Alaskans Mount Fight to Save Air Base

Citizens of Fairbanks mount a large-scale "Save Eielson" campaign to preserve the area's Air Force base, slated for closure under new Pentagon guidance. A Base Closure and Realignment Commission regional hearing was held in Fairbanks, Alaska, Wednesday. Libby Casey of member station KUAC reports.

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The Base Realignment and Closure Commission, or BRAC, is on the road these days, holding a series of public meetings in communities with military bases targeted for closure. The commissioners' first stop was Fairbanks, Alaska, home to Eielson Air Force Base. Libby Casey from member station KUAC attended yesterday's meeting and has this report.

LIBBY CASEY reporting:

The BRAC hearing was the biggest thing to happen in Fairbanks all year, and the event took on the spirit of a block party. People stood in line, some for two hours, for free bottled water and T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan `America Needs Eielson.'

Unidentified Woman: I got a large, large T-shirt.

CASEY: The local hockey arena was decked out with a giant arch of red, white and blue balloons. Local musicians entertained the crowds.

(Soundbite of "The Star-Spangled Banner")

CASEY: All the decorations and music may have lent a festive atmosphere, but folks knew the reason for the event was dead serious. The plan to downsize Eielson would cost the community 3,000 jobs, 8 percent of the region's work force. Fairbanks resident Margarita Gilbertson(ph) turned out with more than 3,000 of her neighbors to make their case for saving Eielson.

Ms. MARGARITA GILBERTSON (Fairbanks Resident): Because we are so isolated and there's nobody else around, Eielson draws to us, we draw to them and the communities are basically one community, not two.

CASEY: Fairbanks considers itself a military town. Along with Eielson, it's home to the Army post Ft. Wainwright. School kids know its strategic location at the top of the world makes it just an hour-and-a-half flight to Russia.

Some community leaders say it could take a generation for Fairbanks to recover from the cuts to Eielson. Its remoteness will make it hard to fill the void. So this crowd sat attentive for two full hours to speeches from politicians and retired generals like Mark Hamilton, president of the University of Alaska. He says the Air Force didn't give enough weight to what makes Eielson special: year-round training in temperatures that vary by 140 degrees and everything from mountains to swamps.

General MARK HAMILTON (Retired; President, University of Alaska): A world-class training facility with truly diverse climate and terrain, self-contained base, secure oil supply, fights in war, protects America's borders in peace, on the top of the world in American hands. You can't have more military value.

CASEY: The Air Force doesn't dispute Eielson's strategic location. It wants to put the base on what it calls warm status, open only for training and emergencies. But Alaska Senator Ted Stevens says that may cost as much as manning it with a fighter wing.

Senator TED STEVENS (Republican, Alaska): There is no such thing as a warm facility in midwinter Alaska.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. STEVENS: A facility is either operational or it's not.

(Soundbite of applause)

CASEY: But not all Alaskans believe Fairbanks should fight to keep Eielson open. Local author Dan O'Neill writes about the military's effect on Alaska.

Mr. DAN O'NEILL (Author): The whole purpose of this BRAC commission was to get around the political influence of influential senators who kept bases opened in their home districts. And that was wasteful, but it was more than wasteful. It's also a matter of morality, because when you waste the money that way, you're denying things like Kevlar vests to our troops in Iraq, things like armor for the Humvees.

CASEY: The BRAC commissioners will hold hearings and site visits in other communities throughout the summer. They'll present their findings to the president by September 8th. For NPR News, I'm Libby Casey in Fairbanks, Alaska.

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