Washington state has approved a request to use multiple Washington state parks to train Navy SEALs. But the move Thursday came with significant amendments to what the Navy requested.
The permits would expand the five parks previously used for Navy SEAL training to 16 or 17. The Navy had requested access to 28 state parks as a way to diversify its training sites. Officials had said a small number of sites can become too familiar to trainees overtime.
The commissioners called their move “difficult,” “hard” and “probably the toughest decision” of a 10-year commission career.
The director of the Washington State Parks Commission can now issue the Navy’s permits.
The requests received a great deal of pushback. A public comment meeting Tuesday saw more than 50 of the 62 commenters strongly opposed to the Navy using state parks as training grounds. A large majority felt they’d unwittingly be surveilled, something the Navy said wouldn’t happen.
But some commenters and commissioners said just the perception of being watched might cause more harm than whether the SEAL trainees actually watched the public.
“I do believe, even if they’re not actually being surveilled, even if it is a misconception, I believe there is actually an impact to knowing this is happening. … I believe that people go to these parks to release their anxiety and that this increases their anxiety,” said Seattle commissioner Sophia Danenberg, who has several close family members in the Navy.
State parks commissioners approved the permits in a 4-3 vote, with measures to protect plants and animals of concern, important cultural areas and spots where people camp. For the first nine months, an amendment to the permits will also limit when the SEAL trainees are allowed in the parks – a direct result of public concerns.
Changes to permit request
Navy trainees can’t be in the park in the daytime. They’d be allowed to enter permitted areas under cover of darkness and must leave the parks as daylight dawns. Commission chair Steve Milner of Chelan proposed the amendment because he said it would limit the majority of potential interactions between day-use recreationalists and SEAL trainees. He said day-use outweighs overnight park use by nine to one.
“(It’s) not 100 percent, there are local and regional visitors who camp in these parks. I don’t mean to say otherwise. I think that this creates a partition allowing those people who object to the presence of the military to be in the park during the day and gives us a trial period,” Milner said.
But the restriction could be lifted after nine months. The Navy could also lose its permits at any time, if any restrictions to protect the environment and public aren’t followed.
Why Washington state parks are ideal
The Navy says Washington’s coastline provides challenging, cold water training for its elite SEAL program.
At night, around eight SEAL trainees would likely dive out of a submersible vessel. They’d then swim onto a beach and head into the park to disappear. The trainees would carry simulated weapons that cannot fire live ammunition but would appear real. Over the course of a year, there could be 50-75 training exercises, spread out over all the permitted areas, State Parks staff said.
According to the Navy, the only other cold water training is based in Alaska, but that is limited in scope. At a November 2020 meeting, Navy officials told parks commissioners that no other place provides the types of conditions present in Puget Sound.
They say current Navy property is too smooth and wide, for the safety of other vessels. Puget Sound’s natural currents and coastlines, on the other hand, make up a “critical cornerstone for (the Navy’s) overall development of our SEAL operators,” Warrant Officer Esteban Alvarado said last year.
The Navy says they’ve never had complaints about their previous training in Washington’s state parks. But if a park guest happened upon their training exercises, they would tell the recreationalist what they’re doing and leave.
Commissioner Mike Latimer, of Yakima, a veteran Navy officer, said in the Navy’s 30-year history of using Washington state parks as training grounds, there has never been a complaint about seeing trainees. He said they’re trying to be covert.
Latimer strongly opposed “the misconceptions, stereotypes and negative biases” that he said spread fear among the public.
“It is a fact that you are under more surveillance with the use of your cell phone, your computer, your smart TV and other electronic devices that you have in your home and in your vehicles,” he said.
Still, Seattle commissioner Ken Bounds said the Navy could – and should – find other places to train. The Navy is also looking at private property, potentially around 60 or 70 sites, according to State Parks staff.
Bounds said the question to the commission was: Is this activity appropriate at state parks? His answer was no.
“The military owns a lot of property (from the Baja Peninsula to Alaska). They can purchase other property, as they have done. So the question I ask is: Why pick state parks to conduct training, where there are opportunities elsewhere?” Bounds said.
Other commissioners said state parks serve other special use permits, such as cell phone towers, PUD easements and wildfire, search and rescue and law enforcement training.
Under a State Environmental Policy Act review, known as SEPA, State Parks staff tried to determine what types of environmental and public harm could come from the Navy’s permit request. Each park was reviewed separately, and restrictions were placed in sensitive areas or where the public might be made aware of the trainees’ presence.
