Forests not the place for training

A proposal by the U.S. Navy to use forest lands on the Olympic Peninsula and elsewhere in the state for electronic warfare training by jets based at Naval Station Whidbey Island has received a “not interested” from the state. The response from the U.S. Forest Service should be the same.

The Navy has sought to increase its use of National Forest and state Department of Natural Resources land west of Olympic National Park, using forest roads open to the public to send out three trucks about the size of a pickup and camper equipped with devices that emit electromagnetic signals. The intent is for Whidbey’s EA-18G Growler jets, flying around 10,000 feet in altitude, to search for and locate the signals and simulate elimination of the targets. Currently, the training is performed in Idaho. The Navy is seeking training closer to the Whidbey base.

The response from state Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark earlier this month was that the state would not be participating in the training exercise. Natural Resources later told the Associated Press that use of the state’s lands for training “would adversely impact the diverse and complex uses that we’re mandated to manage on behalf of the public.”

In addition to the annoyance and noise from increased jet flights over the Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest and the Colville and Okanogan-Wenatchee national forests, there is also a lack of clarity from the Navy about the potential for harm from the electromagnetic signals used in the training.

In its own information about the proposal, the Navy attempts to minimize the risk from the signals, comparing them to the type of emissions from cellphones and Bluetooth devices. The emitters, when in use, would be 14 feet off the ground, directing the signals into the sky. The trucks themselves would be cordoned off in a 100-foot radius with signs reading, “Warning/Radio Frequency Hazard; Personnel Hazard Exists In This Area; Keep Moving.”

But accidental direction of the electronic signals could be a problem for any person, animal or bird in their path. A Navy spokesman told the Peninsula Daily News in October that “if someone is in the exclusion area for more than 15 minutes, that’s a ballpark estimate for when there would be some concern for potential to injure, to receive burns.”

Clearly, this involves signals much stronger than your cellphone or Bluetooth device.

Each truck’s two-person crew would be on hand to tell people not to loiter, but that puts a lot of expectation on how attentive the crews would be.

The Navy completed its own environmental assessment and found no significant impact from its proposal. With a no from the state, the Navy now awaits permission from the U.S. Forest Service.

The need for the Navy to train its fliers for their missions isn’t being challenged, but the potential for harm to people and wildlife calls for conditions and an environment that offer better control and safety than are available in forest lands open to the public. One suggestion for a more suitable site: How about the 327,000 secured acres of Joint Base Lewis McChord’s Yakima Training Center?

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