Navy SEALs can no longer train in Washington state parks, a judge ruled Friday, April 1, dealing a victory to environmentalists and park enthusiasts who fought the military’s use of public lands.
Opponents had complained that the Navy’s use was akin to war games, and suggested many members of the public may avoid the parks because “armed frogmen might be lurking behind every tree.”
Thurston County Superior Court Judge James Dixon didn’t go that far in his ruling. However, he said that state law specifically directed the Washington State Parks Commission to work with federal agencies to promote recreational activities but that it made no mention of military uses.
“Contracting with the United States military to conduct training exercises is not coordinating with government agencies to promote parks and recreational opportunities. In fact, the opposite is true,” Dixon said during Friday’s hearing, which was held via Zoom and attracted a crowd of nearly 100 observers.
Navy SEALs have conducted cold water training and other special operations exercises in the state’s coastal parks for more than 30 years. The mountain-ringed shorelines of the parks offer unique challenges for commandos to practice clandestine raids and surveillance training, the Navy says, with “cold water, extreme tidal changes, multi-variant currents, low visibility, complex underwater terrain, climate and rigorous land terrain.” The dispute centered primarily on parks near Washington’s Puget Sound, as well as along the state’s southwestern coastline.
The SEALs’ previous five-year agreement to conduct training in five state parks expired in 2020. The service attempted to renew its agreement with the state and expand the number of parks at which it could train to 28 but was met with organized opposition from local residents and park users.
Hundreds of Washingtonians submitted written and oral comments on the proposal, the overwhelming majority of which were opposed. Commenters cited everything from environmental concerns to fears that SEALs would disturb the peace.
“The Navy should practice their war games on their own turf and leave the peace and resplendent majesty of our parks be,” one resident wrote during the public comment period.
In January 2021 the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission voted 4-3 to approve a scaled-back version of the Navy’s original proposal, placing some sensitive areas off-limits to training and restricting the operations to nighttime hours.
Not satisfied by that outcome, an activist group took their complaints to court. Whidbey Environmental Action Network (WEAN) filed a petition in March 2021 for judicial review against the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. The group argued that the proposed training violates laws that dedicate the parks to the public for recreational and ecological purposes.
The State Parks Commission replied that military training is an allowed use of the parks and that all environmental reviews and procedures were completed as necessary under state law.
But judge Dixon disagreed with both contentions Friday, ruling that military use is not authorized under state law and that the commission violated the state’s environmental policy act by not fully considering the “significant adverse impacts” 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 the Navy’s original proposal, training at the parks could involve trainees swimming for up to six hours at a time, carrying rubber replica weapons and other equipment to simulate real missions. During insertion/extraction exercises, trainees would use submersible watercraft, jet skis, or small boats along state park shorelines.
The Navy also hoped to use the parks to conduct over-the-beach training in which service members would “infiltrate” beach areas from , quietly cross the beach, then hike to a designated observation point where they would learn “techniques for conducting reconnaissance without alerting anyone to their presence or location,” according to the proposal. Trainees would aim to go undetected for the duration of the exercise and leave no trace of their presence behind.
The Navy proposal states that trainees would perform reconnaissance on staged activities involving military instructors and support staff, and the parks commission has maintained that the permit conditions prohibit the Navy from surveilling the public.
WEAN, however, argued that public surveillance is inherent within the Navy’s proposal, and that “plainclothes naval personnel will be circulating among the recreating public, surreptitiously observing park users” so staff can intervene if the public gets too close to trainees.
“The public may not know exactly when they are being observed by hidden forces in the parks, but that does not make the surveillance less creepy,” court documents allege. “Instead, it turns public parks into Panopticons.” A panopticon is a theoretical design for a prison system that allows a watchman in a central tower to observe 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 the Navy SEALs will only be active during nighttime hours as the commission states.
The Navy conducted 37 training events at Washington state parks from 2015 through 2020, including insertion and extraction of personnel via watercraft, reconnaissance, diving, and swimming, Navy spokesman Joe Overton told Coffee or Die in a January email. The exercises ranged from a few hours to three days, with groups of eight or fewer trainees plus instructors and safety officers.
The legal battle caused the Navy to halt 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 put on hold again in 2022 pending further review by the parks department, Overton wrote.
Navy officials maintained that there have never been any incidents with park visitors during past exercises, and that the training by its nature requires that trainees leave no trace. Exercises are noninvasive and do not include live-fire ammunition, 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 have countered that the geography of the parks more accurately represents the type of environment personnel may experience on a mission.
“This area provides a unique environment of cold water, extreme tidal changes, multi-variant currents, low visibility, complex underwater terrain, climate and rigorous land terrain, which provides an advanced training environment,” Overton wrote. “Although there are several Navy properties in the area, they do not provide the full range of environments needed for this training to be as realistic as possible.”