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Environmental group sues Washington State Parks over proposed Navy SEAL training

Illahee State Park (Dyknowsore/WikiCommons)

The U.S. Navy’s controversial use of Washington’s state parks for training exercises is the subject of a lawsuit filed Monday in Thurston County.

The Whidbey Environmental Action Committee (WEAN) is suing the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission in order to overturn a Jan. 28 decision that approved the Navy’s proposal to use up to 28 state parks for special operations training.

WEAN said the parks commission violated the State Environmental Policy Act by “failing to take a searching, realistic look at the proposal’s adverse environmental impacts,” according to the complaint.

A spokesperson for the parks department declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying it would respond to allegations through the judicial process.

“The scope of military training operations that the commission approved is so vague that there is no way of telling what the impacts might be,” said Bryan Telegrin, an attorney representing WEAN. “The commission could’ve waited, reserving judgment until the Navy clarifies its intent. It chose to jump the gun without knowing what it’s jumping into.”

State parks staff did a State Environmental Policy Act impact review before approving the proposal and found the training would have “no significant adverse impact” on the parks.

The complaint also alleges that the commission violated state law governing the use of public lands.

Steve Erickson, litigation coordinator for WEAN, told The News Tribune many of the commissioners pointed out how inconsistent the Navy’s training would be with the mission of the state parks.

“This sets a disastrous precedent for all public lands in Washington,” Erickson said. “If this stands, no public lands are safe from being taken over for military training.”

The Navy’s proposal was passed in a 4-3 vote, with those commissioners opposed to the training arguing it does not consistently meet the mission of the parks commission.

“We’re not being asked to judge whether the training is necessary for the Navy or which of the parks are appropriate for this training,” said commissioner Ken Bounds. “What we’re being asked is whether military training is especially suitable or compatible with the mission of the state parks. The clear majority of park users don’t think so.”

In an interview with The News Tribune after the January decision, Commissioner Mark Brown, who voted to approve the proposal, said he took “no pleasure” in voting against what members of the public wanted.

“Sometimes you have to think beyond what is good for the parks and think about what is good for the state and for the nation,” Brown said. “If we can provide a small sliver of state parks where they can do that training, then I want to do that.”

WEAN is also part of the newly formed Not In Our Parks coalition which is planning a “day of action” at a number of Washington’s state parks March 13.

Organizer Allison Warner said the action is not intended to be a protest, rather an opportunity to inform park-goers of the commission’s decision and how it will affect them.

“We invite everyone to ‘adopt’ a nearby park and join us for the day of action,” said Warner. “There will be simple actions to help educate others who value our parks for recreation and nature appreciation.”

The 28 parks where the Navy could conduct the training include Blake Island, Cama Beach, Camano Island, Cape Disappointment, Deception Pass, Dosewallips, Fort Casey, Fort Columbia, Fort Ebey, Fort Flagler, Fort Townsend, Fort Worden, Grayland Beach, Hope Island, Illahee, Joseph Whidbey, Leadbetter Point, Manchester, Mystery Bay, Pacific Pines, Scenic Beach, Sequim Bay, Shine Tidelands, Skagit Island Marine, South Whidbey, Triton Cove, Twin Harbors and Westport Light.

The Navy has been conducting training exercises in state parks for years. In 2015, the Naval Special Warfare Group 3, based at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado in San Diego, California, was granted a five-year permit to conduct training in five Washington parks. That permit expired in May 2020. A spokesman for Washington State Parks said the Navy’s use of the parks “predates agency records” but estimated it goes back at least 30 years.

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