Can Greenpeace USA Get Its Mojo Back?


Picture this: Little rubber Zodiacs sloshing up against giant ships dumping nuclear waste. Neoprene-clad environmentalists sneaking in to plug toxic waste discharge pipes. People putting their bodies between baby seals and hunter clubbers on northern ice floes. The Rainbow Warrior boat off to harass France's nuclear testing yet again -- until the government bombs the boat in retaliation.

These are fond memories of Greenpeace's subversiveness. While the venerable environmental organization remains a presence in many countries worldwide, Greenpeace USA misplaced its joie d'vivre a decade ago and has been limping along on international support.

"We lost the pirate to the bureaucracy," said Scott Paul, Greenpeace USA campaign spokesperson.

The last flamboyant US action dates back to 1989 when Greenpeace used its big toys to detour Trident II nuclear missile testing off Florida. Since then, Greenpeace has been a part of actions across the US, but has settled more comfortably into developing reports and lobbying in Washington DC.

This year, the Bush administration's attempt to turn publicly owned national forest tracks -- a land mass the size of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming combined -- into lumber and fuel for electricity is the arena where Greenpeace plans to get back into the hearts and guts of environmentalists and back on the front pages.

"Forest issues are heating up. This is bigger than the Watt years," said Paul, referring to the rabidly anti-environment former Secretary of Interior, James Watt, during the 1980s.

Greenpeace is bringing its international financing, its technological toys and "dinosaur" (as in elder wisdom) organizing skills to the front of forest issues in the US this summer. Expect mass arrests with celebrities along in 'cuffs. Expect forest occupations -- tree sitters and other mayhem -- to slow, if not stop, logging.

Even if Greenpeace doesn't get its Mojo back from these actions, it appears certain that it will be responsible for a well-trained crop of life-long activists.

Learning the Ropes

In a recent week-long training camp deep in Montana's Bitterroot Forest, 20- and 30-somethings learned the ropes -- both figuratively and literally -- of forest activism. Climbing trees, wilderness survival, interaction with, and protection from, forest workers, and of course dealing with the media, were all on the agenda. The camp had Greenpeace doing the heavy economic lifting, as well as transporting its solar-panel truck to back up the kitchen and the stereo system, the crammed electronics van with the microwave antenna and infrared sensors to detect incoming rednecks with malevolent intent in the middle of the night, and the necessary latrines. A coalition of 120 grassroots groups under the umbrella of the Native Forest Protection Alliance cosponsored the training camp.

Electronic survelliance for errant rednecks is serious business at training camps like these. In this part of the country they practice a different kind of discrimination. Posted on storefronts and saloon doors are signs: "No Earth Firsters Allowed. This is logging country." (All environmentalists appear to be Earth First!ers to them.)

Also in Montana -- in the stuff you can't make up department -- is serious public debate over the National Bison Range. Native Americans are making a pitch to take over its management. Many there are questioning the capability to protect the remaining bison.

"I spent all my money on tree spikes and beer," sang camp ringleader Mike Roselle around a post-training campfire." Roselle is a mountain man who often gets the bum's rush for his raw antics in the city. He helped found Earth First!, and in general, prefers to stir up shit than put on something that resembles a suit to lobby politicians. He knows his forests, his celebrities and the inside of several jails.

Greenpeace, with Roselle as pie-eyed piper, is aiming to lead activists back toward the Big Show, the visceral juxtaposition of good and evil that reaches for the public's gut, vote and wallet. Stunts, magic, and, at the very root of the activism -- a good time.

"It's serious business," said Woods, an activist from Berkeley, California, who spent his morning roping up and down tall Ponderosa pine. "But we're supposed to be having fun."

J.A. Savage is a frequent contributor to AlterNet.

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