Thursday, May 24, 2018

New studies confirm black lung surge for coal miners

According to a slew of studies released Tuesday or expected to be released soon, "more coal miners in central Appalachia have suffered the advanced stages of the deadly disease black lung than previous government research has found, and more miners working in the region today have earlier stages of the disease," Howard Berkes reports for NPR.

NPR research in 2016 had shown the disease's impact to be far worse than research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, though later NIOSH research confirmed NPR's work. Previous studies of black lung incidence relied on federal black lung testing and surveillance, which was voluntary and only tested working miners. Black lung can take a long time to show up, so NIOSH was missing cases. "From 2011 to 2016, NIOSH counted just 99 cases of PMF nationwide. NPR, meanwhile, conducted its own survey of black lung clinics and legal providers and has found more than 2,000 cases in the same time frame," Berkes reports.

Kirsten Almberg and colleague Robert Cohen at the University of Illinois, Chicago, found more than 4,600 severe cases of the disease while combing through black lung benefit claims filed with the federal government since 1970. More than half the cases they found happened in the past 16 years, and they found sharp annual increases in the disease in central Appalachian coal mining states, Berkes reports.

"So it is certainly not a blip. It's not just a small spike. It's kind of a relentless and increasing progression of disease," Cohen told Berkes.

Rural strategy helps former Marine fighter pilot win Democratic primary for Kentucky congressional seat

Lt. Col. (Ret.) Amy McGrath celebrated after Tuesday's primary win.
(Lexington Herald-Leader photo by Alex Slitz)
The victory of former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath in Tuesday's Democratic primary in Kentucky's 6th Congressional District was based in part on a strategy of appealing to rural voters, especially through rural newspapers.

That was the idea of campaign manager Mark Nickolas, who had quit political work more than a decade ago and "had never worked in a campaign in the digital era," reports Michael Tackett of The New York Times. With the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pushing Lexington Mayor Jim Gray to get into the race, Nickolas "saw the Washington rebuke as an opportunity to run the campaign his way, without having to hew to the DCCC playbook. That meant buying ad space in small-town newspapers for opinion pieces by Ms. McGrath, buying billboard space, and building a field operation in rural areas where few Democrats have dared to even campaign in recent years."

The outsider strategy also left McGrath free to push "the message that the national party has abandoned its voters here," Travis Waldron reports for the Huffington Post. “The Democrats here feel left behind by the national party,” McGrath told him. “The national party, to them, is Washington D.C. They don’t have the same values. They’re led by San Francisco and New York. They don’t see leaders from here or the Midwest. And they’re focused on the wrong things.” Nickolas told Waldron, a Kentucky native: “You can be a progressive and still do well in more conservative areas, as long as those rural voters get a sense that you’ll fight for them.”

McGrath had plenty of money from outside Kentucky, thanks to an announcement video that went viral, but she also sought out interviews with weekly editors like Ben Carlson of The Anderson News, who complimented her in a column and then did a long story about her. Carlson told Waldron, “I haven’t sensed, in a congressional race, this kind of enthusiasm for a candidate in the 12 years I’ve been running the paper. For either party. She’s brought that kind of excitement to it.” McGrath won the county by more than 2-1 over Gray and got 61 percent of its vote, her highest county share. The primary had four other Democrats seeking the nomination to face three-term Republican Rep. Andy Barr. She carried every county but Fayette, Gray's base, and won 49-41.

The 6th District covers most of Kentucky's
Bluegrass Region. (National Atlas map)
"Still, for much of the race, the DCCC seemed to have made the right calculation," Tackett reports. "In March, a survey for Mr. Gray, which his campaign released in April, showed he was up by 25 points with a little more than a month left in the race. It was sobering — but [McGrath] was campaigning aggressively in rural areas, and followed through on her plan to stay positive. . . . Nickolas continued his quirky tactical moves, which included making yard signs for individual counties, and one for rural areas in Marine red rather than Democratic blue."

In the time between Gray's poll was taken and released, McGrath was catching up to him, breaking into the lead in mid-April. Waldron reports, "In a direct appeal to the rural parts of the district, she’s advocated for an expansive role for the federal government, arguing that it should invest heavily in broadband, infrastructure, and job and economic development in areas left behind by the decline of manufacturing and the collapse of the coal industry," which has a very small footprint in the district but many transplants from the Central Applachian coalfield.

McGrath's win sets up "a November election that will attract national money and attention as Democrats try to make Kentucky part of a possible blue wave in 2018," Daniel Desrochers, Lesley Clark and John Cheves wrote for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington. They called her a "candidate who fits the Democratic moment . . . a political newcomer at a time Democrats across the country are looking for a fresh response to the 2016 election of President Donald Trump."

Wyoming approves hunting of grizzlies near Yellowstone

A grizzly roams in Yellowstone National Park.
(Reuters photo by Jim Urquhart)
"State wildlife officials approved plans on Wednesday for Wyoming’s first season of grizzly bear hunting in 43 years, a move cheered by sportsmen but decried by Native Americans and conservation groups fighting to restore Endangered Species Act protections to the bears," Laura Zuckerman reports for Reuters.

Last June the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that grizzlies would no longer be listed as a threatened species around Yellowstone National Park, which left management of the bears to the governments of the three states bordering Yellowstone: Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. 

Hunters in Wyoming will be allowed to shoot and kill as many as 22 grizzly bears during hunting season, which begins Sept. 1. Two weeks ago, Idaho approved a more conservative plan that allows hunters to take only one grizzly during its hunting season, which also opens Sept. 1. Montana decided not to open a grizzly season because of worries about the long-term recovery of the bear population, which brings in money in ecotourism.  

"Grizzlies also are at the heart of a cultural divide between Native Americans, who revere the bears, and ranchers and others who see the creatures as potential threats to livestock and impediments to more mining, logging and fossil energy development," Zuckerman reports.

How six small papers joined forces to cover the opioid crisis in Long Island with the East End News Project

Six newspapers, including dailies and weeklies and representing three different media companies, came together recently to cover the impact of the opioid epidemic on eastern Long Island in New York. Their coverage of a candlelight vigil in Hampton Bays last week launched the East End News Project, with about a dozen journalists spread out in the crowd, capturing the stories of people who have been hurt or lost loved ones.

Participating papers include "the Times Review Media Groups’ weekly Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review and the Shelter Island Reporter; the Press News Group’s weeklies, The East Hampton Press and the eastern and western editions of The Southampton Press; the weekly The Sag Harbor Express and journalism students at Stony Brook University," Kristen Hare reports for Poynter.

