For more than a year, elite Navy commandos have quietly used three waterfront parks in Kitsap County for nighttime combat trainings.
The Navy in late 2014 obtained special permission for small SEAL teams to stage water-based trainings from Illahee State Park in Bremerton, Scenic Beach State Park in Seabeck and Blake Island State Park in South Kitsap.
The Navy wants to expand its use of parks and other public lands in the Puget Sound region to allow more SEAL team training opportunities. Nearly 70 sites have been identified around the region for potential training sites, including Evergreen-Rotary Park in Bremerton, Manchester State Park in South Kitsap, Liberty Bay Marina in Poulsbo and more than 20 other sites in Kitsap.
Public lands activists object, saying military use of parks, marinas and boat ramps runs counter to their recreational purpose and could put public safety at risk.
“And there’s the downright scariness of it,” said Karen Sullivan, a member of the West Coast Action Alliance, a group that opposes what it considers the growing military use of public lands. “If people think there are Navy SEALS practicing in public parks — hiding in the bushes or swimming around in the water — they’ll be less likely to use public parks.”
The 68 sites were listed in documents obtained by activist news site Truth-Out.org. The documents indicate the trainings could include combat swimming exercises, simulated battles with paintball guns and various launch and landing actions with small inflatable boats and small submarines.
Navy Region Northwest spokeswoman Sheila Murray said the documents are part of a planning process and do not necessarily indicate where or if the Navy will conduct trainings.
“We’re still very much in the planning stage,” she said.
The documents indicate trainings could last between two and 72 hours and involve up to 10 personnel, two or three inflatable boats and a small submersible. The trainings would be “non-invasive in nature” with no gunfire, digging or vegetation cutting.
“A goal for personnel conducting this training is not to be detected by others in the area,” states a paper attributed to Naval Special Warfare Group Three. “Upon exit from these areas there is no tell-tale sign of their presence.”
Another Navy official who did not want to be named said the listed sites are places that likely meet the Navy’s training needs. The Navy would narrow its list and then seek permission from each site’s owner. Only a few of the 68 sites would be required for trainings, the official said.
A Truth-Out story indicates the trainings will begin this month, but state parks officials told the Kitsap Sun that trainings of a limited scope have been underway at five state parks since fall 2014. Along with the three state parks in Kitsap, the Navy has permission to access Mystery Bay and Fort Flagler state parks on Marrowstone Island, which is located near Naval Magazine Indian Island in Port Townsend Bay.
Washington State Parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter said the Navy has used state parks for low-impact trainings for at least eight years. Park officials approved a “right of entry” permit that allows the Navy to use the five state parks until late 2019.
“We’re granting them the right to land,” Painter said. “But they’re not doing war exercises in state parks.”
The permit requires the Navy to give three days’ notice to park managers and limit use to after dark.
It wasn’t clear how many trainings occurred, but most happened between May and July, Painter said.
“There’s no more impact than any other boat coming ashore,” she said.
Any use beyond basic beach access and the use of park roads to launch or retrieve vessels would require a lengthy permit process.
Trainings have typically occurred between midnight and 4 a.m. and were limited to the early summer, Painter said.
Kitsap County’s Salsbury Point Park near Port Gamble was listed as a potential training site, but county park officials say they’ve not been approached by the Navy.
“It’s news to us,” Kitsap County Parks Director Jim Dunwiddie said. “We haven’t heard anything like this — not even any rumblings.”
The proposed sites list includes the Tracyton boat launch, Brownsville Marina and Bremerton’s USS Turner Joy, which now functions as a museum. Several listings name general areas, such as Miller Bay, Oyster Bay and Bainbridge Island’s Eagle Harbor and Point Monroe.
Possible locations for paintball gunbattles include the empty Seabeck Elementary School and Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend.
Sullivan said military trainings in civilian areas and public lands cause public alarm and safety issues, disturb wildlife and limit public access to recreational areas.
The Navy sparked a similar controversy in 2014 when it proposed an electronic warfare training program in Olympic National Forest. The Navy’s initial disregard for public input angered many Olympic Peninsula residents. A few of them, including Sullivan, founded the West Coast Action Alliance, which now tracks military training plans across around the region.
“The Navy poked the public in the eye with a sharp stick,” Sullivan said.
Despite the Navy’s assurances that the SEAL trainings will be low-profile and follow rules set out by public lands agencies, Sullivan remains skeptical.
“We feel besieged and voiceless,” she said.