After almost two years of back-and-forth debate, the U.S. Air Force announced Wednesday that it had scrapped plans to move 21 F-16 fighter jets, along with 1,200 airmen and support personnel from Eielson Air Force Base -- 26 miles south of Fairbanks -- to Anchorage. The decision comes after years of relentless push-back to the idea from the Fairbanks community, aviators in Southcentral Alaska concerned about losing air space to the military, local politicians and Alaska's congressional delegation.
One major factor in the Air Force's change of heart was the potential noise increase for Anchorage's Mountain View neighborhood, on the city's northern boundary with Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the Air Force also re-examined its cost-saving estimates for the move and realized it would actually cost it more money that it might save.
The news came as a huge relief to Fairbanks, which depends on Eielson, and the airmen stationed there, for as much as 8 percent of its economy.
"It's like the clouds have cleared and there's a sharp view ahead of us, and that's what we are ready to move on," said Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins.
Alaska Sen. Mark Begich put a temporary hold on a three-star Air Force general's promotion over the issue. Alaska Rep. Don Young and Murkowski inserted language into spending bills that defunded the proposed move for one year. Groups of Interior residents and politicians opposed to the move, and met weekly for longer than a year to find ways to get the Air Force to change its mind.
"We played hardball," said Begich.
Eielson has already survived an attempt to cut back operations at the base. In May 2005, the Air Force proposed shutting down the base completely in the military's periodic Base Realignment and Closure process. But that plan was turned back by a concerted effort that ended with thousands of residents and politicians packing a Fairbanks arena to debate the move in front of Air Force brass.
For now, the future of Eielson is looking up. On Thursday, the Air Force will release the criteria it will use to determine where to send a squadron of new F-35 Lightning jets -- America's newest and most advanced fighter. Eielson Air Force base is on the list of places that could get the unit. Other proposed locations for the jets are in Japan and Korea.
Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com