Jacklin Seed Co., which plans to phase out bluegrass burning on the Rathdrum Prairie, wants to shift some grass seed production to the Yakama Indian Reservation.
The move would put the bluegrass fields on the reservation beyond the reach of a Washington state law aimed at dousing field burning for health reasons.
Jacklin has proposed a “major expansion” of bluegrass production on the reservation starting in the year 2000, said Glenn Jacklin, the company’s senior vice president for production.
A permit program to burn bluegrass on the reservation will be in place this summer, said Richard Mains of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Toppenish.
The program will start small, with a few hundred acres. But the Jacklins have told the Yakamas they’d like to contract with area farmers to grow up to 20,000 acres on the reservation.
“They are talking about continuous bluegrass production for 20 years,” Mains said.
Jacklin Seed, a division of the J.R. Simplot Co., is interested in the Columbia Basin because its warmer climate allows annual and biannual seed production, Jacklin said.
“We’ll be able to produce grass seed with less burning down there,” he said.
Because of public health concerns, the tribe won’t rush into the Jacklin deal, said Moses Squeochs, environmental program manager for the Yakama Nation.
“The Yakama Nation will have final say on this,” he said.
The tribal council will probably submit the Jacklin proposal to a vote of the entire tribe, Squeochs said.
The tribe also will ask the Indian Health Service and other federal agencies to evaluate public health concerns because the Yakamas have a higher-than-average incidence of asthma, Squeochs said.
Asthma and other respiratory problems are aggravated by tiny particles in smoke and industrial pollution, studies show.
Washington Department of Ecology officials say the project could undermine their effort to curb field burning statewide.
“I hope this doesn’t happen,” said Joe Williams, Ecology’s top air quality cop in Olympia.
“We’ve made significant strides in reducing grass field burning. Now we’re in the midst of identifying certifiable alternatives. It seems this is a way to get around that,” Williams said.
The Jacklins are aware public opinion has shifted against burning, Glenn Jacklin said.
“Even if we could burn within tribal boundaries and bypass state law, the public is not going to accept it. The bottom line is, we are going to have to cut back,” Jacklin said.
Other non-Indian growers use tribal lands in North Idaho for bluegrass production. Last year, some 70 farmers burned about 19,000 acres on privately owned and leased land on the Coeur d’Alene reservation.
The federal government may get involved in the issue.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is concerned about possible air quality impacts, said Bonnie Thie, manager for state and tribal programs at EPA’s Office of Air Quality in Seattle.
The EPA backs the Yakama tribe’s efforts to evaluate its own air quality issues and also supports Ecology’s statewide burning phaseout, Thie said.
The Yakamas have launched a first-ever effort to assess their air quality, Squeochs said.
The tribe is working to attract economic development, but “we are still interested in sustaining a quality environment,” he said.
There are 103,465 irrigable acres on the Yakama reservation, and 15,811 acres are currently available for agricultural production, according to the tribe’s Land Enterprise Program.
The 2,137-square-mile reservation is the state’s largest. Approximately 6,000 Yakamas share the reservation with 30,000 nonIndians.
Yakima’s regional clean air agency is watching the bluegrass proposal.
The agency lacks authority to regulate the tribe, said Les Ornelas, Yakima Regional Clean Air Authority director.
“Our concerns are based on the expectation that Jacklin and other potential growers who rely on burning are going to seek places where they can continue to fumigate their neighbors instead of changing their ways,” Ornelas said.
When they announced their Rathdrum Prairie phaseout last year, the Jacklins said they’d move much of their field growing operations to the Columbia Basin.
In some cases, they could grow grass seed in rotation with potatoes and without field burning, they said.
But at a Jan. 26 meeting with the Yakamas and other interested farmers in Toppenish, a Jacklin representative said the crop often must be burned after harvesting the seed.
Heavy burning in Yakima County would affect the entire region, Ornelas said.
“We’ve traced particulates from Bend to Spokane. There’s no reason that smoke generated in Yakima will act any differently. It’ll either congregate locally, or move downwind,” he said.
The BIA, which oversees land leased to non-Indians on the Yakama reservation, is aware of the health controversy, Mains said.
Last year, when a major fungal blight hit Yakima-area hop fields, the smoke from burning fields invaded a tribal retirement home, causing respiratory distress in some elderly Yakamas.
“It couldn’t have been worse. That episode triggered our awareness of field burning, which hasn’t been a common practice here,” Mains said.
In 1996, Washington adopted a new rule that mandated a two-thirds cutback in Kentucky bluegrass acres burned - nearly 40,000 acres statewide - by last summer.
Today, , Ecology is announcing whether it will order a halt to burning on the final one-third.
Under the state Clean Air Act, a total phaseout requires Ecology to certify an “economical and practical” alternative to burning.
Last September, the Jacklins sold their $40 million-a-year company to the J.R. Simplot Co., the Boise-based billion-dollar agribusiness.
The Jacklins said last August they would phase out 5,800 acres on North Idaho’s Rathdrum Prairie over a decade. That land represents 25 percent of the company’s bluegrass supply.
“It’s the right thing to do. The community has said, we don’t want agricultural field burning,” said Don Jacklin at the time.
The Jacklins also said they disagree with Washington’s three-year phaseout. They criticized a Washington State University cost-benefit study that said the public health benefits of phasing out field burning outweigh the costs to growers of changing to no-burn alternatives.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Jacklins, Yakamas talk about grass growing