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Smoke Signals 

by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & ith a surprise ban on field burning in Idaho this year after a federal court ruling, attention has turned to the state's Indian reservations and the question of whether burning should continue there.

Two-dozen people ranging from farmers to physicians testified before the Coeur d'Alene Tribal Council March 21 on the practice of farmers burning off the stubble in Kentucky bluegrass fields to prepare the stand for the next year's seed crop.

Small particulate matter carried in the smoke from burning fields can lodge deep in the lungs, creating serious health risks and not just irritation, testified Dr. Scott Burgstahler of Sandpoint. Burgstahler and other local physicians, responding to at least one death attributed to field smoke as well as health effects seen in their patients, organized the group SAFE (Safe Air For Everyone) in 2001.

Farmers and researchers from the University of Idaho testified that bluegrass has significant environmental benefits. The perennial plants help keep the area's erosion-prone soil in place, reducing airborne dust and, especially, sedimentation of streams. Growing perennial crops such as bluegrass is considered a best management practice by the tribe's water resources program.

The Coeur d'Alene Tribe in 1997 passed a resolution to stop burning on the reservation within 10 years, but there are reasons why a phase out may not happen.

North Idaho provides half of the nation's grass seed and the crop is a profitable one for tribal members who rent their land to bluegrass farmers. There are 19,500 acres of bluegrass on the Coeur d'Alene Reservation -- nearly 15 percent of all farmland on the rez.

Burning is also an issue on the Nez Perce reservation. Tribal chairwoman Rebecca Miles addressed the issue Sunday in a guest editorial in the Lewiston Tribune, after the paper called for the tribe to end field burning as a way to uphold its commendable record of environmental stewardship. Miles, the tribal chair, countered that the reservation's smoke management plan -- essentially the federal Clean Air Act administered by the tribe -- is the best tool to balance the array of environmental concerns.

The Coeur d'Alene Tribal Council is still accepting comments through Friday, March 30. The tribe has requested a meeting with staffers from the federal Environmental Protection Agency in Plummer April 5. A decision on field burning is expected sometime in April.

E-mail comments to Boom George at [email protected] by March 30.
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