Saturday, October 04, 2008

Photojournalist, 27 years in Wasilla, seeks its soul

For 27 years, photojournalist Bill Hess has lived in Wasilla, Alaska, which few Americans had heard of until its former mayor became the Republican nominee for vice president of the United States. Bill has been posting his photographs on blogs for some time, but with Wasilla much in the news he has broadened his agenda. His new blog is called Wasilla by 300, meaning its scope is a 300-mile radius of the town, "perhaps the most wild, dramatic, gorgeous, beautiful section of land and sea to be found in any comparable space anywhere on Earth." It includes Wasilla's sister city of Palmer, where Hess took the Alaska State Fair photo at left.

"Wasilla is not the quintessential small American city that it has recently been built up to be since former Mayor Sarah Palin was chosen by John McCain to be his running mate. Yet -- Wasilla is my home and if I am lucky it will be until I grow old and die," Hess writes. "Wasilla is a sprawling community that has been slapped down hodge-podge upon what was so recently wilderness of the most exquisite beauty. In its design, it is deliberately anti-zoned, anti-planned. In the building of Wasilla, the desire to make a buck has trumped aesthetics and all other considerations. This town, built in the midst of exquisite beauty, has largely become an unsightly, unattractive, mess of urban sprawl."

Many of Hess's Wasilla photographs are "grab shots," taken as he drives around the area, like the one above. "Despite the odd, random, nature of the images, I believe they communicate something powerful about this town that I have never seen expressed anywhere else," he writes. "if one were to search hard enough, it might just be possible to find a sense of community here, and a town soul. So, using my skills as a photojournalist and a writer, I hope to do just that. If this place has a sense of community, I will find it. If there is a town soul to Wasilla, I will document it." Hess also has a site that displays his professional work, here.

Bailout bill renews subsides for schools and roads in national-forest areas, other rural programs

The emergency legislation to ease the credit crisis includes "several billion dollars in education and road funding for some of the nation's most remote communities, through programs aimed at helping areas with large swaths of untaxed federal land," reports Bettina Boxall of the Los Angeles Times. The biggest item was a four-year extension of the eight-year-old program to compensate counties with national-forest land for decreases in logging.

"Rural counties, most of them in the West, have collected about $500 million a year under the program," Boxall writes. "Oregon, California and Washington have been the biggest beneficiaries. The initial round of funding expired two years ago, and since then attempts to extend the program have been buffeted by politics. At one point the Bush administration proposed selling national forest parcels to raise money for the payments. Last year a one-year extension was included in an Iraq war funding bill. This year advocates attached funding proposals to various bills, only to see the money dropped at the last minute. The financial uncertainty prompted widespread cutbacks in school staffing and programs." (Read more)

The bailout bill also contained a four-year extension for the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program, in which the federal government compensates local governments for taking land off the tax rolls, and a one-year extension, to 2010, of the $9 million annual appropriation to the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund. For a PDF copy of the 451-page bill, from the Senate Banking Committee's Web site, click here.

Energy costs could slow booming farm economy; so could tighter credit for loans on 2009 crops

"Soaring energy prices threaten to slow the booming farm economy," writes Jason Henderson, vice president and Omaha branch executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, in the latest edition of the bank's electronic newsletter, The Main Street Ecomomist. And since he wrote that, the credit crisis has surfaced, compounding concerns about energy costs.

Largely due to energy prices, mainly natural gas used to make fertilizer, input costs for American farmers in July were 20 percent higher than a year before. "Fuel prices also nearly doubled. Seed prices rose 30 percent. And chemical prices went up 12 percent," Henderson notes. That could make farmers ask for larger operating loans to plant next year's crops, at a time when the credit crunch may make agricultural lenders more stingy.

"Rising production costs have led to some deterioration in farm credit conditions," Henderson reports. "After improving over the past two years, farm loan repayment rates dropped sharply" in the bank's service region (Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, northern New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and nearby Missouri). "Agricultural bankers indicated that farm loan demand increased sharply in the second quarter with further increases expected in coming months. As the demand for farm loans increased, agricultural bankers also reported a decline in funds available for farm loans." (Read more)

Friday, October 03, 2008

McCain looks to Maine's rural district for one vote

When John McCain's campaign pulled out of Michigan yesterday, leaving it to Barack Obama, it allocated its resources elsewhere, including one of the most rural states and one of the most rural congressional districts in the nation: Maine and its Second District.

Votes in the Electoral College are determined by a state's number of congressional districts plus two (each state's number of senators). Maine and Nebraska, which have two and three districts respectively, award a vote for winning a district and two for winning a state. We like that system; it would make candidates campaign in states they would otherwise ignore. But why would McCain go after a single vote? Some models show it could win the race for him.

Sasha Issenberg of the Boston Globe reports from Bangor: "While both campaigns have long expected that Obama would carry the state, both public and private polls show the race closing. . . . Much of McCain's gain appears to derive from a renewed appeal in Maine's Second, the largest district east of the Mississippi River, sprawling through the state's rural north and east. Maine consultants describe the differences between the electorates in their two districts in lifestyle terms: The southern, liberal First is hiking and kayaking, the Second is hunting and fishing."

Expect Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to visit. "Palin status signifiers are familiar, even prosaic here: The moose-hunting, church-going hockey mom married to a snowmobiler is a well-established demographic," Issenberg writes. Christian Potholm, a political consultant and Bowdoin College government professor, told her, "A lot of eastern, western, and northern Maine is like Alaska in terms of the psychographics. In Palin's case, she will appeal to them with that attitude she brings. They're always angry about something, and she's angry." (Read more)

UPDATE, Oct. 5: Palin will be in Omaha tonight, "another sign that Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District is in play," reports Maggie O'Brien of the Omaha World-Herald. "It's rare for a member of the national ticket in either party to visit traditionally Republican Nebraska this late in a presidential campaign." (Read more) Oct. 6: Peter Slevin of The Washington Post checks out the district.

