Growlers, residents find uneasy peace

Local efforts on Olympic Peninsula aim to lessen Navy’s presence

Naval Air Station Whidbey Island complex officials have been transitioning their electronic attack squadrons from the Prowler to Growler aircraft since 2008. The transition is to be complete next year.

Naval Air Station Whidbey Island complex officials have been transitioning their electronic attack squadrons from the Prowler to Growler aircraft since 2008. The transition is to be complete next year.

What value does a moment of silence within nature have?

The question of values and quality of life are recently at the heart of some Olympic Peninsula residents as they work to protect one of the world’s few regions that support temperate rain forests.

For 38 years, officials at the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island complex have conducted electronic warfare training within Northwest Training and Testing areas, including at the Olympic Military Operations Areas that spans across portions of the Olympic Peninsula and extends off the coastline into the Pacific Ocean.

Despite the Navy’s historical presence, within the past year a notice calling for changes to the training activities within the local training complex spurred concern among nearby communities.

Such changes include the Navy’s continued effort to replace the EA-6B Prowler, the Navy’s first dedicated electronic attack aircraft, with EA-18G Growler and the use of a fixed electronic transmitter on Navy property at Pacific Beach and up to three mobile electronic signal transmitter vehicles throughout U.S. Forest Service and Washington State Department of Natural Resources lands.

The outfitted vehicles are aimed at providing a more “realistic” training scenario for the aircrew training for aviators from electronic warfare squadrons, Mike Welding, Navy public affairs officer, said.

“Effective electronic warfare training requires sources of electromagnetic energy that simulate systems operated by enemy combatants,” according to the 2014 Pacific Northwest EW Range Environmental Assessment. “The emitters will be frequently relocated among the selected sites, challenging crews in determining the emitter’s location.”

Based on planning and analysis within the 2014 Pacific Northwest EW Range Environmental Assessment, “over the course of a year, each mobile emitter would be driven out to one of the 15 sites in the Olympic Military Operations Areas approximately 260 times,” according to the assessment.

The assessment estimates that given the available flying days per year, the mobile emitters would need to support about 11 training events a day, for a total of about 2,900 year. To do so, it’s estimated the mobile emitters would need to operate eight to 16 hours a day.

However, to pursue their plans to incorporate the vehicles, Navy officials need permission from the U.S. Forest Service and Washington State Department of Natural Resources to access a possible 15 locations within Clallam, Jefferson and Grays Harbor counties.

In February, Peter Goldmark, Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands, sent notice to Navy of the Department of Natural Resources’s disinterest in allowing road access to the Navy.

“DNR land as been publicly discussed as a location for the Navy’s proposed electromagnetic warfare training on the Olympic Peninsula,” he wrote in his letter. “Though we have not received a formal land use or lease application for this project, we feel that we are adequately informed to decide that we would not be interested in participating in this training exercise.”

Hoping officials with the U.S. Forest Service will follow Goldmark’s lead, about 50 activists, many from Clallam and Jefferson counties, traveled to the Olympic Forest Service’s headquarters in Olympia on Sept. 23 to deliver a petition opposing the use of Olympic National Forest for the Navy’s proposed enhanced electronic warfare training.


Petition opposes use of U.S. Forest Service roads

The petition had more than 125,000 signatures from people locally and worldwide.

The decision of whether officials with the Forest Service will grant the Navy access has been pushed from mid-month to early next year, Linda Sutton, activist with Protect the Peninsula, an opposition group based out of Jefferson County.

“This was just one of those things getting rubber stamped through,” she said.

Beverly Goldie, a Clallam County resident living in Blyn with her husband Doug, is president of the Clallam County-based opposition group Save The Olympic Peninsula and accompanied Sutton to Olympia.

While in Olympia, those delivering the petition one-by-one stated in one word what the Olympic Peninsula meant to them, Beverly Goldie said. The themes that emerged were words like “spiritual, sanctity and sacred.”

“There’s no environmental impact statement; there’s no policy and procedure in forest service or park handbooks; there’s no regulations of the Navy that address these themes — yet they were the reoccurring and most meaningful to the people that live here,” she said.

Beverly and Doug Goldie first became involved with the community push back toward the local use of mobile emitters and associated Growlers because of their shared appreciation for the area’s quiet beauty and the overall health and function of the ecosystems.

“The initial reason for getting involved is that we were concerned about the creatures, biodiversity and delicate ecosystem that it takes to keep this beautiful peninsula like it is,” Beverly Goldie said.

The Goldies’ reasons for being involved morphed within the past six months to beyond concerns of the area’s natural systems, but on to a personal level.

Despite their many calls to the Navy’s complaint hotline regarding jet noise, they’ve received few call backs.

“The last time anyone called us back was on June 24,” Doug Goldie said.

As both previous teachers and school principals in California, the Goldies moved to Blyn in 2010 and don’t recall the noise of Navy aircraft posing disruption.

Although the Navy’s use of the Olympic Peninsula as a training area has been ongoing, Beverly Goldie targets the transition from one type of aircraft to another as one reason for the increased noise and flyovers.


Changing aircraft

Since 2008, officials at the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island complex have been transitioning their electronic attack squadrons from the Prowler to Growler aircraft. The transition is to be complete next year. Additionally, the increase of electronic attack squadrons operations at the Whidbey Island complex and the increase of up to 36 Growlers are being evaluated within the Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement that’s in the drafting phase.

The draft Growler Environmental Impact Statement is expected for release in spring 2016 to undergo the public review process and comment period.

