Saturday, January 12, 2008

Southern Kentucky paper reveals ripoff of retirees by builder, suggests need for stronger local code

One of the most controversial steps that an isolated, rural community can take is to impose restrictions on the use of property, such as zoning and building codes. While such measures are a fact of life for most Americans, they are not for many in rural areas, and sometimes those folks pay an unexpected price, as Sharon Burton of the Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Ky., wrote this week:

"Wayne and Connie Feese visited Columbia numerous times spanning several decades to research their genealogy. When it came time to retire, they purchased a lot ... and [built] a house in Day Lily Meadows. Their dream retirement plan has since turned into a nightmare, and the Feeses would love nothing more than to be able to sell their home and leave town."(Encarta map)

The Feeses, who lived in Illinois, presumed the county had a building code for single-family homes and required a certificate of occupancy. It does not, despite pleas from the state and local building inspectors. Their home has major flaws that they are still spending to fix, though “We were told the inspector approved the house, the building inspector approved everything,” Wayne Feese told Burton.

Burton's analysis: "Forcing restrictions on citizens is never popular and shouldn’t be done lightly, but victims like Feese believe it’s also the county’s responsibility to protect its citizens. ... The lack of restrictions also costs the county. According to the Adair County Tourism Commission, every retiree who moves into Adair County is equal to 3.5 jobs." (Read more)

Looking in the mirror at its teeth, W.Va. putting more limits on sugary drinks, snacks in schools

West Virginia's school board approved a nutrition policy Thursday that would ban from schools drinks with caffeine, and those with more than 200 calories, 200 milligrams of sodium or35 percent sugar (excluding fruit).Earlier in the week, a legislative committee recommended "that the state ban all soft drinks and sugary snacks" from schools, reports Davin White of The Charleston Gazette.

"After learning recently how bad residents’ oral health has become, the legislators believe the ban also could decrease obesity rates in addition to improving dental health in the Mountain State," writes Shelley Hanson of The Intelligencer in Wheeling.

The school board's policy would also "nearly ban all trans fat [and] limit saturated fat to less than 10 percent of total calories," White reports. "The policy, which goes into effect July 1, would not keep students from bringing in soft drinks they bought at a convenience or grocery store."

The legislative proposal is expected to face opposition from lobbyists for the soft-drink industry, and even from some educators. "Some high-school principals also enjoy the revenue that soft drink sales bring their schools," White notes. "During the school day, middle and elementary school students already cannot buy caffeine and sugary soft drinks." (Read more)

The legislative committee pushing the bill also called for creation of a state Office of Oral Health. "The office would be charged with promoting better oral health throughout West Virginia, including supporting efforts to require dental inspection for students in elementary school," The Intelligencer reports. "According to the Centers for Disease Control, 61.4 percent of adults across West Virginia visited dentists in 2006, down from 62.5 percent in 2004. The state ranks 47th, with only three states reporting fewer visits: Oklahoma, Mississippi and Arkansas." (Read more)

Friday, January 11, 2008

Kentucky congressman keeps getting federal funds for rural interstate no other state wants to build

"U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers has funneled nearly $90 million in federal funds toward a proposed interstate highway in Kentucky that likely will never cross the state, much less stretch beyond its borders," R.G. Dunlop of The Courier-Journal reported in a two-day package of stories last month. They're still timely and worth reading.

"Despite the substantial expenditure of funds, not a single shovelful of dirt has been turned on Interstate 66, conceived nearly two decades ago as a coast-to-coast corridor that would run through Southern Kentucky," writes Dunlop, a former Eastern Kentucky reporter for the Louisville newspaper. "Since then, it has been abandoned by every other state as unnecessary or too expensive. Nevertheless, Kentucky continues to push forward, urged on by I-66 supporters, including local politicians and economic-development officials, and driven by Rogers' powerful influence as a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee." (See next item.)

Dunlop notes that "Only two short, widely separated segments of I-66 have even reached the planning stages," one of them in Rogers' home Pulaski County and the other in Pike County, home of former Gov. Paul Patton, a Democrat who renamed the state's Daniel Boone Parkway for Rogers, a Republican. Environmentalists say the Pulaski route would threaten natural areas and caves, and the Pike segment "would roughly parallel a newly upgraded $400 million four-lane highway," The C-J reports. But Patton, reflecting Rogers' economic- development theory for the road, says being near a numbered interstate highway is "almost magical." (Read more) For the rest of the package, which includes plenty of maps, other graphics and videos, click here.

Congress cuts Eastern Kentucky anti-drug program

In addition to a two-thirds cut in the main federal grant program for anti-drug efforts by local police, reported most recently here, "a task force that has arrested more than 2,400 drug suspects in Eastern Kentucky the past five years and provided money for drug treatment and education" has seen its federal funding slashed by more than half, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Operation UNITE (Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education) has laid off 10 police officers and two other workers, "and could face a cut in a counseling program if it doesn't come up with more money," write Bill Estep and Cassondra Kirby, the paper's bureau reporters in Southern and Eastern Kentucky, respectively.