Staff said the Navy paid Washington State Parks more than $29,000 for work that went into the three-year review process.
The Navy previously said it would move operations if members noticed any sensitive species nearby. There would also be restricted times on certain areas, like during nesting windows, and spots where the trainees could only travel by trail, so as to avoid sensitive species.
Any whales sightings must be reported to the Ocean Wise Research Whale Alert System.
The permits also require the Navy to let park staff know when training would happen and to meet with them on-site after training to assess any harm caused.
Any climbing exercises at Deception Pass must stick to established routes. Removing vegetation, like moss and lichen, is prohibited.
Staff requested a 1,000-foot buffer around any campsites, creating overnight exclusion areas.
More public feedback
Members of the public noted that’s about 0.2 mile, which could be walked in about four minutes.
“Will campers be informed that if they wander more than four minutes from camp, they might end up in a military incursion?” asked Seth Roland, who often takes groups of kids on night hikes while camping at state parks.
Roland spoke at a recent State Parks public comment meeting, where the thought of being observed had many members of the public on edge.
The large majority of commenters asked to deny the Navy’s permit request, many referring to the training exercises as “war games.”
David Jones, a self-described “Navy brat,” who said his father and son are Navy officers, said he valued the institution but also depended on state parks for his “health and renewal.”
Speaking to the commissioners, Jones said, “Protecting (the feeling at state parks), that’s your responsibility. … I know the Navy has to continually train to stay sharp. … This is not a problem that you need to solve for the Navy.”
It’s that “creepiness factor,” dubbed by Danenberg at a Nov. 19 meeting, that concerned many people.
Laurie Keith called South Whidbey State Park “my gym, my health spa and my church.” She said that feeling would be disrupted, particularly for women who had previously experienced trauma, especially sexual abuse.
“I can accept that these SEAL trainees are highly trained and will not come after me, but that doesn’t matter to my nervous system,” Keith said.
Sarah Griffin, with the Seattle Aquarium, said the aquarium was concerned increased vessel traffic could harm Puget Sound’s already endangered resident orcas. She said 15 of the proposed training sites are within the orcas’ critical habitat. A 2019 proposed critical habitat expansion would envelop all of the requested 28 training sites.
“Increased noise and disturbances from Navy vessels will detract from orcas’ foraging time, reducing their food intake when they are already struggling to find salmon,” Griffin said.
Griffin asked the Navy to consider the orcas’ seasonal movements so it can avoid areas when orcas are nearby. She also asked to require the Navy to use whale report alert systems and sighting networks to be able to “adjust activities on real-time information.”
Some people worried that park attendance would drop, which would in turn decrease revenue. Others said it would be “unacceptably cruel” to limit certain park usage during the pandemic, just as parks have seen an exponential increase in recreationalists looking for an escape.
Opponents said the Navy should use its own shoreline or private lands instead of public recreational areas.
Steve Erikson, with Whidbey Environmental Action Network, said the group would pursue litigation if the Navy’s permits were approved. A change.org petition by the group has so far garnered more than 6,600 signatures.
Those in favor of the program said sailors have to train to stay safe – and after around 30 years of prior training exercises, there haven’t been any complaints. Out of 62 commenters, only eight voiced support for the training program expansion.
Mike Spence said he lived near one of the five parks that have previously been used for training. Spence said sometimes, after the park has closed at night, he thinks he’s seen “Navy special forces boats and divers working in the waters adjacent to the park.” He said he didn’t realize what he’d seen until this SEPA process came across his radar.
“I am witness to the Navy taking effective precautions to ensure there was no chance of public interaction. … The Navy’s long history of using five state parks was a proving ground for this expansion request, and they passed with flying colors,” Spence said.
Joe Kunzler said he enjoys state parks – and even though this decision is “a tough one,” he said it’s important to consider the real lives of the SEAL trainees.
“If they don’t train properly, things can happen to them, where they don’t come back the same – or not at all. … We should be honored to provide that training and not complain. We should always smile and know that those are ‘our guys,’” Kunzler said.
George Renquist, a Marine veteran whose family has served in the military for four generations, said they’d offered their own beachfront property in the San Juan Islands as a place for SEALs to train.
“That offer still stands. We may have been visited. We’d never know it,” Renquist said.
Courtney Flatt covers natural resources and environmental issues for Northwest Public Broadcasting. She is based in Washington's Tri-Cities. On Twitter: @courtneyflatt
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