[News] Destroying What Remains - How the U.S. Navy Plans to War Game the Arctic
news at freedomarchives.org
Thu May 21 11:15:11 EDT 2015
*Destroying What Remains*
*How the U.S. Navy Plans to War Game the Arctic*
By Dahr Jamail <http://www.tomdispatch.com/authors/dahrjamail/>
[/This essay is a joint /TomDispatch
I lived in Anchorage for 10 years and spent much of that time
climbing in and on the spine of the state, the Alaska Range. Three
times I stood atop the mountain the Athabaskans call Denali, "the
great one." During that decade, I mountaineered for more than half a
year on that magnificent state’s highest peaks. It was there that I
took in my own insignificance while living amid rock and ice,
sleeping atop glaciers that creaked and moaned as they slowly ground
their way toward lower elevations.
Alaska contains the largest coastal mountain range
<http://www.nps.gov/glba/learn/nature/geology.htm> in the world and
the highest peak in North America. It has more coastline than the
entire contiguous 48 states combined and is big enough to hold the
state of Texas two and a half times over. It has the largest
population of bald eagles in the country. It has 430 kinds of birds
along with the brown bear, the largest carnivorous land mammal in
the world, and other species ranging from the pygmy shrew that
weighs less than a penny to gray whales that come in at 45 tons.
Species that are classified as "endangered" in other places are
often found in abundance in Alaska.
Now, a dozen years after I left my home state and landed in Baghdad
to begin life as a journalist and nine years after definitively
abandoning Alaska, I find myself back. I wish it was to climb
another mountain, but this time, unfortunately, it’s because I seem
increasingly incapable of escaping the long and destructive reach of
the U.S. military.
That summer in 2003 when my life in Alaska ended was an unnerving one
for me. It followed a winter and spring in which I found myself
protesting the coming invasion of Iraq in the streets of Anchorage, then
impotently watching the televised spectacle of the Bush administration’s
"shock and awe" assault on that country as Baghdad burned and Iraqis
were slaughtered. While on Denali that summer I listened to news of the
beginnings of what would be an occupation from hell and, in my tent on a
glacier at 17,000 thousand feet, wondered what in the world I could do.
In this way, in a cloud of angst, I traveled to Iraq as an independent
news team of one and found myself reporting on atrocities that were
evident to anyone not embedded with the U.S. military, which was then
laying waste to the country. My early reporting, some of it for
warned of body counts
a trajectory toward one million, rampant torture in the military’s
detention facilities, and the toxic legacy it had left in the city of
Fallujah thanks to the use of depleted uranium munitions and white
As I learned, the U.S. military is an industrial-scale killing machine
and also the single largest consumer of fossil fuels
<http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174810/> on the planet, which makes it
a major source of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. As it happens,
distant lands like Iraq sitting atop vast reservoirs of oil and natural
gas are by no means its only playing fields.
Take the place where I now live, the Olympic Peninsula in Washington
state. The U.S. Navy already has plans to conduct electromagnetic
an area close to where I moved to once again seek solace in the
mountains: Olympic National Forest and nearby Olympic National Park. And
this June, it's scheduling massive war games in the Gulf of Alaska,
including live bombing runs that will mean the detonation of tens of
thousands of pounds of toxic munitions, as well as the use of active
sonar in the most pristine, economically valuable, and sustainable
salmon fishery in the country (arguably in the world). And all of this
is to happen right in the middle of fishing season.
This time, in other words, the bombs will be falling far closer to home.
Whether it's war-torn Iraq or "peaceful" Alaska, Sunnis and Shi'ites or
salmon and whales, to me the omnipresent “footprint” of the U.S.
military feels inescapable.
*The War Comes Home*
In 2013, U.S. Navy researchers predicted
summer Arctic waters by 2016 and it looks as if that prediction might
come true. Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
there was less ice in the Arctic this winter than in any other winter of
the satellite era. Given that the Navy has been making plans for
"ice-free" operations in the Arctic since at least 2001
<http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174949>, their June "Northern Edge"
exercises may well prove to be just the opening salvo in the future
northern climate wars, with whales, seals, and salmon being the first in
the line of fire.
