As the new president of the Sierra Club—and the first Latino to helm the 128-year-old environmental nonprofit—Ramón Cruz, SIS/BA ’98, guides a coalition of nearly 4 million members and supporters with the humility and perspective of a leader who has walked most paths along the nature preserve.
The international studies major has the guts of an activist, having been arrested in 2000 for protesting navy test bombing on Vieques Island in his native Puerto Rico; the pragmatism of a Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board official; and the willingness to get his hands dirty, as his first assignment at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in 2002 focused on solid waste.
Cruz assumed the presidency at the Sierra Club—which has secured protection for 439 parks and monuments and put more than 280 coal plants on the path to replacement with clean energy—amid the pandemic and just as America’s reckoning over racial injustice began to crest, underscoring his belief that environmentalism is a fight not just for spaces, but the people who occupy them.
“If you have a notion of a location that can be sacrificed, then the people from those locations become disposable,” he says. “You cannot have a notion of disposable people unless you have an ideology based on supremacy and racism.”
Get into the weeds with Cruz’s 10 favorite wild places:
Great Barrier Reef, Australia: The world’s largest coral reef system at 344,000 square kilometers, this natural wonder represents the urgency of protecting against advancing climate change. The fragile ecosystems in these 3,000 reefs are deteriorating at a speed that is difficult to ignore.
El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico: The only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest Service, and one of its smallest gems at only 29,000 acres, El Yunque is important to my family, as my father grew up five minutes away. The Taíno believed it was where the gods lived.
Jardines de la Reina, Cuba: A scuba diver’s paradise, this archipelago became a marine reserve in 1996. Since then, fish numbers have increased more than 30 percent. At EDF, we tried to bring to other places the legal framework of marine protected areas pioneered by the Cubans.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska: Under constant threat of drilling efforts, the Gwich’in people call these vast plains “the sacred place where life begins.” Nearly 200,000 porcupine caribou travel more than 2,000 kilometers through it every year to calve.
Iguazu Falls, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay: One of the first movies I remember is The Mission, set in this area. Few places on Earth feel more alive: 275 waterfalls drop 3.5 million gallons of water every second, and 400 bird species make constant sounds.
Yosemite National Park, California: These 1,200 square miles are emblematic of the Sierra Club, which stopped a proposal to reduce Yosemite’s boundaries in one of its first campaigns in 1892. Our Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center is nine miles from the iconic Tunnel View of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall.
Patagonia, Argentina and Chile: This region boasts peaks like Torres del Paine and Fitz Roy, plains that stretch to the sky, and stunning glaciers. I once slept near Perito Moreno and will never forget the thunder-like sound every few minutes as ice broke off and fell to the water below.
Vieques, Puerto Rico: Some of the most beautiful beaches in Puerto Rico are closed to the public. Used for naval bombing and amphibious disembarkation practices until 2003, the eastern part of the island remains polluted. On nearby Culebra, which was abandoned by the navy in 1971, unexploded ordnances still emerge near picturesque Flamenco Beach.
South Greenland: Greenland is the world’s least densely populated country, and you can feel it walking among the glaciers and mountains outside of Qaqortoq. When I was a 19-year-old exchange student, my group hiked for days without seeing civilization.
Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya: The site of the annual great migration of more than 2 million wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles, this 580-square-mile reserve is at high risk as desertification threatens its populations of elephants, leopards, lions, and close to 90 other species of mammals.