, and he was appointed to the editorial board of the Sierra Club Bulletin. After World War II Brower returned to his job with the University of California Press, and began editing the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1946.
In 1950, the Sierra Club had some 7,000 members, mostly on the West Coast. That year the Atlantic chapter became the first formed outside California. An active volunteer board of directors ran the organization, assisted by a small clerical staff. Brower was appointed the first executive director in 1952, and the Club began to catch up with major conservation organizations such as the National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, The Wilderness Society, and Izaak Walton League, which had long had professional staff.
The Sierra Club secured its national reputation in the battle against the Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, which had been announced by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1950. Brower led the fight, marshaling support from other conservation groups. Brower's background in publishing proved decisive; with the help of publisher Alfred Knopf, This Is Dinosaur was rushed into press. Invoking the specter of Hetch Hetchy, conservationists effectively lobbied Congress, which deleted the Echo Park dam from the Colorado River project as approved in 1955. Recognition of the Sierra Club's role in the Echo Park dam victory boosted membership from 10,000 in 1956 to 15,000 in 1960.
The Sierra Club was now truly a national conservation organization, and preservationists took the offensive with wilderness proposals. The Club's Biennial Wilderness Conferences, launched in 1949 in concert with The Wilderness Society, became an important force in the campaign that secured passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964.
In 1960, Brower launched the Exhibit Format book series with This Is the American Earth, and in 1962 In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World, with color photographs by Eliot Porter. These coffee-table books, published by their Sierra Club Books division, introduced the Sierra Club to a wider audience. Fifty thousand copies were sold in the first four years, and by 1960 sales exceeded $10 million. Soon Brower was publishing two new titles a year in the Exhibit Format series, but not all did as well as In Wildness. Although the books were successful in introducing the public to wilderness preservation and the Sierra Club, they lost money for the organization, some $60,000 a year after 1964. Financial management became a matter of contention between Brower and his board of directors.
The Sierra Club's most publicized crusade of the 1960s was the effort to stop the Bureau of Reclamation from building two dams that would flood portions of the Grand Canyon. Opposing the Bridge Canyon and Marble Canyon dam projects, full-page ads the Club placed in the New York Times and the Washington Post in 1966 exclaimed, "This time it's the Grand Canyon they want to flood," and asked, "Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?" The ads generated a storm of protest to the Congress, prompting the Internal Revenue Service to announce it was suspending the Sierra Club's 501(c)(3) status pending an investigation. The board had taken the precaution of setting up the Sierra Club Foundation as a (c)(3) organization in 1960 for endowments and contributions for educational and other non-lobbying activities. Even so, contributions to the Club dropped off, aggravating its annual operating deficits. Membership, however, climbed sharply in response to the investigation into the legitimacy of the society's tax status by the IRS from 30,000 in 1965 to 57,000 in 1967 and 75,000 in 1969.
The victory over the dam projects and challenges from the IRS did not come without costs. To make up for the power that would have been produced by the dams, the Sierra Club actually advocated for coal power plants. The result of the campaign and its trade-off was, in the words of historian Andrew Needham, that "the Grand Canyon became protected, sacred space," while "the Navajo Reservation"--which housed some of the main power plants picking up the slack - "became increasingly industrial."
Despite the Club's success in blocking plans for the Grand Canyon dams and weathering the transition from 501(c)(3) to 501(c)(4) status, tension grew over finances between Brower and the board of directors. The Club's annual deficits rose from $100,000 in 1967 and 1968 to some $200,000 in 1969. Another conflict occurred over the Club's policy toward the nuclear power plant to be constructed by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) at Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo, California. Although the Club had played the leading role blocking PG&E's nuclear power plant proposed for Bodega Bay, California in the early 1960s, that case had been built around the local environmental impact and earthquake danger from the nearby San Andreas fault, not from opposition to nuclear power itself. In exchange for moving the new proposed site from the environmentally sensitive Nipomo Dunes to Diablo Canyon, the board of directors voted to support PG&E's plan for the power plant. A membership referendum in 1967 upheld the board's decision. But Brower concluded that nuclear power at any location was a mistake, and he voiced his opposition to the plant, contrary to the Club's official policy. As pro- and anti-Brower factions polarized, the annual election of new directors reflected the conflict. Brower's supporters won a majority in 1968, but in the April 1969 election the anti-Brower candidates won all five open positions. Ansel Adams and president Richard Leonard, two of his closest friends on the board, led the opposition to Brower, charging him with financial recklessness and insubordination and calling for his ouster as executive director. The board voted ten to five to accept Brower's resignation. Eventually reconciled with the Club, Brower was elected to the board of directors for a term from 1983 to 1988, and again from 1995 to 2000.