The scope of the story was too big for the papers to cover on their own, so the papers decided to band together, despite their normal attitude of friendly competition. "With the East End News Project, the goal is not just to tell bigger and more personal stories, but to confront the opioid epidemic as a community," Hare reports. "They want to offer resources, help humanize and destigmatize people dealing with addiction and examine the medical industry’s role and response to the crisis."

The Stony Brook University students have been able to pitch in thanks to a three-year, $150,000 grant, which Stony Brook Journalism School's founding dean Howard Schneider told Hare will put "more boots on the ground" and add "an influx of talent, enthusiasm and ambition and also multimedia capabilities that some of our other partners might not have."

The project will continue for the rest of the year, but they're considering future partnerships. "We are competitors, but we’re all in this together," said Joseph Shaw, executive editor of the Press News Group. "The future for us as an industry is about doing good work, and if we can pull together to do better work together than we do individually, I think that’s crucial."

Bills filed to boost telemedicine, help opioid addicts

A bipartisan group of senators has introduced five bills to increase access to telemedicine treatment for patients with substance-abuse disorders; the proposed bills will likely be included in a larger legislative package by the Senate Finance Committee. "The new bills look at everything from breaking down geographical restrictions of telemedicine to setting best practice for treating kids with substance abuse disorder through telemedicine," Laura Lovett reports for MobiHealthNews. Telemedicine is a boon to rural areas, which generally lack the resources urban areas have in treating substance abuse problems. 

The five bills include a proposal that Medicaid eliminate originating-site geographic restrictions for telemedicine. Another calls on the comptroller general to evaluate access to telemedicine and remote monitoring services to treat pediatric Medicaid patients with substance-abuse disorders. And another bill would require the Department of Health and Human Services to advise states on federal reimbursement for substance-abuse treatment under Medicaid using telemedicine, Lovett reports.

"In addition to the telehealth-focused bills, the legislation package is expected to include . . . a change to the Social Security Act so that a screening for potential substance use disorders and a review of current opioid prescriptions would be part of the initial preventive physical exam and annual wellness visit in the Medicare program," Lovett reports. It will also include a proposal that "the HHS secretary provide guidance to states about Medicaid items and services for non-opioid pain treatment and management."

The Senate Finance Committee met for a 9 a.m. hearing today to discuss hospital closings, Medicare payment programs and other challenges facing rural providers, reports Politico. More on that tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Florida retirees increasingly moving to Appalachia

Florida is a well-known destination for retirees, but increasing numbers of Florida transplants, dissatisfied with life in the Sunshine State, are retiring in Appalachian communities in North Carolina, northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee. "These retirees are reshaping local economies, boosting everything from tax revenues to restaurant receipts to sales of electric chair lifts for the elderly," Cameron McWhirter reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Along the way, they are chafing locals who say the migration is pricing them out of homes and bringing in a sort of big-city brusqueness.

The "halfback" phenomenon — so called because retirees are moving halfway back up north — was already popular in the early 2000's, but halted during the Great Recession and returned slowly afterward, as many retirees weren't able to sell their Florida homes. Today it's back in full force: though net migration to all U.S. retirement-destination counties increased 67 percent from 2010 to 2017, net migration to Appalachian retirement destinations in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennesse increased 169 percent, according to University of Virginia demographer Hamilton Lombard, McWhirter reports.

Former New Yorker Marty Stefanelli and his wife initially retired to West Palm Beach, Fla., but decided to move to rural North Carolina. "I need to find time to wind down, and Blue Ridge forces you to wind down," he told McWhirter. The Stefanellis said they like the area's moderate weather, lack of traffic, and lower cost of living and taxes.

Farms increasingly owned by non-farmers and rented out

U.S. Department of Agriculture map
Farmland is a kind of currency: valuable because of what it can do, and because it's finite. And though rental of farmland isn't increasing -- the number of acres rented has been around 40 percent for the past 40 years, according to the the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- what's changing is the landlord. "The landowner is increasingly not the farmer next door or a landlord intimately involved in the farming operation," Erin McKinstry reports for The Midwest Center of Investigative Reporting. "Instead, many farmers rent from multiple owners who may have little to no connection to farming or the local community and who may own land strictly for investment purposes."

In the Midwest, about 46 percent of the farmland is rented; around 81 percent of those landowners do not farm. Some see that as a good thing, saying it puts more capital into rural communities and makes arable land affordable for farmers who could not outright buy it. "Others see it as one more barrier for farmers trying to access land or expand their operations," McKinstry reports. "They worry that the trend has driven up farmland prices, led to irresponsible conservation practices and drained money from rural economies."

It's difficult to assess trends, since statewide and USDA data can be spotty, but the phenomenon of absentee farm owners appears to be increasing, especially in the most fertile parts of the Midwest. It may continue to increase as more land-owning farmers retire and pass their farms down to their children. Some may not want to farm and rent it out, and some may sell it to investors.

Annual National Rural Assembly focuses on civic courage in the building of an inclusive nation, offers lots of stories

The annual three-day conference of the National Rural Assembly ends today in Durham, N.C. It's a network of organizations and individuals focused on improving conditions in rural America, coordinated by the Center for Rural Strategies. This year's discussions centered around "how we build a more inclusive nation, viewed through a lens of civic courage," says the assembly's website.

Carol Blackmon and Anita Earls embodied that theme and spoke at this year's assembly, Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder, published by the center. Blackmon helped black voters register in the Deep South in the 1960s and is still a civil-rights activist. Earls, an attorney who founded the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in 2007, successfully challenged North Carolina voting laws that disenfranchised minorities, and is running for a seat on the state Supreme Court.

The conference also featured several "Firestarter" speakers who shared how they sparked change in rural communities. Chris Poore of Yonder profiled several and shared videos of their talks, including:
  • Liz Shaw, who organized the Appalachian Ohio and West Virginia Connectivity Summit in an effort to bring broadband to Appalachian regions of both states. Read more here and see the video.
  • David Toland, the CEO of rural revitalization advocate Thrive Allen County in Kansas, who said one of the biggest obstacles to bringing positive changes to rural areas is the notion that most efforts will fail. He urged listeners to ask community members what changes they'd like to see, start small if necessary, and build on what community members suggest. Read more here and see the video.
  • Magaly Licolli, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center, who fights for labor rights for immigrant workers in Arkansas. "Southern politeness" can be one of the biggest obstacles to justice and fairness, she advised, and said it's important to challenge comfort zones. "We will not effect change by caring about the feelings of people with privilege," she said in her talk. Read more here and see the video.
  • Anita Earls, mentioned above, said she worries about what she sees as a trend of ignoring many community voices. "What I see us facing right now is a true threat to our democracy, " Earls said. "We now have forces that don’t believe in the importance of having every voice at the table." Read more here and see the video.

