WENOCA chapter endorsements are an environmental disgrace

Bill Branyon
Bill Branyon


On election day for the May 17 primaries, I visited three voting sites and, time and again, saw people asking the volunteers who were handing out campaign literature whom to vote for. Someone would then leap forward and excitedly announce, “Here are the Sierra Club’s endorsements.” And the inquiring voters typically said something like this: “Thanks. I respect the organization and will follow their recommendations.” I imagine this scenario would have been repeated countless times at the various Buncombe County voting sites.

In a subsequent newsletter, Ken Brame, the club’s local issues/political chair, wrote that the organization’s volunteers had “worked 259 three-hour shifts during early voting and election day.”

That should be a good thing. I’ve occasionally (and proudly) donated to the organization, believing it was working to protect the environment. But it’s become increasingly apparent to me that the lion’s share of the local Sierra Club chapter’s endorsements seem to go to incumbents, many of whom have been responsible for the most environmentally ravaging decisions I’ve seen in my 30 years of reporting on such issues. That makes the club one of Buncombe County’s most destructive environmental parasites — and makes those who follow its endorsements the victims of a horrible hoax.

As former City Council member Brian Haynes charged in a May 15 letter to Mountain Xpress, the group’s endorsements “typically preclude unaffiliated and grassroots candidates, who often more closely align with the Sierra Club mission statement,” choosing to “throw their support to the party favorites instead.”

Haynes stopped short of a blanket condemnation, noting, “I am not suggesting that none of the endorsed candidates are worthy of a Sierra Club endorsement.” I, however, would go further, maintaining that almost all of those candidates are unworthy — and many seem to be in the hip pocket of developers.

A proven quack record

Then came Brame’s Cheshire Cat reply to Haynes’ letter: “The Sierra Club does place a high value on supporting candidates with a proven track record of accomplishments and a voting and leadership record that shows their commitment to protecting our environment.”

A closer look at the current City Council’s “proven track record,” however, shows 25 new hotels approved between 2010 and 2019, and in many cases, building those blandly rectangular structures had substantial environmental impacts.

But that’s not even mentioning these other atrocities:

  • The relentless infill construction that’s devouring the few remaining green spaces in Asheville neighborhoods.
  • The rampaging sprawl of gigantic new housing developments in many corners of the county, which that infill construction was supposed to prevent.
  • The incredible amount of environmental devastation involved in the widening of Interstate 26.
  • The obliteration of extensive forest and animal habitat on the Pratt & Whitney plant site, where the company plans to build (among other things) parts for military weapons.
  • The obvious plans to attract more such facilities, as evidenced by the vast infrastructure being built for the P&W plant. Project cheerleader Jack Cecil, the CEO of Biltmore Farms, was quoted as saying he hopes the site will “become a lighthouse location … for the aerospace industry and for our region.”

Those are only a few of the many horrific examples of our local leaders’ recent track record on protecting the environment.

And given the Sierra Club’s own egregious record, it’s now become obvious that to vote for most of their endorsements is to support the exact opposite of the stated intent. So if, in November, you want to vote for candidates who truly will protect our precious, beautiful environment, just seek out those independents or Democrats who are not endorsed by the club and cast your vote for them.

Of course, it’s still true that a vote for a Republican is even worse than a vote for most Sierra Club picks. After all, most Republicans support Donald Trump and thus would be OK with, if not elated by, the overthrow of our democracy.

Luckily there are still some good, environmentally inspired candidates out there, but few of them manage to win the club’s seal of approval. So I urge all voters to undertake the due diligence that will enable them to see through the environmentally destructive charade for which the Sierra Club is providing political cover.

October surprise

To be clear, I don’t believe the club’s endorsement of my opponent for a seat on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners necessarily cost me the election, so this opinion piece isn’t merely sour grapes. Environmental issues aside, incumbent Al Whitesides has many good qualities, which are part of the reason I will vote for him in November. The other reason is that his opponent, Anthony Penland, is a Republican.

