Alaska editorial: It's time to fight for Eielson Air Force Base

Posted: Tuesday, May 17, 2005

This editorial appeared in Sunday's Fairbanks Daily News-miner:

Across the nation, from the biggest states to some of the smallest communities, the cry of "Save Our Base" has been rolling in to Washington, D.C., as astute politicians and others try to keep their coveted military installations open while the next round of base closings proceeds.

Many have been at it for years, some much less so. But regardless of the length of their lobbying effort, their leaders in and out of government were keenly aware that the Base Realignment and Closure Commission was going back to work this year. Base supporters have spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours and have promised more as they try to convince the commission that this Army post or Navy shipyard or that Air Force base or Marine camp shouldn't be shuttered.

And then there's Alaska and Fairbanks, whose stunned officials learned Friday that Eielson Air Force Base is on the list to be all but closed, its aircraft and personnel sent elsewhere.

Alaska and Fairbanks appear to have done nothing to prepare for this possibility. That needs to change - and now.

Here's what other states were doing while Alaska was idle: North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley 16 months ago - 16 months ago - gave his lieutenant governor the job of protecting the state's military installations in the 2005 round of base closings. With the military bringing $18.1 billion into the state's economy each year, the governor and others clearly recognized the need to play defense. So far, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue has made several lobbying trips to Washington, has worked with local governments to improve their own base-saving campaigns and has put together a package of military-friendly legislation.

Other states are equally as strident on behalf of their bases. In Illinois, retired military officers, politicians and public relations experts are part of the effort to not only save their bases but also expand them. Illinois has been lobbying since the 1995 round of shutdowns, with the cost of the lobbying effort to date expected to top $3 million. Michigan officials in March made their case with officials in the Defense Department and the Defense Logistics Agency.

In Georgia, Gov. Sonny Perdue has traveled to the Pentagon to make the case for his state's bases. Georgia also has a topflight Military Affairs Coordinating Committee that includes five retired generals or admirals and is led by two former U.S. senators - Sam Nunn, former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Mack Mattingly, former chairman of the Military Construction Appropriations Subcommittee.

In Florida, former Defense Secretary William Cohen and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey are part of a $50,000-a-month consulting team working for the state. Massachusetts has a $410 million plan to develop bases and has hired a former BRAC chairman to be its lobbyist. In New York, Gov. George Pataki last month said the state expects to spend millions of dollars lobbying the government to keep all of the state's bases open. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has hired President Clinton's former chief of staff to lead his state's military lobbying effort.

Leaders in Alaska and in Fairbanks, meanwhile, were led into complacency. They believed that powerful U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens would not permit the closing of any of the big four installations - Elmendorf and Eielson Air Force bases and Forts Richardson and Wainwright. They assumed the annual lofty pronouncements of visiting high-ranking military guests regarding Fairbanks' "strategic location" meant that the area's military installations were secure from closure.

While the process is far from finished, most of the installations the Defense Department recommends for closing or downsizing do meet their suggested fate. And that leads to a debate about the effectiveness of lobbying; the opinions vary. But if lobbying is to pay off, then it will come between now and the time the commission makes its final list and forwards it to the president and Congress.

Eielson is far too important to this community, and therefore to the state, for the announcement of its near-closing to be received without a fight. It is unacceptable to conclude, as Sen. Stevens did on Friday, that Eielson's closing is regrettable but acceptable given that Alaska as a whole has fared well overall when considering military additions of recent years. Since when is it acceptable for a community to lose thousands of people in one stroke?

So now what?

Although Alaska and Fairbanks are terribly far behind in the lobbying wars, they should immediately open and adequately fund a campaign to save Eielson. The effort must be led by Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, Rep. Don Young, Gov. Frank Murkowski, local mayors and legislators and the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce. The governor took a good first step on Friday in announcing the creation of a panel that will work to prepare for Eielson's shut down while also working to keep it open. The priority, though, should be on the latter.

Despite what effort may be mounted on Eielson's behalf, the work will be difficult - more so because nothing has been done so far. To drive that point home, here's a sobering statement from a consultant whose firm works for several military communities in the South and Midwest: "For any military community waiting to this stage to hire a lobbyist, it's too late."

It's time to prove him wrong and keep Eielson open.

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