A state commission has approved the Navy’s use of up to 17 Washington state parks for after-dark stealth training of SEAL teams.
The 4-3 vote approves the training over the next five years.
The Navy had sought to use up to 28 state parks for up to 48 hours at a stretch to enable special operation SEAL teams to make shoreline landings, then conduct surveillance of other military personnel dressed in plain clothes. This was a big expansion from previous five-year permits that allowed through 2020 the use of five state coastal parks for the SEALs. That proposal drew hundreds of public comments, most of them opposed.
In their online meeting Thursday morning, the state Parks and Recreation Commission opted for scaled-back permission for these exercises, which included restrictions that put some sensitive areas off-limits to the training.
The vote came after several hours of sometimes emotional debate about one of the most high-profile and difficult decisions of the commission whose members are unpaid and appointed by the governor.
Commission members who voted in favor of the Navy’s plans talked about the history of the parks, which included some that were previous military installations. They went over the Navy’s past use of parks, which commission staff said had not resulted in complaints and appeared to be largely unseen by visitors. And they said that they attempted to respond to some of the public concerns by banning the SEALs’ use of the parks during the daylight hours.
“It’s not 100%. 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,” said Steve Milner, chairperson of the commission and sponsor of the amendment approved Thursday that required the exercises to take place at night.
Commissioners who voted against the measure were convinced there were other places to conduct the top-tier training that Navy officials said the parks terrain offered. They noted the public opposition and questioned whether the exercises strayed too far from the underlying mission of the parks.
“I look at my obligation to protect these special places for their original purposes,” said Ken Bounds, a commissioner who is a former superintendent of Seattle’s parks. “They can also train elsewhere and the Navy has the capacity, the ability and the resources to make that happen.”
Navy spokesperson J. Overton said in a statement, “We’re pleased with the overall approval decision, and look forward to working with the Parks, as we have for years, on a productive way forward.”
The vote was condemned by a coalition — Coordinating Committee People for Parks & Nature — opposed to the park use, and some opponents are calling for the Legislature to step in with a bill that could prohibit the Navy training.
“State Parks are for people and nature, not war games,” said Steve Erickson of Whidbey Environmental Action Network, a member of the coalition.
The training involves submersible vessels and unarmed SEALs — in groups of six to eight — who make their way to shore, typically under the cover of darkness. Once on land, they conceal themselves to conduct surveillance, then depart by water.
Many of the public comments cited a “creep” factor should SEALs observe park visitors.
Navy officials said that was not supposed to happen. And commission staff — after the state environmental review of the Navy assessment — inserted in the proposed lease agreement a specific prohibition of surveillance of members of the public.
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 2018, the Navy first released the proposal to use the 28 parks. Then 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 — up to 36 SEAL exercises a year — 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.
In a November meeting, some commissioners asked why satisfactory sites couldn’t be found within the 46-miles of state coastline already under Navy jurisdiction.
Navy officials said that the varied geography of the parks, as well as the range of currents and bottom terrain in waters around the parks, offered far better training than was available at naval sites, where some bottom areas have been cleared to allow the approach of big submarines.
“It’s absolutely necessary,” said Rear Adm. S.D. Barnett, commander of the Navy Region Northwest. “We just don’t have a diverse range of realistic training believe it or not on the bases.”
Many of the public comments submitted to the commission came from Washingtonians angered by the prospects for a larger military use of state parks.
But the Navy proposal also drew some support.
Mike Spence, in Tuesday testimony to the commission, said he lives near one of the five state parks where training has been conducted in years past, and had observed what he believed to be divers and “warfare boats.” But he always saw them late in the evening after the park had closed “when they wouldn’t be encountered,” he said.