Friday, February 05, 2016

Study: Mountaintop-removal coal mining has made parts of Central Appalachia 60 percent flatter

Mountaintop removal over the past 40 years has made parts of Central Appalachia 60 percent flatter than before the process began, says a study by Duke University published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. Researchers, who say this is the first study "to examine the regional impact of mountaintop mines on landscape topography and how the changes might influence water quality," compared pre- and post-mining topographic data in southern West Virginia.

 Headwaters of Twentymile Creek before and after mining;
the greener an area is, the flatter it is (Duke Univ. maps)
"By comparing digitized topographic maps from West Virginia before mountaintop mining became extensive with elevation data collected by aircraft in 2010, the researchers found that the mines and valley fills could range anywhere from 10 to 200 meters deep," Kara Manke reports for Duke Today. "Across the region, the average slope of the land dropped by more than 10 degrees post-mining."

Emily Bernhardt, a professor of biology at Duke and co-author of the study, told Manke, “We tend to measure the impact of human activity based on the area it affects on a map, but mountaintop mining is penetrating much more deeply into the earth than other land use in the region like forestry, agriculture or urbanization. The depth of these impacts is changing the way the geology, water, and vegetation interact in fundamental ways that are likely to persist far longer than other forms of land use.” (Read more)

Many Walmart closings are in poor, rural areas; reporter examines impact on one Appalachian town

Walmart's announcement last month that it will close 154 stores will have the greatest impact on poor rural areas, Tim Meko and Lydia DePillis report for The Washington Post. Of the 154 stores closing 96 are in low-income, low-density and predominately rural areas, mostly in the Southeast. Of those 96 stores, 88 are Walmart Express stores, which were created as "part of a pilot program intended to compete with dollar stores." (Post map: Stores closing in mainly low-income, low-density rural areas)

Losing a Walmart could be lethal for some towns that are barely holding on, DePillis writes in another story for the Post. Residents of Kimball, W.Va., which is already reeling from the loss of mining jobs, fear that losing its Walmart could be the end of the town. "In Raymondville, Texas, the disappearance of tax income from Walmart could force city layoffs. In Oriental, N.C. the arrival of a Walmart Express had been the final straw for a local grocery store, leaving the community with few options for food—also the case in Juneau, Alaska; Fairfield, Ala.; and Winnsboro, S.C."

While Walmart officials cite financial performance as the primary factor in closing stores, an analysis by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that 89 percent of stores to be closed are "in states with higher-than-average square footage per capita. According to Walmart itself, 95 percent of the closures are within 10 miles of another Walmart." That suggests the company overbuilt, perhaps in areas that have stagnant or declining population.

Walmart, the largest private employer in West Virginia, in 2005 transformed a former K-mart in Kimball (Best Places map) into a Walmart "to fill a gap between two other towns both about an hour’s drive away," DePillis writes. "It did so — but in January the massive retailer announced its 'sharpened focus on portfolio management' and the revenue in Kimball wasn’t quite enough to sustain the location, according to McDowell County Commission chairman Harold McBride."

"The company didn’t get what it wanted in profits," DePillis reports. "But the store certainly met many needs of the community. Some are obvious: A second option for shoppers who wanted fresh, affordable food in a place with only one other full-service grocer. And jobs—140 of them that will be difficult to replace. But Walmart’s disappearance will have more subtle ripple effects, like a drop in traffic to the small neighboring hotel and gas station, and the loss of a place to buy phone cards and hire tax preparation help. It was the main donor to the local food bank, and contributed $65,000 annually in taxes to the county, most of which goes to the school district."

Great Backyard Bird Count scheduled Feb. 12-15

The annual Great Backyard Bird Count is scheduled from Feb. 12-15. Created in 1998 by the ornthology lab at Cornell University in upstate New York and the National Audubon Society, the event asks people to take 15 minutes on one or more days to count birds from any location and create a checklist of the birds they spot. Last year more than 147,000 checklists were created from more than 100 countries, consisting of 5,090 species of birds. Participants are also encouraged to download photos of birds to the GBBC website. There is also a photo contest. (2015 GBBC photo of a red-tailed hawk, taken by Peter Ferguson)

The event can also serve scientific purposes, says its website. It "will help scientists track changes in bird distribution, some of which may be traced to El Niño storms and unusual weather patterns." Marshall Iliff, of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said: "The most recent big El Niño took place during the winter of 1997-98. The GBBC was launched in February 1998 and was pretty small at first. This will be the first time we’ll have tens of thousands of people doing the count during a whopper El Niño.”

Most states saw economic growth at end of 2015; historically low oil prices hurt other states

While most states enjoyed a strong economic finish to 2015, a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that seven states—North Dakota, Wyoming, Wisconsin, Illinois, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alaska—are doing a little worse than everyone else, Ana Swanson reports for The Washington Post. The state coincident index, "which measures things like employment, hours worked in manufacturing and the unemployment rate to create an estimate of how economic growth has changed for each state over the past three months," found that in those seven states the economy is shrinking.

Historically low oil prices have affected the economies of North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, Mississippi and Louisiana, Swanson writes. "The price of a barrel of Brent crude has fallen from over $100 in mid-2015 to less than $35 today." Fiscal issues and sluggish performance of some manufacturing industries has hurt Wisconsin and Illinois.

While those seven states have struggled, 41 states have seen their economies grow, Swanson writes. "The states with the strongest growth—over 1 percent in the three-month period, according to the estimates—include Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Georgia, West Virginia, New Jersey and Maine. Michigan and Oklahoma weren't faring too well either at the end of 2015—the Philadelphia Fed's data shows that their economic growth was unchanged from three months before." (Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia map)

Rural remote Alaskan towns struggling with federal laws that make transporting legalized pot illegal

Regulations that "create a new licensing process for businesses that could grow, test and sell pot" in Alaska that go into effect Feb. 21 could pose problems in rural remote areas, where federal regulations make it illegal to transport marijuana by commercial airlines, state ferry or some other transport, Joe Viechnicki reports for KFSK 100.9 radio in Petersburg (Best Places map). That has some worried that "hurdles for new pot businesses will be too difficult and local marijuana sales will remain underground and off the books."

Kevin Clark, chair of a subcommittee of Petersburg’s marijuana regulation advisory committee, told  Viechnicki, “The one thing that is really going to make it more difficult for locally is the testing, having to ship it out to be tested when you can’t ship it out. And then building a testing facility here that would be prohibitively expensive, considering the kind of volume you’d have to generate in order to justify it.”

Cynthia Franklin, director of the state’s marijuana control board, told Viechnicki: "I believe that people will be able to transport marijuana around this state, licensee to licensee, with a transportation manifest from the seed to sell software system and all of the requirements that are required in the regulations. But what everyone seems to be forgetting is the entire operation is prohibited by federal law. In other words, growing marijuana is prohibited by federal law, testing marijuana is prohibited by federal law, everything about this activity is prohibited by federal law. Marijuana is a schedule one controlled substance on the federal controlled substances act.” She said it all comes down to what laws the federal government will enforce. (Read more)

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Okla. schools post signs: staff are armed and will use 'whatever force is necessary' to save students

A rural school district in Oklahoma this week posted four signs with the warning “Please be aware that certain staff members at Okay Public Schools can be legally armed and may use whatever force is necessary to protect our students,” Rhett Morgan reports for the Tulsa World. Superintendent Charles McMahan told Morgan, "Having a sign in your front yard saying ‘this is a gun-free zone’ just tells the idiots, 'come on in,' because we can’t defend ourselves. (Okay’s) sign might be enough to send somebody down the road looking for some other soft target. If that’s what it does, it’s helping our school district out.” The school district, which has about 500 students in K-12, is located about 50 miles east of Tulsa. (Muskogee Phoenix photo by Harrison Grimwood)

An Oklahoma bill was signed into law in May that "created the Special Reserve School Resource Officer Act, allowing certain people to carry handguns on public school property," Morgan writes. In August, Okay's school board approved a policy that "states that administrators who meet criteria set out by the state and school board may bring to campus a gun concealed on their person or kept in a locked box."

