Council Questions Navy’s Use of Sanctuary for Training


An advisory group for Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary says the Navy should not be allowed to expand its training range within the sanctuary off the Washington coast.

The Navy’s plan to expand the offshore Quinault Underwater Training Range from 48 square miles to 1,854 square miles has drawn fire from numerous environmental groups. Some are hoping that a new administration headed by President-elect Barack Obama could change the Navy’s stance, which they say has become fairly dismissive of environmental concerns.

The Navy’s expanded training range and activities would likely damage habitats for all kinds of marine life while creating conflicts with ongoing activities within the sanctuary, according to the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.

“The advisory council believes that the needs of the Navy and the interests of the public could have been better served if there had been an alternative that included a much smaller … operating area,” the council said in a letter. The council also calls for locating a proposed beach-landing site outside the sanctuary.

Landing vehicles on the beach and other activities within the “surf zone” are likely to disturb habitats and organisms that reside near the shore, said the letter, written following a unanimous vote of the advisory council.

Bob Steelquist, education coordinator for the Olympic Coast sanctuary, said the advisory council does not speak for the sanctuary itself, but it represents a community of concerned stakeholders.

“We take what they tell us seriously, and we expect others in government also to take them seriously,” Steelquist said. Sanctuary managers and researchers have produced technical information that will be passed through internal channels for use in interagency discussions, he said.

Meanwhile, nine environmental groups have joined the Natural Resources Defense Council in objecting to findings in the Navy’s environmental analysis. The Navy failed to consider all the harms that could come to marine mammals, including Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales, the groups said in a 40-page letter.

“Many of the exercises proposed would employ sonar, which has been implicated in mass injuries and mortalities of whales around the globe,” the letter states. “The same technology is known to affect marine mammals in countless other ways, inducing panic responses, displacing animals and disrupting crucial behavior such as foraging. The extension would also affect fisheries and essential fish habitat, damage hard-bottom habitat and release a variety of hazardous materials into coastal waters.”

Navy officials say the expanded ranges off the coast, near Keyport and in Hood Canal are needed to test new technologies for manned and unmanned vessels. More room is needed to maneuver, the Navy says, and the watercraft need to be tested in a diversity of sea conditions, water depths and bottom types.

In addition to expanding the size of the coastal range, the preferred alternative would allow landing craft to come ashore at the popular Kalaloch Beach, although other alternatives would be to use Pacific Beach to the south or Ocean City, farther south and outside the sanctuary.

Activities in the surf zone would be conducted about 30 days per year, while offshore activities would increase from 14 to 16 days per year.

The Navy’s analysis anticipates no deaths to marine mammals from the activities, while any effects would be temporary. No significant harm would come to fish, seabirds or invertebrates, they say.

Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth, contends the Navy’s analysis is flawed in many ways. He said he hopes a new Obama administration will address the problem by revising the environmental impact statement and allowing further comments.

“I think that any administration would be more responsive than the current one,” Felleman said, noting that the Navy simultaneously released environmental impact statements for operations in numerous locations on both coasts and required comments within 45 days. The environmental document for Washington alone is more than 700 pages, he noted.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has won court battles in California to make sure the Navy is protective of marine mammals, Felleman said, yet the Navy ignores those restrictions in its proposal for the Olympic Coast sanctuary. Meanwhile, President Bush declared an emergency to override the court orders, an action that has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Felleman said he understands the need for Navy training but not to the extent that the survival of endangered orcas would be put at risk. Nothing in the Navy’s documents suggest the Navy will forego training in the spring, when the Puget Sound whales are likely to be present in coastal areas, he said.

Felleman said the Navy could be using its vast knowledge of the oceans to help protect endangered sea life without interfering with its mission to protect the United States — but it would require changes at the top levels of government.

“Kalaloch is a particularly bad choice, since this is one of the easiest places for visitors to Olympic National Park to access the beach,” he said. ” “I am deeply concerned that we are using Olympic National Park for military activities when it would be better to use a nonwilderness area.”

For a discussion about water-related issues, check out the blog Watching Our Water Ways at

~ by fredfelleman on November 11, 2008.

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