Editorial: The Sierra Club vs. anti-hunting legacy of founder John Muir
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2006:
That Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson
would eventually resign from the Sierra Club board of directors was
widely anticipated almost from the moment of his election in 2003.
Watson was elected as part of an aggressive challenge to a range of
Sierra Club positions and policies, was elected without sufficient
supporters and allies to have much chance of success, and was
predictably isolated throughout his tenure from the rest of the
Sierra Club power structure.
Yet Watson did not resign until April 17, 2006, just a
month before the end of his three-year term. When Watson did resign,
he left in protest against the Sierra Club executive issuing an
unprecedented and unequivocally strong endorsement of sport hunting,
directly contrary to the views of founder John Muir.
On April 21, 2006, Muir’s 168th birthday, Watson followed
up his resignation statement by e-mailing to supporters and news
media a selection of Muir statements about hunting. “My fear,”
Watson prefaced, “is that the Sierra Club has been corrupted to the
point of evolving into another crass hunting society, where the men
with the guns enjoy more respect than the victims they slaughter.
This is now the 21st century, yet the Sierra Club is encouraging
behavior that John Muir condemned in the 19th century, spending
$200,000 a year on hunter outreach programs, and hosting an essay
competition entitled Why I Hunt?,” offering as first prize a $12,700
hunting trip to Alaska.
“Muir was not close-minded. He did accompany hunting parties
in some of his outings,” Watson recalled, “and did attempt to
understand the psychology of the hunter.” In the end, however,
“Muir referred to hunting as the ‘murder business.'”
A Thousand Mile Walk, Muir’s first book, documented his
1867 hike from Indiana to Florida, two years after the end of the
U.S. Civil War.
“Let a Christian hunter go to the Lord’s woods and kill his
well-kept beasts, or wild Indians, and it is well,” Muir
fulminated, “but let an enterprising specimen of these proper,
predestined victims go to houses and fields and kill the most
worthless person of the vertical godlike killers–oh! that is
horribly unorthodox, and on the part of the Indians, atrocious
murder! Well, I have precious little sympathy for the selfish
propriety of civilized man, and if a war of races should occur
between the wild beasts and Lord Man, I would be tempted to
sympathize with the bears.”
Muir was no less scathing in The Cruise of the Corwin, his
account of an 1881 voyage into the Arctic.
“In nothing does man, with his grand notions of heaven and
charity, show forth his innate, low-bred, wild animalism more
clearly than in his treatment of his brother beasts,” Muir wrote
after seeing walruses slaughtered. “From the shepherd with his lambs
to the red-handed hunter, it is the same: no recognition of
rights–only murder in one form or another.”
Reminded Watson, “Muir’s other writings also include
passages that defend wildlife and condemn the overlordship of humans
over beasts. It was this philosophy that brought me to the Sierra
Club in 1968, and was why I became a member. I joined an
organization with a legacy and tradition of respect for wildlife and
nature, that appealed to hikers, birders, naturalists and
climbers, not bullet-brained nimrods who profess to love nature with
“The majority of Sierra Club members are not hunters,”
Watson continued. “Yet [executive director] Carl Pope has decided
that the club needs to recruit more hunters. To flagrantly
emphasize his position, the club has posted a web page featuring
Sierra Club leaders and staff posing with their freshly slaughtered
“There are plenty of pro-hunting organizations like the
Wilderness Society, Ducks Unlimited, the National Audubon Society,
and the World Wildlife Fund,” Watson pointed out. “John James
Audubon,” for whom the Audubon Society was named, 54 years after
his death, when formed by George Grinnell in 1905 to regulate
competitive bird shooting, “was a prolific killer of birds. Why
must the Sierra Club follow this example,” Watson asked, “when
unlike Audubon, Muir despised hunting?
“At least the Sierra Club of Canada retains the respect that
Muir held for wildlife,” Watson finished. “They have no hunter
The circumstances surrounding the Sierra Club embrace of
hunting and Watson’s resignation are unfortunately a microcosm of the
politics of conservation throughout the U.S. Though fewer than 14
million of the 300 million U.S. citizens hunt, and fewer than 40
million either hunt, trap, or fish, the hunting minority of under
5% maintains a chokehold on public policy, largely through the
influence of U.S. Senators from rural states, whose entire
constituencies are often smaller than the populations of suburbs
within the under-represented coastal states.
Because hunters have disproportionate political influence,
hunters also enjoy disproportionate influence over many of the
nonprofit organizations that seek to direct environmental policy,
largely with funding from donors who either fail to realize that the
conservation charities they support endorse hunting, or feel that
they must tolerate hunting as the price of protecting wildlife
Demographics indicate that actual participant support for
hunting has fallen by half in 25 years, proportionate to the U.S.
population, yet few politicians dare admit that they do not hunt,
let alone oppose hunting, because hunters have managed to position
themselves as the potential swing voters at every level of politics,
on issues from zoning to gun control.
Axiomatic in politics is that hunters vote as a block, for fellow
hunters, while non-hunters may be most motivated by any of a range
That even occurs within the Sierra Club.
