Time to Admit a Mistake in Defaming a Gentle Spirit — An Open Letter to the Sierra Club and the Pacific Crest Trail Association

When three current and former Sierra Club Board members, two of whom are African American, explain how Michael Brune, the Club’s former chief executive officer, got it wrong when he accused John Muir of being a racist, those who value the truth need to take notice (their full essay is provided below).

Unfortunately, the Sierra Club’s Board has refused to acknowledge the truth with the excuse that it doesn’t want to say something that is inconsistent with the Club’s “messaging guidance” and would contradict stories from multiple organizations (i.e. The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, POLITICO, and the Pacific Crest Trail Association), all of which were sourced from Brune’s July 22, 2020, attack on Muir (POLITICO 8/16/2021).

No, the Board and Brune need to admit they made a mistake regardless how embarrassing it might be. That’s how apologies work. Their accusations about Muir were based on false information and innuendo. The Board needs to come clean as do other organizations that followed their lead in defaming Muir.

Aaron Mair, who in 2015 became the first Black president of the Sierra Club board, said the attack on Muir overlooked years of organizational work on environmental justice, including committees that reviewed monuments and leaders who were racist. He said Brune did not consult him or the other two Black board members before pushing ahead on what he called a “revisionist” and “ahistorical” account of Muir’s writings, thoughts and life (POLITICO 8/16/2021).

In our effort to inform other environmental groups that had repeated Brune’s false accusations without doing their own research, we reached out to the the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA). The organization’s chief executive officer defamed Muir in their summer 2021 magazine. They responded to us by citing Brune’s original attacks. We provided additional information and urged them to reconsider. They haven’t gotten back to us yet.

It’s very difficult during these polarized times to speak the truth, or to express an opinion different from others, much less admit when you’re wrong. Once an alignment has been made with a particular tribe, truth has little meaning if it does not concur with the tribal beliefs. Fallacies are accepted as reality. Members of the tribe blindly follow others to signal their agreement, even when it can kill, as we have seen with rejections of the COVID-19 vaccine.

But speak the truth we must.

“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” – Rudyard Kipling, 1935

Several days after the essay below was published, contradicting Brune’s claims, Brune resigned as the Club’s chief executive officer. We are hoping this is a sign that the entire Board will eventually have the courage to admit their mistake and apologize for falsely defaming a gentle spirit who saw all people, all life, as expressions of the same powerful source, none favored over the other – a perspective that the Club needs to model.

The Pacific Crest Trail Association’s CEO announced her retirement in September.

Who Was John Muir Really?

From the Earth Island Journal
August 11, 2021

Recent media inaccurately represents Muir as a racist. That portrayal could create damaging divisions within the environmental movement.

By Aaron Mair, Chad Hanson, and Mary Ann Nelson

The environmental community is engaged in a deeply important conversation about equity. It holds great promise for a more inclusive, diverse, and powerful movement — one that is progressing toward an equitable future while confronting some of the troubling aspects of its history. As long time environmental leaders, we have gotten together to write about Sierra Club founder John Muir, who hasn’t been immune to present-day scrutiny. Muir’s story is complicated. Like many of us, he had his blind spots and prejudices, particularly in his early writings. But also, like many of us, he increased his knowledge and understanding of people different than him as he gained more exposure and experience. In all, he kickstarted a new era of environmentalism, fueled by ideals that are still relevant as we continue to face a series of ecological crises.

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Ask For What You Need and Treat Everyone Like A Rock Star

I met my best friend in a parking lot about 11 years ago.

The situation that drew me there we can skip. The important thing to tell is that although there were others around, he was the only one I was immediately attracted to. I don’t know if it was how he stumbled toward me after our eyes met, the rebel way his hair was askew, his half smile, or maybe all of it. Regardless, I’ve always been drawn to divergent spirits, individuals who know exactly what they want (most of the time), but have a tender vulnerability right below the surface – like this guy.

Have you ever connected with someone so quickly it felt like you’d known them for years? That’s what happened to me. A few minutes after we met, we had our arms around each other, looking like long lost friends. The warmth he generated within the center of my body was intoxicating.

He ended up coming back to my place that night. He had no where else to go.

After I helped him into a spare bed, he rolled onto his side, let out a long sigh, and fell fast asleep. Considering the evening’s events, I figured he wouldn’t wake until noon. Wrong. He was up early the next morning as if the day was made for him. He was running around the kitchen getting ready for breakfast, chattering and smiling the whole time. I’d never seen such positive energy, especially for guy who had just been kicked out by his family.

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What’s Public Testimony Worth?

A few things have changed in politics since the days of the Roman Senate and Assemblies. Assassinations of one’s opponents are generally rare. And the chance that a great orator can move an assembled body to vote in a particular way, as Cicero could, is next to nil. But that’s about it. The same motivations, the same drama, the same hubris are alive and well.

Cicero in the Roman Senate accusing Catiline of conspiracy, October 21, 63 BC. Painting by Cesare Maccari, 1889.

If the California Legislature, the California Coastal Commission, the San Diego Board of Supervisors, and the San Diego County Planning Commission have taught me anything, it’s this – commissioners, politicians, and board members typically endure, rather than embrace, public testimony. And sometimes, with obvious contempt or boredom, they disappear into a back corridor during the process. After being mostly consumed by her phone, former San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar walked away while citizens were offering testimony against a proposed development during a June 26, 2019, board meeting – a development Gaspar and the board later voted to approve.

Such behavior reveals a fatal flaw in our republic – public representatives often have their minds made up prior to public hearings. Like environmental impact reports (EIRs) that have become treatises of Orwellian doublespeak in order to mask the harm projects will cause, public testimony is just another constraint on power that politicians, developers, and public agencies have learned to hobble in pursuit of self-interest.

This realization dawned on me after I naively thought that if I presented the science to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors after the 2003 Cedar Fire, the board would incorporate that science into policy. Not only did that not happen, but the board approved policy that was contrary to the science. Our testimony accomplished one thing, however. It helped the California Chaparral Institute establish legal standing to challenge the policy in court. We did, and won, saving 300 square miles of habitat the county intended to clear. The entire adventure was serialized by the Independent Voter Network.

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