New Sierra Club chief brings confrontational style to the job

Michael Brune is a big foe of industrial polluters-

He has a hard job ahead after yesterday’s Supreme Court decision giving corporations more political power than they have had in a hundred years.

New Sierra Club chief brings confrontational style to the job. “The new leader of the US’s largest environmental group will come to the job with a record of ‘environmental agitation’ against big industrial polluters. From Grist, part of the [U.K.] Guardian Environment Network”  







  1. JimT Avatar

    I agree, Ralph. Yesterday’s ruling was probably one of the most horrific for this country’s political system in the last 50 or so years. We have gone back to the days of yesteryear where the oligarchy will openly and legally now rule who gets elected, and as a result, who gets appointed to run the government.

    So, perhaps it is fitting the grass roots groups following CBD and the WildEarth Guardians lead, and return to the 70s when it was just us against them. Problem is, keeping the various factions of the Sierra Club in line is like herding cats, or teaching chickens to retrieve…

  2. Wilderness Muse Avatar
    Wilderness Muse

    This leadership change seems almost a paradigm shift for the Sierra Club. I sense over the last 15 years or so, with the creation of sooooo many 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations and the internet, Sierra Club’s influence and ability to raise funds and be a unified voice is diminishing some.

    It seems, in these recent times, anybody with an advocacy idea can form a 501(c)3, by filing the paperwork, enlisting the help of a couple of friends to serve as board of directors, and with a little computer savvy can build a website, and make their views known.

    The more sophisticated groups line up funding sources, link to similar interest groups and create alliances. Then, when they weigh in on an issue as an organization it makes it more difficult for politicians, state administrations and judges to see how much clout they wield before brushing them off or listening to them.

    Stayed, and once respected and powerful large national groups like the National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and others, have been displaced by Center for Bilogical Diversity, HSUS, Defenders, as well as more regional organizations, often with more focused, and perhaps even better thought out agendas. Does the leadership change suggest an “edgier” Sierra Club than in the recent past?

    Indeed, Western Watersheds Projects is one of these regional groups, and has a great record of success, in part, because of its focus, and skill/intuition for choosing the right battles, often leading to litigation it can win

    Am I wrong ?

  3. JimT Avatar

    Sierra Club has always been a factionalized group, with lots of different views under one tent. Can be a good thing, can be a bad thing. I think Carl Pope’s style was more collaborative, maybe a bit more corporate..a reflection of his times. But I think I am sensing a need on the part of activists to more directly address issues, and to hell with being concerned with being nice all the time, or the first one to give in on a point. If both sides do it, great. But, the fact of the matter is that industry groups under Bush dug in their heels on environmental issues, offering little in the way of proactive compromises that really did change the equation and the status quo.

    After awhile, you get tired of the same old stuff, same yada yada yada about how green the corporations are while they are busy avoiding compliance. So, why compromise.

    In my experience, the nationals go through periods of growth and retrenchment, just like any organization. And it is due to alot of related but very different reasons…competent or incompetent Boards, good CEOs or weak ones, fundraising issues, what agenda is “hot” with the funding groups (like energy is now, but who knows in 6 months). What is interesting about the groups you cited as being on the rise is that all of them have taken a more confrontative approach in recent years. Perhaps they recognized the reality of the political landscape faster than others. One national that was a significant player in the 90s was the Wilderness Society, but under Bill Meadows, I think the kinder, gentler approach is the style, and I think that is why they seem to have vanished from the discussions.

    WWP is focused, has a very professional and competent staff, an involved Board who is willing to help, and issues that resonate with most folks who are connected to the natural world in some fashion and want to see it healthy. I would only suggest that they get Johanna Wald from NRDC on their Board if they can…a great base of knowledge about grazing, and I think NRDC has largely dropped that issue….

  4. Debra K Avatar
    Debra K

    Keep in mind that the Sierra Club is NOT a 501(c)(3).

    I believe that Congress stripped them of their exemption back in the 60’s when they were fighting dams on the Colorado under David Brower. Since they don’t have to observe the lobbying and other restrictions for a 501(c)(3), I’ve always thought they should be more aggressive in their approach to conservation issues. Perhaps this selection of a former RAN activist signals a more confrontational attitude.

