August 17, 1997 in Nation/World

A Burning Issue Grass-Seed Growers Are Split Over Pact To End Field Burning

Ken Olsen And Craig Welch S Staff writer
 

Angry grass growers say Jacklin Seed Co.’s pact to end field burning on the Rathdrum Prairie is a sham.

They say Jacklin Seed is overstating the number of acres and growers involved in a coalition that earlier this month promised a 10-year field-burning phase out.

The Jacklins have for years been converting their grass fields into commercial development. The phaseout of field burning, some farmers say, is merely a ruse to pressure the county into allowing more development.

Both sides concede that a plan to stop burning has created a bitter rift between Rathdrum Prairie growers. The farmers for decades have uniformly defended burning - a practice that incites public criticism, but is considered vital to the bluegrass seed industry.

In a press conference earlier this month, Jacklin Seed Vice President Don Jacklin announced that more than half of the farmers on the prairie immediately would decrease burning. The agreement calls for halting fires on 10 percent of the fields each year, with all burning stopped in 10 years.

If an economically viable alternative is found, farmers who joined the Jacklin pact would quit torching their fields within a year. The coalition’s announcement was applauded by field-burning opponents and many growers.

The community wants burning to stop, Jacklin said, and it “is the right thing to do.”

He also urged the public to keep the pressure on. “We also believe the public should and will distinguish between those who are participating and those who are not,” Jacklin said.

So begins the schism.

“What (the Jacklins) are saying is, ‘We’ve got the white hats and those who burn are the black hats,”’ said longtime farmer Yvonne Satchwell. “They’ve basically divided this prairie in half.”

The Jacklins vigorously defend their push to slowly end burning. They say the phaseout will not help any grower become a subdivider.

“This has nothing to do with the commercial development of commercial land,” said Glenn Jacklin, the seed company’s operations manager. “This is the right thing to do for the community and the right thing to do for the grass seed industry.

“I think they (other growers) are having a difficult time understanding the time is right,” he said. “To think we can burn grass on the Rathdrum Prairie in 15 to 20 years is not dealing with reality.”

But Wayne Meyer, a farmer and state legislator, says more than half of the Rathdrum Prairie grass seed farmers refused to sign the Jacklin proposal because it was deceptive and because of who profits and who loses.

“This is a sham,” Meyer said. “All of their growers won’t be hit for four to five years while the rest of us would take an immediate hit.”

phaseout farmers are taking credit for reducing burning on fields already converted to residential and commercial developments. They also take credit for fields where machinery is used, not fire, to get rid of end-of-the-season stubble.

It will be years before participating growers actually have to reduce the acreage they burn. Some can increase burning for the next few years and still be true to the pact.

“They fudged every way they can,” Meyer said. “This is why a lot of us didn’t sign on. I don’t like lying to the public.”

Other landowners just don’t like the quiet, behind-the-scenes way the agreement was crafted. One is Alan Golub, who is slowly turning 210 acres near Lancaster Road from bluegrass to an industrial park.

“I was not asked to attend the meetings and so I am all of a sudden lumped in with people who don’t want to look at ending the burning,” said Golub, who leases his land to a farmer.

He also questions the veracity of the burning reduction figures, pointing out that the Schneidmiller family and the Jacklins all take credit for reducing burning on land already paved or platted for development.

Essentially, “they have promised not to burn 10 percent of Lake City High School or Coeur d’Alene Place or Harpers (furniture manufacturing),” Golub said.

And George Thayer’s property is now in the Rathdrum city limits, making it infinitely more valuable as a development because water, sewer and other city services are close at hand. Thayer already has turned some of his land into an industrial park.

A solid segment of the public has continually expressed unhappiness with field burning, an annual practice that gets rid of weeds and pests and shocks grass plants into tremendously better seed yields. Clean air advocates announced last summer they would file lawsuits against individual growers. Farmers report harassment that even escalates to death threats each fall.

Farmers maintain that without burning, there will be no profitable seed harvest, although many are desperately searching for alternatives. They also point out that developing the prairie will mean more traffic, more air pollution, and less of the protection grass fields provide for an aquifer that quenches the thirst of Spokane and Kootenai County residents.

