How the Navy gets its way, Part 1: Categorical Exclusions

January 23, 2016 – It’s time for a more detailed look at how the Navy forces unwanted change on communities, state parks, and other public lands and waters. In some cases they do it without the knowledge or consent of the public, sometimes without consulting local, state and federal agencies charged with caring for fish, wildlife, habitat, cultural resources and historical properties.

SEALs amphib landing

SEAL training – amphibious landings and mock combat in State Parks have been occurring without public knowledge since 2014.

In Part 1 we’ll examine the Categorical Exclusion, abbreviated CATEX, CE, and sometimes CX. It’s basically an exemption. Under a federal law called the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA (more here,) there is a provision that allows government agencies to exclude certain categories of routine activity from having to undergo environmental review, as long as those actions do not individually or cumulatively have a significant impact on the human environment.

The Forest Service has a comprehensive handbook listing all the categories it can exclude from environmental review. Readers will note military combat training is not among them. Their special page on establishing an Electronic Warfare Range on the Olympic Peninsula also does not feature a Categorical Exclusion for combat training, nor, as of January 2016, is a CATEX for that listed on their NEPA page.

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Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

For its original intent, the Categorical Exclusion makes sense: routine road maintenance and repair, the purchase of materials, administrative studies, some real estate transactions, hosting public events, and other similar or routine actions. Doing environmental review on such routine matters would bog everyone down. The key is: it cannot be controversial and it cannot adversely affect the environment.

Therefore, Categorical Exclusions do not make sense in the unethical way the Navy has expanded them in order to exempt itself from public scrutiny.

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In 2010, the White House called on agencies to use Categorical Exclusions “appropriately and transparently.” The Navy is not respecting that guidance. Let’s look at an example:

Suppose you want to do military combat training in 68 State Parks. You know the public is not likely to support kill teams practicing among them, because gangs of guys with guns in darkness tend to alarm and intimidate people. Also, you’ll have to close portions of those parks with no advance warning and no legal authority. You know that in order to close off public access in State Parks, the State will require a public process, because training at the magnitude and duration you want is going to have impacts. Since secrecy is paramount so your guys can get in and out undetected, it’s checkmate unless you can think of a way around it.

Blake Island State Park

Blake Island State Park, one of five state parks for which the Navy has a permit to do boat landings. The rest of them (at least 63) are not covered by any permits.

What if you were to split the administration of all that training into small pieces? You could say each individual piece is so small that it has no significant impact. State agencies would be limited to evaluating only the impacts of the small segments you tell them about. If you withhold other training segments from them, how would they know or be able to assess the full scope of impacts? And if the impacts are so tiny, now that you’ve split everything up, maybe you don’t even need to tell the Fish and Wildlife Service after all. 68 beaches, are you kidding? Those agencies would have a collective cow!

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Nowhere in the mission or vision statements of Washington’s State Parks does military combat training appear. Unauthorized discharge of firearms of all kinds in state parks is a gross misdemeanor. Washington Administrative Code 352-32 defines “intimidate” as “to engage in conduct that would make a reasonable person fearful.”

So, don’t tell anyone. Just quietly apply for a permit to only land a couple of small boats in five state parks – what’s the big deal? You‘re just landing boats. Anyone can do that. You don’t even need a permit on some boat ramps, you just need to pay a fee. And then go for it – all 68 state parks. Land boats, send combat swimmers from mini-subs through marinas, have gun battles with paintballs, do reconnaissance patrols, all in places for which you don’t have permits – the peace park atop the cliffs at Fort Worden State Park, for example. Even if  paintball splashes were there, nobody’d know who did it.

Memory's Vault Fort Worden

Entrance to the peace park atop Fort Worden that was the site of a Navy training gun battle with paintballs.

Your strategy is to not tell anyone about the full scope of training until sometime later in 2016, when you’ll retrofit an Environmental Assessment, as if the training is proposed and hasn’t started yet. (Congratulations! You’ve been doing it since 2014!) You’ll do an EA instead of a full-blown EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) because you’ve already concluded that the training will have no significant impacts, which exempts you from having to do an EIS. Nobody’ll be the wiser.

But how do you shield from that EA the next round of State Parks you want to train in? You don’t want the public to know, so just issue yourself Categorical Exclusions for those places, and boom! Realistic Military Training can continue in communities who remain unaware of it! Your staff emails others within the Navy who question the legality of this strategy, but their opinions don’t matter. Unfortunately for you, more than a few of them think the Navy is breaking the law, and somehow an email gets leaked to Truthout. Categorical Exclusions are too complicated to explain there, so we’re doing it here.

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Federal Register entry from February 2004 lists all of the Navy’s possible Categorical Exclusions. If you scroll down to page 4, you’ll see we’ve highlighted the Responsibilities section, and on page 5 you’ll find a list of conditions when a CATEX may not be used. Among them are “may adversely affect public health or safety,” and “threatens a violation of federal, state or local environmental laws…” Further down you’ll see the mostly routine examples for issuance of a Categorical Exclusion.

Disturbingly, #25 (in purple) is a CATEX for military training on non-military land or water. This is how they did it: a few lines of permissive text among dozens of routine matters, that covers “night compass training” and “forced marches,” and then quietly expand that interpretation to include mock gun battles in peace parks and armed stealth patrols through neighborhoods. The Navy knows that inserting SEAL kill teams into State Parks and residential communities is psychologically intrusive, even if we don’t catch them doing it. A Navy Captain even said: Now that everyone knows about the training, it’ll just make it harder to do, and communities who oppose it are even more attractive as targets because they represent a hostile enemy.

Please contemplate that for a moment: Communities invoking one of the purest forms of citizenship, that is, speaking out in informed ways about the excesses of the military, are actually increasing their desirability as targets for combat training. If “hearts and minds” is still a military strategy, then these communities are, by that definition, expendable.

The Navy has millions of acres of their own land to practice on, but they do not respect boundaries. The chronic psychological threat of armed SEAL kill teams in State Parks, marinas and residential neighborhoods wrecks domestic tranquility and is clearly an adverse effect. If our local, state and federal elected representatives, particularly our two silent Washington Senators, see no problem with this, then every single one of us needs to make a lot of noise until they do. If they still won’t listen, we should vote them out.

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