    I agree with JimT that generally, there are too many 501(c)(3)s fighting over turf and donor dollars. And many of the big groups rely on glossy promotional materials and feel good statements without accomplishing much on the ground.

  5. kt Avatar

    I understand Brune is a carbon copy of Pope and Carl Zichella (?) – while opposing coal plants, he is 10 percent gungho for even the most destructive of Goldman Sachs/Carlyle Group, etc. industrial solar and wind. Safeguarding the investment speculation of Big Dems. And also this nonsense of “natural gas as a bridge fuel” so we have to drill like maniacs in Wyoming and Colorado to get ot to markets (perhaps also as LNG export) on the West Coast. The Sierra Club staff in DC thinks things like the Ruby gas pipe line – which will tear apart one of the wildest places left in America by Sheldon Refuge – are just fine! you see, the Colorado politicians want to destroy the Piceance area with gas production – and to get that gas to market – they need a line West. Ruby gives them a bog chunk of that line. SO at the same time that the Sierra Club is wailing about “nasty oil and gas drilling” in places like Colorado – their leadership is touting run amok natural gas lines!

  6. mikarooni Avatar

    There are many reasons that there are so many groups seeming “fighting over turf and donor dollars.” Let me suggest two reasons for you to think about for a moment.

    First, some groups get formed to, frankly, undercut the message of other groups. There are people like Marvel and WWP that are hard-hitting and successful on grazing and, bingo, up pops a Courtney White and the Quivira Coalition or Allan Unsavory and the HRM folks or so on and so forth to spread more diffuse messages, to get people stopped in confusion, and to spray some water on that fire. In these cases, these groups are not all elbowing each other to get through the same door, some of them are elbowing to clog the door and keep anybody from getting through it.

    Second, successful groups are always high priority targets for infiltration. New voices are always showing up to preach collaboration and compromise. This is often very subtle; good infiltrators often have good coaches behind the scenes and are not always obvious; but, the result, the desired result on the part of the infiltrators, is some level of paralysis. When this happens, the best of the diehard activists often leave to form another group in order to continue the work. Once the core activists are forced to leave the original group, the collaborators, their work done, will soon also leave and the club comes back to its old roots again. This has happened to many groups, including the Sierra Club and the GYC. You have to develop the ability to spot “fake” or infiltrated groups and assess the individual and the message rather than getting fooled by any glossy photos.

  7. monty Avatar

    I see a “redding”of politics in this country. Or as Al Gore’s book titled, “Assualt on Reason” spoke about where logic, facts and science are increaslying questioned. A poster child for this phenomen is Pat Buchanon, the political commentator on NSMBC & author (who had the “appitude” to run for president of the US & was a close advisor to President Nixon) who recently on TV said the following: “Climate change is a hoax, evolution is bunk and he could care less if the world’s tropical rain forests are destroyed”. These thoughts come from a man who had the best educational opportunities that this country has to offer & is a spokeman for millions like him. How are environmental organizations capable of combating such frightening ignorance? I wish I knew.

  8. Wilderness Muse Avatar
    Wilderness Muse

    Debra K,

    While it is true Sierra Club is no longer a 501(c)(3), it is a 501(c)4, (which I believe eliminates its status a a charitable organization making contributions tax deductibe).

    Some smaller groups which are 501(c)(3)’s , do engage in substantial lobbying, sign on as plaintiffs in litigation, and doing pretty heavy information dispersal on websites and other media which is not easily distinguishable from the lobbying freedom of the (4) status. Maybe it crowds the line a bit. The issue, I think, may be one of enforcement of the IRS rules because of sheer volume, and most fly under the radar. Maybe that is ok.

  9. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Because the Sierra Club is not tax deductible, they can legally engage in a lot of direct political activity, including elections, that 501(c)3’s — tax deductible non-profits — cannot.

  10. jimbob Avatar

    Ralph, I can’t find an article on yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling. Do you have it explained here? What was it about? If they gave corporations MORE power, I am very scared!


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan