Blackfeet hope to make up to $4 million from salvage logging after recent forest fires

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GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - The Blackfeet Indian Tribe is hoping to make $3 million to $4 million from salvage logging on 6,000 acres of land burned by recent forest fires, tribal officials said.

The extra money should help the tribe with some financial struggles, but its annual income from logging operations will fall from $90,000 a year to about $60,000.

It could be a century before the lodgepole pines are replaced, said Dennis Divoky, fire effects specialist for Glacier National Park.

''With the short growing season that we have up here, I won't see those trees grow back in my lifetime,'' said Robert Mad Plume, the tribe's forestry director.

The Red Eagle fire, which started in Glacier National Park last summer, burned about 15,000 acres of tribal land. Its cause still hasn't been determined. In 2002, the Fox Creek fire charred 6,400 acres just east of St. Mary.

''Those two fires burned up roughly 30 percent of our forest reserve,'' said Mad Plume.

The tribe hopes to harvest 20 - 25 million board feet of timber, Mad Plume said, although the fire damage is expected to reduce its value.

''If the fire did not burn really hot and you harvested it right away, you could avoid most of the potential losses,'' said Chuck Keegan, director of forest industry research for the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

Mad Plume said the tribe hopes to make about $4 million from the salvage operation, but tribal Treasurer Joe Gervais said $3 million is a little more realistic number.

The tribe has been struggling financially for the past seven years, since a U.S. Supreme Court decision voided a type of tribal property tax that was generating about $1.4 million a year, Gervais said.

''Other tribes cut the size of their government, but we never made any cuts,'' he said. ''We just borrowed from our workers' comp fund to keep our nursing home open and provide other services to our members.''

The tribe also lost about $2 million when it sent crews to Louisiana in an attempt to tap into huge federal contracts for Hurricane Katrina cleanup.

''We're still having problems, but we're working on it to see how we can get some of our money back,'' said Earl Old Person, chairman of the tribal business council.

Another setback is the tribe's new $7 million casino, Glacier Peaks, which needed a $50,000 tribal loan last fall to cover an operating revenue shortfall.

''I think they got started at the wrong time, in the fall, and you don't have much traffic in the wintertime,'' Old Person said. ''We're hoping in the spring and the summer that we might do better.''

The tribal council used about one-third of the expected income from the logging project to provide a Christmas bonus for tribal members.

''We gave $75 to each tribal member last Christmas,'' said Gervais. Most of that money ''came out of our trust income,'' he said, which includes timber sales. ''With 16,044 members, it cost us about $1,203,300,'' he said.

Old Person defended the bonuses.

''Our people celebrate the holidays,'' he said. ''If they receive a per capita payment, that adds to what they can do for themselves and their children.''