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Utah's bases defied odds

State is losing only 6 jobs after last BRAC round

Utah defied the odds.

The state's military installations only lost six jobs despite having relatively no political clout in the Base Realignment and Closure process.

Utah was an easy political target to lose a military base like Hill Air Force Base, said Vickie McCall, president of the Utah Defense Alliance, a local group that coordinated Utah's BRAC defense.

McCall said she feared the state could lose as many as 3,000-5,000 jobs during the recent BRAC round. However, in the final report the commission sent to President Bush late Thursday, the state came out on top with just six jobs lost.

"They are just damn lucky," BRAC commissioner Jim Hansen told the Deseret Morning News in a recent interview. "Just pure lucky they got away from that."

The BRAC process isn't supposed to be political, but it is far from that, the former Utah congressman said. Politics are involved in nearly every part of the process.

During the 1995 BRAC round, Gen. Ronald W. Yates, who at the time was serving as head of the Air Force Materiel Command, told McCall Hill might be strong, but politics were not in the state's favor.

"He said, 'You are the best at what you do, but Hill is the most politically expedient to close. If I have to recommend a base to close, that will be you,'" McCall said of the conversation.

The state might have had Hansen on BRAC to fight for the Beehive State's military installations behind closed doors, but that clout was not enough.

It would be politically easy to close a base thousands of miles away from where major decisions are made, McCall said. It's hard to put up a fight from that distance.

Plus, the state is known for its conservative slant and staunch support of the military, leaving it less vulnerable to the hue of political outcry.

But the Utah Defense Alliance fought back, hiring lobbyists and flying to Washington monthly to make sure the Pentagon and all BRAC commissioners knew just what Utah's military bases had to offer.

"We showed them we were not an easy target," McCall said. "They knew we were engaged and that we would do whatever we needed to do to save our base."

One thing that kept Utah's congressional delegation and the Utah Defense Alliance busy was fighting the many misconceptions out there about Hill and Utah in general.

McCall said some defense officials believed Utah's weather was bad for flying and that snow kept F-16s grounded. But in general, Hill pilots enjoy plenty of flying days. Other bases endure bad weather and storms, but that shouldn't be a reason to close a base, McCall said.

Another battle the Utah Defense Alliance faced was a dispute over numbers. State officials and defense authorities disagreed on how high Hill ranked in efficiency.

Hill ultimately proved to be an extremely valuable and efficient base: The base ranked first in two of the eight categories the Air Force used to rank military value among its 154 facilities nationwide.

"Overall we felt that Hill and Dugway really spoke for themselves," said Rick Mayfield, executive director of the Utah Defense Alliance. "They are top-notch facilities, you just don't know how the politics are going to play out."

Once the many misconceptions were cleared up, the delegation and the Utah Defense Alliance let Utah's military installations speak for themselves.

A planned public hearing with BRAC commissioners was canceled, leaving the three commissioners with just a base visit to see what Hill could do.

Both McCall and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, maintain canceling the public hearing was the right thing to do. They agreed with the Pentagon's initial recommendations and didn't want to push their luck, McCall said.

But Hansen criticized that move, saying Utah's other bases were "ignored" by canceling the public hearing.

"It was really odd, I never figured that out," Hansen said. "They ignored everyone else. But Hill Field is the biggest."

Hill is the largest employer in the state, with nearly 24,000 workers. Losing that would have been devastating, considering Hill's salaries are almost double the average salary in the state, Mayfield said.

A 2004 study by the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic Research details the potential aftershocks if BRAC had included Hill on the closure list:

31,000 fewer people would live in Utah

Since the earnings of civilians working at Hill are almost double the state average, it would take almost 68,000 new jobs to offset the loss of $2.35 billion in earnings. Utah has not experienced that rate of job growth since the mid-1990s.

Several local leaders have said Utah would sink into a "Great Depression" if Hill ever closed.

McCall said she would not have done anything different and defended the Utah Defense Alliance's strategy of focusing on keeping Hill open.

"Hill is what would have thrown the economy in absolute turmoil," McCall said. "That is where we had to focus our attention on."

Although Hill was included in several different major realignment scenarios throughout the BRAC process, Hansen insisted, "Hill was never in any real danger."


E-mail: ldethman@desnews.com