By his own admission, Newt Gingrich gave the House Ethics Committee "inaccurate,
incomplete, and unreliable" information about his fund-raising activities
on behalf of fellow Republicans. The Georgia congressman, uncharacteristically
contrite in the face of the loss of his leadership post, agreed in January
to a lighter sentence: a formal reprimand, the first ever given a speaker
of the House, and a $300,000 fine.
Well, as another GOP icon once said, there he goes again: No sooner had
the ethics panel ended its investigation than Gingrich was once more taking
license with the facts. This time, though, it wasn't just his own fund-raising
activities that were being misrepresented. It was the Sierra Club's.
Some background is in order here. As anyone who followed the Speaker's
recent travails knows, the Internal Revenue Service distinguishes between
contributions to charitable, tax-exempt organizations and those to nonexempt
groups, such as those with political action committees. "The law in
this area is clear," explained Representative Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.),
a member of the ethics panel's investigative subcommittee. "Tax-exempt
organizations know that it's extremely risky to commingle funds and activities
with PACs. Tax-exempts understand well that the penalty for doing this could
clearly be the loss of their tax-exempt status."
Gingrich ignored this fire wall between charitable and political donations
when he linked purportedly educational projects, like his "Renewing
American Civilization" college course, to his fiercely partisan political
action committee, GOPAC. According to House Ethics Counsel James M. Cole,
Gingrich orchestrated "a coordinated effort" to use donations
to tax-exempt entities--including one aimed at helping inner-city children--to
elect Republicans instead.
Gingrich admitted as much when he came to terms with the Ethics Committee.
It wasn't long, however, before he and his supporters were singing a different
tune. Gingrich did nothing wrong, they argued; what's more, the Sierra Club
does it, too.
This refrain reached a crescendo as the details of Newt's plea bargain
came to light. Ethics Counsel Cole had barely finished his report when Gingrich
attorney J. Randolph Evans--whose client was not in attendance--was invoking
the "Sierra Club defense" for C-Span and the Congressional
Record. Days later, Gingrich himself followed suit in a series of unapologetic
exchanges back home with his Georgia constituents. Citing the Sierra Club
by name, he told a questioner: "Now, somehow on the left, you can commingle
everything and nobody notices it. . . . But if you are a conservative and
you follow the law and you hire lawyers and you do what you can, if you
make a single mistake, you had better plan to be pilloried because you're
politically incorrect and that's what's going on."
Fittingly, the Newt-as-martyr theory reached a national audience via
ABC's late-night talk show, Politically Incorrect. Demanded GOP strategist
Mark Goodin: "How is what [Gingrich] did any different than what the
Sierra Club, for instance, does when it raises money under tax-free status
and has a very partisan and very liberal agenda?"
Glad you asked, Mark.
As Carl Pope, the Club's executive director, informed Gingrich by letter,
"The Sierra Club is not a tax-deductible charity." (The Club lost
its tax-deductible status three decades ago, after running newspaper ads
aimed at blocking federal plans to dam the Grand Canyon.) As a nonexempt
entity, the Club is allowed to support candidates for federal, state, and
local office through its political action committee. Its endorsements are
made on a nonpartisan basis. "As you are certainly aware," Pope
reminded the Speaker, "we even supported you for re-election in 1988
when you had a good environmental record."
While The Sierra Club Foundation does receive tax-deductible donations
for some projects, the Club does not mix charitable donations with those
earmarked for electoral, lobbying, and other nonexempt activities. "None
of the donors who supported [the Club's 1996] voter education project received
a charitable tax deduction for their contribution," Pope wrote Gingrich.
The Club's voter guides "might not be particularly pleasing to members
of Congress who vote against environmental protection," Pope acknowledged,
but "distributing [them] with non-tax-deductible money is clearly within
the letter and the spirit" of tax and election laws. As Representative
Cardin said during the Ethics Committee meeting, this is why the Sierra
Club and other groups have a legal status that explicitly permits them to
use non-tax-deductible contributions for political endorsements.
The bottom line is that Gingrich's ethics problems stemmed from using
tax-exempt funds for partisan ends, something the Sierra Club takes pains
not to do. The difference is not a matter of "political correctness."
It's a matter of fact.
Don't Buy Old Growth
When citizens speak out on behalf of ancient redwood forests, do they
make a sound? Apparently not, to judge by the deaf ear turned by certain
Which is why the Sierra Club is asking lumber dealers, architects, and
others to refuse to stock or use products made from old-growth redwoods.
