Cannon survival gives region time to find new mission

Freedom Newspapers

It wasn’t the sonic boom we wanted to hear resounding Friday through the maze of rings that make up the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. But undoubtedly its occupants heard the loud BRAC cheer given to misguided Department of Defense and Air Force leaders who lost their fight to close two key airbases, our own Cannon and Ellsworth in South Dakota.

Early on, the Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) Commission rejected 8-1 the Department of Defense recommendation to close Ellsworth and move its B-1B bombers to Texas. Putting the planes at one location, and the ensuing economic fallout in South Dakota, was properly seen as not being in America’s best interests.

That vote brought hope and worry in Clovis and Portales, though. Would the panel vote to reject both major Air Force base-closure recommendations? Or was one enough and they would shutter Cannon?

What followed was agonizing, back-and-forth debate on Cannon Air Force Base’s future. Then, just before lunchtime back east, gloom entered the picture. The Commission rejected by one vote a motion from retired Air Force Gen. Lloyd “Fig” Newton, to turn Cannon into a training base.

Three voted no, however, on grounds it wasn’t their job to tell the Defense Department what to move here; they pointed out that option had not even been studied. Our projected 30-percent to 40-percent economic impact was widely noted and several said it made their no votes even more difficult. Sadly, two panelists, at least one of whom wanted Cannon to remain open, abstained from voting because their states will get planes from Cannon.

When the BRAC panel reconvened after lunch, a 6-1 vote, with the same two abstentions, approved the motion to declare Cannon an enclave into 2009.

This means the 27th Fighter Wing’s F-16s will be sent to active and Air National Guard bases by 2008. And the Pentagon and Air Force must consider anew whether to send current or future missions to our base and its unencroached blue skies.

Isn’t that ironic? If the BRAC Commission plans are approved, as expected, by President Bush and Congress later this fall, Air Force leaders who didn’t want Cannon will be ordered to rethink their decision and see if a suitable new mission can be found.

They won’t be able to brush off this assignment and slap a closed sign on the front gates in a few months, however.

The flexing of congressional political muscle must see to that. Led by Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico’s congressional delegates must become even stronger Cannon advocates.

In particular we want to know if Domenici, a six-term Republican senator and longtime Capitol Hill power broker, has enough clout left in what many expect to be his last term. Can he successfully support this conservative stronghold the way it has supported him and the Republican Party for decades? He implies he can. We’re watching.

Pressure also is certain to come from many Air Force leaders who have had to remain silent in public on Cannon’s superior airspace and facilities through the BRAC process. As Gen. Newton stated, he received more calls from them favoring Cannon’s attributes than for any other base. We thank them for that, for risking careers, perhaps, to do what is so obviously right.

Overall, what Friday’s votes — as inconclusive as the second one by the BRAC Commission is — mean is the death knell wasn’t sounded. The limbo of the 15 weeks we’ve been on the closure list will continue.

However unpleasant this condition is, we are not strangers to uncertain times. Ask a farmer or rancher or a business owner. Ask anyone who has ever lost a job or filed bankruptcy or sent a son or daughter off to war. Residents of eastern New Mexico are experts in uncertainty. When economic or personal disasters have struck, we have always survived and grown.

Meanwhile, let’s not overlook the many good things happening across the region. A large cheese plant soon will open between Clovis and Portales, and construction for two companies that will use cheese byproducts is happening next to that plant. Truck companies are growing to support the plant and surrounding dairies. Work continues on a new hotel in each city. A Spanish-language telemarketing operation is set to open in Clovis. We’re in the running for a 1,600-job meat processing plant.

Beginning Monday, Keep Cannon leaders will talk with hired consultants about what the next steps should be. They and state officials led by Gov. Bill Richardson will outline an aggressive plan to win this challenge as soon as possible. We hope it takes place within a year.

Limbo is acceptable for a while. An endless Purgatory is not.