Former Sierra Club Executive Director Mike McCloskey chronicles the environmental battles waged on his watch
by Tom Valtin
“In the 1950s, the conservation movement at the national level was described by one observer as ‘small, divided and frequently uncertain.’” So begins In the Thick of It: My Life in the Sierra Club, by two-time Sierra Club Executive Director Mike McCloskey.
Between the time McCloskey joined the Club staff in 1960, when the organization was a California-oriented outdoor club with 16,000 members, and his retirement as Club chairman in 1999, the environmental movement came of age -- “Of all the social movements that emerged in the latter half of the 20th century in the United States,” he writes, “the environmental movement is perhaps the most durable and well rooted.”
As the Club’s first field organizer, McCloskey helped pave the way for the original Wilderness Act of 1964. As the Club’s first conservation director, he spurred the designation of new national parks and wilderness areas, including North Cascades and Redwood National Parks.
In the Thick of It, available at www.islandpress.org, or at a bookstore near you, describes McCloskey’s 40 years an environmental activist, documents the great environmental battles waged on his watch, and reveals the inner workings and politics of the Sierra Club during his long tenure, iincluding the ouster of his mentor, the charismatic but controversial David Brower.
McCloskey was born in 1934 in Eugene, Oregon, then a town of 14,000 people, home to the University of Oregon and a large lumbering operation. He got a taste for the outdoors at an early age from his family and the Boy Scouts, and a taste for politics when he ran successfully for high school class president. Winning a scholarship to Harvard, he majored in government and became president of the campus Young Democrats. Following a stint in the army, he enrolled in law school at the University of Oregon, where he concluded that he wanted to be an advocate who helped “shape the law, not just apply and interpret it.”
“I asked myself which causes were relevant to the area where I lived,” he recalls. “The answer was conservation.” While still in school, he joined the conservation committee of a local outdoor club, the Obsidians, and at a convention of the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs in 1959, he met the heads of three major conservation organizations: Olaus Murie of the Wilderness Society, Fred Packard of the National Parks Association, and, most prophetically, David Brower of the Sierra Club.
McCloskey and Brower worked on a common committee at the convention, and got to know each other. “We saw eye to eye over the issues swirling about the Forest Service’s new plans for massive logging,” McCloskey says. The following summer Brower offered him a job investigating logging plans in the Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon. Working with photographer Philip Hyde, McCloskey prepared the text of an appeal that Brower subsequently put forth. The lands in question ultimately became part of the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
One year out of law school, McCloskey ran for the Oregon state legislature. He lost narrowly but ran “a creditable first-time-race, with little money and employing mainly shoe leather.” The experience proved pivotal in that it convinced him he did not want to become a career politician. Still, he says, “I had learned how politicians think and react, and gained insights that would help me to become effective in influencing them.”
Through his connections with David Brower and the Obsidians, McCloskey was offered a job as the first field organizer for both the Sierra Club and the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs. His mission was to help these organizations realize their goals for protecting nature in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and western Montana. “The groups that hired me had no experience with such a position,” he says. “I had to invent it.”
He traveled incessantly, visiting wilderness supporters while scouting out threatened areas. “I was probably on the road 60 percent of the time—day and night and on weekends in all seasons and weather—out to the ends of the logging roads.” At that time, he recalls, conservations felt embattled and outmatched. But McCloskey was dogged, and slowly but surely he built a community of conservation supporters and activists. “People in one community would tell me of people I should meet in the next. Gradually I got to know more and more of them. They would give me news, and I would give them news.”
“It was not entirely clear who my boss was,” he remembers. “With regard to the Sierra Club, I looked to David Brower to play that role, but [he] really did not want to direct my activity. He gave me very broad goals, such as ‘try to get a North Cascades National Park established and work with supporters.’”
In the fall of 1963 Brower asked McCloskey to travel to Colorado to organize support for the Wilderness Act. The bill faced “an apparently unmovable object”—Wayne Aspinall, chairman of the House Interior Committee, who represented western Colorado. Responding to pressure from ranchers, miners, and irrigators in his district, Aspinall refused to let the bill out of his committee. “My assignment,” McCloskey says, “was to organize enough support in his district to induce him to change his mind.”
McCloksey was joined in this effort by Bill Reavley of the National Wildlife Federation. The two met in Grand Junction and decided Reavley would take the northern half of the district, McCloskey the southern half. “I checked in with people I knew in the Colorado Mountain Club in Denver, but they couldn’t tell me of any people to contact in western Colorado,” he says. “Neither, it seemed, could anyone else. There was no Sierra Club organization in Colorado at the time, nor were there other statewide conservation groups to call upon for help. I was on my own.”
From the state Game Department, McCloskey obtained a list of packers and guides in western Colorado who made their living taking hunters into wilderness areas. “I met packers in their corrals and kitchens…and I told them that the future of these areas was not secure and that we were trying to get better protection for them. I let them know that their congressman needed to hear their views because he was standing in the way.”
Most were eager to help, so McCloskey took down their words and sent telegrams on their behalf. “Most of them even gave me seventy-five cents for the wIre.” Then he’d go into the nearest town with a telegraph office and send off their messages to Aspinall in Washington, D.C. Dozens of telegrams began pouring into Aspinall’s office. “He could almost plot the path of my travel by the source of these wires,” McCloskey says. “He was hearing from constituents in their own words—people in western Colorado who wanted the Wilderness Act passed.”
Aspinall complained about “outside agitators” being sent into his district, but before long he struck a compromise and let the bill out of committee. It became law the following year.
Up to Top