In April 2001, a Navy symposium entitled "Naval Operations in an
Ice-Free Arctic" was mounted to begin to prepare the service for a
climate-change-induced future. Fast forward to June 2015. In what the
military refers to as Alaska's "premier" joint training exercise,
Alaskan Command aims to conduct “Northern Edge” over 8,429 nautical
miles, which include critical habitat for all five wild Alaskan salmon
species and 377 other species of marine life. The upcoming war games in
the Gulf of Alaska will not be the first such exercises in the region --
they have been conducted, on and off, for the last 30 years -- but they
will be the largest by far. In fact, a 360% rise in munitions use is
expected, according to Emily Stolarcyk, the program manager for the Eyak
Preservation Council (EPC).
The waters in the Gulf of Alaska are some of the most pristine in the
world, rivaled only by those in the Antarctic, and among the purest and
most nutrient-rich waters anywhere. Northern Edge will take place in an
Alaskan “marine protected area,” as well as in a NOAA-designated
“fisheries protected area.” These war games will also coincide with the
key breeding and migratory periods of the marine life in the region as
they make their way toward Prince William Sound, as well as further
north into the Arctic.
Species affected will include blue, fin, gray, humpback, minke, sei,
sperm, and killer whales, the highly endangered North Pacific right
whale (of which there are only approximately 30 left), as well as
dolphins and sea lions. No fewer than a dozen native tribes including
the Eskimo, Eyak, Athabascan, Tlingit, Sun'aq, and Aleut rely on the
area for subsistence living, not to speak of their cultural and
The Navy is already permitted to use live ordnance including bombs,
missiles, and torpedoes, along with active and passive sonar in
"realistic" war gaming that is expected to involve the release of as
much as 352,000 pounds of "expended materials" every year. (The Navy’s
numerous things as “expended materials,” including missiles, bombs,
torpedoes.) At present, the Navy is well into the process of securing
the necessary permits for the next five years and has even mentioned
making plans for the next 20. Large numbers of warships and submarines
are slated to move into the area and the potential pollution from this
has worried Alaskans who live nearby.
"We are concerned about expended materials in addition to the bombs, jet
noise, and sonar," the Eyak Preservation Council's Emily Stolarcyk tells
me as we sit in her office in Cordova, Alaska. EPC is an environmental
and social-justice-oriented nonprofit whose primary mission is to
protect wild salmon habitat. "Chromium, lead, tungsten, nickel, cadmium,
cyanide, ammonium perchlorate, the Navy's own environmental impact
statement <http://www.goaeis.com> says there is a high risk of chemical
exposure to fish."
Tiny Cordova, population 2,300, is home to the largest commercial
fishing fleet in the state and consistently ranks among the top 10
busiest U.S. fishing ports. Since September, when Stolarcyk first became
aware of the Navy's plans, she has been working tirelessly, calling
local, state and federal officials and alerting virtually every
fisherman she runs into about what she calls “the storm” looming on the
horizon. "The propellants from the Navy's missiles and some of their
other weapons will release benzene, toluene, xylene, polycyclic aromatic
hydrocarbons, and naphthalene into the waters of twenty percent of the
training area, according to their own EIS [environmental impact
statement]," she explains as we look down on Cordova’s harbor with
salmon fishing season rapidly approaching. As it happens, most of the
chemicals she mentioned were part of BP’s disastrous 2010 oil spill in
the Gulf of Mexico, which I covered
years, so as I listened to her I had an eerie sense of futuristic /déjà vu/.
Here’s just one example of the kinds of damage that will occur: the
cyanide discharge from a Navy torpedo is in the range of 140-150 parts
per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency’s "allowable" limit on
cyanide: one part per billion.
The Navy's EIS estimates that, in the five-year period in which these
war games are to be conducted, there will be more than 182,000 "takes"
-- direct deaths of a marine mammal, or the disruption of essential
behaviors like breeding, nursing, or surfacing. On the deaths of fish,
it offers no estimates at all. Nevertheless, the Navy will be permitted
to use at least 352,000 pounds of expended materials in these games
annually. The potential negative effects could be far-reaching, given
species migration and the global current system in northern waters.
In the meantime, the Navy is giving Stolarcyk’s efforts the cold
shoulder, showing what she calls “total disregard toward the people
making their living from these waters." She adds, “They say this is for
national security. They are theoretically defending us, but if they
destroy our food source and how we make our living, while polluting our
air and water, what's left to defend?"
Stolarcyk has been labeled an "activist" and "environmentalist," perhaps
because the main organizations she’s managed to sign on to her efforts
are indeed environmental groups like the Alaska Marine Conservation
Council <http://www.akmarine.org/>, the Alaska Center for the
Environment <http://akcenter.org/>, and the Alaskans First Coalition
"Why does wanting to protect wild salmon habitat make me an activist?"
she asks. "How has that caused me to be branded as an environmentalist?"
