The U.S. Navy’s proposal to expand its usage of state parks for training has produced some strong opinions on Whidbey Island and across Puget Sound.
The deadline for weighing in on the issue is Wednesday at 5 p.m., ahead of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission’s special meeting the following week.
The Navy has been doing clandestine training at state parks for decades, but it wants to expand its usage from five to 28 parks, including multiple sites on Whidbey Island.
The Navy’s previous agreement with the state ended in 2020. None of the state parks it used previously were located on Whidbey Island. Under its new proposal, the Navy would be able to use Deception Pass, Fort Casey, Fort Ebey, Joseph Whidbey and South Whidbey state parks for training.
Activities would include insertion, extraction, diving, swimming, over-the-beach movement and special reconnaissance. Trainees would also be rock climbing at Deception Pass State Park. A list of how each site would be used can be found on the state park’s website.
Some criticism stems from concerns that the Navy will be spying on the public.
Members of the Langley City Council passed a resolution in December opposing the Navy’s use of state parks, although no state parks are within city boundaries. It referenced a change.org petition against the Navy’s proposal; as of Jan. 18, there are almost 6,000 signatures on the online petition created by the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, commonly known as WEAN.
Marianne Edain of WEAN said the “creep factor,” or perceived spying, is a major concern.
“There has to be some place where people can go and breathe easy and not have to worry about somebody slinking around in the bushes behind them,” she said. “That’s why we have those state parks.”
The Navy, however, has said that trainees will only be instructed to observe designated military personnel.
“The Navy will not be conducting surveillance of any members of the public, either through trainees or unmanned aircraft,” Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett wrote in a letter dated Dec. 4.
Barnett’s letter said service members would be acting in a way that is “completely benign” to the public, but that if a member of the public came upon a training, it would end immediately. The point is for service members to learn to act in a way that they can’t be detected, the Navy has said. There are no plans to use drones in the parks, either.
Although a State Environmental Policy Act review found that the Navy’s proposal does not have probable negative impacts on the environment, Edain was still concerned about delicate ecosystems in state parks.
“They can’t tolerate the kind of trampling this would involve,” she said.
The state parks commission will be holding a special meeting to hear public comment on the Navy’s proposal on Jan. 26 via Zoom.
Those wishing to submit public comment verbally during the meeting must register by 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 20 on the state parks website at https://parks.state.wa.us/1168/Navy-training-proposal.
The meeting is limited to four hours and each person will be given two minutes to speak. The public has until 5 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22 to submit written comments about the SEPA findings.
A decision about the proposal is expected during the commission’s regular meeting on Jan. 28.