Air Date: Week of June 7, 1996
The oldest national environmental group has just elected its youngest ever president. Steve Curwood speaks with Adam Werbach, who at just 23 years of age is the new and youthful President of the 104 year old Sierra Club.
CURWOOD: June means graduations, and most of the Class of '96 is now starting out into their first jobs, usually at the bottom. But one member of the Class of '95 has gone straight to the top. At 23 years of age, Adam Werbach has just been elected president of the Sierra Club, the nation's oldest environmental group. Now, if that seems a little young to be leading an organization with more than half a million members, it isn't for lack of experience. Mr. Werbach joined the organization when he was in the second grade. In high school he founded its student auxiliary. And while he was in college he was elected to its board of directors.
WERBACH: Yeah, I was elected in 1994, and just completed my second year on the board, and was just elected by the rest of the board members, the directors, as president of the Sierra Club.
CURWOOD: So how did you get involved with the Sierra Club?
WERBACH: [Laughs] It was actually a funny story. When I was, oh, about 8 years old and in second grade, I received a petition in the mail, actually my parents did, to sign and try to oust James Watt, who was the Secretary of the Interior at the time, 1981. Now, I took this little petition, not really knowing what it was. I thought James Watt at the time had something to do with electricity. [Curwood laughs.] And I took it around to my second grade class and said hey, guys, come on, sign up. This is something that you can do. You can make a difference. You can sign here and do something. And the kids went wild. Everyone grabbed their crayons, their big, fat second grade pencils, and signed their names. And by the end of the day I had 200 signatures on that very petition and I was hooked.
CURWOOD: Now, as president of the Sierra Club, this is a year-long job and it pays you absolutely nothing. Do you do anything, or do you just have a nice title?
WERBACH: [Laughs] Well, the job of the president is to go out and in some ways rally the troops, to get the message out and basically say this is what's happening in DC, this is what's happening in your state capitols. These are the issues that you care about that you're not hearing about. This is not what your politicians are telling you. So my job is to get the Sierra Club into mediums that people listen to, that people understand.
CURWOOD: So you're the top PR guy for the place.
WERBACH: Well that, as well as running the -- we obviously have a huge volunteer aspect. So my job is to rally them and to work with our professional staff to make that happen.
CURWOOD: Professional staff. Now, Carl Pope is your executive director.
WERBACH: That's right.
CURWOOD: What do you say when people ask you how is it you do this at age 23? I mean, how does someone like Carl Pope react to having a 23-year-old boss?
WERBACH: Well, I think it comes back to the question of, you know, how can someone who's not 23 do this? Generally we need young people to be involved. We need young people to take this mantle of responsibility and say this is my future, what am I going to do about it?
CURWOOD: What's going to happen to the Sierra Club now that you're in charge?
WERBACH: Oh, wonderful, great things. The Sierra Club has been, has just completed a thorough restructuring of its volunteer capabilities and its staff structure. We've moving to new offices and we're really excited. This has been a tremendous year of challenges because of the Congress of -- the 104th Congress has been in my mind the worst Congress ever in terms of the environment. So the challenges are there and the Sierra Club has been fighting those battles from the halls of Congress down to the lanes of every community and every neighborhood.
CURWOOD: Now, there are some critics that say that the big environmental organizations like the Sierra Club are out of touch with their constituencies. In fact, I think that your organization recently had a big vote. Your membership approved a ban on all commercial logging in Federal forests, but that's a move that your leadership, including you, had opposed. I'm wondering, are the critics right?
WERBACH: I don't think so. I mean, our members decide what we do. And the vote on forest protection, which I actually didn't take a stand on, was a good example of Americans' total anger at Congress and the way they've managed our public lands. When Congress is talking about selling off our national parks, they get some people angry. And people are willing to take strong and decisive action.
CURWOOD: Now, why didn't you take a stand on that logging on Federal forests?
WERBACH: Sometimes I think it's important for an organization to work through its issues and to really let the membership make the final decision.
CURWOOD: So how do you feel about it, though?
WERBACH: Well, I feel like we need to [laughs] make a very strong statement to Congress that unless they get their act together we're not going to have any logging on public lands. Until we get our acts together on this, we're going to see some real strong activism on the issue.
CURWOOD: The public seems to be contributing less to environmental causes these days, and the Sierra Club seems to not be exempt from that movement. You seem to have less money and more of a deficit. Is this making it harder for you to do the work you need to do?
WERBACH: We've been out there fighting the battles, and I tell you it's been a frightening year. When we used to see threats coming every 3 months, they're coming every 3 days. So actually I've been very, very proud of the way the Sierra Club's been able to respond to those in the immediate way that they've needed to do it.
CURWOOD: Adam, you keep talking about reaching out through new media. The Sierra Club, and we're much impressed here at Living on Earth with your public relations machinery, you have a web site, you seem to be on television and on the radio and you handle the newspapers pretty well. What do you mean by the new media?
WERBACH: We need to go out even further electronically. We need to be on television, because people right now learn through television. And we need to go out on television and show people, instead of just telling them and newspapers about the problems. We need to show people the problems. When I think about people who are my age, young people, we've in many ways been tricked into becoming a consumer generation. We vote through what we buy. We need to reach out to young people like myself through music, through fashion, through magazines, and say hey, this is your movement, too. If you want to get involved, this is your chance. Don't try to slough this off in terms of your parents and what they've messed up. This is your chance to get involved, and this is your chance to make a difference.
CURWOOD: So are we looking at Sierra Club clothes, Sierra Club MTV spots? What are we looking at?
WERBACH: I think we're going to see the Sierra Club all over the media the next year. We're going to see the Sierra Club reaching out to folks and saying how do you want to get involved? How do you want to protect America's environment, both for our families and for our future? We're going to be focused on the elections, and we're going to make sure that politicians who aren't voting for our heritage are out of office.
CURWOOD: Well thank you for joining us. Adam Werbach is the newly elected president of the Sierra Club.
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