Given that the Alaska commercial fishing industry could be decimated if
its iconic “wild-caught” salmon turn up with traces of cyanide or any of
the myriad chemicals the Navy will be using, Stolarcyk could as easily
be seen as fighting for the well-being, if not the survival, of the
fishing industry in her state.
*War Gaming the Community*
The clock is ticking in Cordova and others in Stolarcyk’s community are
beginning to share her concerns. A few like Alexis Cooper, the executive
director of Cordova District Fishermen United
<https://www.cdfu.org/> (CDFU), a non-profit organization that
represents the commercial fishermen in the area, have begun to speak
out. "We're already seeing reduced numbers of halibut without the Navy
having expanded their operations in the GOA [Gulf of Alaska]," she says,
"and we’re already seeing other decreases in harvestable species."
CDFU represents more than 800 commercial salmon fishermen, an industry
that accounts for an estimated 90% of Cordova’s economy. Without salmon,
like many other towns along coastal southeastern Alaska, it would
effectively cease to exist.
Teal Webber, a lifelong commercial fisherwoman and member of the Native
Village of Eyak, gets visibly upset when the Navy's plans come up. "You
wouldn't bomb a bunch of farmland," she says, "and the salmon run comes
right through this area, so why are they doing this now?" She adds,
"When all of the fishing community in Cordova gets the news about how
much impact the Navy's war games could have, you'll see them oppose it
While I’m in town, Stolarcyk offers a public presentation of the case
against Northern Edge in the elementary school auditorium. As she shows
a slide from the Navy's environmental impact statement indicating that
the areas affected will take decades to recover, several fishermen
quietly shake their heads.
One of them, James Weiss, who also works for Alaska's Fish and Game
Department, pulls me aside and quietly says, "My son is growing up here,
eating everything that comes out of the sea. I know fish travel through
that area they plan to bomb and pollute, so of course I'm concerned.
This is too important of a fishing area to put at risk."
In the question-and-answer session that follows, Jim Kasch, the town’s
mayor, assures Stolarcyk that he'll ask the city council to become
involved. "What's disturbing is that there is no thought about the fish
and marine life," he tells me later. "It's a sensitive area and we live
off the ocean. This is just scary." A Marine veteran, Kasch acknowledges
the Navy's need to train, then pauses and adds, "But dropping live
ordnance in a sensitive fishery just isn't a good idea. The entire coast
of Alaska lives and breathes from our resources from the ocean."
That evening, with the sun still high in the spring sky, I walk along
the boat docks in the harbor and can’t help but wonder whether this
small, scruffy town has a hope in hell of stopping or altering Northern
Edge. There have been examples of such unlikely victories in the past.
A dozen years ago, the Navy was, for example, finally forced to stop
Puerto Rican island of Vieques as its own private bombing and test
range, but only after having done so since the 1940s. In the wake of
those six decades of target practice, the island’s population has the
highest cancer and asthma rates in the Caribbean, a phenomenon locals
attribute to the Navy's activities.
Similarly, earlier this year a federal court ruled
Navy war games off the coast of California violated the law. It deemed
an estimated 9.6 million "harms" to whales and dolphins via
high-intensity sonar and underwater detonations improperly assessed as
"negligible" in that service’s EIS.
As a result of Stolarcyk's work, on May 6th Cordova’s city council
passed a resolution <http://www.cordovaradio.com/council.pdf> formally
opposing the upcoming war games. Unfortunately, the largest seafood
processor in Cordova (and Alaska), Trident Seafoods
<http://www.tridentseafoods.com/>, has yet to offer a comment on
Northern Edge. Its representatives wouldn’t even return my phone call
on the subject. Nor, for instance, has Cordova’s Prince William Sound
Science Center <http://pwssc.org/>, whose president, Katrina Hoffman,
wrote me that “as an organization, we have no position statement on the
matter at this time." This, despite their stated aim of supporting "the
ability of communities in this region to maintain socioeconomic
resilience among healthy, functioning ecosystems.” (Of course, it should
be noted that at least some of their funds come from the Navy
At Kodiak Island, my next stop, I find a stronger sense of the threat on
the horizon in both the fishing and tribal communities and palpable
anger about the Navy's plans. Take J.J. Marsh, the CEO of the Sun'aq
Tribe, the largest on the island. "I think it's horrible," she says the
minute I sit down in her office. “I grew up here. I was raised on
subsistence living. I grew up caring about the environment and the
animals and fishing in a native household living off the land and seeing
my grandpa being a fisherman. So obviously, the need to protect this is
What, I ask, is her tribe going to do?
