USA — Wrapping up the initial hearing for a bill to increase the fireassessment rate collected by the Department of Natural Resources andConservation, the lawmaker pushing for its passage made an odd statement.
Its wonderful to have a bill where I can get up and agree with theopponents, said Rep. Ron Erickson, D- Missoula, the sponsor of HouseBill 61.
Ericksons words summed up the feeling in the room by both Democrats andRepublicans, and that of the bill’s opponents and proponents. While manydisagreed over how the the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’sFire and Aviation Division should collect part of its funding to fight fires,nearly all felt that more money is necessary.
HB61 is the first in a trio of firefighting bills to be heard in committees thisweek. All the bills grapple with the strain on state and local agencies createdby the growing number who live in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) requiringfire protection.
Call it the WUI War.
All Montanans who own forested land pay a fire assessment fee to the DNRC.Established by the State Legislature in 1991, the current rate is $30 dollarsfor every piece of land less than 20 acres, and an additional 20 cents for everyacre above that. Erickson, who owns roughly 40 acres in Missoulas PatteeCanyon, pays the DNRC about $35 a year.
But larger land owners, like some of the timber companies who testified againstthe bill, pay a much greater fee.
With heightening public expectations for fire protection, particularly by thosewho live in the Wildland Urban Interface, the current system no longer raisesenough money, said DNRC State Forester Bob Harrington.
This is not a popular option and no one wants to pay more, saidHarrington. Weve run out of options.”
Conceding that the DNRC is between a rock and hard place, Ronald H.Buentemeier, Vice President and General Manager of F.H. Stoltze Lumber inColumbia Falls, disagreed with HB61s funding method.
I dont want to give them a blank check, Buentemeier said.
Under HB61, the amount the DNRC raises in assessment rates from landowners wouldbe a third of the money appropriated by the State Legislature for fireprotection costs. The fees the DNRC collects would be split roughly betweensmall landowners in the Wildland Urban interface, like Erickson, and larger ones,like Plum Creek and Stoltze.
The blank check described by the bills critics refers to how HB 61 doesaway with the cap created in 1991.
Harrington disagrees with the blank check assertion, saying the DNRC wouldbe limited in how much money it can raise by the State Legislaturesappropriation.
Erickson says hes fine with creating more specific caps on the assessmentrate. Further incarnations of the bill might also increase the ration of feesassessed from smaller landowners.
What I am sure of is that everybody will pay a bit more, Erickson said.
Stay tuned for more here this week in the WUI War as two more bills go beforethe Senate Local Government Committee Thursday.
SB51would require growth policies to take into consideration wildland fire hazardsand would even allow local governments to deny subdivisions if that threat istoo great.
SB167would allow counties to designate the Wildland Urban Interface.