How the Sierra Club Works

By: Sarah Dowdey  | 
Majestic mountain peak in panoramic outdoors.
Yosemite inspired the Sierra Club\'s founder to form the conservation organization.
Dean Pennala/
Key Takeaways
  • The Sierra Club is one of the oldest and largest environmental organizations in the United States, advocating for conservation and environmental protection since 1892.
  • It engages in various initiatives, including promoting renewable energy, preserving wilderness areas and combating climate change.
  • The Sierra Club continues to play a significant role in shaping environmental policies and fostering public awareness of conservation issues.

Every year, about three and a half million visitors travel to Yosemite National Park to marvel at Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point, Hetch Hetchy Valley and the grove of giant sequoias at High Sierra. Most are struck by the beauty of well-preserved wilderness -- more than a thousand miles of forest and meadow, stunning rock formations and diverse wildlife. In the late 19th century, the Sierra Club formed to defend such natural monuments from encroachment and destruction. Today, the organization members refer to as "the club" is one of the premier conservation groups in the United States.

The Sierra Club lobbies for environmental legislation, protects state and federal wildlands and promotes eco-conscious tourism. Its efforts have helped create the National Park Service and Wilderness Act and saved natural monuments like Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Joshua Tree National Park from development. The Sierra Club also pursues broader environmental concerns like mitigating global warming and protecting the Clean Air and Water Acts.


Members join the Sierra Club to be a part of the nation's oldest and largest grassroots environmental group. The organization's 1.3 million supporters have networks of connections across state and local chapters and considerable lobbying power in Congress. Every $25 national membership provides automatic entry into a local Sierra Club chapter, an annual subscription to Sierra Magazine, discounts on club merchandise and opportunities for eco-travel. Voluntary officers and a board of directors govern the national organization.

But members also join the Sierra Club for its dashing combination of conservation and fun. Since adventurer John Muir founded the club in 1892, its members have maintained the belief that nature and wildlife should be both protected and enjoyed. Muir valued communal wilderness experiences, and to maintain this tradition members participate in club-sponsored expeditions around the world.

In this article, we'll learn why Muir started the Sierra Club and how the organization has changed in the past 100 years.


Sierra Club History

California chose John Muir to grace its state quarter in 2005.
U.S. Mint via Getty Images

The Sierra Club acts as an environmental advocate but also promotes adventure and shared wilderness experiences. The combination of advocacy and fun distinguishes the organization from environmental groups that focus solely on legislation or protest.

The Sierra Club's Scottish-born founder, John Muir, embodied the organization's dual principles of conservation and exploration. After losing an eye in a mechanical accident in Canada in the 1860s, Muir decided to explore the natural world. But when his plans to travel to South America went awry, Muir found himself in San Francisco at the doorstep of the Grand Central Valley of the Sierra. Shocked by the expanse and beauty of the Sierra, Muir took on odd jobs to maintain his rudimentary existence of solitary hikes and rambles.


Muir's scientific inclinations soon had him wondering how the deep valleys of the Sierra were formed. He suspected that the slow movement of glaciers carved away the mountains. After carefully measuring the movement of glaciers, Muir formed the theory of glaciation and sacrificed his near-hermetic existence to publish a scientific essay on his findings. The essay made Muir famous, and he pursued a successful career in naturalistic writing before withdrawing to farm fruit and raise a family.

The photographer Ansel Adams was a member of the Sierra Club. The Club used some of his work to promote conservation.
Ansel Adams/National Archive/Newsmakers/Getty Images

But in 1889, Robert Underwood Johnson, an editor, persuaded Muir to reenter the literary world and write about the threats of mining, logging and over-grazing in Yosemite Valley. The pair's two-pronged tactic of publishing articles and lobbying legislators and the U.S. president ended successfully. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison designated the Valley as a National Park. But Muir and Johnson knew that livestock, logging and mining interests would soon pressure the government to cut back the park's boundaries. The men resolved to form the Sierra Club, an organization of 182 activist citizens, in 1892.

The club's early members believed that people were more willing to fight for something they had actually seen. To establish a presence in Yosemite and encourage tourism, Sierra Club member Will Colby proposed the High Trip, an annual summer expedition to the High Sierra. The High Trips, and the published accounts of camp adventures, helped spread the fame of Yosemite and the Sierra Club.

