A federal commission studying America's military bases may be playing a final "Taps" for Fort Douglas, and politicians say they finally may be ready to surrender the 126-year post without a fight.
Members of Utah's congressional delegation consider the picturesque fort and its Civil War-era buildings a likely candidate in the Pentagon's quest to close about two dozen military bases around the country.Fort Douglas is one of three bases long cited by critics as contributing little to national defense. Others are Fort Monroe, Va., and Fort Sheridan, Ill.
The state's congressional delegation and Gov. Norm Bangerter say they'll go along if the Pentagon can demonstrate closure would save money.
Their acquiescence would have been unthinkable a decade ago, but closure today probably would cost the Salt Lake area only a fraction of the 414 civilian jobs the fort provides. And the University of Utah is eager to absorb 112 buildings should the Army declare them surplus, officials say.
"Our main concern is that they operate from up-to-date, accurate data," said Democratic Rep. Wayne Owens, whose 2nd District includes the fort. "If the data is accurate and there's no indication of unfairness, then I don't know what I can do. You can't be for closing down everybody else's things, and not be willing to look at your own."
Nestled in foothills between Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Mountains, Fort Douglas was built in 1862 to protect stagecoach routes from Indian attack. It was named, at President Lincoln's suggestion, after his Illinois rival, Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, who had died the year before.
However, the fort's first commander, Col. Patrick Connor, acknowledged that he chose the foothills overlooking the city so he could keep an eye on Brigham Young's Mormon pioneers. He said they were too friendly with the Indians.
At one point, Connor sought to have Mormon merchants sign an oath of loyalty to the United States before allowing them to sell goods to the fort. Relations improved after Connor's departure, and by the turn of the century the Army and the city got along well.
The post included prisoner-of-war camps in World Wars I and II, and during World War II also housed several major military units moved from the West Coast because of security concerns following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Owens suggested two years ago that the fort be closed to cut costs, but after visiting there was convinced it was cheaper to keep it open. That conclusion was supported by a 1981 congressional study made at the request of Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, after the Army announced plans to close the fort.
The study concluded that while the Army itself would save money by closing the post, heavy use by other military organizations such as Army, Navy and Marine Corps reserve groups, made Fort Douglas cost effective.
Garn said that conclusion may still be valid.
Fort Douglas is now home to 3,300 Utah reservists from the three services, as well as headquarters for the 96th Army Reserve Command, which oversees 23,000 to 24,000 reserve soldiers in seven Western states, including Utah.
Other organizations using Fort Douglas include the Sixth Army Reserve Pay Office, which disperses paychecks to reservists in 14 states, recruiting commands for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps and a military entrance examination center. The fort also rents space to Dugway Proving Ground for contract personnel who work with Salt Lake suppliers.
The fort's headquarters command consists only of five active duty military and 62 civilian personnel.
If the fort is closed, the reserve components will remain and continue to require active-duty support, said post commander Col. Fred Hillyard.
"Fort Douglas accomplishes that in a very cost-effective manner, and to do it another way might prove more costly," said Hillyard, whose father served at Fort Douglas as a 2nd lieutenant in 1934-35.
The critical issue will be the criteria the commission uses to evaluate bases, said Hillyard. Neither he nor the Army is permitted to lobby on behalf of the fort, he said.
Jim Abbee, spokesman for the Commission on Base Realignment and Closure, which is conducting the study, said reserve activities will be a consideration when the commission looks at Fort Douglas.
"It's an item that will be considered. What weight it will have is unknown," Abbee said by telephone from Washington, D.C.
He said speculation about Fort Douglas is premature. Only 11 of the 12 commission members have been appointed, and no list of bases likely to close has been compiled.
"It's a blank piece of paper at the moment," Abbee said.
Fort Douglas' tenants now pay only $2 per foot for space, and almost certainly would pay more anywhere in the Salt Lake area, said Maj. Bill Auer, public relations officer for the 96th ARCOM and designated spokesman regarding the fort's possible closure.
Garn said the issue is whether those higher costs would be offset by an overall saving. He said he probably would seek another independent study if the commission recommends closure.
"What I would like to do is look at it in a non-political way and evaluate it dispassionately," Garn said.