The program was started by 5th District U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers in 2003, when he and his fellow Republicans controlled the House and he was an appropriations subcommittee chairman. "Rogers ... got $8 million earmarked for UNITE each year of its first three years and then upped that to $9.1 million in 2006-07," the Herald-Leader reports. "However, UNITE got nothing for 2007 after Democrats took control of Congress and suspended earmarks while tinkering with the system. UNITE got through 2007 without major problems because it had some carryover money, but in the budget President Bush signed last month, UNITE received only about $4 million."

Because appropriators often engage in mutual back-scratching, it's often said that Congress has three parties -- Democrats, Republicans and Appropriators -- and Rogers spokesman Jim Pettit told the newspaper that the cuts were unrelated to the change in party control. "It's a different fiscal reality this year and part of it has to do with a budget deficit," he said, noting that UNITE is still one of the largest line items in the Justice Department budget. (Read more)

Uranium mine idea sparks debate in southern Va.

A deposit of uranium ore could mean millions for the owner of some southern Virginia farmland, but so far it has only served to make him a controversial figure in his community and create an issue for the state legislature.

Despite the opposition of many of his neighbors, Walter Coles, the owner of the farm and the chairman of Virginia Uranium Inc., wants the state to allow independent testing to see if mining can be done safely in Pittsylvania County, reports Duncan Adams of The Roanoke Times (which produced the map).

The controversy has made Coles and his efforts a common topic on the opinion pages of The Chatham Star-Tribune, an 8,300-circulation weekly that serves the county. One letter asked if Pittsyvlania County wanted to be a "National Sacrifice Area," referencing worries about radioactive material left behind by the mining. (Adams reports that one petition in the community reads, "Heck no! We won't glow!") In a Jan. 2 letter to the Star-Tribune, Coles wrote that the deposit "is estimated to be the largest known untapped uranium deposit in the U.S." and could bring millions to the community.

The Danville Register & Bee, a 21,000-circulation daily, said in an editorial, "The uranium challenge facing this community is simple. People have to learn the facts about uranium mining so that they can better guide their local and state legislators. But they need to hurry."

This week, Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, introduced a bill to create a commission to explore mining uranium in Virginia. A 1983 ban on uranium mining in the state is still in effect, Adams reports. Earlier this week, the Pittsylvania County zoning board granted a permit allowing Virginia Uranium to construct storage buildings as part of its exploratory work.

While Coles touts the economic impact of the uranium, opponents cite safety concerns. "Many residents have concerns about short — and long-term control and monitoring of the sandy 'tailings' that remain after milling — byproducts containing radioactive materials and hazardous heavy metals," Adams writes. (Read more)

Supreme Court sides with Monsanto against farmer who used its leftover but patented seed

The U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, sided this week with Monsanto, the multinational agricultural company, in its patent dispute with a Mississippi farmer, reports the St. Louis Business Journal. Monsanto is based in St. Louis.

"Monsanto successfuly sued Homan McFarling, a Mississippi farmer, in 1999 for saving and replanting its patented Roundup Ready soybean seeds, Monsanto spokeswoman Geri Berdak said," the Business Journal writes. "McFarling used the seeds in 1998 and then re-used them in following years prompting the suit, {Monsanto spokeswoman Geri] Berdak said. A lengthy appeals process brought the case to the Supreme Court." The court upheld lower-court rulings that sided with the trial jury and awarded $375,000 in damages to Monsanto.

"The Supreme Court decision helps assure continued investment into the kind of research and development necessary to keep growers on the cutting edge of productivity," Berdak told the Business Journal in an e-mail. "We believe strong intellectual property protection will encourage the investment needed to maintain continued crop improvement." (Read more)

Friends, foes speak on coal-fired power plant in southwest Va.; county supervisors turn mute

Dominion Virginia Power's proposal to build a high-tech, coal-fired generating plant in southwestern Virginia brought about 150 opponents and supporters to Richmond to have their say before the State Corporation Commission.

The $1.6 billion, 585-megawatt facility would be built in Wise County, near St. Paul. Opponents argued the plant would pollute the air, while supporters claimed it would bring new jobs and economic development. Dominion has promised to use state-of-the-art measures to reduce carbon emissions for a cleaner burning of coal, reports The Associated Press. (Read more)

"It was a battle between conflicting ideas about what’s good for Wise County and the coalfields," reports Keith Strange of The Coalfield Progress, the county's main weekly newspaper. "While opponents of the plant greatly outnumbered the nearly 50 supporters, those in favor of the $1.86 billion plant included community leaders, politicos and economic development officials." (Read more, subscription required; for Strange's story about the opponents, click here)

But last night, the county Board of Supervisors failed to pass a measure reaffirming its support for the plant, reports Kathy Still of the Bristol Herald-Courier. "Not a single board member made a move to approve the document the board had seemed poised to adopt just last week in its work session," Still writes. Before the measure failed, about a dozen residents of Wise and Russell counties spoke against the plant, citing environmental concerns. Some scolded supervisors who had spoken in favor of the plant during the Corporation Commission meeting. The commission meets next month to consider the proposal. (Read more)

Study says some biofuels are worse for the environment than fossil fuels

Biofuels are touted as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, but not all live up to the claim, according to a new study. Commissioned by the Swiss government, researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) analyzed 26 biofuels in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions and other factors and found some biofuels have their own environmental problems, reports Science Daily.