Columnist Brooks says GOP is 'a small-town party'

The Republican Party has become a small-town party, to its detriment, conservative columnist David Brooks, right, said tonight on PBS NewsHour.

"I think Sarah Palin did very fine last night by her own standards, but this has become -- the Republican Party has become a small-town party, running against -- as Sarah Palin did last night -- against big cities, against the East Coast, to some extent, against newspaper readers," Brooks said. Yes, newspaper readers.

"I understand why they're doing it, running against Washington. This is the way Republicans do populism," he said. "But in the long run, it's poisonous and self-destructive. You cannot be a majority party in this country if the coasts don't like you and people who read newspapers don't like you. And they have narrowed themselves. And I thought McCain was going to be a chance to reach out beyond the traditional red, rural America. And he's not taking that up. And with Sarah Palin, short-term gain last night, but long-term turning people off."

Brooks also said John McCain's campaign wanted to run a non-traditional campaign that reached out to the poor in rural areas, but abandoned that when it failed to get media coverage. "Their model of the campaign was the poverty tour McCain took early in the race, where he went through the southeast, mostly, in Appalachia and other places, and ran as a new kind of Republican. And as they would say is, 'We got zero stories on the network news out of that. We learned early on, if we don't attack Obama, we do not get on the news. And, therefore, we had to attack Obama. We had to run this kind of campaign.' That's -- that would be essentially be their argument."
For a transcript of Brooks and liberal commentator Mark Shields' conversation with host Jim Lehrer, click here.

The New Yorker examines Obama's 'Appalachian problem' through Southwest Virginians' eyes

The latest reportorial take on Barack Obama's prospects in the potentially pivotal state of Virginia, which may pivot on the votes of whites in the rural southwest corner of the state, comes from one of the best, Peter J. Boyer of The New Yorker. His 4,600-word story is titled "The Appalachian Problem," so it's also about West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, which collectively could decide the presidency. As Boyer perceptively notes, Southwest Virginia has "small hill towns that are nearer, in mileage and in spirit, to the old factory town of Ironton, Ohio, than to the glass office towers of northern Virginia."

At Lebanon High School in the coalfield on Sept. 9, Obama delivered "a performance that was as populist in theme and as personal in style as a Harvard lawyer could credibly deliver," Boyer reports. But it also included the "lipstick on a pig" line that John McCain's campaign said was a slap at Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. "Obama’s Virginia début as a rousing populist was hardly noticed nationally, having been overwhelmed by the kind of controversy that has come to characterize this campaign," Boyer writes. The speech included this passage on guns, which Boyer renders verbatim:

“I just want to be absolutely clear, all right? So I don’t want any misunderstanding, so that when we all go home and you’re talking to your buddies, and they say, ‘Aw, he wants to take my gun away,’ you heard it here. . . . I believe in the Second Amendment. I believe in people’s lawful right to bear arms. I will not take your shotgun away from you. I will not take your rifle away. I won’t take your handgun away.” Obama said he was for “common-sense gun-safety laws,” and repeated again, “I am not gonna take your guns away. So, if you wanna find an excuse not to vote for me, don’t use that one, because that just ain’t true. It just ain’t true!”
Obama's speech won "cascading cheers," Boyer reports. "But it was for a largely partisan crowd, which had come to the event already convinced, and it was hard to guess how it would play outside that gym." To help him figure that out, he paid the obligatory visits to David "Mudcat" Saunders, "who has made a profession of selling Democrats to rural Virginians," and U.S. Sen. Jim Webb (in illustration by John Cuneo), who has written a book and many articles about his Scots-Irish heritage, which largely defines the region. The story is as much about these two Democrats as Obama; they say his prospects there are less about race than most observers think, and more about culture.

Saunders "worries that Obama seems too professorial, too detached, to make headway with rural voters," Boyer reports."Obama’s 'Change' message, Saunders argues, is too abstract, too vague, for the region." Mudcat, typically, is profane: “Those people you were with today were screwed by the English in Scotland and Ireland way before they came over here and started getting screwed. They’ve been screwed since the dawn of time. And you know what? You ain’t gonna do anything with them, talkin’ about change. You know why? We’re all changed out. That’s all you ever hear, every election. Somebody’s gonna change some shit. Nothin’ ever changes." (Read more)

Meanwhile, Bluegrass music legend Ralph Stanley, long an active Democrat, is on the air with a radio ad for the Obama campaign, aimed at his home Southwest Virginia, The Associated Press reports. In a touch of irony (intended?), as Stanley speaks, a recording of his and his brother Carter's classic "Rank Stranger" plays in the background.

Weekly newspaper in Palin's hometown covers fans and critics watching her big moment

How did Sarah Palin's hometown newspaper, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, cover her biggest moment on the national stage, her debate with vice presidential opponent Joe Biden? Pretty well, in our view, by going to local gatherings on both sides of the partisan fence and adding some local insight. (Photo of Palin supporters Lynn Gattis and Pam Speer by Robert DeBerry, the Frontiersman)

The Alaska governor "brought out what appeared to be a strategy from her 2006 gubernatorial campaign by telling stories from her own life in Wasilla and relating them to the struggles of other Americans," Michael Rovito writes for the Frontiersman, a thrice-weekly. "At one point, Palin responded in part to a question by moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS by saying she may not answer questions put to her the way Ifill or Biden wanted to hear them, but she would talk to the American people. The response drew raucous applause from the crowd at Tailgaters, which also laughed every time Biden had a speech stumble as he spoke."

"Down the road at Hacienda, a decidedly different atmosphere was felt. Debate viewers there snickered as Palin answered questions, and cheered just as loud as those at Tailgaters — only for Biden. Jay Cross, a Big Lake resident, said although he supports Obama, he thought Palin held up to the pressure. 'They made expectations so low,' Cross said. 'I think she’s surviving.' However, Cross also said Palin’s answers lacked substance.'There’s a lot of babble speak here as opposed to answers,' Cross said."

