The Navy wants to significantly expand its locations for realistic military exercises in coastal northwestern Washington, and a Whidbey group wants people to know more about the covert activity.
In a plan to be presented to the State Parks Commission, Navy personnel would engage in “Naval Special Operations Training” at up to 29 state parks, four county sites, eight city sites, 17 other public sites and two private marinas.
Whidbey Environmental Action Network, known as WEAN, is leading an effort to notify people about the Navy’s plans.
“We’re doing what the state parks department should have done, and telling people about this,” said Steve Erickson of Whidbey Environmental Action Network. “We firmly believe decision-making is a participatory activity. WEAN is taking the lead to connect organizations and people all over the state.”
According to Sheila Murray, a public affairs deputy for Navy Region Northwest, the expanded training is part of the “obligation to defend the country successfully and keep pace with the capabilities of potential adversaries.”
Murray said the rigorous training teaches the skills “needed to avoid detection with the goal of leaving no trace of their presence during or after training activities.”
Describing herself as a researcher by nature, Marianne Edain of WEAN said she obtained documents describing a plan “to have groups of trainees and advisors go from larger Navy vessels to the shore in smaller boats and work their way upland with realistic-looking weapons.”
Erickson is concerned about on-shore activities. The Navy personnel will stay up to 72 hours, covertly watching park visitors and others.
“Spying on people while carrying weapons is about as creepy and threatening as it gets,” he said. “There’s a huge potential for disaster when someone reacts and calls the cops or takes action.”
Erickson cites a North Carolina case where a deputy sheriff unwittingly killed a trainee and wounded another as they were pretending to be terrorists. The county had to pay about $750,000 in damages.
The Sound Defense Alliance, based in Coupeville, joins WEAN in opposing the expanded training and urging people to contact the Parks Commission.
In an e-mail to supporters, Sound Defense Alliance said military training is incompatible with civilian recreation.
“We need a huge public outcry so that the Parks Commission doesn’t just rubber-stamp the Navy’s plans,” the email stated.
Murray, however, said Navy SEALS have been safely training in state parks without incident or complaint for more than 30 years.
“Military, public and private properties provide varied features to adequately prepare special operations personnel for environments they may encounter on deployment,” she said.
The Navy’s previous five-year/five-park, right-of-entry permit expires in April. According to Erickson and Edain, an expanded clandestine training agreement would deny any liability.
Erickson pointed out the prior agreement said state parks could sue in the District of Columbia Court of Claims.
“Now, apparently, the Navy doesn’t even want that much liability. If this activity does occur, the Navy should post a sufficient bond for each park,” he said.
Murray said a special use permit from the state is required before any activities can be conducted on specified public lands. She said real estate right-of-way agreements must be acquired prior to entry on any private property. She added that state parks and other locations would continue to operate normally during the naval special operations training.
Describing the activities as non-invasive, Murray said “the Navy would not build devices or structures; training does not involve live-fire ammunition, demolitions, off-road driving, manned air operations, vegetation cutting, camp fires or leaving waste.”
A discussion of the matter is on the agenda for the March 12 meeting of the State Parks Commission in Chelan.
According to Edain, the State Parks Deputy Director for Operations, Mike Sternback, has said that only public sentiment would change the anticipated approval of the plan.
Erickson objects to the location of the Parks Commission meeting.
“We’re asking the parks commission to hold its meeting in a population center closer to the affected areas,” he said. “There never is a level playing field when dealing with state agencies.”
According to the documents she has obtained, Edain said the Navy, without consulting the state, “concluded the war games would have no effect on historic and cultural properties including those belonging to indigenous tribes.” She said the Navy claims to have met its obligation to consult the tribes but some Indigenous groups still disagree.
Edain also said the Navy already owns 46 miles of shoreline property where military exercises could be conducted.
Murray said the Navy completed the federally required environmental assessment and conducted public outreach as early at 2017. She said there was a public review and comment time in early 2018.
“Notification was sent to tribal staff, federal and state legislators, elected officials, state and local agencies, individuals, organizations and community groups,” said Murray.
According to the Navy, environmental documents related to the training are available for examination at public libraries in Anacortes, Bainbridge, Gig Harbor, Ilwaco, Oak Harbor, Port Townsend, Poulsbo, Sequim, Tacoma and Westport.
“The Navy employs data analysis, training doctrine, and standard operating procedures to ensure that activities are isolated and remain safe,” said Murray. “We owe these sailors the best possible preparation to allow them to succeed and survive.”
Murray said the safety of the public and military personnel is of utmost importance to the Navy.
“We have longstanding close relationship with local civil authorities to coordinate Navy training activities,” she said.
The issue has already attracted the attention of Island County Democrats and the state Democratic Party. Both groups have adopted a resolution in opposition. At the recent Sound Waters University on Whidbey, many people signed a petition urging the state Parks Commission to reject the proposal.
More information from the Navy is available at https://navfac.navy.mil/NSOEA
Comments can be sent to the State Parks Commission at Commission@parks.wa.gov or email@example.com.