The study said fuels made from U.S. corn, Brazilian soy and Malaysian palm may do more damage to the environment than fossil fuels. The most environmentally-friendly fuels include ethanol from plants or wood and fuel made from recycled cooking oil.

William Laurance, staff scientist at STRI, claimed in a letter published by Science magazine last month, that the ethanol boom and U.S. farm subsidies have to greater deforestation of rain forests in the Amazon. Since more American farmers have switched from soy to corn, Laurance argued, Brazilian farmers have added acreage to cash in on rising soy prices. (Read more)

Candy man Mars loses fight to stop drilling in Mont.

The wishes of a candy billionaire were not enough to overcome the rule of split estates or slow the race to tap coal-bed methane in Montana. Forrest E. Mars Jr., the owner and former CEO of candymaker Mars Inc., had fought companies seeking to drill for natural gas on his cattle ranch (in a Billings Gazette photo by Larry Meyer), but thanks to a court ruling, one company started drilling this week, reports Jim Robbins of The New York Times.

"The conflict is the latest skirmish in a long war between ranchers and energy companies over a natural gas known as coal-bed methane," Robbins writes. "Technology created in the 1990s allowed producers to cheaply tap natural gas that occurs near the surface in underground coal deposits. That prompted a boom in the West, especially in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming."

The legal battle hinged on the split estates created by the Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916 which gave ranchers the land, but the federal government the right to minerals below it. The government has leased those rights to companies, such as Fidelity Exploration and Production and Pinnacle Gas Resources, which have the rights to the resources under Mars' 82,000-acre Diamond Cross Ranch in the northern part of Montana.

Worth about $14 billion (according to Forbes magazine), Mars had fought the drilling quietly, until his ownership of the property and his role in lawsuits against the energy companies were revealed when The Associated Press reviewed a December court affidavit. (Read more)

Federal judge blocks Gideon Bible handouts in rural Missouri school district

For more than three decades members of Gideons International have come to the tiny South Iron [County] School District on Missouri's rugged Ozark Plateau to hand out Bibles to fifth-graders. This week, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Perry ruled that the practice was unconstitutional, reports Jim Salter of The Associated Press. The district is based in Annapolis, Mo., about 120 miles south-southwest of St. Louis.

Three years ago, some parents raised concerns, but the school board upheld the policy on a 4-3 vote. The following year, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit. As a result, the school stopped letting Gideons enter the classrooms, but still welcomed the group or others to come to the school and distribute information before or after school or during lunch. Perry granted a permanent injunction against both the original policy and the modified one. "The policy has the principle or primary effect of advancing religion by conveying a message of endorsement to elementary school children," she wrote. An attorney for the school district said it would appeal. (Read more)

End of slaughterhouses in U.S. sends horses to abbatoirs in Canada and Mexico instead

The last horse slaughterhouses in the United States closed in 2007, when state laws and court decisions in Illinois and Texas closed the last three. Now, unwanted animals are auctioned off in the States, only to be sent over the border to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico — just one of the "unintended consequences" of the closings, writes Caitrin Einhorn of The New York Times.

"The slaughterhouse closings themselves may have added to the population of the unwanted," Einhorn writes, after describing the "kill pen" (above in a Times photo by Sally Ryan), the area of an Indiana auction site with horses destined for slaughter somewhere else. "In some parts of the country, auctioneers say, the closings have contributed to a drop in the price of horses at the low end of the market, and the added distance in the shipping of horses bound for slaughter, combined with higher fuel costs, means that some small or thin horses are no longer worth the fuel it takes to transport them."

A chief concern for animal rights activists is the treatment of horses at slaughterhouses in Mexico, where they say workers use inhumane methods to kill the horses. As a result, some groups are pressing Congress to ban the transportation of horses for human consumption and thus end the exporting. Still, the issue divides the horse industry, and the American Horse Council, the national lobbying group, calls itself neutral on horse slaughter. (Read more)

The number of U.S. horse exports to Mexico jumped 312 percent in 2007 from the 2006 level, report Tom Steever and Dave Russell of the Brownfield Network. As of Dec. 20, 2007, 44,375 horses had been shipped to Mexico for human consumption, compared to 10,783 over the same period in 2006. (Read more) For Monday's item on a similar story from The Wall Street Journal, click here.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Rural artist's 1938 silent film about a day in his household is added to National Film Registry

What does "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" have in common with a silent, 12-minute movie by rural Kentuckian about a day in his household? They're among the latest 25 movies selected for inclusion on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

"Our Day" was made in 1938 by Wallace Kelly of Lebanon, Ky., at the geographic center of the state. "He made the movie using a 16mm camera at 457 W. Walnut Street in Lebanon," reports Stephen Lega of The Lebanon Enterprise. "Kelly was a prolific artist who lived most of his life in Lebanon. He painted, took photographs and wrote a critically acclaimed novel, Days Are As Grass, in 1941."

