SALEM - It was classic Greenpeace.
Arriving by sea, land, and even a bizarre-looking flying contraption, a dozen demonstrators scaled a giant coal pile at a Salem Harbor power plant last week to protest what they see as the environmental dangers of President Bush's energy plan. As the group's flagship Rainbow Warrior boat bobbed in the background and news cameras captured the scene, the dozen were arrested as they gave a thumbs-up to compatriots nearby.
The rabble-rousers of the environmental movement are back.
Four years ago, Greenpeace USA was on the brink of ruin, with membership dropping so fast that the group had to lay off three-quarters of its staff. And the group all but disappeared from the media spotlight.
Members of the environmental group Greenpeace banner a pile of coal at the Salem Harbor Power Plant in Salem, Massachusetts, August 28, 2001. The activists are protesting the Bush Administration's energy policy, claiming it will lead to increased global warming. The Salem Harbor Power Plant spewed 4.6 millions tons of carbon dioxide in 1998 (the last year for which EPA data is available.) REUTERS/Robert Visser/Greenpeace/HO
But as Greenpeace celebrates its 30th birthday, observers say the group is armed with its best ammunition in years: President George W. Bush, who has antagonized environmentalists by such steps as rejecting a treaty to combat global warming. Membership is increasing, an East Coast protest tour is underway, and the group is trying to become more difficult to ignore as they hire more scientists to back up demonstrations with hard data.
''Greenpeace went into an eclipse [in the 1990s]. It made some choices that cost it its old base of support and it got hurt with its relationship with [the] press and members,'' said Denis Hayes, one of the founders of Earth Day. Many critics during that time charged Greenpeace with becoming as large and as opaque as many of the industries it attacked, causing the public to lose its interest in the organization's underlying environmental message.
It was a far different world in 1971 when Greenpeace workers catapulted into public consciousness by sailing a small boat into a US nuclear testing site off Alaska. For many Americans, it was a grim introduction to Earth's fragility, and Greenpeace defined the civil disobedience popular in the movement during the 1970s and 1980s.
Over the next decades, Greenpeace International became famous for its made-for-TV ''creative confrontations:'' rappelling down skyscrapers, occupying abandoned oil rigs, and putting inflatable dinghies between whales and hunters with harpoons.
But now, many of the old black-and-white environmental concerns are solved, replaced by more subtle, scientifically uncertain issues. For instance, bald eagles have come back from the brink of extinction, and manufacturers who once belched black smoke into the sky now spend millions on pollution control.
Today's hot issues, such as biodiversity protection and climate change, are both more complex and diffuse, making simple answers difficult.
As a result, environmentalists increasingly are hammering out solutions in conference rooms with mediators and lawyers instead of carrying placards at protests. But some observers say the group may find renewal in making environmental messages simple again, like the banner Greenpeace workers stretched across the Salem coal pile reading ''Global Warming Starts Here.''
''As the movement becomes more sophisticated and things are measured in parts per million and parts per billion, Greenpeace is still trying to penetrate the issue between right and wrong,'' said Hayes.
And for Greenpeace, Bush is making that distinction clear. Shortly after being elected, Bush reneged on a campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. The president has rejected the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement by the world's nations to limit the production of greenhouse gases. His energy plan has also drawn criticism from environmentalists for putting too much emphasis on building power plants.
Although Greenpeace doesn't know how many supporters joined since Bush took office, the group has gained 50,000 members since 1999. Comparisions to earlier years are difficult, however, because the organization restructured its membership criteria. Still, the group is much more visible, sailing up and down the East Coast in the Rainbow Warrior this summer, meeting with local groups and occasionally performing a ''direct action.''
Earlier this year, Greeneace USA hung a yellow banner from a water tower near Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch that read ''The Toxic Texan.'' In July, 16 Greenpeace workers were arrested for allegedly disrupting a star wars missle test in California.
Not everyone is happy to see the resurgence of the group's headline-grabbing, in-your-face approach that often upstages local activists. When Greenpeace announced it would move its regional headquarters to New Orleans in 1997, local environmental groups worried that its radical reputation would anger industry or local officials so much that their cause would suffer.
Others simply don't like the group's tactics, saying that while they produce headlines, they have little substantive effect. ''I say the police should have left them on the coal pile,'' said Allen Barker, a plant and soil scientist at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. ''It did get my attention, but they are destructive. They do illegal things.''
Greenpeace USA is one of more than 30 international offices of Greenpeace International, which boasts 2.6 million members around the world. At its height in the late 1980s, the USA group had 22 regional offices and 65 staff members. But in the early 1990s, like most major environmental groups, Greenpeace tanked.
There was a recession and, observers say, the public felt the 20-year-old environmental movement was a success. The Clean Air and Water acts were law and virtually everyone considered themselves environmentally friendly. At the same time, environmental right and wrong wasn't so easy to be defined anymore - saving the spotted owl, for example, came at the expense of jobs.
''The general public said, `I recycle, I'm an environmentalist, and I don't have to think about it anymore,''' said Richard Delaney, director of the Urban Harbors Institute at University of Massachusetts at Boston. ''They became complacent.''
But Greenpeace fell the furthest, in part because many members drawn to their flamboyant style were casual environmentalists who moved on to other interests.
With membership faltering, Greenpeace reacted. The group laid off workers, closed offices around the country, began working more quietly with grassroots groups on toxic waste issues. In 1997, Greenpeace USA even stopped its popular door-to-door canvassing for dollars. Instead, it began arming people with clipboards on busy city street corners to attract more supporters.
''We were doing work in smaller communities,'' said spokesman Craig Culp. ''But we got too small perhaps ... Then we said, `Wait a minute, we are really here to attack these problems on an international scale. They all have an international component.'''
Now, Greenpeace USA has three offices and a staff of about 90, according to Culp. Instead of focusing on many campaigns, it is concentrating on just a handful, especially climate change and genetically modified food.
These days, some complain that the group is too internationally focused. Michael Kellett of RESTORE: The North Woods said Greenpeace has been slow to pick up on US forest issues, for example. But even he says its sometimes jarring form of demonstration is necessary.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company