The Clean Air Coalition has mustered its members, money, a meteorologist and lawyer to battle grass growers who inundate the Panhandle with smoke this summer.
Instead of going after the entire bluegrass industry, the Sandpoint-based group says it will target individual farmers this time.
Experts will track smoke rising from specific fields in an attempt to hold the farmers liable for any health problems it causes, said Art Long, coalition president.
The goal is to help residents file lawsuits against growers and make grass field burning an expensive legal hassle. Long called it a new tactic in an old struggle.
“This is no secret. We have told the grass growers we are coming after them,” Long said. “Our objective is quite simply to make grass field burning as expensive as possible. It seems to be the only message that those who choose to pollute our summer air for maximum profit will understand.”
Idaho grass growers are taking the threat seriously but say they won’t be bullied into a burning ban.
“I’ll admit some of the farmers are nervous. They don’t want to be sued,” said Wayne Meyer, a member of the Intermountain Grass Growers who plans to torch his 880 acres on the Rathdrum Prairie next month.
“We are going to go ahead and do what we have to do to make a living, and that is burn our fields,” said Meyer, who also is a state legislator. “I’m not going to let a legal suit dictate how I operate my farm.”
After 22 years as a high school basketball referee, Meyer said he is not intimidated easily.
“I will spend money to prove a principle. I’m not afraid of a lawsuit.”
When farmers start torching some 9,000 acres next month, a coalition-hired meteorologist will be on hand to track the plumes of smoke. Members on the ground and in two airplanes will document which farmers are burning and where the smoke goes. The group has even considered dropping a colored dye into the smoke to make it easier to trace.
“The problem before was we could never pinpoint where the smoke came from and we had no recourse,” Long said. “This way we can say the smoke came from fields ‘x’ and ‘y’ and this person is suffering because of it.”
Long said the coalition will not necessarily be filing lawsuits, but provide information and legal counsel to people who suffer health problems associated with the annual field burning.
“We have tried very hard to work out another solution with the grass growers, but nothing else has worked, so we are resorting to this,” Long said.
When burning conditions are best on the Rathdrum Prairie, the wind carries grass field smoke north, sparing residents in Coeur d’Alene. Instead, the smoke socks in Sandpoint, Hope and Hayden Lake.
The coalition asked farmers to burn on alternate years or cut the number of acres torched, but an agreement never was reached. The problem, Meyer said, is there are no good alternatives to burning, which helps the crop reproduce.
Without burning each season the next year’s crop is reduced 25 percent, and removing the grass stubble with a machine can cost $100 an acre, he said.
“It seems like people want us to keep farming but want to take away all our tools,” Meyer said. “They (the coalition) want us to go back to being farmers with a hoe.”
Meyer and other grass growers have talked with the Idaho Grain Producers and Idaho Association of Commerce about setting up a legal defense fund to fend off lawsuits.
Meyer said he hopes to get legislation passed next year to protect farmers from this type of legal action.
“If you can be sued for smoke trespass, think of all the other things people will start suing about,” he said. “If they can get away with this it will open up a whole Pandora’s box.”