Training for Navy SEALs in state parks was approved by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission in a 4-3 vote last week.
The approval amended the Navy’s proposal, reducing available parks for training from 28 to 16. Four of the parks among consideration for use are on the Twin Harbors.
During the meeting, staff introduced an amendment to their recommendations that added more stringent criteria for consideration, and the commission added its own as well. The new parameters will likely rule out many of the parks during the permit application process. According to a statement, State Parks does not have a list of which state parks will be permitted. Staff will begin the permitting process soon, and the process will be done incrementally on a park-by-park basis.
The 28 parks where the Navy could conduct the training include Blake Island, Cama Beach, Camano Island, Cape Disappointment, Deception Pass, Dosewallips, Fort Casey, Fort Columbia, Fort Ebey, Fort Flagler, Fort Townsend, Fort Worden, Grayland Beach, Hope Island, Illahee, Joseph Whidbey, Leadbetter Point, Manchester, Mystery Bay, Pacific Pines, Scenic Beach, Sequim Bay, Shine Tidelands, Skagit Island Marine, South Whidbey, Triton Cove, Twin Harbors and Westport Light.
More than two hours of testimony was provided on Jan. 26, much of it from residents who were opposed to the plan.
Jan Mikus, a concerned citizen from Anacortes, said the proposal didn’t fit the state parks’ core values of preservation, public enjoyment, excellence, transparency and kindness.
“Military training is inappropriate in our parks and it’s at odds with the stated mission of the parks,” Mikus said.
Carolyn Lancet, another concerned citizen against the proposal, said the current chair of the commission has made that point before.
“Back in November, Commissioner Steve Milner admitted that this request is not in alignment with the parks’ overall mission and vision,” Lancet said. “And I agree, it’s not.”
According to J. Overton, the deputy public affairs officer at Navy Region Northwest, the Navy has been using state parks for similar training for “decades” through single use agreements between individual parks and the Navy.
“And then a few years ago [in 2015], we decided to make the agreement with the parks department themselves,” Overton said. “Everything else is pretty much the same. It’s just that now, if one park is not available, we might have the opportunity to train at another one.”
Overton confirmed only dummy firearms are used in the drills and added civilians won’t notice a change.
“(Civilians) can expect to expect nothing,” Overton said. “There’s not going to be any change to the public.”
Those assurances, similar to ones provided by the Navy during an earlier public meeting in November, did little to quell fears of unwanted impacts. However, a State Environmental Policy Act analysis conducted by the state parks found that with appropriate steps, adverse impacts can be avoided.
The SEPA review process focused on limiting damages to the natural park environments, cultural resources and public safety. The review was spearheaded by Steve Brand, Partnership, Planning, and Real Estate Programs Manager, and Jessica Logan, Environmental Program Manager — both for the parks department. They recommended that the commission move forward with the approval process if mitigation recommendations are met.
Commission staff also added other lease restrictions that put some environmental and cultural areas off-limits to the training, and sought to prevent park visitors from encountering SEALs.
“At no time will the Navy’s use of State parks supplant or displace the public. The public always has a priority,” said Jessica Logan, a state Parks and Recreation Commission environmental program manager at a Tuesday online public hearing. “But we understood that public concern over discovering a Navy SEAL would be upsetting and potentially deter their use of state parks.”
In 2019, the Navy completed an environmental assessment of the proposal that noted there could be up to 36 SEALs in training and support staff involved in any one exercise.
The Navy, in its environmental assessment, divided the state’s coastal state park into three zones. In the preferred alternative, the parks that would receive the heaviest use are located in a zone that stretches from Triton Cove on the Hood Canal north to Fort Flagler on Marrowstone Island, east of Port Townsend.
While on shore, the trainees will carry simulated weapons with no firing capability and conduct reconnaissance on other military personnel who will be “acting out a scripted scene,” according to Overton, the Navy spokesperson.
These personnel would be dressed in civilian clothing and appear to be “benign” if viewed by a park visitor, according to Overton.
More information on the amended proposal can be found on the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission website.
The Seattle Times contributed to this report.