Navy SEALs will be allowed to train after visiting hours in more than a dozen state parks despite strong opposition from hundreds of Washington residents.
It remains to be seen which parks will be approved for use.
As the park-by-park permitting process for Navy SEALs to train in state parks begins, some opponents are expressing disappointment and concern after the Washington State Parks Commission gave the OK on Jan. 28.
Steve Erickson of Whidbey Environmental Action Network said in a press release last week that a coalition of groups will seek legal action to stop it.
Laurie Sherman, who lives adjacent to Deception Pass State Park, said she appreciates the difficult decision the commission faced, but she believes military training there could significantly harm the wildlife and topography, especially if climbing is allowed.
“Some of these areas are so sensitive it doesn’t take much to screw it up,” Sherman said, noting that Deception Pass is the most visited state park in Washington.
The commission voted 4-3 to approve training in some parks, but will not allow full training in all 28 parks the Navy requested. Commissioner Steve Milner said about 17 parks with only 60 percent of the original acreage requested for training could be used by the Navy, though this was just an estimate.
Each park will have its own permitting process, which is to begin this week.
Marlene Finley, president of Evergreen Islands environmental advocacy group, has worked for years for the National Parks Service and the Forest Service in management roles. She said she has never seen a special-use permit of this scale and scope.
The number of conditions that had to be added to the proposal shows that it does not serve the interests of parks, Finley said.
Anacortes resident Mark Lundsten also opposed the proposal.
“I was disappointed it passed. It is an inappropriate use of park land,” Lundsten told the American.
Even with measures to reduce interactions with the public, “I don’t think they are fail-safe,” Lundsten said.
An amendment was added to the proposal right before the final vote by Milner, who motioned to make it so Navy training may only occur after visitor hours. It also required a report to be sent to the commission detailing activities and any impacts. That amendment was passed 5-2.
Previously, the Navy was granted a five-year permit in 2015 to train on five state parks, which training supporters said was proof that the practices could be done with little impact on visitors or the environment.
A State Environmental Policy Act Mitigated Determination of Nonsignificance found that the proposed Navy training likely won’t significantly hurt the environment. Activities would include “small unit, intermediate and advanced cold-water maritime and land-based training activities for naval special operations personnel,” according to commission documents.
The proposal details measures to limit impacts on wildlife. Areas with plant species of concern would require Naval trainees to stay on established trails. Climbing at Deception Pass State Park would also have to be on established trail routes, it was reported during the meeting.
Park managers, as well as tribal and local law enforcement, must be notified at least two weeks prior to any training, according to the proposal.
A broad range of groups spoke out against the proposal, including the Langley City Council and mayor, Whidbey Environmental Action Network, the Skagit Audubon Society and Citizens of the Ebey’s Reserve.
Among their concerns was that visitors might become unwilling participants as SEALs attempt to evade detection as well as environmental damages that may occur. The commission is requiring that Navy members end training if members of the public enter an area and prohibits the Navy from excluding visitors from any part of the park. It also expressly prohibits surveillance of the public and prohibits training from occurring near state campgrounds.
No boat landings may occur in areas with Natural Areas classification, among other stipulations aimed at reducing environmental impact.
Parks staff may observe training and conduct a site visit after activity to observe any impacts, according to the proposal. The commission may revoke the permits at any time, noted Commissioner Lucinda Whaley, who voted for the proposal.