Okay is located about seven miles from Fort Gibson, where a 1999 middle-school shooting resulted in five students being wounded, Harrison Grimwood notes for the Muskogee Phoenix. "According to Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, a gun violence research group, there were about 65 school shootings—some with injuries, some without, some intentional, some unintentional—in 2015."

Teacher, students turn to technology to save rural Alaska schools from proposed state budget cuts

A teacher in the small town of Twin Hills, Alaska (Wikipedia map) has turned to technology to try to save the state's rural isolated schools from proposed budget cuts that could force some schools to close, Austin Baird reports for KTUU-TV in Anchorage. Republican state Rep. Lynn Gattis of Wasilla, 40 minutes north of Anchorage, "set off a firestorm last fall when she suggested that cutting funds for small, rural schools could be part of the solution to the state's nearly $4 billion budget deficit." Gattis oversees the education budget for the House Finance Committee.

"Lawmakers from both parties, school advocates, and many rural residents are part of the chorus of critics that have spoken out against raising the minimum enrollment for a school to receive state funds from 10, to 20 or 25," reports Baird. "Many have questioned whether a projected savings of $7 million is worth the impact to villages."

Meghan Redmond, a teacher at the K-8 school in Twin Hills, a Bristol Bay community of fewer than 100 residents, started a Facebook page as part of an online movement "to show policy makers who exactly would be impacted if Gattis' proposal gains traction and eventually becomes law," Baird reports. Remond told him, "We didn't want a bill to come about or to pass without a lot of conversation, without a lot of input from as many sources as possible."

As part of a state program—Alaska Close Up—that gives students a chance to see how government works, Redmond and five students have been at the state Capitol in Juneau this week to bend Gattis' ear about the importance of rural schools to local communities, Baird reports. Redmond met with Gattis, giving her letters from students expressing concern that their school could be closed, forcing them to move.

Gattis "said it remains important to keep talking about the possibility of closing small schools in broader talks of cutting the budget in general and school spending in particular," Baird reports. She told Baird, "We wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't look at it. Many of our villages are losing students. So what do we do as a state as we continue down that trail?" 

Supporters of bill to expand rural broadband in Tennessee tell lawmakers to stop listening to AT&T

Advocates for a rural broadband bill in Tennessee that would allow "municipal electric power services to expand their lightning-fast Internet offerings to underserved areas" are demanding that state lawmakers stop being influenced by for-profit telephone and cable giants, Andy Sher reports for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The bill is opposed by AT&T, Comcast and other providers, "who say it's unfair for them to have to compete with government entities like" the Chattanooga Electric Power Board.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) told supporters at the state Capitol, "We're talking about AT&T. They're the most powerful lobbying organization in this state by far. Don't fall for the argument that this is a free-market-versus-government battle. It is not. AT&T is the villain here, and so are the other people and cable." Supporters of the bill say "AT&T in Tennessee received $156 million from an Obama administration program aimed at expanding access to broadband," while opposing governmental entities like EPB expanding beyond their normal service areas to offer broadband.

House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) told National Federation of Independent Business-Tennessee members this week that "she doesn't expect the General Assembly will take up the issue this year after Gov. Bill Haslam's economic development officials announced they were initiating a study," Sher writes. "But the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Kevin Brooks (R-Cleveland) said he is 'absolutely' pressing forward with the bill. It has been put on notice to be heard in March in House subcommittee." Brooks told Sher, "There was a misconception that the broadband bill was dead. The bill is not dead." (Read more)

Writer attends first presidential caucus, details Iowa Democrats' complicated process

Julianne Couch, an author who has written about the rural Midwest, decided to attend her first presidential caucus to find out exactly how a caucus works. Couch, a Hillary Clinton supporter, participated in the Democratic caucus in rural Jackson County, Iowa, writing about her experience for the Daily Yonder.

"Caucusing always sounded like a strange way to spend a Monday night in February," Couch writes. "Especially the way the Democrats do it in Iowa. You mean you want me to go and literally stand under a sign with my candidate’s name on it and be counted? You mean if the person whose name I stand under isn’t viable enough to earn a delegate, I’ll be worked over until I go stand under the sign of a more popular candidate? I was nervous."

"The first order of the voting portion of the evening was for each group to count itself," Couch writes. "Our Hillary for Iowa coordinator was a young man from Connecticut who’d deployed to Jackson County last spring. He had us all raise our hands and as he counted aloud, and once we were counted, we lowered our hands. Team Bernie did something similar though they did not have an official campaign organizer present. After the first count, Hillary had 72 supporters and Bernie had 66. As I recall, there were two undecided and four for (Martin) O’Malley, not close to the 21 he needed to be viable." (CNN map; To view an interactive version click here)
"That meant it was time for the realignment process," she writes. "This is something that does not happen in the Iowa Republican caucus format in which secret ballots are cast. To start the process, three individuals approached the mic in turn, and spoke briefly for their candidate. The man who spoke for Bernie knew both the candidate and his wife, and judged them to be excellent and worthy, smart and caring. The second man spoke for Hillary and explained that when his wife had cancer, they were grateful for affordable health care and they didn’t want 'Obamacare' to be dismantled. The third man said he supported O’Malley because O’Malley understood that we are a nation of immigrants and was not 'angry.' When that speaker said that as a Democrat he’d support any of the three, that was the applause line of the night."

"After those public affirmations it was time for the O’Malley supporters and undecideds to realign," she writes. "As Preferences Captain, it was my job to be sure none of the Hillary supporters drifted away to Bernie’s end of the bleachers. I thought of myself as the border collie, keeping everyone rounded up. On the other hand, it was the Persuasion Captain’s job to be the bulldog, I’d assumed, although it was not bullying that took place. Folks just moseyed over to the undecided/unviable area and visited. The woman member of the undecided couple soon strode past the Hillary area straight to the Bernie section, where she was greeted with cheers. Then a few O’Malley supporters drifted to the Hillary area, and we cheered. This took as long as it took, until everyone picked themselves a team."

"After realignment, another round of `counting revealed that Hillary had 76 supporters, and Bernie 68," she writes. "But it was then time for 'caucus math' which precludes delegates being split in half but has no problem rounding them up or down. In the end, after a caucus process that took a little more than an hour, the top two candidates were declared to have tied. Each will have four of our precinct’s eight delegates at the county convention in March."

Senate panel hears state of Plains Indians health care is 'unacceptable' and 'malpractice'

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs heard Wednesday that Indian Health Service hospitals that serve the Plains Indians in the Dakotas Nebraska and Iowa have more than "250 vacancies for healthcare professionals and a physician vacancy rate of 37 percent," David Rogers reports for Politico. "Despite promised reforms, three Indian Health Service hospitals in the four-state region are listed as seriously deficient by inspectors from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services—leading to the sudden pre-Christmas closing of a critical emergency room facility in South Dakota."