As drug makers lobby policymakers with advertorials, Trump plan to cut drug prices is short on details

Trudy Lieberman
Veteran health journalist and columnist Trudy Lieberman is back with another "Thinking About Health" column for the Rural Health News Service after enduring her own health crisis that kept her from writing for four months. In her latest column, she ponders the Trump administration's plan for dealing with America's high drug prices. The pharmaceutical industry is reportedly relieved at the proposal, which a Wall Street Journal story described as falling short of "more far-reaching ideas."

"The plan continued the current system under which the government does not negotiate the prices it pays for medicines under the Medicare program, a far-reaching solution that I’ve discussed before in this space," Lieberman writes. "The 2003 law that gave seniors a drug benefit under Medicare prohibited such negotiations, which pharmaceutical manufacturers loudly and forcefully opposed. They feared that allowing the government to use its muscle to bargain over drug prices might slow their escalating increases."

Drug prices didn't increase much for a few years after the 2003 law was passed, but that has changed dramatically in the past few years: one diabetic told Lieberman that the price of an insulin pen increased from $73 in 2014 to $123 in March 2018, though insulin is a well-established drug.

"The pricing practices of all the players in the drug distribution system are responsible for the confusing pricing system we have," Lieberman writes. "Pharmaceutical manufacturers and pharmacy benefit managers – third-party administrators brought in to help insurers manage their drug costs – bear responsibility. So do the pharmacies themselves, when they offer coupons to consumers to lower their out-of-pocket costs, easing some individual burdens but doing nothing to solve the larger problem."

Lieberman says Trump's plan is short on details and doubts it will bring greater clarity or lower prices to consumers. She notes that the pharmaceutical industry has been lobbying hard to revamp its image and cast doubt on its role in ballooning health care costs. 

"Almost daily, a drug company or a related business sponsored content in several online health newsletters that are read by Washington lobbyists, health experts, congressional staff members, and journalists," Lieberman writes. "Sometimes the sponsored messages looked like the regular content of the newsletter. Even though they were flagged as paid content, the format often made me think I was reading a legitimate news story. One 'story' sponsored by the pharmacy benefit management industry said they were not the ones to blame for higher prices. With clout like this, is it any wonder the industry has managed to keep drug price negotiation out of the picture?"

This should serve as a warning to newspapers that sometimes fill their news hole with advertorial or "sponsored content," or those that allow "native advertising," essentially the digital version of editorial. "Such messages should be clearly and prominently identified as sponsored," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. "Readers always deserve to know who is producing all the material they are reading."

Free Rural Health Journalism Workshop June 8 in N.C.; deadline to apply for a travel stipend is today

The Association of Health Care Journalists is hosting a free one-day workshop on covering rural health on June 8 in Research Triangle, N.C.

The conference is free for AHCJ members, but registration is required by May 25. Members who need financial assistance should apply for a limited travel stipends by the Wednesday, May 23 deadline.

The keynote speaker will be Hannah Koch, a research and technical assistance associate at the Mental Health Program, Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. Koch will tentatively discuss key behavioral health issues in rural communities.

Five workshops will cover a variety of topics, including "What reporters should know about rural residents and rural health," featuring Alan Morgan, chief executive officer of the National Rural Health Association and Dr. Jeffrey Heck, president and chief executive officer of the Mountain Area Health Education Center. 

Another workshop, "Will your local hospital survive?" includes George Pink, deputy director of the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program and Dana Weston, president of the University of North Carolina Rockingham Health Center. 

The "Addressing rural health workforce hurdles" workshop includes Mark Holmes, director of the North Carolina Rural Health Research and Policy Analysis Center and the director of the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research and Dr. Robert Bashford, associate dean for the Office of Rural Initiatives at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. 

The "Rural opioid crisis: Access to treatment and harm reduction" workshop includes Regina LaBelle, visiting fellow, Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy and a former chief of staff in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and Donald McDonald, executive director, Addiction Professionals of North Carolina. 

Wrapping up the day is a workshop, "Can telemedicine transform health care in rural communities?" featuring Latoya Thomas, policy director for the American Telemedicine Association. 

To register for the event, click here. To request a travel stipend, click here or send an e-mail to membership coordinator Tina England at Tina@healthjournalism.org.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Fleeing the suburbs for the farm saved this writer's marriage

Schmitt and her husband Jason on their New York farm.
(Photo by Bennett Schmitt)
When Kristen Schmitt and her husband bought an old house in the Detroit suburbs, they planned to stay forever. But restoring the house depleted their savings and strained their marriage and so they decided to move to rural Vermont, barely scraping by for four years as they tried to rebuild their finances.

It was hard going at first, especially in the winter, but they loved it. "While the house was small, it sat on eight acres, and the land was both exciting and overwhelming," Schmitt writes for Salon. "There were mature blackberry and blueberry bushes — some wild and some planted — and fresh bear tracks along the dirt path through the woods that made me nervous. An 11-acre pond, which we shared with a seasonal neighbor, was filled with wood ducks, mallards and Canada geese. The forest cadence was loud without any automotive traffic; coyote howls rippling through the night air seemed both close by and far away at the same time."

Making the move brought Scmitt and her husband closer together, and with a lower cost of living, she was able to stay home with their young daughter and work on her freelance writing career. They eventually swapped their Vermont farm for one in northern New York, and still love farm life.

"Whenever someone asks me if I miss the city or the suburbs, I think about the experiences we’ve gathered over the course of only a few short years," Schmitt writes. "We’ve learned how to heat our own house with wood chopped, split and stacked by hand. We’ve learned the beauty of planting seeds and harvesting food from our land. We’ve watched fluffy chicks blossom into laying hens that peck cracked corn from our hands. We’ve also reclaimed our lives for ourselves and each other, focusing on our own priorities and values rather than those we were told were important."
Read more here.

U.S. lost nearly 31 million acres of farmland to development between 1992 and 2012, according to new report

A new report from the American Farmland Trust, the nation's leading farmland-preservation group, says that America has been losing twice as much farmland as the group thought. That's a problem because In Farms Under Threat: The State of America's Farmland warns that "by 2050, the demands on agriculture to provide sufficient food, fiber and energy are expected to be 50 to 70 percent higher than they are now."

