Olympic Peninsula residents and heavy users of the Olympic National Forest are raising concerns about a Navy plan to expand a close-to-home training range for a growing fleet of jets equipped to detect and jam enemy communications.
The Navy’s latest effort to stay on the cutting edge of military technology is colliding with fears that it could harm endangered species or disrupt the solitude of the forest’s remote places.
If approved, the Navy would use 15 sites in the Olympic National Forest for electronic warfare training that involves communications gear on the ground and EA-18 Growler jets searching for signals in the air. The equipment would emit low levels of electromagnetic radiation, similar to cellphone towers or TV news trucks.
Eight more sites could be used in the Roosevelt and Okanogon National Forests east of the Cascades. Training could take place up to 260 days a year for about 12 hours a day.
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Navy officials say the training should not make much of a difference to the forest’s neighbors because the skies in the affected areas are already a designated military training area.
The difference would be the trucks on the ground.
“This isn’t anything new. We are not adding significant flights. It’s almost exactly what we’ve been doing for many years,” said John Mosher, environmental program manager for the Navy’s Pacific Fleet Northwest.
But users of the public land and peninsula residents worry that the training will disturb rare animals or aggravate hikers and hunters. They want the Navy to take the training to a different site.
“Having invasive towers, loud planes … simulating imagined warfare, exposing all species to any level of radiation, totally upsets the flow of what this area is and represents to all who live here and to the world,” wrote Donna Lambdin of Lakewood in a letter to the U.S. Forest Service. She owns a cabin on the peninsula.
The Navy has already approved the proposal, but it needs permission from the Forest Service to move forward.
It could begin the enhanced electronic warfare training as early as September 2015, if its plans move forward on schedule.
The Forest Service is accepting comments on the Navy’s environmental study until Oct. 31. More than 200 people have already written to the agency.
The Navy wants to use the forestland because the proposed training area is 400 nautical miles closer to its 84-jet Growler fleet at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island than the nearest alternative site.
Growlers are the centerpiece of the Navy’s electronic warfare program. The jets are equipped with gear to detect, jam or destroy enemy radar. It’s a crucial mission in gathering information on threats facing U.S. troops.
The Navy is considering adding up to 34 more electronic warfare jets to the fleet at Whidbey Island — an irritant for some neighbors who have complained about increasing noise from the aircraft.
Last year, a group of residents filed a lawsuit against the Navy demanding an environmental study on aircraft noise. The lawsuit is on hold while the Navy studies its expansion proposals for the electronic warfare wing on the island.
The Olympic National Forest proposal involves the construction of a 40-foot communications tower on Navy-owned property at Pacific Beach. Up to three other trucks would take smaller, mobile towers out to isolated areas using forest roads to reach designated sites.
The mobile towers would release electromagnetic signals at different levels. Growler jets flying out Whidbey Island would have to identify the signals and respond to them, distinguishing hostile communications from normal ones in a wireless world.
Navy officials liken the mobile electromagnetic emitters to cellphone towers. The only risk to a person’s health would be if someone stood directly in front of the energy wave for at least 15 minutes, which could cause burns to eyes or skin. The towers would be 14 feet above ground, so Navy officials say it’s unlikely a person would have that kind of experience.
Two sailors would accompany each truck; they would not be dressed in any special gear to protect them from the signals, Navy spokeswoman Liane Nakahara said.
The Navy says it will take extra precautions to ensure people and large animals are not harmed. Sailors will be instructed to put up caution tape around the signal area, and they’ll be told to turn off the signal if they see hikers or hunters.
Some residents are skeptical sailors would actually shut down a training flight if a hunter or hiker declines to move away from one of the mobile emitters.
“There is no way in this world that they’re going to do that,” said Ron Richards, 69, who lives near Sequim. “They’re going to put up closed zones around these trucks with the blessing of the Forest Service.”
“Can you imagine that truck calling the jet up there and saying ‘Oh sorry, go back to Whidbey?’ ”
He’s also concerned that the signal-detection training proposed by the Navy will lead to the military practicing offensive measures, such as jamming radars. So far, the Navy says that kind of training is not on the table.
The Navy’s environmental study acknowledges that the training could have consequences for several protected species, such as the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet. Grizzly bears, gray wolves and Canada lynx also are known to prowl near the proposed training site in Okanogon National Forest.
Studies cited by the Navy say electromagnetic radiation could affect nesting success and sleep patterns among birds. But the Navy’s own study said the emissions released by its mobile trucks would be too low to disturb birds in that manner.
Some peninsula residents want an independent environmental study. They worry that the Navy operations will increase beyond the scope officials are describing today.
“We’re always seeing these branches of the Armed Forces seeking to expand their playground,” said Richards, who worries that increased jet noise will disturb his hunting and fishing trips.