Michael McCloskey, hired by Brower in 1961 as the Club's first northwest field representative, became the Club's second executive director in 1969. An administrator attentive to detail, McCloskey had set up the Club's conservation department in 1965 and guided the campaigns to save the Grand Canyon and establish Redwoods National Park and North Cascades National Park. During the 1970s, McCloskey led the Club's legislative activity--preserving Alaskan lands and eastern wilderness areas, and supporting the new environmental agenda: the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, the Clean Air Act amendments, and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, passed during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. The Sierra Club made its first presidential endorsement in 1984 in support of Walter Mondale's unsuccessful campaign to unseat Ronald Reagan. McCloskey resigned as executive director in 1985 after 16-1/2 years (the same length of time Brower had led the organization), and assumed the title of chairman, becoming the Club's senior strategist, devoting his time to conservation policy rather than budget planning and administration. After a two-year interlude with Douglas Wheeler, whose Republican credentials were disconcerting to liberal members, the Club hired Michael Fischer, the former head of the California Coastal Commission, who served as executive director from 1987 to 1992. Carl Pope, formerly the Club's legislative director, was named executive director in 1992.
In the 1990s, club members Jim Bensman, Roger Clarke, David Dilworth, Chad Hanson and David Orr along with about 2,000 members formed the John Muir Sierrans (JMS), an internal caucus, to promote changes to club positions. They favored a zero-cut forest policy on public lands and, a few years later, decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam. JMS was successful in changing club positions on both counts.
In September 2005, the Sierra Club held its first Sierra Summit in San Francisco. Approximately 1,000 volunteers from around the country, selected by their chapters and groups, were delegates; some nondelegate members also attended. There were seminars and exhibit presentations about current environmental issues and about techniques for more effective activism. Prominent guest speakers included Al Gore; Bill Maher; Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.; and Arianna Huffington.
In 2008, several Sierra Club officers quit in protest after the Sierra Club agreed to promote products by Clorox, which had been named one of a "dangerous dozen" chemical companies by the Public Interest Research Group in 2004. According to Carl Pope, the Sierra Club chairman, the deal brought the Club 1.3 million US dollars over the four-year term of the contract.
Between 2007 and 2010, the Sierra Club accepted over 25 million US dollars in donations from the gas industry, mostly from Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, one of the biggest gas drilling companies in the US and a firm heavily involved in fracking.
In January 2013, executive director Michael Brune announced  that the Sierra Club would officially participate in the first civil disobedience action in its 120-year history as part of the ongoing protest calling on the Obama administration to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, stating, "we are watching a global crisis unfold before our eyes, and to stand aside and let it happen - even though we know how to stop it - would be unconscionable." On 13 February 2013, Michael Brune was arrested along with forty-eight people, including civil rights leader Julian Bond and NASA climate scientist James Hansen.
In 1901, William Colby organized the first Sierra Club excursion to Yosemite Valley. The annual High Trips were led by mountaineers such as Francis P. Farquhar, Joseph Nisbet LeConte, Norman Clyde, Walter A. Starr, Jr., Jules Eichorn, Glen Dawson, Ansel Adams, and David R. Brower. A number of first ascents in the Sierra Nevada were made on Sierra Club outings. Sierra Club members were also early enthusiasts of rock climbing. In 1911, the first chapter was formed, Angeles, and it began conducting local excursions in the mountains surrounding Los Angeles and throughout the West.
Many major innovations in mountaineering have come from Sierra Club members. Norman Clyde and Jules Eichorn, considered among the most famous members of the club, completed many first ascents of peaks in the Sierra Nevada.
Glen Dawson and Royal Robbins, often on trips sponsored and organized by the Rock Climbing Section of the Angeles Chapter, opened up much of the Tahquitz Peak area to climbing, which at the time was said to contain some of the hardest routes in the world. The Yosemite Decimal System, the primary method of rating a route's difficulty used in the United States, was developed into its modern form at Tahquitz.
Due to an increasing focus on political activity and concerns about financial liability, mountaineering activity in the Sierra Club has subsided since the 1980s. Some chapters, mostly in California, continue to maintain large mountaineering programs.
