Last summer, Washington state’s Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation entered into ongoing discussions with the Navy about a military program called Northwest Training and Testing—referred to in draft Navy documents as NWTT. NWTT is the framework under which the Navy conducts a huge range of military exercises in the region, and the Navy’s plan as presented to the state called for expanding the program to include live .50 caliber testing, increased sonar training, and the use of unmanned watercraft.
The plan isn’t entirely out of the ordinary. The military has long had a large presence in the waters of western Washington. While Seattleites rarely hear jets overhead or see battleships offshore outside the celebratory confines of Seafair, in many other corners of Puget Sound, the sights and sounds of the military are as much a part of the environment as the rain: Growler jets scorching across the sky, the pounding thud of artillery munitions firing. Simply put, where some see in the Puget Sound area a meditative expanse of peaceful water ringed by majestic mountains, the military sees a training ground vital for maintaining its status as the world’s most fearsome force.
As the Navy writes in its analysis of the increased training envisioned with NWTT, the training and testing is vital to “maintain, train, and equip combat-ready military forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression, and maintaining freedom of the seas.”
Allyson Brooks, director of the historic preservation office, says her staff didn’t have any specific concerns about NWTT when the Navy brought it to them, because they weren’t totally clear yet on what the Navy had in mind.
“We were trying to figure out if there were particular areas we needed to be concerned about. We were trying to analyze what the activities were, and whether those activities would have an impact on archeological and historical places,” she says. “We needed to know what they were doing and what impacts they’d have.”
To cite just one example, “There are underwater shipwrecks in Puget Sound. We’re responsible for those.”
Once her office better understood what the Navy was up to, they’d be better able to comment on the environmental impact statement.
According to e-mails obtained by Seattle Weekly through a public-information request, the Navy at first seemed happy to help. In September, staff at Whidbey Naval Air Station began planning to host Brooks and members of Gov. Jay Inslee’s staff to talk through the particulars of NWTT. That meeting took place Oct. 20—an 11-hour day for Brooks, Inslee policy advisor Jim Baumgart, and another Inslee staffer not named in documents, entailing driving from Olympia to Whidbey Island and meeting all day with Navy staff. Brooks said the meeting ended on good terms, with expectations to continue the conversation.
So it came as a surprise when a few weeks later, on Nov. 6, the state received a letter from the Navy stating it would move forward with NWTT under the assumption that DAHP had no concerns.
“We were shocked,” Brooks says.
According to Brooks, the Navy contended that the state was supposed to have contacted officers in Pearl Harbor, not Whidbey Island, in writing in order to have any concerns considered. None of the officers at Whidbey had ever mentioned that fact during the considerable amount of time they spent working with the state.
“We believed we were still in formal consultation. We were certainly being contacted and still in conversation with Navy staff,” Brooks says. “They just weren’t Navy staff in Hawaii.”
None of this means the Navy did not consider how its training would affect sensitive areas in Puget Sound. It has its own in-house experts who study such things as required by federal law. But some say it does illustrate a troubling trend in how the the military branch interacts with the public in the region—i.e., general disregard for input from people outside the armed services who might have an opinion on how activity could impact the region. Concerns over such disregard—which critics say also includes skimpy notification to the public when seeking comment on military activity and legal maneuvers that make it difficult for people to comment—comes as the Navy unveils even more new designs for western Washington.
Indeed, NWTT is just the tip of the battleship regarding the Navy’s planned training activities. The Navy is also considering adding 36 Boeing EA-18G Growler jets to the 82 already stationed on Whidbey Island for purposes of electromagnetic-warfare training. It is also exploring the use of state parks and other coastal areas in Puget Sound for SEAL beach-landing training.
These programs come in addition to less-sexy but still-significant projects like the construction of a new pier in Port Angeles to house seven submarine escort vessels.
The Navy insists that these programs are vital to national security, and that every step of the way it engages the public to get its input.
Navy spokeswoman Sheila Murray disputed Brooks’ account of the Navy’s interaction with the state historic preservation office in an e-mail to Seattle Weekly. Murray writes that the Navy concluded its consultation with the historic preservation office because it did not register any specific concerns with the Navy about NWTT, only requests for more information, and that its first communication came after the deadline had passed. (Brooks maintains her office missed the deadline only if one doesn’t count its communication with officers on Whidbey Island.)
More generally, cognizant of criticisms leveled against it by some members of the public, the Navy has published several documents—presented in a facts-vs.-myths format—meant to dispel what it sees as misinformation to the public.
