When an Air Force survival school searched for a spot to teach pilots how to build fires in a rainforest, it landed on one of the wettest, darkest locations in the continental United States.
“Twilight” fans can guess the spot. The Air Force picked a state-managed forest outside Forks, securing permission to stoke campfires for nine days in protected woods near the Calawah River.
“I understand that fire is an integral part of their survival training and an important part of surviving in a rainforest,” an official with the state Department of Natural Resources wrote in granting the request in the fall of 2010.
A review of a decade’s worth of special use permits shows federal and state officials have a long tradition of granting military requests to use public forests for unusual training events.
Usually, no one notices.
But that run of uncontested training is coming to an end as the military simultaneously pursues three high-profile requests to use land for events that have the potential to put much more hardware on the ground in remote places.
Thousands of people have written letters protesting the plans, and one movement even appealed to the United Nations for help in blocking a Navy proposal.
“I’m not against, at all, any military training. However, it is very disturbing when training happens on public lands that are supposedly protected,” said Connie Gallant of the Olympic Forest Coalition, an activist who has been fighting the Navy proposals with public outreach that has drawn protests from all over the world.
The military’s wish list for the Evergreen State includes:
▪ An Army proposal that would allow helicopters from Joint Base Lewis-McChord to touch down at several high-altitude sites in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest as well as in lowlands in southwestern Washington.
▪ A Navy plan that would let it drive satellite trucks on old logging roads in the Olympic, Okanogan and Colville national forests to participate in exercises with EA-18 Growler electronic warfare jets flying overhead from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
▪ A still-developing proposal from the Naval Special Warfare Command that might open up dozens of sites along Puget Sound for Navy SEAL training. Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park and Gig Harbor’s marina are two sites included an early draft of the plan.
Army and Navy supporters in the region say the requests would help the military modernize training for Navy pilots scraping electronic communication signals over Iraq and Army helicopter crews that might be asked to navigate Afghanistan’s two-mile-high peaks.
“We live in challenging times,” said William Reeder, a retired Army colonel in Seabeck who commanded a helicopter squadron at Fort Lewis in the 1980s and a member of the clique of retired officers who speak up for the military in the Northwest.
“I would hope the military does its due diligence to train safely and collaborate with the citizenry. I would hope at the same time that our citizenry understands the importance of this training and that the occasions when they see a helicopter up there flapping around, they look at it and smile and appreciate its role in our national defense.”
It might take years to settle the conflicts over the military’s requests.
Here’s a primer on what the services want, what they have and what might lie ahead as they pursue the new training plans.
Who’s upset by these new proposals?
The Navy’s proposal for enhanced electronic warfare training ignited a groundswell of international protests in 2014. Some opponents paraded outside the Olympic National Forest office in Olympia; others cornered Navy officials at public meetings on the Olympic Peninsula.
Many more fired off sharply worded letters to the U.S. Forest Service, focusing on potential effects on migrating wildlife or hypothetical harm to humans if someone happened to spend too much time near one of the satellite trucks.
The activism prompted the agency to take a deeper look at a plan that until then had seemed uncontroversial to state and federal officials.
Until the protests started, state and federal officials viewed the request as simply a proposal to drive trucks on public roads into national forests. Jets overhead would search for communication signals emitted by the trucks. The jets already fly over the peninsula in a military training area, meaning there would be little change in noise from the sky.
“The transmitter trucks will provide better quality training for aircrews before they deploy and potentially have to operate in harm’s way. If the special use permits are not approved, the aircraft will continue to fly in this area, but training will not be as effective,” Navy Region Northwest spokeswoman Sheila Murray said in a written statement.
That explanation doesn’t hold for some environmentalists.
Groups such the Olympic Forest Coalition and West Coast Action Alliance want more studies on how the communication signals might affect wildlife, and they do not trust the Navy’s descriptions of how pilots would interact with the trucks.
“The environmental damage that will be sustained from radiation emitters and 10-fold Growler jet traffic cannot be overstated,” one Port Angeles resident wrote, citing her fears that people would suffer hearing loss and that the training would damage pristine habitats.
