Washington’s Olympic National Park used to be one of the quietest places in the continental United States. Now it sounds like a war zone, reminding me of Vietnam.
While hiking and camping there and the Buckhorn Wilderness in the surrounding national forest, my partner and I were assaulted day and night by piercing noise overhead. It came from the appropriately named Boeing EA-18G “Growler jets,” one of the loudest planes in the military arsenal.
After hours of ear-splitting noise one night, I ran out of our tent at 1 a.m., cursing and roaring with raised fists at the sky above us: “You’re breaking the law!” But apparently there is no law that can stop these planes from groaning and shrieking above.
Is a little peace and quiet in a national park too much to ask for? I’ve often met others upset by the noise. Bev Stoll, who does trail maintenance, told me, “This spring at Kalaloch, working on trails, we got treated to the prolonged ear-splitting sound of the newest, loudest Growlers. Everyone stopped and covered their ears. I put in earplugs and now carry that as my ‘eleventh essential’ when I go to the rainforest. Such a tragedy.” A local hiker, Lynn Gifford added, “After experiencing the deafening noise, I can’t imagine what this is doing to wildlife. These military aircraft are toxic.”
We can blame the U.S. Forest Service for the simulated war-training zones on and over our public lands. The agency gave the Navy a permit for air training, and now its jets practice war exercises adjacent to Olympic, one of our most majestic national parks.
As part of the training exercises, the Forest Service has also allowed the Navy to send trucks outfitted with mobile emitters of electromagnetic radiation to 15 sites on Forest Service lands, just outside the park boundaries. The trucks drive around on remote roads as fighter jet pilots fly overhead 260 days a year, their mission to find and “disable” them.
National forests and parks were not originally set aside as places to practice wartime activities. The Forest Service was established to promote “wise” forest management and conservation. National parks were created to serve the dual purposes of preservation and the promotion of enjoyment and recreation. War games were never anticipated.
In addition, the stupendously loud Growlers appear to violate the Wilderness Act. The warplanes fly over five wilderness areas in the Olympic National Forest as well as the park itself, which is designated as 95 percent wilderness. The roar is especially hard on birds like spotted owls and other animals that are guided by their sense of sound.
Until recently, the Forest Service did not encourage the military’s use of our public lands. Under agency regulations, military use of public lands was not allowed if there were other “suitable and available” lands. With over 440 bases in the United States and over 800 bases worldwide, plenty of military-controlled lands are available for war training activities.
In 2015, when the Navy prepared a supplement to its Northwest Training and Testing Final Environmental Impact Statement to justify Growler training above public lands, public reaction was heated, to put it mildly. The Forest Service received over 4,000 mostly negative public comments, which somehow failed to influence a final decision.
Unless there is an outcry both in the West and nationwide, the militarization of national forests, parks, and wilderness areas will continue. Backers of the Navy flights say Growler jets are the “price of freedom,” but what about the freedom taken away from people on the ground?
Consider what’s at stake: Olympic National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that receives over 3.4 million visitors a year. Olympic National Forest adds about another 800,000 visitors for a total of over 4.2 million visitors a year. It is a wonderful place in the Northwest, where visitors and wildlife hope to find solace and solitude.
Do we allow silence to disappear as we weaponize our public lands? If there is an essence of freedom in this country, it lies in our public lands, places where we can be self-sufficient while interacting with the natural world. Let’s preserve our freedom to be close to nature and stop the militarization of our national forests and parks.
Gundars Rudzitis is a professor emeritus of geography, environmental science, and philosophy at the University of Idaho, and writes in Port Townsend, Washington. This story was produced and published by High Country News. Photo by Javi Velasquez