By David Irvin
The arguments to save Cannon Air Force Base were compelling. And the base itself is impressive.
So said Base Realignment and Closure commissioners in Clovis on Friday for a regional hearing.
But commissioners also had words of caution for Cannon supporters: The nation has many outstanding bases, they said, and the decision they must make about Cannon’s fate will be difficult.
“We have tougher decisions to make than any other previous BRAC,” said Commissioner James Bilbray. “Cannon is wonderful, but I guarantee I’ve been to five other bases scheduled for closure that actually have hundreds of millions of dollars of new infrastructure on those bases. … So you’re one of the best, but there are about five or six other ones that are great bases too, so that’s what we’ve got to analyze.”
Commissioners have until Sept. 8 to present their recommendations to President Bush. Cannon is one of 33 major military installations and two Air Force bases recommended for closure by the Department of Defense. It takes five of the nine BRAC commissioners to remove a base from the list.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the Commission the road would be hard, members of the panel said.
“I still remember when … Rumsfeld stood in front of our group. He said, ‘We have no bad bases. We just have too many bases.’ And that was the issue,” Commissioner James Hansen said. “We toured the base (at Cannon on Thursday) as much as we could. It’s a fantastic base — clean, beautiful, airspace — very impressive; extremely impressive.”
At an energetic press conference following the hearing, New Mexico congressional delegates were upbeat about the presentation they helped Clovis officials present to the Commission.
“This is what I would call a home-run presentation,” said Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M. “I think that everyone who came up to the plate hit a home run.”
Nine supporters from the state, federal and local levels spoke for about 90 minutes on behalf of Cannon at the hearing.
Most argued that DoD information is flawed and incomplete. Emotions ran high with an audience of about 1,400 applauding the speakers on more than a dozen occasions.
“Cannon is the life blood of this community,” U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., told the six commissioners in attendance. “This is a poor state. You should know that. But we have not been poor in spirit when it comes to wanting to help the military of the United States.”
Cannon’s promoters spent most of their time pointing out DoD information they believe is either incorrect or not weighted with enough importance.
Randy Harris, chairman of the Cannon support group Committee of Fifty’s Washington Committee, said DoD officials deviated from their own criteria in evaluating Cannon.
“They used a numerical scoring system that ignored non-replacable assets,” Harris argued. He tried to focus the commissioners’ attention on issues he said did not receive proper consideration by evaluators — encroachment, potential for supersonic airspace, quality of life for military personnel, economic impact of eastern New Mexico and alternative scenarios for future missions.
He reminded commissioners that some of them were in Cannon’s tower and could see wide-open spaces for miles — “Farmland. No high rises. No churches. No schools,” he said.
He showed commissioners a graphic of what he called “near mid-air occurrences” at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and told them private air traffic does not hinder Cannon pilots.
On several occasions Harris said Cannon averages 329 days of flying weather each year and few other Air Force bases can match those kinds of clear skies.
“I think at the minimum we have truly created some questions in (commissioners’) minds,” Domenici said after the hearing.
But former Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley urged caution Saturday, saying the process is far from over and it’s best not to get overly optimistic or apathetic when so much work is left to be done.
“I believe we accomplished what we needed to accomplish at that time, but this is not the end. As citizens we need to continue the letter-writing campaign, and we need to write the president,” he said.
The odds against Cannon’s survival are not good. Historically, about 85 percent of bases slated for closure have been shut.
Gov. Bill Richardson said Cannon’s situation was considerably improved — “a month ago Cannon was on life support,” he quipped — but he continued to call the fight to save Cannon an “uphill battle.”
When asked what’s next in the process, Richardson answered, “We line up five votes, that’s what’s next.”
Compounding the difficulty of lining up those votes — and for the commission, taking a base off the list — is the domino effect that any base removal has on the entire Pentagon’s recommendations, commissioners said.
“It’s like playing checkers, you wonder where it’s going to stop,” said Hansen. “So all of these are going to be a little more difficult, in my mind, for this commission to deal with.”