Judge rules Navy SEALs can’t use Washington parks for training purposes – says their presence is ‘creepy’

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OLYMPIA, WA — A judge ruled that the U.S. Navy SEALs, an elite special operations force, cannot use Washington State parks as training grounds and said that their presence in a nature setting is “creepy.”

In January 2021, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission voted 4-3 to approve the Navy’s proposal to use up to 28 parks for training purposes for the elite units, where SEALs would practice emerging from the water under the cover of darkness and disappear into the environment, according to a report by Navy Times.

However, some outdoor enthusiasts did not appreciate the proposal of military practicing on public lands and were frightened about the prospect of encountering “armed frogmen” who could potentially spy on the public.

Coffee Or Die reported:

“In March of 2021, Whidbey Environmental Action Network (WEAN) filed a petition for judicial review against the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, arguing that the proposed training violates laws that dedicate the parks to the public for recreational and ecological purposes.

“It wants a judge to reverse the commission’s decision and award WEAN attorneys’ fees and other costs.

“WEAN argues many members of the public may avoid state parks for fear of ‘encountering the proposed war games or being spied upon by Navy personnel,’ lawyers for the group wrote in its opening brief, filed last month. ‘It is difficult to find peace in the woods when armed frogmen might be lurking behind every tree.'”

The Northwest News Network reported that the decision upset many recreationalists, who said during public comments they would avoid these areas for fear that SEALs would watch them without the knowledge or consent of visitors:

“On Friday [April 1], Thurston County Superior Court Judge James Dixon said the commission’s decision was illegal and outside its purview, which includes the protection and enhancement of parks.

“In addition, Dixon ruled the commission violated the State Environmental Policy Act by not considering fully how the trainings could deter visitors.

“Opponents of the decision often said the presence of out-of-sight SEAL trainees would incite a ‘creepiness factor,’ removing a sense of calm often found in nature.

“After thinking for days, including on drives to work, Dixon said he couldn’t come up with a better legal term than that.

“‘It is creepy,’ he said.”

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Judge Dixon also said there would be “a significant environmental impact.”

Yet last year, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission posted on its website:

“Staff of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission has issued a SEPA [State Environmental Policy Act] threshold determination for The United States (U.S.) Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC) request to conduct special operations training at 28 state parks and found the proposal does not have a probable significant adverse impact on the environment.

“Pursuant to WAC 197-11-350(3), the Navy’s proposal has been clarified, changed, and conditioned to include necessary mitigation measures.

“The SEPA threshold determination and associated documents can be found here.”

In a letter, Jessica Logan, Environmental Program Manager and the SEPA Responsible Official at Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, confirmed that the Navy requested authorization for several state parks in the following counties:

“Clallam County (Sequim Bay), Grays Harbor County (Twin Harbors, Westport Light), Island County (Cama Beach, Camano Island, Deception Pass, Fort Casey, Fort Ebey, Joseph Whidbey, South Whidbey), Kitsap County (Blake Island, Illahee, Manchester, Shine Tidelands, Scenic Beach), Jefferson County (Dosewallips, Fort Flagler, Fort Townsend, Fort Worden, Mystery Bay, Shine Tidelands, Triton Cove) Pacific County (Cape Disappointment, Fort Columbia, Grayland Beach, Leadbetter Point, Pacific Pines), and Skagit County: (Deception Pass, Hope Island, Skagit Island Marine).”

Northwest News Network reported that at earlier public hearings, officials from the U.S. Navy pointed out that Washington’s natural landscape provides critical cold water training for SEALs:

“Washington’s coastlines and currents pose challenges to SEAL trainees that are difficult to find elsewhere, said Warrant Officer Esteban Alvarado at a Nov. 19, 2020, public meeting, calling the region a critical component in training exercises.

“Previous permits allowed SEAL trainees to enter five state parks. According to Navy officials, Washington coastlines account for some of the only cold water training in the U.S., including limited training in Alaska.”

The judge’s decision can be appealed, according to Northwest News Network.

In 2020, Navy Times reported that COVID-19 was another reason to prevent the SEALs from training at Washington’s parks despite doing so for decades previously:

“As part of an effort to curb large gatherings that can spread the virus, the commission has paused such public hearings, and the Navy’s latest proposal has been shelved for the foreseeable future.”

For years, the Navy SEALs had practiced beach landings, stealth reconnaissance and other critical cold-water operations.

However, citizens and advocacy groups had increasingly attended Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission hearings on SEALs practicing at the parks and voiced concerns about the “special operators creeping around on public lands and watching them from hidden positions,” Navy Times reported.

Larry Morrell, an area activist and member of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network and other activist groups, told Navy Times:

“They land SEALs on the beach, go hide in the bushes and surveil whatever happens in the parks.

“Anyone wandering by … are being observed and potentially there could be some sort of conflict.”

The “conflict” he alluded to was an armed civilian coming across men hiding in the woods.

Morrell suggested a misunderstanding could take place and referenced a 2002 incident in North Carolina where a sheriff’s deputy fatally shot a Green Beret and wounded another soldier during a field exercise that spanned nine counties.

The deputy was unaware that the training was taking place, CNN reported at the time.

Morrell acknowledged that he was not aware of any local incidents involving civilians encountering SEALs during training missions. Yet, he added:

“In this day and age, where you never know who’s got what kind of weapon on them … there could be some very dire consequences.”

The state commission’s website states that it is “not aware of any conflicts between the Navy and the public during training in Washington state parks,” and that “the Navy has protocols in place to stop exercises if a member of the public enters the training area.”

Morrell expressed his concerns about the SEALs damaging the environment:

“Folks understand that SEALs need to be trained. We’ve got a very diverse shoreline, different things we’re trying to protect.”

Morrell told Navy Times he wants to see more transparency from the service and guarantees that they are not harming the environment:

“There’s a solution here, but it involves a Navy change of attitude. They think we’re the enemy, but we could be their friends. It’s a missed opportunity, in my book.”

As a result, Navy officials have held several community outreach meetings and open houses to educate and assuage those with concerns.

Navy Region Northwest spokesman Sean Hughes said SEALs need multiple western Washington sites that can account for seasonal changes, honing of different skill sets and other considerations.

Hughes told Navy Times that SEALs are trained to leave no trace of their presence behind:

“This is their advanced training in really challenging environments. We put them in harm’s way, and we owe them the best training we can give them.

“As part of the rigorous training, the trainees learn skills needed to avoid detection with the goal of leaving no trace of their presence during and after training activities.”

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