Western Washington: Navy SEALs extend training 8 weeks longer in sensitive habitat areas, exclude wildlife agencies

From West Coast Action Alliance

February 23, 2016 – New documents show Navy SEALs training 8 weeks longer than previously thought: Federal wildlife agencies excluded.

1 Where the Birds are - arcgis viewer

Where the seabirds are. The darker the color, the more birds. See key below for actual numbers, but in the purple grids there can be more than 3,000 seabirds in a 2-mile area. Click image to enlarge it.

2 Where the birds are - key

This is what’s happening on 68+ beaches and State Parks in western Washington:

3 SEALs coming ashore

An email and an internal draft of a biological assessment obtained by the West Coast Action Alliance reveal the Navy’s intent to extend their secret and massive SEALs training program on 68+ beaches and Washington State Parks from January 1 to May 31, 2016, and to bypass consultations with federal wildlife agencies. The two Navy slide shows previously obtained by Truthout (12,) had indicated the training would start in mid-January and conclude in mid-April.

Springtime is when places like the Salish Sea are vital for nesting birds. Nursing whale mothers don’t like disturbance, either.

A photogrammetry image of the entire I16 matriline of Northern Resident killer whales taken in 2014. This image shows the size of whales at different ages. Note the small, gray calf in the middle (I144), only a few months old, swimming to the right of its mother (I51). To the left of the mother is the calf’s older sibling (I129). Images to be used for health assessment. Credit: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium. Taken by UAV from above 90 feet under Fisheries and Oceans Canada research permit and Transport Canada flight authorization. More information at http://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/podcasts/2015/10/uav_killer_whale.html

A photogrammetry image of the entire I16 matriline of Northern Resident killer whales taken in 2014. This image shows the size of whales at different ages. Note the small, gray calf in the middle (I144), only a few months old, swimming to the right of its mother (I51). To the left of the mother is the calf’s older sibling (I129). Images to be used for health assessment. Credit: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium.

These documents, from December 2015, contradict the statement made by a Navy spokesperson in January, who said: “As far as I know, everything is in the very, very beginning planning stages, period. There has been no decision made on anything. Everything is speculation at this point.”

Read it for yourself. Does this look like “beginning stages?” Is it speculation? The Navy doesn’t waste its time doing biological assessments for “speculation.” The purpose for this one was to justify avoiding consultations with federal agencies. It was done 15 days before the training was to start. That’s not enough time to do anything but try to cover one’s legal backside.

list of training sites for 2016 is included. Which means the other training sites in the two slide shows were for previous years. Which means decisions have been made, and it’s game on. From reading the multiple documents and in the absence of further information from wildlife agencies, it should be assumed that the SEAL combat training has been taking place in these areas since 2014.

5 plover nest

What some nests look like. Think they’ll see that in the dark?

According to the Navy’s internal biological assessment, the purpose of the training is “to provide a “real world” environment for Special Forces personnel to practice stealth tactics” (translate: in civilian communities) and “to maneuver in the water and across land undetected.” It acknowledged that by law the Navy must assess impacts to endangered species, and it laid out three choices: No effect; May affect; and May affect, likely to adversely affect. It also acknowledged the requirement to consult with federal agencies if any impacts were anticipated; this obligation extends to assessing impacts to Essential Fish Habitat, under the Magnusen-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and consulting with the State and with the National Marine Fisheries Service if any impacts are anticipated.

6 Plover on nest

A plover on its nest on the beach.

The “problem” was neatly solved by the Navy claiming in its internal biological assessment that since there would be no impacts, there would be no need to consult with the agencies. That equaled no notification at all. A call to the Fish and Wildlife Service in January confirmed that they had had no idea that the massive SEALs training program was about to begin for 2016, and no idea that it had been occurring since 2014. The FWS confirmed a keen interest in consulting with the Navy about potential impacts.

7 Salmon habitat

UW map showing critical habitat for Chinook Salmon, Steelhead Trout, Chum Salmon, and the Puget Sound Chinook Salmon. And the Navy didn’t bother to tell wildlife agencies?

Some logical conclusions:

  • One would think that commandeering 68+ beaches and State Parks from January 1 through late Spring might affect nesting birds and other sensitive species, and therefore be of interest to wildlife agencies.
  • One might rightfully question the Navy’s own expertise in assessing impacts to wildlife, since it has called whales “obstacles to safe navigation” in reports and says the purpose of its Joint Land Use Plans with communities is to ensure the Navy’s own activities continue unimpeded.
  • Given that the Navy refuses to allow wildlife agencies to assist them with the training they need to recognize sensitive species, one might question the above even more.
  • One would be correct in assuming a public process is required in order to close off access to public lands. The answer to “Aren’t such arbitrary and unannounced closures outside the law?” is yes.
  • Even if they get in and out undetected, it’s still psychologically intrusive for users of those beaches and State Parks, the mission for which includes not one word about “Realistic Military Training.” It’s disturbing to think of having armed Navy SEAL kill teams practicing in the midst of families enjoying their State Parks. (Read the two slide shows to confirm the fact that these teams will be armed.)
  • We should all be questioning the “wisdom” of normalizing military combat training in civilian communities where it does not normally occur.

So, after all this, could anyone claim with a straight face that the Navy is even trying to be a good neighbor?

8 CL_Birds_Puffin_byCHansonOCA

Tufted puffin, a species in decline. Photo credit: C. Hanson.

Obviously, not everything the Navy does can be public knowledge. But to conceal such a massive program from state and federal agencies is inexcusable. While the West Coast Action Alliance is not against training our military, we object to doing it in the places where we live, work, and recreate. We object to concealing it from appropriate oversight of state and federal agencies. And the fact that public informed consent is completely absent from any of the Navy’s massive encroachments on our communities and the wildlife in this region merely adds insult to injury.

Navy SEALs training 8 weeks longer than expected, wildlife agencies excluded

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