Utah leaders are considering spending $2 million of scarce state money to lengthen a federal emergency airstrip at remote Dugway Proving Ground, thinking it might help save Hill Air Force Base in upcoming base closure fights.

The idea is being floated by Congressman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Utah House Majority Leader Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, said he, Gov. Mike Leavitt and other GOP leaders met this week and the idea came up in the context of setting the 2004 state budget.

"We're still trying to assess if the $2 million will really aid Hill. But there is a possibility that we could give the money this session," said House Majority Whip Jeff Alexander, R-Provo.

Bishop said in Washington Thursday that he proposed the idea as a way to help provide a better emergency landing strip for F-16 fighters based at Hill, in case they run into problems while training in the Utah Test and Training Range in the West Desert.

He said if Utah spent state money to help Hill, it would demonstrate to the Pentagon and others how important the base is to the state.

"It would help" in the next round of base closures scheduled for 2005, he said. "The bases are all so close in value that any ancillary issues like that might make the difference."

Bishop was also upset that word of consideration had reached the press. He said he had merely wanted to explore whether the idea was possible and did not want a decision not to provide state money to be construed as lack of support for the base, which is one of the state's largest employers.

Michael Air Field at Dugway has two parallel airstrips, Bishop said. One is 13,000 feet long but is scheduled for reconstruction in 2007. A shorter, parallel emergency strip is being upgraded now but will only be 10,000 feet long.

"F-16s need a runway that is at least 12,000 feet long," Bishop said. So when the main runway is rebuilt in 2007, F-16s would be unable to use both it and the shorter emergency strip — unless the state pays for lengthening. That could temporarily leave the F-16s without a good emergency strip. Some larger cargo planes may also be unable to service Dugway.

Bishop said while other airports could be used for F-16 emergencies, use of the Dugway strip is preferable because it is away from populated areas.

"You don't want an F-16 full of ordnance (explosive materials) making an emergency landing at Salt Lake International," he said.

Also, Bishop said the air field at Dugway is in poor shape, with much loose gravel and other debris that could cause major damage if sucked into the jet engines of F-16s. He said having a better quality emergency strip for Hill's F-16s would also help improve the strength of the base in base closure battles.

However, the state is strapped for cash. It is a hard sell to ask for $2 million for a desert airstrip when that money could go to schools, human services or public safety.

Hill barely survived the last round of base closures. Two of its large sister "air logistics" bases were closed, leaving only three in the nation. Former President Bill Clinton attempted an end-run around base closure orders to save those sister bases in vote-rich Texas and California.

He tried to technically close those bases but keep repair and maintenance work in place there by giving it to contractors, making Hill vulnerable in the future. Congress blocked that effort. But such politics worry Utah officials as the 2005 base-closure round approaches.

"If the process is based on merit, Hill is just fine. If we continue to have logistics bases, Hill is just fine. If we keep politics out of the process, Hill will be fine. The problem is that no one can guarantee those three things," Bishop said.

"It is important for a community to demonstrate support (for bases). This is a way to do that and help both the Air Force and the Army."

E-MAIL: bbjr@desnews.com; lee@desnews.com