The region’s largest grass seed company is threatening to withdraw its support from Washington State University if the school doesn’t repudiate a recent study conducted by WSU researchers.
Jacklin Seed Co. of Post Falls and other bluegrass growers have mounted a blistering attack on the WSU study, which said the public benefits of reducing grass smoke outweigh costs to growers by several million dollars a year.
State taxpayers paid for the $98,640 cost-benefit analysis, part of the Washington Department of Ecology’s effort to enact new rules dousing most bluegrass burning by 1998 for health reasons.
In letters and telephone calls to WSU President Sam Smith and university deans, the growers accused WSU of selling out agriculture.
They’ve also said the WSU researchers who conducted the 1996 study are biased, and demanded an outside critique of the research.
“Our future relationship with the University has been jeopardized and can only be retained if this report is repudiated in its entirety,” said Donald, Doyle and Duane Jacklin in a Jan. 21 letter to Smith.
That won’t happen, said James Barron, chairman of WSU’s agricultural economics department.
“The chances of the university repudiating this study are so close to zero you can’t tell the difference from zero,” Barron said.
The growers acted out of frustration, said Donald Jacklin, the company’s vice president and production director.
“We’ve never questioned a WSU study before,” he said. “But our industry was not contacted or asked to give input” for the study, he said.
The letters and e-mail to university officials were obtained through a Spokesman-Review public-records request.
WSU officials are worried the controversy may threaten Jacklin Seed Co.’s recent $300,000 pledge for a new biotechnology lab - and halt other contributions from the Jacklins.
The company and the family have donated more than $100,000 to the university, said WSU spokeswoman Barbara Petura.
In response to the Jacklin complaints, WSU is organizing a review of its study.
“We have a responsibility for doing good science,” said Geoff Gamble, WSU’s acting provost.
The study has undergone internal peer review within the agricultural economics department, Barron said. He announced the new external peer review in a March 27 letter to grass growers and clean air activists involved in the grass burning issue.
“The university takes seriously an allegation that researchers have done poor science,” Barron said.
“Although WSU believes the work to be of satisfactory quality, based on the complaints, we propose to initiate an arm’s length review of the study by an independent panel of scientists,” he said.
Barron’s letter asked for nominations from a list of 11 agricultural economics experts for a small peer-review panel.
The Jacklins also responded harshly to that overture - saying the researchers weren’t acceptable.
They blasted WSU for a “self-serving, self-designed, self-protecting committee… This proposal is an insult and an affront to the Agriculture Industry,” the Jacklins replied on April 3.
The composition of the review panel is still under discussion, Gamble said. Meanwhile, WSU’s decision to critique the study has triggered a heated debate among WSU researchers.
“The researchers did not favor this review,” said Philip Wandschneider, an agricultural economist and the study’s lead researcher.
“We were hired for this study because WSU has a reputation for conducting unbiased, scholarly work and we feel we did that,” he added.
In 1995, the state Legislature directed Ecology to spend all the research dollars generated by agricultural burning permit fees at WSU.
The growers pushed the bill after Ecology spent $70,800 on Oregon researcher Art Krenzel, who concluded bluegrass could be grown in Eastern Washington without burning by dethatching fields shortly after harvest.
Growers strongly criticized his project, saying it was unscientific.
Both WSU and the University of Idaho worked on portions of the cost-benefit analysis. WSU got $59,740, and the University of Idaho got $38,900 for survey work.
The Department of Ecology was required to complete the study under a legislative directive to evaluate the economic impact of proposed regulations.
In March 1996, former Ecology Director Mary Riveland announced a three-year phaseout of most bluegrass burning for public health reasons.
The WSU study concluded the Ecology rule would cost growers $5.6 million annually - a major impact. But the study said that impact was outweighed by $8.4 million in public health benefits from less smoke in the air.
“In our estimate, the probable benefits are greater than the probable costs,” the authors said.
The growers’ backlash was immediate.
In late December and January, WSU began to get calls and letters. One angry grower removed the WSU Cougar screen-savers from his company’s computers and let the university know about it.
The Intermountain Grass Growers Association contacted WSU repeatedly with complaints about the study, Wandschneider said.
“People were angry. There’s a feeling in the ag community that a college of agriculture should always do things which support farming,” he said. “They’d like us to be an advocate, and they get upset when they feel that’s not happening.
“Our position is that the best job we can do for agriculture is to conduct honest research,” he said.
Several growers also have filed two recent lawsuits challenging Ecology’s burning rule. Both the lawsuits attack the WSU cost-benefit study, which they say exaggerates the public health benefits of the burning phaseout.
With the lawsuits pending, picking a peer review group that can deliver an unbiased review of WSU’s study is “pretty delicate,” Wandschneider said.
“The researchers don’t think peer reviews are bad. We’re fair game for any criticism, and we think our work will be upheld,” he said. “But our position is this is not a judicious time for the university to be doing this.”