I was also heartened to see Whitesides and his fellow commissioners approve — just a couple of weeks before the primary— a referendum on issuing $30 million worth of bonds to fund land preservation efforts and greenway development. Interesting timing, to be sure, but hey, whatever it takes.

If said referendum had also asked county residents how much more development they want to see, however, our environmentally catastrophic juggernaut might have been halted or at least slowed. But that is obviously not the actual goal of most our current city and county leaders.

It’s hard to believe, but their principal plan appears to be to carve up Buncombe County like a gigantic, generic pie and sell it to the highest bidder — with minimal regard for the beauty and grace lost, minimal regard for the trees and green space and animal habitat lost, and minimal regard for climate change or any other genuine environmental concern.

Thus, without such a comprehensive referendum — and as long as the Sierra Club maintains its reputation and fields such an impressive ground game on Election Day — any effort to truly protect our local environment will almost certainly be doomed.

Now, can someone find out how our once-sacred local Sierra Club chapter became a front for reckless out-of-town developers and the bane of what’s left of our environment? And since Brame’s iteration of the club’s endorsement criteria is flagrantly false, what factors does the club consider in deciding which candidates to support? Is its goal to meekly submit to any level of developmental atrocity and merely plant flowers around the results?

Come on, Sierra Club: Stick your neck out just a bit. Perhaps the incumbents you endorse have a better chance of winning, but if you chose to endorse legitimately environmental advocates rather than developer doppelgängers, wouldn’t those upstarts have a better chance, too? Isn’t our magnificent landscape worth the risk?

And in the meantime, I implore all those who recognize the Sierra Club’s apostasy to deluge the media with reminders in advance of the November election. It’s high time we turned the political tables on that organization’s outrageous endorsements and created our own October surprise.

Longtime environmental activist/journalist/author Bill Branyon was recently defeated in his bid for a seat on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, losing in the primary 8,396 to 3,366 votes. He is co-author of the new book Advanced Romance: Changing 16 Romantic Rules That Are No Longer True.


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17 thoughts on “WENOCA chapter endorsements are an environmental disgrace

  1. Robert

    It does seem that Sierra Club has been misleading. It’s an absolute certainty that not all candidates for Asheville City Council were interviewed prior to the Sierra Club endorsements. This to me seems to be a major flaw (and quite reckless for our future). In a country and state and county where citizens (including many representatives of the Sierra Club) are constantly asking for greater transparency from government, I believe that groups that greatly influence the outcome of elections should also be more transparent in their procedures and rationale. Wouldn’t we all (including the Sierra Club) be better served in the long run if the Sierra Club would agree to wait until after the filing date for elections before publicly endorsing? How about if they: 1) promise to interview all candidates; 2) agree not to make endorsements until they’ve properly vetted our leaders; and 3) publish answers to their questionnaires. This seems like a no-brainer as it’s quite possible that a really great environmentally minded leader might throw his/her/their hat into the ring at the last minute. If that person (an environmentally minded cyclist who fights to save trees, for instance) more closely adheres to Sierra Club beliefs, would the Sierra Club want their wagon hitched to an incumbent who’s spent a decade destroying forests and building hotels?

  2. SpareChange

    “Destructive environmental parasites”
    “Horrible hoax”
    “Relentless infill”
    “Rampaging sprawl”
    “Environmental devastation”
    “Obliteration of extensive forest and animal habitat”
    “Horrific” (again)
    “Environmentally catastrophic juggernaut”
    “Reckless out-of-town developers”

    If Mr. Branyon chooses to run for, ‘Commissioner of Hyperbolic Rhetoric,’ he’ll be a shoe-in. Unfortunately, what might otherwise be a worthwhile argument regarding the Sierra Club’s endorsements, gets lost in Mr. Branyon’s overwrought descriptions of “good v. evil.” Serious political discussion of public policy requires thoughtfulness, political and intellectual honesty, and nuance. Mr. Branyon’s glibness does little to advance such discussion.

