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September 12th, 2001 Patty Wentz | News Stories
 

Q&A: Sierra Club czar Jennifer Ferenstein

     
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With W. Bush in the White House, the top job at the Sierra Club takes on a new importance. The club, the oldest and most powerful environmental organization in the country, is playing defense against Bush on everything from his energy policy (complete with plans to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) to the reversal of the Clinton administration's roadless policy.

At the helm of the board since last May is 36-year-old Jennifer Ferenstein, a former Reedie from Missoula, Mont. Ferenstein grew up in Berkeley, Calif., but spent summers at her grandparents' ranch near Mitchell, Ore.

On a visit to WW last week, Ferenstein and her vice-chairman, Charlie Ogle of Eugene, talked about what's ahead in the battle against Bush, the legacy of former Sierra Club president David Brower, and why so many national environmental leaders are Oregonians.

Jennifer, you split your childhood between Berkeley and your grandparents' cattle ranch in Central Oregon. How does that affect your perspective?

Ferenstein: I think it was good for me to be in an urban environment and to see how a diverse community functions.

I just did a story about the conflict in Klamath Falls. The people there don't believe that it is possible for anyone in the environmental movement to have any understanding of where their food comes from, and if they did, then they wouldn't be an "environmentalist." How do you address that?

Ferenstein: I have heard people say that farmers are the true environmentalists. I think in some ways they're trying to brand environmentalists as a dirty word, which I think is a very real threat. People who care about the environment should be able to speak up for clean air, clean water, open space, and a livable community without being fearful of being branded as a "radical."

There have been some accusations that you have deserted your more radical roots, the people who helped vote you onto the board of directors, the so-called "John Muir Sierrans."

Ferenstein: When I ran as a petition candidate, I ran as a John Muir Sierran candidate. When I ran this time I didn't run on a platform or any particular stance aligned with any particular group. I may be incorrect about this, but my perception is that the club has come along way. I still consider myself wanting the club to be as strong as it possibly can, and I think that we need to be out front on a lot of these issues.

For example?

Ferenstein: We came from the position of not having any policy on commercial logging on public lands to where now we have a fully funded campaign. At least in that realm I think the democratic process worked well. People who cared worked through the club and ended up pushing that position forward.

What does the Sierra Club need to be to advance its vision under this administration?

Ferenstein: We have to be nimble. We have to mount an aggressive defensive campaign to keep rollbacks from occurring, to educate the public and to keep from backsliding. But for every defensive move we make we have to have an offensive component, an alternative. We learned a lot from the Newt Gingrich war on the environment. That was really trench warfare. We were in there fighting tooth and nail to keep bad things from happening. We got more sophisticated; we are going to fight from a stronger position than that.

Is Gordon Smith an environmentalist?

Ferenstein: My understanding is that he has been relatively good on some key issues. He understands that the environment is an important issue to Oregonians. What I think is important to remember is that, if you look at the sentiment in Oregon, you want some people who are rock-solid on the environment, and he is going to have to do more than simply say, "I don't support drilling in the Arctic refuge now." I think that he needs to improve significantly and step up a bit more than he has before I would label him a rock-solid environmental candidate.

You've said the environmental movement needs a more positive image. Why's that?

Ferenstein: I think two things. I think you need to give people hope, you have to give them something to work towards. If environmentalists are being framed as being "anti's" then people don't want to go that party. That's not necessarily a fun place to be.

Both of you are at least partially from Oregon. What do you think that's about?

Ferenstein: There's a history of activists in Oregon and a history of leadership coming from Oregon.

Why Oregon and not North Dakota?

Ferenstein: People are very conscious of the changes that have occurred in the places that they grew up in. They move to Oregon because of the environment, because of the amenities of the natural environment, the beauty of the state. When people see change, they have to make a choice of whether or not to get involved. You also have to have a population base. You have people in North Dakota that care but you don't necessarily have the population base that you have here so you have a history of politics.

Is the membership of Sierra Club getting older? It seems here in Portland the younger people are drawn to more activist groups like Cascadia Forest Alliance.

Ferenstein: It's actually getting younger, and that started under Adam Werbach's leadership, because that was one of his priorities as president, and we had a Sierra student coalition which is active on quite a few campuses across the country. But I think that we need to do a better job of reaching out to younger people and providing opportunities to get involved. It was the same way when I came in-there was nobody in the Montana chapter that was under 60 years old. And they were all men.

Has being a woman played any role in your work? Does it matter anymore?

Ferenstein: Yes, it does matter. I've been in environmental work for a long time, and I have been to a lot of meetings where I'll be only one of one or two women in a room with 30 men. So I think that there has been a lot of progress made since I started doing environmental work over 11, 12 years ago but I still feel we have a ways to go in bringing more women into leadership roles as well as more minorities.

Why should people be attracted to the Sierra Club?

Ferenstein: What I hope attracts people is that there is a certain power associated with the club that when you come to the club and you take part people listen to what you have to say because you have the power of the club behind you. To me that was an attractive thing. I come from the grass roots, and I still consider Sierra Club a grass-roots organization, but I came from organizations. Every job I had was working for a small membership-based grass-roots organization. I think at some point that you decide that there's something you want to do that's a little bit, that goes beyond the most local level, and I think the Sierra Club can serve as that bridge to bring a more national focus, because sometimes you need that power to actually effect change.

But isn't it true that many city folks have no clue about how food gets to their grocery shelves?

Ferenstein: It may be true that in urban settings it's getting harder and harder to connect with the realities of where we get our food, fiber, oil and gas. But I think that people are aware that if we want to have clean air and clean water we need to protect the land base and the habitats and the like.

