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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Field-burning must change now

The Spokesman-Review

During Lewis and Clark’s excursion across the continent, they witnessed Plains Indians torching the prairie grass to assure it would grow back healthy.

Two centuries later, grass seed producers still use that method in the Idaho Panhandle. Two hundred years of progress and development have brought millions of people West, introduced automobiles and jet planes, skyscrapers and computers, television and DVD players – not to mention automated sprinkler systems that make life so convenient for suburbanites to care for their lush lawns.

But progress hasn’t been as dramatic for the seed growers, who still rely on ancient practices to get rid of residual straw and to kill pests when summer is over. By the farmers’ reckoning, field-burning remains the most efficient way to manage their crops. And the most profitable.

That’s what they used to say in Oregon and Washington, too. Those states, however, have taken responsible steps to curtail field burning. They did so after considering some of the social costs that don’t show up on the grass growers’ ledgers but do have a conspicuous impact on the quality of life for the broader community that inhales the particulates produced by burning.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is encouraging the state of Idaho to take a more responsible approach too. EPA wants state officials to take more than growers’ profits into account when making its regulatory decisions.

Specifically, EPA thinks Idaho should conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the burning practice – an analysis that factors in the damage done to late-summer tourism by the thick brown haze, the serious health impacts suffered by people with respiratory difficulties, the time lost at work and in school on account of smoke-related illness. Such an analysis would determine if growers’ reduced profits are offset from a public standpoint by those other considerations.

Unlike Oregon and Washington, however, Idaho’s Legislature has shown little interest in encouraging growers to find other methods of dealing with their residual straw at the end of the season. Earlier this year, lawmakers seriously considered a proposal to require that any alternative to field burning must be at least as profitable, thus leaving Idaho growers with no incentive to think of the broader community.

State officials have stubbornly refused even to hold public hearings in Sandpoint, the North Idaho community that feels the brunt of the smoke because the minimal controls that Idaho does impose encourage burning only when winds will blow the smoke away – toward Sandpoint.

In the background, pending lawsuits over adverse health impacts may eventually force Idaho lawmakers to adjust their thinking – much the way a multi-fatality traffic pileup on a smoke-blanketed freeway gripped Oregon’s attention in 1988.

Growers say they can’t change their ways abruptly. Grass-seed growing is a long-term affair and requires planning. After 200 years, there’s been plenty of time for planning. Change should start now with the kind of cost-benefit analysis EPA is proposing.

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