      • MV

        Grant, what are you trying to say? Also, since you were a candidate, I wonder: did the Sierra Club interview you? I know they didn’t endorse you, but did they at least interview you? Would be helpful to know, as would it be wonderful to know that they took the time to vet all candidates…thanks!

        • Grant Millin

          I meant that Bill tying SC to poor environmental protections with the candidates they pick isn’t necessarily transformative insight. But SC is a huge 501c4 and they have influence here.

          Yes, I did a WENOCA questionnaire. WENOCA doesn’t interview. Among other things if I ran again having a good approach to engagement is important. But that’s just one aspect of what I would need.

          The real competition arena in Asheville Politics as to COA at least needs to be about who helps manage all our challenges, solutions, and outcomes. Because now the current and incoming COA leadership (obviously the only change is Maggie Ullman Berthiaume) gets to demonstrate why they got this. It’s really disturbing watching some of the consequences unfold.

          Also, please address me with your real first and last name in the future. Usually I just ignore avatars.

  3. Voirdire

    The Sierra Club is a geriatric organization that lost its way many years ago…. just look at their membership base….. older and then some. Nice folks…. just a bit out of it at this point…. and they certainly have no business endorsing candidates basically at this point. sigh.

    • SpareChange

      “…just look at their membership base….. older and then some.”

      Really? Mr. Branyon’s bio states that he is 67. Curious at what age people become, “just a bit out of it,” and therefore no longer have any “business endorsing (or being?) candidates?” Didn’t realize that citizenship and political activism had a sunset clause.

      • Voirdire

        well, unfortunately, it’s pretty obvious that a lot of older folk’s brains don’t work as well as they once did. Not all of them of course, thankfully… but a significant percentage are certainly affected. It’s just the way it is. It’s called, well, reality. I stand by my earlier comments… and then some ;)

          • Voirdire

            no, actually it’s a reference to you and yours….. the demented Trumpers, lol. What are we going to do with all of you? Big big problem.

    • Mark Threlkeld

      “No business endorsing candidates .” So that’s your vote against freedom of speech I guess.

  4. Peter Robbins

    Unlike Bill, the Sierra Club does not consider infill construction, when properly done, to be an “atrocity.” It is generally regarded as a sound step towards environmental and economic sustainability. https://www.sierraclub.org/smart-growth-urban-infill. No surprise, then, that Bill did not win the Sierra Club’s endorsement.

    • Peter Robbins

      Here’s a helpful graphic comparing infill construction to other policy options available to local governments for fighting climate change: https://twitter.com/loridroste/status/1372695076883685376/photo/1. Not sure how anyone can call himself an environmentalist and remain knee-jerk opposed. Less preachin’ and more thinkin’ might be appropriate here, especially if Bill is going to use that terrific photo of himself.

  5. WNC

    Not a fan of Trump, just keep throwing knuckle balls even a blind pitcher will eventually throw one across the plate.

  6. Mike

    The Sierra Club is a traditional environmental organization. For decades, their (and other groups) approach (that I support, mostly) of working within the system to find ways to partner with stakeholders, follow traditional legislative and judicial paths to change, etc. has spawned controversy within the environmental movement. Splinter groups such as Earth First! that take a more hardline, confrontational approach were specifically founded because they did not agree with the slower pace, sometimes compromising, more collaborative approach to environmental activism. It seems that the letter writer may be echoing this divergent history and may want to seek support from groups that would support his platform and see if that would be welcomed by the local community.

  7. Don Yelton

    Love reading comments. So Bill us old folks are brain dead?? Don’t think so and you comment on Infle and building in all the hole and Hillary just destroyed the water absorption in those valleys. So these young whipper snappers are so intelligent they over look the most essential facts Bill let’s talk further (if you can stand a democrat turned Republican). I can tell you for certain the answers have no relation to party.

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