The leading cause of farmland loss is low-density residential development, the report found. Between 1992 and 2012, nearly 31 million acres of agricultural land were lost to development, which is the almost the size of Iowa. Almost 11 million acres of that was prime land for intensive agriculture that would bring high yields with little environmental damage. Less than 17 percent of the total land area of the continental U.S. is suitable for intensive agriculture, so its loss is especially troubling.

Improvements in data and projection models are helping AFT more accurately keep track of the threats to America's agricultural lands and forecast trends. "This first report, Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farmland, examines the nation’s irreversible loss of agricultural land to development between 1992 and 2012," the report says. "A subsequent report will analyze state-level data on past farmland conversion and the effectiveness of state-level farmland protection policies. In a third report, Farms Under Threat will assess a range of future threats, forecast potential impacts to 2040 and recommend effective policies that help conserve agricultural land."

AFT plans to offer specific policy suggestions for farmland preservation. In general, counties can preserve farmland by purchasing development rights to farmland, or put farms under a conservation easement. AFT president John Piotti said at a recent press conference that preserving farmland not only helps existing farmers and encourages tourism, but it helps keep land prices down so more young people can get into farming, Al Cross reports for the Midway Messenger in Kentucky. Cross is the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Facebook puts newspapers' promotions of news stories on politics into same category as posts of political advocates

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky
May 22, 2018

For more than a year now I have been warning journalists, and supporters of journalism's role in democracy, that journalism is under threat -- from forces that don't fully understand that role, or fear it. Now there is a new threat, apparently driven by lack of understanding and appreciation of our role by people running the world's primary information platform, Facebook.

Today, the leading social-media network is scheduled to implement a new policy that will undercut the ability of major newspapers, the primary finders of fact in our democratic republic, to promote their work and compete with less reliable sources of information.

The policy will "treat ads promoting political news coverage the same as political advocacy ads," report Mike Snider and Jessica Guynn of USA Today. For the sake of "combating the spread of political misinformation, all Facebook ads featuring political content will get a 'Paid for by' label and carry a disclaimer. . . . These political messaging labels would also appear on 'sponsored' posts that news organizations buy to amplify the reach of an article or video on the political news of the day."

So, a promotion of a deeply reported package of stories about the evolving views of Trump voters in the Upper Midwest, like chief correspondent Dan Balz of The Washington Post did recently, would get the same treatment on Facebook as promotions of the daily "throw it up against the wall and see what sticks" from liberal or conservative interest groups. It's ridiculous.

The policy "is a fundamental mischaracterization of journalism," David Chavern, head of the News Media Alliance, the main lobby for newspaper publishers, told Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a letter. "Newsgathering and reporting about politics is not the same thing as advocacy or politics. By lumping journalism and issue advocacy together, Facebook is dangerously blurring the line between real reporting and propaganda, and threatening to undermine journalism’s ability to play its critical role in society as the fourth estate."

Chavern suggested negotiations and an alternative: "require disclosure from all advertisers on all advertising; exempt news in the ad-archiving and labeling process for political content; or label and archive news independently from politics and advocacy."

Campbell Brown, the former CNN reporter who heads up Facebook's news partnerships, initially defended the policy but "later said that the company recognized "news content about politics is different and we are working with publishers to develop the right approach," USA Today reports.

Let's hope those negotiations produce a different policy than Facebook plans to implement today. In a world where citizens increasingly have difficulty deciding what sources of news and information are trustworthy, "This treatment of quality news as political, even in the context of marketing, is deeply problematic," Chavern told Zuckerberg. "You are forcing publishers to make a choice between labeling that is fundamentally counter to who we are and what we do, or to walk back our presence on a dominant platform for news consumption and discovery. This will have the effect of elevating less credible news sources on Facebook, the exact opposite of your stated intent."

Rural students face backlash after supporting gun control

Marshall County student Hailey Case
wearing an "Enough is Enough" shirt.
(NYT photo by Andrea Morales)
Recent school shootings have inspired a wave of gun-control activism, some of it from students, and a few of those students from rural areas. "In a more liberal city like Parkland, Fla., or at a rally in Washington, these students might have been celebrated as young leaders," Jack Healy reports for The New York Times. "But in rural, conservative parts of the country where farm fields crackle with target practice and children grow up turkey hunting with their parents, the new wave of student activism clashes with bedrock support for gun rights."

Some students in Benton, Kentucky, began speaking out for gun control after the deadly January shooting at their high school. Soon afterward, friends started shunning them, locals on social media made fun of them and said they should have died during the Marshall County High School shooting, Healey reports. Debate and action in Benton has largely focused on how detect potentially dangerous students and keep schools safer instead of limiting gun rights: After the shooting, the high school hired more armed officers and locked many of the school's doors. Every morning, students are scanned with metal detector wands and have their backpacks searched. 

"Speaking out in a place like Marshall County, Ky., carries a price — measured in frayed friendships, arguments with parents and animosity within the same walls where classmates were gunned down," Healy reports.

Ten high school students from Campbell County High School in Gillette, Wyoming, faced similar backlash when they marched downtown to demand tighter gun laws in solidarity with the survivors of the Parkland, Florida, shooting. The protest was a hard sell in a state with more guns per capita than any other state and rising sales in each of the past five years. "More than 80 percent of adults in Campbell County have firearms in their homes," Eli Saslow reports for The Washington Post.

Moriah Engdahl waits to address the school board.
(Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford)
"In the days since the march, the 'Campbell County Ten' had become the object of profane graffiti, the inspiration for a rival Freedom March and the favorite target of a new Instagram account, 'Campbell County Students for America,' which shared memes comparing gun protesters to Hitler," Saslow reports. One of them is Moriah Engdahl, 16. Her father, Alan, had more than 250 guns until he lost the right to own firearms after committing a drug felony in 2006. 

Moriah's support of gun control has been a source of tension between the two, with Alan teasing her frequently, asking her if she'd managed to get everyone's guns yet. Though Moriah, a student journalist, had an independent streak, she had never questioned gun rights until the Parkland shooting. The more she researched online, though, the more she became convinced that the problem in Parkland and at home in Gillette (which has one of the nation's highest suicide rates) is unfettered access to guns. 

Moriah spoke to the school board recently in an attempt to dissuade them from arming teachers. She went alone, since the original 10 students protesting in Gillette had eroded to four: one student's furious mother pulled her daughter into the car during the protest, and in the days afterward a few students said they wanted to focus on less controversial issues like remembering victims or discouraging bullying. The remaining four included Moriah and the outspoken editor of the school newspaper, and two others. At a meeting at Starbucks to plan their next steps, one lamented that "Even my dad has started calling me a gun-control libtard," Saslow reports.