The hearing "followed on a Republican-led staff investigation begun last summer amid new complaints from tribal members," Rogers writes. Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a surgeon, said, “What we found is simply horrifying and unacceptable. In my view the information provided to this committee and witnessed first-hand can be summed up in one word: malpractice.” (U.S. Health and Human Services Department map)
One problem is that "the same Senate panel had hit hard on the very same issue in 2010, when Democrats controlled the chamber," Rogers writes. "Barrasso invited back former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who led the 2010 investigation, as his lead witness. Dorgan said the agency is seriously underfunded by about half but also suffers from a 'split personality' that undercuts its ability to be effective." He said, “There are some really great people, people who care, who signed up and commit their lives to the Indian Health Service to deliver good health care. And then I see something else. I see the weaving of friendships and favors, relatives, incompetence, corruption and yes, even criminal behavior. And it has all too often—and continues to be in my judgment—been overlooked, excused and denied. And that cannot continue.”

Another problem is that the tribes in the rural, isolated Great Plains "are among the poorest in the nation and so more vulnerable to health problems," making it hard to attract medical professionals to the area, Rogers writes.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Journalists should avoid false balance; fact vs. opinion skews Flint water crisis coverage

Tara Haelle
Journalists have a responsibility to report balanced stories, writes Tara Haelle, medical studies core topic leader for the Association of Health Care Journalists. "It is a journalist’s job to objectively and fairly represent the various perspectives on an issue, and it’s a journalist’s responsibility to report facts to represent an issue as accurately as possible."

A recent example of facts versus opinions affecting a story has been the ongoing crisis of high lead levels in water in Flint, Mich., she writes. While Gov. Rick Snyder has declared a state of emergency and Environmental Protection Agency studies have documented high levels of lead in water, Bill Ballenger, a well-known Republican political analyst, former state lawmaker and Flint resident, suggested on his radio show "that the crisis is an overreaction or even a hoax because his own blood levels don’t test high for lead. Subsequently, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said, 'Let’s wait and see what the facts show,' according to the Detroit Free Press."

"Ballenger and Patterson are entitled to think Flint’s water is just fine," Haelle writes. "They’re even entitled to say it, just as anyone can claim the Earth is flat, the moon landing didn’t happen, the sun circles the Earth and cavemen rode dinosaurs. But the facts reveal a real crisis that every other politician inside and outside Michigan is taking seriously. Writing about them with any bit of credibility is a case of classic false balance: using outliers’ voices to state opinions that contradict the facts simply to provide 'balance' to a story. Ballenger and Patterson aren’t the underdogs being ignored by the powers that be. They ARE the powers that be. The underdogs are the thousands of children who will suffer lifelong consequences of lead exposure."

"A balanced story would include an explanation of the lead levels and people affected by them," she writes. "It would include a full version of what facts the rest of the media is getting wrong, as this outstanding Vox piece by Flint resident Connor Coyne explains. Politicians claiming there isn’t a problem would, in a factually balanced story, be appropriately cast as ignoring (or covering up) repeated lead levels tests, as was the case in this excellent three-part series from Michigan Public Radio."

"Unfortunately, this phenomenon happens in health reporting, especially in stories about vaccines," she writes. "We see it mostly in smaller markets or in stories by general assignment reporters who are less familiar with the health or science beat. The way the media’s falsely balanced vaccine reporting damaged public health reporting (and consequently public health) is such a well-worn case study that the Columbia Journalism Review featured outstanding coverage of it in Curtis Brainard’s 'Sticking with the Truth.'

"Avoiding false balance doesn’t mean journalists take off their skeptical hat in covering these issues—it’s worth exploring whether the Flint crisis is overblown or what a new study might suggest regarding a risk to a vaccine we haven’t seen before," she writes. "But they should only report scientifically outlier positions if solid evidence supports it, not just because someone is shouting it from their own tiny molehill." (Read more)

Campaigns move to politically diverse and more rural N.H., where parties differ on state of U.S.

After the Iowa caucuses, the presidential race has shifted to Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, one of the nation's most rural, least populated and most politically diverse states, Kit Seelye reports for The New York Times. New Hampshire's population in the 2010 census was 40 percent rural (Iowa was 35 percent and the national figure was 16 percent) also has the third oldest population, with a median age of 41.8. Between 2000 and 2010, more than 10 percent of Granite State residents 20-29 left the state.

New Hampshire Democrats and Republicans agree on very little, Seelye writes. "Polls show that 66 percent of New Hampshire Democrats believe the country is on the right track, but only 5 percent of Republicans agree. Much of the Republican dissatisfaction stems from disapproval of President Obama, his overhaul of the health care system and his support for gun control."

"Andrew E. Smith, a political scientist and pollster at the University of New Hampshire, said that voters’ mixed feelings reflected in part their generally positive views of their own lives and their more negative views of the country as a whole; 61 percent of New Hampshire voters say the state is headed in the right direction, but only 35 percent say the same about the country," Seelye reports.

The two parties also disagree on the most important issues facing the state, Seelye writes. "Since the terrorist attacks last fall in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., Republicans have rated national security at the top, with 34 percent citing it as their priority; next are the economy at 26 percent and immigration at 11 percent. Among Democrats, 26 percent rate the economy as the top issue, while 13 percent say national security is. Some of the angst over the economy stems from a recognition that the state’s boom times are over."

"Even as major corporations like FedEx, UPS and Pratt & Whitney expand here, job growth over all has slowed and in some regions has yet to return to pre-recession levels," Seelye writes. "The cost of living can be relatively high, especially in the suburbs near the Massachusetts border. New Hampshire’s minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour, the lowest in New England; attempts to raise it have gone nowhere."

Another problem is a rising heroin epidemic, Seelye writes. New Hampshire "had an estimated 399 opioid overdose deaths in 2015, a 22 percent increase over the year before. In a survey last fall, 25 percent of voters said the heroin epidemic was the most important issue confronting the state, ahead of the economy."

While Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won in Iowa, all the New Hampshire primary presidential polls have businessman Donald Trump leading by at least 15 percent, according to RealClearPolitics. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who narrowly lost in Iowa to Democrat Hillary Clinton, leads all the polls by anywhere from 6 to 29 percent.

Michigan lawmakers propose raising rural highway speed limits to 75 mph; critics cite safety concerns

Speed limits on Michigan's 600 miles of rural highways could soon be raised to 75 or 80 mph, Emily Lawler reports for MLive Media Group. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Tuesday approved a package that includes raising speed limits to 75 mph on most rural highways and eventually raising limits to 80 mph on ones where it's deemed feasible and safe. (MLive photo: Current speed limits in Michigan)

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Bradford Jacobsen (R-Oxford), who sponsored a similar package in 2014, told Lawler, "Most expressways are designed for 5 over, if you would, so they're designed at 75 miles per hour. ... While this legislation specifically calls for raising speed limits on certain freeways to 75 mph, we included provisions that also allows for the studying of raising the speed limit to 80 mph in the future."

