Bowling Alone with the Sierra Club

In 2000 Robert Putnam’s (Harvard University) masterpiece of American social science, Bowling Alone* was published.  He reported the significant decline of all forms of civic participation in American society and politics from the P.T.A. to voting.  Religious participation is the notable exception to this trend. 

We are deeply concerned about the increasing isolation of Americans from one another and we believe that the polarization of viewpoints, particularly in politics, is one of the consequences of this trend.  Only the highly motivated extremes of opinion are still engaged in the civic dialogue.  The middle ground is no longer represented in the debate.  However, we will focus on the topic that is relevant to Million Trees, that is, the implications for the environmental movement. 

Bowling Alone. Attribution: Xiaphias

Membership in environmental organizations reached its peak in 1995, according to Bowling Alone after decades of enormous growth since the 1960s.  This peak was consistent with public opinion regarding environmentalism.  In 1990 three-quarters of Americans considered themselves “environmentalists.”  By the end of the decade, that percentage had dropped to only 50%. 

The growth in membership was achieved by the use of a new marketing tool known as direct mail.  Think about it.  How many invitations do you receive in the mail from non-profit organizations, asking you to contribute to a wide-range of worthy causes?   Typically these organizations spend between 20-30% of their budgets on such fund raising and the rate of return on these solicitations is only 1-3% of the cost depending upon the quality of the mailing list.  Using this technique, Greenpeace tripled its membership between 1985 and 1990 to 2.35 million.

What does “membership” mean?

After tripling its membership, Greenpeace lost 85% of its members in the next 8 years.  The drop-out rate after the first year is typically 30% in these organizations.  

In fact, most contributors to these organizations don’t even consider themselves “members” in the usual sense of that word.  The commitment to the organization doesn’t extend far beyond writing a check.  Only 8% of contributors to the Environmental Defense Fund, for example, described themselves as “active” in the organization. 

These organizations are therefore distinctly different from their historical antecedents.  Participants in the civil rights movement frequently put their lives on the line.  The social lives of Rotary Club members revolved around the Rotary lodge. 

Since few people are active participants in environmental organizations, they have become “bureaucratized,” meaning they are run by and for paid professionals.  Most members have little idea what policies the professional staff has adopted on their behalf. 

The Sierra Club

In 1989, a survey of Sierra Club members determined that only 13% of its members had attended even one meeting of the Sierra ClubThe Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club claims to have 10,000 members, but chapter leadership of a group (the chapter is broken into many geographical groups, such as the San Francisco Group)was elected by as few as 59 votes.  The top vote-getter in the Club’s most recent election received 327 votes in a Chapter-wide race, but only one chapter group (Northern Alameda County) had more candidates than there were available seats.  In other words, there was no competition for most of the leadership seats. 

Yet, the incumbents in these leadership positions are free to determine the local policies of the Sierra Club.  Here are a few recent examples of positions taken by the Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club:

The opinion of the membership is not asked when these policy positions are taken by the leadership.  However, if members read the chapter’s quarterly newsletter (The Yodeler) they have the opportunity to learn about them after the fact.

The influence of the Sierra Club

We believe that the influence of the Sierra Club exceeds the size of its membership.  The Sierra Club endorses candidates for political office.  These endorsements are highly sought after because politicians believe that the endorsement confers the votes of its membership.  This belief was recently tested in the race for mayor of San Francisco. 

State Senator Leland Yee sought and received the endorsement of the Sierra Club in his bid for mayor of San Francisco.  In the past, he had been critical of the Natural Areas Program.  His stated reason for that criticism was that the veneration of native plants was offensive to his roots as an immigrant.  In particular, the Chinese community suffered horrendous discrimination in California in the 19th Century.  The rhetoric of the native plant movement is reminiscent of the xenophobia from which the Chinese community has suffered historically. 

