Local Sierra Club chapter struggles to redefine goals after contentious election
What is the definition of “environmentalism?” This question is at the heart of the debate currently at play within the Sierra Club Santa Cruz County Group executive committee, which has been experiencing a growing division over the last two years.
For many years, the group has concentrated on preservation of greenbelts and forests in order to maintain the natural beauty and ecological heath of the county. This is still a top priority. However, four of the nine seats on the executive committee are now held by new members who see alternative transportation as key to the green movement. Former chairperson Kevin Collins believes this is simply an invitation for further development on greenbelts and a detour from what he sees as the mission of the group.
Collins lost in the group’s 2011 mail-in election, when new faces Tawn Kennedy, Greg McPheeters and Mary Odegaard cycled onto the committee. Collins now works with the Sierra Club Monterey Bay Chapter because he “has very little in common with the people running the Santa Cruz County group.”
During last year’s local Sierra Club campaign, a proposal to pave bicycle paths through the Arana Gulch greenbelt was approved by the California Coastal Commission. This sparked a heated debate and inflicted serious emotional wounds on some members, including Collins.
Keresha Durham was already on the committee at the time, but is seen by most as one of the newer, transportation-minded voices despite having volunteered with the Sierra Club for about 15 years. She believes there is very little distance between the new, so-called “pro-bicycle” and the “old-guard conservationists’” viewpoints, and wishes former members would remain active even if they lose an election.
“We should welcome differences to get the best ideas,” says Durham. “With growth and the overpopulation of the Central Coast, people are going to fight over the last green spaces and not want any pavement. But we are getting past our differences.”
She sees the group’s long-standing opposition of the project to widen Highway 1 as a uniting issue. She believes that making more areas accessible and safe for bicycles is a viable alternative to prevent endless paving of the county, rather than simply opposing growth across the board in a place so many people want to live.
She welcomes input from members whose “bruised egos” kept them from participating in discussions after they lost seats in the election.
The committee ultimately decides the group’s initiatives, but their meetings are open to the public. All voting members who spoke with Good Times say they want to hear from outside members who these decisions are intended to represent.
Vote totals from the group’s 2011 elections—in which the three defeated members lost by an average margin of only 41 votes out of 1,391 counted—show the conservation purists still represent large constituencies within the 3,300 county Sierra Club members.
Patricia Matejcek has served on the board periodically since the ’90s, and, in Durham’s eyes, embodies the coalition-mending that may occur as the Arana Gulch controversy fades to the past.
Matejcek did not respond to GT’s request for comment, but Durham says she is happy to have her back on the committee offering ideas.
Treasurer Charles Dixon—who does not have a seat on the committee—says that finding common ground and moving forward on behalf of members throughout the county should take precedence over carrying on ideological debates.
“Now that the smoke has cleared from last year’s very divisive election, both the old guard and the newcomers have looked around and realized that we appear to agree on the big issues,” Dixon writes in an email to GT.
He paints a picture of the committee that brings to mind the current United States Supreme Court: Four passionate old guard conservationists push conservation and small growth alongside four transportation activists who advocate for safe bicycle commuting options, which makes chairperson Mike Guth the swing vote that often sways the direction in the end.
“Mike is seen as a figure of neutrality by both sides,” says Dixon. “Mike has successfully steered [the committee] toward the bigger issues that we agree on and away from the relatively less important contentious issues.”
Guth retained his neutral stance throughout the debate over Arana Gulch, which made him the perfect candidate for the chairperson position after Collins’ departure, according to Dixon.
“I have been in the group for about 10 years and am part of the ‘old-guard’ you could say,” says Guth. “But it is my hope that the focus of the group can be broadened while still maintaining, and now rebuilding, our past public oversight role.”
He emphasizes that beyond transportation issues the club is still actively influencing logging and agricultural laws in the area. Durham says that the new faces on the committee help broaden the scope of the group’s influence on many issues, as well as the pool of people they can reach.
“I was the youngest executive committee member and I’m 49,” Durham says. “That is just sad. To get people in their 20s and 30s is great, and they are doing outreach to other young people.”
She sees Kennedy and company as assets to reaching a younger crowd that will carry the torch of the green movement into the future. Kennedy is director of GreenWays To School, which teaches the virtues of riding bicycles to students throughout the county. During rides, organized by this group and its parent organization People Power, they also teach about the ecosystems they are passing through.
“I’m really interested in eco-literacy and learning about this cool place we live in,” Kennedy says. “A 4-year-old child [in the United States] can identify 70 or 80 brands, but only a couple of plants. We’re not going to protect what we don’t love.”
Studies done at the University of Michigan found that children between 3 and 5 years old can identify 93 percent of fast-food chain logos. By educating local kids during hikes and bike rides, Kennedy hopes to inspire interest in both preserving the environment as well as healthy lifestyles.
The Watsonville City Council gave a boost to this view by adding plans to expand their bicycle path network from 11 to 33 miles in the city’s 20-year growth plan. Some of the proposed trails would make commuting easier and safer with others trekking through Struve and Watsonville sloughs, exposing riders to hundreds of local plant and bird species. This is welcome news to Kennedy and Durham.
Durham sees this as evidence that, although there is apparent division on the surface, the committee members hold many shared goals. Dixon says that having a transparent and open debate regarding the direction of the club is essential to ensuring the confidence of peripheral supporters in the effectiveness of the Sierra Club’s lobbying efforts.
The club, which was founded by naturalist John Muir in 1892, is the largest environmental lobbying group in the country and has more support locally than nearly any place in the country. Their 1.4 million members nationwide represent .4 percent of the United States’ population. The 3,300 local members make up a density of support three times that of the national average, meaning that, with a united voice, the faction has the power to sway public policy more than nearly anywhere else.
Photos: Keana Parker