She responds instantly. "We are going to file for a
government-to-government consultation and so are other Kodiak tribes so
that hopefully we can get this stopped.”
The U.S. government has a unique relationship with Alaska’s Native
tribes, like all other American Indian tribes. It treats each as if it
were an autonomous government
If a tribe requests a “consultation,” Washington must respond and
Marsh hopes that such an intervention might help block Northern Edge.
"It's about the generations to come. We have an opportunity as a
sovereign tribe to go to battle on this with the feds. If we aren't
going to do it, who is?"
Melissa Borton, the tribal administrator for the Native Village of
Afognak, feels similarly. Like Marsh’s tribe, hers was, until recently,
remarkably unaware of the Navy's plans. That’s hardly surprising since
that service has essentially made no effort
publicize what it is going to do. "We are absolutely going to be part of
this [attempt to stop the Navy]," she tells me. "I'm appalled."
One reason she’s appalled: she lived through Alaska’s monster Exxon
Valdez oil spill
1989. “We are still feeling its effects,” she says. “Every time they
make these environmental decisions they affect us... We are already
plagued with cancer and it comes from the military waste already in our
ground or that our fish and deer eat and we eat those... I've lost
family to cancer, as most around here have and at some point in time
this has to stop."
When I meet with Natasha Hayden, an Afognak tribal council member whose
husband is a commercial fisherman, she puts the matter simply and
bluntly. “This is a frontal attack by the Navy on our cultural identity."
Gary Knagin, lifelong fisherman and member of the Sun'aq tribe, is
busily preparing his boat and crew for the salmon season when we talk.
“We aren't going to be able to eat if they do this. It's bullshit. It'll
be detrimental to us and it's obvious why. In June, when we are out
there, salmon are jumping [in the waters] where they want to bomb as far
as you can see in any direction. That's the salmon run. So why do they
have to do it in June? If our fish are contaminated, the whole state's
economy is hit. The fishing industry here supports everyone and every
other business here is reliant upon the fishing industry. So if you take
out the fishing, you take out the town."
*The Navy’s Free Ride*
I requested comment from the U.S. military's Alaskan Command office, and
Captain Anastasia Wasem responded after I returned home from my trip
north. In our email exchange, I asked her why the Navy had chosen the
Gulf of Alaska, given that it was a critical habitat for all five of the
state’s wild salmon. She replied that the waters where the war games
will occur, which the Navy refers to as the Temporary Maritime
Activities Area, are "strategically significant" and claimed that a
recent "Pacific command study" found that naval training opportunities
are declining everywhere in the Pacific "except Alaska," which she
referred to as "a true national asset."
"The Navy's training activities,” she added, “are conducted with an
extensive set of mitigation measures designed to minimize the potential
risk to marine life."
In its assessment of the Navy’s plans, however, the National Marine
Fisheries Service (NMFS), one of the premier federal agencies tasked
with protecting national fisheries, disagreed. "Potential stressors to
managed species and EFH [essential fish habitat],” its report
“include vessel movements (disturbance and collisions), aircraft
overflights (disturbance), fuel spills, ship discharge, explosive
ordnance, sonar training (disturbance), weapons firing/nonexplosive
ordnance use (disturbance and strikes), and expended materials
(ordnance-related materials, targets, sonobuoys, and marine markers).
Navy activities could have direct and indirect impacts on individual
species, modify their habitat, or alter water quality." According to the
NMFS, effects on habitats and communities from Northern Edge “may result
in damage that could take years to decades from which to recover.”
Captain Wasem assured me that the Navy made its plans in consultation
with the NMFS, but she failed to add that those consultations were found
to be inadequate by the agency or to acknowledge that it expressed
serious concerns about the coming war games. In fact, in 2011 it made
four conservation recommendations to avoid, mitigate, or otherwise
offset possible adverse effects to essential fish habitat. Although such
recommendations were non-binding, the Navy was supposed to consider the
public interest in its planning.