Rovito also writes, "Many Mat-Su Valley locals have complained recently that the campaign has shielded Palin and coached her to act differently than Alaskans know her to be. Many have blamed the McCain camp for blunders during Palin’s interviews." For Rovito's story from the valley of the Matanuska and Susitna rivers, and comments from readers in other states, click here.

Law requiring Conn. towns to post agendas and minutes prompts some to shut down Web sites

Some small towns in Connecticut are shutting down their Web sites after the state legislature passed a law requiring them to post meeting agendas and minutes. "Others are trying to work with rules they consider vague," reports Michael Gannon of the Norwich Bulletin.

The law, which took effect Wednesday, "requires municipalities to post agendas for boards and commissions online 24 hours before a scheduled meeting," reports the First Amendment Center. The law applies to boards, commissions and committees, and town clerks say they can't handle the new task. For example, in Woodbridge there are 73 boards, commissions and committees, the center notes.

Some towns such as Lyme have decided to shut down their Web sites altogether rather than deal with the upkeep of agendas and minutes. Others are still debating how to handle the situation, some arguing that keeping the sites live without adhering to the requirements makes them vulnerable to state freedom-of-information law complaints. (Read more)

Farm-country banks hold steady in credit crisis

The credit crisis has seen banks around the country tighten lending practices, but this has not been the case for "rural banks in U.S. farm country," reports Carey Gillam of Reuters, who writes that such banks "are not freezing credit to customers like large money center banks, offering a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy economy."

Rural communities that rely on agriculture have not felt the pinch from the failure of some of Wall Street's biggest banks. "Despite a cascading that has locked up loans for businesses and consumers around the country, small community banks in rural areas generally continue to hold interest rates steady, lines of credit open and are offering new loans," Gilliam reports.

Mark Lair, president of the family-owned Bank of Commerce in the southeastern Kansas town of Chanute, told Gillam, "There aren't any alarms going off here. Our loans are of very good quality today and our farmers are in good condition. There is not an economic Armageddon here." (Read more)

Agribusiness stocks, grain prices fall on credit fears

"Stocks of agricultural companies took a dive along with grain prices Thursday amid worries that the credit crisis would slow global demand for farm goods and pinch farmers who have been voracious buyers of farm supplies," Lauren Etter reports in The Wall Street Journal. Near-term corn futures fell to $4.54 a bushel, fertilizer maker Mosaic fell 41 percent, and "Other agriculture companies also suffered as commodity prices continued to decline."

"Earlier this year, agriculture commodities were seen as a safe haven for investors who wanted shelter from a downward-trending stock market," Etter writes. "Now it appears that the agriculture sector is being dragged down along with the rest of the economy. . . . Also, as grain prices continue to fall, farmers are growing increasingly worried that they'll be squeezed between lower grain prices and the rising cost of farming. The deepening financial crisis is also stoking fears that credit could be harder to come by when farmers need it most." (Read more)

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Union miners walk out to protest NRA filming anti-Obama TV commercial at mine in northern W.Va.

A film crew for the National Rifle Association showed up at a Consol Energy mine in Monongalia County, W.Va., this week and, according to the United Mine Workers, asked several miners, “How do you feel about having your Second Amendment rights taken away if Obama becomes president?” Word sped to UMW President Cecil Roberts, who declared a memorial day, allowing the 440 UMW members at the Blacksville No. 2 mine to walk off the job in protest.

The UMW has endorsed Obama, but “Union members are the backbone of the NRA’s membership,” NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam told Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times. A Consol official said the company had allowed an NRA crew to film at the site "several years ago without any problems," Greenhouse writes. "Consol asked the NRA not to use any of the interviews done at Blacksville in any future ads, and he said the NRA had agreed. He said the union went ahead with its work stoppage even though it had been informed that the interviews would not be used." UMW spokesman Phil Smith replied, “We were upset that the company allowed the N.R.A. to come on its property and try to use our members for political purposes knowing we had already endorsed Obama and a lot of our members had already endorsed Obama.” (Read more) For an earlier story from Courtney Dunn of WBOY-TV in Clarksburg, click here.

Time for coverage and commentary on the presidential election, even in weekly newspapers

Most weekly newspapers seem to be taking little note of the presidential election, but we think editors who ignore it are failing to serve their readers -- and missing a bet by not covering or commenting on something of great interest. Across the nation, states are reporting record voter turnout, and polls show record interest in the election.

Weekly editors should also remember that many if not most of their readers don't read daily newspapers, so their primary source of information about the election is television, which is largely sound bites and superficial summaries on the news and misleading ads all day long. While most weeklies can't offer their own shoe-leather reporting on the election, they can borrow material from The Rural Blog (with proper credit) and their Web sites can provide links to groups like and, which separate truth from fiction in political ads.

They can also offer commentary that resonates with their local readers. One example is this week's "From the porch" column by Brad Martin of the Hickman County Times in Centerville, Tenn., which is headlined "Astonishing times" and begins by mentioning weekly papers' traditional role and then saying this is a time to go beyond it: "Even a local gopher like me has had to pull up and pay attention to what’s been going on at the national level for the last few weeks."

Martin asks and answers, "How do we get to election day from here? Cage the attack dogs, please, and try to listen. Best chance for that is during the debates. What I will be looking for are assurances that we have a candidate that will talk to others and listen . . . "

Meanwhile, Martin gives his local take on the big issue of the day: "The financial wizards are in trouble, and markets are teetering. Lenders are overextended in the quest for loans and more profit. Heck, even here in Centerville, I continue to see signs advertising real estate with absolutely no down payment. That’s simply reckless. If folks can’t down-pay, they’re not ready to buy."