How Sierra Club endorsed hunting
As one of the few major environmental advocacy groups in the
U.S. whose directors are elected by the membership, the Sierra Club
is in many respects a model of participatory governance–much to the
frustration of Watson and everyone else within it who would like to
see it more often take concerted action. No one faction among
Sierra Club members ever appears to gain a majority large enough to
dominate policy. Instead, competing interest groups typically elect
only partial slates. Since no faction gains unchallenged control,
each tends to check and balance the others, as in most
representative national governments. Board members must compromise
radical positions and extreme interpretations of principle, if they
hope to get anything done.
The Sierra Club is accordingly both enduring, having
survived since 1892, and slow to evolve, despite constant internal
dissension, and despite offering the highly diverse membership the
opportunity to try to induce change through an open political process.
Like the electorate of most representative national
governments, Sierra Club voters individually hold positions along
the entire political spectrum. Yet by failing to agree on the
direction of change, they collectively lean toward conservatism,
perpetuating the existing institution instead of destabilizing it.
The oldest of all internal issues within the Sierra Club is
whether the organization should oppose or endorse sport hunting.
Muir, as Watson pointed out, unequivocally opposed hunting, but
early Sierra Club supporters and donors included many
“hunter/conservationists,” including U.S. President Theodore
Roosevelt, with whom Muir fiercely debated the morality of hunting.
Needing hunter support in order to protect wildlife habitat,
Muir was coerced into compromise by the other early Sierra Club board
members: while the Sierra Club did not endorse hunting, neither did
it take an anti-hunting position.
Pro-hunting and anti-hunting members have been trying to tilt
the electorate decisively ever since, but so far neither the
membership nor the elected board has seen fit to significantly alter
Muir’s position of reluctant neutrality.
This is no longer true of the Sierra Club executive.
Over time and many election stalemates, the real
decision-making authority within the Sierra Club has accrued to the
senior administrators, the equivalent of senior civil servants
within a national government. The chief concern of a bureaucracy
tends to be the institutional interest, not the pursuit of ideology
or philosophy. If the society is functional, the bureaucracy keeps
political rivalry from eroding social stability. If the society is
dysfunctional, the bureaucracy may perpetuate the
dysfunctionality–but in a predictable manner, preferred by most
members to chaos.
The most influential personality within the Sierra Club in
recent years has been Watson nemesis Carl Pope, the Sierra Club
chief administrator since 1992. Pope has been instrumental in
leading the Sierra Club into increasingly militant confrontation with
factory farmers over water pollution and soil erosion, through
lawsuits, lobbying, and public education. While the Sierra Club
has not endorsed vegetarianism or raised humane issues involved in
confinement animal husbandry, other than incidentally, in passing,
it has done an immense amount in recent years to raise public
awareness of the environmental cost of meat-eating.
But the Pope record on hunting is another matter.
About 20 years ago Pope “noticed articles in Outdoor Life
attacking the Sierra Club as anti-hunting,” recounted Washington
Monthly managing editor Christina Larson in an April 2006 review of
the strengthening alliance between pro-hunting organizations and
mainstream environmental charities.
“At that point,” said Pope, “I realized we were dealing
with a conscious political strategy to separate rural hunters and
fishers from urban environmentalists. It wasn’t about hunting and
fishing. It was about politics.”
“Since becoming Sierra Club executive director, Pope has
sought common ground with hunters,” Larson summarized. Because
hunters have clout in the U.S. Senate and other Republican-controlled
branches of government, Larson explained, and perhaps also because
environmental charities have no fear of losing their non-hunting
donor base to charities that take firm anti-hunting positions but win
no political victories, the Sierra Club and most of the rest of the
“green” advocacy establishment are actively courting the
Clashing with Pope almost incessantly, perennially at odds
with most of the other 14 Sierra Club board members over issues
including immigration policy and the decision of President George W.
Bush to invade Iraq, Watson apparently saw little more opportunity
to advance his priorities within the Sierra Club than he had more
than 30 years earlier, when at age 19 he became the youngest of the
cofounders of Greenpeace.
Similar frustration as Greenpeace grew caused Watson to form
the Sea Shepherds seven years after that, parallel to the example of
the late David Brower–who had urged Watson to run for a Sierra Club
As first executive director of the Sierra Club, 1952-1969,
Brower largely formed the present image of the organization, but
left to form Friends of the Earth in the break-up that also produced
EarthJustice, originally known as the Sierra Club Legal Defense
Fund. When Friends of the Earth became mired in similar
administrative institutionalism, Brower left it too, to found Earth
Island Institute in 1984. But Brower remained associated with the
Sierra Club as well, until his last of several resignations in 2000,
just before his death.
“The world is burning,” Brower said, “and all I hear from
them is violins. May the Sierra Club become what John Muir wanted it
to be and what I have alleged that it was.”
Watson concluded his Sierra Club board tenure by announcing
that he will not attend the final board meeting of his elected term,
in San Francisco, May 17-20.
“I have no intention of attending a meeting of a hunting
club,” Watson said. “I wonder how many of the Sierra Club’s 750,000
members know and approve of killing animals with their contributions?”