Critics say raising speed limits on rural roads is dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists, Lawler writes. Nancy Krupiarz, executive director of the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance, "said many of these rural roads in context are carrying pedestrians and bicyclists and sometimes connecting them to trails." Krupiarz told Lawler, "People can come flying over these hills and around these curves and it could be a very perilous journey." (Read more)

Texas Tech program pairs law students with poor rural clients who are unable to afford an attorney

A program at Texas Tech University sends law students to poor rural areas to help students gain valuable court experience while helping rural residents get the representation they sorely need but can't afford, Josie Musico reports for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. "Texas Tech School of Law’s Caprock Regional Public Defender Office sends third-year students to try or plea-bargain criminal cases in a dozen or so rural counties. Clients have been ruled indigent, or lacking funds to pay for a private attorney." (Musico photo: Texas Tech law faculty member Donnie Yandell reviews a case with third-year student Sydne Collier)

"The program is funded through a grant from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission," Musico writes. "It bills participating counties significantly less than what those counties would have to pay practicing attorneys to work as public defenders."

The student lawyers, who have permission do everything a lawyer does except talk to the judge without a supervising attorney, typically represent clients "charged with misdemeanors and low-level felonies," Musico writes. Steven Chapa, a student participant, told Musico, “I like the fact that I get to help people, and at the same time it’s gonna help me when I open up my law firm." (Read more)

Summer seminar for teachers will focus on Appalachian culture, literature, art and music

Public school teachers from across the country can have the opportunity to travel to the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia to learn about Appalachian culture, literature, art and music during the NEH Summer Seminar for Teachers hosted by Shepherd University’s Appalachian Studies Program. The July 10-30 seminar will be held on the campus in Shepherdstown and will feature road trips to area attractions.

Guest artists include novelist and playwright Silas House, poet and activist Frank X Walker, storyteller and award-winning “liar” Adam Booth and Contemporary American Theater director Ed Herendeen. Rachael Meads, performing arts director at Shepherd, will conduct musical and cultural events and 2006 West Virginia Professor of the Year Dr. Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt will serve as principal discussion leader and seminar director. Participants will study the literary art of Lee Smith, Denise Giardina, Fred Chappell, Ron Rash, and Nikki Giovanni, as well as the work of House and Walker. The deadline to apply is March 1. For more information click here.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Rural voters helped Cruz take Iowa, despite his opposition to law that supports ethanol

Washington Post graphic (Click on image for larger version)
An aggressive campaign by supporters of ethanol to sway Iowa Republicans from voting for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz wasn't enough to keep rural residents from supporting him in the first presidential caucuses Monday night, reports Chris Clayton of DTN The Progressive Farmer. Unofficial results had Cruz winning with 27.7 percent of the votes, beating out businessman Donald Trump (24.3 percent) and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (23.1 percent).

Cruz did even better at rural caucus sites, earned 33 percent of their votes, compared to 27 percent for Trump and 17 percent for Rubio, reports The Washington Post. "It was a solid blue-ribbon farm-country showing, given the crowded Republican slate. It also helped Cruz that increased turnout across the state brought even more voters to the rural caucuses," said the stiry by Ted Mellnik, Dan Keating, Kevin Schaul, Denise Lu and Samuel Granados.

A record number of voters went to the caucuses, with Cruz garnering 51,649 votes, 6,233 more than Trump. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton led Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders with 49.9 percent to 49.6 percent of delegates. "Her 3-point lead over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in rural was just enough to give the former secretary of state a slim statewide advantage," Tim Marema and Bill Bishop report for the Daily Yonder.

Cruz, the only Republican candidate who has opposed the Renewable Fuels Standard that supports ethanol production, drew opposition from Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and a super PAC headed by Branstad's son, but it wasn't enough to keep rural voters from supporting the candidate who opposes many federal spending programs and subsidies. Cruz visited all 99 Iowa counties, Clayton notes.

Hospital Strength Index's identifies vulnerable rural hospitals by state; 210 'most vulnerable'

RURAL HOSPITAL CLOSINGS
(iVantage Health Analytics chart)
The Hospital Strength Index released this week by iVantage Health Analytics includes state-level data on the number of vulnerable rural hospitals in each state, as well as the number of critical-access rural hospitals and data on how many health-care and community jobs the hospitals provide and the number of patient encounters.

From 2010 to Jan. 25 of this year, 66 rural hospitals have closed, and 673 are vulnerable to closing, with 210 considered most vulnerable, according to the index. The 673 hospitals are responsible for 99,000 direct jobs, 137,000 community jobs and 11.7 million patient encounters. (An screenshot of the interactive map appears below, showing that 42 rural hospitals in Mississippi are vulnerable. To view the interactive map click here.)

Asian carp would hurt Lake Erie than any other Great Lake, and they may have a way to get there

A study published in the journal of the American Fisheries Society found that if Asian carp invaded Lake Erie they "would disrupt the food web and decimate native species like walleye," Kevin Duffy reports for the Great Lakes Echo, a project of the journalism department at Michigan State University. "Invasive silver and bighead carp are already abundant in nearby Great Lakes watersheds. They devour microscopic plants called phytoplankton and animals called zooplankton, the first food of popular fish like walleye and Chinook salmon."

While a $300 million dollar federal effort has kept invasive carp out of the Great Lakes, it appears stymied. Almost all the effort has focused in canals in and near Chicago, but researchers also worry that during floods carp could cross a marshy divide between the Lake Erie watershed and the Wabash River, part of the Mississippi River watershed, where Asian carp have been found, Duffy reports. (To view a larger version of the map below, click on it)
If the species enter the lake, “One-third of Lake Erie’s total biomass would be Asian carp,” Duffy reports, noting that the lake is the shallowest of the Great Lakes and "also the most productive, meaning a constant influx of nutrients like phosphorous promote plankton growth—and harmful algal blooms." That means Asian carp would likely be more abundant in Lake Erie than in any other of the Great Lakes and "even during a massive algal bloom, silver carp would thrive, targeting and feeding on surface water algae but not suppressing it," said fisheries biologist and co-author Ed Rutherford.

Rutherford said "silver and bighead carp would wreak havoc on the current ecosystem," Duffy writes. Invasive carp could reach 34 percent of the total fish weight, twice the size as gizzard shad, the lake's most common plankton-eating fish. Asian carp would lead to sharp declines in shad and other fish that eat zooplankton and algae "as the carp ate up much of their food. ­And the impact cascades. These fish, including alewife and shiner, are important food for gamefish like walleye and perch. The model suggests carp could force more than a 10-percent decline in walleye and as much as a 15-percent decline in burbot and rainbow trout."

Reporters struggle with balancing their professional and personal identities on social media, study says

Can journalists separate their professional and personal identities on social media? That was one of the questions researchers from the University of Utah and Temple University examined as part of a research paper, “Identity Lost? The Personal Impact of Brand Journalism," published in Journalism, an international, peer-reviewed journal. Researchers wrote: "If journalists choose to present too much of a personal identity, they risk punishment by their employers," the researchers write. "If they present only a professional identity, they risk offending their audiences."

The study found that reporters "are increasingly focusing their attention on developing their professional identities on social media rather than their personal identities," Denise-Marie Ordway reports for Journalist's Resource. Researchers say "reporters have been asked to make changes to the way they present themselves and their content on social media, including adding their news organization’s logo to their social media pages and providing fewer links to news items that were not published by their employers. They also have been asked to help promote events and partnerships that might cast their news agencies in a positive light."

Researchers say reporters struggle with balancing their professional and personal identities online, Ordway writes. "There still is uncertainty among reporters and editors about acceptable practices on social media, especially as they relate to personal branding and company branding." Another problem is that "reporters are being asked to read and respond to social media posts at all times, which they view as an added burden among a long list of job responsibilities." (Read more)

Free conference April 14-15 to teach community journalists the business basics of social media

This year's Potter Conference at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri will focus on how using social media can increase a newspaper's business.

