Marshaling the forces: 'No one is safe,' Hansen says of next round of base closures

Published: Sunday, April 24 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

Hill Air Force Base aircraft electrician Jeremy John works on an F-16. The Utah Legislature recently allocated $5 million toward saving Hill.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

First in a four-part series

Nowhere is safe.

Every U.S. military installation across the country is vulnerable to the power of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which has reconvened after a 10-year hiatus.

It's the "mother of all BRACs," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said, where nearly a quarter of the nation's military infrastructure will be closed or significantly reduced. A proposed list of bases on the chopping block is scheduled to be released by May 16.

Hill Air Force Base, Tooele Army Depot and Dugway Proving Ground could all be closed or reduced in size. The Defense Department plans on closing or scaling back as much as 20 percent of its 425 domestic military bases.

"No one is safe from BRAC, no matter how secure you think you are," said Malcolm Walden, BRAC transition coordinator at the Tooele Army Depot. "Every installation in the entire Department of Defense is looked at. Everybody is treated the same, and no one is safe. We thought we were — we weren't."

Failed investment

If anywhere thought it was safe from BRAC, it was TAD in 1993.

Officials there had just christened a $112 million state-of-the-art truck-refurbishing plant at the cusp of the '93 base-closure round. Both state and local officials laughed at the thought of the Defense Department possibly shutting down or realigning TAD after such a costly investment.

"I come from the business world where you would never build something like that in size and then close it," former Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, told the Deseret News prior to the release of the '93 BRAC list. "Unfortunately, government isn't like business. The U.S. government is so large it thinks nothing about closing something like that."

Months later, BRAC shut down 130 bases and scaled back 45, including Tooele. Less than a year into operations, the massive Consolidated Maintenance Facility shut it doors and was eventually sold to a private entity.

No guarantees

Tooele's story is a hard example of how uncertain the BRAC process is, Hansen said in an interview. Tossing millions of dollars at Utah's bases might not be enough to save them.

The Legislature recently passed a bill allocating $5 million from the general fund in an attempt to save Hill. The money would be used to invest in multiple projects that would create hundreds of jobs around the base.

At the end of the 2004 session, the Legislature gave Hill $2 million to buy more private land surrounding the base to create a buffer between Hill and the local communities.

Even in tight budget years, the Legislature found ways to whittle out a few million to bolster Hill. In 2003, legislators approved a $2 million expenditure to extend a runway in Tooele County. That airstrip is now being used for emergency landings for aircraft flying out of Hill and over the Utah Test and Training Range in the West Desert. "A lot of people and some of our delegation are saying, 'Now look at the money we are putting up at Hill, obviously they can't close it,' " Hansen said. "Well, they don't know much about base closings if they make that statement. That doesn't mean a thing."

No defender strong enough

Some Utah leaders think Hansen will use his clout and position as a BRAC member to save Hill Air Force Base.

During his 22 years in the House, Hansen fought to defend the base in prior BRAC rounds. He often used his position as a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee to protect Hill's interests. The former congressman went toe-to-toe with President Bill Clinton in a battle during the '95 BRAC round to save Hill from a relocation to California.

But that's not his job anymore, Hansen said.

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