CHEWELAH, Washington – Cougar tracks pressed into the snow-covered logging road were fresh. And a few hundred feet away in the evergreen forest was a winter camp for 30 airmen from Fairchild Air Force Base .
A parachute hung from trees, and small logs were stacked for a warming fire for the men who had slept on tree boughs when temperatures dipped below freezing.
The cougars, a mother and cub, weren’t the only concern according to the instructors and U.S. Forest Service liaison traveling in military track vehicles to the site from base camp for an inspection.
The cougars are among the numerous animals and humans including loggers, ranchers, hunters and snowmobilers that share this part of the Colville National Forest.
And like all users, the Air Force has had to learn to work with the Forest Service and its decade-old forest restoration mission.
“We have no exclusive rights in the forest,” said Todd Foster, 336th Training Group training area manager, while explaining their collaboration.
Since 1964, Colville has provided the rough wilderness training stage for thousands of service members who might be forced to survive in a wilderness setting behind enemy lines through the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School.
This year, for the first time, they have moved to a different location near Chewelah because of logging around their base camp near Cusick in Pend Oreille County. This new training area is near the North Fork of Chewelah Creek on the Three River Ranger District.
Other forest users should be aware that the base camp and training areas will continue to be moved around the forest until 2026 when, under current plans, they move back to Tacoma and Ruby creek drainages and base camp.
The airmen train near a campground used by snowmobilers and in a forest where ranchers have permits to graze cattle. The area is even home to a wolf pack.
And now the training area is in the middle of another new concept in forest restoration that is encompassing thousands of acres in the Colville National Forest. The nationally recognized A to Z Mill Creek stewardship project includes thinning and reforestation done from beginning to end in collaboration with private companies. Basically, timber is traded for forest restoration work.
Project markers were visible near the training camps and on the roads where next summer work will begin, said Rick Hall, Forest Service liaison to the Air Force. He inspects their training sites every week as part of his full-time liaison duties under this agreement.
In Pend Oreille County, the Air Force constructed buildings for equipment and training staff. On this temporary site they have specially designed modular buildings and trailers for the base camp located on an old gravel pit.
Permit requiredThe military use of public lands for training isn’t without controversy. One environmental group filed a lawsuit in March to try to stop the Navy’s use of Washington state parks for training .
A special use permit that outlines what can be done in the forest was granted to the Air Force in 2010 and will expire in 2030. An environmental assessment followed, along with dozens of agreements with state and federal agencies responsible for the environment and wildlife.
Hall said this is the longest running special use agreement in the Colville National Forest.
“Part of my report is a detailed record of the land,” said Foster. “I know what happened before we were out there, so I have no question of whether or not we did it.”
As a former Marine, the 49-year-old Hall attended the Marine survival school and went through the Air Force’s class here to gain a better understanding of its activities. The Newport resident has worked for the Forest Service for 25 years.
“When you start taking resources, you start losing training land,” said Foster, who is a retired survival school specialist. “It wasn’t until Rick came along with his ideas and listened to my concerns that we started making changes.”
Along with reminders to instructors and students that they must limit the impact on the forest, the Air Force makes improvements each week.
Hall said the Air Force plants about 1,000 trees, thins about 20 acres of forest and maintains many miles of roads each year. The Air Force also helps clear danger trees from the campgrounds and forest while training by taking trees for firewood that needed to be removed.
“We can’t do it overnight but in five years we will accomplish what they (forest service) wanted,” Foster said.
“From the lowest guy to the top guy, they get the big picture of 10 or more years down the road,” said Hall, who ensures the school and its students are following forestry standards.
“It’s a constant battle of teaching, even when they screw up, and making sure it won’t happen again,” said Tech. Sgt. Keith Schmidt.
Foster manages other Washington training sites at Forks and Vantage, and one site near Tillamook, Oregon. The Air Force stopped using sites near Priest Lake, Sullivan Lake and the Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge.
The survival school permit covers 419,000 acres in the Colville Forest, which is broken up by private, state and tribal lands. So the school must coordinate with all these other landowners as well.
Foster said they were asked to monitor wildlife and report their findings to the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Their agreement allows the classes to harvest some small game and fish during training.
Foster said they do far less damage than campers. They dig latrines for their camps and pick up trash. They grade the roads they use after they are done.
We can move from site to site in the forest to minimize our impact, he said. For example, they had trained near Sullivan Lake until it became part of a protected area for grizzly bears.
The instructors call the six-day basic course a “global training” classroom; it isn’t climate or geographically centered but focuses on basic survival techniques used anywhere.
“To move this to a theater of war like Afghanistan would be hard,” Foster said.
“People drift into camp or training areas all the time,” Foster said. “I tell them to offer a cup of coffee and explain what they’re doing.”
Foster, 50, also draws on his lifelong connection to the community and personal use of the forest for recreation. He has two grown boys and operates a farm near Deer Park.
Field training necessary
Use of the forest for training isn’t always popular, but the need is real, Foster said.
A bomber or fighter pilot in the Air Force understands that ejecting from their aircraft isn’t the worst thing that can happen. They are left with nothing but a knife and their training to survive until help can arrive.
