John Thune was on a Sioux Falls golf course during a May 2005 weekend when he received a call he’d been dreading.
His chief of staff phoned to say Ellsworth Air Force Base was on a closure list that the Department of Defense would publish the following week.
Thune had been a U.S. senator only four months, after narrowly defeating incumbent Minority Leader Tom Daschle.
Ellsworth was one of the biggest issues in the campaign. Each candidate claimed he was better able to protect the base and the combined total of nearly 7,000 military and civilian jobs the base supported in the Rapid City area.
When the call came about Ellsworth’s potential closure, it was put up or shut up time for Thune, who cut his golf game short.
“I immediately left, went into the office and spent the next six hours on the phone trying to reverse it, calling everybody I knew, mostly politicos,” Thune said in a recent Journal interview.
Nobody offered to help. It was a rude awakening for Thune, who was an up-and-coming Republican with a national profile after toppling Daschle in 2004 and narrowly losing to Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson in 2002.
“We realized there was not going to be a political solution to this,” Thune said. “Nobody was going to say, ‘Gee whiz, you fought and bled for us in back-to-back Senate races, so we’re going to take care of you.’ We realized we were going to have to win this one on the merits. So that’s when we just really went to work.”
Later in 2005, a team of South Dakotans including Thune convinced the Pentagon’s Base Realignment and Closure Commission, known by the acronym BRAC, to remove Ellsworth from the closure list.
With that burst of intense work over, the long-term work to safeguard Ellsworth's future began, not only by Thune but also by the state’s other two congressional delegates, the governor, the Legislature, business leaders and local government officials in Box Elder and Rapid City, the Ellsworth Task Force and, eventually, the Ellsworth Development Authority.
Over the next 14 years, the efforts of those and other Ellsworth boosters brought improvements to the base including a new wastewater treatment plant, a financial services center, a drone unit, an expanded training airspace and safer accident potential zones. It was all part of a coordinated effort to make Ellsworth as BRAC-proof as possible.
Then, on March 27 of this year, the Air Force announced Ellsworth as the preferred location to receive the first B-21 Raider planes when they’re ready to fly, perhaps sometime during the mid-2020s, after which the B-1s at Ellsworth will be gradually phased out. The Air Force also said Ellsworth will be the training unit for the new bombers.
Ellsworth boosters from Thune on down characterized the announcement as a pivotal moment. For them, it was a manifestation of the stable future they’ve been working to create for Ellsworth since the dark days of 2005.
Expanding the airspace
The plan to close Ellsworth included transferring its B-1 bombers to Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. Dyess did better than Ellsworth on a Defense Department scoresheet, and one of the most important categories on the scoresheet was training airspace.
At the time, the Air Force said the airspace available to Dyess was better and twice as large as that available to Ellsworth. Luckily for South Dakota, the Dyess airspace was mired in a lawsuit during the BRAC process, which helped Ellsworth backers overcome the deficiency.
Thune and his staff members who worked on Ellsworth issues, including Qusi Al-Haj in Rapid City, knew Ellsworth’s airspace would continue to be a liability in future base-closure considerations. So in February 2006, Thune announced a plan to nearly quadruple the size of that airspace.
“The airspace had to be fixed going forward,” Thune said. “It was a 10-year war.”
Wrangling the factions affected by the proposal proved challenging. Ranchers had concerns about living and working under the roar of bomber planes. General aviators were worried about losing access to the skies and being inconvenienced by Air Force training flights. And the Federal Aviation Administration was faced with managing the competing interests in an airspace overlapping several FAA regional territories and parts of Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas.
Thune and his staff worked through the objections in meeting after meeting, year after year, with representatives of the various interests. In 2015, with the airspace proposal entering a final phase of consideration that included a decision by the FAA, Thune rose to the chairmanship of the Senate Commerce Committee, after serving as its ranking member. Thune said his leadership posts meant “the FAA was interested in being helpful” to him.
The expanded airspace, known as the Powder River Training Complex, won approval from the Air Force and FAA and began hosting training flights in 2015.
Dennis Daugaard, who served as lieutenant governor from 2003 to 2011 and governor from 2001 until earlier this year, said the airspace expansion was critically important.
“By far, the Powder River Training Complex expansion was the big win in terms of preserving the base,” Daugaard said in a recent Journal interview. “Sen. Thune really deserves a lot of credit for that.”
While Thune’s office was beginning its push to expand Ellsworth’s airspace, he and the rest of the congressional delegation — consisting at the time of Sen. Tim Johnson and Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, both Democrats — along with state and local officials were angling for a consolidated Air Force Financial Services Center at Ellsworth. The base was chosen for the mission in 2006, bringing travel-voucher processing from other locations to Ellsworth.
One reason Ellsworth boosters coveted the financial services center was because it represented an extra mission for Ellsworth, which at the time of the BRAC process in 2005 was a base with a sole mission of flying B-1s.
Efforts to add additional missions paid off again in 2010 when Ellsworth was chosen to host a drone unit, the 89th Attack Squadron. The drones have been used in the Middle East, where they are put into the air before a remote pilot at Ellsworth takes over the controls.
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Meanwhile, the congressional delegation worked to secure funding for physical improvements on the base. From the time of Ellsworth’s 2005 placement on the BRAC list until 2011, when Congress banned earmarks, Sen. Johnson inserted $96.23 million worth of earmarks into appropriations bills for projects at Ellsworth, including housing, a headquarters facility and other structures.
