When an Air Force survival school searched for a spot to teach pilots how to build fires in a rainforest, it landed on one of the wettest, darkest locations in the continental United States.
“Twilight” fans can guess the spot. The Air Force picked a state-managed forest outside Forks, securing permission to stoke campfires for nine days in protected woods near the Calawah River.
“I understand that fire is an integral part of their survival training and an important part of surviving in a rainforest,” an official with the state Department of Natural Resources wrote in granting the request.
A review of a decade’s worth of special use permits shows federal and state officials have a long tradition of granting military requests to use public forests for unusual training events.
Usually, no one notices.
But that run of uncontested training is coming to an end as the military simultaneously pursues three high-profile requests to use land for events that have the potential to put much more hardware on the ground in remote places.
Thousands of people have written letters protesting the plans, and one movement even appealed to the United Nations for help in blocking a Navy proposal.
“I’m not against, at all, any military training. However, it is very disturbing when training happens on public lands that are supposedly protected,” said Connie Gallant of the Olympic Forest Coalition, an activist who has been fighting the Navy proposals with public outreach that has drawn protests from all over the world.
The military’s wish list for the Evergreen State includes:
▪ An Army proposal that would allow helicopters from Joint Base Lewis-McChord to touch down at several high-altitude sites in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest as well as in lowlands in southwestern Washington.
▪ A Navy plan that would let it drive satellite trucks on old logging roads in the Olympic, Okanogan and Colville national forests to participate in exercises with EA-18 Growler electronic warfare jets flying overhead from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
▪ A still-developing proposal from the Naval Special Warfare Command that might open up dozens of sites along Puget Sound for Navy SEAL training. Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park and Gig Harbor’s marina are two sites included an early draft of the plan.
Army and Navy supporters in the region say the requests would help the military modernize training for Navy pilots scraping electronic communication signals over Iraq and Army helicopter crews that might be asked to navigate Afghanistan’s two-mile-high peaks.
“We live in challenging times,” said William Reeder, a retired Army colonel in Seabeck who commanded a helicopter squadron at Fort Lewis in the 1980s and a member of the clique of retired officers who speak up for the military in the Northwest.
“I would hope the military does its due diligence to train safely and collaborate with the citizenry. I would hope at the same time that our citizenry understands the importance of this training and that the occasions when they see a helicopter up there flapping around, they look at it and smile and appreciate its role in our national defense.”
It might take years to settle the conflicts over the military’s requests.
Here’s a primer on what the services want, what they have and what might lie ahead as they pursue the new training plans.