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Farmers Say They’ll Work With Tribe But Grass Burning Foes Skeptical About Pledge

Tue., April 8, 1997

Embattled bluegrass farmers on Monday said they’ll work with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe as it looks for alternatives to field burning on the reservation.

But their pledge did little to win over skeptics from environmental and health groups who had applauded the tribal council’s March 13 decision to work toward phasing out grass burning.

“We’ve worked with the tribal council a long time,” said Gary Drechsel, the acting spokesman for non-Indian farmers who grow bluegrass on the reservation. “When it comes to making a decision about alternatives, I would only encourage them to use science and fact, rather than politics and emotion.”

Same old story, different year, responded Patricia Hoffman, founder of Save Our Summers, a group that lobbied Washington state to ban most field burning by 1999.

“Growers have been willing to sit down and quote ‘Talk things over’ since 1963, when they were only burning 16,000 acres a year,” said Hoffman. “They’ve been talking it over ever since. In 1995, they burned over 100,000 acres (in the region).”

About 70 farmers, who burn roughly 19,000 acres on the Coeur d’Alene reservation, showed up alongside a handful of environmental and health activists at Monday’s meeting. The meeting at the tribal bingo hall was held to discuss the phaseout.

Farmers say burning is necessary to prepare fields for next year’s crop, but public concern has grown over the safety of smoke created when fields are set aflame in late summer. Despite smoldering emotions on both sides of the issue, the mood Monday morning was calm, civil and decidedly brief - the meeting lasted barely 45 minutes.

That may have been the result of a letter from tribal council chairman Ernie Stensgar, passed out to those who attended. The letter asked that comment be reserved for Coeur d’Alene tribal members and farmers who grow bluegrass on the reservation.

Some of those who spoke pointed out the proposed field-burning phaseout is merely in its fledgling stages. Although the March 13 decision had buoyed environmentalists’ hopes, comments from some at the meeting indicate progress may be slow.

“What the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council is saying is sometime in the future we need to address this,” said Alfred Nomee, who in addition to being a landowner is also the tribe’s land services director. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow, or next week. All the tribe is saying is, over the next 10 years, we need to do it.”

One Coeur d’Alene tribe member described how profits from her mother’s acreage have tripled since farmers began growing bluegrass there. Another farmer, David Fish, lauded what he sees as benefits of keeping with current practices.

“We never talk about the 300 days of oxygen we breathe from the grass, but we always want to talk about those 15 days of smoke,” Fish said.

State Rep. Wayne Meyer, who farms bluegrass on the Rathdrum Prairie but not on the reservation, said the council’s decision to consider the phaseout, coupled with a ban in neighboring Washington, puts more pressure on all bluegrass growers to find alternatives.

“Eventually, burning is going to be gone,” said Meyer. In January, Meyer had told the House Environmental Affairs Committee that field burning was crucial to bluegrass growers and current smoke management practices were sufficient.

Hoffman and other environmentalists were disappointed that comment from their groups was left off the meeting agenda. She said she chose not to speak during the meeting out of respect for the request in Stensgar’s letter.

Bob Bostwick, the tribe’s press secretary, said all the groups involved would be given ample opportunity to express their concerns about the proposed phaseout, which is set to be presented to the tribal council on Aug. 31. No public meetings have been scheduled yet.

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