Let the waiting begin.
The public's chance to comment on the U.S. Navy's bid to use roads in the Olympic National Forest to train fighter jet pilots in detecting enemy electronic signals ended on Nov. 28, and U.S. Forest Service officials say it won't be extended.
Some 3,048 comments have been submitted, 80 of which came in after the deadline. They can be reviewed at the Forest Service's online reading room at bit.ly/12sa2Pu.
Dean Millett, the Forest Service ranger responsible for deciding whether to permit the Navy's use of forest roads, said the Pacific Ranger District office in Forks is now turning its attention to reviewing comments, and he doesn't expect it to go quickly.
His final decision, which he hopes to make by mid-2015, "is not going to happen real soon."
"Well, we've got more than 3,000 comments, so I'm sure there are some issues in there that we're going to have to look at," Millett said, acknowledging that only those deemed substantive will be considered in his review of the Navy's environmental assessment and its finding that the proposed use of those roads would have no significant impact on the natural environment or human communities.
By definition, a substantive comment raises, debates or questions the accuracy or adequacy of specific facts or policies, and attempts to offer some reasonable alternatives to information cited or methods used in the environmental assessment.
"We consider all comments, but substantive ones provide reasoning," Millett said. "Just saying 'I don't like this project' and moving on is not particularly useful."
CALLING IN BACKUP
Millet said he is thinking of calling in the Forest Service's TEAMS Enterprise Unit, a group created in 1994 that now boasts some 150 agency employees who assist with tasks too cumbersome for any regional office's staff resources.
"They're a good source if you have a one-time need for something," he said, such as performing a comprehensive content analysis on public comments. "They specialize in that kind of work, and we don't have the staffing to go through all that in a timely manner. We have other projects we have to be working on."
Of those 80 comments submitted after the deadline, Millet said they would be reviewed in the event something substantive is brought up, but "at some point you have cut things off."
Reviewing comments "may direct us toward doing additional analysis," he said, but he may also decide the original analysis in the Navy's environmental assessment remains sufficient.
Millet will eventually issue a second decision notice on whether to issue a permit, after which those who submitted comments will have 45 days to object to Millett's supervisor, Reta Laford, before a permit is issued. Only those who submitted a comment prior to Nov. 28 will have standing to object at that time.
The Forest Service's decision not to extend the public comment period comes after the Jefferson County Democratic Party called on elected officials on Nov. 18 to push for a more robust public process and production of a full environmental impact statement (EIS).
Karen Sullivan of Port Townsend, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee, helped pen the party's resolution. She said she's not surprised the Forest Service did not extend its public comment period, yet intends to continue her research into how the Navy's plan got to this point.
"How did we get here with the public so unaware of all this, and how did the Navy allow this to happen?" she asked. "If we understand the process, it could provide some background for a legal challenge down the road. If there have been flaws in the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process along the way that are objectionable, we need to know this. It's like an Easter egg hunt, trying to find these nuggets of information and then add them up."
Sullivan, who submitted 11 comments and will have standing to object, is working to create a timeline of the process, but said she has run into roadblocks in getting related environmental review documents from the Navy dating back as far as 1989. It's that history, she thinks, that could lead to legal challenge.
Sullivan has questioned several areas of the Navy's environmental assessment, pointing out what she considers to be deficiencies in the state Department of Fish and Wildlife's biological opinion, for example. But she knows getting up to speed can be tough for many.
"We are at a stage where we still need to do a tremendous amount of public education, because all these issues have been split into separate parts and are difficult to understand," she said, pointing to the Navy's simultaneous bid to add 36 EA-18G Growler jets to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island's current fleet of 82. That proposal is in the scoping phase, which comes prior to compiling a draft environmental impact statement, and the Navy is now taking public comments through Jan. 9, 2015, after extending that deadline from Nov. 24.
The Navy wants permission to send utility trucks outfitted with mobile emitters of electromagnetic radiation to 15 preselected sites on the Olympic Peninsula's west end, 12 of which are on forest roads.
Growler jet pilots would then fly over in groups of three, with a lead jet trying to pick up on those electronic signals coming from the emitters as training in identifying enemy communications.
The $11.5 million project would be the Navy's first use of mobile emitters of electromagnetic radiation for training that pilots currently simulate with internal aircraft controls.
The Navy proposes to begin this training in September 2015.
Public meetings in Forks on Oct. 14, in Port Angeles on Nov. 6 and in Pacific Beach on Nov. 19 drew hundreds of people, almost all of whom opposed the project. Comments made during those meetings were not recorded, thus won't be considered by Forest Service officials. Comments made during those meetings were not recorded thus won't be considered by Forest Service officials."
Contact Reta Laford, Olympic National Forest Supervisor and Let her know how you feel. She is a NEPA Expert and is the top of the chain of command on the Olympic National Forest..
1835 Black Lk Blvd SW
Olympia, WA 98512
(360) 956 2402
her eMail is