When Attorney General Bob Ferguson held a small fundraiser on Whidbey Island last summer, the event at Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve was visited at low elevation by three noisy Navy Growler jets. Conversation became impossible as the jets repeatedly circled to practice carrier landings at an outlying field.
Welcome to dinner hour on Central Whidbey Island. Ferguson won a measure of revenge Wednesday. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones has ruled that the Navy’s environmental impact statement failed to adequately assess impacts Growlers would have on classroom learning and wild birds of Central Whidbey, including endangered puffins.
With a nod to “the Sound of Freedom,” celebrated by a sign on S.R. 20 just north of Oak Harbor, the Attorney General brought legal action over the Navy’s decision to expand by 36 its fleet of Growlers and up airtime over the island to 110,000 flight operations a year.
“The Navy has an important job,” said Ferguson. “But that does not relieve the federal government of its obligation to follow the law and take a hard look at the public health and environmental impacts of its program.”
Until the Navy decided in 2019 to grow its Growler fleet, opposition to the “Sound of Freedom” was limited to a few noisy activists. Central Whidbey had learned to live with the less ear-splitting sounds of Prowler jets. As well, Naval Air Station Whidbey survived the feds’ base closure commission in the 1990’s, with locals arguing the island had open spaces and was ideal for training pilots in carrier landings.
No more. Growler noise has led to crowded vocal protest meetings at Coupeville High School. Protests at Growler overflights have involved not only Coupeville but Port Townsend and towns of the Quimper Peninsula. Ex-Gov. Dan Evans, a onetime Navy man, has criticized overflights over the heart of his beloved Olympic National Park.
The Navy’s position for years, our mission is paramount and not to be interrupted. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, in the 1950’s, was blown off with a form letter when he complained about low overflights spooking horses around Chinook Pass. The jets were headed to a bombing range near Hermiston, Oregon.
It has, more recently, defended its mission in response to expressions of concern and requests for information. The requests have come from U.S. Reps. Rick Larsen and Adam Smith, D-Wash., respectively a senior member and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Ferguson deployed a new option: Sue. The beaches, bluffs and historic sites of Central Whidbey have grown as a visitor destination. Coupeville is a Navy neighbor, not a Navy town. And Ferguson saw legal opportunity, namely one more occasion when the Trump Administration did not follow the law.
The ruling by Judge Jones adopts recommendations of a federal magistrate, who supported Ferguson’s lawsuit in a report and recommendations last December.
The state and other parties, including Friends of Ebey’s, now have 30 days to agree on a remedy or a briefing schedule on a remedy.