“Anybody who thinks I enjoy burning my fields and taking the abuse I take is crazy,” Meyer said. “There is no alternative.”

Some farmers say the Jacklins are quenching field fires for less than altruistic reasons.

Jacklin Land Co. has acquired land along Idaho Highway 41 and is negotiating for more.

For at least two years Jacklin representatives have pushed Kootenai County to change zoning along the corridor between Post Falls and Rathdrum from agriculture to commercial. Such a zone change can bring a tenfold increase in the value of the land and make the landowners instant millionaires on paper, according to records in the Kootenai County Assessor’s office.

Kootenai County refused to make such a sweeping zone change two years ago. But consultant J.P. Stravens is on the verge of submitting another proposal on behalf of the Jacklins and other landowners.

“I think what they have designed is to put more pressure on the rest of us so they can go to the land-use planners and say ‘there’s nothing else we can do with this ground,”’ Meyer said.

He served on a Highway 41 committee two years ago ostensibly established to consider widening the thoroughfare from two lanes to four or five lanes, he said. Suddenly, during the final two meetings, the talk switched to rezoning the Highway 41 corridor.

“I felt very snookered,” said Meyer, who suspects the committee really was created to accomplish the commercial rezone.

Meyer and other farmers also contend the Jacklins have moved most of their production to the Columbia Basin, southern Idaho and other places, so the end of Rathdrum Prairie burning and grass production “has no affect on them,” Meyer said.

And since the company leases most of its land to other farmers, “they are so removed from the farm, they don’t know what farming is anymore.”

The Jacklins take issue with every point.

“The Jacklins didn’t orchestrate this, the Jacklins brought this forward as an idea and other growers asked us to carry the ball,” Glenn Jacklin said. “I’m removed from farming? I have 472 farmers growing for us,” Glenn Jacklin said. “I have to know inside and out what they are doing.”

He also intensively farms 130 acres, in 5-acre research plots.

The Jacklins wouldn’t be pouring money into researching alternative types of grass and alternative harvesting if the company didn’t want to keep the grass industry going on the prairie, he said. And while the prairie doesn’t produce most of the millions of pounds of seed the Jacklins process, it’s 25 percent of the company’s bluegrass supply.

No one would be happy with any acreage figure picked as a point for starting the phaseout.

“We probably won’t take much of a hit,” Glenn Jacklin acknowledged. “Whether it’s a big hit or a little hit, I think it’s the right thing to do.”

For themselves and for other farmers, development is a last resort, they insist, Jacklin said.

“I’m having a hard time understanding how this helps the Jacklins develop the prairie,” he said. “A grower doesn’t need a phaseout to develop their land.”

But growers do need permission from Kootenai County. And during the 1992 battle over the county’s land-use plan, Pat Leffel, who runs the Jacklin’s Riverbend Commerce Park and represents their real estate interests, pushed for the commercial zoning.

More restrictive development regulations in Washington are pushing growth in Idaho, Leffel said. Traffic on Highway 41 has increased dramatically as a result of some of that growth occurring in Rathdrum.

“The future appears to be that the corridor between Post Falls and Rathdrum is going to convert from agriculture to commercial,” Leffel said. It’s time to do it and do it right.

Public pressure to stop burning only will increase, he added.

“Therefore, you have to look at the long-term,” Leffel said. “If you can’t farm it, you have to rezone it and do something with it.”

County planning commissioners agree the change is inevitable. But they want to prevent Highway 41 from becoming a copy of Spokane’s Division Street, with stop lights every other block and traffic-congesting access points every 50 feet.

They’ve considered using frontage roads, so the highway would wouldn’t be broken by driveways. They also want future buildings set several hundred feet back from the highway.

With setbacks, the Idaho Transportation Department won’t have to pay to knock down or move buildings when it widens Highway 41.

The Jacklins are fighting those restrictions. Attorneys Scott Reed and Denny Davis have reviewed proposals for Highway 41 on behalf of the Jacklins.

In written comments submitted to the county, the Coeur d’Alene attorneys said the Jacklins took issue with setbacks, suggesting they amount to theft of private land.

“There’s not much interest in being thoughtful about how we develop,” planning commissioner Jon Mueller said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)

MEMO: Cut in Spokane edition

Cut in Spokane edition


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email