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Growler Jets Test Rainforest Peace as Northwest Military Presence Grows

The military’s expanded presence in the Northwest creates new challenges for those who want quiet places to remain so.

November 30, 2016

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 says.

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 says.

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.



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,” says Navy Capt. Scott Farr, commander of the Navy’s Electronic Attack Wing.

Capt. Scott Farr oversees the U.S. Navy’s Electronic Attack Wing at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. <em> Credit: Ken Christensen </em>

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 explains.

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.
Source: Naval Air Station Whidbey Island

A strategic advantage in the Northwest

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,” explains 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 United States 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 Barack Obama called U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific arena “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 United States needs to be prepared.

From a military preparedness standpoint, Lowenberg says 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 adds, 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 says.

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 who live within earshot of the Navy’s flight path.

Click to open larger image.

Several military training proposals have been under consideration in remote parts of Western Washington in the past year, including the electronic warfare range in the Olympic Peninsula.

“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,” says 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 explains. “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 says, is concerning.

I would argue that our natural resources, our protected areas, are as important as national security and that is indeed a false dichotomy.

“It cuts to the heart of the issue: 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 disorient migratory birds.

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 says. “I would argue that our natural resources, our protected areas, are as important as national security, and that is indeed a false dichotomy.”

Top image: Based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, the EA-18G Growler fighter jet was created for airborne electronic attack. Credit: Ken Christensen


Battle Ready

Ken Christensen

Ken Christensen is the EarthFix associate video producer for KCTS 9, the public television station in Seattle. He began his journalism career at Crain’s New York Business, a weekly newspaper covering business and politics in the five boroughs, where he reported breaking news and wrote features on small business. Ken later helped launch the publication’s web video unit as its first producer. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

More stories by Ken Christensen

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Thanks to Ken Christensen for the excellent nd accurt article on the Navy's presence in northwestern Washington.  You have to live here to understand why so many people are opposed to the noise and environmental damage proposed by the Navy.  And you have to deal with them to understand how deceptive and manipulative the Navy can be.  It oftentimes seems it would be easier to protect ourselves from terrorists than from the US Navy.    

This is very upsetting !!! If what I feel is in anyone's opinion "unpatriotic" ...Well I can deal with that because I beleive we don't even have a clue what the military is up to ..Yes we need home land security..But I think most of what their doing has nothing to do with security !!I used to live a bit further out on the West End...Now can any one explain what kind of air craft..(big by the sound of it) comes out only at night during heavy rain periods and "just parks over head" ..How is that possible ?? What is it ?? And what the heck are they doing ??My daughter and I heard this OFTEN !! And I don't beleive "they" care much about what "we" think !!

The noise the Growlers make as they operate is highly familiar to anyone who has been in a large earthquake. In fact, the first time I ever heard it, I was absolutely convinced that it was a earthquake— I grabbed my shoes and a coat and literally ran out of my house… and the planes fly miles from where I live on the OP. I can't imagine what it's like living close to their test course.They fly missions at all hours, day and night. Their pilots have to be prepared and ready. I've grown used to the sound now, and I imagine other animals will adapt. But whether those adaptations support their survival is a question I am unqualified to answer. I can tell you that if I were "the enemy" and I heard the sound of those planes thinking they were coming for me, it would be terrifying.

the military has prioritys that are in conflict with environmental concerns ..   the human species has been at odds with the other inhabitants of the planet for thousands of yrs .At our peril we continue to destroy , disrupt , deforest the natural world.    As Pogo said  "  I have seen the enemy and he is us"

Kalaloch Lodge,  inside  the Olympic National Park (Pacific coast section):The    noise footprint,  of EA-18  and F-18,  affecting  Kalaloch Lodge,  is NOT  a simple fly-over  (as in  Alpine Lakes Wilderness, & Glacier Peak Wilderness).After listening   on Tuesday evening 21Mar2017,  and Thursday evening 23Mar2017,  the main noise-pollution  from low-altitude maneuvering is the HIGH-Thrust  CLIMB-OUT, with the climbing turn , spiral-climb-routing  immediately overhead  Kalaloch Lodge.   The high-noise pollution  continues  for about 90-seconds.My guess  is this  is simple  instrument approach training,  in IMC (cloudy-windy night conditions),  with the noisy Missed Approach Procedure immediately above Kalaloch Lodge.This occurred  ONLY  on  those cloudy nights, in IMC  --  maybe they go to the other Visual-Routes   in nice weather.

Tuesday about 5-5:30pm we were walking along the Maple Glade trail in Olympic National Park on the north shore of Lake Quinault. It was so beautiful and peaceful listening to the sounds of Kestner Creek and the many birds in the area. Then we got "growled" for what felt like 5 minutes. The roar of the plane drowned out all else. The Navy is wrong in taking over this area and turning into a proving ground. We were relieved when the plane finally moved out of the area, but we heard no more birds singing and were glad to leave the park.

As a retired fighter pilot with 2 tours in the F-4, one of which was supporting the weasel (suppression of enemy air defenses) mission, I believe I have some understanding of the Navy’s need for realistic training environments. In addition, I spent 7 summers as a fire fighter, four of which were as a smokejumper parachuting into remote wilderness locations to fight fires.

I believe this background gives me a good, if not unique, perspective on the issues surround the Navy’s proposed Electronic Warfare Range on the Olympic Peninsula.

National Parks, Forests, and Wilderness Areas, as well as State and Local Parks are created to protect and preserve environments and provide rest and relaxation for a more and more urbanized society. These environments provide us all with a place to relax and leave the hustle, bustle, and noise of today’s fast paced and stressful lifestyle behind, even if only for brief interludes. When we think of the natural environment we must realize it affects all our senses. When you are in the wilderness you see the beauty of nature, you smell the flowers and trees, you feel natural textures and surfaces, you taste the sweetness of ice-cold glacier water. You experience the silence you can only find many miles from even small towns and roads.

The Northern Olympic Peninsula is blessed with such areas, many reachable only on foot or at the end of old dirt or gravel logging roads. This blessing needs to be protected. Adding roads and related surface infrastructure to the support the Electronic Warfare Range will impinge on the natural environment. The extreme noise levels generated by high speed low altitude aircraft performing tactical maneuvers will definitely be an assault on our senses, even in the most remote locations.

I am not unfamiliar with the needs for “realistic” aircrew training. However, given the sophisticated capabilities of simulators and the extent of automation of electronic systems I do not believe it is appropriate or necessary to degrade the natural experience the Olympic National Forest and surrounding Wilderness Areas provide us all.

Simulators can be programmed for any place on earth with threats arrayed to reflect actual or anticipated air defense system. Linked simulators, which have been around for at least 40 years, can provide larger scale force projection scenarios as well as realistic sized and employed enemy forces. Simulators can be exceptionally realistic, even resulting in physical and mental exhaustion after challenging missions. Such training can be topped off with live fly large force exercises at existing ranges such as the Navy’s China Lake Range complex or the Air Force’s Nellis ABF facility in Nevada or Cope Thunder Ranges in Alaska just to mention a couple.

The Quality of life in America is what at the core of what the US Armed Forces defend. Lets protect it from within too. Keep the North Olympic Peninsula as wild as possible as long as possible.

We are collateral damage. This is a war. It's a war against us and the environment. Our tax dollars are paying for this. It's insane, and the fear of the OTHER has put us into this situation. All I can say is vote.
Vote for the peacemakers. If those among us choose war, we can choose peace, and find the voices that can represent it. The trees need a voice, the marine life needs a voice, the birds need a voice. Speak up.