One of the nation’s most important environmental organizations is in the fight of its life this year. The battle is not against a big polluter or the Bush Administration but within its own organization. Because of a dispute over immigration policy, the Sierra Club is struggling with what its former president Lawrence Downing refers to as “the greatest threat in its 112-year history–it has been targeted for takeover by outside organizations!”

Downing’s concern stems from a division between the club leadership and a network called Sierrans for US Population Stabilization. SUSPS argues that population growth from immigration exacerbates environmental problems in the United States. They want the Sierra Club to come out in favor of reducing population through lower birth rates and decreased immigration. They have attempted board takeovers before and failed, but this year they have a chance to gain the few extra seats they would need to hold a majority.

A grassroots response has come from longtime Sierra Club members, including Downing, who helped formed a group in November called Groundswell Sierra, saying they seek to preserve the club’s core mission, to “Explore, Enjoy and Protect the Planet.”

In 1998 the Sierra Club reaffirmed its position that the environmental problems posed by population growth should be solved by waste reduction and by improving educational and family-planning options for women. At that time the group declared a neutral position on US immigration policy. SUSPS is pushing for a vote on a revision of that policy in 2005.

There are three especially controversial SUSPS-backed candidates, including former Colorado Governor Dick Lamm. Neither Lamm nor the other two–Frank Morris and David Pimentel–have held previous positions in the Sierra Club. In fact, according to current Sierra Club president Larry Fahn, “as far as we know they’ve never gone to a meeting.” They do, however, have connections to the same set of anti-immigration organizations, some of them partially funded by foundations controlled by right-wing zealot Richard Mellon Scaife. Lamm even allowed to The Nation that “my not being a member of the Sierra Club for long is a valid issue.” But he dismissed concerns about Scaife by asking rhetorically: “Does the Sierra Club take money from the likes of the Ford Foundation? Henry Ford was a virulent anti-Semite and a union buster. Does the Sierra Club endorse Henry’s views on Jews and unions?” Groundswell Sierra spokesman Clayton Daughtenbaugh finds that response specious. “The Ford Foundation gives to people across the spectrum. Scaife is selective…. He has a clear purpose. He has given so much money to these organizations. It’s clear he thinks they fit into that purpose.”

As to the charge that racism is the underlying motive for the anti-immigration movement, Lamm responds: “The history of immigration reform has been filled with racism and xenophobia…. But considering my civil rights record…I would think they would recognize that my concerns about population are environmental.”

The SUSPS website encourages its supporters to pay the $25 membership fee to join the Sierra Club and vote for its slate in the election. With turnout in board elections typically being extremely low, any energized group like SUSPS can put itself in a good position to pick up seats. In the last annual board election, only 68,500 votes were cast, accounting for a mere 8.7 percent of eligible members. Fahn rejects the suggestion that this demonstrates low morale among club members, saying: “for the type of organization we are, it’s extremely high. Most people join to go on hikes. Only 5-6 percent are activists.”

The Sierra Club sent an emergency notice to its members in January. It reads in part:

This year there is an unprecedented level of outside involvement and attention to the Club’s Board of Director’s election. Outside, non-environmental organizations have endorsed candidates in the Club’s Board elections. These outside organizations have endorsed Club Board candidates and are urging their supporters to join the Club as a means to influence club policy in line with their non-environmental agendas.”

The letter went on to list several “outside groups that may be attempting to intervene in the Club’s Board of Director’s election,” including the Center for American Unity, Coloradans for American Immigration Reform, the Federation for American Immigration Reform,, the National Alliance (“ideology from a white racial perspective”), the National Immigration Alert and White Politics Inc.

Though some of the groups involved are marginal, the stakes in the election are huge. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which boasts a staunchly anti-immigration platform, asserts: “The Sierra Club’s current board of directors’ election is hinging on the issue of mass immigration and its impact on the environment.” Lamm is chairman of FAIR’s advisory committee. They sent a notice to their members encouraging any who could vote in the Sierra Club election to do so.

SUSPS spokesperson Bill Elder responds to those who point to this as evidence of outside influence that there has been no noticeable increase in new members joining. “I would say that there has been almost no effect on the election from groups like FAIR, but there has been a pronounced effect from groups on the other side like”

That claim is contradicted by Fahn, who says, “There was a bump in members between November and January–30,000 new members. But we can’t attribute that to anything, because we were doing direct mail.”

Apparently the importance of this election has energized the membership. With almost two weeks to go, approximately 144,000 ballots have come in, more than twice the total of last year.

Click here read more about the situation. All Sierra Club members ought to make their voice heard in this crucial election. Members can vote online here. Ballots are due by April 21.