BY 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.
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.