Mike McCloskey well remembers the "chaos and desperation" of those dark days in
1969, after the ouster of David Brower as the Sierra Club's first executive
director. It was a watershed moment not just for the fledgling environmental
movement, but for the low-key Oregon native: when the smoke cleared, McCloskey
found himself the second salaried chief executive in the Club's history.
McCloskey, in fact, has been in the thick of a good chunk of the Club's storied
history, beginning at age 27 when he hired on as its first Pacific Northwest
field representative. This spring, when he turns 65, McCloskey will go home
again, ending a 14-year stint as Sierra Club chairman in Washington, D.C-and a
conservation career that was launched during John F. Kennedy's first year in the
"I never had any notion of staying so long," he admits. After graduating magna
cum laude from Harvard in 1956 and serving two years in the Army, McCloskey
intended to get a law degree and go into politics back
in Oregon, where he could push the little-known cause of wilderness preservation.
A former Eagle Scout, McCloskey was an avid mountain climber who had met
Brower-the charismatic head of the 16,000-member Sierra Club-in 1959 at a
convention of outdoor organizations. Brower, though not yet a "firebrand,"
impressed him, and the feeling was clearly mutual: a year later, his fellow
mountaineer hired McCloskey to write a mailer rallying opposition to logging in
eastern Oregon's Minam River Valley.
Law school, meanwhile, "bored me stiff," he recalls. Environmental law hadn't
been born yet, and McCloskey had little interest in the University of Oregon's
menu of torts and other business-law classes. The lure of conservation remained
strong, but he continued to look to a career in politics-even after landing his
full-time job at the Club's Northwest outpost in 1961. The real roots of
McCloskey's 38-year marriage to the Club, in fact, may have been planted by a few
thousand Oregon Republicans. He ran in 1962 as the Democratic nominee for the
state House of Representatives, but lost the election by 2,000 votes. When Brower
agreed to raise his $400 monthly salary, McCloskey put away his brand-new law
degree and all dreams of elected office. His future lay in conservation work.
In contrast to the mercurial Brower, McCloskey has long been a calming presence
at the Sierra Club. This was never so true as when McCloskey, then the Club's
conservation director, stepped up in the wake of Brower's controversial firing by
a deeply divided Board of Directors. ("He profited from seeing what happened to
me," Brower later joked.) "Feelings ran very high," says McCloskey. "It was an
extremely polarized situation. I tried
to be loyal to Brower and the Board," including his other great mentor, Edgar
As temporary chief of staff and then permanent executive director, McCloskey
presided over the rebuilding of the Club's staff, which was wracked by defections
by Brower loyalists, and helped heal its fiscal woes. Over the next decade, the
pragmatic McCloskey led the Club as it became a serious lobbying force on behalf
of what, thanks to Earth Day, was now known as "the environment." By 1981, the
era of Ronald Reagan and the fanatically pro-development James Watt-whom
McCloskey was instrumental in dumping as Interior secretary-the
California-focused club McCloskey had joined in 1961 had burgeoned to nearly
200,000 members, with interests ranging from wilderness preservation to clean air
By 1985, McCloskey was ready for a change. Tired of balancing budgets, he was
also becoming conscious of the "cultural difference between my generation and the
baby boomers," the next wave of environmental leaders. In the summer of 1986 he
moved to the nation's capital to become the Sierra Club's chairman, where-except
for a brief reprise as acting executive director after the departure of
Douglas Wheeler that October-he has focused on policy and strategic matters, both
domestic and international. McCloskey has spent much of his time on the road and
in the air, serving as the Club's ambassador at meetings of the World
Conservation Union and other global forums.
Now, though, he's looking forward to settling down in Portland, his wife's
hometown, where he plans to "spend time with kids and grandkids and friends." He
also plans to write a book, to share his unique perspective on the environmental
gains of the latter part of the century.
It won't be an autobiography, but it could be.
Every September Sierra Club movers and shakers gather in San Francisco to
celebrate the exceptional achievements of exceptional people. This year, the
Club's highest honor, the John Muir Award, went to Angeles Chapter activist Jim
Dodson for his role in winning the California Desert Protection Act. The Club's
greatest public-lands success story of the decade, the law strengthens protection
of 9 million acres of California desert. Starting in the early 1980s, Dodson's
stellar negotiating skills impelled former California Senator Alan Cranston to
introduce the legislation in 1986 and Congress to pass it eight years later. A
self-appointed desert watchdog, Dodson is making sure the lands are managed to
the letter of that hard-won law.
Such victories depend on formidable allies and their efforts have not gone
unnoticed. Among those recognized by the Club in other areas were Representatives
Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Jim Leach (R-Iowa), whose sponsorship of the
National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, which would ban commercial
logging on public lands, earned them the Edgar Wayburn Award, the Club's top
honor for a public official; Bill Leonard, editorial writer for the Des Moines
Register, and Matt Hammill, reporter for WQAD-TV in Moline, Illinois, who won the
David R. Brower Award for environmental reporting; Buck Parker of Earth Justice
Legal Defense Fund, who received the William O. Douglas Award for environmental
law; Jim Stimson, who won the Ansel Adams Award for photography; and Tayloe
Murphy Jr., who won the Distinguished Service Award for
his work in the Virginia House of Delegates.
Also honored were former Board director Rebecca Falkenberry, who won the Walter
A. Starr Award for a former director's continuing support of the Club; Vicky
Hoover, for service to the Outing program; and the Santa Fe Group and the Rio
Grande Chapter, for their guide to fighting mining interests.
