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Naval Gazing 

Yes, yes, there may be a few more bombs bursting in air, or something like that, out there over the big blue sea that flanks our Northwest coastline. More aircraft lobbing sea sparrows or sidewinders at each other, perhaps. Submarines dismantling fake underwater mines. Sonar testing.

But will anyone in Eureka even know it? Will a fisherman plying the waters off the coast of Trinidad be witness to a dogfight or have a geyser suddenly erupt beside him?

Not likely, says Navy spokesperson Sheila Murray from Navy Region Northwest. Certainly, the Navy does propose to increase training activity in its Northwest Training Range Complex (NWTRC) -- a vast area covering offshore and inshore areas from the Strait of San Juan de Fuca down to about 50 nautical miles south of Eureka and from the Washington-Oregon-California coastline west out into the ocean about 250 nautical miles. (A nautical, or "sea" mile, is about 1.15 land miles).

A draft Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed training activity increases was released last December, and five public hearings are coming up, including one in Eureka on Feb. 2. The proposed action in the draft EIS would include increasing training exercises, in some parts of the training complex; operating air and surface target services for ships, submarines and aircraft working on their air-to-air missile air-to-surface and surface-to-surface techniques; developing another land-based threat-signal emitter; developing a "small scale underwater training minefield"; and possibly using a "Portable Undersea Tracking Range (PUTR)."

"The reason they're doing it is to keep up on advances in technology, and to meet new national security challenges," Murray says. "And the Navy needs realistic environments" in which to train.

It's doubtful we will notice anything different in our area, she says.

"What do you see now?" she asks. "Chances are people there don't see anything now, and they probably won't see any change. And that's because most of it happens above 10,000 feet."

Training that currently takes place in the NWTRC includes activity in the air, on land, on the ocean surface and under the ocean surface. The on-land stuff takes place up in Washington. Murray says the area that the Humboldt area falls into doesn't see much if any underwater or on-water activity, and isn't likely to. Mostly it's air activity up our way -- P3s taking off from Whidbey Island Naval Station, in Washington, to conduct reconnaissance training, and some aircraft from the Oregon Air National Guard.

Brian Wauer, the Navy's military operations specialist for the DEIS, reiterates that a lot of the work done in the complex, especially down here, is far out to sea and at high altitude. The closest aircraft may fly to shore is three miles. Right now, he says, our area may get 20 to 30 sorties a year, and that number isn't going to change.

Likewise, he says, sonar exercises probably won't take place in our area. But Navy ships en route to some of these activities may pass by, at times, he says.

"But primarily the ships are just in transit," he says. It wouldn't make sense, he adds, for them to stop and get in a workout in our waters, because the ships are based out of Puget Sound, where the sailors live. So they prefer to go out and do their exercises then come back in and sleep in their own beds, he says.

One unknown is that undersea minefield. "The draft EIS covers the potential impact of training that could take place in that range, but we don't know yet where that range could be," Wauer says. "Very likely it wouldn't do a lot of good to put it in Northern California, because the submarines are based out of Puget Sound." Dinner and the bed at home, again.

One Humboldt resident who showed up to a meeting in Eureka when the Navy first put out the proposal, in 2007, says he went away from that event feeling at ease. Commercial crab and salmon fisherman David Helliwell, who operates the F.V. Corregidor, says he was concerned at first when he heard about the Navy's plans to increase its exercises. So he went as a representative from the Humboldt Fishermen's Marketing Association.

"They were very forthcoming, very engaging," he says. "My impression was most of their practices would be 50 to 100 miles offshore."

He's more worried about the possible impacts to fishing from wave energy projects, and especially irked by the efforts of those soft-headed environmentalists (as he would characterize them) who are pushing for Marine Protection Areas up and down the West Coast. "It's a lobby by environmentalists to save the ocean in their own image, and it's not based on sound science," he says. "It's anathema to this area."

The Eureka public hearing is this Monday, Feb. 2 at the Eureka Women's Club. An open house session is from 5-7 p.m., followed by a presentation and the formal comment period from 7-8:30 p.m.

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About The Author

Heidi Walters

Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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