Monday, May 21, 2018

U.S. and China step back from threatened tariffs; Trump tweets at farmers worried about trade war

After two days of negotiation between Chinese and U.S. officials in Washington, D.C., the Trump administration has announced the framework of an agreement between the two countries in their ongoing trade dispute, leading both to step back from threatened tariffs that would hurt American farmers, David Lynch reports for The Washington Post. But the deal's lack of specifics has left interested parties dissatisfied and led many to question whether President Trump, who prides himself on his negotiating skills, is giving away too much to the Chinese.

Trump had earlier demanded a $200 billion reduction in the $375 billion U.S. trade deficit with China, but while the tentative agreement apparently does not meet that goal, he has halted tariffs he had threatened to impose on $150 billion worth of Chinese products. A joint statement issued on Saturday said the U.S. would send a team to China to hammer out the details, "which also may include expanded trade in manufactured goods and stronger 'cooperation' in enforcement of intellectual property protections," Lynch reported in an earlier story for the Post.

On Friday, China's Ministry of Commerce announced it would halt the investigation into U.S. sorghum exports and remove the 178.6 percent anti-dumping tariff it had imposed on U.S. sorghum one month ago. The announcement could be construed as a goodwill gesture in ongoing trade talks. "Chinese officials also said the price of domestic pork in China was falling and restrictions on imported sorghum would increase feed costs on pork producers as well," Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

The trade war was undermining Trump's agricultural base, to which he appealed on Twitter. He tweeted, "China has agreed to buy massive amounts of ADDITIONAL Farm/Agricultural Products," but that does not appear to be true, since there is no agreement. Two hours later, he tweeted, "Under our potential deal with China, they will purchase from our Great American Farmers practically as much as our Farmers can produce." That remains to be seen; as he clarified, the deal is "potential."

Defeat of Farm Bill in House may push renewal into 2019, which might not be bad politics for Republicans

The defeat of a new Farm Bill in the House on Friday may push the renewal process past the Sept. 30 expiration date of the current law, much like what happened in 2013. Then the fight was over big cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once called food stamps. This time it's not only SNAP, it's immigration, an issue that divides Republicans.

"A revolt by Republican conservatives defeated a new Farm Bill calling for stricter work requirements for food-stamp recipients and looser payment limit rules for farmers. Once again, the delay may stretch into the new year," Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming. Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, told him that "What we'll end up with is an extension" of the current law: “Our side is not going to live with this work requirement stuff.” But committee chair Michael Conaway of Texas told Abbott that SNAP work requirements “absolutely” must be part of the bill. The Senate is not expected to accept them.

Conaway's bill would require “work capable” adults ages 18 to 59 to work or take job training at least 20 hours a week, and tight eligibility rules. "Democrats said the combination would push 2 million people off of SNAP," Abbott notes. Economist Vince Smith of Montana State University told Abbott, “In many ways, no bill is the better outcome for many Republicans. Instead, they can just vote for an extension through, say, March 31 of next year. That way, the House Republicans with urban constituencies can avoid being tarred with a vote to reduce the scope of food stamps.”

Abbott reports, "Meanwhile, on the farm side of the bill, an array of fiscal hawks, good-government advocates, environmentalists, and libertarian think tanks attacked provisions to make cousins, nieces, and nephews eligible for up to $125,000 a year in farm subsidies and to remove payment limits on some forms of corporate farming."

States of Senior Hunger report says food insecurity among those over 60 is worst in the Deep South and Southwest

A new report about the state of hunger among American seniors reveals that more than 15 million faced food insecurity at varying levels in 2016, the year with the most recent national and state-level data from the U.S. Census Bureau's December Supplements to the Current Population Survey. Food insecurity was found to be greatest among those living in the South and Southwest, racial or ethnic minorities, people with lower incomes, and younger seniors (ages 60-69).

Food insecurity is measured in three tiers, as established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: marginal food insecurity, food insecurity, and very low food security. Each category had fewer people in 2016 than 2014. The study's top findings:
  • "13.6 percent of seniors are marginally food insecure, 7.7 percent are food insecure, and 2.9 percent are very low food secure. This translates into 8.6 million, 4.9 million, and 1.8 million seniors, respectively.  
  • From 2015 to 2016, there were statistically significant declines in the percentage of marginally food-insecure seniors. However, there were no statistically significant changes in food insecurity or very low food security. Looking at demographic categories, there were sizable and statistically significant declines for several categories among the marginally food insecure; however, only two groups – those with incomes above 200 percent of the poverty line and white seniors—experienced significant declines in food insecurity. 
  • Across all three measures, from 2014 to 2016 there were statistically significant declines of 2.2 percentage points, 1.2 percentage points, and 0.5 percentage points for marginal food insecurity, food insecurity, and very low food security. 
  • Compared to 2001, the fractions of marginal food insecure, food insecure, and very low food secure seniors increased by 27 percent, 45 percent, and 100 percent, respectively. The number of seniors in each group rose 90 percent, 113 percent, and 200 percent, which also reflects the growing population of seniors. "
The State of Senior Hunger in America 2016: An Annual Report was researched by professors James Ziliak of the University of Kentucky and Craig Gundersen of the University of Illinois, and was prepared for Feeding America and the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger

Lung transplants rise along with black-lung cases

A new study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine shows that, as black-lung cases have surged in the Central Appalachian coalfield, so have lung transplants. The expensive surgery can be risky, and most transplant recipients die within five years. The study, conducted by researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, "found that 62 black lung patients had lung transplant surgery over the past two decades, and most of the miners lived in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia," Benny Becker reports for Ohio Valley ReSource. "The study also found that more than two dozen patients were placed on a wait list for transplants. Of those, 11 died while waiting."

The study's lead author, David Blackley, said that the rate of lung transplants for black-lung patients increased nearly threefold in the last decade. "That suggested pretty strongly to us that this is a problem that's getting worse," he told Becker.

Insurance from coal companies and other private sources paid for about one third of the lung transplants. Nearly two-thirds were paid for with public insurance, including 26 percent paid for by Medicare and up to 24 percent paid for by the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. "That fund has paid more than $45 billion to cover benefits for miners who can’t seek benefits from their employer, because the responsible company has either gone bankrupt or can’t be identified," Becker reports. A federal study is looking into how long the fund can stay solvent given the rise in cases.

