For nearly a decade Idaho farmers and clean-air advocates battled over agricultural field burning.
Farmers maintain they need fire to manage crop residue, weeds, pests and disease. In the case of Kentucky bluegrass, farmers say the residue must be burned each year in non-irrigated areas to keep producing seed.
Clean-air advocates pointed to crop residue smoke as a serious health threat to people with respiratory illnesses. The Sandpoint-based group Safe Air For Everyone linked at least nine deaths to agricultural field burning and filed lawsuits that vaulted the issue into the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In January 2007, the federal court ruled that Idaho’s crop residue burn plan had been illegal since 1993.
Immediately, the state banned all agricultural burning outside of the state’s five Indian reservations.
Little did anyone suspect that such entrenched adversaries would ever be able to reach an accord that would satisfy both sides.
But one year ago, that’s exactly what happened.
“This is one shining light, a good story,” Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, chairman of the Idaho House Agriculture committee, said of an agreement that was finalized last summer.
“Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter took the bull by the horns and called all the parties together because it almost looked like an irresolvable situation at that time.
“They worked through four to five months of tense negotiations and everybody gave a little and then we passed three pieces of legislation a year ago. And one of the major changes was shifting the control and monitoring program to the (Department of Environmental Quality) from the (Idaho State Department of Agriculture). And that transition went very, very smoothly. Just last summer I think I only got one complaint and I’ve gotten nothing at all this year,” Trail said.
This spring Trail chaired a meeting of more than 20 people that included farmers, representatives of various farm organizations and the clean-air advocates, to review the program.
“And at the end of the meeting they all came up and said, ‘Job well done.’ We’re really looking forward to further collaboration to make sure the program continues to do as well as it is now.”
Trail said it’s likely the program will have to be tweaked from time to time. But, so far, everybody seems happy with the collaboration.
“I’m overjoyed,” said Patti Gora-McRavin of SAFE. Gora-McRavin, whose own son’s suffering from asthma when farm fields were burned prompted her activism, said the agreement is a victory for all citizens of Idaho.
“I am humbled by the efforts of ordinary Idaho citizens to come together to plead the case for the right to breathe clean air and for their willingness to come to the table and negotiate an agreement that looks to be working for everyone,” she said.
Although many whose farms were off the Nez Perce Indian Reservation tore out their bluegrass fields when the state imposed its burn ban, Brian Higgins, a grower and manager of Seeds Inc., in Nezperce, said it’s possible they will return to the crop now that they can burn again.
“I think it’s working pretty well,” Higgins said of the agreement. “We’ve gotten through this together. It’s been a learning process for all parties involved. We know what to expect. Nobody likes to be regulated, but we understand that’s the way it’s going to be.”