It seems unlikely that Senator Yee’s emotional reaction to nativism changed when he sought the endorsement of the Sierra Club, but he had to disavow that opinion in order to receive the Club’s endorsement.  He did so because he believed that the votes of Sierra Club members would help him to be elected mayor of San Francisco.  His bet did not pay off.  He did not win.  In fact, he came in fourth. 

We hope that political candidates in the future will heed this warning.  The Sierra Club may have many “members” but that membership does not necessarily confer votes.  The vast majority of “members” have no commitment to the policy positions taken by the Club.

An appeal to Sierra Club members

There were over 4,000 public comments on the Environmental Impact Study for the Dog Management Plan of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA).  The Dog Management Plan proposes to eliminate about 80% of existing off-leash areas, which are now only 1% of the 74,000 acres of GGNRA property.  The Sierra Club supports that plan.  There were thousands of comments from people with dogs who are presently enjoying the small areas now available to them for off-leash recreation.  Sixty-four of those people said they are Sierra Club members.  That’s enough members to elect someone to a leadership position in the Club.

If you are a member of the Sierra Club, here’s what you can do to influence the Club’s policies:

  • Inform yourself of the policies of the Sierra Club. 
  • If you don’t agree with those policies, we urge you to vote in the election of officers to the leadership positions in the Sierra Club.
  •  If you don’t know the policies of the candidates, ask them. 
  •  If there are no candidates that represent your viewpoint, find candidates who do.
  • If you can’t find a candidate you can support, it’s time to vote with your feet.
  • If you leave the Club tell them why. 

Quit Bowling Alone!

Attribution: GNU Free Documentation

*Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone:  The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000.  All quotes in this post are from Bowling Alone unless otherwise noted.

Fortress Conservation: The loss of recreational access

Sharp Park, Pacifica, CA. Photo by Erica Reder, SF Public Press

The recent publication of an article about Sharp Park in Pacifica, featuring a photo of this sign has inspired us to consider the recreational access restrictions that often accompany native plant and animal conservation projects.

In this case, an 18-hole golf course in Sharp Park is at stake.  A coalition of environmental organizations (1) recently sued the City of San Francisco to close this golf course, based on their claim that the golf course violates the Endangered Species Act by harming two endangered species (Red-legged frog and San Francisco garter snake).  The City of San Francisco claims that the golf course can be reconfigured to accommodate these species.  Meanwhile, conservation efforts requiring closure of recreational areas, according to this sign, are continuing.

The organizations that have sued San Francisco also claim that the closures they demand will actually improve recreational opportunities.  This claim is based on an assumption that the preferred form of “recreation” is standing on a trail or boardwalk behind a fence, looking at wildlife through binoculars.  Naturally, people who play golf see it otherwise.

We don’t claim to know the needs of these particular endangered species.  However, based on similar claims in other parks, we are skeptical.  In our experience, environmentalists—and sometimes park managers—often claim that animals are more fragile than scientific evidence or actual experience suggests.  We therefore suspect that animals are sometimes used by environmentalists and park managers to justify closing recreational areas. 

Loss of recreational access at Fort Funston, San Francisco

In a series of closures from 1997 to 2000, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) fenced visitors out of more than 28 acres of Fort Funston (about 15% of total acreage), claiming the land was “bank swallow habitat” and that the swallows needed the closures for protection of their breeding colony.  In fact, the fenced land is not bank swallow habitat.  The swallows do not nest, breed, feed, roost, or do any of the normal activities a bird does in its habitat, inside the closures.  The swallows fly over it on their way from their nests on the cliff face above the beach to Lake Merced where they feed on insects.  The GGNRA sponsored a study(2) of wildlife in the fenced areas during the breeding season of the swallows, when the swallows were present.  The study included a census of all birds observed inside the enclosure and reported not a single bank swallow.

A swallow expert, William M. Shields, SUNY Professor of Biology, said of the closures, “I do not believe that a closure of the size and type described by the park service is required or even would benefit the Bank Swallow at all.”  He said that the closure was based on “…their [GGNRA’s] misrepresentations about the needs and safety of the Bank Swallows breeding in the cliffs.”  Dr. Shields classified GGNRA’s claims of providing improved feeding habitat as, “…a major stretch and smacks of special pleading to me.”