The researchers who conducted the study had also recently discovered that the spike in late-stage black lung in Central Appalachia is the largest cluster of the disease ever recorded.

Signs of more drought ahead for Colorado River basin

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration map of drought conditions
Runoff levels in the Colorado River from melting snowpack peaked early last week, the earliest peak in the past 50 years. It's also the fourth lowest volume of peak runoff recorded in 85 years. Peak runoff's early appearance and modest height predict a drought that experts say will be more common, Allen Best reports for Route Fifty.

Several parts of the U.S. already face drought conditions, mainly the Southwest. That will likely hurt the nearly 40 million people and 5 million acres of farmland that depend on the Colorado and its tributaries.

"If you ask why there is so little runoff in the Colorado and other rivers this year and why it has come so early, the No. 1 reason is we didn’t get much snowfall. That explains the bulk of this anomaly,"  Jeff Lukas, a research integration specialist with the University of Colorado’s Western Water Assessment, told Best. "But the temperature, much warmer than normal, especially from November to January, is a part of the story."

Lukas noted that runoffs have been unusually low for the past 16 years and that droughts are now more common than they were in the past, which he said "may speak to the contribution of human-caused warming."

Increased temperature is the main cause of the drought, with precipitation a secondary contributor, according to a 2017 paper by Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. "Temperatures in the region have increased, and as they do, the warming atmosphere needs more moisture.," Best reports. "Overpeck and his co-researcher, Brad Udall of Colorado State University, concluded that the moisture is being induced into the atmosphere through increased evaporation and transpiration." 

"This turns out to be the very biggest consequence of the temperature-induced drought in the Colorado River Basin,” Overpeck said. "Wildfire is going crazy in the Southwest, and it’s for the same reason."

'Buckwild' makers filming another West Virginia reality show

The original cast; Gandee is at left
The executive producers of MTV's reality series "Buckwild" are returning to West Virginia to shoot a new series in Charleston and Morgantown called "West Virginia Wilder." Morgantown native and executive producer J.P. Williams says it will be similar to "Buckwild" but will be funnier and have a stronger female cast, Max Garland reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

"I think this show will be a completion of what we got started," Williams told Garland. "There’s a lot I’m excited about, frankly."

"Buckwild" ran for one season and scored well with the coveted age 12 to 34 demographic, but was canceled after one of its stars, Shain Gandee, was killed in an all-terrain vehicle accident in 2013.

Some West Virginians, such  U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, disliked "Buckwild", saying it played to negative stereotypes, but Williams said his shows are about "laughing with — not at," which he says is a "huge distinction that needs to be made," Garland reports.

The new show may not be on MTV; the show's producers say they're considering multiple offers on broadcast rights and will announce a decision soon.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Anti-immigration Republicans beat GOP Farm Bill in House

Republicans who want action on immigration brought down their party's own Farm Bill on Friday.

"The House leadership put the bill on the floor gambling it would pass despite unanimous Democratic opposition," Erica Werner and Mike DeBonis report for The Washington Post. "They negotiated with members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus up to the last minutes. But their gamble failed. The vote was 213 to 198, with 30 Republicans joining 183 Democrats in defeating the bill."

The bill "included President Donald Trump's push to impose stricter work requirements on food stamp recipients," Politico notes. "It is a huge setback to the farm lobby and House Speaker Paul Ryan's welfare-reform agenda." The current Farm Bill expires Sept. 30, and "GOP farm-state lawmakers are hoping that the farm bill can provide some relief for agricultural producers dealing with a multiyear drop in crop prices and an uncertain trade environment."

The House Freedom Caucus, a bloc of ardent conservatives, had "held the bill hostage" for two days, Politico reports, "demanding that the House first vote on controversial immigration legislation in exchange for their support for the sweeping agriculture and nutrition legislation." The Post reports, "With moderate Republicans maneuvering to force a vote on legislation offering citizenship to some younger immigrants who arrived in the country as children, conservatives revolted."

Politico reports, "GOP leaders said they would delay a motion to reconsider the bill until a later date. It is unclear if they intend to try to pass the partisan bill again — or move to a bipartisan document that could easily clear the Senate."

The Post looks ahead: "The outcome exposed what is becoming an all-out war within the House GOP over immigration, a divisive fight the Republicans did not want to have heading into midterm elections in November that will decide control of Congress. . . . The House farm bill would have been a non-starter anyway in the Senate, which is writing its own farm bill. Any legislation that ultimately makes it to Trump’s desk will have to look more like the version in the Senate, where bipartisan support will be necessary for anything to pass and there is not sufficient support for the food-stamp changes."

And Politico looks back: "Rejection of the legislation is reminiscent of the last Farm Bill cycle in 2013, when the House also voted down a conservative version of the legislation, delaying the process for months. Ultimately, the sweeping bill was bailed out by Democrats the following year. . . . A partisan farm bill is a departure from past tradition, when a coalition of moderate lawmakers from rural and urban America came together to support the agricultural economy and some 40 million people who now get help buying groceries."

Farm states say they bear 'unfair' brunt of Chinese tariffs; Commerce secretary says administration will try to help

"Several senators whose states are already feeling the effects of escalating U.S. trade tensions with China pressed Wilbur Ross at Thursday’s Senate Appropriations [Committee] hearing on the Trump administration’s tariff strategy," Dave Nyczepir reports for Route Fifty.

Sen. Jerry Moran, the Kansas Republican who chairs the committee said the tariffs imposed by China have done "significant economic harm" to his state, which he noted is a leader in beef, pork, wheat, sorghum and soybean production--all of which have been slapped with heavy tariffs.

Ross, Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin went to China last week in an attempt to halt the escalating trade war. Both sides delivered specific demands, Ross said at the hearing, but said the gap between what the two countries want remains "wide." 

Agriculture had figured heavily in the trade discussions with China, Ross said, and promised "we will do our level best to minimize the problem and to maximize the support we can provide in helping them."

Trump plans to cut emergency funds from CHIP program

President Trump wants to cut $7 billion from contingency funds in the Children's Health Insurance Plan in an effort to cut the nearly $1 trillion federal deficit. Though the measure wouldn't directly affect the deficit, lawmakers would be able to use those funds for other programs instead of borrowing more money, Phil Galewitz reports for Kaiser Health News.

Critics of the proposal, like Georgetown University law professor David Super, say it's "pure political theater, ugly theater" since it would do little to reduce the deficit, and it could end up hurting some of the 9 million low-income children the program covers.

