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HELENA (AP) - A committee looking at the cost of fighting forest fires in Montana is considering special taxes on privately owned forest land to raise more money for firefighting.

The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation's fire-funding committee is also looking at possible assessments on tourists, outdoor enthusiasts, the insurance industry and utilities to help pay the growing costs of fighting fires.

No recommendations have been adopted yet.

Last summer, Montana spent $27 million fighting fires in the state and would have been hard pressed to pay that bill had it not been for an unexpected $50 million federal windfall the state received in the fall.

Gov. Judy Martz set aside about $30 million of that to help pay fire costs for 2003, and set aside another $13 million for next summer's fire season.

"We don't budget anything to fight fires," said Rep. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, a member of the fire-funding committee. "And we all know there will be expenses. It's kind of odd accounting."

Owners of undeveloped land within state fire protection districts already pay an additional fire protection assessment, but it raises only $2 million a year.

Kaufmann sponsored a bill during the 2003 Legislature that sought to raise property taxes on land next to wild lands, with the money used for fire suppression. The bill failed.

Members of the DNRC fire-funding committee seem to support the concept of requiring those living on the fringes of Montana's forests to pay more for forest fire protection than city dwellers.

"There does seem to be general agreement that people who build in those areas should carry a little more of the burden than they do," said Ellen Engstedt, executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association and a committee member.

But how to assessed new taxes is tricky, said committee member Rep. Dick Haines, R-Missoula.

"This is a work in progress, and we realize it's going to be controversial," Haines said.

The Montana Wood Products Association opposes increasing taxes on industrial forest land. The Montana Forest Owners Association says the committee's basic premise is flawed because it assumes forest owners are the only direct beneficiaries of forest fire suppression.

And officials acknowledge that many Montana citizens oppose any higher taxes.

Despite the stumbling blocks, the goal of the committee is to create a stable firefighting fund. With no less than $17 million and no more than $50 million per year, the fund would cover the state's annual fire bills and could roll over any savings from year to year.

State Forester Bob Harrington said the committee is looking at three sources to generate money for the fund: 40 percent from the state general fund, 40 percent from a sliding assessment on property owners who directly benefit from forest fire suppression, and 20 percent from proposed new taxes, including higher bed and conservation license taxes, an additional 1 percent tax on fire insurance premiums sold in the state and assorted higher taxes on utilities.

While committee members concede the proposal could be a tough sell in the Legislature, others say even discussing the concept is premature.

"We're jumping right to the dollars. We should know what we're funding before we sink the dollars," said Thorn Liechty of Evaro, a committee member and representative of the Montana Forest Owners Association.

Liechty said officials should first analyze the necessity and efficiency of the services the DNRC provides to fight fires. Simply developing a funding formula will only serve to cement the status quo, he said.

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