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Concerns Arise As Navy SEALS Given Approval To Train In Washington State Parks

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Navy SEALs have gotten the go-ahead to do clandestine training in more than a dozen Washington state parks. John Ryan of member station KUOW finds, though, that many parkgoers say war games and recreation just don't mix.

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JOHN RYAN, BYLINE: Gentle waves lap at the shore of Camano Island, north of Seattle. It's a typically quiet day at Cama Beach State Park. While a seagull squawks at the surface, black-and-white ducks dive for clams and crabs. A different kind of underwater activity could surface in the park soon. Groups of Navy SEALs could approach this beach in submersible vessels. They would emerge silently from the water with their scuba gear and fake rifles. They'd hike into the woods to practice surveillance for several hours before returning quietly to the deep. A Navy proposal to expand its use of the state's public beaches came under fire at a virtual public meeting this week.

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HEIDI HOELTING: You know, many of us don't have waterfront property.

RYAN: Heidi Hoelting lives on Whidbey Island, home to five state parks.

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HOELTING: When I go into the parks, I go there for emotional and spiritual rejuvenation, to see beauty. I don't want to have to be afraid and thinking about guns and soldiers that might be lurking. Even if I never saw one, just knowing that they might be there damages the whole reason that I am there.

RYAN: Navy supporters say expanding from the five parks the SEALs have used before would offer more varied training. Navy veteran Larry Salter heads the Northwest chapter of the Navy League, a nonprofit group.

LARRY SALTER: We have a saying in the Navy - train as you fight and fight as you train. Realistic training in a variety of environments is critical to effective SEAL training.

RYAN: Salter says critics' fears are overblown.

SALTER: The SEALs are surveilling members of their team. They're not - it's not a bunch of SEALs running through campgrounds, spying on campers.

RYAN: An all-volunteer commission oversees Washington state parks. Commissioner Mike Latimer is a Navy veteran.

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MIKE LATIMER: A small group of five or six Navy SEALs stealthily walking through the woods are not going to have any more environmental impact than the over 39 million visitors we had in state parks in 2019.

RYAN: Commissioners who disagreed took pains to express their support for the Navy.

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SOPHIA DANENBERG: We are not against the military. We support the military. I have actually worked my whole career for major defense contractors.

RYAN: Commissioner Sophia Danenberg works for Boeing.

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DANENBERG: This really will harm the public's experience, you know, in the parks. And I do believe the Navy has other options. And I do believe they'll find a way to train these brave men and women.

RYAN: Opponents say the Navy already owns 46 miles of coastline in Washington. The measure, approved on a 4-3 vote this past week, only lets the SEALs come ashore at night, and it only approves about half the number of parks the Navy was asking to use. That's not comforting to Whidbey Island resident Ann Linnea. She remembers taking her grandchildren camping at Bowman Bay State Park.

ANN LINNEA: We went down to the beach at 10 o'clock at night to see the bioluminescence. It was absolutely magical.

RYAN: She says it was a huge step for her granddaughter, who was afraid of the dark woods.

LINNEA: I would have to tell her that we could see soldiers sneaking around in the woods or coming out of the water. She would never go under those circumstances.

RYAN: Environmental activists say they'll sue to stop the Navy SEAL plan. Commissioners who approved the expanded incursions say Washington state can afford to offer up a small slice of its parks to help the nation's military readiness.

For NPR News, I'm John Ryan in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.