Proposed Eielson move still under fire after EIS released

File Photo/Al Grillo/AP

The Air Force released the draft environmental impact statement May 31 on its proposed transfer of 18 Aggressor squadron F-16 fighters from Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, or JBER, in Anchorage.

The 226-page report, or EIS, has Alaska’s Congressional delegation continuing to question the move.

Immediately following the release of the EIS, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young sent a joint letter addressed to Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh. The letter highlights the potential adverse economic impacts the transfer could have on the Fairbanks North Star Borough, or FNSB, and possible social and environmental burdens placed on Anchorage identified in the EIS.

Figures in the letter pulled from the EIS project a rise in the FNSB unemployment rate from the current 6.2 percent to 8.9 percent caused by direct and indirect regional job loss associated with the squadron transfer.

“The draft (EIS) accurately notes that this proposed action will have a devastating economic impact on Interior Alaska,” the letter states.

According to the EIS, total job loss to Alaska would be just more than 3,100 if the move were to go through. More than 1,200 of those would be within FNSB.

Further, the Murkowski-Young letter notes the increased burden that will be placed on schools in Anchorage’s Mountain View neighborhood and the uncertainty of what increased loud fighter traffic over Knik Arm will do to Cook Inlet’s endangered beluga whales.

The move would reduce FNSB student enrollment by nearly 800 students, who would be relocated to northeast Anchorage schools. Schools on Eielson would be closed and the remaining students would be bussed off-base. As a result, up to 100 teachers in FNSB could lose their jobs as a result of families moving to Anchorage, according to the EIS.

In a May 31 statement from his office, Sen. Mark Begich said, “Some pencil-pusher in the Pentagon cooked up the idea of ‘warming’ Eielson based on phantom cost-savings. Alaskans should be aware that (the) Eielson EIS is not a decision document and the Air Force leadership is undertaking the reviews I demanded. I will continue to engage Air Force leadership and fight for Eielson.”

As a response to pressure from the Congressional delegation and FNSB leaders, Air Force officials agreed to conduct the EIS in early 2012 after initially stating the move would save Pacific Region forces $162 million over five years. The EIS estimates a savings of $227 million.

In January 2012, the Pacific forces were requested to cut $100 million per year in costs beginning in fiscal year 2013, which ends Sept. 30, as part of President Obama’s trimmed Defense Department budget.

Cutting 81 duplicated positions during the move would save $32 million over five years, the Air Force estimates. According to the EIS, 17 facilities on Eielson would also be available for reuse or demolition for infrastructure cost savings.

The National Defense Authorization Act signed by the president in January contained language added by the Alaska Delegation that essentially placed a one-year hold on the F-16 transfer and required Congressional approval for such a move.

The EIS details three action alternatives. Alternatives A and B would move the 18 fighters and associated personnel to JBER over 2 years and cut 623 active duty positions from Eielson, 542 of which would move to JBER with the remaining 81 being eliminated, according to the EIS.

Over a longer undisclosed period a total of 749 active duty and 179 civilian positions would be removed from Eielson. Under the alternatives, 559 active duty Air Force and 210 civilian personnel would remain at Eielson.

Alternative A has 1,270 sorties, or training missions, per year being flown from JBER and 630 being flown from Eielson. Alternative B has all 1,900 being flown out of JBER.

Alternative C is no squadron movement. The EIS states that no movement would “maintain mission capabilities in Alaska, but would not result in any operational efficiencies.”

The move would consolidate the Aggressor squadron with two F-22 squadrons already at JBER into the 3rd Wing. Eielson is the only Pacific base currently with a one-squadron wing, according to the Air Force.

FNSB Mayor Luke Hopkins called the EIS a “pretty shabby report.” He said it appears to return to a similar 2005 plan that was rejected by the Defense Base Closure and Realignment, or BRAC, Commission.

Fairbanks Economic Development Corp. President and CEO Jim Dodson said the EIS refers to cost savings as a result of personnel reduction but does not assume additional costs of support costs to reach the same airspace the F-16s use now from Anchorage.

“(The EIS) is an embarrassingly incomplete document,” he said.

Dodson added that the negligible impact to Anchorage’s air traffic that the EIS reports was done assuming 2008 traffic, not with current data.

Many of the job losses in FNSB would be associated with privately contracted work done on Eielson that would be unnecessary in the event of the move.

According to the EIS, an average of $90 million per year has been spent on Eielson work over the past decade. Without the F-16s, that number would drop to about $45 million, which would add to the Air Force’s savings.

Anchorage Economic Development Corp. President and CEO Bill Popp said that his organization welcomes and celebrates the military in Anchorage, but questions how comprehensively the EIS evaluates the community impacts of the proposed move.

Popp added that a strong Interior economy is crucial to Anchorage and the move would damage both regions.

The EIS states that the FNSB economy would stabilize and begin to recover in four to five years. Dodson questioned where major new economic growth would come from in that time frame. Popp said he had doubts as well.

“This could have an impact of a decade or more on the Fairbanks economy is my gut reaction,” Popp said.

The FNSB housing market would be hit especially hard, particularly in North Pole, by a fighter move. About 240 additional homes would be put on the market and rental vacancy rates would increase from 9 percent to 17 percent to 20 percent, the EIS reports.

The Air Force would purchase homes that wouldn’t sell on the projected depressed market, but families would be moving to a much tighter market in Anchorage. Popp said 2012 housing prices in Anchorage ranked 20th most expensive in the country — 143 percent of the national average in the third quarter of last year.

The move would increase the city’s population by 0.3 percent according to the EIS, but it would also strain a rental market in Anchorage that is near a 2 percent vacancy rate. Popp said the private sector would be able to respond to the increase in housing demand, but questioned what the cost would be. A two-bedroom apartment in Anchorage cost nearly $1,400 per month in 2012, according to the Alaska Housing Finance Corp.

 “Basically the model (the Air Force) has put for the is that Fairbanks will lose, the State of Alaska will lose in terms of 3,000 net jobs lost and the Air Force will ultimately achieve its mission of cost-cutting from an economic point of view,” Popp said. “This is a business decision.”

06/06/2013 - 6:54am