Foxes in the Hen House

by Rebecca Schmitz

Jhwygirl has written extensively and persuasively about the need for county-wide zoning in Montana. Yet another reason is emerging from the Fire Suppression Interim Committee meetings. The Committee, created by the 2007 Legislature, seems to have come to two conclusions already. First, Montana’s taxpayers, urban and rural, are forking over millions and millions of dollars for wildfire suppression. Pretty damn obvious, huh? Well, the second is a little more controversial. The bill for fighting wildfires will rise steadily every year unless something sensible and far-reaching is done now to curb the main reason for the rising costs: more and more homes being built in the wildland-urban interface. That something was mentioned just this past week in Billings. Committee members and the public actually said the dreaded “z” word.

Local governments have three ways of potentially guiding growth in wooded areas, according to documents submitted by Harold Blattie, executive director of the Montana Association of Counties. Regulations for subdivisions give some control over how growth occurs. Zoning is another option …Zoning is a “nonstarter,” said Mary Sexton, director of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which oversees state firefighting. In almost all counties, it’s very difficult for commissioners to impose county-wide zoning.

Despite Sexton’s pessimism, and the potential for immediate pain to property owners in these vulnerable areas, it seems like the Montana Association of Counties and those with experience managing our state’s wildlands think zoning is a good idea:

Blattie and his group proposed a law just for fire-prone areas that would be similar to the way governments control building in floodplains. His idea is to allow local governments to identify the “wildland-urban interface” and formulate rules for building in the area. Counties would be able to enforce the rules. State Forester Bob Harrington said he would like to see some kind of enforceable regulation, not just recommendations to homeowners.

Predictably, one group was there to make sure zoning would be, in Sexton’s words, a “nonstarter”. Yes, it was that guardian of sensible responsible controlled rampant development, the Montana Association of Realtors:

Glenn Oppel, government affairs director for the Montana Association of Realtors, said his group favored a plan in which the state wouldn’t enforce building practices, only make recommendations. Oppel also questioned whether homes were driving up firefighting costs.

Frankly, having a Realtor testify before a committee honestly investigating the rising costs of wildfire suppression is like a member of NAMBLA speaking before a conference on the international sex trafficking of children. Sure, technically you could say they’re one of the stakeholders in the discussion but, like Realtors, only so far as they’re interested in relaxing laws and regulations.

I’m sure as the Fire Suppression Interim Committee moves across the state picking up testimony from firefighters, elected officials, foresters, concerned members of the public, and those, like Glenn Oppel, who simply want to represent their industry’s own narrow interests in the process, they’ll gather a lot of interesting and creative solutions to our state’s growing problem with the costs and dangers of wildland firefighting.  Most likely the Committee, and the rest of us, can look forward to the Montana Association of Realtors’ solution. Perhaps it will be something similar to the Bitterroot Board of Realtors’ plan for dealing with streamside setbacks in Ravalli County: a bewildering “gift” of proposed wildland buffer zones that will inevitably force Montana’s taxpayers to pay the ever-increasing bill for both wildfire suppression and their industry’s profits.

  1. Bravo!!!!

    Changes in the ’07 legislature require that counties adopt, within their growth policies and subdivision regulations, rules that apply to wildland urban interface areas. The growth policies will be required to identify areas unsuitable for growth unless certain mitigative measures are taken – and those rules would be in the subdivision rules.

    Looks like the state is working on meeting its requirement under SB 51.

    SB 167 also passed the legislature this past session. It requires that counties that don’t comply with SB 51 reimburse the state and/or general fund appropriation funds that were used to fight fires in the wildland urban interface areas being defined, currently as you point out Rebecca, by the DNRC.

    Quite a list of state Republicans voted against both bills.

    If we can’t get county-wide zoning as the naysayers say (and I’ve got a reply for that one sitting around), these two proposals are the next best thing for a place like Missoula County.

    And while Montanans seem to view the “Z” word as Stalinesque, as Ms. Sexton correctly points out, Wyoming apparently has a different opinion.

  2. goof houlihan

    Wyoming has expoited its natural resources of coal and oil and gas and timber.

    Montana has had that shut down, so the exploitation has been through subdivision and real estate. I see the Sonoran Institute and others talking about this economy of people moving here for the amenities. Yep, they are, and they want to live out in the amenities and will pay huge for it.

    You want to emulate Wyoming? First I’d heard of it.

    “The bill for fighting wildfires will rise steadily every year unless something sensible and far-reaching is done now to curb the main reason for the rising costs:”

    Yeah, I agree. We need better and more aggressive timber management that allows the mature lodgepole forests to be harvested instead of sitting there as tinderboxes waiting to burn out. The Gallatin Canyon is a good example. There was a huge fire there last century, and it’s just waiting to happen again. Difference between then and now is…there’s Big Sky and all the development in the Canyon. So the answer is not JUST, “keep those mother tuckers out of the canyon”, since many of them were there since the road was paved, but also, harvest the trees so that the forest fire danger isn’t so great.

    I remember John Sinrud’s “let em burn” comment was so controversial, yet here it is echoed again. I don’t agree with that, should we have allowed the ranches and farms south of Big Timber to burn? Nope. But many environmentalists did support the “build at your own risk” plan.

    I keep reading, as in the Independent, that the hangup to Missoula county zoning with regards to Plum Creek is that it owns a percentage of the land. That is NOT the factor that allows them the trump card. It’s that they own a percentage of the land classified as timber land. That’s their trump card. And it’s in state law.

    Zoning the timber land is the hangup.

