The mediator of the Inland Northwest Field Burning Summit has resigned under pressure from grass growers.
Emmett Fiske, a Washington State University professor, is “biased” in favor of clean-air groups and should be ousted, the growers complained.
Fiske’s resignation is a signal the summit, formed in 1990 to seek compromises between growers and clean-air advocates, may be crumbling.
The 450-member Intermountain Grass Growers Association and the grass-growing Coeur d’Alene Tribe wrote letters this summer to WSU President Sam Smith and WSU’s top agriculture deans, seeking Fiske’s ouster.
WSU officials declined to get involved. But Fiske resigned his position on Sept. 14, saying he no longer could do his job.
“I’m hoping people of good will can figure out what to do next,” Fiske said in a letter to summit members.
“It was surprising to me that he resigned; we didn’t expect it, and there was no pressure on WSU’s part,” said Harry Burcalow, associate dean at WSU.
“In my opinion, he was being highly objective,” said Yvonne Bucklin of the American Lung Association of Washington, a member of the field burning summit.
“It’s very odd that he’s been asked to step down. Summit members never had a chance to discuss this,” Bucklin said.
The Spokane Chamber of Commerce convened the summit five years ago after “black Wednesday,” when clouds of grass smoke rolled into Spokane, prompting hundreds of angry calls to air quality cops.
WSU was asked to provide a mediator, and Fiske was chosen.
A specialist in rural sociology, Fiske’s leadership wasn’t questioned until this year. On May 18, he sent a memo to summit members - the day after The Spokesman-Review reported that a new clean-air group, Save Our Summers, was forming to combat field burning.
Fiske warned of growing public anger over the Washington Legislature’s deregulation of grass field burning a month earlier.
He suggested farmers continue to adhere to a 16-day burning season, even though they had chosen a 47-day burning “window” starting Aug. 15.
“People expressing health concerns want to be certain that burning occurs on as few days as possible,” Fiske said.
If growers don’t impose limits, “then tensions will escalate … and the relationships built during the past five years of good faith efforts will quickly deteriorate,” Fiske said.
He also told the summit members if they felt he’d overstepped his bounds as facilitator, he’d step down.
Shortly after, the growers’ groups swung into action. On June 27, the 450-member grass growers’ association wrote WSU President Sam Smith.
Fiske has “lost his neutrality and is causing a great deal of hardship to our organization,” wrote Martha Dailey, the association’s executive secretary.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Aug. 1 letter to the WSU School of Agriculture was harsher.
Fiske’s allegiance “is tied directly to the Washington State Department of Ecology, the American Lung Association, and the Spokane County Air Pollution Authority,” said Ernest Stensgar, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council.
Kelsey Gray, a professor at WSU’s Spokane campus, will convene the next summit meeting on Oct. 3.