by Pia K. Hansen

SAFE House

RATHDRUM, Idaho -- The Sandpoint-based anti-grass burning group Safe Air For Everyone (SAFE) has opened a permanent office in Rathdrum, in an effort to monitor the grass burning that takes place in the area.

"We see it as our mission to fully document which farmers are burning on any given day," says Patti Gora, SAFE's executive director. "We will be acting as a watchdog group to document the health-related effects of grass seed field burning on North Idaho residents and hold these growers accountable for the harm being caused."

SAFE is fighting to end grass burning because the group believes the smoke is a health hazard, especially for people who already have respiratory ailments such as asthma and allergies. Stubble burning in Washington was outlawed last year, largely because of the efforts of the grassroots group, Save Our Summers.

A recent lawsuit filed by SAFE in Federal District Court was turned down.

"We are going to appeal the judge's decision," says Gora. "In the meantime, we are mobilizing the more than 1,100 members of SAFE. It's obvious that we will not get any protection from the State of Idaho, the EPA or the judicial system."

Farmers say burning the plant residue left in the fields after a seed harvest is the only way to get rid of it and stimulate the plants into producing more seed the following year.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality now determines which days burning will be allowed.

SAFE is getting help from North Idaho pilots and photographers, who volunteer to find each burning grass field and take pictures of it.

"These people are ready to scramble at a moment's notice and chronicle what the growers are doing," says Gora. The information collected will be available 24-hours a day on the SAFE hotline: (208) 255-1370.

R-51 Gaining Speed

SPOKANE -- Referendum 51 has just landed the support of a number of transportation-oriented organizations, including the Inland Automobile Association.

If approved by voters this fall, R-5I would allocate $7.8 billion over the next 10 years to transportation projects across the state.

It would be paid for by an increase in the gas tax from the current rate of 23 cents per gallon up to 32 cents.

"If you drive 12,000 miles a year and get 24 miles per gallon, the tax increase will cost you $45 per year," says Lily Eng, spokesperson for Taxpayers For R-51. "The gas tax actually hasn't increased in more than 10 years."

The money would go to repair and construct roads across the state. Some revenue will also be distributed directly to cities and counties for road repair.

Using a gas tax increase as a way to fund transportation projects is often criticized by people here, on the east side of the state, as being more of a benefit to the west side.

"As far as distributing the money, some of the more costly projects are on the west side," says Eng. "But people should look at the transportation system as a statewide issue. If a truck making deliveries in Eastern Washington is stuck on the west side for hours, that hurts the east side as well."

Hands-On Nature

SPOKANE VALLEY -- The West Valley Outdoor Learning Center is holding a benefit this Saturday. The center is almost done, but it needs a little extra funding before it's completed.

"It started last year. It's a natural resource outdoor center, which is a West Valley School District project in conjunction with the Big Horn Foundation," says Jamey Layman, executive director of the Big Horn Foundation and the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council. "There's a double classroom here now, and the grounds have been done as an interpretive landscape with indigenous flora, ponds and a little creek running through it."

The center, which is located on Upriver Drive adjacent to Pasadena Elementary School, recently rescued a pair of injured Great Horned Owls, which are now being nursed back to health and may later be released into the wild.

"The plan is to make this center a model for other school districts," says Layman. "When it's done, there will be various ecosystems on the 3.5-acre lot, and it'll be opened to students from other school districts as well."

Local bands Vertigo Bliss, 10 Minutes Down, Creslis and Illusion 33 will perform at the benefit on Sunday, Aug. 18, beginning at 1 pm. Tickets: $4. The owls will be shown at 2 and 3:30 pm. Reservations must be made to see the owls. Call: 487-8552.

Krampus Fun for Everyone @ Hillyard Library

Sun., Dec. 11, 2-4 p.m.
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