In concert with Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network, and the Bay Area
Coalition for Headwaters, the Club has launched a nationwide campaign to
use the power of the marketplace to preserve gravely endangered redwood
"Successful citizen action has historically involved consumer action,"
explains Elyssa Rosen, coordinator of the Club's Wild Salmon Forever program.
An estimated 96 percent of America's old-growth redwood forests have
been destroyed for timber--and with them 99 percent of California's coho
salmon. Of the forests that remain, only about half are publicly owned and
off-limits to logging, while the rest are private property and unprotected.
The largest such stand is the Headwaters Forest in Northern California,
where a protracted struggle between environmentalists and Charles Hurwitz,
the Texas financier who acquired it in a hostile takeover in 1985, remains
The Club and its coalition partners are hoping that by drying up demand
for products made from old-growth redwoods--not just in Headwaters, but
in all unprotected forests--incentives to chop them down will evaporate
as well. The trees, some of which are two thousand years old, are frequently
used for hot tubs, outdoor decks, and window frames.
As the first step in the campaign--kicked off in February with a high-profile
Hollywood event featuring singer Bonnie Raitt and actors Steven Seagal and
Ed Asner--organizers have written to more than 6,000 architects, builders,
dealers, and do-it-yourselfers asking them to take a simple but significant
step by halting their use of old-growth redwood. The campaign also plans
to educate consumers about alternatives.
To get involved in the Club's ancient-redwood campaign, ask your local
lumber dealer--as well as architects and contractors you know or do business
with--to pledge not to use or carry old-growth redwood products.
hether you're a longtime member or a novice, exploring the Sierra Club
can be a somewhat daunting adventure. That's partly due to our democratic,
decentralized structure, by which more than 600,000 members in 65 chapters
and nearly 400 groups effectively set policy for the entire organization.
It's partly attributable to the Club's involvement--at both the grassroots
and national levels--in an unusually wide range of conservation issues and
But such explanations barely scratch the surface of the real Sierra Club.
The fact is, the Club has for a century eluded all efforts to define it.
"The Sierra Club is not unlike nature itself," observes Carl Pope,
its executive director. "Like the Grand Canyon or the Alaskan wilderness,
it can't really be explained. It has to be experienced."
As with those other natural wonders, a little guidance can add immeasurably
to one's enjoyment. Here, then, is a brief overview, offered in the hope
that you'll be encouraged to venture further on your own.
GETTING YOUR BEARINGS
As a member of the Sierra Club you belong to the national organization
and a regional chapter. Depending on the size of your chapter, it may also
include a local subdivision called a group.
From this point forward, the possibilities are virtually limitless. For
example, you can:
Go on a Club-sponsored outing into your favorite wilderness.
Put your editorial talents to work as a contributor to your chapter's
Speak out at a public hearing on an issue affecting your state, region,
Run for a seat on your chapter's executive committee--or on the national
Board of Directors.
And that's just the beginning. Sierra Club members make a difference
in a wide variety of ways, from public education to litigation, lobbying,
and electoral politics. Call the volunteers in your chapter for more information.
Or contact the Office of Volunteer and Activist Services at the Club's San
Francisco headquarters (see "Express Yourself," below).
Worried about wilderness? Throughout its history, the Sierra Club has
played a pivotal role in protecting more than 132 million acres of wild
America in our national park and wilderness systems. Today, we're leading
the way in preserving threatened and endangered species, and in protecting
and restoring the integrity of entire ecosystems all around the world.
Fretting about forests? We welcome your help in our campaign to defend
and restore America's forests by ending clearcutting and other forms of
unsustainable logging in our last remaining ancient forests, and to ban
commercial logging on public lands.
Sick of air and water pollution? Then join the Club's campaign to fight
smog and soot (see "Ways and Means"), toxic chemicals, and a wide
range of other public-health threats.
In Washington, D.C., in statehouses, and in communities throughout America,
the Sierra Club is working to protect our environment--for our families,
for our future.
Lead people into the wilds, reasoned John Muir a century ago, and they'll
return as conservationists. The truth of that wisdom has been proven countless
times since on thousands of national and international Sierra Club outings,
and hundreds of thousands of hikes, treks, and other adventures offered
by local chapters and groups.
Under the auspices of our national Outings program, experienced Club
members lead more than 350 journeys each year to some of the world's most
spectacular natural areas. And for those who ordinarily can't experience
the great outdoors--including urban youth, seniors, and the physically challenged--our
Inner City Outings program provides rare opportunities for wilderness experience
and environmental education in communities throughout the country.