The Times is not online, but you can download a PDF of its current editorial page here. That's from, the site of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. And if you see other good examples of presidential coverage or commentary in weekly newspapers, add a comment to this item or e-mail

Airline cutbacks leave rural places without flights

Rural areas are being hit hard as the airline industry suffers a financial crunch and reduces its capacity, as shown in the chart from OAG Analytical Services, which monitors airline schedules. OAG, part of Official Airline Guide, reports that 36 airports that had commercial flights last year will not have them this fall.

"Big airlines say they simply have been eliminating their least profitable routes, not running away from discount airlines," Scott McCartney writes in "Middle Seat," his column for The Wall Street Journal. "What isn't known is how much demand for travel will disappear this fall if fares are higher and the economy weakens further." "When discounters enter markets and force all airlines to cut prices, traffic increases exponentially -- the Department of Transportation once labeled that stimulation 'the Southwest [Airlines] Effect.' Yet now the reverse may be true -- higher prices and less competition may reduce passengers by percentages even bigger than the capacity cuts." (Read more)

Economic woes forcing car dealerships to close

Decreasing sales and the credit crunch are dealing the death blow to many car dealerships, which can be economic and civic linchpins in rural areas.

A study released Grant Thornton LLP on Wednesday claims that in the coming months as many as 20 percent of U.S. dealerships could close. Paul Melville, a partner with Grant Thornton, told Reuters, "An increasing number of dealers are simply closing their doors because sales have plummeted, credit has dried up, the overall retail environment is increasingly challenging and potential investors are sitting on the sidelines." (Read more)

Bloomberg, per the National Automobile Dealers Association, reports closures may rise considerably this year. They claim that the rate of new-car dealerships forced to close could be 40 percent higher than last year. Dealerships that sell Ford, GM, and Chrysler will account for the bulk of those closings. (Read more)

Most car purchases depend on loans and with the credit crunch, loans are proving hard to come by. Dean Calbreath of The San Diego Union-Tribune writes, "Auto dealers already have been hit hard by a slowing economy, rising gas prices and a shift in buying trends by fuel-conscious consumers. Now the dealers are being knocked down further by tightening credit."(Read more)

Car dealerships provide important services in rural communities. They are an important source of employment, give money for local organizations, and provides a place to residents to buy and service their cars. As Al Tompkins of Poynter Online writes, "For lots of cities and towns, car dealerships have been big players in civic affairs. They donate to everything from League League events to education efforts." (Photograph by Reuters)

California enacts nation's broadest law protecting journalism teachers who fight official censorship

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed a new law blocking retaliation against journalism teachers who protect student journalists from censorship. The law "provides that no public school or college employee may be dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against solely for acting to protect a student who is engaged in legally protected conduct," reports the Student Press Law Center. "This includes the publication of speech that is not obscene, libelous, slanderous or substantially disruptive to the safe operations of the school." Senate Bill 1370 also provides students with the right to sue schools for censorship after graduation.

Only Colorado and Kansas have similar laws protecting teachers; the California law is broader because it includes all modes of student speech. In other states, the need for such laws has increased; a number of experienced journalism teachers have been fired for refusal to censor stories that school officials deemed embarrassing. (Read more)

Schwarzenegger, in a budget battle with the legislature, says he is signing only important bills. He vetoed another law sponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers Association. "The bill would have expressly allowed parties and interested people who disagree with a trial court’s ruling to seal or unseal records to elect to pursue review by writ or appeal for civil actions, but allow only writ review in criminal cases," reports the CNPA Legislative Bulletin. (Read more)

Who's to blame for the credit crisis? Lots of folks

In fact-checking some new television commercials in the presidential race, which blame the credit crisis on one political party or the other, Joe Miller and Brooks Jackson of remind us that there is plenty of blame to go around:

As The Economist magazine noted recently, the problem is one of "layered irresponsibility ... with hard-working homeowners and billionaire villains each playing a role." Here's a partial list of those alleged to be at fault:
The Federal Reserve, which slashed interest rates after the dot-com bubble burst, making credit cheap.
Home buyers, who took advantage of easy credit to bid up the prices of homes excessively.
Congress, which continues to support a mortgage tax deduction that gives consumers a tax incentive to buy more expensive houses.
Real estate agents, most of whom work for the sellers rather than the buyers and who earned higher commissions from selling more expensive homes.
The Clinton administration, which pushed for less stringent credit and downpayment requirements for working- and middle-class families.
Mortgage brokers, who offered less-credit-worthy home buyers subprime, adjustable rate loans with low initial payments, but exploding interest rates.
Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who in 2004, near the peak of the housing bubble, encouraged Americans to take out adjustable rate mortgages.
Wall Street firms, who paid too little attention to the quality of the risky loans that they bundled into Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS), and issued bonds using those securities as collateral.
The Bush administration, which failed to provide needed government oversight of the increasingly dicey mortgage-backed securities market.
An obscure accounting rule called mark-to-market, which can have the paradoxical result of making assets be worth less on paper than they are in reality during times of panic.
Collective delusion, or a belief on the part of all parties that home prices would keep rising forever, no matter how high or how fast they had already gone up.

The U.S. economy is enormously complicated. Screwing it up takes a great deal of cooperation. Claiming that a single piece of legislation was responsible for (or could have averted) is just political grandstanding.

(Read more)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Using wood for energy stirs timber-industry fears

Biomass facilities to produce renewable energy are facing challenges from some timber interests. In Georgia, three planned facilities have met with opposition because the woody material used to create energy is also used by timber industries. There is also concern from paper producers that the new plants could drive up prices of wood products.

“They’re going to see these guys as competition — and they may very well be,” Alva Hopkins, a spokesman for the Georgia Forestry Association, told Kate Galbraith of The New York Times. There is also fear that the new biomass facilities would require live trees for energy production. That fear appears to be well founded. Mike Price, the chief operating officer of the proposed biomass facility at Oglethorpe, Ga., said, "For a plant this size we will have to harvest some trees."

