Other environmental activism groups may make more noise, but the Sierra Club's message definitely speaks loudly thanks to its solutions-driven focus which places people before protests. By Eric Arnold.When you think of environmental activism, it's often confrontational stunts rather than advocacy that comes to mind. Think Greenpeace and its in-your-face antics. Or the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which is often associated with arson and vandalism. Or Julia Butterfly Hill, who spent a rugged two years living 180 feet off the ground in the branches of a 1,000-year-old redwood tree to save it and the surrounding three acres of Headwater Forest in California (she later founded the Circle of Life Foundation). The Sierra Club, the "Brand X of the environment," as director of media relations Allen Mattison calls it, hardly leaps to mind. Not that it shouldn't. Formed in 1892, the Sierra Club now has over 700,000 members in 65 chapters spread across the 50 states, making it one of the largest environmental activism groups in the US. It's also the most powerful and influential solutions-based nonprofit environmental organization in the country. Part of the reason for the "Brand X" status, it would seem, stems from the fact that you're not about to see a Sierra Club-branded boat foiling the efforts of Russian whaling ships in the North Sea, or activists setting incendiary devices at a biological research facility (as the ELF did at the University of Minnesota early this year). The focus is on communications, with a mission and message unlike those of most environmentalists: protect people and communities first. And the Sierra Club focuses on that mission by offering environmentally sound alternative solutions through an extremely organized and influential grassroots capability, as well as a concentrated effort in Washington, DC to lobby and influence corporations and members of Congress. Power at the local level For the most part, the front line of the Sierra Club's charge is on the local level. "What differentiates the Sierra Club from other environmental groups is that we have a strong base of grassroots activists," says Mattison. "They're not just folks who get a sticker for their car and get a magazine every month. They're people who write letters to the editor, who call up their congressmen, who go to town meetings, who vote." In recent years, the Sierra Club has focused on training its volunteers in media techniques. "We invested in a lot of training on the ground, so that our smart field folks know how to talk to the media," says Kim Haddow, founder of Haddow Communications, which handles all of the Sierra Club's media efforts, paid and earned. "That's something communications professionals might take for granted, but your average person who's joining a grassroots organization in their community to save the local park isn't thinking about audience and tone, or a message and how to deliver it," adds Mattison. Essentially, the organization understands that its power lies in its strength on the ground. "We're the mother in Cedar Rapids, IA, who wants clean water for her kid. We're the grandfather teaching his granddaughter how to fish," Mattison explains, adding that local city council members know who the Sierra Club activists are in their area. "We wouldn't be effective at all if we were some faceless staff working in an office in DC." And because the Sierra Club is involved on a local level, it has the opportunity to present solutions to environmental problems in addition to simply engaging in public protests. Surprising partnerships Because of its more organized, peaceful tactics, the Sierra Club often looks less like an environmental advocacy group, and more like a consultant. For example, last year in Louisiana, the Sierra Club teamed up with a local hunting group to protest oil drilling in Alaska. The two make for strange bedfellows on paper, but as it turns out, the birds that Louisiana sportsmen hunt happen to migrate between Alaska and the lower 48 states. By working to protect Alaskan wildlife areas, the Sierra Club was also in effect working to preserve the balance of the Louisiana environment and the sportsmen who enjoy it. The Sierra Club has even worked on similar issues with the NRA. Or even more interestingly, as President Bush traveled to Oregon last month to address the out-of-control forest fires ripping through the countryside, the Sierra Club released its own list of solutions to the problem, and had executive director Carl Pope ready in a studio to go live on CNN and comment on Bush's plan only minutes after it was delivered. A difference was expected, but Bush's plan was far more predictable than the Sierra Club's. Essentially, Bush suggested that remote areas be opened to logging companies. The Sierra Club, on the other hand, suggested logging in areas around communities, which would not only protect homes, but also stop the fires in their tracks. What caught people by surprise, simply, was that both plans recommended logging. "The problem with the Bush plan is that it diverts resources deep into the back country, far away from where any communities are," explains Mattison. "We think the forest service should put priority number one on the front lines around communities, and build a fire break around them. But Bush is saying, 'No, let the logging companies go log deep in the back country,' but the scientists say that's not the way to do it." This isn't the first time the Sierra Club and the White House have disagreed, of course. "They learned their lesson," says Mattison, when Vice President Cheney was promoting the White House energy plan, and claimed that 11 of 12 items in the Sierra Club plan were also included in the White House's plan. "We said that if Dick Cheney thinks 11 of our 12 solutions are included in his plan, then he must have Arthur Andersen doing his accounting," Mattison recounts proudly. "Once that became Newsweek's quote of the week, there was no more word from the White House using our name," he adds. However, that doesn't mean the Sierra Club is constantly at odds with the government or big business - quite the contrary. The group has long had allies in both major political parties, and has even worked with some corporations. It gave Toyota and Honda awards for excellence in environmental engineering when they introduced their hybrid cars. Mattison is quick to note, however, that such distinction didn't stop the Sierra Club from criticizing Toyota when it lobbied Congress against raising fuel-economy standards. Wide-reaching influence But perhaps one of the best illustrations of the power and influence - and ability to offer solutions - the Sierra Club exerts in this respect came a couple months ago, when Sierra magazine pulled together a "Power Lunch," an energy roundtable including a most unusual cast of characters: Pope, Kurt Yeager of the Electric Power Research Institute, Jane Perkins (formerly of the AFL-CIO), and Lord John Browne of BP, among others. What came out of it were some interesting - if not revolutionary - ideas on how to satisfy our need for energy, profit from it, and still protect the environment. "[The magazine] pulled it together, published the transcript, and our publicists also pushed it out to other places," says Mattison (the full transcript is available at sierraclub.org). "It's a strange-bedfellows kind of story for reporters, and they were really surprised that we had such new and interesting ideas, and came from such an interesting angle. The general public and reporters are often surprised at how solutions-oriented the Sierra Club is." Perhaps it's because we've come to expect environmentalists to offer up confrontation rather than viable alternative suggestions. "We want people to know, like, and trust us," says Haddow. And putting "a personal face on what an environmentalist is," as Mattison says, meaning the soccer mom who wants clean water and clean air for her kids, seems to be the way to do it.
----------- Sierra Club President Jennifer Ferenstein Executive director Carl Pope Director of media relations Allen Mattison Media coordinators Wendy Balazik, Camilla Feibelman, Annie Strickler, Zack Roth Associate press secretary David Willett Field media specialist Nat Garrett Press assistant Matt Lasky Publicist Marianne Maw External PR agency Haddow Communications