Utah's wicked wildfire season last year, combined with wildfires in other Western states, made a major impact on the health of people breathing air in rural areas muddled with related smoke and particulate matter, state Division of Air Quality director Cheryl Heying told a federal task force Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Air Quality Task Force is meeting this week in Salt Lake City to talk about impacts the agriculture industry has on air quality.

The meetings will result in recommendations on air quality issues to the chief of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. Ultimately, the federal Environmental Protection Agency may develop air quality policies based on the task force's findings.

"You don't think that the fires in Southern California are affecting our health," Heying said in an interview.

But they did, and that ups the ante for state and federal air quality regulators and land managers as they plan for the future.

"This is not just an urban problem," the National Park Service's Kara Paintner said. "When you have smoke, you have a public health impact."

No one knows for certain what's in store for the 2008 wildfire season, but the Utah Department of Agriculture & Food announced this week it is now accepting grant applications for projects intended to reduce the size and frequency of wildland fires.

Up to $2 million is available as part of the new Invasive Species Mitigation Fund. Applicants will approach the state with projects targeting eradication of invasive species — and wildfire fuels — such as cheatgrass. Whether a project is approved for funding will depend in part upon its "potential to prevent air pollution."

Potential applicants include fifth-generation rancher Darrell Johnson, who uses prescribed burns on some of his 8,000 acres of deeded and leased land where he runs a cow-calf operation in Tooele County.

"For us fire has been a very helpful management tool, and we hope to continue to use it in the future," Johnson told the task force.

While Johnson coordinates with county officials on his prescribed burns, Heying works with other state and federal agencies to make sure everyone isn't burning at the same time and that conditions are right for a burn. Paintner outlined a similar approach that takes place on federal land affected by fire, adding how relationships between agencies are almost as important as regulations on air quality.

The task force's Internal Combustion Engine and Alternative Fuels subcommittee, meeting Wednesday, will consider sending a recommendation to the USDA urging it to lead a national effort to educate farmers on how to produce biofuel crops "in a manner that reduces air and greenhouse gas emissions." A more detailed document in front of the task force looks at strategies to reduce tillage and to improve fertilizers used and fuel use efficiency.

Task force members also learned about a federal grant that will go toward monitoring the air quality around an egg-laying operation in Cache County involving around 1 million chickens. Two years ago the EPA announced that certain animal feeding operations, including 204 egg-laying operations, were going to start voluntarily taking part in studying their air emissions. The EPA is concerned about the amount of particulate and ammonia egg producers emit into the air.

For more information on the federal Air Quality Task Force, visit the Web site www.airquality.nrcs.usda.gov/AAQTF.

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