Pacific Environment recently hosted a group of four Russian environmental activists for a really great exchange program which brought them to eastern Washington and northern Idaho to meet with a spectrum of groups that are in varying capacities involved in agricultural burning and wildfire management. Over ten packed days, we met with community advocacy groups, farmers, state air quality regulators, tribal smoke managers, and United States Forest Service fire specialists and smokejumpers.
For a little over a year, Pacific Environment has been supporting several pilot projects in Russia aimed at reducing agricultural burning in Siberia and the Far East through a combination of public outreach and education, fire-fighting, and policy advocacy. The four participants all represent these interesting projects, and traveled to the US to discuss with their counterparts strategies for expanding and replicating the successes these groups have seen in changing field burning practices.
Agricultural burning is widespread across Russia – commercial and subsistence farmers alike set fire to their fields in the spring and fall, as this is the quickest and cheapest way to get rid of stubble and extra straw. Control over the practice is poor to non-existent, and intentionally-set fires that accidentally escape field perimeters cause the majority of forest fires in Russia. In addition to public safety and forest conservation concerns, agricultural burning in Russia(pdf) has a considerable impact on global climate. These fires are significant contributors of black carbon, or soot, in the Arctic: smoke columns from massive burning in Siberia carry the carbon north, and where it eventually settles on Arctic ice, darkening the ice and lowering its reflective potential – causing the ice to melt faster. The pilot project efforts will hopefully result in considerable reductions of black carbon from agricultural burning in the Arctic.
Wheat farmers in eastern Washington State and northern Idaho also burn intensively after spring and fall harvests, and have for decades, but this practice is now very strictly regulated through a state-run permitting system, while bluegrass seed farmers may not burn at all. In the 1990s, the Washington and Idaho departments of ecology created the current burning regulations after a multi-stakeholder coalition led heated campaigns to ban wheat and grass straw burning because of the public health impact of the heavy smoke it sends into nearby communities. A decade of litigation and negotiations between state lawmakers, farmers associations, and communities produced field burning which favors public health over farmers’ frugality.
In Spokane, we met first with activists from Safe Air for Everyone/Save Our Summers, who led much of the local coalition-building and media efforts during the anti-burning campaign, and we were joined by one of the lawyers that helped argue the citizens’ case in court. Of greatest interest to the Russian guests were local organizing tactics and communications strategies. From here, we went to the Washington State Department of Ecology to learn about the state’s burning regulation system and the agency’s role as coordinator between all involved parties. The participants noted that the intensive coordination was time- and resource-intensive, but seemed to balance the goal of increasing burning safety with farmers’ needs.
We also met with the Air Quality Program managers at the Idaho State Department of Environmental Quality in Coeur d’Alene to learn about the state’s very similar burn permitting program and the agency’s work to balance environmental concerns and farmers’ residue management needs. The participants and agency staff talked in great detail about programs to train farmers in safe burning practices and monitoring protocols. In the following days we also visited staff from the Coeur D’Alene Tribe Air Quality Program and then the Nez Perce Tribe Air Quality Program; these agencies collaborate closely with WA and ID air quality managers to control smoke levels within the respective reservations and the shared regional airshed.
The clear priority of our hosts in WA and ID is to protect community health during agricultural burning seasons, while the Russian participants and their organizations are less concerned with this aspect – the majority of large-scale field fires in Russia occur in areas that aren’t very densely populated. It is the local organizing, strategic media outreach, and state agency-coordinated negotiations that effectively changed burning behavior here that were of greatest relevance for our guests.
Other interesting and useful meetings included a visit with an agricultural researcher (born and raised on a wheat farm) from the Washington State University Dryland Research Station, where he shared his findings on the impact of burning on soil health and wheat crop yield. As it turns out, burning is not as unambiguously beneficial, as wheat farmers in both countries attest – science-based arguments such as these will add further merit to the pilot projects’ campaigns to promote non-burning alternatives in crop residue management. A few of the alternatives offered are no-till farming or plowing stubble back into the soil, but hopefully farmers will soon be able to capitalize on their straw by turning it into an energy resource. The owners of Gady Farms and the director of their NGO FarmPower gave us a tour of their unique facility that converts grass straw into synthetic gas. This project is still in the research phase, but it has great potential to further reduce burning practices while offering a clean, renewable energy resource!
Our visit to the US Forest Service offices in Missoula, Montana were equally educational – experts in forest fire management and community fire safety answered participants’ questions on forest fuels management, inter-agency coordination, and positive incentives to stimulate public participation in fire prevention and community fire-safety programs. Afterwards, the Russian participants – all volunteer firefighters at home – met with USFS Smokejumper hotshot crew leaders to talk about suppression tactics and team managements, then were treated to a tour of the aircraft and heavy equipment hangers.
Since going back home, exchange participants have stayed in touch with several of the groups they met during the tour, sharing more detailed information about aspects of their respective work, and discussing potential for future advising or trainings.