The Sierra Club, the largest and oldest environmental advocacy group in the nation, has named Michael Brune its next executive director.
A longtime environmental organizer who has headed the Rainforest Action Network for the last seven years, Brune will succeed Carl Pope in March.
Pope, the organization’s executive director since 1992, will stay on as executive chairman and devote himself to climate change issues.
Brune, 38, is moving from a small, feisty group known for its attention-getting stunts to a pillar of the mainstream environmental movement. The San Francisco-based Sierra Club, founded in 1892 by John Muir, has an operating budget of $85 million, 1.3 million members and donors, and a staff of 530.
“The Sierra club has evolved in the last couple of decades from being an organization that was almost exclusively focused on expanding protection for wild places to focusing more on clean energy and climate change,” Brune said. “I’m coming to the Sierra Club because I’m interested in both.”
Board President Allison Chin said Brune possesses “a combination of activist fire, managerial savvy and crystal-clear vision that can really serve the club well.”
Brune grew up in New Jersey and has undergraduate degrees in economics and finance. “I had this vague idea of working on Wall Street" to develop financing for alternative energy projects, he said. But shortly before graduation, he realized that the last place he wanted to be was in a suit working for corporate America.
Instead he became a thorn in its side. He got a job with Greenpeace, then worked for the Coastal Rainforest Coalition, now known as ForestEthics.
In 1998, he joined Rainforest Action Network, pressuring big business to stop environmentally damaging practices. One of the San Francisco-based group’s best-known campaigns was against Home Depot, which was selling lumber from old growth forests.
Rainforest staged protests, ran newspaper ads and then, at the suggestion of a sympathetic Home Depot employee, took its message directly to customers.
Brune obtained the code to use the intercoms found on every aisle of the chain’s big box stores.
“We would grab the microphone and say, ‘Attention, Home Depot shoppers. We want to draw your attention to the wood in aisle 13: Mahogany doors ripped from the heart of the Amazon rain forest.’”
The intercom announcements spread across the country and within four months, Brune said, Home Depot agreed to phase out lumber from endangered forests.
Last summer, when the group was trying to get the attention of a big Canadian bank that finances tar-sand oil operations that are ravaging parts of Alberta, they put up posters addressed to the environmentally friendly wife of the bank’s chief executive: “Please help us, Mrs. Nixon.”
Brune said bank executives recently sent Rainforest a letter saying they were willing to meet.
Sierra Club tactics tend to the less theatrical, relying more on lawsuits, lobbying and traditional media campaigns. But Brune said he doesn’t believe “the differences are that significant.”
“I don’t think my hiring necessarily represents a change in tactic” for the club.
Pope, who announced a year ago that he would step down, plans to "focus heavily on the work we’re doing with climate" in his new position as executive chairman.
“This is the largest thing the club has ever done,” he said, adding that the climate initiative has helped block the construction of 100 coal-fired power plants around the U.S.
During Pope’s 37 years with the Sierra Club, the elections of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and the ascendancy of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich all spawned obituaries for the environmental movement.
“The media and the political insiders wrote the environmental community off,” Pope said. “What I’m proudest of is they were wrong all three times.”
As for disappointments, Pope said, “We failed to turn the tide on our energy economy and climate."
-- Bettina Boxall
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