While Congress gave Fort Douglas its execution orders Tuesday, at least one congressman was dreaming of converting the obsolete base into a center for high-tech fusion research.
Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, made that suggestion Tuesday - but on Wednesday stressed that it was not a formal proposal - after the House voted 381-43 to affirm plans to close the Utah fort and 85 other obsolete bases, partially close five others and realign duties at 54 additional bases.All three Utah congressmen voted to close the bases and hailed the vote as a move to save money and help balance the budget. Opponents claimed it would not save much money and would destroy jobs important to their home districts.
Meanwhile, Reps. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, and Howard C. Nielson, R-Utah, feared Hansen's idea for a fusion center at the fort might be a formal proposal that was premature. But a University of Utah spokesman said he had told Hansen that using a portion of the fort for the center is a possibility the school might like to consider.
Hansen said in a statement prepared for the Congressional Record that he has already introduced legislation designed to give closed portions of Fort Douglas to the U.
But, "With the recent nationwide attention the U. has received over the results of a fusion experiment conducted by Dr. B. Stanley Pons and a British colleague, Martin Fleischmann, I can think of no better way to use this land than to expand the fusion research capabilities of the university."
His press secretary, Kathy Gallegos, said Wednesday that statement was not meant as a formal proposal for a fusion research center at the base. She said Hansen merely was trying to draw more congressional attention to the U.'s fusion experiment.
However, Bill Loos, director of governmental relations for the U., said Hansen had talked to him briefly about the idea.
Loos said if the university obtained the southeast portion of the base bordering the U.'s Research Park, the university might be interested in razing some old maintenance sheds there for use along with space in Research Park to build a fusion research center.
He said the university is not now interested in using existing buildings on historic portions of the fort for fusion research.
Owens - who first made a public call for a national fusion center at the U. - worried about Hansen's comments.
"We've kept close contact with (U. President Chase) Peterson and Dr. Pons about that. They encouraged us not to propose any specific plans for the center until the concept is better developed. I guess Jim didn't talk to them," he said.
Hansen and Owens have been fighting over how to best decide what to do with the fort. While Hansen introduced his bill to give it to the U., Owens formed a task force with Salt Lake City Mayor Palmer DePaulis and Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, to study all possibilities and recommend action.
Nielson joined Owens in worrying about Hansen's comments. "I favor giving the fort to the university, but I think the university should decide how best to use it." Gallegos said Wednesday, after hearing of concerns by other congressmen, that Hansen also feels the university should decide how to use the land, but fusion research is one possibility.
The flap over the possible fusion research center came amid a last-ditch effort by some members of Congress to stop closure of bases in their home districts, and amid reports from a Fort Douglas spokesman that its closure really will not hurt the Army, Utah or base employees much at all.
The fight to stop the base closures was led by representatives from Illinois, New Jersey and California who were worried about bases in their areas. "In terms of savings, I don't believe they're there. In terms of expenditures, I believe they're underestimated," said Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., who opposed the closure of Fort Dix in his state.
He and others claimed the plan would not - as the Commission on Base Closures and Realignment claimed - save $694 million in the first year, or $5.6 billion over 20 years.
"Maybe the recommendations of the commission won't save $5 billion as some have suggested," Hansen responded. "Maybe there will be some initial pain back home in some districts. But I believe we all stand to gain in the long run if Congress can accept the fact that obsolete military bases should close."
In order to keep the bases open, both houses would have had to reject recommendations from the commission. With congressional endorsement of the recommendations, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has the green light to proceed with closures beginning in January.
However, some members have talked about trying to block the closures by stopping the $500 million appropriation needed to begin closing bases or challenging the constitutionality of the method Congress used to approve the closure.
Meanwhile back at Fort Douglas, Maj. Bill Auer - base spokesman - said closing the base will have few negative impacts. He said the post is proposing to keep 65 of its 119 acres for use by the 3,000 Utahns serving in military reserve units commanded from the fort. "Relocating the reserve units elsewhere would be expensive.'
Auer said he had no data about whether retaining such a large portion of the base would actually result in much net savings. But he said the commission that recommended closure said sufficient land should be retained to handle reserve units' needs because relocating them would be expensive.
Auer said 100 of the 300 active, full-time members of the military at the base would remain to serve as advisers to reserve units. Most of the other 200 work as recruiters and would remain in the Salt Lake City area using rented office space.
He said the few military members whose jobs will be dissolved will be transferred to other bases. The few civilians who would lose jobs will likely be transferred to other similar government jobs in town or other Utah bases.
"The changes shouldn't be too drastic," he said.
Auer also said no decision has been made whether the name "Fort Douglas" will be retained by the portion of the base retained for use by the reserves. "It may just be called a reserve training center."
Results of closure
Positions affected: 409
Annual savings: $250,000
How much land: 65 of 119 acres would continue in use by reserves.
Who stays: 100 active military would remain as reserve unit advisers.
Who goes: About 200 recruiters who would need office space elsewhere.