The free conference will highlight how "community news organizations—weeklies, small dailies, and their websites—went from overwhelmed to overjoyed as they successfully tackled new opportunities," including a family-owned group of weeklies that brought in $400,000 in business in 10 days, says the conference website. The conference, from April 14-15, will teach participants the basics of social media and allow them to build a social-media page.

The institute is offering to pay for one hotel night for up to 40 organizations (one room per organization registered before March 31). To register click here. For more information click here.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Farm sector anxiously awaiting drone regulations

Federal Aviation Administration regulations on unmanned aerial vehicles will play a large part on how drones are used in agriculture and whether or not it will be worth it to use the devices, Jim Patrico reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. "The agency has struggled to formulate regulations for an industry that has expanded exponentially over the last years. Indications are that FAA finally will post rules for commercial UAV operators this summer." In December, FAA said that recreational drone users would have to register their aircraft with the government, but the agency has continually delayed releasing regulations. (Wheat farmer and UAV expert Robert Blair sets up a plane for flight.)

"It's clear to observers that commercial users can expect more stringent rules," Patrico writes. "Some in the industry forecast that commercial UAV operators—including farmers—would have to undergo training and be licensed. The first set of regulations will be for those who use UAVs only for taking photos and videos, insiders speculate. Later regulations will cover other UAV application—spraying crops, for instance. These are likely to be tight and require yet more training."

"Some companies and individuals already have FAA Section 333 exemptions, which allow them to fly UAVs for some commercial purposes," Patrico writes. "But along with exemptions comes bookwork. Anyone with an exemption has to file a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) with the FAA at least 72 hours before a flight. The NOTAM must specify when, where and why the UAV will fly. If for some reason the flight does not happen when planned—say the weather doesn't cooperate—a new NOTAM is required."

Robert Blair, an Idaho farmer who has been a pioneer in UAV applications for agriculture "questioned whether many farmers really would be able to justify the personal time and effort necessary to get the most benefit from UAV technology," Patrico writes. Blair said farmers would likely have to hire someone to implement drone technology, mostly because they wouldn't have the know-how or time to work with the vehicles.

He also said having a drone can be expensive, Patrico writes. "Blair said, farmers should expect to pay $20,000 or more for a vehicle, sensors and software. He expects fixed-wing configurations will be the choice of professionals because they can carry a bigger payload and can stay aloft longer" to cover ground at a quicker pace. (Read more)

Poll: Large farmers and ranchers favor Trump, dissatisfied with current government

U.S. farmers and ranchers are more likely to support a Republican presidential candidate and favor businessman Donald Trump as their top choice, according to the 2016 Producer Survey Results by Aimpoint Research consultants in collaboration with Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc. and the American Farm Bureau Federation. The survey, which consisted of 750 phone interviews of producers with more than 200 acres of farmland, was made up of 70 percent Republican leaning respondents, 19 percent Democratic and the remainder independent. The majority of respondents—83 percent—were male, 41 percent were 65 and older and 68 percent were 55 and older.

Of Republican-leaning respondents, 40 percent said they favored Trump. The next highest was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, 15.1 percent, with 12.6 percent of voters undecided, 11.1 percent favoring Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and 9.9 percent for Dr. Ben Carson. Independent respondents also favored Trump—25.8 percent—but 24.7 percent said they are undecided, and 13.4 percent refused to give an answer. Among Democrats, 48.9 percent said Hillary Clinton, 40.9 percent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and 10.2 percent undecided. (Most important issues facing the country)
Respondents were mostly dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country today, with 59.6 percent saying they are very dissatisfied and 77.6 percent dissatisfied. Respondents were also dissatisfied with the current administration, with 65.2 percent saying they strongly disapprove of the job the president is doing and 77.9 percent saying they disapprove. Respondents also said they disapprove of the job Congress is doing, with 60.7 saying they strongly disapprove and 85.6 percent saying they disapprove.

Also, 18.9 percent of respondents said national security/terrorism is the most important issue facing the country, choosing that over immigration/ag labor (13.9 percent), economic growth (9.2), the farm bill (7.6), healthcare (4.7), other ag/farming issues (4.1) and renewable energy (3.1).

Sara Wyant, Agri-Pulse editor and founder, told the publication: “It's clear that GOP-leaning voters are very dissatisfied with the direction of the country, the way President Obama is doing his job and the way that Congress is doing its job. And there was not much variance by age or farm size, although a higher percentage of younger voters expressed dissatisfaction with how Congress is functioning. They want to elect someone who can make major changes.”

Tim Marema of the Daily Yonder points out that two-thirds of U.S. farmers have less than 200 acres in production: "Larger operators have some unifying characteristics that set them apart from the rest of farmers and ranchers, let alone the rest of rural America and the nation overall. In short, they are a bloc with a unified set of interests and a common political persuasion. . . . Don't mistake it for representing rural opinion."

Financial planner turns rundown Route 66 hotel into transitional housing for rural homeless

With the surge of interstates depleting historic roads like Route 66, forcing many hotels in rural areas to close up shop, a financial planner came up with the idea to turn a rundown hotel into transitional housing to help the area's homeless make the leap from shelter to home, Laurel Morales and Mark Neuman report for NPR. Rural homelessness is on the rise—seven percent of America's homeless are in rural areas—and in areas like Flagstaff, Ariz., rent can be high and waits long for low-income or subsidized housing. (Morales photo)

After volunteering at an emergency shelter—where she saw that many of the homeless were employed or were homeless because of job loss, foreclosure or eviction, Lori Barlow decided to turn the old 66 Motel into ANEW Living Community, which now houses about 50 people, reports Morales and Neuman. "Many work seasonal jobs or rely on Social Security or disability checks to pay the rent." One resident, William Fulton, serves as the community's handyman, providing work around the building in exchange for rent.

ANEW Living Community offers residents classes, such as financial literacy, job interview skills, interpersonal skills, coping from loss or trauma, social activities, healthy lifestyles, cooking on a budget and computer skills, states the organization's website. Meetings and classes "are designed to enhance a person’s basic life and coping skills."

Morales and Neuman report in a separate story, "A lot of the residents are making a new go of it." Barlow "helps them with budgeting and provides a computer room and a list of community resources. Residents have two years to pull their lives together."

Critics say early-voting states too rural, old and white; officials say rural has advantages

With the Iowa caucuses beginning today and the New Hampshire primary next week, some argue that the two states are mostly rural, old, white people and not a good representation of the nation as a whole, Michael Levenson reports for The Boston Globe. If those two states were combined into one state, "its electorate would be more than 92 percent white, compared with 69 percent nationwide, and fewer than one-third of its voters would live in big cities, compared with two-thirds in the rest of the country. And even as a merged territory, New Iowa would still be very small, home to just 1.6 percent of the nation’s 222 million eligible voters.

