Joe Guzzardi: The Sierra Club and the $100 Million Donation That Changed It Forever

Published on February 22nd, 2012

The money came with strings attached — that the club never speak out against or try to limit immigration into the United States

 By Joe Guzzardi |



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The Sierra Club has a long history of saying one thing but doing another. The organization made headline news recently for accepting $26 million in secret donations from individuals associated with Chesapeake Energy, a New York Stock Exchange-listed natural gas company.

As reported by Time magazine, from 2007 to 2010 the Sierra Club accepted more than $25 million mostly from Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, one of the biggest United States-based gas drilling companies and heavily involved in fracking. In the three days leading up to the Time expose, the Sierra Club refused to answer direct questions about its Chesapeake funding history and tried to mislead its members about its nefariously close association with the driller.

In 2010, under the direction of new Executive Director Michael Brune, the Sierra Club stopped accepting Chesapeake funds and allegedly refused an additional proffered $30 million.

Brune also ended the Sierra Club’s association with the Clorox Company, which had donated $1.3 million over four years in exchange for the right to display the club’s logo on its new line of “Green Works” cleaning products. Clorox Bleach is an EPA-registered pesticide; the EPA has fined the company for violating the bleach’s labeling guidelines.

But the biggest donation the Sierra Club ever received is the one that altered it forever. In 2004, the Los Angeles Times revealed a $100 million gift made by investor David Gelbaum. Unfortunately for environmentalists, Gelbaum’s money came with the string attached that the club never speak out against or try to limit immigration into the United States no matter how obvious it became that adding more people has severe ecological consequences.

Gelbaum told Times reporter Kenneth Weiss that his instructions to then-Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope were that “if they ever came out anti-immigration, they would never get a dollar from me.” Pope eagerly agreed — but with devastating results.

Not that long ago, the Sierra Club had willingly tackled immigration-related population issues. In her spring 1989 report, Dr. Judy Kunofsky, chair of the Sierra Club Population Committee, concluded that the club should work to “bring about the stabilization of the population first of the United States and then of the world.” That goal was abruptly abandoned after the club deposited Gelbaum’s check.

Throughout the years, true environmentalists such as legendary Sierra Club founder David Brower, UCLA astrophysics professor Ben Zuckerman, elected to its board in 2002, and former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, defeated in his 2003 board run, tried unsuccessfully to guide the club back to its roots. Neither Zuckerman nor Lamm knew until they read it in the newspaper that Gelbaum and Pope had conspired against members who wanted population growth curbed.

Brower once said, “Overpopulation is perhaps the biggest problem facing us, and immigration is part of that problem. It has to be addressed.” After he resigned from the Sierra Club in frustration in 2000, Brower famously described the board as “fiddling as the Earth burns.”

In the decade since Gelbaum bought out Pope, the club’s pro-immigration folly is easily documented. According to a Center for Immigration Studies study titled “A Record Setting Decade of Immigration: 2000-2010,” the nation’s legal and illegal immigrant population reached 40 million in 2010, the highest number in American history. Nearly 14 million settled in the United States from 2000-10. Each one of them adds to America’s footprint. Had the Sierra Club not taken Gelbaum’s bribe but had instead stayed on its original course, the United States’ ever-deepening population crisis might not be so acute.

— Joe Guzzardi has written editorial columns — mostly about immigration and related social issues — since 1990 and is a senior writing fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS). After 25 years as an English as a Second Language teacher in the Lodi Unified School District, Guzzardi has retired to Pittsburgh. He can be reached at [email protected].


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