Some bikes to consider within your given 'range':
-Rocky Mtn Flow (sweet ride, burly, ridden it myself...very nice, can get it with 24" wheels if that's your thing)
-Norco (wide variety of hardtail huckers for many budgets/needs...excellent bikes for the price, but many are sold out because of this...Sasquatch is cheap with decent components)
You are already talking about swapping forks before buying the bike...try to find a shop that will do it when you buy (usually you can get it done a little cheaper this way), or take that money and put it into a better bike right off the bat. I was looking at getting the norco Torrent, which is really sweet, but is unfortunately spec'd with a JrT...my LBS was willing to swap a Z150 onto it for no additional charge (great group of guys/girls), but alas it is sold out for the year unless you can find an LBS that has it in stock (unlikely if you are in the US). Other than the norcos, I'm pretty biased towards the Flow, but that is maybe just cause I like to support Canadian manufacturers when I can (yes this is hypocritical as I own a specialized xc bike, but you gotta balance support for manufacturers and lbs's with price). It's a quality bike though, and definitely worth a look.