05/15/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Passing the Ankus

For years, whenever someone would say that I "run" the Sierra Club, I'd carefully explain that I didn't -- I was merely the mahout. A mahout sits astride an elephant -- but he does not "run" it. Wielding a stick called an ankus, the mahout may nudge the elephant, guide it, and perhaps assist it with its desires -- but those desires remain the elephant's. Should a mahout forget that -- well, the elephant can simply dash him against a tree.

Apparently I remembered adequately my lessons about elephants. So for eighteen years I've had the privilege of serving as the Sierra Club's mahout. Today, I step aside for a new role, as Chairman, and Michael Brune, formerly the Executive Director of Rain Forest Action Network, becomes the Sierra Club's new Executive Director. The Club has a new mahout.

It's been a remarkable time. I took the ankus in hand a few weeks before Bill Clinton was elected. Perhaps the Club's finest hour in those early years was its response when Newt Gingrich blew into Washington, figured out that he could bring down Clinton's presidency by blocking everything, and changed American politics in ways from which it still hasn't recovered. But when Gingrich went after the environmental safety net with his "Contract with America," we waited for him to overreach and then ground his assault to a halt by leveraging his attempt to turn the Arctic Wildlife Refuge into an oil field into his first big defeat (the disastrous 1995 shutdown of the federal government).

More recently, it's been the Club's fantastic success at blocking new coal plants (and beginning to retire old ones), so that what Dick Cheney thought would be his biggest domestic legacy (an America owned by Big Carbon), is now on the defensive.

Or perhaps I should be proudest of our grassroots, out-of-the-box, one-off victories, such as exposing the lead in toxic toys, stopping logging within Giant Sequoia National Monument, bringing to light the tragic cover-up of the air pollution from the September 11 attacks, forcing FEMA to admit that its Katrina trailers were lethal, and preventing ASARCO from using the bankruptcy laws to escape its clean-up obligations in El Paso. Each of those successes found the Club's volunteer and staff leaders forced to do the government's job -- being the cop on the beat -- during the years that George Bush had shut down the rule of law. And then there's the delicious irony that, although the Bush administration threw its entire force into the battle, in eight years of trying to ravage the remaining roadless wild areas in our National Forests, Bush built less than one mile of new road  per year!

But today I pass the ankus to Michael, eager to continue my service as part of his team. We're lucky to have him. He's lucky to get to lead us.

The ankus features prominently in two Rudyard Kipling stories, which gave me my grounding in the mahout's craft. The ankus that an executive director holds is, metaphorically, a plain and simple one -- wood and iron, I imagine. It's nothing like the "King's Ankus," the bejeweled ivory and steel treasure that brings death to its owner, from the envy and greed it incites, in Kipling's story of that name. Mahouting the Sierra Club is instead very much like the vocation of young Toomai, who had faith that large and cumbersome as they might seem, elephants could dance -- and was led as a result of his faith to see the dance that others doubted as a myth. Being the Club's mahout is to participate in a mystery and a wonder.

And cumbersome though the Sierra Club might seem to outsiders, Newt Gingrich, and Dick Cheney, and Peabody Coal, and Exxon-Mobil, all found to their sorrow that this elephant can dance quite wonderfully -- and that you don't want to get in its way when it does.

Because, at heart, an elephant (even one that appears to be a hard-working, domesticated creature) is, like the Sierra Club, part of the wildness that Kipling celebrated with these lines from "Toomai of the Elephants:"

I will go out until the day, until the morning break-

  Out to the wind's untainted kiss, the water's clean caress;

I will forget my ankle-ring and snap my picket stake.

  I will revisit my lost loves, and playmates masterless!