Seed-field burning

Should burning be allowed on turf-seed fields?

Linda Clovis, executive director, Intermountain Grass Growers Association (Coeur D'Alene, Idaho)

In Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, about 90,000 acres of Kentucky bluegrass help combat global warming, acid rain, ground-water contamination and soil erosion. Many think it's easy to eliminate field burning without adversely affecting bluegrass farmers. That's not true. In many of this region's communities, where 90+ percent of the world's bluegrass grows, the grass industry is the largest employer. Growers contribute more than $125 million/year to this region's communities.

Others believe farmers can stop burning whenever they want; they just won't because the alternatives are expensive. But that's not true either. Farmers have sought burning alternatives since the '50s. Most grasses evolved under conditions where fires regularly occurred. The diseases and pests that plague grasses thrive without burning. Finding an artificial treatment has proven to be a difficult task.

Conservation districts encourage farmers to plant bluegrass on steep rocky slopes to build soil and prevent erosion. Burning, the only residue treatment possible on steep slopes, leaves grass roots intact. Roots hold the soil, helping maintain water quality. Washington State's Department of Ecology estimates soil erosion has decreased between 5 and 31 tons/acre because of Kentucky Bluegrass.

The biggest argument against Kentucky bluegrass is that field burning produces air pollution. But air-pollution data shows that eliminating burning won't noticeably decrease air-pollution levels. Bluegrass fields protect water quality, produce oxygen, remove carbon dioxide from the air, build soil and prevent erosion. It's a trade-off the farmers of the Pacific Northwest believe in.

Dr. Patricia Hoffman, president, Save Our Summers (Spokane, Wash.)

In a small town 45 miles from the nearest bluegrass field, Paul Vogel must find a way to raise his two small children alone. Last summer, Paul's athletic 37-year-old wife, Sharon, suffered a severe asthma attack shortly after grass smoke inundated their home. The grass industry "manages" smoke by directing it away from Spokane and toward hundreds of small communities like the Vogel's. Sharon died in her husband's arms.

For decades, area residents have complained bitterly about being forced to subsidize bluegrass industry profits with their health. Their concerns were vindicated in 1996 when Washington State University released a cost-benefit analysis, which concluded that the public health benefits of reducing grass smoke far outweigh the costs to industry to adopt alternatives.

In 1995, the medical community stepped forward. The Spokane Medical Society, the Washington Thoracic Society, the American Lung Association, the Washington State Department of Health, all area lung specialists and 320 physicians identified grass smoke as a health hazard and called for an end to burning.

The industry has alternatives. A top grass researcher has stated that bluegrass can be profitably grown under irrigation without burning. Until industry leaders adopt a moral and responsible no-burn policy, we ask those who make landscaping decisions to use the perennial ryes, bentgrasses and fescues that were once burned but no longer are. As a society, we pride ourselves on our compassion. No one should have to explain to a 2-year-old why his mother won't be coming home again.

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