The film gained national attention through Home Movie Day, an annual event held in New York and other cities. In the Big Apple, "Wallace Kelly's daughter, Martha, presented two of his films, 'Our Day' and 'The Enterprise Goes to Press.' Wallace Kelly's brother, Oliver, served as the editor of the paper," Lega writes. (Read more)

The movie was praised for its sophisticated staging, lighting, camera work and editing. Dave Kehr of The New York Times, a member of the National Film Preservation Board, which picked the movies, called Kelly's picture "extraordinary" and said in his personal blog that it "displays a more sophisticated sense of mise-en-scene [staging] than the great majority of current Hollywood features."

At 100, Nebraska newswoman keeps on reporting

Mildred Heath's journalism career began at Linotype machine in 1923, and she has been on the job ever since. Last Friday, she celebrated her 100th birthday at her office, the newsroom of the Beacon-Observer in Elm Creek, Neb., reports Paul Hammel of the Omaha World-Herald (who also took the photo). Heath is a former co-publisher of the Beacon- Observer, and is now the 1,400-circulation weekly's correspondent for the town of Overton.

"Today, Heath may well be the oldest working journalist in the country, said Allen Beermann, executive director of the Nebraska Press Association," Hammel writes. "A National Newspaper Association official offered no contrary evidence, and Internet search found one contender, Dina Sundby, who was a correspondent for the Hillsboro (N.D.) Banner until her death at age 97 in 2003."

Heath's career began when she worked the Linotype machine for the Curtis (Neb.) Enterprise, and she still carries the burns from the machine's hot lead. In 1938, she founded the Overton Observer with her husband, Blair. In 1948, they bought the Elm Creek Beacon and later merged the two papers. Today, Heath works five days a week at the Beacon-Observer answering phones, filing photographs and writing an "Overton News" column.

"People tell me to keep at it. I enjoy people and I enjoy life," Heath told Hammel. "I enjoy the work. And I'm needed." (Read more)

MinnPost explores ethanol's impact in Minnesota

In a four-part series that ended today, MinnPost, a non-profit source for Minnesota news online and in print, has explored ethanol and what impact the industry could have on the state's economy, especially in rural areas. (At left in a MinnPost photo by Jacob Valento, dried distiller's grain, the byproduct of corn used for ethanol, is ready to be shipped out for livestock feed.)

Over the four parts — including a video showing how corn becomes ethanol — Mark Neuzil and Ron Way trace the history of ethanol in the state, beginning with the nation's first commercially viable ethanol plant, located in Wanamingo, Minn. The four parts of the series are:
  1. Minnesota's corn ethanol industry blends subsidies, politics and lobbying
  2. Despite the hype, experts question corn ethanol's environmentally friendly image
  3. Ethanol reduces need for imported oil, but its energy savings are costly
  4. Beyond corn ethanol: Minnesota's rural economy positioned for enormous gains
In the fourth part, Way explains that the move toward cellulosic ethanol production would have twice as much value for the state's economy as corn ethanol. "Minnesota is poised to gain enormously from 'next generation' ethanol," Way writes. "The state has prairies where needed grasses can thrive, as they did before 30,000 square miles of sod was busted in the Great Plains to raise grain crops during pioneer settlement. Minnesota also has forests for wood biomass and a major urban center that generates copious organic wastes that now goes to landfills."

Administration gives up on national forest rules

The Bush administration has dropped its appeal of a court ruling that had overturned proposed changes to the management of national forests, reports H. Josef Herbert of The Associated Press. The rules had been opposed by environmental groups who argued the changes helped loggers at the expense of wildlife.

"Last March, a federal district court in California found that the U.S. Forest Service had bypassed required environmental reviews and provisions under the Endangered Species Act in its overhaul of the management rules, including changes in logging limits, for its national forests," Herbert writes. "District Judge Phyllis Hamilton, acting on a lawsuit filed by environmentalists, prohibited the further implementation of the revised rules which were issued in January, 2005."

In August, the Forest Service had said it was working on revised rules that would survive legal review. (Read more)

Kentucky journalists focus on diabetes at summit

"Thousands of Kentuckians are in danger of literally eating and lounging themselves to death," Ben Gish of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg reports from this week's Kentucky Diabetes Solutions Summit. In another weekly newspaper's story published about the event, Edmund Shelby of The Beattyville Enterprise wrote, "Lee County holds the second worst percentage of the prevalence of diabetes in Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Institute of Medicine."

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues made personal invitations to the newspapers serving Kentucky's 20 most diabetic counties to attend the summit, and six sent their editors or reporters. Also attending was a reporter from a county that has a low diabetes rate but lots of people living unhealthy lifestyles, the reporter told us.

The summit was designed to focus attention on the state's high incidence of diabetes and ways to address it -- including news-media attention that can help those in danger of developing diabetes life healthier lifestyles and avoid the disease. This is a big problem for America, where 21 million people (7 percent of the population) have been diagnosed with diabetes and 54 million are considered at risk for it -- and may already have it. In Kentucky, the rate is 10 percent, and in some counties it is around 15 percent.

For more from the summit, including remarks by keynote speaker Newt Gingrich, shown below with the journalists, click here.

Forest Service allows logging at Blowing Rock, N.C.

