Studies in American Political Development

Research Article

From Conservation to Environment: The Sierra Club and the Organizational Politics of Change

McGee Younga1

a1 Marquette University


In the 1950s, the Sierra Club emerged as a leader of the nascent environmental movement. In challenging a proposal to build two dams within the boundaries of Dinosaur National Monument, the Club found its voice as a public advocate for the preservation of wilderness and in the process introduced a new type of politics to old conflicts over conservation. Born out of the Dinosaur dam conflict was a new environmentalism characterized by confrontation with state authorities and emotion-laden appeals to the public for political support. The Sierra Club's success in pioneering these strategies launched it to the forefront of the new movement, elevated its executive director David Brower to icon status among environmentalists, and affirmed the philosophy of Aldo Leopold as the moral compass of the movement. In this essay, I argue that interest group entrepreneurs ought to be considered alongside institutional actors as agents of change within processes of political development. As the case of the Sierra Club demonstrates, the internal organizational politics of a group can be just as important in establishing a trajectory of political development as are processes of policy feedback.


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Policy History Conference, Charlottesville, Virginia, June 1–4, 2006. The author would like to thank Kristi Andersen, Daniel Carpenter, Elisabeth Clemens, David Hart, Scott James, Rogan Kersh, Cathie Jo Martin, Lanethea Mathews-Gardner, Suzanne Mettler, Sid Milkis, Karen Orren, Elizabeth Sanders, Duane Swank, and two anonymous reviewers.