When Helicopters Attack: A Near Accident Leads To Coverup

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This article was first published as "When Helicopters Attack: A Near Accident Leads To Coverup", PR Watch, volume 7, number 1, First Quarter 2000. The original article was authored by Nicky Hager and Bob Burton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

Smashing protest

In February 1997, a small group of Native Forest Action supporters established a treetop protest in the rainforests where Timberlands was logging, erecting tiny platforms made from wooden planks and rope.

The protest prevented logging for nine weeks. In response to mounting public pressure, the government announced it was looking at options to resolve the controversy. Timberlands went on the attack.

Early on 16 April 1997, a large group of Timberlands staff arrived with police, dogs and helicopters and began removing already felled logs. In official company papers, the day was described in pseudo-military fashion as "Operation Alien." ("Alien" was the term used for protesters).

During the morning, the Timberlands manager in charge of the operation instructed a helicopter pilot to try to wreck one of the main tree sitters' platforms, which had appeared in several newspaper photos. The helicopter airlifted a five-ton log, slung under the helicopter like an aerial battering ram, and attempted to smash up the platform.

What Timberlands did not know and had not checked was that an NFA member, Jenny Coleman, was preparing to climb the tree when the helicopter began smashing into it. A zoology graduate who had studied marine sciences before joining the NFA campaign and becoming one of its most experienced climbers, she had no idea the helicopter was about to attack.

In a statement made afterwards, Coleman said she had just unpacked her climbing gear and was preparing to ascend the tree when the helicopter "hovered over the tree for a few seconds before swinging the hanging log into the top of the tree. I scrambled, terrified for my life with debris and sticks raining down on me and the five-ton log swinging above me smashing branches from the tree above the platform and the tree swaying and creaking towards where I was. I was completely freaked out and terrified for my life, and scrambled on my hands and knees, slipping on the muddy ground up the bank and down the ridge towards the river, away from the chopper. I leapt into a hollow under a rotten tree stump below the edge of the ridge and vomited with fear as I crouched in the wet ferns."

Interviewed by a filmmaker a few days later, Timberlands general manager Kit Richards confirmed that the helicopter pilot was "removing the platform. He actually used that log to break the platform because the protesters were obviously making an effort. . . . It would remain a point of interest to try and climb."

When asked about the risk to Jenny Coleman, Richardson replied, "Oh, we've heard that claim, and we had staff on the ground standing next to the tree. . . . The protesters had made a move to try to get to the tree [but] they moved away again as our staff approached."

This statement was an outright lie, as a later investigation confirmed. The tree sitters, upset about the near accident, filed a complaint with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) about "serious and unnecessary danger to people engaged in a peaceful protest."

"It is evident that no ground search of the area directly adjacent to the base of the platform tree was undertaken prior to the helicopter maneuvering overhead the platform tree," concluded the subsequent Civil Aviation report by investigating officer Damian Paine. Timberlands' handwritten diary of the operation recorded that the intention was to destroy the platform and that other than a visual check from helicopters overhead, no effort was made to ensure that the dense forest area around the demolition effort was clear of protesters.

Behind the scenes, Shandwick staff member Rob McGregor undertook the task of lobbying an acquaintance within the CAA. In a fax stamped CONFIDENTIAL to Timberlands, McGregor reported on his efforts: "I spoke with Martyn Gosling from Civil Aviation. . . . After much reminiscing, he said they are 'still tying a few loose ends together,' but the message for Timberlands is 'Don't panic.' " Gosling is the CAA public relations person.

In an attempt to discredit the complaint, McGregor told Gosling that the complaint was politically motivated. "I explained Timberlands' concerns--a significant part of your operation is reliant upon the helicopter and that without the helicopter you would not be able to continue with the sustainable logging of the exotic forest. I also pointed out that this point was not lost on the complainants and had presumably motivated their complaint to CAA. They are fully aware of the political considerations behind this complaint and seem to appreciate your perspective."

McGregor was pleased with his lobbying work, reporting to Timberlands, "I got the strong feeling that there are not going to be any problems for you from this inquiry. I was also told that we have to remain silent on this for the time being."

Following this behind-the-scenes lobbying, Timberlands was sufficiently reassured by Shandwick's informal contacts that it denied publicly that the incident had even occurred. "At the time of the alleged incident there were several Timberlands staff, an independent inspector from Occupational Safety & Health (OSH) and a police observer. All were within sight of where this incident was reputed to have occurred," stated Timberlands' Dave Hilliard. "All these persons have sworn that no such incident occurred and that at no time was any individual in danger."

The "observers" to which Hilliard referred were actually 500 yards away across the river at the time the incident occurred, but Hilliard felt confident. "The whole incident is now the subject of a formal CAA investigation," he continued, "the outcome of which Timberlands staff eagerly await."

As Timberlands expected, the CAA subsequently cleared the helicopter pilot of wrongdoing, in a judgment that the environmentalists believed was strikingly unsound.

More recently, New Zealand's Ombudsman agreed that the case deserved attention, and in October 1999 he launched a formal investigation into the CAA processes and Shandwick's lobbying.

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