The program used its contingency funds last year when Congress allowed its funding to lapse for 114 days. Several states ran out of money and needed the contingency cash to keep children covered. It can be argued that taking away contingency funds is a bet that such a situation will not occur again.

EPA sued for not requiring mining companies to prove they have the money to clean hazardous waste spills

"Six environmental groups on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt for abandoning a rule that would have forced hard-rock mining companies to prove they have enough money up front to clean up hazardous substances released at mine sites," Reuters reports

The groups, including Earthjustice, Earthworks, and the Sierra Club, filed the lawsuit in the District of Columbia Circuit Court. Many abandoned former mines in the U.S. West are still polluted and harm public health, the groups argued. When mining companies go bankrupt, taxpayers have to pay millions or even billions in cleanup. The EPA estimates the current backlog of cleanup costs for hard-rock mines in the U.S. is anywhere from $20 billion to $54 billion. 

"In December, the EPA decided to abandon the rulemaking process after determining that modern industry practices already address risks from operating hard-rock mining facilities," Reuters reports. Pruitt said at the time that the rule would impose an "undue burden on this important sector of the American economy and rural America, where most of these mining jobs are based."

4-H project propels Pennsylvania teen to successful hog business

Dakota Grumbine feeds his Berkshire hogs. (PBS NewsHour video footage capture)
4-H has been helping students gain confidence and learn about animal husbandry for more than 100 years, and a Pennsylvania teen has taken those lessons to heart with extraordinary results, Alexis Lesher reports for PBS NewsHour's Student Reporting Labs series, Making It Work.

When Dakota Grumbine was 8 years old, he raised some pigs for a 4-H project. But with hard work, the Lebanon teen has turned that project into a profitable business breeding pasture-raised Berkshire pigs and selling the meat to butchers and restaurants. Berkshires are a specialty breed that bring more than a dollar more per pound than regular pork. 

Grumbine's Berkshires now has 20 sows, four boars, and nearly 200 customers, but he had a lot to learn to get his business off the ground. "When I first started off, I didn’t really have any luck as far as the breeding standpoint goes," Dakota told Lesher. "I couldn’t get pigs settled. The litters were small. Not many of them had a second litter, or they just didn’t work out. So it took me a while to get a sow base built up."

Dakota said that even if he doesn't stick with raising hogs as a career, he's glad he's learning how to manage time and money, as well as other skills. His dad, Darren Grumbine, agreed: "The younger you are when you start something, the easier it is to pick it up. I see other kids don’t enjoy certain opportunities such as public speaking and talking to strangers. He did that stuff at such a young age, that now he doesn’t even really think about some of those things that hold a lot of kids back."

Thursday, May 17, 2018

MIT project helps self-driving cars navigate rural roads

How MIT's car sees the world with a LiDar sensor (MIT illustration)
Self-driving cars are already on the streets in a few urban areas, but they face a significant barrier to driving rural roads: there may not be detailed three-dimensional maps available (think Google Street View maps), and the roads can be twisty with few or no buildings nearby to help the car assess landmarks or road edges. But researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have come up with a way to help autonomous cars navigate rural roads, and "their strategy involves teaching cars to drive like humans," Rob Verger reports for Popular Science.

Though self-driving cars rely on detailed maps to help them figure out where they are in a city, many have a LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensor that helps it see curbs and other obstacles. The MIT team juiced up their test vehicle's LiDar sensor to help it detect the difference between the asphalt and the grass. The LiDAR's 64 lasers each spun around 10 times per second, providing constant feedback on what the car's surroundings look like and where it was on the road.

That’s how the car perceived where the road was in front of it, but it still had to know how to drive to its destination without a great 3D map in its silicon brain (although it did have GPS)," Verger reports. "To do that, it picked a 'local goal'—a point in the road up ahead that the car could see, and drove towards it. But it didn’t just drive to that point and stop. The vehicle constantly refreshed that goal as it approached it, like paddling towards a point on the horizon on a big, flat lake."

Christoph Mertz, a scientist at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, admires the project because he says rural areas are sometimes neglected by scientists, and this project could help rural residents: "If these autonomous vehicles don’t drive in rural areas, then the elderly there might be stuck in their houses because nobody can drive them."

North Carolina teacher protest exposes urban-rural divide

N.C. teachers march on Raleigh. (AP photo by Gerry Broome)
Thousands of North Carolina teachers marched on the state Capitol in Raleigh yesterday in support of increased school funding.

About two-thirds of the state's children were out of school yesterday because there weren't enough substitutes to cover for teachers who requested the day off. "But the districts that canceled class, affecting nearly 1 million students, are concentrated in the state’s urban and suburban counties. Most of the state’s 100 counties are rural, and their school districts stayed open," Valerie Bauerlein reports for The Wall Street Journal. "That divergence isn’t a coincidence, and reflects the growing divide in the state between the liberal cities that drive the state’s economy and the conservative small towns and rural areas that control state politics."

The protest differed from those in other states in that teachers only expected to march for one day, and many said they didn't expect lawmakers to raise teacher pay immediately, Bauerlein reports.

One protesting teacher, Jenna Moore, said she has to work a second job as a real-estate agent to make ends meet, and that schools are not given enough funding for classroom supplies. Moore is a fifth-grade teacher in the city of High Point, pop. 111,223.

The state Republican Party said the protest unnecessarily inconveniences parents and students, and noted that the legislature has increased teacher pay every year for the past four years, with another increase scheduled for next year. North Carolina ranks 37th in teacher pay, with an estimated annual average of $50,861, compared to the national average of $60,483, according to a report from the National Education Association. While North Carolina law bars public employees from joining unions, the organization that sponsored the march, the North Carolina Association of Educators, is an NEA affiliate.

Were chicken prices fixed? Are they still being fixed?

In February several grocery retailers and the country's two biggest food distributors filed suit against a slew of poultry companies like Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms, accusing them of colluding to fix the price of broiler chickens for 10 years. It's the third lawsuit in less than two years alleging poultry price fixing, and a fascinating new story from NPR explains how the story leaked in the first place.

In 2016, some Wall Street hedge fund investors had bet a lot of money that the stocks of chicken companies (along with the price of chicken) would fall, but the stock prices and chicken prices remained high, Dan Charles reports for NPR. The investors wondered if chicken companies were keeping prices artificially high, and hired a lawyer to investigate.