“The Navy prides itself on being a good steward of the environment and complies with all laws, regulations, and requirements,” a Navy website operated out of Whidbey reads in part. “Every environmental document considers the cumulative impacts to the environment from other relevant past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions.”
But critics say recent history proves otherwise, and has them feeling besieged—quite literally.
“The entire peninsula will be under attack,” says Port Angeles resident Diana Somerville of the Navy’s plans. “By air, by land, by sea.”
Seattleites who decide to eschew the ferry system and drive to Port Townsend entirely by terra firma will pull off I-5 and onto Highway 16 under the shadow of an 80-by-40-foot U.S. flag that weighs 150 pounds.
The flag, raised up an 180-foot pole by Tacoma Screw, flies as a “thank you” to the large military contingent that calls the area not far from Joint Base Lewis-McChord home.
“To a marine, the flag says, ‘This is ours, we claim it, we’ll defend it and we’ll hold it at all costs.’ ” So said a gunnery sergeant during the flag’s dedication in 2014, according to the Tacoma News-Tribune.
Onward up 16 and then onto Highway 3, the aircraft carriers of Naval Base Kitsap soon rise over the horizon, the gray steel camouflaged against the steel-gray harbor. Further along, an exit sign to the Bangor nuclear-submarine base soon appears. Further still, more signs speak to a military past—Fort Flagler, Fort Townsend, Fort Worden—where concrete redoubts built near the turn of the 20th century remain ensconced like cleats into the bluffs over Puget Sound.
Opinion of the military in these parts can largely be summed up in one syllable: pro.
This sentiment extends to the other Washington through elected officials, who take it as a core duty to preserve as large a military presence in their districts as possible—if not for patriotic reasons, then for the massive amount of federal dollars it brings. In 2014, Washington raked in $12.7 billion in direct military spending, the seventh largest amount tallied by a state that year. This translates into thousands of military and civilian livelihoods across the region.
And yet Port Townsend, literally at the end of this road through America’s military past and present, has become a hotbed of resistance to the Navy’s designs for the area. The town’s residents have been vocal enough to prompt some pro-military people across the Sound to change their Facebook profile pictures to read: “Boycott Port Townsend and Al Jazeera.”
On a recent rainy afternoon, in a tidy living room not far from the town’s Victorian thoroughfare, a diverse coalition of Puget Sound residents opposed to the Navy’s plans gathered to explain why they’re choosing to stand up now against what for more than a century has been a bedrock of the Olympic Peninsula’s culture and economy.
The group included a retired Navy pilot, a retired Department of Defense contractor, a nuclear-weapons abolitionist, an environmental activist, and others. Their objections are as varied as their backgrounds, and can be dizzying to a newcomer—everything from the military-industrial complex to the marbled murrelet comes into play. They insist that their opposition does not come from a sudden abandonment of patriotism or a rejection of the military’s long history in these parts, but from a change in posture from the Navy—a my-way-or-the-highway stance that has them feeling left in the fumes of Growler afterburners.
They say this attitude started in 2014, when the Navy’s plans for electromagnetic-warfare testing on the Olympic Peninsula emerged.
While it sounds scary, electromagnetic-warfare training simply describes the process of seeking radar signals emitting from the ground. In combat, this allows jets to find and disable anti-aircraft weapons and other land-based threats. In order to conduct the training in the Peninsula, the Navy plans to drive trucks into far-flung corners of the national forest, cordon off the area to the public, and point a satellite dish into the sky to see if pilots flying overhead can find it.
When the public became aware of the plan, it set off widespread fears about the health effects of the mobile emitters and concerns that the training would increase jet noise.
The flights are already an annoyance to many. Connie Gallant, president of the Olympic Forest Coalition, who lives near the inland hamlet of Quilcene, whips out her mobile to show off a decibel-reader app.
“Most of us have these on our phones,” she says. That morning, she says, she’d taken her dog out around 5:30 in the morning. “I was standing in a quiet spot and a Growler goes over and it registers about 85.” That’s about the sound level of a garbage disposal—not deafening, but not necessarily pleasant, either.
Yet when an analysis of the electromagnetic-warfare program was published in the form of a draft environmental assessment in the summer of 2014—a document meant to allow the public to understand what effects it would have on the area and express any concerns—not a single comment was registered. The Navy has cited this fact to suggest that the training program is not as controversial as people now suggest.
“The Navy made a sincere effort to notify the public about” the training program, reads a Navy fact sheet published in October 2014. “The Navy received no public comments by the August 15 deadline.”
But if it challenges your credulity that a plan to start flying radar-detecting jets over public forests searching for mobile emitters would not draw any public opinion, there’s another explanation out there.