For more information, call the Outing Department at (415) 977-5630.
OR STAY PUT
There's a lot you can do from the comfort of your living room, such as write
a letter to your congressional representative. You can make a donation to your chapter, or even include the Club in your will.
Of course, by simply belonging to the Sierra Club you're helping to protect
the world's environment for future generations. Your membership is the foundation
of everything we do.
In 65 chapters and hundreds of local groups spanning 21 ecoregions and
two nations, Sierra Club members are hard at work protecting the environment-for
our families, for our future.
by Tracy Baxter
Pacific Coast: The Bad and the Ugly
Though no longer mayor of picturesque Carmel, California, Clint Eastwood
evidently still has a few well-placed pals in Monterey County. Famous for
portraying tight-lipped, gun-happy heroes, the actor won swift approval
of his Canada Woods North development--a thousand-acre playland in Carmel
Valley that will feature an 18-hole golf course, a fitness center, and
44 luxury homes. To make Eastwood's day, star-struck land-use agencies
ignored concerns about the project's impact on sensitive species as well
as on the local water supply. With rare native coastal grasses and an already
overdrawn Carmel River at stake, the Sierra Club's Ventana Chapter has
sued to block Dirty Harry's deal.
Characterizing itself as a recycler helped Barnard Environmental, Inc.,
get the nod from the Washington State Department of Ecology to burn aluminum
potliner, a by-product of aluminum smelters that contains toxic fluorides
and cyanide. But the Cascade Chapter's lawsuit challenged the company's
dodge of federal law on hazardous-waste disposal. Stating that it needed
guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency withdrew
Great Lakes: What's Up, Doc?
"I'm not a real doctor, I just impersonate one on behalf of the
auto, oil, and steel industries," should have been in the script of
a Citizens for a Sound Economy ad played recently on Chicago radio. Instead,
the polluters' front group used a phony pediatrician to attack the EPA's
new air-quality proposals, inventing wildly improbable figures on the cost
of meeting the standards--even predicting the demise of the traditional
backyard barbecue in the wake of improved air safeguards.
But the Illinois
Chapter shot down the bogus diagnoses in a media alert that outlined the
human health costs of soot and smog, and listed many real physicians
and organizations--including the American Lung Association and the American
Public Health Association--that endorsed the new guidelines. The chapter's
rebuttal helped alert the press to the polluters' disinformation campaign.
Anglers and green activists in Wisconsin have joined forces to block
a threat to the state's waterways. Exxon, responsible for the most catastrophic
oil spill in U.S. history, wants to build a toxic-waste landfill the size
of 350 football fields and 90 feet high for the tailings from a proposed
copper and zinc mine at the headwaters of the Wolf River, imperiling the
sturgeon, walleye, and trout fisheries in its watershed.
A 38-mile pipeline
would also pump over a million gallons of the mine's wastewater each day
into the Wisconsin River. As similar mining operations have devastated
soil and groundwater with sulphuric acid pollution, sportsfishers and the
Club's Great Lakes activists are throwing clamorous support behind a mining
moratorium bill introduced by State Representative Spencer Black (D-Madison).
Great North American Prairie: Celebrating Unity
A recent Lakota ceremony honored four members of the Black Hills Group
in South Dakota. Regaled with drumming and chants from the Porcupine Singers,
Brian Brademeyer, Nancy Hilding, Michael Melius, and Donald Pay were each
presented with a star quilt for their dedicated defense of the Black Hills,
land sacred to the Lakota, against logging and mining interests. A song
heralding the deeds of each Sierran and a traditional circle dance capped
the event. With the Forest Service's revised Black Hills management plan
(see Ways & Means) offering paltry ecosystem protections,
the Lakota and Club activists hope to work together to prevent stepped-up
development in the region.
Guts, No Glory
Simmons Industries of Southwest City, Missouri, owners of a poultry
plant that processes 1.5 million chickens a week, might have won reauthorization
of its wastewater permit without a peep from Missouri's Department of Natural
Resources if not for an investigation by the Ozark Chapter. The chapter
found citations against Simmons for 21 violations in five years, ranging
from spills of chicken entrails on public roadways to a catastrophic discharge
of over a million gallons of blood and grease that left a creek virtually
lifeless. The chapter's exposé also revealed the department's failure
to collect nearly a million dollars in fines from Simmons for the violations.
Chastened by the bad publicity, the watchdog agency has put the permit
on hold and referred the case to Missouri's attorney general.