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Fresh Prince

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No Apologies: Since taking the helm of the nation's largest environmental group last year, 24-year-old Adam Werbach has helped recruit a younger legion of activists.

Photo by Michael Amsler

The Sierra Club's young president Adam Werbach heralds a new charge for environmentalists

By Kelle Walsh

"I wish I could mint time," Adam Werbach mumbles as we nearly trot from the Sierra Club national offices in downtown San Francisco to Yerba Buena Gardens. It's a phrase he will utter again before I leave him, and one gets the feeling it is something he tells himself often.

As the president of the nation's oldest environmental organization, Werbach has his hands full.

His election last year at age 23 sent shock waves through the club's 600,000-member guard, many of whom came on board before Werbach was even a thought. Perhaps more challenging than overcoming the stigma of his age, however, is his charge of turning this old barge into a battleship ready to take on the environmental threats of a new millennium.

As the president of the nation's oldest environmental organization, Werbach has his hands full. His election last year at age 23 sent shock waves through the club's 600,000-member guard, many of whom came on board before Werbach was even a thought. Perhaps more challenging than overcoming the stigma of his age, however, is his charge of turning this old barge into a battleship ready to take on the environmental threats of a new millennium.

I'm just trying to keep up with him. Like most 24-year-olds, Werbach has tons of energy. Bounding down Mission Street in jeans and a well-fitted herringbone jacket thrown over a cotton tee, he could be any young career climber making a run to the espresso cart. And from casual conversation, one would never guess that this soft-spoken, almost shy, gentleman could be at any moment fielding calls from Egypt or the White House to discuss environmental policies that influence the entire planet.

Needless to say, for Werbach, there's little slowing down. Early last week, he had worked 13 days straight, and was scheduled to leave for Asheville, N.C., the next morning. To his credit, despite a frenetic schedule, Werbach made himself available to this reporter as he has often done for both the media and the public.

Indeed, one of many legacies Werbach will surely leave behind is his accessibility. Since taking office in April 1996, he has visited almost every local chapter of the Sierra Club, veering back and forth across the nation like a mascot migratory bird.

Werbach's new book, Act Now, Apologize Later--a 300-page treatise filled with recollections, fairy tales, and some rather scathing reviews of environmental and social faux pas--is rife with stories of grassroots efforts and the characters who make up the ranks of local Sierra Club chapters. "From rural priests to animal trackers, from a 12-year-old girl in California to three elderly women in Georgia, from senators to surfers and from Woody Harrelson to llama riders, an incredible array of people give us a thousand reasons to be hopeful," he writes.

Werbach himself will certainly go down in history as one of those memorable characters. He started the now 30,000-member Sierra Student Coalition as a precocious high schooler, and watched it grow into a powerful activist force during his years at Brown University. He has held audiences with both President Clinton and Vice President Gore, and was hand-picked by David Brower, probably the most influential environmentalist of our time, to head the Sierra Club.

"One of the biggest problems we face right now is not that people don't understand the issues; it's that [they don't believe] they can actually do something themselves," he says, sitting forward excitedly. "And the strongest message of this book, hopefully, is that real people can do it, even this lanky, 24-year-old kid."

WERBACH'S ascension to the Sierra Club throne last year heralded a new era for an organization often associated with aging upper-middle-class white folks with lots of time on their hands and a bankroll to support their causes. His mission was to reinvigorate the organization, make it more attractive to young people, and gear up for a new millennium very different than when John Muir started the Sierra Club more than 100 years ago.

According to Werbach, it's working. Since assuming the presidency, the organization has seen its average member age drop from 42.7 to 37.2--a change Werbach says "is huge to me." Additionally, now more than half of the Sierra Club's national board members are under the age of 40. The organization has also become more visible on college campuses than ever before; it deftly utilizes the World Wide Web and media-savvy projects with high-profile support from the music and film industry elite. The Sierra Club is even releasing a benefit CD, and next year will hold Sierra Training Academies at a record 16 sites to train top youth leaders of environmental causes.

But what Werbach has brought to the Sierra Club is not all about youth--something that is easily forgotten in the hype surrounding his age. The Sierra Club has in the past year lobbied hard for the passage of two clean-air standards; ushered through Congress a restoration bill for Yosemite National Park in the wake of last winter's devastating floods; and formed unheard-of alliances among hunters, fishermen, ranchers, and religious groups with whom Werbach says the club shares many of the same concerns.

And keenly aware of the eyes upon him, Werbach notes that many of the Sierra Club's actions this year haven't been only important environmental successes, but evidence of a changing direction for the organization. "Our major campaign over the summer was clean air, and that's including all of our resources in the Sierra Club to protecting clean air," he says. "People may say, what do you mean [making this] our No. 1 priority? The Sierra Club cares about mountains and trees and birds. Well, we care about people, and we care about people first."

