LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — For nearly a decade Idaho farmers and clean-air advocates battled over agricultural field burning.
Farmers maintain they need fire to manage crop residue, weeds, pests and disease. In the case of Kentucky bluegrass, farmers say the residue must be burned each year in non-irrigated areas to keep producing seed.
Clean-air advocates pointed to crop residue smoke as a serious health threat to people with respiratory illnesses. The Sandpoint-based group Safe Air For Everyone linked at least nine deaths to agricultural field burning and filed lawsuits that vaulted the issue into the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In January 2007, the federal court ruled that Idaho's crop residue burn plan had been illegal since 1993.
Immediately, the state banned all agricultural burning outside of the state's five Indian reservations.
Little did anyone suspect that such entrenched adversaries would ever be able to reach an accord that would satisfy both sides.
But one year ago, that's exactly what happened.
"This is one shining light, a good story," Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, chairman of the Idaho House Agriculture committee, said of an agreement that was finalized last summer.
"Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter took the bull by the horns and called all the parties together because it almost looked like an irresolvable situation at that time.
"They worked through four to five months of tense negotiations and everybody gave a little and then we passed three pieces of legislation a year ago. And one of the major changes was shifting the control and monitoring program to the (Department of Environmental Quality) from the (Idaho State Department of Agriculture). And that transition went very, very smoothly. Just last summer I think I only got one complaint and I've gotten nothing at all this year," Trail said.
This spring Trail chaired a meeting of more than 20 people that included farmers, representatives of various farm organizations and the clean-air advocates, to review the program.
"And at the end of the meeting they all came up and said, 'Job well done.' We're really looking forward to further collaboration to make sure the program continues to do as well as it is now."
Trail said it's likely the program will have to be tweaked from time to time. But, so far, everybody seems happy with the collaboration.
"I'm overjoyed," said Patti Gora-McRavin of SAFE. Gora-McRavin, whose own son's suffering from asthma when farm fields were burned prompted her activism, said the agreement is a victory for all citizens of Idaho.
"I am humbled by the efforts of ordinary Idaho citizens to come together to plead the case for the right to breathe clean air and for their willingness to come to the table and negotiate an agreement that looks to be working for everyone," she said.
Although many whose farms were off the Nez Perce Indian Reservation tore out their bluegrass fields when the state imposed its burn ban, Brian Higgins, a grower and manager of Seeds Inc., in Nezperce, said it's possible they will return to the crop now that they can burn again.
"I think it's working pretty well," Higgins said of the agreement. "We've gotten through this together. It's been a learning process for all parties involved. We know what to expect. Nobody likes to be regulated, but we understand that's the way it's going to be."
Right now, Higgins said, the market for turf grass has fallen and it's not as profitable as it once was.
"We're going through some tough times, as far as processing," Higgins said. "It is a challenge and will be for the next year and a half."
But for those who stick with it, being able to burn means the difference between crops that yield well and pay a dividend and those that decline in value year by year.
"We've gotten rid of the levels that seemed like it took all day to get approval for one field," Higgins said. "With the tribe's coordination, we've streamlined the whole process and it works smoothly. Growers don't get frustrated and upset to jump through all those hoops to get approval. I really have to applaud the tribe for leading the way on that."
About 70 percent of the bluegrass produced in north central Idaho is grown on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. About 14,000 to 17,000 acres are burned each year.
The Nez Perce and Coeur d'Alene tribes were ahead of the game when, in 2005, they developed a mandatory program, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, that closely monitors field burns. That program was the model for the state's burn plan.
Every morning at 8, Andrea Boyer, an environmental specialist who oversees the Nez Perce Tribe's burn program, sorts through a host of weather and environmental Web sites, checking for the most current predictions of weather patterns during the day.
There are smoke concentration monitors at Kamiah, Lapwai, Reubens and Kendrick, along with two portable monitors at Orofino and Nezperce. Boyer checks the data from those to determine air ventilation, wind speed, precipitation and other factors.
Half an hour later, Boyer is on the phone with representatives of the state DEQ, the Coeur d'Alene and Kootenai tribes, and National Weather Service meteorologists. They're comparing notes, commenting on the weather patterns and noting anything that might be of concern.
"Normally, if all agencies are burning there's a lot of coordination," Boyer said. "We have to make sure with DEQ that what they're doing off the reservation — is it going to overload the air sheds?
"We do a lot of compromising. We have this many acres, then their and our field staffs keep in constant contact with each other to make sure things are still going well," she said.
Even if conditions look good, it's likely the tribe will nix any plans to permit more burning if there is too much other activity going on in the region.
"We've learned over the years that even if the science supports burning for agriculture (for a particular day), even if we see that the dispersion is going to be OK ... it becomes a public relations nightmare (to allow burning when there are wildfires going on) because the general public doesn't understand the science and it's very hard to explain the science to them," Boyer said.
"So over the years we've learned in those situations, we just don't allow burning. It's just not worth it. There are too many variables," she said.
Farmers who plan to burn their fields must submit an application at least a day in advance, spelling out the exact location of the proposed burn and how many acres are involved.
"Just because they submit a permit application doesn't mean they're going to get to burn," she said. "Once the application is received, the burner will call and notify our field staff they're ready to burn and we put them on a request list. This time of year the request list can get very long."
Growers planning to burn fields next to a town or a road may get priority when conditions are right. After that, permission is given on a first-come, first-served basis.
Said Boyer: "If they don't hear from us, they don't have permission to burn."
Complaints still come in, but have steadily decreased over the past couple of years. Boyer said many people call the complaint line, thinking they are seeing agriculture burning when it's actually smoke from wildfires.
Typical complaints range from: "I don't like agricultural burning," to "It's not fair to everybody else, it benefits the farmer.
"Rarely are they saying, 'this burn is affecting me right now,'" Boyer said.
Last year, 57 complaints were called in to the various complaint lines. Seven of those were related to agriculture burning, 23 to wildfires, 14 to open burning and 13 to other categories, such as dust and demolition debris.
Whenever a field is lit, Boyer's husband, Michael, and brother-in-law, Bryce, are on the ground, in the field, watching it all. As the smoke plumes upward, the Boyer brothers are in constant contact with Andrea Boyer back in the office. If anything unexpected happens and smoke starts to drift toward populated areas, the fire is immediately quenched.
"We certainly recognize the importance of burning and believe that it can be managed in a way that public health is not affected," Andrea Boyer said.
"There's a public perception that the growers don't care about anybody else and that they just burn whenever they get approval and that's really not the case. We have many growers who we will give permission to, and they will call and say, 'It's just not right for me today. I'll wait until the next day.'
"As our program continues to evolve, most of them do that. Most of them are really caring people. They kind of learned that it helps the program out."