The lawyer found that many big chicken buyers, such as supermarkets and restaurant chains, were using the Georgia Department of Agriculture's chicken price index to set their prices, since Georgia is the nation's leading poultry producer. A department employee named Arty Schronce was in charge of compiling the index. He called big companies like Tyson weekly and asked how much they were selling chickens and chicken parts for, then sent out the index in a newsletter. But the hedge-fund lawyer noticed that Schronce's numbers were too high -- sometimes 30 percent to 50 percent higher than other indexes, Charles reports.

Then the lawyer found a memo Schronce had written to himself, saying he didn't believe his own index anymore. There was no protocol to make sure chicken was actually selling at the prices the producers quoted. "Within a day of the lawyer getting that memo, it's been passed on to The Washington Post," Charles reports. "When it's published, it destroys the reputation of that price index. Georgia stops publishing it. Which is what Artie Schronce had proposed in his memo; it just took some short-selling Wall Street guys to make it happen."

Chicken prices still didn't fall after chicken buyers stopped using the index, and that's part of the reason for the current lawsuit: chicken buyers say poultry producers had fixed the prices and somehow still are. Not only is this a study in poultry pricing, it may be a cautionary tale about data and their sources.

Senate votes to save net neutrality in mostly symbolic vote

The U.S. Senate voted 52-47 yesterday to preserve federal net neutrality rules, which had been repealed in December by the Federal Communications Commission. The resolution of disapproval was mostly symbolic, since the heavily Republican-controlled House is unlikely to pass it, and even if it did, President Trump would likely veto it. But because most Americans favor net neutrality, Senate Democrats are likely looking to use the vote as political fodder against Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections.

The Senate vote was mostly along party lines, with all Democrats and three Republicans voting for the resolution: Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and John Kennedy of Louisiana, Alyssa Newcomb reports for NBC News.

The major battleground for net neutrality rules is now at the state level. Several states have passed net neutrality protections by legislation or executive order, such as Montana, Oregon, and Washington.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Salt Lake Tribune lays off a third of newsroom employees; won't have separate section for Utah news on most days

A little over two years ago, Utah's two major newspapers cut back on their rural circulation. Such moves are often followed by a reduction in rural coverage, and that happened this week, as the Salt Lake Tribune announced that it would cut its newsroom by a third and "eliminate its high-profile Utah news section Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, having already gone dark with its Monday version of the local news page," Tony Semerad reports for the Tribune.

"Local coverage will still be available every day of the week, but on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, you’ll find it in the A section," Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce wrote in an editor's note. "I thank our loyal readers and subscribers — both print and digital — for standing by us through these difficult times. We feel the love and hope you’ll continue to value our coverage. Send us news tips. Share our stories on social media. Sign up for our newsletters. Listen to our podcasts. Attend our live public events. Encourage local businesses to advertise in the paper and online. And, of course, subscribe."

Paul Huntsman, who bought the paper in 2016, warned of the cuts last week, saying they were "part of breakthroughs in talks with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, owner of the Deseret News, The Tribune’s business partner on print, advertising and circulation, Semerad reports. "But for staff, going from the journalism high of winning a 2017 Pulitzer Prize and confidence in Huntsman’s philanthropic ownership to Monday’s hard and sobering shift felt like a blow to the Tribune’s identity — not least its ability to keep a watchdog role in Utah and build audiences."

U.S. Department of Education derails for-profit college investigation, hires people with for-profit college ties

"Members of a special team at the Education Department that had been investigating widespread abuses by for-profit colleges have been marginalized, reassigned or instructed to focus on other matters," Danielle Ivory, Erica Green and Steve Eder report for The New York Times. That's derailed probes of several large for-profit colleges where some of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's top hires had worked, such as DeVry Education Group, now known as Adtalem Global Education. For-profit colleges are prevalent in rural areas or tend to attract a disproportionate number of students from young adults in rural areas.

The team was created in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, after the collapse of California-based Corinthian Colleges. It began investigating advertising, recruitment practices and job-placement claims by several for-profit colleges, but the probe suddenly stopped early last year, and last summer DeVos named former DeVry dean and current Education Department employee Julian Schmoke as the investigative team's supervisor. Last summer the Trump administration also suspended rules aimed at protecting students from predatory for-profit colleges.

Other former for-profit college employees who now work for DeVos include "Robert S. Eitel, her senior counselor, and Diane Auer Jones, a senior adviser on postsecondary education. Last month, Congress confirmed the appointment of a lawyer who provided consulting services to Career Education, Carlos G. Muñiz, as the department’s general counsel," the Times reports.

The investigative team now only has three members, and its scope has been narrowed to focusing on processing student-loan forgiveness applications and lesser compliance cases, according to former members. Department spokesperson Elizabeth Hill said the team is smaller because of attrition, and investigations are only one way the department provides oversight. Hill said the refocus of the team's efforts isn't an indication that the department is curtailing its oversight, and said none of the new employees who had worked in the for-profit industry influenced the team's work.

"The former and current employees disputed Ms. Hill’s account, and said the group and its work had become an issue of contention during meetings with the Trump transition team," the Times reports. "Several of the employees said that there had been a staff push to continue the investigation as recently as this year, with no result."

Recreation is a key to rural population and economic growth

"The outdoor recreation industry is a critical engine for the national economy, larger in size than the agriculture and fossil-fuel mining and drilling sectors, according to a recent Department of Commerce report," Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder. "The report also said that rural communities and small business owners are a key ingredient in the growing economic engine."

A Stateline analysis of census data found that outdoor recreation helped drive the slight growth in rural population from 2016 to 2017. While populations shrank in big mining and farming counties, those with large recreational industries grew, and grew the most. Independent research group Headwaters Economics found that population, employment and personal income grew an average of two times faster or more in Western rural counties with the most federal lands, Oates reports.

The Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis began compiling its report in 2016 after President Obama signed the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act, which directed the department to work with the Agriculture and Interior departments to assess and analyze the outdoor recreation economy. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross hailed the report as a good source of data that businesses can use to help them plan for the future, as it measures the economic impact of recreational activities such as boating, fishing, RVing, hunting, camping and hiking.

According to the BEA report, the largest industry in outdoor recreation is motorized vehicles (mostly RVs), which accounted for $59.5 billion of economic activity in 2016. Boating and fishing contributed $38.2 billion that year, and hunting/fishing/trapping brought $15.4 billion.

An industry trade group called the Outdoor Industry Association did a similar study that found $887 billion of economic activity generated by outdoor recreation, more than twice what BEA found. The difference lies in the methodology: "The BEA report did not account for the revenue produced from apparel and equipment manufactured overseas, which makes up a large portion of outdoor gear," Oates reports. "In addition, the BEA did not measure recreation spending on trips that happen less than 50 miles from home."