The switch to biomass from coal is taking place across the U.S., Galbraith writes: "Companies have in part been motivated by the looming possibility of stricter environmental controls for coal, as well as rising interest in renewable energy." Although coal-fired power plants will have to make adjustments to switch to biomass facilities, and the switch will diminish their output capabilities, many plants throughout the U.S. are beginning to making the switch. Still, many of the proposed facilities still have obstacles to overcome before they can be built. Their presence in the Southern U.S. appears to be growing in popularity in large part because traditional sources of renewable energy, namely wind and solar power, are less viable in the South. (Read more)

Return of mining in Western communities is welcomed by some, not by others

Rising prices for metals have created new interest in mining in many Western communities where mines had been abandoned. Many communities are torn over the development. While mining promises new jobs and money, their economies have moved away from mining, and some fear that the return of the industry will disrupt those new economies and damage the environment.

"Since 2004, the number of claims filed on federal land has more than doubled," writes Nicholas Riccardi of the Los Angeles Times. "During that time, gold prices have risen from $400 to nearly $900 an ounce." Other minerals have climbed even faster -- copper and molybdenum, an alloy often mined in the Rocky Mountain region, have soared 600 percent in the last four years. Although no agency tracks mine activity nationwide, experts say the uptick has been remarkable."

Many former mining communities have turned to tourism to buoy local economies. In these communities the return of mining companies could threaten the tourist industry. The environmental impact of the mining also raises concern for many of these communities. "Environmental groups and towns in northern Arizona stopped one company from digging for uranium near the Grand Canyon," adds Riccardi. "In the mining town turned tourist mecca of Crested Butte, Colo., residents fly Tibetan prayer flags to protest a company's plan to mine a mountain basin that looms over downtown."

Some communities have welcomed the return of the mining industry. In Leadville, Colo., residents have supported the reopening of the Climax mine because of the jobs and money it will provide. (Read more)

N.C. editor illustrates small-town life, literally

Wildlife illustration from The Matthews RecordJim Denk knows the work involved in running a small-town newspaper. Although he and his wife, Janet, employ just a few part-time workers at The Matthews Record, the local newspaper they bought a few years ago, they still end up doing everything from writing to selling advertising to delivering the papers to the post office in the North Carolina town of 28,000 near Charlotte.

Those responsibilities alone are enough to keep the couple very busy, which makes the stunning visuals created by Denk all the more impressive. He is creating a lot of buzz in the journalism community for the detailed graphics he creates for the weekly.

In an interview, Denk told Sara Quinn of the Poynter Institute about his work. For example, he found that wildlife issues were important in his community. So, he says, "I created an illustration of a forest, the way it looks in North Carolina. I put everything in it that I've ever seen there. Like salamanders to frogs. I did the research on the frogs, what kind they were. Turtles to deer to barred owls. That was fun." His illustration appears above.

Denk, who has worked for The Charlotte Observer and the Detroit Free Press, is extending his graphic work to advertising. "At first, I thought creating the ads would be just one more production thing to do," he says. "But, I'm already looking at it like it's the next challenge for me." (Read more)

Popular plan for higher FDIC limits came from community bankers, many of them rural

Rural banks are making their own contribution to easing the credit crisis, with a plan that has received widespread support from both Democrats and Republicans, both presidential candidates and the Bush administration, reports The New York Times.

The Independent Community Bankers of America have lobbied for an increase in the amount of deposits insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The banking association asked that limits on insured deposits be raised from $100,000 to $250,000. The move is aimed at increasing consumer confidence in the banking system and providing an additional safety net for small businesses, writes David Stout.

“If we have learned one thing in the past several weeks, it is that we have a two-tiered banking system in this country,” says Camden R. Fine, president of the ICBA. “We have the too-big-to-fail banks and we have the smaller banks. You can’t have one class of depositors who are 100 percent protected and another class of depositors who face risk.”

Opponents argue that the increase would increase premiums for banks and cost taxpayers additional money, since FDIC resources are already being strained by bank failures around the country. Experts say that the increasing insured limits from $40,000 to $100,000 in 1990 "encouraged reckless lending by savings and loan institutions and led to huge losses that ultimately cost the government more than $200 billion." The FDIC's current reserves are $45 billion. (Read more)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Senate GOP leader McConnell, up for re-election, calls for action on credit crisis, citing rural impact

The credit crisis is hitting home in rural America, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said today, citing rural examples from his home state of Kentucky in his second floor speech of the day on the subject. He told reporters that Congress would act this week.

"I'm hearing from towns and municipalities throughout Kentucky that can't find the money to finance new schools and other civic projects, and from farmers and small business owners who are suddenly being told by their banks that a long-term loan is due," McConnell said on the floor. "Others are being pressured to pay more, or well ahead of schedule. And these are people with good credit."

Monday's record plunge in the stock market struck fear into retirees, McConnell said. "I'm hearing from people like the retired school counselor in Anderson County who said she can't afford to see her small retirement savings vanish. 'I've never written to any senator or congressman before now,' she wrote." McConnell quoted an unnamed Central Kentucky woman who said she is afraid she will have to sell part of her family's farmland if the rescue plan fails.

McConnell, who is in a tight race for re-election with Democrat Bruce Lunsford, said he and Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada are working to pass a bipartisan plan. "The voters sent us here to respond to crises, not to ignore them," he said. "And if you fail the first time, you get back up, and you work with each other. So, we know what we need to do, and that we need to do it quickly." (Read more)

McCain, Obama oppose mountaintop removal

Friday's first presidential debate showed many differences between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, but they agree on at least one thing: They want to put an end to mountaintop-removal mining of coal, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

While campaigning in Florida, McCain was asked whether he supported "eliminating mountaintop removal mining and the practices like that." The Republican responded, "You know, I do." He went on to say that coal companies are working to become more environmentally sound, and that he supports other types of coal mining, Ward reports.

