New Sapling amid Old-Growth Leaders Internet-Savvy Sierra Club President Heralds Next Generation in Environmental Leadership

Article excerpt

Adam Werbach is acutely aware that one vote can change the outcome of an election. He's also learned that it can change a life:his.

Mr. Werbach had planned to begin film school at Columbia University in New York City this month. Instead, the Los Angeles native is crisscrossing the country, working to unseat politicians that he and fellow environmentalists consider hostile to the environment. Werbach's odyssey began in May, after a sliver-thin one-vote victory made him the youngest person ever elected president of the San Francisco-based Sierra Club.

Faced with a dwindling membership, the Sierra Club's choice of Werbach is emblematic of a push by environmental groups to attract a younger constituency. It also puts the Sierra Club, the nation's largest and one of the most politically active environmental groups, at the vanguard of this shift in the United States conservation movement. Making Muir proud It was Werbach's political savvy, in fact, that helped him secure the president's post. "What impressed me more than anything was that long before the balloting took place among the board members, Adam knew he had the votes," explains David Brower, a legendary environmental activist and Sierra Club board member who has become Werbach's mentor. "The kind of confidence he exudes is infectious. I'm quite pleased with what he's trying to do and if {Sierra Club founder} John Muir were alive today, I'm sure he would be, too." Brower and others view Werbach's triumph as a chance to galvanize the club's 600,000 members. Sierra Club newsletters are heralding Werbach's debut: "He's Young, He's Hip, He's Your President." Others, Werbach among them, see it as an opportunity to dispel the image of twentysomethings as a generation uninterested in social and political causes. "Fundamentally, my generation has grown up living in a degenerated world, but I believe our involvement in the environmental movement provides the best example of where young people have pulled together to try and stake a common future," says Werbach, whose lanky frame, toothy grin, and straight bangs give him an uncanny resemblance to actor Robbie Benson, a comparison that makes him squirm. Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director, says Werbach is inspiring because he hasn't been around long enough to become jaded by the gladiator mentality of Washington politics. Nonetheless, the Sierra Club will be sending its new titular leader directly into battle during his one-year term. The organization is targeting no less than 60 House and Senate races deemed critical to changing the composition of the Republican-controlled 104th Congress. This is the most environmentally antagonistic group of lawmakers in the nation's history, says Werbach, who graduated last year with a double major in political science and media culture from Brown University in Providence, R.I. "For those who thought they could gut laws protecting our air, water, and forests," he says, "we intend to make it hurt for them on election day." The club's activists also hope that Werbach will reenergize an organization whose membership is approaching an average age of 50. But Mr. Pope bridles at media reports that Werbach's appointment to the unpaid position has created tensions within the leadership. …