One of the recommendations, for instance, was that it develop a plan to
report on fish mortality during the exercises. The Navy rejected this,
such reporting would "not provide much, if any, valuable data." As
Stolarcyk told me, “The Navy declined to do three of their four
recommendations, and NMFS just rolled over."
I asked Captain Wasem why the Navy choose to hold the exercise in the
middle of salmon fishing season.
"The Northern Edge exercise is scheduled when weather is most conducive
for training," she explained vaguely, pointing out that "the Northern
Edge exercise is a big investment for DoD [the Department of Defense] in
terms of funding, use of equipment/fuels, strategic transportation, and
The bottom line on all this is simple, if brutal. The Navy is
increasingly focused on possible future climate-change conflicts in the
melting waters of the north and, in that context, has little or no
intention of caretaking the environment when it comes to military
exercises. In addition, the federal agencies tasked with overseeing any
war-gaming plans have neither the legal ability nor the will to enforce
environmental regulations when what’s at stake, at least according to
the Pentagon, is “national security.”
Needless to say, when it comes to the safety of locals in the Navy’s
expanding area of operation, there is no obvious recourse. Alaskans
can’t turn to NMFS or the Environmental Protection Agency or NOAA. If
you want to stop the U.S. military from dropping live munitions, or
blasting electromagnetic radiation into national forests and marine
sanctuaries, or poisoning your environment, you'd better figure out how
to file a major lawsuit or, if you belong to a Native tribe, demand a
government-to-government consultation and hope it works. And both of
those are long shots, at best.
Meanwhile, as the race heats up for reserves of oil and gas in the
melting Arctic that shouldn't be extracted and burned in the first
place, so do the Navy's war games. From southern California to Alaska,
if you live in a coastal town or city, odds are that the Navy is coming
your way, if it's not already there.
Nevertheless, Emily Stolarcyk shows no signs of throwing in the towel,
despite the way the deck is stacked against her efforts. "It's
supposedly our constitutional right that control of the military is in
the hands of the citizens," she told me in our last session together.
At one point, she paused and asked, "Haven’t we learned from our past
mistakes around not protecting salmon? Look at California, Oregon, and
Washington's salmon. They’ve been decimated. We have the best and most
pristine salmon left on the planet, and the Navy wants to do these
exercises. You can't have both."
Stolarcyk and I share a bond common among people who have lived in our
northernmost state, a place whose wilderness is so vast and beautiful as
to make your head spin. Those of us who have experienced its rivers and
mountains, have been awed by the northern lights, and are regularly
reminded of our own insignificance (even as we gained a new appreciation
for how precious life really is) tend to want to protect the place as
well as share it with others.
"Everyone has been telling me from the start that I'm fighting a lost
cause and I will not win," Stolarcyk said as our time together wound
down. "No other non-profit in Alaska will touch this. But I actually
believe we can fight this and we can stop them. I believe in the power
of one. If I can convince someone to join me, it spreads from there. It
takes a spark to start a fire, and I refuse to believe that nothing can
Three decades ago, in his book /Arctic Dreams/, Barry Lopez suggested
that, when it came to exploiting the Arctic versus living sustainably in
it, the ecosystems of the region were too vulnerable to absorb attempts
to "accommodate both sides." In the years since, whether it’s been the
Navy, Big Energy, or the increasingly catastrophic impacts of
human-caused climate disruption, only one side has been accommodated and
the results have been dismal.
In Iraq in wartime, I saw what the U.S. military was capable of in a
distant ravaged land. In June, I’ll see what that military is capable of
in what still passes for peacetime and close to home indeed. As I sit at
my desk writing this story on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, the roar
of Navy jets periodically rumbles in from across Puget Sound where a
massive naval air station is located. I can’t help but wonder whether,
years from now, I’ll still be writing pieces with titles like
"Destroying What Remains," as the Navy continues its war-gaming in an
ice-free summer Arctic amid a sea of off-shore oil drilling platforms.
/Dahr Jamail, a /TomDispatch/ regular/
spent, all told, more than a year as an unembedded journalist in Iraq
between 2003 and 2014. He is a recipient of numerous honors, including
the Martha Gellhorn Award for Journalism and the James Aronson Award for
Social Justice Journalism for his work in Iraq. He is the author of two
books: /Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist
in Occupied Iraq
/The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and
is a staff reporter for /Truthout/. This is a joint/ TomDispatch
<http://www.tomdispatch.com/>/Truthout <http://www.truth-out.org/>/ report.
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