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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Montana Working With Feds To Resolve Dispute Over Firefighting Helicopters

Gov. Bullock is hopeful upcoming talks will help clear the way to allowing Montana DNRC helicopters to work fires on federal lands.

It looks like there may be progress in the dispute between Montana and the U.S. Forest Service over firefighting helicopters.

Last week Governor Steve Bullock wrote to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, to complain about, "unnecessary obstacles" that prohibit Montana’s five firefighting helicopters from being used on U.S. Forest Service land.

The Forest Service says it doesn’t use state helicopters because they don’t meet the agency’s safety standards.

Today, Villsack and Bullock announced a possible path forward.

"We have a number of federal aeronautic officials coming out this week to sit down with our folks to have the discussions about making sure that we can best utilize our resources," Bullock said.

Forest Service officials have declined to comment on the dispute, but in written statements the agency has said it values cooperation with states, and that it wants to, "develop a plan for operating state helicopters in coordinated firefighting efforts on federal lands."

Bullock says he’s encouraged that Forest Service technical aviation experts are coming to Montana.

"Having them on that ground and having discussions is the best thing going forward, and we’ll see those discussions ultimately lead to."

Neither the Forest Service nor Governor Bullock offered a timeframe for when there might be a policy change regarding the state’s helicopters. Bullock said that although his letter to the Agriculture secretary was only sent last week, that he has been bringing up the helicopter issue with federal officials for several months now. 

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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