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October 2000 Planet Main
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  October 2000 Features:
Faith Over Fashion
Mega-Dairy Cowed by Legal Threat
Club President Cox
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The Planet
One Sierra Club

Groups, Chapters and National Campaigns Practice Three-Part Harmony

It happens now and then. Maybe it's happened to you: An individual member takes off on a recycling project without full buy-in from her Sierra Club group. Or a national Club campaign committee wants to launch a voter-education radio ad that could conflict with a chapter's work on an issue. Or a chapter surprises one of its groups by deciding to oppose a shopping mall - and sparks fly.

Tempers flare, voices are raised.

"The unfortunate result is that Club leaders and staff find themselves hammering out difficult problems among various Sierra Club entities, taking them away from their conservation work," said Debbie Heaton, conservation chair of the Delaware Chapter.

Heaton is chair of the One Sierra Club Task Force, a group created by the Council of Club Leaders and the Sierra Club Board of Directors. Their charge? As task force member Robbie Cox, the Club's president, put it: "To see if there are better ways to combine the energies of activists at each level of the organization without getting in each other's way or causing rancor and chaos. We want to continue building the most effective environmental organization in America."

To that end, the task force in August summoned 300 activists to Albuquerque, N.M., for what may have been the Club's largest such gathering in history. Of those who attended, 45 percent were from groups, 30 percent from chapters and 15 percent from national campaigns and committees. Together they began work on a set of guidelines that will eventually be considered by the national board.

Members of the task force - a collection of staff and volunteers from all levels of the Club structure - had devised three "scenarios" (see "What If...?" below) that were discussed in small groups the first day. The scenarios were composites of dilemmas that have happened or could happen when Club chapters, groups, national campaigns or individuals cross paths.

That night, task force members organized results of the discussions into themes, which were then prioritized by the entire group the next day. The One Sierra Club Task Force is now working to analyze and summarize the results of the conference.

"We plan to come up with recommendations to present to the Council of Club Leaders," Heaton said after the conference. "The council will have a chance to accept, tweak or reject the recommendations. We hope it will be more fine-tuning than trampling. We'll then create resolutions to take to the Board of Directors, who will decide how to move forward."

What If

Who Speaks for the Club?

Below is one of the three scenarios discussed by small groups at the One Sierra Club meeting. The scenarios aren't real, but are based on a compilation of similar examples from around the Sierra Club.

Who determines the voice of the Sierra Club - what we say publicly about issues, elected officials, Club priorities - in a city where there is a group, a chapter and an important target media market for a national campaign? What happens when the group wants one message, the chapter wants another and the national campaign has yet a different priority?

The Northwest Chapter has worked for many years on wilderness designation for unprotected wildlands. Finally, they have a member of Congress who has shown some interest in helping. Rep. Dirk Kemp, a cautious, conservative Democrat, was elected to Congress from the Boise area, and is an avid fisherman.

The Northwest Chapter chair has been able to convince Kemp to look seriously at the chapter's proposal for a Steelhead Run Wilderness Area designation, which would protect the headwaters of a high-quality steelhead river. Kemp's staff is very positive. This is the best opportunity wilderness advocates have had in 20 years!

Meanwhile, the Grandview Group of the Northwest Chapter has been working on local sprawl issues, with a focus on Grandview's bad air quality. The group has been trying to stop a big new proposed highway and pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency to hold up federal highway funding until Grandview puts in place a comprehensive transit plan to reduce air pollution.

Kemp is a solid supporter of the highway project. Just yesterday he voted in favor of an appropriations rider that would stop the EPA from using its authority to hold up highway funding, just to make sure the agency couldn't do this in Grandview. The rider was stripped out of the appropriations bill, but only narrowly. It's likely it will be attached to the next appropriations bill in five days' time.

The Club's national sprawl campaign has targeted five to six members of Congress who may respond to public pressure and change their votes the next time the rider comes up. Dirk Kemp is one of them. Sprawl campaign staff in Washington, D.C., along with national field staff in the regional office, have contacted the Grandview Group sprawl activists and proposed a newspaper ad to run two days from now.

The Grandview Group activists like the ad, as does the national staff in the regional office. They agree with the sprawl campaign staff in Washington that this kind of "accountability" ad is the best way to scare Kemp away from supporting the bad rider again. It's a good thing they do agree, because there really isn't time to change it.

However, when the Northwest Chapter chair gets an e-mail about the ad, he thinks it is strategically wrong for the Sierra Club to publicly attack the most environmentally minded congressman the Northwest Chapter's had in years, just when he's getting comfortable working more openly with the Club on a wilderness bill - the chapter's top priority. The chapter chair asks all members of the ExCom to vote by e-mail on a resolution to the national sprawl campaign and the Conservation Governance Committee to stop this ad. The resolution points out that the national Sierra Club should always respect the wishes of a chapter when conducting campaign work in the chapter's geography, and the chapter ExCom doesn't want this ad to run.

Alternative Outcome #1:
The national sprawl campaign decides to run the ad. The national field staff will work with the local group activists to help them put together a local press conference and letters to the editor about Kemp's vote.

The national campaign has a number of reasons why it made this decision:

(1) There was strong support for this ad at the group level because it would really help their Grandview air-quality/sprawl campaign, and the ad was a priority for the national sprawl campaign. If both the group and the chapter had objected, the national campaign would have backed off right away. But as long as at least one of the local Club entities in the media market was supportive, the national campaign felt comfortable making the decision to run the ad. The campaign would have made a similar decision if the roles of the group and chapter had been reversed.

(2) The regional field office staff believe it is possible to work with Kemp in a positive way on the wilderness issue even while the Club is criticizing him over the EPA rider vote, and will help the chapter develop ways to do that.

(3) The national sprawl campaign staff and volunteer leaders disagree with the chapter that the chapter should always be deferred to regarding national campaign work in the chapter's territory. Defeating anti-environmental riders is a high national priority that has implications far beyond one state.

Alternative Outcome #2:
Because of the chapter's objection, the national sprawl campaign staff decide not to run the ad, even though Kemp's a key target.

They have several reasons for doing this:

(1) In the past, some of the leaders on the "losing" side of similar strategic debates have worked to undermine the effort, either with the member of Congress or in the media. While no one in the Northwest Chapter has said he or she would do this, the sprawl campaign doesn't want to take a chance.

(2) The national sprawl campaign decides to drop the Kemp ad and target another city and another member of Congress where there is no disagreement between the group and chapter.

(3) National campaign work, like this accountability ad, is most effective when both the chapter and group are supportive and working with the national campaign on local press, letters to the editor and meetings with other local leaders.

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