In 2006, the U.S. Forest Service announced plans to log in the Pisgah National Forest near the mountain resort town of Blowing Rock, N.C., about 90 miles northwest of Asheville. Since then, environmentalists and locals have opposed the logging in the section known as the Globe (in photo by Jeff Eason for The Watauga Democrat) since many of the affected areas would be visible from popular tourist spots, but this week the Forest Service said it would continue with the plan, reports Bruce Henderson of the Charlotte Observer.

"Forest Supervisor Marisue Hilliard, who oversees national forests in North Carolina, upheld an October logging decision that environmental groups had appealed," Henderson writes. "She promised 'continued dialogue ' with opponents and other potential concessions, such as cutting the trees in stages over a decade." (Read more)

The plan calls for logging trees in 17 scattered units for a total of 212 acres within the 11,225 acres of the Globe area. More than 1,000 public comments were filed in response to the plan, and environmental groups opposed the logging, saying that some trees in the area had been for more than 300 years. The Southern Environmental Law Center appealed on behalf of three environmental groups, and the Blowing Rock, Boone and Watauga County governments passed resolutions calling for a federally designated scenic area that would prohibit logging.

The original plan called for the logging of 231 acres, but the 19-acre reduction was not enough to satisfy opponents such as Chris Joyell of Wild South, reports Scott Nicholson of the Democrat, a weekly newspaper in Boone, N.C. (Watauga Cpunty). Joyell told Nicholson the service should at the very least avoid logging in areas that could receive the scenic designation.

“We’re prepared to do whatever it takes to protect the Globe basin and best represent the community’s interests for that area,” Joyell said. “We hope to gain time and help them understand the importance of this area to the community.(Read more)

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

In the poorest rural schools, most students are Afican American, Hispanic or Native American

In the nation's poorest rural districts, the classes are filled mostly by students of color, according to Census Bureau data analyzed by the Rural School and Community Trust.

The January issue of the trust's Rural Policy Matters reports that among the 800 rural districts with the highest poverty rates, about 26 percent of the students are African American, 20 percent Hispanic and 10 percent Native American. These districts, called the "Rural 800,"serve 969,000 school-age children in 38 states. In Alabama, 81 percent are African-American, while in New Mexico 90 percent are either Hispanic (47 percent) or Native American (43 percent). Nationwide, 11 percent of students in the Rural 800 are English Language Learners. (Read more)

The January issue (available here) also highlights the five states with the lowest per rural pupil expenditures: Oklahoma ($3,591 per pupil), Mississippi ($3,688), Arkansas ($3,790), Alabama ($3,793) and Tennessee ($3,856).

Museum and its branches bring art to rural Pa.

In 1975, Sean M. Sullivan decided he wanted to create a museum that gave rural Pennsylvanians access to art for free. He discovered the answer was not one museum but four of them, writes Kurt Shaw of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. (T-R photo by Guy Wathen shows a wall of paintings, part of the current “Chuck Olson: Visual Histories” exhibit.)

"Although the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art -- or 'SAMA,' as it is affectionately called by most -- is considered one organization, it actually is four museums," Shaw writes. "With locations in Altoona in Blair County, Johnstown and Loretto in Cambria County, and Ligonier Valley in Westmoreland, it is widely recognized as the most successful longstanding satellite museum system in the country."

Sullivan took the idea from the success of the Boston Museum's satellite branch in Quincy Market, a major tourist attraction. Using that as a model, Sullivan led a group of investors to open temporary and then permanent exhibition spaces throughout the region.

"What all of the facilities do is they minimize cost, maximize resources, and make the collections and activities of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art directly accessible to a rather non-mobile public," Michael M. Strueber, chairman of Fine Arts Department at Saint Francis College in Loretto, Pa., where the museum has one of its branches.

The SAMA operates on an annual budget of $1 million — most of it comes from fundraising — and it offers a successful model for how to bring art to rural areas as well as provide educational opportunities in those communities. (Read more)

Rough roads and bridges keep rural businesses from moving forward in Minnesota, study says

The collapse of a major bridge in Minneapolis last August brought attention to the need for improved transportation infrastructure in Minnesota and throughout the country. Aging roads and bridges remain major concern for rural Minnesotans, especially when it comes to business, write Conrad deFiebre and Matt Entenza of The Bemidji Pioneer. The Pioneer is a 9,500-circulation daily in northern Minnesota.

"Rural Minnesotans are paying a high price for the state’s underinvestment; nearly $400 each because of excess wear and tear on cars and higher local property taxes to make up road funding shortfalls," they write in a commentary. "Poor roads and bridges are bad for rural Minnesota’s business climate. Weight restrictions and more frequent repairs make it harder to bring goods to market."

They point to "Moving Forward," a report from nonpartisan think tank Minnesota 2020, which said the state could expect an 8-to-1 return on transportation investments. To pay for such investments, the deFiebre and Entenza call for the passage of a comprehensive transportation finance bill and the raising of vehicle user fees. (Read more)

Rural restaurants anchor communities' social scene

Local cafes and diners still thrive in many small towns, and their success is based on far more than the burgers or coffee they serve. These rural eateries offer social gathering places that can unite communities, writes Sarah Moore of the The Beaumont (Tex.) Enterprise.