“It was because nobody knew about it,” says Karen Sullivan of Port Townsend, who leads the military watchdog group West Coast Action Alliance. “No comments of any sort were received because the public was unaware of it.”
The public-comment period on the EA lasted 15 days, and notification about it was published in papers in Seattle, Wenatchee, Olympia, and Montesano. No papers in towns bordering the Olympic National Forest published notification.
The Navy contends that its public-notification efforts were reasonable, because the training program’s impact on Peninsula communities will be minimal. It says that there is no evidence that mobile emitters parked in remote parts of the national forest pose any threat to the public’s health. It also says most of the jets that will be training with the mobile emitters are already flying over the area, conducting simulations of the training they hope to soon do with actual emitters. When more Growlers are added at Whidbey, flights will increase about 10 percent, though the Navy says those increases would have occurred with or without the addition of mobile emitters.
However, once word about the program began to spread—after the comment period was over—it became clear that many residents disagreed with the Navy’s assessment.
The Sierra Club has protested on grounds that the jets will become louder the higher in the Olympic Mountains you get, compromising the wilderness value of some of the quietest forests in the Lower 48. The Navy’s own documents suggest that jets flying above land that’s 4,000 feet above sea level could experience very brief decibel levels of 105, about the volume of a lawn mower. A citizen petition has asked the UN to intervene on behalf of Olympic National Park’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, whose district includes Bremerton’s extensive naval instillations, has sounded critical of the Navy’s public outreach.
“The sneakiness of that 2014 EA was pretty much the originating incident of public antipathy toward the Navy up here,” Sullivan says.
Critics say similar patterns are on display now as the Navy maps out SEAL training. In something of a PR snafu—to use military terminology—the possibility of SEAL training in popular public parks wasn’t announced by the Navy itself but via documents leaked to the news site Truthout. No reporter has been more dogged than Truthout’s Dahr Jamail in watchdogging the military’s actions in western Washington, and the SEAL story was a major scoop. That said, the piece’s hyper-sinister headline displays perfectly the PR problem the Navy has in some corners of the state: “Navy Uses US Citizens as Pawns in Domestic War Games.”
The documents leaked to Truthout suggest that the Navy is exploring the use of 68 beach and state-park areas in western Washington for training; among the parks under consideration are Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park and Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend.
The Navy responded to the Truthout article by saying that since the plans were still in their earliest stages, they hadn’t yet reached out to the public. Some residents wonder if the Navy is being forthright.
Sullivan is a retired federal employee who served as the spokesperson for the Fish & Wildlife Service's Alaska Region. She says the Navy has shown keen expertise in manipulating public processes to minimize how much opposition it faces to new programs. Among other tactics she’s recognized has been “segmentation,” in which a government agency splits its plans into small sections so the public can’t challenge the cumulative effects of the programs.
“There have been all these separate things,” she says; “you can’t see the full picture.”
So what is the full picture? Whether by design on the Navy’s part or simply because of the sweeping nature of the work, it can be difficult to comprehend the full impact of all the Navy’s various programs; it’s difficult to step back far enough to grasp the entire mosaic.
For many of Seattle Weekly’s questions, Navy spokespeople referred to those facts-vs.-myths pages, which clearly aim to impart the impression that the Navy is not expanding its presence in the region. The Navy has been “operating regularly in the Pacific Northwest since 1841,” reads one passage. “With the exception of Naval Station Everett, all of the Navy installations in existence today in Puget Sound were established during World War II or earlier.”
Elsewhere, it notes: “While the number of aircraft and flights can fluctuate from year to year, the overall number of aircraft stationed at Naval Air Station (NAS) Whidbey Island and subsequent aircraft operations have dropped dramatically over the past three decades largely because of the retirement of the A-6E Intruder aircraft. As a comparison, from 1988 to 1994, flight operations managed by the base totaled more than 265,000 annually, while the average from 2008 to 2014 was just over 161,000 per year.”
Yet there is no denying that the Navy has been highly active of late—engaged in what the News-Tribune called in 2014 a “building spree.” That article, quoting Navy advocates, suggests that when the dust settles, the Navy will have “a secure footing in the Puget Sound region for decades, similar to what the Army and its boosters say they spent years establishing at JBLM.”
“The future of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island is set for a long time,” U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Everett) told the newspaper. “The Navy has recognized the community support it has there, and it has recognized that the base itself is a good homeport for the next generation of their aircraft.”
If that community support for the Navy has shifted, the Navy hasn’t heard about it.
Daniel Person is News Editor for Seattle Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-467-4381. Follow him on Twitter at @danoperson. Get more from your favorite writers by subscribing to our weekly newsletters.