In October, protesters delivered an online petition with more than 110,000 signatures to the Forest Service. They’ve also appealed to the United Nations for help in securing greater environmental protections because of the forest’s proximity to the UNESCO World Heritage site that is Olympic National Park
Some of that activism carried over to the Army last summer when it announced it was developing a proposal to create high-altitude helicopter landing zones in the North Cascades. It received more than 2,300 comments about the plan.
In the 1980s — when Fort Lewis had a helicopter fleet almost twice as big as it does today — the Army had permits to train near Mount Baker and in Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
It let them expire in the Gulf War drawdown, when Fort Lewis closed its active-duty helicopter units.
Today, JBLM has about 140 helicopters, and base officials say their training is concentrated in the South Sound partly because the Army does not have permits to land elsewhere.
“Creating off-base training areas and landing zones would allow aviators to shift rotary wing training away from populated, built-up areas near JBLM — reducing activity over local airports and communities,” a base spokesman wrote in a statement on behalf of aviation officials who did not want to be interviewed.
Opponents of the new Army proposal include environmentalists who worry about the effects of increased helicopter flights in wilderness as well as several small businesses in communities that rely on tourism to fuel their economies.
Those business owners are especially concerned about a proposed landing zone near Icicle Creek, a designated wilderness area that lures hikers, bikers and mountaineers to the area.
“We’re a tourist community, and we have a lot of recreation,” said Pam Brulette, owner of Icicle Brewery in Leavenworth and one of several business owners who wrote to the Army, opposing the helicopter plan.
“One thing about the training grounds and that kind of training up and down the Icicles is it’s just such a pristine area. It’s important to protect it. I feel like there might be a better location in our state.”
Where does military training take place now?
Just about everywhere.
The largest military training permit on public land in Washington belongs to the survival school at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane. It uses about 375,000 acres in Colville National Forest, where it teaches about 2,500 pilots every year how to live off the land if they crash in enemy territory.
They learn how to make shelters, resist interrogation and feed themselves on whatever they can find.
“For food, we set up traps to catch small animals like squirrels and rabbits. We’d try to find the roots or like little berries to survive off, or small insects,” said Staff Sgt. Zak LaFlamme, 29, a loadmaster in JBLM’s 10th Airlift Squadron who took the course three years ago.
“Worms were a good source of food to eat. Some of the ants, that was like a dessert, I guess you could say,” he said.
Until two years ago, the Army had access to 5,000 acres in Olympic National Forest. It’s renegotiating its permit, a Forest Service spokesman said. The old one required the Army to call ahead before training events and clear individual plans with forest officials.
A smaller perennial permit belongs to the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. It has a five-acre landing zone in Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
That unit trains to deliver Special Operations troops to dangerous locations in combat. It calls ahead before using the forest.
“It’s helpful for us because we like to train in all different types of environments,” said Capt. Eric Hudson, a spokesman for the regiment. “It helps them perform when they have to perform.”
Elsewhere, Air Force squadrons and the National Guard have permits allowing them to train at national forests in Washington and Oregon. Navy Special Warfare Command has entry permits that allow SEALs to conduct basic swimming, diving and boating exercises at five state parks, including Blake Island and Mystery Bay.
Aside from the big multiyear permits, Special Operations units frequently apply for short-term access to national forests and state land for low-impact training.
The events do not involve weapons. Usually, they look like military service members hiking or swimming to test themselves in different environments.
JBLM’s 1st Special Forces Group, for instance, is a frequent user at Capitol State Forest south of Olympia and in the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest.
It takes to the locations to train mountaineering specialists and to practice land navigation, according to the permits. Those are the kinds of activities its Green Berets can’t accomplish on the state’s military bases.
“As large as Joint Base Lewis-McChord and (the Army’s) Yakima Training Center are — and they are big — they still do not necessarily give us everything we need,” said Col. Steve Johnson, 1st Group’s deputy commander. “We have requirements to have such diverse skill sets.”
Why weren’t people upset about the nine multiyear permits the military already has for training at national forests in Oregon and Washington?
The difference between what the military can do now and what it is requesting seems to center on scale.
The Army’s initial helicopter proposal wanted landing zones in a national forest to be available “day and night, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”
It picked eight sites for its proposal, seven of which are on the eastern side of Okanogan-Wenatchee and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forests. Each would be a few acres of fairly clear terrain that would allow crews to practice landing and taking off at high elevations.