Obama told an environmental group last winter that other forms of mining need to be found, and told supporters, "We're tearing up the Appalachian Mountains because of our dependence on fossil fuel." (Mountaintop removal occurs in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.) But this month, his campaign confirmed to Ward that he supports ending mountaintop removal.

What Ward finds so interesting about the candidates' position on this issue is not that they agree, but that they haven't caught much flak for their stances. Asked about them, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said only that the state regulates mining responsibly. Phil Smith, a spokesman from the United Mine Workers, said that where coal is mined is not their concern: "We just mine it." The "toughest reaction," Ward reports, came from the National Mining Association. Carol Ralston, the association's spokeswoman, said the candidates need to reconcile their position on mountaintop removal mining with their support for using coal as an energy resources and "clean coal" research.

In the past, opposition to mountaintop removal has been considered a tricky political issue. Al Gore's reputation as "anti-coal" may have cost him West Virginia's electoral votes and the presidency in 2000. One Democratic pollster told Ward that, in today's political climate, the candidates' positions make sense. "Political opinion has just caught up with public opinion," Lakje said. Ward notes a Lake poll showing that West Virginia has three times as many people who "strongly oppose" mountaintop removal as there are those who "strongly favor" it. To read more, click here and here.

Drivers, farmers need patience to share the road

Big cities are known for their traffic jams and aggressive drivers, but rural drivers know that traffic problems aren't confined to metropolitan areas. While urban drivers are slowed by congestion, rural drivers frequently find themselves behind slow-moving farm machinery. A farm safety specialist says that fewer people understand that farming requires using roads to move tractors and heavy equipment from field to field. (Photo from Natchez, Miss., by tinydr on Flickr)

"Historically, farmers have had a very strong social contract with the communities and most people recognized that during the spring and the fall there'd be extra traffic of farm equipment on the highway," Bill Field, Purdue University extension safety specialist, said in a Brownfield Ag News podcast. "I see that people are becoming less patient with it. People are becoming a little bit more aggressive.”

Field says patience is needed on both sides. Farm-machinery drivers need to recognize the stress of those stuck behind the equipment, and pull over whenever possible to let faster-moving vehicles through, while those stuck behind large equipment need to recognize moving the machinery is necessary to the farmer's business. Without that patience, "we're facing a number of collisions and mishaps involving the highway." (Listen to the complete podcast)

Southern gas shortage pains rural commuters

Many rural commuters are finding the drive to work increasingly difficult due to continuing gas shortages in the heart of the Southeast. The lingering effects of hurricanes Gustav and Ike have created long lines, high prices and shortening tempers at gas stations in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.

"The problem began when Hurricanes Gustav and Ike battered Gulf Coast refineries, reducing the national refinery capacity by as much as 20 percent," writes Robbie Brown of The New York Times. "It worsened as nervous drivers stockpiled gasoline." (Photo by Tami Chappell of Reuters)

Frustration continues to mount for many drivers who commute from rural communities to larger cities. Marsha Lewis, 43, an administrative assistant who lives in Dacula, Ga., and commutes to Atlanta, told Brown, “I drive an hour to work every day, and looking for gasoline has become my entire life.” Accord to the AAA automobile club, the shortages should steadily decline but supply will not return to normal until sometime in mid-October. Until that time drivers across the Southeast, most of which has no major refineries, will continue to see "long lines, high prices and widespread station closings," adds Brown. (Read more)

High energy costs make natives flee rural Alaska

The rising cost of energy in rural Alaska is causing residents to move to urban communities. State government tried to alleviate some of the pressure by giving them a $1,200 check from the Permanent Fund, the state's oil and gas trust fund for natives, but many are using that money to move.

"The main evidence of the migration is enrollment in Anchorage schools, which have seen more than 400 new Native students since school started," report Julia O'Malley and Kyle Hopkins of the Anchorage Daily News. "Middle income people in rural Alaska, who make up about 60 percent, are currently spending 12 percent of their money on energy, compared to that group in Anchorage, who are spending just over 3 percent."

In an attempt to stem the migration, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich and School Superintendent Carol Comeau sent a letter to Gov. Sarah Palin asking her to organize an emergency task force. The letter states that Anchorage and Alaska "cannot stand by and tolerate the deterioration of rural Alaska." Palin, preparing for the vice-presidential debate in Arizona, has not responded to the letter. (Read more)

Wasilla observer of Palin is a citizen journalist; local weekly posts e-mail interview with governor

Felix Frankfurter, a great Supreme Court justice of the mid-20th Century, liked to say that "In a democracy, the highest office is the office of citizen." Today, technology has created the term "citizen journalist," bringing back the full promise of the First Amendment, allowing every American to exercise journalistic rights like the pamphleteers of old. Sometimes people become citizen journalists without intending to.

That includes Anne Kilkenny of Wasilla, Alaska, "the woman behind the infamous e-mail that aired criticisms of Sarah Palin to millions across the cyber-globe," as she is described by Erika Hayasaki ofthe Los Angeles Times. Kilkenny's story of doggedly attending Wasilla City Council meetings has been told many times, but Hayasaki's story reveals more of a journalistic role: "Nick Carney, who served on the council then, remembers there were times when no one showed up to watch, 'not even the guy from the newspaper.' Sometimes Kilkenny was the only one."