The club currently occasionally awards the Francis P. Farquhar Mountaineering Award to outstanding member mountaineers.
In World War II, a number of Sierra Club leaders joined the 10th Mountain Division. Among them was David R. Brower, who managed the High Trip program from 1947 to 1954, while serving as a major in the Army Reserve.
In many areas of the country, Sierra Club also organizes hiking tours. Sierra Club's website has a "hiking near me" function. Section "Sierra Club Near You" shows all the upcoming trips in nearby area.
The historic High Trips, sometimes large expeditions with more than a hundred participants and crew, have given way to smaller and more numerous excursions held across the United States and abroad. These outings form a major part of Sierra Club culture, and in some chapters, constitute the majority of member activity.
The Sierra Club presents a number of annual awards. These awards include the Sierra Club John Muir Award, which is the organization's top award. The John Muir Award is given to an individual with "a distinguished record of achievement in national or international conservation causes."
Other awards given by the Sierra Club include the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography, which honors excellence in conservation photography; and the Francis P. Farquhar Mountaineering Award, which recognizes contributions to mountaineering.
Land management, access, conservation are traditionally considered the core advocacy areas of the Sierra Club. Uniquely for a progressive organization, the Sierra Club has strong grassroots organization in rural areas, with much activity focused on ensuring equitable and environmentally-friendly use of public lands. This is particularly accentuated by the fact that the club attracts many people who primarily join the club for recreation and use of public land for hiking.
Some Sierra Club members have urged the Club to be more forceful in advocating for the protection of National Forests and other federally owned public lands. For example, in 2002 the Club was criticized for joining with the Wilderness Society in agreeing to a compromise that would allow logging in the Black Hills in South Dakota.
A goal of the Sierra Club is to replace coal with other energy sources. Through its "Beyond Coal" campaign, the Sierra Club has set a goal to close half of all coal plants in the U.S. by 2017. American business magnate and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $50 million to the Sierra Club's anti-coal work in 2011, and announced another $30 million gift to Sierra's Beyond Coal campaign in 2015. The Beyond Coal campaign says 187 coal plants have been closed since 2010. Other funders of the Sierra Club's anti-coal campaign include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The CEO of Chesapeake Energy, a natural gas company, donated $26 million to the Beyond Coal campaign between 2007 and 2010.
The Sierra Club opposes dams it considers inappropriate, including some government-built dams in national parks. In the early 20th century, the organization fought against the damming and flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. Despite this lobbying, Congress authorized the construction of O'Shaughnessy Dam on the Tuolumne River. The Sierra Club continues to support removal of the dam.
The Sierra Club advocates the decommissioning of Glen Canyon Dam and the draining of Lake Powell. The Club also supports removal, breaching or decommissioning of many other dams, including four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington.
The Sierra Club is a member of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups and labor unions. The BlueGreen Alliance was formed in 2006 and grew out of a less-formal collaboration between the Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers. In 2012, the Laborers' International Union of North America left the coalition due to the Sierra Club and other environmental groups' opposition to the Keystone Pipeline.
Immigration was historically among the most divisive issues within the club. In 1996, after years of debate, the Sierra Club adopted a neutral position on immigration levels. As the club has shifted to the left over the years, this position was amended in 2013 to support "an equitable path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants".
Although the position of the Sierra Club has generally been favorable towards immigration, some critics of the Sierra Club have charged that the efforts of some club members to restrain immigration, are a continuation of aspects of human population control and the eugenics movement. In 1969, the Sierra Club published Paul R. Ehrlich's book, The Population Bomb, in which he said that population growth was responsible for environmental decline and advocated coercive measures to reduce it. Some observers have argued that the book had a "racial dimension" in the tradition of the Eugenics movement, and that it "reiterated many of Osborn's jeremiads."
During the 1980s, some Sierra Club members, including Paul Ehrlich's wife Anne, wanted to take the Club into the contentious field of immigration to the United States. The Club's position was that overpopulation was a significant factor in the degradation of the environment. Accordingly, the Club supported stabilizing and reducing U.S. and world population. Some members argued that, as a practical matter, U.S. population could not be stabilized, let alone reduced, at the then-current levels of immigration. They urged the Club to support immigration reduction. The Club had previously addressed the issue of "mass immigration," and in 1988, the organization's Population Committee and Conservation Coordinating Committee stated that immigration to the U.S. should be limited, so as to achieve population stabilization.