Similarly, the Navy’s electronic warfare proposal states it might put trucks at sites in the forests 260 days a year. The forthcoming Navy SEAL proposal, meanwhile, might seek access to almost 70 sites, including Point Defiance Park.
“It’s so massive that it just makes you wonder why are they doing this?” said Karen Sullivan of West Coast Action Alliance. She’s been critical of the scope of the military training proposals and what she perceives as its failure to notify the public about its plans.
By contrast, the multiyear permits the military has now are for well-defined exercises that typically apply to one unit using one location.
The Gifford Pinchot permit, for instance, allows flights from only one Army Special Operations unit at JBLM.
The exception to the rule is the Air Force survival school in Eastern Washington that uses hundreds of thousands of acres controlled by the Forest Service and the Natural Resources Department.
It’s a well-established program dating back to the 1960s that requires the Air Force to maintain roads and practice environmental stewardship, according to its permit. The Forest Service has not received complaints about the permit and it views the Air Force as a partner in managing the landscape.
Why isn’t the 327,000-acre Yakima Training Center enough land for Northwest military units?
The Army’s training center is huge, and soldiers make heavy use of it.
The proving ground lets infantry and artillery units at JBLM conduct large-scale drills they can’t practice at their home station.
A typical culminating exercise calls on an infantry commander to coordinate a movement of soldiers on foot with artillery booming overhead and Apache attack helicopters moving into the same space.
It’s complex training that mimics the kind of resources a commander would have in a war. It rarely happens at JBLM because of restrictions on ranges here.
“They just don’t have the room to train folks the way they need to train,” Yakima Training Center Commander Lt. Col. Jason Evers told The Yakima Herald Republic in October. “Out here, we’ve got a lot more freedom. There’s no public roads across the training center, and we own our own airspace.”
In 2014, an average of 1,200 soldiers used its training grounds every day, he said. They require a lot of space because they practice with live weapons.
The air space also can get crowded in Yakima with Army helicopters and drone units vying for time in the sky.
In some cases, the high desert landscape at the range does not offer the right kind of terrain for training.
The Air Force survival school, for example, wants participants to learn how to make due in different kinds of forested environments. With few trees in Yakima, the Air Force would struggle to coach pilots on how to live in woodlands.
“A tree is a tree is a tree, whether it’s in a rainforest or a polar environment. If you have that material, you can make the leap between the different biomes. If you don’t have it, it makes it difficult,” said Todd Foster, the training area manager for the Air Force Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape school at Fairchild.
Similarly, the pending proposal from the Navy SEALs is designed to take advantage of distinct environments along Puget Sound.
“We’ve been fighting wars in very specific lcoations, but that doesn’t meant tomorrow that will be the same standard,” Foster said.
What’s next for the big proposals?
The three major proposals have a long way to go before people might see new kinds of training in public forests.
The Army has not yet officially submitted its helicopter training proposal to the Forest Service. It’s considering feedback from residents and refining the plan before turning it over for a more thorough environmental study.
A new version of the proposal is expected to be released late this year. It would go to the Forest Service, and the public could comment on it before the government approves any helicopter landing zones in the North Cascades.
The Navy SEAL plan — a copy of which was leaked to an activist group in January — also is still in military hands.
Navy officials are considering which sites they want to pursue and which agencies they need to notify to comply with federal environmental laws.
A Navy spokesman said the military intends to follow the law, and the public will be able to weigh in on that proposal, too.
The Navy’s electronic warfare proposal is the furthest along.
The Forest Service is responding to the thousands of letters from people regarding the Navy’s electronic warfare proposal while it conducts a final environmental study on a plan the military has been developing since 2011.
If the Forest Service determines the new training does not pose a serious threat to wildlife or public access, the Navy will be able to proceed with its enhanced electronic warfare plan.
Some of the letters from activists suggest they might be preparing to sue if the Forest Service allows the training.
“We do not accept the unprecedented encroachment by the military on public lands and waters and in the airspace over our communities without a fair chance to be heard, as provided by law,” Sullivan, Gallant and two colleagues wrote in an October letter to the Forest Service.
The group suggested the Navy accommodate them to “avoid further deepening this crisis and the legal challenges that will most assuredly follow.”