BOISE – Idaho’s state Department of Agriculture is taking public comments on whether there are economically viable alternatives to burning bluegrass fields in North Idaho.
The controversial practice – popular among farmers on the Rathdrum Prairie for bringing on another year’s bluegrass crop without reseeding but loathed by those downwind, typically in Bonner County – usually occurs in late summer. Under Idaho law, the state agriculture director can allow field-burning if he certifies there is no “economically viable alternative.”
This year, state lawmakers passed HB 33, over the objections of most of North Idaho’s legislative delegation, adding a new definition of “economically viable alternative” to the law. That definition says such an alternative must achieve the same agricultural effect and allow “growers to experience a financial rate of return over the short- and long-term” to match what they’d get with field-burning.
Backers of the bill, which Gov. Dirk Kempthorne has signed into law and which takes effect July 1, said it would free the state from repeated lawsuits over the determination. The Idaho Conservation League, American Lung Association of Idaho/Nevada and the Sandpoint-based Safe Air For Everyone have sued the state over the agriculture director’s determinations of the past two years, arguing they were “arbitrary and capricious.”
Brad Purdy, attorney for the three groups, said the new definition will “absolutely not” stop such lawsuits.
“The best way to get rid of litigation is for the department to do its job,” he said. “And that’s (to) come up with a well-reasoned, careful, thoughtful analysis of the respective costs and benefits, various options, and line them up side by side.”
Purdy said a similar cost-benefit analysis led Washington and Oregon to phase out grass field-burning, in part because of the public health costs of exposing people to the smoke.
Opponents of HB 33 argued it would discourage the search for alternatives to field-burning by ruling out anything even slightly more expensive for farmers.
State Agriculture Director Patrick Takasugi said in a news release that he’s accepting public comments either in writing or electronically through 5 p.m. on May 15. He is seeking documents pertaining to alternatives to burning “for the purpose of (1) disposing of crop residues, (2) developing physiological conditions conducive to increased crop yields, or (3) controlling diseases, insects, pests or weed infestations.”
Purdy said his clients submitted voluminous materials last year and the year before, but they were essentially ignored.
“God himself could come out of the heavens and say, ‘I hereby decree that there are alternatives,’ and the department has made it pretty clear that it’s going to find none,” he said. “That’s coming from a lawyer who’s litigated this twice now, and a client who feels like they’re kind of butting their head up against the wall.”
Two state district judges last month ruled against the groups that sued over the 2003 and 2004 determinations, but Purdy said the groups may appeal those rulings.
He added, “We encourage the department to do this in more of a good-faith manner and really take this stuff seriously and explain why the proof we submitted is of no value.”
Sherm Takatori, program manager for the department, said the comments are considered. “We go through every single one of ‘em,” he said.
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