Opinion: Military Planes Are Ruining Olympic National Park and Violating the Wilderness Act

If this is the price of freedom, what’s the cost to those on the ground?

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


Showing 18 comments
  • Olivia

    There is nothing quite like having a panic attack induced by an enormous hunk of metal hurtling at you through the trees catching your eye, and then you hear the boom. I think I’m going to die, huge startling sound, and then I’m not dead. My adrenaline is jacked and I wonder at my 3 days walking into a quite space to save my sanity being destroyed in less than a second.

  • Mert White

    My wife and I love the noise of dogfights, knowing those guys are protecting us from bad guys, it’s usually not longer than ten minutes, go Navy, our granddaughter spent six years in the Navy launching jets off aircraft carriers

    • Bob Wilbur

      Mertt, there can be ignoble actions within noble missions. Our National Parks are not intended to ever be used for military training. If we give the military the key to our house, the way it is today, they will come right on in and refuse to leave, and not much care that they are violating the 3rd and 5th amendments of the US Constitution. No, we can have a great military without them denigrating our national parks.

  • Richard Cashin

    I hear (and notice) j

    ets over head every time I visit Olympic NP – which is every year in late Summer, early Fall – If I’m ten miles in on the Hoh. I’ve always wondered if Park personnel raise the issue, and if they do what would the official reponse be.

  • Kevin

    This is an inappropriate use of wilderness and national park land. There are plenty of places elsewhere in the west that are very lightly traveled if this is indeed necessary for military training, not to mention lands set aside for military use.

  • JWW

    I appreciate the annoyance of loud noises intruding on an otherwise quiet wilderness experience. Quiet is one of the best things about the southwest wilderness (long live Bears Ears National Monument), and contacting our representatives to let them know that this is unacceptable is unfortunately the best tool at our disposal. The Department of the Interior clearly does not pay the slightest heed to the will of the people as demonstrated by the overwhelming outpouring of support for the Bears Ears NM. Unless you are supported by a major lobby, or have deep, deep pockets, they clearly could not care less about your wants.

    I do worry that this article takes things a little too far with “weaponize.” I’ll accept that training exercises militarize these lands, but I fail to see how this turns these lands into a weapon. If we are going to win this fight, hyperbole undermines our cause and reduces the likelihood of success.

  • Christine M LaPorte

    The older I get, the more I want to protect and help animals. I’m an avid supporter of our military; my daughter is in the USMC. Still, there has to be something we can do here. I don’t like animals being frightened like this.

  • Eric Oliver

    Thanks for this piece, this truly is a tragedy, especially as Wilderness so often sought out as a place to disconnect from the most toxic elements of society. Please keep us apprised of any calls to action or other things we can to do work to protect this special place.

  • jack

    can’t imagine why you can’t drive a quad into the wilderness if you can fly a jet at insanely low levels over the wilderness. just doesn’t make sense. no motorized vehicles should apply to planes and helicopters.

  • AJ

    All I hear is alot of whining. I’ve stayed in the ONF and ONP plenty, I never hear the noise. I’m there every weekend almost, every season.

    Personally I think the lengths you’re going to describe this could be considered sensationalism….

    I’ve been in the woods plenty of times observing wildlife and I can tell you, they don’t give a damn about jets flying overhead at thousands of feet.

    Quit whining about it. Honestly nothing will be done about it, because the government doesn’t care if they make a few campers uncomfortable. They care about getting their pilots numbers up so the pilots are effective when it comes time.

    I’ve been in the military for nine years, and I say deal with it, mainly because since I’ve been out there, I’ve yet to hear this fear inducing, ear splitting noise. I’ve also yet to run out of my tent in the middle of the night to shout at something long gone…..

    • Bob Wilbur

      They don’t generally fly weekends. That aside, this is a way more complex problem than you seem to think you have ahold of AJ. And I kind of suspect a lot of the reason you don’t is because you think you don’t need to. Fortunately there are those who do spend the time and look beyond adolescence at the real world, what makes right…and what falls short.

