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Hint of hope for air base; Napolitano, Panetta need to be pushed to follow through on upbeat comments

Like the first few notes of a symphony, comments from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about the Niagara Falls air base have raised anticipation of more to come.

In answering questions from Sen. Charles E. Schumer about the possibility of a new Customs and Border Protection facility at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, Napolitano said: "Yes, Niagara is very much under consideration, senator."

Strains, even faint ones, of good news in the fight to preserve the base are welcome.

Napolitano made it clear that finding money for a new facility is an issue, but the Air Reserve Station is under consideration for the project. And as reported by News Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski, when Schumer asked if Napolitano thought the facility's move to the air base would be a good idea once funds are secured, her answer was succinct: "That's one way to put it. Yes, sir."

Not exactly an ironclad promise, but at least things are looking up.

It's been a rocky ride for the past several months for the Air Reserve Station after the Air Force threatened to eliminate one of the air base's two main military units, the Air National Guard's 107th Airlift Wing.

A new Customs and Border Protection facility would go a long way toward saving several hundred jobs and maintaining an important homeland security component along the international border between the United States and Canada. It is encouraging that Napolitano's recent statements echo similar ones to Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, during a House Homeland Security Committee meeting.

In another possible boost for the air base, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said he will restore about 2,200 of the 5,100 Air National Guard positions scheduled to be eliminated nationwide under an earlier Air Force budget plan.

Panetta has not specified where those Guard positions would be restored. The 107th Airlift Wing at the air base employs 845, including 580 part-time Guard personnel.

The crucial details of Panetta's plan had been expected to be included in a Pentagon white paper revealed to lawmakers on Wednesday. Instead, the Pentagon extended the uncertainty with a document that serves as a rationale for the proposed Guard cutbacks.

The white paper indicates that the Air National Guard needs to shrink to save money, because the Pentagon did not want to reduce the active-duty Air Force significantly to achieve the savings required by Congress.

It is understandable that the Pentagon needs to make budget cuts. But the disproportionate effect on Guard units is not acceptable, nor is it sustainable, given the important role Guard units play in both national security and domestic emergency relief.

Statements by Panetta and Napolitano are the early strains of what could be good news. The Western New York congressional delegation, the Niagara Military Affairs Council and others need to keep up the pressure for the air base.