Navy SEALs must stop training in Washington state parks, judges rules


Navy SEALs can no longer train in Washington state parks, a judge ruled Friday, April 1, awarding a victory to environmentalists and park enthusiasts who have fought the military’s use of public lands .

Opponents had complained that the Navy’s use was akin to war games and suggested that many members of the public might avoid the parks because “armed frogmen might hide behind every tree.”

Thurston County Superior Court Judge James Dixon did not go that far in his ruling. However, he said state law specifically directs the Washington State Parks Commission to work with federal agencies to promote recreational activities, but makes no mention of military uses.

“Contracting with the US military to conduct training exercises is not coordinating with government agencies to promote parks and recreation opportunities. In fact, the opposite is true,” Dixon said during Friday’s hearing, which was held via Zoom and drew a crowd of nearly 100 observers.

Navy SEALs have conducted cold water training and other special operations exercises at coastal parks around the state for more than 30 years. The parks’ mountain-ringed shores offer unique challenges for commandos to practice clandestine raids and practice surveillance, according to the Navy, with “cold water, extreme tidal shifts, multi-variant currents, low visibility, complex underwater terrain, harsh climate and land”. land.” The dispute primarily involved parks near Washington’s Puget Sound, as well as along the state’s southwest coast.

The SEALs’ previous five-year deal to hold training at five state parks expired in 2020. The service has attempted to renew its deal with the state and expand the number of parks it can train at. at 28, but ran into organized opposition from local authorities. residents and users of the park.

Navy SEALs conduct military dive training May 29, 2019, off the East Coast of the United States. US Navy photo by Senior Mass Communication Specialist Jayme Pastoric.

Hundreds of Washingtonians submitted written and oral documents comments on the proposal, which was overwhelmingly opposed. Commentators have cited everything from environmental concerns to fears that the SEALs are disrupting the peace.

“The Navy should practice its war games on its own turf and let the peace and resplendent majesty of our parks be,” a resident wrote during the public comment period.

In January 2021 the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission voted 4-3 to approve a scaled-down version of the Navy’s original proposal, banning certain sensitive areas from training and limiting operations to nighttime hours.

Dissatisfied with this result, a group of activists filed a complaint in court. Whidbey Environmental Action Network (WEAN) filed a motion in March 2021 for judicial review against the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. The group argued that the proposed formation violates laws that dedicate parks to the public for recreational and ecological purposes.

The State Parks Commission responded that military training is a permitted use of the parks and that all environmental reviews and procedures have been performed as required under state law.

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A coalition of individuals and environmental groups opposes Navy SEALs continuing to train in Washington state parks, arguing that the trainees can disrupt the environment and park visitors. Screenshot via

But Judge Dixon disagreed with both claims on Friday, ruling that the military use is not authorized by state law and that the commission violated the Environmental Policy Act of the State. State by not fully considering the “significant adverse impacts” that the proposed training operations were likely to have.

Dixon also ruled that WEAN is entitled to attorneys’ fees and other costs, the amount of which will be determined at a later date.

According to Original Navy Proposal, training in the parks could involve trainees swimming for up to six hours at a time, carrying replica rubber guns and other gear to simulate real missions. During the insertion/extraction exercises, the trainees used submersibles, jet skis, or small boats along the shores of the state park.

The Navy also hoped to use the parks to conduct beach training in which service members would “infiltrate” the beach areas from , quietly cross the beach, and then walk to a designated vantage point. where they would learn “techniques to conduct reconnaissance without alerting anyone to their presence or location,” according to the proposal. The trainees would aim to go unnoticed for the duration of the exercise and leave no trace of their presence.

The Navy’s proposal stipulates that the trainees would conduct reconnaissance during organized activities involving military instructors and support personnel, and the parks commission argued that permit conditions prohibit the Navy from monitoring the public.

WEAN, however, argued that public surveillance is inherent in the Navy’s proposal and that “naval plainclothes personnel will circulate among the recreating public, surreptitiously observing park users” so personnel can intervene if the public too close to the trainees.

Cape Disappointment is one of 28 parks in Washington State where the Navy has offered to hold training events. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“The public may not know exactly when they are being watched by hidden forces in the parks, but that doesn’t make the surveillance any less frightening,” court documents allege. “Instead, it turns public parks into panopticons.” A panopticon is a theoretical design for a prison system that allows a guard in a central tower to observe the occupants without the occupants knowing when they are being observed.

WEAN also argued that the proposed duration of the training exercises – up to 72 hours – makes it highly unlikely that Navy SEALs will only be active during nighttime hours, as the commission indicates.

The Navy conducted 37 training events at Washington state parks from 2015 to 2020, including personnel insertion and extraction via watercraft, reconnaissance, diving and swimming, the doorman said. – Navy spokesman, Joe Overton. coffee or die in a January email. The exercises lasted from a few hours to three days, with groups of eight or fewer trainees plus instructors and security guards.

The legal battle caused the Navy to suspend special warfare training in the parks for more than a year.

No naval special warfare training was conducted at the parks in 2021, and operations were suspended again in 2022 pending further review by the parks department, Overton wrote.

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Navy SEALs have suspended training exercises at Washington state parks amid ongoing legal challenges. US Navy photo.

Navy officials maintained that there had never been any incidents with visitors to the park in past exercises and that the training, by its nature, requires trainees to leave no traces. The drills are non-invasive and do not include live-fire munitions, explosive demolitions, off-road driving or other destructive activities, according to Overton.

Critics have argued that the Navy should use the 46 miles of Washington coastline already under its jurisdiction for exercises rather than state parks. Navy officials countered that the parks geography more accurately represents the type of environment personnel may encounter while on a mission.

“This area offers a unique environment of cold water, extreme tidal changes, multi-variant currents, low visibility, complex underwater terrain, harsh climate and land terrain, which provides an advanced training environment” , wrote Overton. “While there are several Navy properties in the area, they do not provide the full range of environments necessary for this training to be as realistic as possible.”

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