The protection of the 30,000-acre Sterling Forest on the border of New York and New Jersey bears witness to the Sierra Club's position on more people-friendly projects, Werbach says. "It helped us redefine a position that we are heading in because what we argued was not that it was an important wilderness project, but that it protected the watershed for 2 million New Jersey residents and is also a great recreation area for people from New York City to let off steam."

But other recent Sierra Club actions seemingly indicate a dichotomy at work far from the "Sterling Forest path" of which Werbach boasts. Arguments made in the club's name on immigration and high-profile restoration projects, for example, have drawn heaps of criticism as being particularly unyielding to human interests.

The club's upcoming vote on whether to take a position on national immigration policy has generated charges of racism and classism from both within and outside the organization. Werbach is sensitive to such criticism, shaking his head angrily when asked why the Sierra Club would take any position on immigration. "We shouldn't be," he says. "It has to do with population control, birth control ... but I'm more concerned about the refrigerator every family has contributing to global warming!"

The club's current policy states that it will take no position on immigration levels or national immigration policy. In just the past month, 1,600 members signed a petition for a ballot initiative to change that position--a move that would require approval of the entire membership. It's a topic that obviously makes Werbach uncomfortable. Genuinely enthusiastic about his job, he appears a little shaken by a gnarly controversy over which he has little control and one that directly challenges the "happy environmentalist" image he promotes.

Administratively, Werbach has attempted to tackle one of the oldest criticisms lobbed against the club: that it appeals to primarily white, educated people of means while ignoring the real-life problems of urban and rural minorities. He disagrees with the recruiting methods proposed by the Diversity Project the club initiated in 1990 to attract members of color. Instead of just getting people to meetings, Werbach says, "you need to change your agenda and make it reflective of people's needs."

More urban outings, and an organizing effort in the rural South to help residents fight environmental challenges, will make the Sierra Club useful to a greater diversity of people, he says.

Perhaps more controversial to some environmentalists and recreationalists who more often than not lean "green" is the club's controversial position advocating the draining of Lake Powell in Page, Ariz., to restore the submerged canyon to its natural state. The 186-mile lake created in 1957 with the building of the Glen Canyon Dam has since become the nation's second most popular camping destination, pumping an estimated $500 million into the economy of the town of 8,200 residents. In addition to supporting a diverse ecosystem, the lake also serves as a water bank for flood control and supplies hydroelectric power and water for Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. It also provides jobs for some 1,200 Navajos who work at the Navajo Generating Station, which could fold if the lake were drained. The Navajo Nation has joined an army of opposition to the Sierra Club's position.

Other opponents contend the young Werbach, who defends the position adamantly, is being used as a puppet by his mentor, former Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower. Brower, who was at the helm when the dam was built, has since said that not fighting the dam, and the subsequent development of Lake Powell, is a lasting regret he wants to see righted. At 84, there is a sense of urgency to Brower's mission.

Werbach grins and looks down at his hands when asked about Brower's influence in his decision to bring the issue to the board of directors' attention. "That's cute," he says quietly. He pauses. "But in the end, does it really matter what my motives are for it if it is the right thing to do? And that's where I come down. I mean, I can tell you, the first time I heard about it was not through David Brower, but through [author and environmentalist] Edward Abbey. And I don't care what they say.

"It's the difference between strategy and goals," he adds. "On goals, there's no way to compromise or minimize them or to change them in any way. Your strategy can be incremental, your strategy can be peacemaking and building, but it can't affect your goals. Draining Lake Powell is the right thing to do, so it's the right thing to do. I'm sick of people saying it's too hard, why don't we ask for something half-way down. No. No.

"You ask for what you want," he adds, "and then you get people to get there."

WHILE SOME LONGTIME members of the organization might shudder with the increasingly social and political stance the club is taking, Werbach is unapologetic. "John Muir said, 'When you pick up anything by itself you find it hitched to almost everything else in the universe.' There is no way we can ignore social issues," Werbach says.

"We're not a junior politicians' league. It's not our job to be liked by everyone," he adds. "It's our job to be clear that we're justified in what we're doing. But sometimes we're going to make someone angry."

He openly laughs at what he calls the "green-washing" efforts of companies like Ben & Jerry's that make 1-percent donations of proceeds to environmental causes, and consumer-friendly guides like 50 Ways to Save the Earth. When asked about the Clinton administration's environmental record, he spits, "It's like putting out a house fire with a squirt gun.

"When I took this job, the past president, David Cox, took me aside and said, 'Don't get frustrated during your years; just remember that when you're trying to do something right, it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission,'" Werbach tells me. It was good advice, he says. Coming as a cub into an organization with more than its share of growling old cats, he had to learn quickly that it was sometimes better to act, then listen. Hence the title of his book, Act Now, Apologize Later.

"I've spent every waking hour as an environmentalist fighting fires," he says. "[Glen Canyon] is a step forward. This is how I'm going to say to my kids that during my lifetime I made things better than they were before."

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From the Dec. 11-17, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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