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Vincent legislation designed to help the timber industry

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| April 7, 2009 12:00 AM

The Senate listened to hearings Monday for a two-bill package aimed to help the state’s struggling timber industry and to make Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks more fiscally responsible. 

The bills shot through the House with almost unanimous support last week. House Bill 669 set up a $7.5 million low-interest revolving loan fund for small timber businesses, and House Bill 674 changed FWP’s tax status and allowed the state a $21 million bond to purchase timberland in Missoula County.

HB669 will keep the timber industry alive, said sponsor of the bills, Rep. Chas Vincent, R-Libby. Most importantly, he said, it will ensure that timberland will not be abandoned to “leave in its wake catastrophic wildfire.”

“We are at the precipice of losing what we have left of our milling structure in the state,” Vincent said. “Lincoln County knows firsthand what it’s like to be left with millions of acres of forest land that you can’t manage.”

Vincent hopes that he can push legislators to invest more than HB669’s $7.5 million.

“All of those eligible for the loan are those critical to the survival of our milling structure,” Vincent said. “I hope by the end of session, I can get more dollars in it to get more people (to be eligible) for the loan.”

HB674 sets stricter requirements for land acquisitions by FWP and will lift its tax-exempt status. As a result, the cost of hunting licenses, tags and permits will probably go up, Vincent said.

Under HB674, before FWP acquires more land it must consult local governments and the FWP Commission. After discussing the cost of operation and land maintenance, the FWP Commission will determine whether or not it would be fiscally responsible.  

“It will make for more transparency, ultimately,” Vincent said. “Many people believe that Fish, Wildlife and Parks has been on a spending spree and I am one of them. We need to rein them in.”

Another aspect of the bill is the purchase of 26,000 acres of former Plum Creek Timber Co. land in Missoula County. The land is up for grabs through the Legacy Project and Vincent would rather see it managed by the state instead of the federal government. Under the bill, it will stay open for hunting and recreation and potentially supply lumber for mills.

“I want the state – more specifically, the DNRC (Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation) – to be the agency that is owning it,” Vincent said. “We need to have a managing agency to provide for multiple uses of the land as well as provide valuable renewable resources.”

HB674 has a provision that the state cannot gain more net land, meaning that after buying the Missoula County property, the state must liquidate 26,000 acres of land elsewhere. Over one-third of Montana is already public land, according to Vincent, and he is leery of the private sector losing more land.