Other Sierra Club members thought that the immigration issue was too far from the Club's core environmentalist mission, and were also concerned that involvement would impair the organization's political ability to pursue its other objectives. In 1998, 60.1% of Sierra Club voting members voted that the organization should remain neutral on America's immigration policies, while 39.2% supported a measure calling for stricter curbs on immigration to the United States.
In 1996, after the Sierra Club board adopted a neutral position on immigration policy, some members who were advocates of immigration reduction organized themselves as "SUSPS" - a name originally derived from "Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization", which now stands for "Support U.S. Population Stabilization." SUSPS advocates a return to the Sierra Club's "traditional" (1970-1996) immigration policy stance. SUSPS has called for fully closing the borders of the United States, and for returning to immigration levels established by the Immigration Act of 1924, which includes strict ethnic quotas.
Another potential factor to the group's pro-immigration leanings is the donor: David Gelbaum's large donation of money to Carl Pope, the former Executive Director. Allegedly, Gelbaum threatened to stop funding if "they ever came out anti-immigration".
The controversy resurfaced when a group of three immigration reduction proponents ran in the 2004 Sierra Club Board of Directors election, hoping to move the Club's position away from a neutral stance on immigration, and to restore the stance previously held. Groups outside of the Club became involved, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and MoveOn. Of the three candidates, two (Frank Morris and David Pimentel), were on the board of the anti-immigration group Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America and two (Richard Lamm and Frank Morris) were on the board of directors or the board of advisors of the Federation for American Immigration Reform; both had also held leadership positions within the NAACP. Their candidacies were denounced by a fourth candidate, Morris Dees of the SPLC, as a "hostile takeover" attempt by "radical anti-immigrant activists." The immigration reduction proponents won 7% of all votes cast in the election. In 2005, members voted 102,455 to 19,898 against a proposed change to "recognize the need to adopt lower limits on migration to the United States."
With the increased number of progressive activists joining the club in recent years, the Sierra Club has dramatically shifted its stance on immigration further towards the affirmative. Today, the Sierra Club supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and works with immigrant groups to promote environmental justice.
The Sierra Club Foundation was founded in 1960 by David R. Brower. A 501(c)(3) organization, it was founded after the Internal Revenue Service revoked the Sierra Club's tax-exempt status due to the group's political activities.
In 1971, volunteer lawyers who had worked with the Sierra Club established the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. This was a separate organization that used the "Sierra Club" name under license from the Club; it changed its name to Earthjustice in 1997.
The Sierra Club Voter Education Fund is a 527 group that became active in the 2004 Presidential election by airing television advertisements about the major party candidates' positions on environmental issues. Through the Environmental Voter Education Campaign (EVEC), the Club sought to mobilize volunteers for phone banking, door-to-door canvassing and postcard writing to emphasize these issues in the campaign.
The organization maintains a publishing imprint, Sierra Club Books, publishing books on environmental issues, wilderness photographic essays, nature guides, and other related subjects. They publish the Sierra Club Calendars, perennial bestsellers, featuring photographs by well-known nature photographers such as Galen Rowell. They also publish the John Muir library, which includes many of their founder's titles.
In February 2012, it was reported that the Sierra Club had secretly accepted over $26 million in gifts from the natural gas industry, mostly from Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy. The Sierra Club used the Chesapeake Energy money for its Beyond Coal campaign to block new coal-fired power plants and close old ones. Michael Brune reported that he learned of the gifts after he succeeded Carl Pope as executive director of the Sierra Club in 2010. Brune reported that he ended the financial agreement with natural gas industry interests.
In 2014, the Energy and Environment Legal Institute filed a referral with the Internal Revenue Service pointing out that Sierra Club and Sierra Club Foundation were not paying income taxes from sales of solar panels for their partners across the US.
The Sierra Club has an affiliated super PAC. It spent $1,000,575 on the 2014 elections, all of it opposing Republican candidates for office. The Sierra Club is a partner of America Votes, an organization that coordinates and promotes progressive issues.
Donors to the Sierra Club have included David Gelbaum, Michael Bloomberg, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The Sierra Club has also received funding from the Democracy Alliance and the Tides Foundation Advocacy Fund.
In 2015, a PR front group, known as the Environmental Policy Alliance, claimed that the Sierra Club and other U.S. environmental groups received funding from groups with ties to Russia's state-owned oil company.
Presidents of the Sierra Club have included:
The Sierra Club's executive directors have included: