Sierra Club

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
The Sierra Club, with over 700,000 members nationwide, is the oldest grassroots environmental organization in the United States. It sees its purpose as preservation, protection, and enhancement of the natural environment. As a 501(c)(4), the organization's strength is its ability and effectiveness in lobbying for environmental causes.



The Sierra Club is the oldest grassroots environmental organization in the United States.  The organization was founded in 1872 by a San Francisco group of professors, businessmen, and other professionals led by John Muir (Cohen 1985, 10).  It serves to protect land primarily in the United States, but is concerned with the world’s environment as well.  Its name comes from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, of which Yosemite National Park is a part, and is not far from San Francisco. 

Today the Sierra Club has over 700,000 members nationwide.  Its mission is:  “To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources; to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives” (Sierra Club).  Basically, the Sierra Club sees its purpose as preservation, protection, and enhancement of the natural environment (ibid).  The organization continues to house its headquarters in San Francisco, with a legislative office in Washington, D.C, and chapters across the United States.  The Sierra Club lobbies on behalf of the environment at the national and local levels while continuing to promote outdoor enjoyment.


Historic Roots

Although the organization was founded in May of 1872, it has its roots in earlier periods.  Common lands and natural preserves were prevalent among the Old World rich in the 17th century and prior (Haines 1974).  Continuing in this tradition, a major impetus for the creation of the Sierra Club was the preservation of land for conservation, such as with Yosemite as a public trust in 1864 and Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872.  The club also has its origins in Muir’s life—his time spent as a child on a Wisconsin farm, his travels from the Canadian border to Florida, and, of course, his time spent in the wildernesses of California (Fox 1985, 43-53).  He appreciated the differing flora and fauna in all the areas he traveled (ibid, 51), a definite basis for his later interest in conservation.

John Muir and the Sierra Club came about because of an interest at that time.  As mentioned above, the preservation of lands for the national trust was an important concept in the last half of the 19th century.  The Sierra Club’s first conservation campaign, in 1892, regarded an effort to defeat a proposed reduction of Yosemite National Park’s boundaries (Sierra Club).  Continuing in its efforts, the club works with other groups in lobbying for Mr. Rainier National Park, Glacier National Park, and Devil’s Postpile National Monument (ibid).  Not all of its efforts resulted in success.  In the early 20th century San Francisco was growing and intelligent political leaders saw the need for additional water for the city’s continued growth.  The proposed site of the city’s reservoir was in the Hetch Hetchy Valley of California, which neighbors the Yosemite Valley.   Muir and the Sierra Club opposed the damming of the Valley in 1907, but Congress flooded the valley in 1913 (ibid). 

Throughout the 20th century the Sierra Club has continued to advocate for the preservation and continuance of natural lands.  The first official chapter was started in 1911 in southern California, while in 1916 the Club supported the bill that created the National Park Service (ibid).  The organization continued its conservation efforts by contributing money to preserve lands in Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks (ibid).  By the 1950s many of the club’s efforts involved fighting efforts to dam rivers, including the city of Los Angeles’s efforts to build dams in Kings Canyon National Park in 1952 and in 1951 the federal government’s interest in damming Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah (ibid).  By the 1960s the Sierra Club had chapters on both coasts and was fighting to get Congress to pass the Wilderness Act, which it did in 1964 (ibid).  Much of what it has done in the time since relates to its importance today.



Along with the National Audubon Society, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and other similar organizations created in the late 19th century, the Sierra Club was among the first generation of “associations” dedicated to experiencing the natural world.  Because of its historical success and with its dual focus on experiencing nature and advocacy on behalf of that nature, the Sierra Club is considered one of the most influential environmental groups in the U.S.  It has been labeled as “perhaps the most powerful environmental lobby;” it has “brand-name recognition” (Steers 2004; Pender 2002).  The Club is considered to be a moderate organization, especially as compared to extreme environmental groups like Earth First! and Greenpeace (Activist Cash).  The Sierra Club works with opposing groups—such as loggers and oil companies— to work for a common solution and compromise on environmental solutions. For many regular Americans the Sierra Club and the environmental movement are synonymous.

One of the reasons many Americans know of the Sierra Club is because of their historic ties to national parks, wilderness areas, and other federally mandated preserves.  They have historically supported, and continue to support, the enhancement and establishment of national parks.   The Sierra Club not only supports legislation on behalf of almost all land conservation, but also its volunteers help in numerous ways by spending countless hours doing trail maintenance, relocating exotic plants, and performing other services.  Numerous lands like Kings Canyon National Park, North Cascades National Park, and the San Rafael wilderness area in California can trace their origins to Sierra Club campaigns for their establishment (Sierra Club).  Today the Sierra Club continues to play an important role in lobbying government to establish natural preserves by working with other environmental groups as a team.  Recently it has succeeded in curtailing Dade County’s efforts to build an airport near Everglades and Biscayne Bay National Parks and lobbying on behalf of the Senate’s rejection of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Today, the overall importance of the Sierra Club lies in its successful leadership role among environmental groups.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

In contrast to most other well-known philanthropic organizations, the Sierra Club is organized as a 501(c)(4) in the Internal Revenue Service.  This designation means that although the organization is tax-exempt and a nonprofit, the monies people donate to it are not tax-deductible, as would be the case if it were a 501(c)(3).  Although both (c)(3)s and (c)(4)s are “social welfare” organizations, (c)(4)s have the freedom to spend more of their monies on lobbying (Hurwit 2004).  These organizations are almost always exempt from state income and franchise taxes.  However, “most states do not give sales tax exemptions to 501(c)(4)s nor are postal rate reductions as easy to obtain” (ibid). 

Because of its IRS status, the Sierra Club is able to participate more fully in the electoral process than other environmental organizations, most of which are 501(c)(3)s.  This ability to lobby is a strength, but the lack of tax-deduction is a weakness.  One of the Sierra Club’s greatest ties to the philanthropic sector, therefore, is its ability to work with other environmental nonprofits (Sierra Club), encouraging the sharing of ideas and a cohesiveness among these organizations.  For example, the Sierra Club could work with the Nature Conservancy, a 501(c)(3) which spends 91% of donations on buying land for preservation (The Nature Conservancy), to help save a particular piece of land.  The Nature Conservancy could then ask the Sierra Club in return to lobby on behalf of an environmental cause that is important to its members.  In general, the overall connection of the Sierra Club to philanthropy is its status as a 501(c)(4), its ability therein to affect governmental change through its lobbying, and its success at working with different environmental groups.

Key Related Ideas

  • Jordan defines Biological Conservation as being “a philosophy of managing the environment in a manner that does not despoil, exhaust or extinguish" (1995).
  • Environmentalism is activism directed toward improving our natural surroundings.  This activism generally takes the form of public education, advocacy, and legislation, and is often directed to the curtailment and prevention of pollution.
  • National Parks are reserves of land, usually owned by national governments, and are protected from most human development and pollution.  Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, was the first such park in the world.
  • The National Park Service (NPS) administers the 58 national parks in the U.S, along with 380 national monuments, historic sites, and recreation areas.  It is an agency inside the Department of Interior, within the Executive Branch of the U.S. government.  
  • Wilderness is an unsettled, uncultivated region left in its natural condition.  It is land that has not been significantly modified by direct or indirect human contact.  In the U.S. the reduction of wilderness lands led to the creation of federally created and managed wilderness areas.  This land is managed to be wild by highly restricting human modifications to it.


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is one of America’s most famous photographers and conservationists.  His love for photography and the land started in Yosemite National Park, but he is known for his many pictures of the American West in general.  He served as a Director of the Sierra Club, but his greatest effect on the on the conservation movement in general is through his photographs, which inspired people to protect sites many had never seen.
  • David Brower (1912-2000) was the first Executive Director of the Sierra Club, serving from 1952 to 1969, and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 3 times.  He created numerous other nonprofits, including the Sierra Club Foundation.  He is famous in environmental circles for leading the fight against damming in Dinosaur National Monument and the Grand Canyon, and the eventual compromise of damming Glen Canyon, a.k.a. Lake Powell.
  • John Muir (1838-1914) founded and was the first president of the Sierra Club.  The Scot who spent most of his life in California is also greatly associated with Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada region of California in general.  He had over 300 articles and 10 books published on conservationism, many of them in print today (“John Muir”).  Basically, for many people, John Muir cannot be disassociated from the environmental movement in general and the Sierra Club in specific.
  • Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was the 26th President of the United States and known for being the first “Conservation President.”  Muir introduced Roosevelt to Yosemite in 1903 and further instilled a conservation ethic in the president.  As president, Roosevelt established the US Forest Service, created 5 national parks, and signed the 1906 Antiquities Act, under which he proclaimed 18 national monuments.


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Earth First! is an environmentalist group known for advocating direct action in preventing logging, dam building, and other development.
  • Nature Conservancy works with communities, businesses, and individuals to protect lands.  Their mission is to “preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive.”  Since 1951 they have succeeded in protecting 117 million acres around the world.
  • Sierra Club du/of Canada (SCC) is the equivalent organization in Canada.  It developed from Canadian chapters of the U.S. Sierra Club and incorporated in 1992.  The “SCC has developed major national campaigns with four program areas: health and environment, protecting biodiversity, atmosphere and energy, and supporting a transition to sustainable economy.”
  • The Sierra Club Foundation is the 501(c)(3) counterpart to the 501(c)(4) Sierra Club.  It was established in 1960 in order to “provide financial support to the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations for tax deductible work.”  Basically, any monies that are targeted to philanthropic and volunteer projects are given to the Foundation, whereas monies used for advocacy are donated to the Club. 
  • Sierra Student Coalition is the “student-run arm of the Sierra Club,” consisting of high school and college students.  The organization has over 250 affiliates and claims to be the largest student-led environmental organization in the U.S.


Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • Activist Cash.  Earth First! Journal. .
  • Cohen, Michael P.  The History of the Sierra Club 1892-1970.  San Francisco:  Sierra Club Books, 1988.  ISBN:  0871567326.
  • Fox, Stephen.  The American Conservation Movement:  John Muir and His Legacy.  Madison, WI:  U of Wisconsin Press, 1985.  ISBN:  0299106349.
  • Haines, Aubrey L.  Yellowstone National Park:  Its Exploration and Establishment.  Washington, DC:  National Park Service, 1974.  Online book.
  • Hurwit, Jeffrey.  “A Primer on Lobbying & 501(c)(4).”  Best Practices, On Philanthropy 8/20/04,
  • Jordan, Carl F.  Conservation:  Replacing Quantity with Quality as a Goal for Global Management.  New York:  Wiley, 1995.  ISBN:  0471595152.
  • The Nature Conservancy.  The Nature Conservancy.
  • National Park Service.   Yosemite National Park.
  • Pender, Kathleen.  “Sierra Club to sponsor two green mutual funds.”  The San Francisco Chronicle, 22 December 2002:  n.p.  In Lexis-Nexis Academic [database online].  Accessed 2 November 2004.  Available from Indiana University Libraries. 
  • Sierra Club.  “John Muir:  A Brief Biography.”  John Muir Exhibit.
  • Sierra Club.  The Sierra Club.
  • Steers, Stuart.  “It’s Not Easy Being Green—Look who’s mad at Dick Lamm now!”  Denver Westword, 18 March 2004:  n.p.  In Lexis-Nexis Academic [database online].  Available from Indiana University Libraries.
  • Turner, Tom.  Sierra Club:  100 Years of Protecting Nature.  New York:  Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1991.  ISBN:  0810938200.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.