The local paper, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, published an e-mail interview with Palin today, in which the second question was what successes and mistakes she had as a council member and mayor. Palin cited her "tax cuts and strategy for growth," and "underestimating how much opposition you face as a real reformer." (Read more)

Hayasaki writes, "Judy Patrick, who served as deputy mayor for four years, is upset that the Internet and media have turned Kilkenny into a Palin expert. 'Anne Kilkenny, the nut case?' Patrick said. 'I mean she came to every single one of our council meetings but was she ever elected? No.' To others, Kilkenny 'is like the watchdog of the council,' Carney said. 'She came to the meetings and made sure we were dotting our I's and crossing our Ts.' 'Anne looked at things logically,' said Darlene Langill, a former City Council member."

Kilkenny wrote the e-mail to 40 friends and asked them not to put it on the Internet, but that was a futile request. She told Hayasaki that she would do it all over again: "I continue to believe that it's important for people to participate as informed voters, and there is a moral obligation to share what we know about the people that are running for office." Sounds like a citizen journalist to us. (Read more)

Failure of bailout bill shows lack of trust in system

Surveying the political and financial landscape after yesterday's failure of the financial-system bailout, it's clear most Americans didn't trust or understand what they were being told by Washington, Wall Street and journalists. Steven Pearlstein of The Washington Post sees it much like we do: "In better times, the public might have put aside its reluctance in response to the strong and unified recommendation of political and business leaders. But it is a measure of how little trust remains in both Washington and Wall Street that voters are willing to risk a serious hit to their wealth and income rather than follow their lead."

In the same newspaper, Joel Achenbach and Ashley Surdin say much the same, and note that an approching election made a difference. "To a degree that few Americans could have appreciated just a few weeks ago, the economy runs on credit. But politics runs on a form of credit, too, generically known as trust, and trust has been a scarce commodity recently in Washington," they write. "The bailout lacked a sympathetic character at the heart of the narrative. And many Americans simply did not believe that the government had the basic competence to do the right thing." (Read more)

Pearlstein writes, "Americans fail to understand that they are facing the real prospect of a decade of little or no economic growth because of the bursting of a credit bubble that they helped create and that now threatens to bring down the global financial system." To avoid inflation, Pearlstein advises, governments around the world must borrow vast sums and "effectively nationalize large swaths of the financial system so it can be restructured, recapitalized, reformed and returned to private ownership once the crisis has passed and the economy has gotten back on its feet." (Read more)

As is often the case, conservative columnist David Brooks of The New York Times nails it, saying the "no" voters "did the momentarily popular thing, and if the country slides into a deep recession, they will have the time and leisure to watch public opinion shift against them." He especially targets House Republicans: "They have once again confused talk radio with reality. . . . They will be held accountable. The short-term blows will fall on John McCain, the long-term stress on the existence of the GOP as we know it."

The great need, Brooks writes, is for authority or at least a sense of it: "People don’t trust the banks; the bankers don’t trust each other. It was an effort to address the crisis of authority in Washington. At least it might have stabilized the situation so fundamental reforms of the world’s financial architecture could be undertaken later. But the 228 House members who voted no have exacerbated the global psychological free fall, and now we have a crisis of political authority on top of the crisis of financial authority." (Read more)

Reflecting some comments of those who voted against the plan, William Greider of The Nation, a liberal magazine, says it would give too much power to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and his successor. The vote "adds another deep shock to the system, both in politics and economics, but what an invigorating moment for democracy," Greider writes. "The financial bloodbath will continue, but unless the deal on the table changes significantly, Henry Paulson gets to decide who lives and who dies."

Greider says the main political failure "is that Congress did not step up and assert the full emergency powers of government in this epic crisis -- that is, take temporary control of the entire financial and banking system so regulators and policy makers can steer the U.S. economy to safer ground, compelling the private institutions to follow their lead. . . . By January, whoever wins the White House, it will be clear that Washington cannot cure the disease by relying on one smart guy from Wall Street. A new federal agency will be needed to supervise the bailout and restore defined public purposes and enforce them on the system." (Read more)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Senate votes to lift new Farm Bill rule barring subsidies to farm plots smaller than 10 acres

The Senate has passed a different version of House-passed legislation to overturn the new Farm Bill rule that keeps farms of less than 10 acres from receiving most forms of commodity payments. At issue is the Department of Agriculture's ruling that farmers cannot aggregate such farms to meet the 10-acre threshold. The amendment now goes to the House.

The Senate version would apply to payments for the 2008 crop year, while the House version would also apply to 2009. "The Senate also clarified aspects of the standing disaster assistance program," reports Tom Steever of Brownfield Network. "There’s a newly established threshold requiring a minimum physical loss of at least 10 percent of a crop to qualify for payments. That’s to avoid farmers qualifying for payments only because of price reductions. The Congressional Budget Office determined that some of Monday's actions will increase payments and some will decrease payments." (Read more)

For our posting on the previous House vote, wiht a listing of the states that would be most affected, click here.

Survey reveals health costs for Plains farmers

The Access Project has released a survey outlining the pressing health issues facing rural communities, putting particular emphasis on high insurance costs that continue to cripple family finances.

Begun as a collaboration between the Kansas Farmers Union, the University of North Dakota Center for Rural Health and Brandeis University, The Access Project (TAP) serves as a local resource for local communities seeking to improve health and influence health policy. In 2007, TAP was responsible for the Health Insurance Survey of Farm and Ranch Operators, which collected data from non-corporate farms and ranches in seven states: Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

The survey found that some families 40 percent of their income on health care and insurance. "Surprisingly, those who earned less than $20,000 were less likely to report financial hardship than those with incomes between $40,000 and $99,999," the report says. Of the 2,017 respondents, 90 percent said all members of their households had been continuously insured in the previous year and still faced financial hardships while trying to cover health expenses, negating the common claim that only the uninsured face extreme medical debt.

