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Outpouring of criticism, fears led state to reconsider Navy plans for Olympic forests

A wave of letters last fall from the public persuaded the Department of Natural Resources to rethink its implied support for a Navy training proposal that its staffers had followed since at least 2012, according to documents obtained by The News Tribune.

That proposal would allow the Navy to step up its regular jet training over the Olympic Peninsula by challenging pilots to find communication signals sent from trucks at different points in state and national forests. It hinges on the Navy getting permission from the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Natural Resources to drive trucks into the woods on old logging roads.

State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark in February wrote a letter that effectively took three sites in state forests out of consideration, surprising Navy officials who thought Goldmark’s agency had indicated in the fall of 2012 that it wouldn’t block the request.

That changed, Goldmark said, when his office received an outpouring of phone calls, emails and letters describing fears of Olympic Peninsula residents that noise from Navy jets would disrupt the forest and possibly harm wildlife. About a dozen other sites are still under consideration by the U.S. Forest Service.

“What surprised me in terms of the complaints I heard was that it came from what I would call mainstream people that expressed concern about the Navy’s proposals,” Goldmark said. “These weren’t radicals. These were people who had been living in the community many years. Some of them are parents of sailors.”

Public concerns about the so-called electronic warfare training range escalated last fall as the U.S. Forest Service prepared to close out an environmental impact study that was expected to approve the Navy’s request.

It distressed residents on the Olympic Peninsula and users of the forestland who studied reports that suggested prolonged, direct contact with signals sent out by the trucks could disrupt wildlife or harm people. As a result, the Forest Service extended its public comment period for the proposal. It is now studying the more than 3,000 statements it received.

“There appears to be a dangerous disconnect between the military government’s desire for war games and resource habitat needs. We would argue that it is critical to the long-term health of a waterway and natural resource that we carefully balance the needs to expand military experimentation disguised as training,” wrote Friends of Grays Harbor President Arthur Grunbaum.

The likelihood of anyone being hurt by the trucks is minimal, state and Navy officials say. A person would have to sit directly in front of the beam for an extended period of time to be harmed the radiation emitted from signals, which would be difficult because they’re expected to be sent from equipment 15 feet above ground.

Goldmark and many residents are more concerend about the possibility that the Navy will increase flights, escalate noise or possibly disrupt endangered species.

“We all respect the Navy for the security they provide for the state and the nation,” Goldmark said. “That doesn’t meant they get carte blanche to do whatever they want with the citizens and state agencies they need to cooperate with.”

The Navy proposal uses sometimes broad language to describe potential environmental impacts. It says it would send two trucks to about 15 different locations up to 260 days a year while also using a fixed site at Pacific Beach. The training could take place up to 12 hours a day.

When the Navy gives specific answers to direct questions, the proposal can sound less imposing.

For example, one of Goldmark’s staffers in January 2013 asked the Navy how often sailors would park at a particular site in a state forest. The answer was no more than six times a year.

Stung by criticism, Navy officials lately have been trying to assure the public that residents won’t notice the flights or the trucks. Navy jets already fly almost daily over the Olympic Peninsula in airspace dedicated to government training.

“We have operated there just about every day for 38 years,” said Capt. Scott Farr, deputy commander of the Pacific Fleet’s electronic attack wing at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

John Mosher helped select the sites on old logging roads as environmental program manager for Pacific Fleet Northwest. “It’ll be an invisible change,” he said. “What will be seen or observed by someone on the Olympic peninsula is not going to change.”

The Navy’s electronic warfare proposal has been in the works since 2010, when the Navy adopted an environmental study that looked at ways its operations in the Northwest might impact wildlife.

It wants to use the signal trucks to more realistically simulate the kind of enemy electronic communications Navy pilots find when they fly over battlefields in the Middle East. EA-18 Growlers based at Whidbey Island have been searching for Islamic State signals on recent deployments to that region.

“I consider the continuing use of that range as key to the mission,” Navy Vice Admiral Mike Shoemaker said on a recent visit to NAS Whibdey Island. He’s the commander of all naval air operations.

Navy officials first signaled their intent to ask the state for permission to use communications trucks on the ground to complement their training over the peninsula in September 2012, when they invited Department of Natural Resources officials to participate in a conference call about the plan.

The Navy also distributed a document describing how the training would work. It invited officials to tour some of the sites, according to an email obtained by The News Tribune.

“Thanks for the information. A quick review has enabled me to decide I do not need to attend in person or, via conference call,” replied a Department of Natural Resources supervisor. He raised some concerns about liability, but said, “This should not be difficult to manage.”

Two years later, when the Navy proposal caught fire among residents, DNR returned to the Navy asking for more information. DNR staffers raised new concerns about equipment, the strength of frequencies and access.

Still, some staffers assumed the project would get a green light.

“It seems as though the Navy has either answered (DNR questions) previously or gave us the opportunity to deal with them earlier. I recommend we give some overarching guidance to them and work with them to adopt,” a DNR environmental review manager wrote to her colleagues in October.

Public comments voicing concerns about the proposal continued to pour inuntil Goldmark in February published his letter indicating DNR preferred not to allow the Navy training.

DNR officials noted that many residents appeared to celebrate his decision in online forums and on social media outlets.

One person, though, sent an email to DNR that indicated he believed the Navy was being treated unfairly.

“Couldn't the U.S. Navy simply purchase some Discover passes and do it, anyway?” he asked.

Matthew Randazzo, Goldmark’s senior adviser, replied to the writer that “passionate resistance from thousands of residents on the Olympic Peninsula caused the agency to take a hard look at the proposal.

This time, DNR leaders concluded they had “serious concerns” about how increased jet noise might impact habitat for endangered species.

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