GREAT FALLS, Mont. - More than 40 families on three Montana Indian reservations will become homeowners next year after taking possession of military housing recycled from Malmstrom Air Force Base here.
The homes are going to families on the Northern Cheyenne, Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy's reservations as part of a national project called Operation Walking Shield. About 50 homes already have been moved to the reservations under the program, and more than 100 more are scheduled to be distributed over the next two years.
''There's nothing deficient about these homes. They're perfectly workable homes,'' said Ben O'Connell, an aide to Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who has facilitated the program in Montana.
The salvage effort started in 1994 when Phil Stevens, a California aerospace engineer of Sioux heritage, learned that 463 newly remodeled homes at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota would be demolished because of military cutbacks.
He called an official in charge of the project, and ''I explained to him that I thought I could save the Air Force a lot of money that they would otherwise spend on demolition,'' Stevens said.
Eight months later, Congress authorized the recycled housing project.
It costs the military about $13,000 to tear down a single home. But on the Rocky Boy's reservation, a home can be moved on site and refurbished at a cost to the tribe of about $38,000 per house, said Susie Hay, director of the Chippewa Cree Housing Authority. New construction would cost $80,000 to $108,000, because of the rugged terrain and the reservation's isolation, she said.
To date, the program has relocated 661 houses to 14 reservations in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.
In 2002, the program plans to move 50 units to the Northern Cheyenne reservation in southeastern Montana to create ''Walking Shield Village,'' a new housing development complete with a community center and housing for senior citizens. A similar project is underway at the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota.
With housing shortages critical on many reservations, most tribal governments are embracing the program. But not all.
The Blackfeet Tribe has refused the housing because of transportation problems. Trucking the homes along the narrow, twisting roads to the reservation, roughly 130 miles north of Great Falls, would be difficult and extremely costly.
The Fort Peck Reservation also has declined the housing.
''What we found in our area was by the time we tried to find somebody to move them up here, the cost was enormous,'' said Cameron Boggs, renovation supervisor for the Blackfeet housing department. ''That just took so much away from it. If the military would have moved them for us, we definitely would have took some.''