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November 18, 2011

Thanks, Carl

Almost exactly two years ago, I was in the running to succeed Carl Pope as the Sierra Club's executive director but had not yet been offered the job. At one stage in the hiring process, I went through a gantlet of nearly a full day of interviews with Sierra Club Board members and senior staff. My interview with Carl that day was unlike any other: He didn't ask a single question.

That's not to say that Carl did all the talking. Rather, he wanted to be helpful. He said that filling the executive director position was the Board's job, but that he wanted to provide a little clarity into what I might be getting into. If one style of leadership is to ask questions, Carl was showing, to me, a more impressive style of helping someone to find their way.

A few months later, on my first day in the new job, I wrote in my first blog post here about how excited I was to be following in the footsteps of conservation giants like John Muir and David Brower. Like most people starting a big new job, I wasn't sure what to expect, but it's been helpful to have my predecessor sitting down the hall.

Leadership transitions can be bumpy but, with Carl's help, I was able to quickly get a handle on what an incredible organization the Sierra Club really is. Carl, who had served longer than any previous executive director, knew the Club inside out -- from its volunteer-based roots (no other organization of this size and influence is run by an elected board of volunteers) to its national and international work on environmental policy.

You could say we hit the ground running and haven't stopped since. The BP oil disaster, the most environmentally hostile House of Representatives in history, the explosion of under-regulated natural gas drilling -- it's been an eventful period for the environmental movement. But the Sierra Club has always had one powerful force that no other organization could match: our grassroots volunteers and supporters. And during the last year, we've seen that base become energized around the issues of climate, clean energy, and public health. Our Beyond Coal campaign, thanks to the work of thousands of on-the-ground activists across the country, has done more to address carbon pollution and public health than any other single initiative. And, just last week, our grassroots coalition to stop tar sands oil development achieved a huge victory by convincing the Obama administration to back off on approving the Keystone XL pipeline.

At the same time, we've been working hard on the renewable energy solutions that will replace dirty fossil fuels in a clean energy economy. A pilot project to help homeowners get rooftop solar panels in California, for instance, was a big success, and we're organizing in communities to help scale up large-scale wind, solar, and geothermal energy. Long after some crazy pro-polluter bill floated in Congress has been forgotten, this is the work that will make a lasting difference to America's future.

Through all of this, Carl has been available for advice, counsel, and encouragement. Now, though, after nearly forty years with the Sierra Club, he has announced that he is stepping down from his position as chairman. Typical of Carl, he is not intending to take it easy. Instead, he plans to work even more intensively on an initiative that he himself pioneered: Fostering collaboration between environmentalists, organized labor, and business to revitalize America's manufacturing base. It's one of the most important parts of building our clean-energy economy, and it's a challenge worthy of a leader and thinker as extraordinary as Carl Pope.

Carl, I am sure, will bring all of his formidable intellect and passion to bear upon this new challenge he has set for himself.  As we approach this season of Thanksgiving, I'm truly grateful that he has helped ensure that we are stronger and more effective than ever before in our mission to protect the planet.

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