You both were "John Muir Sierrans" Can you explain what that is for people who don't know?

Ferenstein: It's an interesting thing because it's highly mutable and it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To me, it meant that they took strong positions on issues and might have felt that the Sierra Club wasn't as strong as it could be. And they worked within the structure of the club to effect change, to move us to a stronger policy, positions on grazing, etc. I still want the club to be as strong as it possibly can, and I think that we need to be out front on a lot of these issues. So when I ran as a petition candidate, I ran as a John Muir Sierran candidate. When I ran this time I didn't run on a platform or any particular stance aligned with any particular group. I may be incorrect about this, but my perception is that the club has come along way.

From what to what?

Ferenstein: We came from the position of not having any policy on commercial logging on public lands to where now we have a fully funded campaign. At least in that realm I think the democratic process worked well. People who cared worked through the club and ended up pushing that position forward.

At the heart of this issue is, you're not radical enough. Isn't that what they mean: You betrayed the people that supported you?

Ogle: There is always someone who is hopping from one side to the other, so to some extent it's no surprise. As far as being a member of the Sierrans, I probably would have joined if I could have found an organization to join. It was a fairly nebulous group of people. I asked them a few times to create a structure that I could join, and there was an outgoing discussion about how formal they were in their association with me. There are some principles that they stood for that I absolutely support. But there's a line between membership and being pleased to accept somebody's support.

If I were a member of the Sierra Club, how would I become a member of that faction?

Ogle: My understanding is that there was a very loose association with my kind of people, and Sierra Club membership was a common feature. There was an email discussion that was a sort of central feature of it, but it had no official status within the club.

You did not support David Brower's bid for presidency, why is that?

Ferenstein: I didn't support his bid for presidency because I did not think that David would be the best president for Sierra Club, and the reason I think that is because David is or was one of the most visionary and charismatic people, but he wasn't always very good at the nuts and bolts, getting us through board meetings or providing the structure the board needs. The board is 15 people, the board has to function well, get through their agenda, solve some very mundane problems in a relatively timely fashion or it can actually paralyze other aspects. We have to get through the budget, we have to get through things and we have to do it well. Frankly, at that point in David Brower's life he served a wonderful role on the board as being our conscience and bringing up important issues, but he wasn't always very good at the nuts and bolts of things or providing the structure the board needs.

Who plays his role now?

Ferenstein: Chad Hanson is a great advocate for maintaining the strong democratic nature of the club. I think every board member has something that galvanizes them, and they are not shy. It's a handful of very strong and very passionate people who are volunteers who spend a lot of their time thinking about the Sierra Club and trying to make it the most effective organization they can. We'll never have another David Brower, but we have people that care about wildlands, about environmental justice. We have those voices on the board, and the board functions well to empower the rest of the club.

Do you agree with Brower's assessment that Clinton-Gore were worse than Reagan-Bush?

Ferenstein: No.

Do you think that was just rhetoric?

Ferenstein: No, I don't think David Brower does anything for just rhetoric. I respect his opinion a great deal, but I frankly think that people that Clinton-Gore put into positions of authority within the cabinet of the administration, the role that they would play in making appointments to the Supreme Court are significantly different, and if you look at just one, Mark Ray, who's the new undersecretary for agriculture under Bush-Cheney they are the people that go under the radar screen and change regulations and rules. It's hard to get the American public to focus on them because they are a little bit of the minutia. It's like the Titanic: I think the administration and the cabinets that have been put in place can affect the direction the Titanic goes, they can send us straight for the iceberg or send us in a new direction.

What was your take on Sacramento Bee series. Where were they right and where were they wrong?

Ferenstein: I think that [Tom] Knudsen has some kernels of truth. We all have to be careful about how quickly we grow, and what is the message that we give our members and the people we recruit. I think that we need to be careful not to be Chicken Little, the sky is always falling, because I think what we do is run the risk of numbing people to the "this threat is worse than that threat or that disaster is worse than that catastrophe." I think we need to be factual, make sure that all our information is credible, and that we are putting things into perspective. People will only rally so many times, and if they feel like we are always coming back to them asking for more, more, more, we run the risk of burning out. Burning out our members and our supportive entities.

So where is he wrong?

Ferenstein: It missed one big point, which is that the challenges that we face across the board are large. We are up against well-oiled machines that spend millions of dollars for lobbyists, for the interests of corporations, the multinationals....We're clearly-I don't want to be hyperbolic and run into the same problems he accuses me of-the challenges are huge, and we need to think huge. We need power. My goal is that that power is based on fighting apathy amongst our members and amongst the general public in that it's not enough to have people send us a check. We have to have active members and give people the opportunity to become active in a number of ways.

Such as?

Ferenstein: One is that they give money. But to me, a letter to the editor, sitting at a booth or going and talking to a Rotary Club is worth more than any check.

What other problems did you see in the series?

Ferenstein: I think there were some real inaccuracies in his story, and he actually ended up printing a correction in the last version of the last piece. The way he did the funding and he talked about program work vs. the amount spent on gathering membership and administrative costs. The Sierra Club has a foundation, and we also have the active part of the club, the membership part of the club. He lumped that all together. I also found it to be disturbingly biased and a little bit of an ambush. I know the conservation director, executive director and volunteers spent, literally, twenty, thirty, forty hours with him working on a piece they knew wasn't going to be all rosy, that it wasn't going to be the propaganda piece for the environmental movement, but they thought it was going to be balanced. I don't think he did anybody a real service by the slant he put on the story. I don't think it's a balanced story.

 
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