Environmental worries persist as Northern Edge military exercises grow

An F-18 Super Hornet lands on the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Gulf of Alaska during Northern Edge 2019 training exercises. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

The Northern Edge military exercises are underway across huge sections of Southcentral and Interior Alaska.

The U.S. Navy has a larger presence than in recent years, part of the branch’s increasing focus on the Arctic. A persistent complaint in several of Alaska’s coastal communities centers on the environmental impacts of so much activity, at a time of year when large numbers of animals are migrating and commercial fishing is beginning.

In spite of the military’s outreach efforts, those criticisms remain.

During a recent day of training, fighter jets took off and landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier at a rapid clip.

“We are catching anywhere from six to 25 aircraft on this recovery,” crackled a voice over a speaker system.

To land on the short, floating runway, Navy F-18 Super Hornets drop out of the sky with a hook dangling down to snag a wire on the flight deck. They go from full speed to a full stop in 183 feet. The sight is less like a car suddenly braking, and more like a roller coaster slamming still with an unnatural jolt.

The rumbling from each takeoff rattles all the way up to the observation deck.

An F-18 Super Hornet prepares to take off from an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Alaska during Northern Edge 2019. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

The USS Theodore Roosevelt is the first aircraft carrier to take part in Northern Edge in a decade. Around 10,000 service-members are participating in Alaska from all the branches of the military. The point is to get Marines, seamen, soldiers, guardsmen and airmen all working toward the same mission.

“It sounds easier said than done,” said Navy Rear Adm. Daniel Dwyer, commander of the nine vessels that make up this carrier strike group, while standing on the flag deck of the Roosevelt. According to Dwyer, Northern Edge is designed to teach the different branches how to jointly partner on complex tasks.

The Navy is always on hand for the training exercise, but the branch is increasing its presence in Alaska — a strategic move driven in part by more activity in Arctic waters.

“When you see the shrinking of the polar ice cap, opening of sea lanes, more traffic through those areas, then it’s the Navy’s responsibility to protect America through those approaches,” Dwyer said.

Crew members handle fighter jets as they take off and land on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt during exercises in the Gulf of Alaska during Northern Edge 2019. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Part of the military’s work facilitating Northern Edge is gathering concerns from coastal communities in Alaska, many of which worry about what the activities are doing to the environment and wildlife. On this particular day of exercises, on board the ship are several civilians — technically called a “distinguished visitor group” — getting a special, up-close tour of the happenings.

The Navy is bringing groups of local elected officials and public servants from the affected communities out to see operations firsthand.

“Mostly it’s a very unique field trip,” said Donna Aderhold, a member of the Homer City Council. She and other community residents are troubled by aspects of the exercises.

“Some of the concerns have been about the timing of the training and the potential effects on marine species, whales, fish,” Aderhold said.

These worries are longstanding: Environmental concerns are a consistent part of Northern Edge.

In 2016, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, wrote a letter to the secretary of the Navy asking the military branch to re-examine how they plan and execute the exercise. In the last few years, almost a dozen local governments in coastal communities have passed resolutions opposing or expressing reservations about the training, according to the Cordova-based Eyak Preservation Council.

“They aren’t listening to us,” said EPC Executive Director Carol Hoover, who maintains the exercises threaten the health of fish and wildlife during a key migratory season.

“We trust the traditional knowledge and the fishermen’s knowledge that this is a bad time to do these trainings,” she said.

Hoover said fishers and community members she’s spoken with want the exercises moved to the fall.

A crew member points out the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier’s position in the Gulf of Alaska during exercises. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Members of the military say the timing is based on a number of factors. One is the difficulty of coordinating so many assets and personnel years in advance. The other is safety: Abundant daylight and relatively mild weather make late spring a better time to move hundreds of vessels through the waters and sky.

“There’s certainly some misunderstandings in the public,” said John Mosher, project manager for Northern Edge’s environmental impact statement.

According to Mosher, a lot of the concerns over the exercises are unfounded, based on the military’s scientific review. For instance, he said the sonar used to detect submarines has no detectable impact on species of commercially-harvested fish in the region.

A lot of the misunderstandings Mosher points to have to do with what the military is technically permitted to do, versus what it actually does during exercises. For example, under the EIS, though the military is technically allowed to employ live ammunition, bombs and explosive buoys, in recent years there is no evidence they have used any of those kinds of ordinance.

“They are typically far below the authorizations,” Mosher said, adding that while the military secures permission for the maximum range of activities, it generally does only a small fraction of them as part of Northern Edge.

The exercises wrap up on May 24.

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