  • Jason

    While I can appreciate the distress the author experiences when aircraft fly overhead during any trip to the wilderness, the article contains so many inaccuracies and inconsistencies it reads like a conspiracy theorists’ screed. First, the US Forest Service permit only addressed the use of mobile electronic emitters, not the Naval training exercises (which have been conducted for over 40 years in that area). 2nd, the training exercises are not breaking any laws. The regulatory agency with responsibility for the airspace above ALL US territory is the FAA. The FAA through the Airman’s Information Manual (AIM) provides guidance that aircraft overflight of wilderness areas should be at greater than 2000 feet above ground level, but there is no rule or Law restricting overflight of most wilderness areas at any altitude. There are specific exceptions like the Grand Canyon where that guidance is incorporated into law, but that is not the case in the Olympic Wilderness. 3rd, the author is profoundly concerned about the impact of the aircraft overflight on the habitat but is unconcerned about the impact of 3.4 million visitors per year. If the author is truly concerned about the protection of the wilderness habitat perhaps he should argue for complete closure to all human traffic to wilderness areas. I am personally an avid backpacker and pack out everything I pack in. I would imagine most of the people visiting a site like this do as well, but if even a small fraction of that 3.4 million visitors is littering or disturbing the environment that impact on the habitat is substantial.

    The Naval training exercises are neither the “price of freedom” or substantially different than they have been in the past. They are merely a legally allowed use of US airspace. If the author believes that use is inappropriate he should petition the FAA, not the US forest service to stop the activity. It was visitor complaint that led to the permanent restriction for overflight of the Grand Canyon after all. However, given that only ~4000 objections were received from the ~3.4 million visitors to the Olympics, it would suggest that the majority of users of that wilderness area are not troubled to the same degree as the author.

    To conclude; while the author is allowed an opinion and I am sure the emotional harm to him and others from this is real, this is a very 1st world problem when you consider the issues confronted by Syrians and other oppressed peoples around the world including immigrants and people of color here in the US. So, grow up, stop whining, and BE the change you want to see, but also, pick your battles Bro.

  • Roger Ball

    The sound of freedom. Enjoy yours while they make that noise.

  • Glen Bruels

    Totally agree. The Navy has other options to conduct this needed training. They have trained in ranges outside of Mountain Home AFB in Idaho in the past. The terrain is similar and the impact much less. There at least two other Navy and AF ranges that are available and add the dimension of Joint Service training — something that is increasingly called upon (“train like you fight”). I would never suggest that the Growlers should not be able to train. But the Navy is taking the easy way out. There are other reasonable — and previously used — options. We don’t have to abuse one of the quietest places left in the country

    • B J

      The Whidbey aircraft do not have options such as Mt Home due to distance to be used on a daily basis. The ferry time to MH would burn too many fight hours in transit to make it a viable option. Aircraft are limited to 3000′ AGL above national parks so the chances of aircraft buzzing the trees is highly unlikely unless they are on an authorized low level route which are used for low level training much like the routes through the Cascades. I haven’t looked at a current map to see if any exist near the Olympics.
      These training areas (MOA’s) have been established for decades and your pithy complaint is unlikely to change anything. And since this is the Navy/USMC’s primary EW aircraft base they are unlikely to change their training regiments.
      I also enjoy the wilderness experience but a momentary flyby by a jet is music to one’s ears. It truly is the Sound of Freedom and you’d best appreciate its sound.

  • Eugene Ripley

    Several factual errors in this story, the first is that this is new. The air space over the west side of the Olympic Peninsula has been a Military Operating Area MOA for decades and there have been Navy aviation has been a part of life out here long before the Forest Service issued the permit. Most of the use of the MOA is unrealated to the the FS permit. The Buckhorn Wilderness is far removed from the permit area. The aircraft engaged in training with the emitters fly at high altitudes and off the coast. They are simulating finding enamy radar and need to do this as far away as possible. And finally the DOD and FS have had a Memorandom if Understanding to facilitate military training since the 1980’s.

  • Bob J

    Please take your opinion elsewhere. This is an Adventure Journal, not a political forum. Please respect my sensitivities.

  • Mick

    At least there are no mountain bikers.

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