Inland Northwest residents may breathe cleaner air in the future, thanks to an 11th-hour decision to make 800,000 acres west and south of Spokane a priority for a federal soil conservation program.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday approved an Eastern Washington Conservation Priority Area, stretching across Adams, Benton, Douglas, Franklin, Grant, Lincoln and Walla Walla counties.
The designation boosts the chance for huge tracts of wind-swept farmland to be seeded into prairie grass. That would reduce airborne particles that scientists suspect fall on Spokane and other inland communities.
The announcement comes two days before landowners begin bidding for millions of environmentally sensitive acres that the government plans to rent under its Conservation Reserve Program. Winners will be those who can show that idling their land will bring the greatest environmental benefit.
The signup, which begins Monday and ends March 28, will determine who gets paid to keep their land idle during the 10-year life of the CRP contract. In Washington, 786,000 acres of CRP ground is up for renewal this year.
USDA officials said that without the priority designation, little of the Eastern Washington land would qualify for CRP. However, the designation does not guarantee acceptance into the program.
The priority designation will allow Eastern Washington landowners to use air quality as a specific environmental concern. Previously, they were limited to water erosion, water quality and wildlife habitat.
The designation was approved at the request of Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Slade Gorton, R-Wash., the Washington Environmental Council and others.
Eighty priority areas have been approved by the USDA, including a 661,000-acre site to protect grouse habitat in Idaho.
If accepted, landowners in the Eastern Washington priority area will receive $21 to $87 per acre. In exchange, they must plant grass and idle the land for 10 years.
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has said that up to 240 million acres nationwide are eligible for CRP, but only 36.4 million acres will be accepted.