    • “We need better and more aggressive timber management that allows the mature lodgepole forests to be harvested instead of sitting there as tinderboxes waiting to burn out. The Gallatin Canyon is a good example. ”

      Really? I’m not sure I know of any evidence that timber harvesting activities decrease the frequency of fires, nor that they decrease the cost of protecting homes.

      Instead, I know that timber harvesting tends to leave a lot of flammable materials on the forest floor, open up a lot more roads (and the attendant weeds that follow the roads), introduce more equipment into the woods (spark arresters are great, but don’t always work), as well as allow more folks to deliberately or accidentally light fires.

      But, perhaps the elephant under the carpet is that Plum Creek is now the biggest realtor in the region. They built the roads, they chopped up the land and now they want you (or your local land trust) to buy up that land.

  3. Who/what in this is saying “let em burn” in this? Or anything like that?

    These new regs should end up with counties identifying wildland urban interface areas (which in Missoula’s case would be the whole puppy) and then enacting regulations that require certain mitigative efforts be undertaken and enforced otherwise, it’s a no-build affair.

    I seriously doubt Missoula or any county will take the “no-build affair” route.

    I’m perplexed, just a little, with your last two paragraphs. Assume I don’t buy into the “can’t zone because it’s a company town argument” – how does PC hold the trump card because it’s timber land? Timber land is no different than ag land, and they can exempt themselves from zoning. No need to protest.

    PC is selling its land and everything is real estate now, timber second. It’s that picky little detail that keeps the county blaming the fact that we can’t get zoning on Plum Creek, when the blame lies elsewhere.

    PC, itself, has said that their own plans don’t look for more than 1 per 160 density. How the county can blame it on PC with that kind of statement is beyond me.

    A refresher of Rebecca’s opinion on Sinrud’s view lies here and my own reply to Sinrud’s comments in Rebecca’s piece (which deserved their own piece) lie here. He’s not been back since.

  4. I’m not an opponent of logging by any means, Goof, but I think your “better and more aggressive timber management” conveniently ignores the fact that many of Montana’s major wildfires have been on our aggressively “managed” National Forests and Plum Creek property. Last summer’s Jocko Lakes fire was on heavily logged land. Logging is certainly an important tool in managing state and federal forests, but it’s by no means the single best solution to curbing rising wildfire fighting costs.

    Speaking of zoning, yet another formerly anti-z word part of our state is coming around. According to an article in the Missoulian today, Lakeside in conservative Flathead County is considering creating its own planning district.

  5. goof houlihan

    Well I quoted the law once before. The trump card is a 50% of “land taxed (assessed, classified, whatever) as forest land”. The independent’s article blew it entirely.

    here’s the statutory citation, which I cited before:

    (6) Within 30 days after the expiration of the protest period, the board of county commissioners may in its discretion adopt the resolution creating the zoning district or establishing the zoning regulations for the district. However, if 40% of the freeholders within the district whose names appear on the last-completed assessment roll or if freeholders representing 50% of the titled property ownership whose property is taxed for agricultural purposes under 15-7-202 or whose property is taxed as forest land under Title 15, chapter 44, part 1, have protested the establishment of the district or adoption of the regulations, the board of county commissioners may not adopt the resolution and a further zoning resolution may not be proposed for the district for a period of 1 year.

    So, it’s NOT just a percentage of freeholders, but 50% of land taxed as forest land. That is MUCH more potent position for Plum Creek. Especially in the areas you’re talking about zoning…it’s just one of the reasons I think Gallatin gets zoning before Missoula.

    I’m all for zoning for setbacks, but it’s not quite that easy. I watched bombers dump pink fire retardant all over houses southeast of Helena as the fires moved closer and closer. It didn’t look like the classic cabin in the woods, and I bet nobody but the insurance company figured the forest fire danger.

    I think it’s a hard sell. Big Sky is entirely threatened. Entirely. And the cost of saving it would be huge. Triple Tree, in the middle of elk herd winter habitat, could burn down, yet it’s not clear that is in any kind of forest habitat. Sisters oregon, or Seeley Lake, little towns in the middle of the woods, should they be moved out of the forest because of how threatened they were? How do you reconcile “of course not” with zoning the possibility forever. And what uses will you concede to those who own that land? You don’t want logging, you don’t want residential, you don’t want resorts, what will you allow them to do? Because it can’t be “nothing” without the zoning becoming a “taking”.

    It’s a tough sell, because people move to Montana to live out there, not in town, like I do. REAL environmentalists live in town and walk to work. (yeah, like I do)

    There’s a lot of disclaimers, yet my experience is that any kind of logging, to expand Bridger Bowl, or to protect the Bozeman watershed, brings out a noisy anti logging group intent on lawsuits and all or nothing politics.

    The single best, as in “most effective” solution to keeping costs down, as you say, is “let it burn”. Although I saw some support for that position from environmentalists, George Weuthner for example, I think it’s not just keeping costs down that we are shooting for with forest management…or zoning.

    If you’re saying it’s an excuse, yeah, maybe, I don’t know. The real excuse is blaming it on Realtors. I doubt they hold the trump cards in any Missoula election.

  6. Well, Realtor groups do donate a lot of money to some folks’ political campaigns around here, if not actually run for office themselves. Now, I’m not interested in stopping either because, hey, it’s a free country, but if we’re going to be honest with ourselves about why it costs so much to fight fires in Montana, and the West, self-serving statements like Glenn Oppel’s

    Oppel also questioned whether homes were driving up firefighting costs.

    only retard both the discussion and the creation of a solution. The data collected by the state and Headwaters Economics clearly show homes in the wildland-urban interface are an important contributing factor.

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