James Jennings, a professor emeritus of urban and environmental policy at Tufts University, called the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary “a bit archaic,” Levenson writes. He told Levenson,
“There’s a point of view being expressed in these lily-white primaries that are not grounded in, or may not be seen as valid in, other parts of the country. So if we want a more unified nation, it’s not a good tool for us getting us there.” (Globe graphic)

Officials in Iowa and New Hampshire argue that being rural offers advantages that larger states are unable to afford, Levenson writes. Paul D. Pate, Iowa’s secretary of state, said the small size of Iowa allows candidates to "travel the state by bus, courting caucus-goers individually in steakhouses and pizza parlors." He told Levenson, “This is much more affordable, and it gives the underdog the opportunity to become the nominee.” He "also downplayed Iowa’s lack of racial diversity (it has the fifth-whitest electorate of any state) and largely rural composition," saying "we share many of the same values and priorities as other parts of the country—that’s what makes us a country.”

People who defend "the New Hampshire primary contend, like Iowans, that the state’s relatively compact size allows candidates with fewer resources to compete by working, day after day, to meet voters in living rooms and taverns," Levenson writes. Kenneth M. Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, told Levenson, "It really is the last time when candidates actually have to talk to voters, and they really couldn’t do this in a big, complicated state. It has to be a small place where the candidates actually have to confront the voters.”

Journalism fellowships available for Baltimore workshop on confronting the opioid epidemic

Fellowships are available for journalism training on confronting the opioid epidemic at the annual American Society of Addictive Medicine conference in Baltimore. The journalism training will take place from April 12-14 and the conference from April 15-17. As part of the training, journalists will cover the conference, with full access to presenters and abstracts. The all-expenses paid fellowships cover airfare, ground transportation, hotel costs, most meals and conference registration.

Fellowship applicants are required to submit two work samples from the last year, a resume or complete LinkedIn profile and a letter of support from an editor or supervisor (freelance writers can use a letter from someone who has edited or published their work). Applicants will also be asked why they are interested in the program and how the program will benefit their audience. They will be asked for a brief narrative autobiography. The application deadline is Feb. 16. To apply for the fellowship, click here. For more information on the conference, click here.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Hepatitis B cases increased 114% in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia from 2006-2013

The number of hepatitis B cases in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia increased 114 percent from 2009-2013, while hepatitis B cases remained stable nationally during the same time period, says a study released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study, which cites intravenous drug use in Appalachia for the rise in cases—rates were highest among non-Hispanic whites ages 30-39—found that 42 percent of cases occurred in rural areas in both the national study and in the three targeted states. From 2006-2013 a total of 3.305 hepatitis B cases were reported in the three states, with numbers increasing 20 percent from 2009 to 2010 and 114 percent from 2009-2013.

Hepatitis B, a potentially serious liver infection, "spreads when someone comes in contact with blood, semen or other bodily fluids from an infected person," Laura Ungar reports for USA Today. "For some patients, it’s a short-term illness, but others develop long-term, chronic infections. About 2.2 million Americans live with chronic hepatitis B, which can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer."

"Unlike hepatitis C, which is caused by a similar virus and can be spread in similar ways, hepatitis B can be prevented with a vaccine, which is recommended for infants at birth, people with multiple sex partners and injection drug users, among others," Ungar writes. "But federal surveys show that hepatitis B vaccination coverage is low among adults nationally." (CDC graphic: Hepatitis B infection in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia from 2006-2013)

Study: 5% of industrial facilities responsible for about 90% of industry-generated air pollution

A small minority of industrial facilities are responsible for the majority of air pollution generated by the industry, says a study by researchers at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center and the University of Maryland published in Environmental Research Letters.
 
Researchers "examined what they term 'hyper-polluters': Industrial facilities that, based on EPA data, generate disproportionately large amounts of air pollution," Chris Mooney reports for The Washington Post. The study, which examined industrial emissions at about 16,000 industrial facilities—excluding power plants—"found that '90 percent of toxic concentration present in the study area is generated by only 809 (about 5 percent) of facilities.' The highest polluting facilities were also more likely to be located in proximity to poor and minority neighborhoods." (Study map of exposure to pollution based on low income (red), mostly white areas (green) and low-income mostly non-white areas (blue))

Hawaii, Alaska top Well Being Index; Southern states stuck at the bottom of list

Hawaii is the place to be if you want to be happy. West Virginia not so much. The Aloha State grabbed the top spot in the  2015 Gallup-Healthways Well Being Index, while the Mountain State was stuck at the bottom for the seventh consecutive year. The poll, which consisted of 177,000 interviews in every state throughout 2015, ranked states based on 100 point scale for: Purpose (liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals); Social (having supportive relationships and love in your life); Financial (managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security); Community (liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community); and Physical (having good health and enough energy to get things done daily.)

The average score in the U.S. was 61.7, up from 61.4 in 2014. Hawaii scored 64.8, followed by Alaska, 64.1; Montana, 63.8; Colorado, 63.6; Wyoming and South Dakota, 63.5; Minnesota, 63.3; Utah, 63.1; and Arizona, 63. West Virginia scored a 58.5. Kentucky, which ranked 49th for the seventh consecutive year, scored a 60.3. Following Kentucky was Oklahoma, 60.4; Ohio and Indiana, 60.5; Missouri, 60.8; Arkansas and Mississippi, 60.9; and Louisiana, 61.1.

While the gap in numbers does not seem that large, "In most cases, a difference of 0.5 to 1.0 point in the Well-Being Index score between any two states represents a statistically significant gap and is characterized by meaningfully large differences in at least some of the individual metrics that make up the overall Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index," states Healthways.

America's well-being was statistically the same between 2014 and 2015, with financial well-being rising, "and American perceptions and ratings of their lives reached an all-time high," Niraj Chokshi reports for The Washington Post. "At the same time, food and health-care insecurity and smoking rates fell. But there is some backsliding, too. Obesity continued to climb, and more part-time employees were seeking full-time work." (Post map)

Federal grants for $10.5M awarded to projects to study early education in rural areas

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced $26 million in grants to create the Early Learning Network that will provide funds for several projects, including some focused on rural education. Ruth C. Neild, delegated director of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), said in a statement: "Early Learning Network will study what is happening in early education programs across the country and how successfully children are making the transition from preschool to elementary school. The network will seek to identify what policymakers and practitioners can do to improve early learning programs so students are prepared for long-term success in school."

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln was awarded $6.5 million to "study how education policies differ in rural and urban areas for children in pre-kindergarten through third grade to learn how educators can close the achievement gap for at-risk students," Chris Dunker reports for the Lincoln Journal Star. "The project will track children over time to study how changes in the educational environment—including the move to new classrooms and different instructional approaches among teachers—impact the transition through the early elementary years." The study will focus on 10 rural school districts and two urban ones.

Another grant for $4 million was awarded to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to study early learning policies and programs in rural North Carolina. Acting Secretary of Education John King said in a statment: "As we increase access to early education, we need high-quality research to show us the most effective ways to prepare children for success in elementary school and beyond. The Early Learning Network will develop important information and tools that will help policymakers and practitioners improve preschool and elementary school teaching and learning across the country."

Iowa caucuses give rural voters an opportunity to be heard

In Iowa, where rural areas "make up more than three-quarters of the state’s 99 counties and are home to 40 percent of its population," the caucuses give rural voters the chance to have their voices heard and get face-to-face time with presidential candidates, Alicia Parlapiano, Brent McDonald and Larry Buchanan report for The New York Times. "Party leaders in rural areas are well aware of the power they hold, whether they vote as a bloc to tip the result in one direction or provide just enough support to cut into a candidate’s margins from the bigger cities."

