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Commissioner, mayor plug for NAS Whidbey’s survival

In 1991 Whidbey Islanders were shocked to find Whidbey Island Naval Air Station on a list of bases set for closure.

Long story short, the community rallied and the base was saved, but community leaders vowed they would never let it get that close again.

To that end, elected officials have gone to Washington, D.C., every year to let lawmakers and the Pentagon know Whidbey is alive and doing just fine, and to tell the “Whidbey story.” This year the pressure was on, as the Department of Defense will be releasing another Base Realignment and Closure list in 2005.

Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell and Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen recently returned from the latest trip, and both feel it was a successful effort.

“I truly think they’re aware of Whidbey and what’s here,” McDowell said. “There’s no more feeling they don’t know about Whidbey.”

He said in the past the Navy base here was the best kept secret in the Navy, known only to A-6 or P-3 pilots and specialists, and there was no effort on the part of elected officials to tout the air station.

While McDowell brings his expertise as a former A-6 pilot to the meetings, Cohen said she represents the community that supports the base.

“I focus on the quality of life environment you will find on Whidbey,” Cohen said.

The pair brought visuals with them in the form of a 30-page booklet entitled “NAS Whidbey: The Future is Now,” which extolled the virtues of the naval air station. It was produced locally by Clark Donnell and Stan Stanley for the NAS Whidbey Task Force. Copies were left for everyone with whom they met.

McDowell and Cohen met March 4 with representatives Rick Larsen and Norm Dicks and senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray.

While McDowell said the lawmakers were all supportive of Whidbey, the big meetings were the next day, when they conferred with officials at the Pentagon.

H.T. Johnson, deputy secretary of defense for installations, was impressed with the news that Washington state was about to pass a bill that would prevent encroachment on land surrounding military bases. Johnson also asked for copies of Whidbey Island’s county zoning laws, which are already the strictest in the state regarding encroachment.

“There’s no question in my mind he will remember that,” McDowell said.

They also met with Rear Adm. Christopher Weaver, deputy chief naval officer for installations, and several other high ranking officials.

McDowell said he went away with the impression that while previous rounds were about saving money, the 2005 BRAC is about aligning military bases to the Department of Defense’s new mission of increasing mobility and the ability to respond more quickly.

“The military is becoming more lethal,” McDowell said, meaning it is focusing on the ability to do more with less.

Navy officials they met with were unable to comment on the BRAC process, or Whidbey’s chances of being on the list, but the base closure criteria released in January lists military value as the top criteria.

The BRAC list is expected to be made public in June 2005.

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