Navy, Alaskan Command talk NE17 with Cordova

Alaska provides great opportunity for joint military training

From the military perspective, Northern Edge 17 will involve considerably less activity than previous such training exercises in the Gulf of Alaska.

Just 6,000 people, 175 fixed-wing aircraft and two Navy ships are expected to take part in the training slated to take place in the Gulf from May 1 to May 12, military officials said during an informational meeting in Cordova on Dec. 7.

And then there is the total estimated economic impact, $13 million including the cost of lodging, rentals, support contracts and more, Lt. Col. Tim Bobinski of the Alaska Command at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

Bobinski and Alex Stone, an environmental planner with Navy U.S. Pacific Fleet, had come to Cordova for a community engagement session with local city government officials and the public at the Cordova Center on Dec. 7.

Lt. Col. Tim Bobinski, of Alaskan Command/Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, discusses Northern Edge 17, a joint military training operation scheduled for the Gulf of Alaska May 1-12, 2017, with the Cordova City Council and the public on Dec. 7, in the Cordova Center. Photo by Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson/The Cordova Times

They gave a 15-minute presentation on Northern Edge 17, one of 16 such engagement events planned in communities that will be impacted, then held a 40-minute question and answer session.

Northern Edge is a biennial training exercise conducted in the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, which includes areas within the Gulf of Alaska, plus land and airspace elsewhere in the state.

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Bobinski said NE17 is important because it allows the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard to train together.

“Alaska presents great opportunities for land and sea space, air-to-air, air-to-surface, tactical command and control, live and virtual trainings with joint operability tactics,” Bobinski said. “Alaska is huge. It provides us with very large air spaces over the Gulf of Alaska, which allows for huge training spaces.”

It’s the timing of NE 17 that worries residents.

NE17 is scheduled to end just before the opening of the 2017 salmon gillnet fishing season on the Copper River Flats, and during the 27th annual Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival, set for May 4-7.

But Bobinski says the timing is important.

The military considers sea heights at that time of year, ships on the water and safety for participating aircraft, Bobinski said.

“We have a window to accomplish our training. We’re about at the midway point and are continuing to plan, with the final planning meeting in February. Training in the Gulf of Alaska allows us to hone our skills and the Alaska military infrastructure allows for topnotch training like no other. With these skills, it allows us to conduct missions which we may be called on to do,” Bobinski said.

The military will not be using any bombs during the NE17 training exercises, said Stone.

“Everything that will be done is covered in the environmental impact statement,” he said, referring to the Navy’s Gulf of Alaska Navy Training Activities Final EIS/OEIS, which determined the potential environmental impacts from NE17.

The 2011 GOA EIS, which expired in 2016, Stone said, will include the 2013 Supplemental EIS, which has allowed the Navy to bring in additional, new information to the document. The supplemental EIS is near completion.

“A decision on permitting is forthcoming, regarding a five-year permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service. NMFS is a cooperating agency,” Stone said. “We’re doing whatever we can to minimize impact.”

“What we’ve planned in NE17 is considerably less than what we’ve done in previous exercises. We’re only using two ships this year, no aircraft carrier and no submarine,” Stone said. “We’re most proud of the environmental planning and the extensive mitigation measures in place, while still allowing the Navy to train. We will be monitoring for marine mammals, monitoring after the exercises and reporting. We don’t discharge any plastics (trash) at sea. There’s a tremendous amount of research being done on sonar and explosives, and adaptive management development practices throughout the Navy. The Navy is mindful of the resources in Alaska and protective of the environment.”

Stone said sonar would only be used periodically during the training.

“The EIS explains it in detail. How far the sound travels depend a lot on what’s going on in the water,” he said.

Former Cordova Mayor Kelley Weaverling, a Zen Buddhist monk, who had previously served in the Navy on a submarine, thanked military officials for coming to Cordova.

“I support the Navy’s desire to practice. We participated in daily training in the Navy to maintain our readiness. I think the area (of the trainings) is okay. A lot of the language is confusing,” Weaverling said. “Think of it simply: Will it be good for mammals? No, it will not. It will be bad. My question is why it has to happen during our spring and near our fishing grounds.”

According to Stone, NE17 won’t have a great impact on fish or mammals.

“We’re not claiming that we’re seeing every marine mammal, but we’re confident that we can minimize the impact as much as we can,” he said. “Adaptive mitigation measures are in place and there is training in areas without seeing any decline in sensitive species’ populations. NE17 is a relatively small activity over a very large area. We do not expect to see impacts on fish populations.”

Mayor Clay Koplin also had concerns.

“Our shorebirds, salmon, herring – our whole coastline, comes to life here from April-May. It’s just the worst timing, right before fishing season begins May 15. Our fish and birds show up and everything that does arrive here, has to cross the ocean.”

Kate McLaughlin, executive director of the Prince William Soundkeeper, said there’s no compelling argument for holding the NE17 training exercises in May and she prefers that the trainings be rescheduled for October.

“While I appreciate all armed forces, I ask the military to examine the risks, the impacts to fish, to humans. Please consider moving the trainings to October,” she said.

Bobinski said that Alaskan Command and the Navy have considered worst-case scenarios and contingency plans are in place if needed.

“We’re constantly thinking, ‘What-ifs.’ We have contingencies in place. Safety and environmental impacts are of the utmost importance to us,” Bobinski said.

Dune Lankard, founder and chairman of the Eyak Preservation Council, said after the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake and the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Disaster, he’s not sure if Cordovans can survive another potential disaster.

“This place is sacred. We feed tens of millions of people with our food from around the world. There are all species of salmon here, whales and other sea life. We need to protect our home and our ecosystem. This is our way of life,” Lankard said.

City councilman James Wiese also touched on the timing of NE17.

“Please change the time of year and relocate,” Wiese said. “This is all of our families here.” “There’s no demonstrated impact to the community,” Bobinski responded. “We understand the concerns and we agree that the Gulf of Alaska and Cordova are special places. We will protect the environment when training.”

ALCOM and Navy representatives also are scheduled to speak at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium Jan. 20-23, in Anchorage; the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting Jan. 30 – Feb. 7, in Seattle; the Alaska Forum on the Environment Feb. 6-10, in Anchorage.  They also plan to meet with the Sunaq Tribe and the Native Village of Eyak regarding NE17.

View the Navy’s EIS at www.goaeis.com; click directly to the link to the EIS table of contents here: http://goaeis.com/Documents/GOAFinalEISOEISMay2011.aspx

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Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson
Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson is a staff writer and photographer for The Cordova Times. She has been writing in one form or another for 30-plus years and has had a longstanding relationship with The Cordova Times starting in 1989. She's been an Alaskan since 1976 and first moved to Cordova in 1978. She's lived in various West Texas towns; in Denver, Colorado; in McGrath, Cordova, Galena, Kodiak, Wasilla, Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska and in Bangalore, India. She has two children and three grandchildren. She can be reached at [email protected] or follow her on Instagram @alaskatoindia.