TAP argues that the cost of health insurance is heavily influenced by the way people obtain it. Individual, non-group market insurance purchasers, 36 percent of the respondents, "were at a much greater risk of spending more than 10 percent of income on health care relative to those who obtained insurance through government-sponsored programs or employment." The median amount spent on premiums and out-of-pocket costs was $11,200 for individual, non-group market insurance, $5,600 for insurance through off-farm and ranch employment and $3,600 for government-sponsored insurance. "This is significant because family farmers and ranchers are more likely purchase insurance on the individual market than the U.S. population overall." The average annual amount spent on health care costs by farm and ranch families was $7,246 in 2007. (Read more)

Visas steer foreign-born physicians to rural areas

Claiborne County, Tennessee, like many rural areas, is struggling with doctor shortages. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Health Resources and Services Administration has deemed many of these communities Professional Shortage Areas, where recruiting doctors is difficult. This status has allowed "foreign-born doctors who were completing post-graduate education in the United States to choose to serve at least three years in Claiborne County instead of returning to their home countries for two years as per normal J-1 'exchange visitor' visa requirements," writes Kristi L. Nelson of the Knoxville News-Sentinel. (Photo by Emily Spence)

In Clairborne County, population 30,000, "there are only 20 doctors," Nelson reports. "Fifteen of them provide primary care, amounting to about one doctor for every 2,000 or so residents. There is one obstetrician/gynecologist. There are three pediatricians. The county hospital has three general surgeons on active staff. . . . Today, about half of the physicians living and practicing in Claiborne County originally came from other countries." (Read more)

Early research on switchgrass looks promising

New studies suggest switchgrass may become a valuable source of renewable energy in the U.S. From the Great Plains to the Southeast, much research is determining just how effectively switchgrass grows and can be converted to energy. Early results suggest that switchgrass may prove more attractive than corn.

"Switchgrass has been touted as the next miracle crop of the renewable fuel industry," writes Greg D. Reber of the Telegraph Herald of Dubuque, Iowa. "It's a fast-growing variety of prairie grass that once grew wild across the United States.

Aside from being converted to ethanol, switchgrass can be burned along with coal to create energy. "Switchgrass helps utilities meet clean-air standards with less-expensive control equipment and reduces greenhouse air pollution from a large carbon dioxide source," adds Reber. "A dry ton of switchgrass has about 16 million British Thermal Units per dry pound, 90 percent as much energy as a ton of coal, but it burns much cleaner."(Read more)

Ray Smith, a forage specialist with the University of Kentucky, is conducting research in Eastern Kentucky to show local farmers the advantages of switchgrass. John Flavell of the Daily Independent in Ashland writes, "Stopping short of calling switchgrass a 'super plant,' Smith said the plant comes as a complete package, because it’s very drought resistant, uses little fertilizer and needs only one cut a year. The field research by Smith in Kentucky, and others in the Great Plains, is an attempt to build on decades of studies that had shown initial promise with switchgrass. The plant has been increasingly touted as one of the ways to wean the country from foreign oil by converting it to ethanol and a way to help sequester carbon in the ground." For Flavell's story and his nice slideshow, click here.

Ministers flout law that requires non-profit groups to avoid supporting candidates to stay tax-exempt

At least implicitly, a reported 32 ministers across the country backed Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona for president yesterday, "hoping to generate a legal battle that will prompt federal courts to throw out a 54-year-old ban on political endorsements by tax-exempt houses of worship," reports Peter Slevin of the Midwest Bureau of The Washington Post. "The ministers contend they have a constitutional right to advise their worshipers how to vote."

In Crown Point, Ind., the Rev. Ron Johnson Jr., left, showed slides giving some positions of McCain and Sen. Barack Obama and said members choosing the Illinois Democrat would have "severe moral schizophrenia," but he "stopped short of endorsing" McCain, Slevin reports. The Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, which organized the effort, said 31 other pastors participated. (Photo by Peter Slevin)

"Their opponents contend that the tax laws are essential to protect the separation of church and state," Slevin writes. "They say political speech should not be supported by a tax break for the churches or the worshipers who are contributing to a political cause." The 1954 law says that to remain exempt from federal income taxes, non-profit organizations may not "participate in, or intervene in . . . any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office."

For our Saturday posting on this, click here.

UPDATE, Sept. 30: Conservative syndicated columnist Cal Thomas responded to the effort, saying that politicized sermons are a poor substitute for what worship is intended to be. He writes, "Churches and ministers would do better to keep their attention focused on things above, rather than the things below, because politics can be the ultimate temptation and pollute a far superior and life-changing message."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Ethanol, economy weaken McCain's rural base

"Democrats may have finally found a wedge issue to pry away some rural voters from the Republican Party: ethanol," writes Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register, citing veteran legislator, farmer and John McCain supporter Ralph Klemme of strongly Republican northwest Iowa. "Klemme believes McCain may well lose the state this time because of his opposition to federal ethanol policy." President Bush lost Iowa in 2000 but won it in 2004.

In Pennsylvania, a state with many more electoral votes, John Guerriero of the Erie Times-News quotes area political scientists as saying that Barack Obama could do better than recent Democratic nominees with rural voters because of economic turmoil. "Rural areas tend to lean Republican and conservative," he writes, "But with shake-ups on Wall Street and a proposed $700 billion government bailout, this is no ordinary election year."

Citing Robert Speel, associate political science professor at Penn State Behrend, Guerriero writes that even if McCain wins the rural vote by 20 percentage points, as Bush did, that "won't be enough if Obama succeeds in his strategy to increase voter turnout in urban areas and grab a bigger share of the suburban vote." (Read more)

On the ethanol front, "Obama is trying to take advantage with some aggressive outreach recently to farm groups," Brasher reports. "Six former presidents of the National Corn Growers Association, including five who served from 2001 to 2006, recently signed a letter endorsing Obama. The association itself hasn't endorsed either candidate." One of the signers is from Ohio, "a must-win state for McCain." (Read more) Brasher's story, apparently written Friday, doesn't note that in Friday night's debate McCain voluntarily reiterated his opposition to the federal tax credit for ethanol. For our debate story, click here.