"Iowa often has its first-in-the-nation voting status called into question, in part because its demographics (the state is 92 percent white) don’t represent the country as a whole," reports the Times. "But Iowans will proudly defend their position, citing their deep commitment to the process and the lengths to which they will go to scrutinize the candidates."

"Caucuses are run by the parties, not the state, so the bulk of the organizing falls to volunteer committee members, who are driven by a passion less for individual candidates than for their parties’ values and the grass-roots political process," reports the Times. Jordan Pope, chairman of the Decatur County Democrats, who, at 18, is the youngest county chairman or chairwoman in Iowa, told the Times, "I think being in a rural area, you’re able to step up to the plate and take more responsibilities, which is awesome and a little scary also. I have friends in Texas and Alabama, and they’re always jealous when they see me taking selfies with presidential candidates. Yeah, you have primaries there, but the main way they see their candidates is on a TV screen.” (NYT graphic: Despite losing population rural voters in Iowa take the caucuses seriously)
One of the strengths of the caucuses it that they "are not designed for anonymity: Everyone arrives at once and can make a pitch for their favorite candidate in front of the entire group," reports the Times. "While the Republicans vote secretly on scraps of paper, the process for Democrats requires caucusgoers to declare their preference by physically standing in a candidate’s designated corner." 

One problem is that "Iowa's 99 counties have shrunk in population since 1990, with the most rural areas hit the hardest," reports the Times. "The 18- to 34-year-old share of the population has decreased in all but four counties in the state, rural and urban alike. The shedding of Iowa’s rural population has made it more difficult for the parties to recruit and maintain leaders for their county committees. At the same time, a growing dependence on out-of-state paid staff members in election years has left many counties without local volunteers who have the skills to maintain their organizations in non-election years."

Another problem has been technology, reports the Times. Rick Santorum won the Iowa caucus in 2012, but results were not released for two weeks when Mitt Romney "was said to have won." Officials have worked to curb that problem, this year "replacing their paper and landline vote reporting system with a digital one" that will verify totals within 48 hours. Still, some are worried that a lack of high-speed Internet in some rural areas could hamper results.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Candidates ignore most farm, rural issues in Iowa; if not discussed there, where will they be?

While ethanol has been a hot topic among some presidential candidates leading up to the Iowa caucuses, the rest of state's agricultural needs—Iowa relies on agriculture for one-third of its economy—have been mostly ignored, Amy Mayer reports for Iowa Public Radio. The problem is that most Iowa voters live in cities and suburbs, which "makes it difficult to get candidates talking about food system issues from school lunches, to crop supports, to water quality. Yet these all fall under the federal agriculture department. If candidates aren't talking about them in Iowa, it's possible they'll be left out of the campaigns entirely."

Iowa State University political scientist Mack Shelley told Mayer that the closest most candidates get to talking about food in Iowa is when they make sure to be photographed sampling it at fairs: "Sometimes they go to pig races, and they hang around on hay bales and farms and, not that that's necessarily typical of Iowa, but to attract support within the state you kind of have to start there and build out from that point."

Several candidates have published items about food, agriculture and rural issues but have been largely mum on the subjects in public appearances, unless it concerns ethanol, Mayer writes. While Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is the only candidate to oppose the Renewable Fuels Standard that supports ethanol, "That doesn't necessarily mean they're paying attention to other concerns farmers have. After all, there's a lot more to our food system than renewable fuels," like the farm safety net, trade and conservation, issues that have been largely ignored, Mayer reports. The caucuses are Monday night.

Appalachian State University receives grant to turn out-of-print books about Appalachia into e-books

Appalachian State University will use an $88,000 grant to turn 73 classic out-of-print books about the history and culture of Southern Appalachia into e-books available for free under a Creative Commons license, reports Appalachian State University News. ASU was one of 10 schools to receive $774,000 in funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Open Book Program.

Belk Library at ASU will work in conjunction with University of North Carolina Press in Chapel Hill to create digitized versions of the books that were published by the now defunct Appalachian Consortium Press, reports ASU. The project should be completed by late 2017.

Dr. William Schumann, director for the Center of Appalachian Studies, told ASU News: "The digitization of these important resources is a vital step forward in bringing regional scholarship to interested students and into the public domain. The ease-of-access this project provides will not only broaden our knowledge of these materials but also expand the ways that North Carolina’s students and citizens interpret and utilize these resources. This project is a service to the state of North Carolina and to those interested in the Appalachian region everywhere.” (Read more)

Imprisoned armed standoff leader tells remaining occupiers, 'please go home'

Ammon Bundy, the imprisoned leader of the armed standoff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Harney County, Oregon, told his remaining supporters on Wednesday to go home, Dave Seminara, Julie Turkewitz and Kirk Johnson report for The New York Times. Bundy was among a group arrested on Tuesday in an incident with law enforcement that left standoff spokesman Robert "LaVoy" Finicum dead. Bundy said in a statement released by his lawyer: “To those remaining at the refuge, I love you. Let us take this fight from here. Please stand down. Go home and hug your families. This fight is ours for now in the courts. Please go home." (Bend Bulletin photo by Joe Kline: A roadblock five miles from the refuge)

As of Wednesday night, seven occupiers remained at the refuge, reports the Times. David Fry, one of the occupiers, told reporters they would stay “until someone starts listening or until they slaughter us." Group members "said they believed Finicum was murdered and that holding Ammon Bundy in jail was an outrage to them." They said they "took a vote and decided to dig in and stay; on a streaming video from inside the refuge, a handful of men could be seen carrying long guns, operating a backhoe belonging to the federal government and speaking darkly of a bloodbath."

"Also on Wednesday, law enforcement officials—for the first time since the occupation started Jan. 2—set up barricades and checkpoints on a two-lane road into the refuge where a few weeks ago there were barely any vehicles," reports the Times. "They vowed to stop and interrogate anyone who tried to enter or leave the Malheur, as most people here call it, saying that protesters who wanted to leave peacefully would be allowed to do so. They made it clear that the days when journalists could mingle freely with the protesters, and local ranch families could drop by with a batch of soup or just to chat, were over." (Read more)

Appalachia gets the 'Mad Max meets Little House on the Prairie' treatment in new TV show

Nearly two million people tuned in this week to watch the premier of WGN America's original series, "Outsiders," described by some as an Appalachian "Mad Max meets Little House on the Prairie" The series, set in a fictional Eastern Kentucky town, centers around a moonshine-making clan that engages "in armed robbery, vandalism and matricide, but it’s because they really just want to be left alone," Mike Hale writes in a review for The New York Times. (WGN America photo)

"The Farrells, like any self-respecting isolated clan, have their own language," Hale writes. "A lostie is essentially anyone who’s not a Farrell and therefore lives in the shallow, sinful world away from their mountain—all the people who 'gone and lost everything that makes life worth living.' Non-Farrells don’t say 'ged-gedyah' when they hoist a jar of 'myrr-lunnen' (moonshine), or bow down before a leader known as the Bren’in."

"Differences are settled by jousts, with all-terrain vehicles replacing horses," Hale writes. "There are violent wedding rituals, talk of prophecies and demons, and bonfire-lighted bacchanals at which public sex is optional. Even when a pragmatic Farrell tries to debunk the clan’s superstitions, he can’t help sounding ridiculous: 'Them old powers be fool-headed talk!' Maybe there really are Kentucky hill clans who act like the staff at Medieval Times, but the best efforts of the actors in 'Outsiders' can’t make the Farrells credible or convince us that there’s any real reason that townspeople, cops and energy executives should be afraid of them. On the other hand, the hillbilly vaudeville gives us something to watch and respond to."