“Definitely interesting,” said Staff Sgt. Jesse Gass, when asked about his job as instructor. Gass was from Mississippi and hadn’t experienced the snow and cold weather before coming to northeast Washington for training.
The students come from all over the country, he said. They hear rumors about the area and training. This helps create a healthy anxiety that is good for successful training.
“The bigger scenario is that they are out in the middle of the forest but with lots of support and concern for safety around them,” said Gass.
Some get their first taste of real-life leadership experience, he said.
Students spend six days in the forest learning skills for what to do in potentially dangerous survival situations. This includes signaling, and building shelters and fires.
“We call it a crawl, walk, run scenario. We start by teaching them what they need to know,” said Master Sgt. Brian Youngberg. “Then, little by little, we interject an enemy situation with a gradually rising threat level. You still have to meet your basic needs while escaping.”
Youngberg, 33, traveled from Chicago for the basic survival course and went on to instructor training. He has been in the Air Force for 11 years.
Each day, the training progresses toward students being alone with an enemy in pursuit. Their mission is to avoid the enemy, survive and make it back safely. There are multiple techniques that are taught to help with evasion, including basics like camouflage, what it means to be hidden and how to move without being found by the enemy. It is a step-by-step process and gradually teaches students all of the needed skills .
“Planning out how the day is going to go is important to meet needs, starting with getting warm in the morning, setting up shelters and preparing to build a fire. If it gets cold, you have to get warm first and then start meeting other needs,” said Youngberg.
Signaling helicopters and learning how to find the right open rescue area is another important part of the training.
There are usually two types of training going on in the forest. One is the basic course for those that will be airborne, and the second is to train future instructors. There is a mix of officers and enlisted personnel in the classes working in groups, but eventually they will be tested alone.
This year they also modified who was required to receive the entire training. Some with less chance of ending up in a forest behind enemy lines are now not required to take the field portion of SERE training.
COVID-19 hasn’t stopped the training, but it has changed some parts like using remote learning for orientation instead of large auditoriums.
The Air Force received vaccine in a similar priority order as civilians. Medical staff and those with essential jobs were first, but everyone hasn’t been vaccinated yet, said Youngberg.
There are two medics on site with helicopters on call for emergency evacuation. Although not their primary responsibility, if there is a civilian emergency medical situation they will assist, he said.
Once they feel the student has the basic skills to survive they send them off into the forest to navigate to a pickup point while being chased by instructors.
“Best-case scenario with electronic navigation all the way down to map and compass and none at all,” he said of the cross-country training.
They use sound systems mounted on vehicles and a boom cannon during their simulated pursuit, he said. It’s mostly to drive the students into the training area.
They do not carry guns or use live ammo, he said.
“Lots of people are shocked when they hear we just have pocket knives” he said. They ask: “What about bears and mountain lions?”
As with the cougar and cub walking on the road the past month, they have found that predators will stay away, he said. Nobody has even seen the cougars.
Foster said the classes are in low valleys in winters, which is also where the game lives that the predators are hunting.
“The classes are in prime predator habitat all year and not one incident has occurred,” Foster said. “We are a success story.”
In the winter the classes have a smaller footprint, said Youngberg. This doesn’t apply to the more macho instructor class. They will take off across country and up cliffs during their training. The classes at the base and in the field last for almost six months.
Long historyIn response to the many downed aircraft in the Vietnam War, the government began to look for new ways to prepare its airmen for that possibility.
“The idea was that the Air Force needed to do a better job of saving people,” said Bob Moran.
The 86-year-old ended his 58-year career in the Air Force as chief master sergeant in charge of SERE instructors. He and his wife retired to a ranch just a few miles from the survival school base in Pend Oreille County.
Moran, like those after him, had active duty experience with rescues behind enemy lines. Some, he said, are still top secret. Like all instructors he used his experiences to develop the survival school training.
“I got to work with some fantastic people,” Moran said.
“Fifty years ago it was the same,” Moran said. “Overcoming fear of the unknown even in the middle of Pend Oreille County.”
Lower numbersToday the SERE school can support 2,024 students per year for field survival and 4,048 per year for resistance training. Up to 44 students a week, 46 weeks a year are in the Colville National Forest training. During the Vietnam War years, there could be more than 200 a week in the classes.
Each of the military services is responsible for providing SERE training for their personnel.
When the Air Force modernized SERE training, it recognized that not all previous jobs requiring the field portion still existed, said Capt. Kaitlin Holmes, chief of public affairs at Fairchild. “In this modernization effort, it was identified that a lot of airmen still needed resistance training, but allowed for a reduction in the number of individuals they put through the field portion.”
The 336th Training Group consists of three squadrons with the two others in Texas and Alaska. The survival school teaches 19 different courses to approximately 20,000 students at the three locations annually.
Other squadrons with different specialties support the classes in the Colville National Forest.
The 22nd Training Squadron basic course lasts 19 days and occurs 48 weeks out of each year. The majority of the course is taught at Fairchild AFB with six days in the forest. Students receive the code of conduct training in evasion and conduct after capture at Fairchild.
They also conduct ejection and nonejection water survival courses, which train aircrew members of all different aircraft at the base. This training includes lessons such as techniques in signaling rescue aircraft, hazardous aquatic life, food and water procurement, medical aspects of water survival and life raft procedures.
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