At The Sierra Club, A Fierce Dispute Over Founder's Legacy Continues

An internal fight over John Muir’s racial views, and what to do about them, has roiled the Club’s board and led to the sanctioning of two members.
John Muir, the naturalist, engineer and writer who founded the Sierra Club, has emerged as a figure of controversy among present-day members.
John Muir, the naturalist, engineer and writer who founded the Sierra Club, has emerged as a figure of controversy among present-day members.
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The Sierra Club’s board of directors voted last Friday to officially admonish two members who have publicly defended the legacy of the group’s famed founder, John Muir, against allegations of racism.

One of those board members is Aaron Mair, who previously served as the group’s first African American president. The other, Chad Hanson, is a prominent forest ecologist and activist. Both have pushed back against news stories over the past year and a half arguing that Muir was racist and sought to exclude Black and Indigenous people from protected landscapes, a claim they say the historical record does not support. With last week’s vote, the board deemed both men’s “conduct to be lacking,” and sought to hold them “accountable,” according to internal records obtained by HuffPost.

The Sierra Club, one of the nation’s oldest and largest environmental groups, is weathering a series of intense internal controversies over race and identity, workplace culture, organizational structure, and the legacy of Muir, who founded the Club in 1892. It is part of a broader upheaval within the American environmental movement, one that has seen high-profile resignations at organizations like the Audubon Society and public feuding at groups like the Sunrise Movement.

The Sierra Club’s internal Muir conflict kicked off in earnest in the summer of 2020, as protests and riots over the police murder of George Floyd spread across the nation. That July, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune published a statement titled “Pulling Down Our Monuments” in which he accused his organization of “perpetuating white supremacy” and, in some cases throughout the Club’s long history, causing “immeasurable harm.”

Among other things, Brune denounced Muir for “making derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes” and for his friendship with men like Henry Fairfield Osborn, who would eventually become a leading eugenicist. The statement sent shock waves through the conservation movement, and it was widely picked up in the mainstream press.

But it did not sit well with Mair, Hanson, or another longtime Sierra Club supporter, Mary Ann Nelson, who was the first African American elected to the Club’s volunteer national board. Together, the trio penned a detailed response to Brune’s statement. They sought to challenge Brune’s article as well as other media portrayals of Muir, including a March 2021 essay in Sierra magazine by the author Rebecca Solnit that aligned with Brune’s perspective.

According to minutes from the March 10 Sierra Club board meeting, Hanson, Mair and Nelson tried to place their response in the magazine earlier this year, but a majority of the board blocked them from publishing their rebuttal before it made it through the magazine’s editorial process.

Those minutes, which Politico first reported on, note that the board passed a resolution stating that it “reviewed the article submitted to Sierra Magazine by Directors Hanson and Mair and former Director Nelson and finds it to be inconsistent with the messaging guidance adopted by resolution on February 27 and thus should not be published in Sierra Magazine or posted on its website.”

The minutes note that the board did, however, grant Hanson and Mair permission to share their opinion in other venues, provided they “use independent channels and clearly state that their views are not those of the Board of Directors nor the Sierra Club.”

Ultimately, Hanson, Mair and Nelson took their article elsewhere, publishing a lengthy exploration of Muir’s record in Earth Island Journal on Aug. 11.

“It’s important to think critically about our movement’s historical figures, John Muir included,” the trio wrote. “However, some recent articles by environmentalists and environmental writers — though perhaps guided by good intentions, and well-written and researched in other respects — contain some inaccurate and unfounded information that could create damaging divisions among the conservation movement and environmental justice advocates. We aim to set the record straight.”

Muir seen on a postage stamp.
Muir seen on a postage stamp.
traveler1116 via Getty Images

While acknowledging that Muir used derogatory racial language in some of his early writings, the three authors noted that “Muir did not promote removal of Native peoples from ancestral lands, nor did he promote exclusion of Black Americans from protected lands.” Insinuations that Muir aligned with white supremacist and eugenicist views, they wrote, are also factually wrong.

On the contrary, they argued, Muir criticized the U.S. government’s “mean, brutal policy” towards Native Americans, his views evolved as he became a leading conservationist, and his overall vision “spoke to the harmony and connection of people and creation, not racial hierarchy or human dominance.”

In their article, Mair, Hanson and Nelson explicitly stated that they were representing “their own views and are not speaking on behalf of the Sierra Club.” (Brune announced his resignation from the Club days after the trio published their piece, in an apparent coincidence.)

Mair, Hanson and Nelson also spoke with Politico, which published a story on Aug. 16 about the controversy. Mair told Politico that Brune’s depiction of the writings and life of John Muir was “ahistorical” and “revisionist.” Hanson said that while he believed it was important to acknowledge the group’s history concerning racism, “false allegations” were damaging to the organization and the environmental movement more broadly.

The article and public statements angered some in the organization, including members of the Progressive Workers Union, which represents some Sierra Club staff. A letter sent in late August that HuffPost has reviewed included a range of concerns about the Club’s internal culture. The union complained that Hanson and Mair had “centered Sierra Club’s problems around John Muir in a public way in recent weeks, misconstruing the truth of the issues within our community and harming staff in the process.”

As part of its official action last week ― which appears to be a sort of internal scolding for the record that is less severe than a formal censure ― the board put forward a pair of “accountability resolutions” that chastised Hanson and Mair for conduct that has “caused significant and ongoing harm to our organization” and “sparked widespread concerns” from staff, volunteers and more, according to multiple sources and internal Sierra Club records that HuffPost obtained.

The resolutions reprimanded Mair and Hanson for speaking to Politico “without authorization and without notifying designated spokespeople or communications staff,” and for publishing an article deemed “inconsistent with the positions and messaging guidelines on Sierra Club history that the Board of Directors had previously adopted.” It also chastised them for including their official Sierra Club leadership titles in the published piece.

In an email to Club leaders prior to the vote, Hanson and Mair defended their conduct, arguing that the charges against them were baseless and that they had acted in accordance with their board responsibilities.

“Well-founded criticisms of key historical figures are often warranted and valuable, but inaccurate and misleading attacks, such as those leveled against John Muir in some recent Sierra Club posts/articles, can widen divisions and cause unnecessary harm, including financial harm to the Sierra Club,” they wrote. “We have expressed this concern all along, consistent with our fiduciary duties as Directors. Notably, we have now seen tangible evidence of severe financial harm caused to the Sierra Club by the current Board majority’s factually-challenged attacks on Muir, in the form of the loss of a $100 million donation.”

In the end, a majority of the board voted to pass the accountability resolutions and officially admonish the two men, according to multiple sources present for the meeting, which was open to Club members.

Hanson and Mair both declined to comment for this story, with Mair saying he “would be sanctioned” if he did so. Nelson, who was not subject to the official accountability resolution because she is not currently serving on the board, said that the actions against Mair and Hanson were unusual in her experience.

“I have been on some Sierra Club boards with significant differences of opinion,” she said, “but we never felt the need to do this.”

Neither the Sierra Club nor the Progressive Workers Union responded to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, other prominent Sierra Club members have expressed exasperation at the board’s behavior.

“It is unfortunate that this energy was expended to essentially accomplish nothing,” said Dr. Michael Dorsey, a longtime Sierra Club member who served on its national board for 11 years. “It is in the realm of petty and vindictive and it is unfortunate that people would align with that kind of thing.”

He noted that the board vote was held on the last day of the United Nations COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland ― a pivotal environmental event.

“It was a bona fide waste of time,” Dorsey said.

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