Washington State Park Commissioners voted Thursday to approve the U.S. Navy’s proposal to use Washington state parks as training sites for SEALs.
The commission voted 4-3 to approve the Navy proposal despite concerns raised by hundreds of citizens.
Whidbey Island residents dominated the floor during an online meeting earlier this week that included public comment. The majority of the comments were opposed to the Navy’s proposal.
The Navy has used state parks for training for decades. Its previous permit allowed the Navy to use five state parks. Some of the proposed training includes insertion, extraction, diving, swimming, over-the-beach movement, special reconnaissance and rock climbing, which would be done at Deception Pass State Park.
The Parks commissioners did make changes to the terms.
New restrictions will likely result in only 16 or 17 state parks being used, according to a Washington State Parks communications staff member.
The final list has not yet been issued.
The Navy identified almost twice that number as desired training sites in its original proposal. The sites included five on Whidbey Island — Deception Pass, Fort Casey, Fort Ebey, Joseph Whidbey and South Whidbey state parks.
As part of the commissioners’ recent changes to the permit conditions, the Navy is required to notify park management, law enforcement and tribal law enforcement about upcoming training two weeks in advance.
Training areas must be at least 500 feet from camp areas and overnight accommodations, unless there is a geological feature or site characteristics that park staff deem adequate separation from the public.
No training is allowed if there is an existing public presence in the area, and the public cannot be excluded by the Navy from any area that is otherwise open to public access, whether on land or in a boat.
No weapons capable of launching or firing projectiles are allowed, but replica weapons to simulate weight and bulk are permitted.
Trainees must stay on developed trails, and are prohibited from steep slopes and feeder bluffs. All locations classified as natural area preserves cannot be used for training purposes.
Training vessels must have marine mammal observers on board. If a member of the Navy sees a whale, the sighting must be reported to the Ocean Wise Research Whale Alert System.
A full list of the recent commissioners’ conditions can be found on the state parks website.
Many Whidbey residents spoke during a public comment period on Jan. 26.
Lori Taylor questioned why the Navy needed state parks for training sites and could not use land already owned by the Department of Defense. She urged the commission to deny the Navy’s request.
“It is possible to support military training and reject this proposal,” Taylor said.
Langley City Council member Craig Cyr, who along with his wife Susan strongly opposed the Navy proposal, said opposition was “broad and deep” among the citizens he represents.
Cyr noted that there is an online petition with more than 6,000 signatures against the proposal.
Susan Cyr said the Navy should train on its own land.
“Like I said, I love paying taxes. In fact, for years, we have proudly displayed state parks license plates on our vehicles,” Susan Cyr said. “If you renew this contract with the Navy, we will no longer do that and we will not visit the 28 coastal parks given over to the Navy’s war games.”
Craig Cyr later sent a link for a YouTube video to a South Whidbey Record reporter showing him cutting up his car’s license plate after the Navy proposal was approved; the plate appeared to have a Washington State Parks design on it.
Steve Erickson, with the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, said the commission would face litigation if members approved the Navy’s proposal.
Michael Wilson said he is a frequent user of Fort Ebey State Park and opposes the Navy’s proposal.
“Do we really want our public spaces militarized like some dictatorship countries?” he asked.
“It will lead to people not wanting to use our parks, along with jet noise complaints,” he said. “It will add to the Navy’s lack of concern for its Central Whidbey neighbors.”
There was some local support for the Navy’s proposal.
Steve Bristow of the Oak Harbor Navy League said that worries that children might be traumatized by seeing Navy training in state parks are unwarranted.
“I’ve seen children traumatized by Santa, the Easter Bunny and even a Coca-Cola polar bear, but I’ve never seen them traumatized by military special forces,” Bristow said. “Children know the good guys, and those who are trained at our parks are not just the good guys — they are the best guys.”
Another Whidbey resident, Lee Rebman, also supported the Navy’s proposal.
“One of the big benefits for the Navy is to be able to have many different environments to train in,” Rebman said.
He said those against the proposal were “extremely selfish.”
Most of the opponents took issue with the “creep” factor, or the idea that the Navy would be spying on members of the public. The Navy has said it will not spy on people, and the permit conditions prohibit the Navy from doing so.
Although commissioners approved the proposal, it does not mean that the Navy will be able to start training soon.
Permits will be granted on a park-by-park basis by park staff.
The Navy will also need to obtain permission from the National Park Service and Army Corps of Engineers because Fort Ebey and Fort Casey state parks are part of the Ebey’s Landing National Historical Area Preserve.