In 65 chapters and hundreds of local groups
spanning 21 ecoregions and two nations, Sierra Club members are hard at work protecting our natural heritage.
Across the Nation: FOR STUDENTS BY STUDENTS
Some kids might shrug when asked what they did over summer vacation. Not Audra
Ransburg. When the Kenyon College sophomore returns to the Ohio school next fall, she'll be able to
talk about what it's like to turn kids into committed environmental advocates. As
coordinator of the Sierra Student Coalition summer training program, Ransburg
will orchestrate workshops teaching high school students "the things that kids
don't normally know how to do but should," including lobbying, public speaking,
and creative fund-raising. They'll also have plenty of time for hiking and
After each weeklong session, students will go home prepared
to launch an activist campaign in their area-but that's not all. "You can't get
this kind of camaraderie and respect anywhere else," says Ransburg. "Some
students who have gone through the program have called it the most important
event of their lives." For more information, call (888) JOIN-SSC.
Southeast: A KICK IN THE SHINTECH
The citizens of Convent, Louisiana, have a message for corporate polluters: take
your dirty business elsewhere. That's just what Shintech did after residents
waged a two-year battle against the international chemical giant's bid to
construct a $700 million complex of polyvinyl chloride manufacturing plants in
their midst. Already surrounded by 11 major industrial facilities, Convent was
not about to let Shintech set up another; the company's hazardous-waste
incinerator alone was expected to pump 600,000 pounds of toxic emissions annually
into the city's already overburdened air.
Green groups from every corner of the state, including the Sierra Club's Delta
Chapter, lent their support to the beleaguered community's fight. Chapter members
flocked to public hearings, rallied on the steps of the state capitol, and
marched alongside Convent activists to the governor's office to demand
environmental justice. They also signed on to an administrative complaint that
succeeded in blocking the company's application for four air permits. The
combined efforts sent Shintech 25 miles out of town, where it plans to build a
scaled-down version of its original operation. Activists are now working to chase
Shintech out of the state completely.
Hawaii: LINKS JINXED
Hawaii has more golf courses than you can shake a nine iron at. Though the Hawaii
Chapter has been fighting to block new links along Oahu's paradisiacal Ka Iwi
coast, the recent showdown over Queen's Beach was especially critical. "This is a
rugged, volcanic landscape with spectacular views of the ocean," Club member Anna
Hoover says. "It's the last open space in east Honolulu." Joining with local
surfers, anglers, paddlers, and beachcombers in the Ka Iwi Action Council, the
chapter helped with a music festival, a traveling slide show, and the collection
of 7,000 signatures on a petition that was unfurled from the third floor of the
capitol rotunda. Governor Ben Cayetano responded with $11 million to purchase a
sizable chunk of the property for recreation and respite.
Pacific Coast: TEACHING BY EXAMPLE
Keresha Durham, a five-year member of the Sierra Club and a bilingual-education
teacher in California, augments the usual three R's with lessons in planetary
stewardship. For example, her third-grade students do their classwork on the back
of recycled paper or on chalkboards, and separate their trash-from aluminum lunch
trays, paper, plastics, and cardboard-for Durham to tote to a recycling center.
As chair of the city of Santa Cruz's transportation committee, Durham is also
working to make it easier and safer to get around on two wheels so that when her
students turn 16, they won't automatically demand a driver's license and a car.
And in steering clear of what she calls "auto madness" by busing or biking to
work, she's setting a strong example for the children to follow. "At first they
thought it was strange for an adult to bike everywhere," Durham says. "But then
they began to understand that it's all part of living lightly."
Atlantic Coast: A+ ACTIVISM
Taking their cue from the old Burma Shave roadside advertisements, Maryland
Sierra Student Coalition members lined up along a congested highway near Chapman Forest with signs reading, "Traffic snarls/Got
ya down?/Save Chapman Forest/Before it becomes a town." Local environmentalists
had long been battling Legend Properties' plan to construct Chapman's Landing-a
car-dependent development of 4,600 homes, a golf course, and vast commercial
space that would imperil Maryland's healthiest fishery in Chesapeake Bay. The
campaign got a boost when SSC activists joined the fray in 1996 to help implement a strategy
that included "Burma Shaving," phone-banking, and leafleting in the state
capital. The plucky bunch even snagged CNN coverage.
When Legend began bulldozing the forest, SSCer Ben Wyskida helped turn up public
pressure by staging protests at Legend's annual shareholder meeting and other
events. In October, activists of all ages rejoiced when the state and the
nonprofit Conservation Fund purchased 2,225 acres of Chapman Forest for $28
Great North American Prairie: SUSPENDED SENTENCE
A prison isn't quite what the Illinois Chapter had in mind for the last remaining
tract of sand prairie in their state. But that's what Governor Jim Edgar proposed
for the old Savanna Army Depot, home to endangered species like the James
Clammyweed and the grasshopper sparrow. The chapter and other prairie boosters
responded to the ill-advised proposal with a letter-writing campaign. Objections
rolled in, including opposition from both gubernatorial candidates and the
Chicago Tribune. Last summer, the public outcry convinced the governor to put his
To spotlight Sierra Club activism in your area, contact Jennifer Hattam
at Sierra, 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; e-mail
jennifer.hattam@sierra club.org; or fax (415) 977-5794.