Panel Gives Ellsworth Air Base a Reprieve The Base Closure and Realignment Commission overturns the Pentagon's recommendation to close Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. The decision preserves the state's second-largest employer.
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Panel Gives Ellsworth Air Base a Reprieve

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Panel Gives Ellsworth Air Base a Reprieve

Panel Gives Ellsworth Air Base a Reprieve

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Two more major military bases were spared today. The base closing commission voted to keep Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota open. Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico will remain open as well, but it will lose all of its aircraft, and it still could be closed in 2010. The Pentagon had recommended that both bases be closed right away.

SIEGEL: The base closing commission has gone against the Pentagon recommendations a number of times this week on a number of high-profile installations. We'll have an appraisal of the panel's work in just a few minutes.

First, NPR's Cheryl Corley has this report from South Dakota, where, with Ellsworth safe, the state is celebrating.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

At the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce, residents and city leaders crowded in a meeting room filled with anxiety, mixed with hope and then relief as the commission announced that it was rejecting the Pentagon's recommendation to close Ellsworth Air Force Base.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

CORLEY: The decision scuttled the Pentagon's plan to consolidate its B-1 bomber fleet by shifting the 29 planes at Ellsworth to the Dyess Base in Texas. Rapid City Mayor Jim Shaw was nothing short of ecstatic.

Mayor JIM SHAW (Rapid City, South Dakota): This is a grand and glorious day for our community because, had Ellsworth been on the base closure list, there really, after the vote today, wouldn't have been much more we could do.

CORLEY: The decision to spare the base was a saving grace for Senator John Thune. The freshman Republican beat the Democrats' former Senate Leader Tom Daschle last year after claiming he'd be in a better position to save Ellsworth. Thune was recruited by the White House to run against Daschle, and he was stunned when the Defense Department put Ellsworth on the BRAC hit list in the spring. During the hearing, Senator Thune sat on the edge of his seat, often with a pained expression on his face. After today's decision, he said this wasn't about politics.

Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): We had a job to do. Everybody pulled together, put the politics aside and said, `Let's work as hard as we possibly can, put our shoulder to the wheel and do everything we can to make the argument for this base.

CORLEY: To save Ellsworth, Thune and the rest of the congressional delegation, both Democrats, Senator Tim Johnson and Representative Stephanie Herseth, waged a tough lobbying campaign along with the state's governor and other leaders. They argued that consolidating the B-1 fleet would make the planes too vulnerable and put the nation at risk. They also said closing the Ellsworth base would end up costing the Pentagon money instead of saving it. Apparently swayed by these arguments, BRAC commissioners voted 8-to-1 in favor of keeping Ellsworth open.

Unidentified Man: It's show time, baby. Here we go!

CORLEY: There was lots of excitement at the base this morning as airmen showed up in running gear to take part in a race for charity. The decision on Ellsworth came just as the race got under way, but officials like Lieutenant Elizabeth DeJesus with the public affairs unit were under orders not to talk about it.

Lieutenant ELIZABETH DeJESUS: We might have a statement later, but, of course, that's to come, and they're going to let me know that. If any question is asked on BRAC, I'm directed to escort you off the base.

CORLEY: Base officials did concede the decision probably made some people happy, and many people clearly were as they lined up at the visitors center to get passes to enter the base. Kathy Antonin(ph), a Black Hill State University professor coming to teach a class, smiled broadly after hearing about the commission's decision.

Professor KATHY ANTONIN (Black Hill State University): Well, I'm excited, because I think the people of Rapid and this area have done a lot of hard work. They've done their homework, and I'm pleased to see that it's paid off. And the base is tremendously important.

Ms. CHARMAINE WHITEFACE (Treaty Spokesperson, Teton Sioux Nation): (Laughs)

CORLEY: From the sounds of it, it might seem Charmaine Whiteface was happy about the Ellsworth decision as well, but her laughter was more cynical. Whiteface, a treaty spokesperson for the Teton Sioux Nation, said the base should have closed. Whiteface says the land belongs to the Sioux, and the Air Force violated a treaty when it built the base.

Ms. WHITEFACE: So the very fact that Ellsworth Air Force Base was there in the beginning was an illegality, not to mention everything else that that brought with it.

CORLEY: Whiteface says that includes problems like pollution and environmental damage. Other critics say closing Ellsworth would have helped Rapid City and South Dakota diversify its economy. But those voices are muted for now. City officials concede they have work to do, but this victory is just too sweet. South Dakotans plan to celebrate with a victory party tomorrow, but some say they won't sleep easy until the decision to save Ellsworth is approved by the president and Congress. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Rapid City, South Dakota.

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