Her look at three country restaurants, which also ran in The Houston Chronicle, highlights the social venue they provide in the rural parts of Jefferson County, Texas. At Fannett Country Cafe, Callie Bain (above, in an Enterprise photo by Dave Ryan) serves many of the same folks every day, so that when a regular doesn't show, someone usually goes looking to find out why. "It's the place to find out who's sick, who's well, who's building a house and who's getting a divorce," Moore writes. "The plus is, everyone knows your name. The downside? They know everything else about you — and they'll never let you forget it."

Her feature is worth reading, but it could give you a serious craving for some classic comfort food. (Read more)

Biofuels boom could send price of beer rising

The ethanol boom has had many consequences for food and fuel markets around the world, and now beer drinkers may start feeling the effects. As a result of more farmers changing crops to cash in on the ethanol boom, the price of beer could be going up in the next few months, reports Teresa Garcia of ABC-7 in San Francisco.

That's because the price of two major beer ingredients — malted barley and hops — has risen due to shortages worldwide. The price of a pound of hops has gone from $5 to $20 in recent years due to poor harvests in 2006 and 2007. On top of that, fewer farmers are growing the crops in hopes of making more from biofuel crops.

"You have this huge crunch for ethanol production, so fields that were doing barley in the mid-west are now switching over to corn. It's subsidized, plus you know there's a huge demand for it," said Dan Gordon, owner of Gordon Biersch Bewing Co. Gordon said the shortages could mean the price of a six-pack of "craft beers" — those made by smaller brewers — could go up 50 cents by February or March. (Read more)

Rural results in New Hampshire's primary were the reverse of statewide: Obama edged out Clinton

Barack Obama lost New Hampshire's presidential primary, but he ran better in its rural areas than he did in Iowa's, where he won last week's caucuses. The Illinois senator carried the nine rural counties in the Granite State, but narrowly lost the state to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who ran more strongly in the two urban counties -- and generally in the state's cities and suburbs, according to news reports.

Analysis of the county-by-county results as published in the New Hampshire Union Leader shows that Obama won 38.2 percent of the vote in the more rural counties, those north and west of Hillsborough and Rockingham counties, where the urban centers of Manchester, Nashua and Portsmouth are located. Statewide, Obama got 36.4 percent of the vote to Clinton's 39 percent. Clinton won 36.3 percent of the rural counties' vote, while former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina won 17.3 percent, 0.4 points more than his statewide share. (Strafford County, along the Maine border north of Portsmouth, is in the Boston metropolitan area, but we count it as rural on the advice of our New Hampshire correspondents. It produced 9.4 percent of the vote and gave Clinton a 6-point margin.)

Put another way, Obama got 52.3 percent of his vote from the rural counties, which produced 50.2 percent of the total vote. Edwards' vote was 51 percent rural and Clinton's was 46.3 percent rural. A more detailed analysis, by town rather than county, might well produce somewhat different results, but this is all we can do at this juncture. We welcome calculations by those who know which towns are rural and which are not. (All New Hampshire residents live in a town, the basic unit of government in New England.)

Pre-election polls showed no statistical difference among the Democrats in rural and urban vote, but dis show that Arizona Sen. John McCain was leading in rural areas, and that proved true yesterday. As calculated by the Daily Yonder (which did not count Strafford County as rural), McCain got 40 percent of the rural vote, and 37 percent statewide.

The Yonder story by Bill Bishop notes, "Most of rural New Hampshire votes more Democratic than the urban counties along the southern border of the state. Only two rural New Hampshire counties — Belknap and Carroll — voted for George W. Bush in the 2004 election." For the Yonder's detailed story, click here.

UPDATE, Jan. 10: Karl Rove says in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that Clinton carried "less-affluent rural areas," and Pew pollster Andrew Kohut notes in a New York Times op-ed that Clinton beat Obama by 12 percentage points in households earning less than $50,000. One lesson here may be that rural New Hampshire is more affluent than rural America.

Study shows switchgrass highly efficient for ethanol

When it comes to producing ethanol efficiently, switchgrass stands out. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that the prairie grass (at left in a U.S. Department of Agriculture photo) delivers 540 percent more renewable energy than the energy consumed in growing it, including fertilizer and its production, a point on which it has a clear advantage over corn. In addition, the use of switchgrass as biomass has environmental benefits such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions and increased soil conservation.

The study b the University of Nebraska "clearly demonstrates that managed switchgrass production systems have the potential to produce significantly more energy than is used in production and conversion," its authors write. Switchgrass has additional appeal since it does not require great farmland to grow. "Switchgrass is a good crop for marginal crop lands," Ken Vogel, a co-author of the study, told Timothy Gardner of Reuters. "Corn is still going to be grown to make ethanol; whether it ever takes a chunk of crop land away from corn is all going to come down to economics." Cellulosic ethanol now costs about twice as much as that produced from corn, but advances in the breakdown of cellulose could bring costs down, Gardner reports. (Read more)

At Iowa State University, John Verkade and his colleagues are trying to turn a 40-year-old discovery into a breakthrough for cellulosic ethanol production. For the past 40 years, Verkade has told a funny story about one of his Iowa State University students who thought a classmate might be swiping his lab materials. Today, that story could be the key to breaking down switchgrass and other plant material cheaply, ISU's Mike Krapfl writes.

