Twice as much land in North Idaho is being used to grow grass seed as 20 years ago.
As the official grass-burning season begins Monday, a recent report shows the number of acres burned in the Panhandle has increased from 13,210 acres in 1976 to 27,501 acres last year.
Developers have converted some of the Rathdrum Prairie from grass fields to commercial development, but growers on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation have been converting wheat fields to grass.
Since 1990, for example, growers within the reservation boundaries have added 4,837 acres of grass while Rathdrum Prairie growers have dropped 2,366 acres, according to a report prepared for the Idaho Smoke Management Board.
Fields are torched annually to rid them of pests and boost seed production. But a growing chorus of citizens, doctors and clean air activists charges that grass smoke is harmful.
Although the field-burning season begins next week, growers say the first fires probably won’t start until mid-August.
Grass-burning foes wonder if a state-mandated phaseout of the controversial practice in Washington will mean more grass fields and burning in Idaho.
Such shifts are happening everywhere across the country where urban areas meet farming areas, said Linda Clovis of the Intermountain Grass Growers Association.
“The reservation is a perfect place for grass,” she added. “But there are only so many acres available on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation.”
None of the grass seed on the reservation is raised by tribal members. It all is grown by people who lease land or by non-tribal members who own land within the reservation boundaries.
Francis SiJohn, who runs the tribe’s smoke-management program, says there’s no migration of Rathdrum Prairie or Spokane County farmers to the reservation. He says farmers have converted marginal wheat fields into grass fields. But he also says the conversion is almost complete. In addition, the tribe is preparing a 10-year plan for phasing out grass burning.
The increase in grass acreage doesn’t appear to have harmed air quality - in fact, “air quality probably has improved slightly over time,” said Dan Redline of the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality.
The number of complaints registered with the state agency has averaged around 900 over the last five years, perhaps indicating the public doesn’t perceive things are getting worse as more acreage comes on line.
Development pressure is expected to continue to push grass fields out of the picture. And it’s more lucrative for farmers to sell to developers than to continue fighting to grow grass and burn their fields, said Clovis.
But that doesn’t mean every acre is going to sprout houses and every farmer is going to retire rich. “Farmers on Rathdrum Prairie would never be allowed to develop all of it because it’s over the aquifer,” Clovis said.
And while farmers can change - raising different crops or selling out to developers - associated businesses don’t have such bright options.
“The farmers can change what they plant,” Clovis said. “But the processors can process only grass seed.”
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