The show is filmed in Pittsburgh and based on a story that show creator Peter Mattei read about a New Jersey family living in isolation, Bill Lynch reports for the Charleston Gazette Mail. Mattei told him, “I read an article about a kind of weird family living apart from others on a mountain in New Jersey, since before the Civil War, and then I saw a play about the idea of eviction.” Mattei said "he envisioned a rough-looking group that was part-gypsy clan, part-hippie commune, part-biker gang."

PBS film details early 20th century battle between West Virginia coal miners and coal companies

PBS's popular American Experience program this week premiered the film "The Mine Wars," which examines the early 20th century clash between West Virginia coal miners and coal companies, states PBS. Events "included strikes, assassinations, marches and the largest civil insurrection in the United States since the Civil War." The film is based on James Green’s book, "The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom."

Led by Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, in 1902 West Virginia miners went on strike to protest poor working conditions, states PBS. "Thousands of men, women and children ended up in makeshift 'tent colonies' set up by the UMWA on small strips of land not owned by the coal companies. These tent colonies included a trash dump, sanitary ditches and cellars for storage and shelter. Water often had to be imported in barrels on wagons. With no running water or permanent homes and no income to support their families, many miners returned to work, and the strike was broken." The film is available to watch online. Check local listings for repeat airings. (Read more)

Florida bills would let judges deny attorney fees to winning plaintiffs in open-records cases

A Florida Senate panel this week approved a bill that threatens the state's Sunshine Law for open government by eliminating mandatory awards of attorney fees "when plaintiffs prevail in public records lawsuits that prove that government agencies have violated the law," Grant Stern reports for PINAC News, a advocacy group that promotes the rights of photographers to film police misconduct. A state House committee previously voted to make attorney fees a matter of discretion for judges.

Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, told Arek Sarkissian of the Naples Daily News, "No attorney is going to take the case if they aren't sure they're going to get paid. We know there are some bad actors who are taking advantage of this, but there are better ways to address the issue."

The Senate bill's sponsor, Sen. Rene Garcia (R-Hialeah) argued that "his bill would trust a judge to determine whether a public records lawsuit was filed in bad faith," Sarkissian writes. He said he filed the bill in response to a 2014 incident in which the owner of a law firm under investigation was accused of filing hundreds of public record requests "so that he could file claims for legal fees."

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 23 other news organizations told legislators in a letter that the bills are "contrary to trends at both the state and federal level," and "financial hurdles can, and frequently do, prevent journalists and members of the public" from going to court to challenge denial of open-records requests, while "Mandatory fee shifting provisions also create a financial incentive for state and local government officials and agencies to consistently comply with public records laws when responding to requests for access."

Florida law "allows people to sue agencies for records and guarantees payment of legal fees if a lawsuit is successful," Sarkissian notes. Some state agencies "deny the public access to public records, requiring them to obtain a court order before the information is released. The bill would require an agency to acknowledge a request within five days of receiving it. That change would prevent lawyers from filing a lawsuit the same day as the request."

Paula Dockery, a former Republican legislator, wrote in a column for The Miami Herald: "In their role as watchdogs, reporters and editors alert the public when there is something controversial, unethical, illegal or just questionable. They rely on these laws to gather information the public has a right and a need to see. . . . The continual erosion of our public records law is gutting Government in the Sunshine and—ironically—it’s all being done in the open."

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Appalachia cancer rate is slightly higher than U.S., especially for cancers caused by tobacco

Cancer rates in Appalachian counties occur at a higher rate than in non-Appalachian counties, says a report, "Cancer Incidence in Appalachia 2004-11," published today in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

The overall rate for the region was 4.2 percent higher among men and 2.5 percent higher among women. Researchers said the gap between Appalachian cancer cases and non-Appalachian cancer cases was shrinking in all areas except oral cavity and pharynx, larynx, lung and bronchus, and thyroid cancer.

Researchers put most of the blame for the higher cancer rate on higher tobacco use, but they also said cancer is higher in Appalachia because of poverty, patient health care utilization and access to care. The official Appalachian region has 25 million people in 420 counties in 13 states, as defined for the federal Appalachian Regional Commission.

Previous research has found that the incidence of cancer is not much higher in Appalachia than in the country as a whole, but the rate of deaths from some cancers is higher, probably because people in the region are less likely to get tested for cancer.

57% of manufacturing-dependent counties have seen median income drop by 10% since 2000

In 57 percent of the U.S. counties classified as "manufacturing-dependent," the median income has dropped by at least 10 percent since 2000, according to analysis of the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, Tim Henderson reports for Stateline. "Just 25 percent of other counties experienced a decline that dramatic."

"More than three-quarters of the counties in Michigan, Indiana, Georgia and South Carolina experienced median income declines of 10 percent or more," Henderson writes. Five of the top 10 counties with the biggest drops were in Georgia, a state that has lost more than one-third of its manufacturing jobs since 2000. Lower paying jobs, such as in stores, health care, hotels and restaurants, now employ more people in Georgia than manufacturing.

Nine of the 10 counties where income increased the most—45 percent or more in inflation-adjusted dollars—are in North Dakota, where the oil boom has provided high-paying jobs although the data does not reflect changes after oil prices started dropping in 2014, Henderson writes. (Stateline map: For an interactive version, click here)

Rural law enforcement not happy with Obama administration's call to return military equipment

Local law enforcement agencies that for years have been stocking up on military gear through a U.S. Department of Defense program that allows the transfer of military property that is no longer needed are now voicing their displeasure about notifications from the Obama administration asking for the equipment to be returned, Timothy Williams reports for The New York Times. Hundreds of law enforcement offices have been asked to return the equipment by April 1. (Military Today photo: Some local law enforcement agencies have M-113 armored vehicles.)

A report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that the equipment has "resulted in more aggressive tactics by departments, particularly in minority neighborhoods, leading to deaths and serious injuries," Williams writes. "In one 2014 episode highlighted by the ACLU, a heavily armed police officer in Cornelia, Ga., threw a stun grenade into a playpen during a raid, blowing a hole in the face of a 19-month-old baby and causing severe burns. The officer was not criminally charged."

But local law enforcement agencies say recent shootings—such as the ones in California and Colorado—highlight a need for officers to be heavily armed, Williams writes. "They point out that fears about terrorism have spread to the smallest communities. They also say that the equipment has been helpful amid tight county budgeting and that it is used in all sorts of ways that do not involve civil unrest or terrorism, including training exercises and confrontations with gunmen. Armored vehicles, which move on tanklike tracks, are often used for search-and-rescue operations after storms or floods to navigate rough terrain, they say."

Sheriff Larry Amerson of rural Calhoun County, Alabama, who was ordered to send back his department’s M-113 armored vehicle, told Williams, "Take them away from anyone who used them improperly, absolutely, but don’t punish everyone. Now, if we have an active-shooter situation with an armed person, we don’t have any piece of equipment to move in safely for my deputies or the people I’m sworn to protect.”

Sheriff Lorin W. Nielsen of rural Bannock County, Idaho, who returned his department’s M-113 in December, argues that "tracked vehicles can climb steep hills and travel along unpaved roads, a significant advantage over other vehicles," Williams writes. He told Williams, “We have some pretty rough terrain here, and we feel like they took a major tool out of our toolbox." (Read more)