The Olympic Peninsula was Charles Nelson’s best medicine.
The Army veteran had served during 1990s conflicts in Somalia and Kuwait before returning home to Seattle. Nelson couldn’t cope with daily life as a civilian. Something as common as an unexpected car-door slam gave him a shiver of fear. Doctors diagnosed him with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
He joined a group of veterans who took weekly hikes deep into the rainforest.
“It was better therapy for me than anything else I’ve really been through,” Nelson said.
Then, without warning in 2013, the rumble of a Navy jet roared over his sanctuary, up the valley of the Quinault River. It sent Nelson into a forward somersault on the mossy forest floor.
“I thought we were being invaded,” he said.
The Olympic Peninsula is home to some of the last temperate rainforest in the continental United States. The primeval mountain landscape is also one of the quietest, most remote places in the lower 48.
In the early 2000s, an acoustic ecologist visited the Olympics and showed the world “one square-inch of silence” —a patch of rainforest devoid of human-generated sound.
The peninsula’s residents and visitors, like Nelson and his veteran buddies, are worried that the aural identity of this place will be fundamentally altered. The jet that flew over Nelson’s head was most likely a U.S. Navy EA-18G Growler fighter jet.
The Navy has been using these jets since 2008 and was recently granted permits by the U.S. Forest Service to send more Growlers on training flights over the peninsula. Based on Whidbey Island, the Growlers could be flying over the Olympics 16 hours a day for 260 days out of the year.
Current growler fleet
Proposed for 2018
The Navy says these jets provide critical support to on-the-ground missions by disrupting enemy radar and signals so they can’t track the movement of U.S. troops, planes or missiles.
“We are able to provide sanctuary and a level of safety for our troops no matter what service they're in, for whatever they're going out there to do on behalf of the nation,” said Navy Capt. Scott Farr, commander of the Navy’s Electronic Attack Wing.
So why fly over remote stretches of the Olympic Peninsula with these jets? Three words: Electromagnetic warfare training.
It works like this: Navy trucks drive out into the forest, equipped with electromagnetic signals that the Growler jets then try to detect from the air — sort of like a giant game of hide-and-seek. The trucks simulate cell towers and other communications behind enemy lines that the Navy wants to scramble.
“Everybody is dependent upon the electromagnetic spectrum as an operational environment and we disrupt that,” Farr explained.
Last year, the Washington Department of Natural Resources denied the Navy access to state lands on the peninsula for testing., but the Navy received access Wednesday to the Olympic National Forest, allowing its plans to go forward. The Navy was also recently granted permits to conduct sonar testing and detonate bombs in its training range along the Northwest coast that could disturb or harm thousands of marine mammals — even within the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.
U.S. Navy planes have flown training missions over the peninsula since World War II. The Growler was introduced in 2008, beginning a transition that was completed last year. That’s when residents began noticing a difference. Base officials don’t tally flights based on aircraft type because neither the U.S. Navy nor the Federal Aviation Administration requires it.
The Navy’s Electronic Attack Wing has been flying over the Olympic Peninsula for decades. Officials say flights haven’t increased in recent years. But residents say jet noise became a problem after the EA-18 Growler was introduced in 2008. Note: Numbers in aggregate. Whidbey doesn’t track flights based on aircraft.
More than 90,000 Department of Defense personnel are stationed in Washington state. That figure has been increasing as bases shut down elsewhere.
“They were moved to the state of Washington because of our geographic significance,” said Tim Lowenberg, former head of the Washington State National Guard. “We are hours closer by air and days closer by sea for getting to places throughout the Pacific.”
The U.S. has been shifting resources to the West Coast as part of a pivot from focusing on the country’s relationships with Europe to focusing on relationships with Asian countries. One reason is to protect trade with countries like China and India, which are expected to dominate the world economy for years to come. In 2011, President Obama called U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific “more vital than ever before.”
The Pacific Northwest also has access to polar routes. And high level military officials warn that as climate change melts ice caps and opens Arctic waters to global trade and travel, the U.S. needs to be prepared.
From a military preparedness standpoint, Lowenberg said this region provides excellent places for training on land and sea — from Washington’s Olympic Mountains to the undersea marine ranges off the Northwest coast. And, he added, training ranges are becoming “endangered” around the country because of population encroachment.
The Navy was recently granted permits to conduct Navy SEAL trainings on beaches on the Olympic Peninsula, and to conduct sonar testing and detonate bombs along the Northwest coast that could disturb or harm thousands of marine mammals, even within the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.
In 2015, Joint Base Lewis-McChord proposed high-altitude Army helicopter combat training in wilderness areas of the North Cascades, an area that resembles mountainous regions of the Middle East. After pushback, the Army dropped its plans earlier this year, but JBLM is looking for high-elevation alternatives in Western Washington, spokesman James Piek said.
The Growlers are the latest, and perhaps the loudest, manifestation of expanded military activity in the Northwest. That noise could be a problem for more than just the humans that live within earshot of the Navy’s flight path.
Several military training proposals have been under consideration in remote parts of Western Washington in the past year, including the forests of the Olympic Peninsula. The Northwest's geography provides crucial training opportunities, but it's also raised concerns from advocates for marine mammals and the region's wild places.
“We have fairly clear evidence that noise disrupts ecosystems and that if a place is to be truly protected the soundscape needs to be a component of that protection,” said Jesse Barber, a wildlife biologist at Boise State University. A few years ago, in an attempt to understand how noise affects wildlife, Barber had an interesting idea for an experiment. He and his team lashed speakers to trees in a forested migratory bird stopover near Boise. He then recorded the sound of a highway and played that sound through the speakers. He calls it the “phantom road.”
He found that when the speakers were on, one-third of the birds left the area and the ones that stayed didn’t eat as much. They were spending more time looking over their shoulders for predators because the noise drowned out their ability to listen for predators.
“Hearing, which is an omnidirectional sense, allowed these animals to have really broad surveillance for predators,” Barber said. “But once that sense is reduced or taken away, all that remains is vision and in order to use vision effectively you have to have your head up.”
Migratory bird survival depends on getting enough calories along their journeys. If they can’t adequately refuel at a stopover point, they may not make it. Barber worries that a noisier Olympic Peninsula will be less hospitable to the birds and other animals that are adapted to that specific soundscape.
The Navy did not consider noise pollution in its environmental assessment of the Growler training. That, Barber said, is concerning.
“It cuts to the heart of the issue of do policymakers use science to make decisions and I’m unconvinced that they do.”
Other research has shown that electromagnetic radiation, which the Navy plans to use in training activities in the Olympic National Forest, can make migratory birds disoriented.
Barber says there may be ways for the Navy to limit how much damage its jets cause on the Olympic Peninsula by flying at certain times of the day or at higher altitudes but he says that it would be better if the Navy found another place to conduct its training activities.
“In terms of security versus wildlife it comes down to what are our priorities as a nation and what are the things that we value as resources,” Barber said. “I would argue that our natural resources, our protected areas, are as important as national security and that is indeed a false dichotomy.”