On that day in the 1960s, Verkade's student, David Hendricker, discovered that his missing wooden applicators actually were being broken down by the chemical compound he was studying. Verdaker and Hendricker sought a patent, but it got lost in the shuffle until recently when another university professor, George Kraus, thought the compound could have a role in ethanol production. Verkade has since followed up with a proposal for U.S. Department of Energy funding. Verkade (on the left in photo by Bob Elbert) won a two-year, $125,000 grant and enlisted the research help of Reed Oshel (on the right in the same photo), an Iowa State graduate student. So far, they have had success using the compound to break down cellulose. Verkade says more research needs to be done, specifically to see how the compound might fit into the fermentation process. (Read more)

Study finds rural patients are less likely to receive organ transplants, and are net organ donors

Rural patients are less likely to be placed on waiting lists for organ transplants and less likely to receive transplants than urban patients, according to a study published in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Dr. David A. Axelrod and his colleagues at Dartmouth Medical School in Lebanon, N.H., investigated the influence of rural residence on heart, kidney and lung transplant waiting lists and transplantation rates. The authors analyzed data from 174,630 patients who were wait-listed and who underwent heart, liver, or kidney transplantation between 1999 and 2004.

"This study demonstrates that patients living in small towns and isolated rural regions were eight percent to 15 percent less likely to be wait-listed and ten percent to 20 percent less likely to undergo heart, liver, and kidney transplantation than patients in urban environments," the authors write.

The rate of survival following a transplant was similar for rural and urban patients. The authors conclude that certain "barriers" block access for rural patients. Chief among those is the fact that most transplant services are located in urban centers, which means rural patients often must to long distances for care. To watch video report on the JAMA study, go here.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

ATV enthusiasts want Appalachian regional system

Building trails for all-terrain vehicles in national forests and other public areas would attract adventure tourism and reduce ATV-caused erosion and other damage to natural areas, like that shown in the photo by Richard Jessee of The Coalfield Progress of Norton, Va., according to advocates of a trail system in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.

Jack McClanahan of Big Stone Gap, Va., told Wise County supervisors last week that "plans are in motion for Southwest Virginia legislators to introduce General Assembly legislation that would create an authority to oversee a proposed system of trails tailor-made for each recreational use," reports Jodi Deal in the Progress. “If ATV trails are established, it would take a lot of pressure off of nature trails,” McClanahan told the supervisors. “We can’t just turn our back on ATVs and hope they go away. We can regulate them.”

"According to McClanahan, a similar project in West Virginia, the Hatfield and McCoy Regional Recreation Authority, has drawn plenty of people and money into the counties it covers. . . . Those with specialized hobbies will pay top dollar for a good trail experience, McClanahan added, noting that a friend who rents horses and mountain bikes to trail enthusiasts estimates that mountain bikers spend about $300 per day when visiting a destination.

In Harlan County, Kentucky, where ATV tourism is popular and a regional trail system is also planned, "an enthusiast was recently asked to guide a group of 14 tourists from Vermont around his hometown hills," Deal reports, citing McClanahan. "Each tourist paid $50 for the 12-hour trip, he added." (Read more; subscription required) For a recent Rural Blog item on ATV damage to national forests and other federal land in the West, click here.

Moonshine bust shows industry still big in places

A big moonshine bust in southern Virginia's Piedmont has focused more attention on the industry that came with the first wave of Scots-Irish settlers and seems to be permanently imprinted in the culture of many counties in Appalachian Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.

The latest bust "wasn't little Snuffy Smith with a little old still coming out of the woods, and I'm making four gallons of liquor and me and mama are sharing it on the porch," federal agent Bart McEntire told Jerry Markon of The Washington Post. "This was putting out over 1,000 gallons of a week. That's a significant amount of liquor." The bust was in Halifax County, but the main defendant lives in Franklin County, two counties to the west.

Markon writes, "People have always enjoyed their liquor in rural Franklin County, which calls itself the 'moonshine capital of the world,' a slogan seen on billboards and T-shirts and even at a moonshine exhibit on the campus of a local Methodist college." That would be the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College. (Post map by Laris Karklis)

After a crackdown about 10 years ago, authorities say "Moonshining is starting to make a comeback as moonshiners, who have been known to hide their stills behind fake headstones in cemeteries and camouflage them with green paint in the woods, adapt to the scrutiny," Markon reports. "Because moonshine is so ingrained in the culture and history of the region, the industry is clannish. Agents rarely find cooperators. Maybe once a year, they'll get a call with the precise location of a still." (Read more)

UPDATE, Sept. 6: Four men pleaded guilty to federal charges in connection with the operation, Laurence Hammack of The Roanoke Times reports: "The defendants accepted plea agreements and will be sentenced later. As part of his standard questions, Judge James Turk asked each man to explain in his own words what he did to make him guilty." (Read more)

Missouri starts trying to expand rural broadband

Missouri is organizing an effort to get broadband, or high-speed Internet service, into rural areas, and like some other states is using Kentucky as an example.

"The task force is examining a model created by the state of Kentucky," which uses a public-private partnership called ConnectKentucky, reports Rajah Maples of KQHA-TV in Hannibal (and Quincy, Ill.), citing state Sen. Wes Shoemyer. "He says that state has increased its high-speed Internet coverage by at least 40 percent in a just a matter of years." Shoemeyer is a member of the Rural High-Speed Internet Task Force created by Gov. Matt Blunt. "For rural Missouri that this is something that's critical," he told Maples.