By mid-century, the Sierra Club's Californian and Western focus had spread east. The club opened an office in Washington, D.C., in 1963. In the next section, we'll learn how the Sierra Club entered the modern environmental movement and find out about the club's conservation initiatives.


Sierra Club Conservation Initiatives

The Sierra Club encourages the use of alternative energy
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The 1971 creation of the Sierra Club's Legal Defense Fund propelled the organization into the modern environmental movement. The fund essentially established a firm of lawyers to litigate for the club's initiatives. Around the same time, the Sierra Club expanded its conservational mission to include national environmental issues.

Over the decades, the organization has fought cutbacks of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Superfund law; supported the closure of commercial nuclear reactors and helped create laws that regulate toxic chemicals and radioactive materials. Today, the Sierra Club pursues three primary conservation initiatives.


To combat the effects of global warming and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the Sierra Club advocates Smart Energy Solutions. It encourages utility companies and states to adopt renewable energy sources and clean up coal-fired power plants. Power companies often allow customers to add a small charge to their monthly energy bill in order to receive a certain percentage of power from green sources. The Sierra Club hopes the United States will run on at least 20 percent renewable energy by 2020 [source: Sierra Club]. The club also lobbies for stricter standards on new car emissions.

To promote its Safe and Healthy Communities initiative, the Sierra Club encourages stricter state and local legislation regarding air, water and chemicals. The organization helps develop solutions to sewage and storm water runoff and resists the EPA's consideration to reduce the scope of the Clean Water Act. The Sierra Club also helps identify communities that are at a high risk for toxic emissions.

The Sierra Club also continues its original conservation initiative: preserving America's Wild Legacy. The club encourages strict enforcement and generous funding for the Endangered Species Act and the full protection of already designated wildlands.

The Sierra Club, unlike many environmental organizations, makes a conscious effort to enjoy the wildlands it protects. In the next section, we'll find out how the Sierra Club's outings helped shape the organization.


Sierra Club Outings

Sierra Club Outings provide members the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors
©Photographer: Fred Stillings | Agency:

The Sierra Club successfully advocates for environmental legislation and effectively attracts the public's attention to ecological issues and solutions. But it is the club's spirit of conscientious exploration that has helped make the group so enduringly popular.

When Will Colby started the Sierra Club's annual High Trips in 1898, he believed that the excursions would create an interest in the natural world and foster a spirit of community among members [source: Sierra Club]. He kept the costs low for the mostly middle-class participants, many of whom were college students. Women also joined in even the earliest High Trips.


But by the late 1930s, the High Trips had grown too large and members requested smaller expeditions. Although the annual High Trip continued, the club began to offer burro trips, knapsack trips and more relaxed expeditions to base camps. The Sierra Club also started organizing international expeditions to places like Peru and the Himalayas to satisfy its factions of mountain-climbing members.

The Sierra Club now sponsors national and international outings that focus on backpacking, rafting, sailing, biking, canoeing, kayaking, snow sports and service. There are expeditions tailored to families, seniors and the disabled. Sierra Club chapters host local outings for day hikes, bicycling, bird-watching, peak scrambles and cross-country skiing.

The Sierra Club also provides the opportunity for low-income children from urban areas to explore the wilderness with its inner city outings program, first established in 1971.

To learn more about the Sierra Club, other environmental organizations and ways to help the environment, explore the links on the next page.

Interested in outdoor adventures? Read about ice climbing and other adventure sports, plus watch video from Discovery’s Fearless Planet.


Frequently Asked Questions

Does the Sierra Club offer opportunities for volunteer involvement in environmental conservation efforts?
Yes, the Sierra Club provides various opportunities for individuals to engage in volunteer activities, including local clean-up events, advocacy campaigns, and conservation projects aimed at protecting natural habitats.
How does the Sierra Club address environmental justice issues within its conservation efforts?
The Sierra Club works to address environmental justice concerns by advocating for policies that prioritize the needs and rights of marginalized communities disproportionately affected by environmental degradation and pollution, aiming to ensure equitable access to clean air, water, and natural resources for all.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
  • The Sierra Club

  • "Yosemite: History and Culture." National Park Service.
  • The Sierra Club.
  • "Sierra Club." Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  • "Sierra Club History: Origins and Early Outings." The Sierra Club.
  • Turner, Tom. "Sierra Club: 100 Years of Protecting Nature." Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York: 1991.
  • "Who was John Muir?" The Sierra Club.
  • "Yosemite." American Park Network.