“The Navy likes to say they have been training here for over 40 years,” Beverly Goldie said. “But the planes that were flying here 40 years ago are not the same planes that are flying today and the planes that are flying today are not the same that were flying a couple of years ago.”

Based on the Navy’s findings of the noise study conducted for the 2012 Environmental Assessment, the sound level exposure of a Growler is one decibel louder during arrival than the Prowler, but it also notes a Growler is 2-8 decibels quieter in other flight profiles.

“The enhanced equipment (mobile emitters) haven’t been put into place yet,” Welding said. “I think there’s a heightened sense of awareness.”

However, based on the Goldies’ experience within past six months and audible and visible presence of Growlers flying over their home, they aren’t convinced it’s simply their level of awareness.

“I think it’s unwise to deny people’s experiences,” said Diana Somerville, a lifelong environmentalist and longtime Clallam County resident.


Values

Somerville sees the opposition to the Navy’s plans as issue centered on the methodology and values more than anything else.

“Maybe we need to change the conversation from how much can we stand to what does it mean to us to have this quality of life and quiet,” she said.

The pristine and natural beauty found within the forests and coastline of the Olympic Peninsula “can’t be taken for granted anymore,” Somerville said. “We need local leaders to stand up.”

The Goldies and Somerville agree the Navy and its need to train isn’t the problem, but it’s the location. The Olympic National Park borders portions of the Olympic Military Operations Areas where the use of mobile emitters and corresponding Growlers are proposed to train. Worldwide, the park is one of 197 natural sites on the World Heritage list under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

However, the unique location also makes for an ideal location for the Navy’s electronic warfare training.

“The airspace in the Pacific Northwest is relatively uncongested compared to other areas, and the varied, mountainous terrain provides a high-quality, realistic training environment for aircrews,” according to Navy officials. Other benefits include, but aren’t limited to, the Olympic Peninsula has the mild weather for year-round flying and proximity to coastal regions as well as existing military training routes result in more efficient training.


Growlers and mobile emitters

Understanding the relationship between the mobile emitters and Growlers, Beverly Goldie and members of the Save The Olympic Peninsula, which held its first meeting last December and received its 501(c)3 status in June, are targeting the mobile emitters to lessen the local Growler activity.

“Our goal is that use of the Forest Service roads would be denied to the Navy for the use of electronic warfare emitters,” Beverly Goldie said.

Without the use of the mobile emitters, then the number of Growlers and increased training events wouldn’t be necessary, she explained.

Electronic warfare training already is being conducted in the Olympic Military Operations Areas, but the Navy’s proposed training changes result in an estimated 10 percent increase to current operations, amounting to less than one additional flight per day.

As is, Welding said, the number of Growler flights to the Olympic Military Operations Areas average about four flights per day. Though, because the Growlers aren’t flown everyday, more may occur on one day and then none the next.

 

Flights near Sequim

En route to the Olympic Peninsula from the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island complex, two flight paths are located near Sequim, Welding said.

When going to the Olympic Peninsula, the Growlers that pass over the Sequim area are usually at about 16,000 feet in altitude, but on their return flight, the pilots drop to about 7,800 feet as they glide and descend toward the air station.

However, responding to residents that continue to express concern related to the Growlers and noise they produce, a group of city officials, including Sequim City Manager Charlie Bush, visited the air station on Aug. 21.

The trip was in lieu of Navy officials visiting Sequim to host a public meeting.

The Navy has no plans to hold a public meeting in Sequim because the meetings the Navy did hold on the Olympic Peninsula proved “unproductive,” Welding said.

“Activists took over the meetings,” he said.

Having heard the concerns and experiences of residents and having visited the air station, Bush admits, “It’s hard to really know what the facts are.”

In some cases, the complaints about Growlers may be cases of “mistaken” identity, Bush said, as the Navy’s aircraft only make up a small portion of the overall air traffic surrounding Sequim.

Bush aims to monitor the effectiveness of the Navy’s jet noise complaint hotline. If the noise complaints persist and go unaddressed by the Navy, then he anticipates getting more involved.

“The reality is we have a naval air base nearby and we all have to figure out how to make it work together,” Bush said. “My role here is to minimize the impacts to the city, preserve quality of life and working relationships.”

Bush encourages all residents experiencing bothersome Growler activity to call the Navy’s hotline, at 360-257-6665. If the Navy is not responsive, he encourages residents to communicate their experience to city officials and the city council.

Additional ways of involvement include reaching out to organizations like Save The Olympic Peninsula, writing letters, speaking with local state representatives and local government officials.


Northwest Training and Testing EIS to be released soon

Along with the Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement for the Growlers, officials are in the midst of completing the Northwest Training and Testing Environmental Impact Statement that also includes the Navy’s offshore operations. The final draft includes the Navy’s “need to support and conduct current, emerging and future training and testing activities in the Northwest Training and Testing Study Area,” according to its draft.

The final Environmental Impact Statement is expected to be publicly available early this month, John Mosher, Northwest environmental program manager for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said. The release of the assessment will be followed by a 30-day grace period per the National Environmental Policy Act to allow for public review.

The final Environmental Impact Statement will address all the comments made on the draft and its supplement, Mosher said. About 2,000 comments were received.

For more information on the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island complex Growler Environmental Impact Statement, visit www.whidbeyeis.com. To learn more about Save The Olympic Peninsula, visit savetheolympicpeninsula.org. For more information by the Navy, visit www.cnic.navy.mil/regions/cnrnw/installations/nas_whidbey_island/om/environmental_support.html.

Reach Alana Linderoth at alinderoth@sequimgazette.com.

 

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