Johnson retired in 2015 and was succeeded in the Senate by Mike Rounds, who was governor during the 2005 BRAC scare. Herseth Sandlin lost her 2010 re-election bid to Republican Kristi Noem, and Noem left the House this year when she became governor. She was succeeded in the House by Republican Dusty Johnson.
Pat Burchill, chairman of the Ellsworth Development Authority, said Thune’s continued presence in Congress has been a boon to the base.
“One person has been the hub of all the spokes in the wheel,” Burchill said, “and that person is Senator Thune. He’s been the constant.”
Ellsworth Development Authority
Efforts to safeguard Ellsworth at the local level coalesced into the Ellsworth Development Authority, which was created in 2009.
Mark Merchen, now a business consultant in Rapid City, was working for West River Electric Association in 2005 and was representing the association on the board of a community improvement initiative known as Black Hills Vision. When Ellsworth was put on the BRAC list, then-Gov. Rounds asked Black Hills Vision to formulate a “Plan B” for the base’s land, buildings and infrastructure in case it closed.
Merchen led the Plan B effort, and when Ellsworth was removed from the BRAC list, the Plan B discussions shifted to safeguarding Ellsworth’s future.
Taking inspiration from the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority, which was created in 2006 by the Rounds administration to facilitate the conversion of the closed Homestake gold mine to a deep underground science laboratory, Merchen and other local leaders hatched the idea of creating an authority to aid Ellsworth.
They pitched the idea to Gov. Rounds, who in 2009 was mired in budget difficulties brought on by the Great Recession. Rounds asked then-Lt. Gov. Daugaard to spearhead the creation of the Ellsworth Development Authority, and Daugaard worked with legislative leaders to win approval of the authorizing legislation in 2009.
Merchen said support from local business leaders was crucial during the authority’s earliest days. He was loaned out by West River Electric to be the authority’s executive director for its first several years, and numerous local businesses helped with the authority’s early office and administrative expenses.
“I give all the credit in the world to the community for always believing this was an important thing for everybody to be a part of,” Merchen said.
One of the first projects undertaken by the authority was the construction of a wastewater treatment plant to be shared by Ellsworth and its neighbor city, Box Elder. The authority issued $24 million in bonds for the project, which are being paid off with fees from Ellsworth and Box Elder. Construction of the plant was finished in 2014.
Another project of the authority is the prevention and removal of non-conforming uses, such as housing projects, on land in the designated accident potential zones around the base.
The authority’s current executive director, Scott Landguth, said the authority has spent nearly $20 million on its land program, at first utilizing state funding, and then a program that pairs 75 percent federal funding with a 25 percent state match.
Some of the money has been used to buy easements on ranch land bordering the north side of the base, to ensure that no non-conforming structures, such as a residential housing project, are ever built on that land.
The money has also been used to acquire land in accident potential zones south of the base in Box Elder. Those land acquisitions have included the purchase of several hundred mobile homes that have since been removed, after residents were given up to a year to relocate. After buying and clearing land, the authority puts easements on it to prevent future non-conforming uses and then seeks to sell the land back into private ownership. The authority has also worked with Box Elder to transfer land for public use.
In all, the authority has done deals on 70 properties totaling 4,000 acres, and the authority continues to seek deals with willing sellers. It was once estimated that the total cost for all the needed easements, land acquisitions and structure removals in the accident potential zones would reach $35 million; with the $20 million already spent and $4 million in additional funding already obtained, approximately $11 million may still need to be obtained and spent.
Besides major projects, the four-employee authority also works to ease the everyday concerns that afflict the base’s leadership, such as arranging a deal for base personnel to obtain Rapid City library cards, and working with Douglas School District officials to solve busing problems for Air Force parents and students.
Landguth said commanders at Ellsworth often lean on the authority for help, and they advise their successors to do the same.
“The comment I’ve heard is that they’ve all said to one another as they come in, ‘If you have a problem, talk to the authority,’” Landguth said.
Since the Air Force awarded Virginia-based Northrop Grumman a contract to build a next-generation, long-range strike bomber in 2015, many have assumed that existing B-1 bases including Ellsworth would host the new bombers.
A degree of certainty was added to that expectation with the Air Force’s March 27 announcement that Ellsworth is the preferred base to receive the first B-21s. The selection was made by outgoing Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, whose previous job was president of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City.
Wilson’s nomination as Air Force secretary in 2017 is one aspect of safeguarding Ellsworth that Thune does not receive or take credit for. He and his staff have said they had nothing to do with the choice of Wilson as nominee, but they were happy to have her in the job at a time when B-21 basing decisions were being considered.
The arrival of the B-21 could bring new challenges to Ellsworth, possibly including more scrutiny of the base's training airspace. To avoid conflicts with commercial flights, the training airspace is currently capped at 26,000 feet, except for higher-altitude waivers granted for periodic large-force exercises. It’s anticipated that the B-21 may routinely need a higher altitude ceiling, which could require more talks with the FAA.
That's a better problem than a BRAC listing, and with everything that has been done to make Ellsworth harder to close, the specter of future BRAC proceedings seems less threatening.
“What a difference 14 years makes,” Thune said.