Bank swallow burrows (circled) in cliff above beach at Fort Funston

The bank swallows nest in burrows in the cliff faces at Fort Funston, where they are out of reach of recreational visitors who seldom even notice the presence of the birds.  Furthermore, as Dr. Shields notes, “The Bank Swallow like other swallows is quite suited to live with humans and their pets.”  Another swallow expert, Barrett Garrison says in his monograph Bank Swallow, Bank Swallows appear relatively insensitive to moderate levels of human-induced disturbance.”  Garrison lists documented land uses around Bank Swallow colonies:  hydroelectric power generation, irrigation, recreational boating, commercial agriculture, vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and livestock grazing.

Bank swallow nests in……
…a sheep pasture

When the public was fenced out of large areas of Fort Funston, the bank swallow was just a phony excuse.  We try to avoid speculating about the motivation of others, but in this case the massive native plant “restoration” that followed the closure seems the likely goal of the closure. 

Loss of recreational access at Albany Bulb in the East Bay

Frenced enclosure at Albany Plateau for theoretical burrowing owls

In 2008, 8 acres of the Albany Plateau (the flat area at the east end of the Albany Bulb) was fenced at a cost of $125,700.  The stated purpose of this fenced enclosure was to create habitat for the burrowing owl, although owls had never been seen nesting there.  Three years later there are still no burrowing owls in this fenced enclosure.  In fact, there is nothing in this fenced area and nothing is happening there.  Update:  Ten years later, no owls have been seen nesting there.  November 2017

How did we lose this recreational resource?  That is a fascinating story:  “During the planning process for the Eastshore State Park…the demonstration of community need for sports fields led to the designation of the eastern side of the Albany Plateau as “active recreation” land use category.  This was problematic because of its proximity to the Albany Mudflats State Sanctuary and because State Parks is not in the practice of operating formal sports fields facilities.”(3)  Consequently, the Tom Bates Regional Sports Complex south of Golden Gate Fields was approved for development as sports fields.  Unfortunately one burrowing owl had been seen (but was not nesting) in that area two years before.  Therefore, environmentalists demanded “mitigation” for the development of a sports field in that area.  The “mitigation” was the creation of the 8-acre fenced enclosure on the Albany Plateau.  So far, burrowing owls have not elected to use the fenced area.

But why would a burrowing owl choose to nest on the Albany Plateau when it has a nesting area just a few miles down the road at the Cesar Chavez Park?  Burrowing owls can be seen nesting at Cesar Chavez Park every year from October to April.  There are post-and-rope fences that designate their nesting area, but those fences are not impenetrable as is the chain link fence on the Albany Plateau.  People (often with their dogs on leash) walk on trails within 20 feet of the owls.  The owls don’t seem disturbed by this activity and apparently prefer the busy Cesar Chavez Park to the fenced Albany Plateau.

Burrowing owl, Cesar Chavez Park, Berkeley

Are animals being used as tools to restrict recreational access?

We wish the animals could speak for themselves.  Do they require the enclosures that environmentalists demand for them?  We think the answer to that question is sometimes “NO!”  And when environmentalists make these claims repeatedly, do they lose their credibility when the evidence indicates that such restrictions are in fact not needed?  In other words, are environmentalists crying wolf?  Or do they accomplish their true goals by successfully fencing people out of our parks?  Is their goal an example of Fortress Conservation or a sincere effort to protect animals from harm?  Do park managers prefer parks without people?

(1) Wild Equity Institute, Sierra Club, Audubon Society, National Parks Conservation Association, Center for Biological Diversity

(2) “Evaluating Wildlife Response to Coastal Dune Habitat Restoration in San Francisco, California” by Will Russell, Jennifer Shulzitski and Asha Setty, Ecological Restoration, Vol. 27, No. 4, 2009

(3) City of Albany City Council Agenda Staff Report