"Shoemyer says the committee's first step is mapping out areas that don't have broadband Internet access. Then, the committee will submit those maps to the governor's office and lawmakers later next month." (Read more)

Monday, January 07, 2008

Amateur breeding, slow economy, expensive hay, lack of slaughterhouses mean neglect for horses

"Across the U.S., the number of horses whose owners won't or can't properly care for them is mushrooming," Paulo Prada reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Spurred by retiring baby boomers and their penchant for second homes in the country, horse ownership boomed in the U.S. over the past decade," to over 9 million head, up by half in a decade. "Along with the boom came backyard breeding, as owners without the discipline or financial muscle to obtain award-winning genes settled for whatever nature produced."

"As the horse population soared -- and the economy ceased to gallop -- selling the animals became more difficult. Some owners could no longer afford their investment. . . . The price of hay, the main source of horse nutrition, has more than doubled over the past year," but at the same time the last three horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. closed, exacerbating the situation. "Now, some unwanted American horses wind up at Mexican and Canadian slaughterhouses. But others linger and starve, often ending up at rescue homes and other charities."

"You've got all these owners out there who thought it would be easy to keep a horse, and their incomes aren't keeping up with even their own cost of living," says Morgan Silver, founder of the Horse Protection Association of Florida (which provided this photo of her with Princess, a horse she rescued). She works around Ocala, "a hotbed of mateur breeding," Prada writes. The Indiana-based Equine Rescue League, which operates in five states, says it took in 186 horses in 2007, up 232 percent from the previous year. (Read more)

Administration lags on new coal-mine rescue rules

"The Bush administration missed a legal deadline to finalize rules to require more and better-trained mine rescue teams across the nation’s coalfields," reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. The deadline for the Labor Department to act was Dec. 15. "The rules are still not finalized, and are sitting at the White House, under review by the Office of Management and Budget."

Ward writes, "Lawmakers mandated changes in the rules after questions about the nation’s mine rescue capabilities following the deaths of 19 miners in the Sago and Darby disasters and the Aracoma Mine fire, all in 2006." Congress gave the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration 18 months to enact the rules, and "MSHA took nearly all of that time — 15 months of it." After a public comment period, "MSHA submitted its final version for OMB review on Dec. 13," two days before the deadline. (Read more)

Obama worked rural papers in Iowa, and it paid off

While Barack Obama didn't run as strongly in Iowa's rural caucuses as he did statewide, his courting of rural newspapers probably helped him rack up his surprising margin of 8 percentage points. The freshman Democratic senator from Illinois was endorsed by more newspapers than any other candidate in any party -- nine, including four weeklies -- and probably benefited from the coverage that he and his staff enabled. For more detail on endorsements, click here.

"The Obama campaign developed a reputation for doing the little things as it carefully built its organization in Iowa, where personal relationships famously matter in politics. The effort to win coverage in the local media was more ambitious, by far, than anything other campaigns put together," Peter Slevin of The Washington Post's Midwest Bureau wrote in The Trail, the Post's general political blog.

Slevin's example of the attention that Obama paid to small newspapers was Douglas Burns, a columnist for the Daily Times Herald of Carroll, circulation 6,000, and a frequent writer for the Independent (shown with Obama). "He has interviewed the presidential candidate no fewer than six times, including a pair of 15-minute sessions during the crazy final days of December," Slevin wrote on caucus day, Jan. 3. "Look, they kept giving me interviews, and I thought I was putting some good questions out there," Burns told Slevin, noting that he asked Obama about his drug use as a youth. "I wasn't just rolling over. They still did interviews with me after that, which is to their credit. They kept taking the questions."

The campaign's first contact with the Herald came "in March, just weeks after Obama declared his candidacy," when one of its Iowa spokesmen came to Carroll -- population 10,000 and seat of Carroll County, 21,000 -- and met with two staffers for an hour and a half. "Those early efforts to cultivate relationships probably helped," Burns told Slevin. "When they showed us a lot of respect, I looked at it that they were showing Carroll a lot of respect."

In contrast, some small papers in Iowa reported difficulty dealing with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who placed a disappointing third in the Democratic caucuses. A survey by NBC News of 15 weekly and small daily papers in Iowa -- which has 272 weeklies -- found they had "mixed experiences with all the campaigns, Democratic or Republican," the NBC political unit reported in First Read. "The majority of newspapers reported being able to get a few minutes with a candidate either immediately after the event during the rope line or with a one-on-one interview. Senator Clinton was the exception in this case." (Read more) The survey was prompted by a report from by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

"Clinton spent 45 minutes at Sam's Sodas and Sandwiches in downtown Carroll with Burns, Lopez and two other reporters," Slevin reports. Burns got 15 minutes with Romney, but "Edwards made no effort to reach out to the local media during his four visits, Burns said." After writing a column headlined "Why Barack Obama will win the Iowa Caucuses," and reporting that as fact, Burns is "back to covering streets and sewers and eight-man football." (Read more)