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SEELEY LAKE - As more homes are built on forested lands in western Montana, state officials are left grappling with the increased costs of protecting them when threatened by wildfires.

The legislative interim committee on fire suppression, a group created during the 2007 special session focusing on the wildfire funding, solicited feedback from residents, firefighters, millworkers and tourism representatives on Thursday about whether to allow further development in forested areas.

It's a dilemma that has lawmakers walking a fine line.

On one side of the argument are supporters of private property rights. Yet, taxpayers inevitably pay firefighters to protect these very same homes threatened by wildfire, and those costs increase the farther into the woods that development occurs.

For the residents of Seeley Lake - many whom fled their homes last summer as flames burned dangerously close to town - this is a very real problem.

"It's not if your subdivision will burn, it's when," said Steve Wallace, a state firefighter stationed out of Clearwater, speaking about the Double Arrow Ranch development. "It will burn. When we have a perfect storm, it will burn and all we can do is get people out of the way."

Some fires are unstoppable, he said, referring to the Jocko Lakes fire last year that burned more than 36,000 acres near Seeley Lake and cost

$30 million. What saved the small mountain community had nothing to do with the efforts of firefighters, he said.

"It's because the wind didn't blow the same on Aug. 4 as it did on Aug. 3," Wallace said.

For the last two years, the Seeley Lake community council has worked to develop a land-use plan that steers development away from sensitive habitat, strikes a balance between maintaining the town's rural identity but also accepts growth, and keeps subdivisions from spreading farther into forested areas.

The community intends to zone to implement the plan.

The problem, however, is that the Plum Creek Timber Co. owns enough of the zoning region that it has the ability to kill the plan. Plum Creek owns 79 percent of the private land in the valley, which is about 80,000 acres.

The timber harvesting company wants higher density than what the communities have proposed.

This debate played out somewhat on Thursday, as members of Seeley Lake described Plum Creek as having taken the land-use plan "hostage" and "tied the hands of this community."

"It doesn't make sense to allow one landowner the ability to drive that process unhindered," said Community Council Chairman John Haufler, who encouraged lawmakers to revisit the state's protest provision regarding zoning regulations.

In instances where the county helps facilitate a town's land-use planning, Carolyn Mehl of the Ecosystem Management Research Institute said she thinks the zoning protest provision should be eliminated.

She urged lawmakers, as did others testifying on Thursday, to provide incentives to people who build within a town's wildland urban interface - the outskirts of a town where subdivisions begin to mix with undeveloped wild land.

Those incentives should give local governments guidance on how to identify these areas, establish a buffer zone and then tax people more for building outside it, she said.

Plum Creek supports local governments' ability to impose impact fees on homes outside these buffer areas, said Tom Ray, general manager for the company's northwest region.

But Haufler said he thinks the financial effects on the community and state will far surpass anything covered by an impact fee.

Also it's irresponsible for state or federal land managers to thin forested areas around subdivisions outside a town's designated buffer zone, Haufler said.

Ray's criticism, however, was of public lands. Often forest fires are put out on Plum Creek land because the company does a good job at managing its land, he said.

"We need to prevent heavy fuel buildup," he said.

Plum Creek also would like lawmakers to address the fire assessment fees placed on large private landowners, he said. The system is inequitable, Ray said, speaking specifically about landowners in eastern Montana who harvest timber and use it for grazing and agriculture. In some instances, these landowners don't pay anything at all, he said.

"People are receiving (fire) services but aren't putting in their fair share," he said.

In fiscal year 2007, Plum Creek paid $265,000 in fire assessment costs. That figure is at $4.35 per owner, per protected district, and an additional 22 cents an acre over 20 acres.

That's of a total $2.6 million collected statewide, of which Plum Creek's share comes out at 10 percent.

Sen. John Cobb, R-Augusta, pressed Ray on Plum Creek's alleged backdoor deals concerning road easements. Whether it's discussions about road easements and access, or whether it's about conservation projects, these negotiations involve either federal money or federal agencies, said the veteran lawmaker.

"You need to let people in before the deal is made," Cobb said.

Sen. Carol Williams, chair of the legislative committee, called out Plum Creek for not supporting a bill that would have created a state program to purchase conservation easements on working farms, ranches and forests. Williams suspects Plum Creek's silence is the reason the bill died.

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And yet, Plum Creek is actively engaged in a similar deal.

The timber harvesting company hopes to wrap up a deal in the next two months with The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Lands to conserve 300,000 acres of resource-rich lands with help of federal dollars secured by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.

Thursday's meeting also focused on tourism.

Rhonda Fitzgerald, of Whitefish, is a member of the Montana Tourism Advisory Council. The actual fires themselves don't hurt tourism so much as the misperceptions that fire is wreaking havoc on the state, and that tourists coming to Montana would enter a disaster area, she said.

Fitzgerald largely blames the national media.

When fires break out east of the Continental Divide, out-of-state tourists cancel their reservations in Glacier National Park because they don't know any better, she said.

"Sensationalism is the worst part of the wildfire season, economically," she said. "The media love sensationalism and they run with it."

In terms of the struggling lumber industry, there's not much good news about a devastating wildfire season. Fire can eat up quality timber. Logging contractors flock to the flames to make more money, which limits their mill supply, said Loren Rose of Pyramid Lumber. Forest regeneration areas stuck by fire now begin new, again.

Add Montana's pine-beetle problem to the mix and it puts the mills across the state at a great disadvantage, Rose said.

If there's an up side to this depressing scenario, it's the sale of salvageable timber.

When a fire rips through public lands, the quicker forest managers can harvest the salvageable timber, the more value it retains, Rose said.

Rose carried two lodgepole pine boards into the meeting Thursday. One was cut a year late, and the other two years late. Bugs infested the weak timber by that point, and boards that would have typically sold for $1.73 (wholesale) now sell at 93 cents and 67 cents, he said.

The state does a good job at harvesting salvageable timber quickly, Rose said. The U.S. Forest Service does not, he said.

Several lawmakers even alluded to the worst-case-scenario - the do-nothing approach.

"You are on your own to at some point, folks," said Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena. "We won't get to every house. We are close to not having the resources."

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com

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