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Deception Pass State Park
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Navy SEALS to train in more than a dozen state parks

Deception Pass State Park is one of the parks where Navy SEALS will be allowed to train going forward. (Nicole Jennings/KIRO Radio)

Navy SEALS will be allowed to conduct water and land training activities in up to 17 coastal state parks, as per a 4-3 vote by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission on Thursday.

SEALS, the Navy’s elite special forces, have trained in certain Washington State Parks over the past three decades because the geographical conditions of state parks lend themselves well to the types of special operations activities done.

“I want the women and men in our armed forces to be the best-trained in the world. If we can safely make a sliver of our property available, then that’s what we should do,” said Parks Commission Vice Chair Mark Brown.

The Navy’s most recent five-year permit allowed them to use five state parks between 2015 and 2020. This newest permit would expand that list of usable parks, but not without restrictions.

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The SEALS would have to follow all of the same environmental rules as people using the park. They would have to stay on trails and out of bushes in areas where there are sensitive — endangered or threatened — plants or animals. They also couldn’t disturb eelgrass, a plant important to the ecosystem that is facing decline due to human activity, and could not train during nesting time for sensitive species. The Navy would also need to report any whale sightings.

There are also rules protecting culture. SEALS would need to respect tribal requests to avoid certain sacred areas, and could not disturb tribal fishing or shellfish-digging.

Failure to follow these conditions could cost the Navy its permission to use the parks.

During a public hearing earlier in the week, many park-goers expressed fear over potential harm to the environment, prompting Washington State Parks staff to add some of the rules listed above. They also worried about running into SEALS while at the parks, or being watched by them while recreating.

“Being on a cliffside hike and bumping into a Navy trainee in full gear with a realistic-looking weapon might damage me,” said Jen Mikus of Anacortes during the public comment period. “And it might be the last time I get to appreciate that beauty.”

In response to these issues, the commission added and approved an amendment requiring the Navy only to train at night, when parks would be closed for day use (though some parks might have campers). The amendment also requires the Navy to make a detailed report to the commission after nine months on how the training is going, including any possible instances of SEALS and park visitors coming into contact.

“In over 30 years that Navy SEALS have been conducting exercises in our state parks, we have never had an incident,” said newly-elected Parks Commission Chair Michael Latimer, a Navy veteran himself, during the meeting. “And that’s the point — to be covert, to avoid public contact.”

“You are under more surveillance with the use of your cell phone, your computer, your Smart TV, and other electronic devices,” he added. “… Corporate America knows more about you and your family, your credit history, your spending habits, your cell phone conversations, and your finances than the Navy SEALS could possibly ever learn through training.”

While she supported the amendment, Commissioner Sophia Danenberg said she could not vote for the overall proposal due to the overwhelming amount of negative feedback they had received from the public. Danenberg said the military holds a place near to her heart. Her father served in the military, and she was born on a base in Japan; other close members of her family are still in the service.

“I don’t believe opposing this permit is anti-military,” she said, adding, “I don’t believe this is the best use of our staffing resources. … I think that this will harm the public’s experience in the parks.”

Initially, the Navy had asked for access to 28 parks. This is now reduced to between 16 and 17 parks, 60% of the Navy’s original requested area.

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