Friday, April 24, 2009

University of Tennessee drops plan to lease Cumberland Plateau forest land for gas drilling

Faced with citizen opposition and apparent worries from state officials, the University of Tennessee has dropped plans to lease 8,600 acres of its Forest Resources Research and Education Center on the Cumberland Plateau in Scott and Morgan counties for natural-gas drilling.

"Gov. Phil Bredesen said UT and state officials have recently had several discussions about the use of state-owned lands, including mineral rights and oil and gas leases," reports Anne Paine of The Tennessean, which broke the story about the leasing plan. Bredesen said, "As a result of these discussions the University decided that the best path forward is to step back from this proposal for now, and to have a broader discussion on developing the best approach to the use of public lands."

The Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation, which has a conservation easement on a creek downstream from the area, had voiced concern about the chemical fracturing process used to release gas from deep shale formations. (Read more)

Appalachian writer is Kentucky's poet laureate

Author and University of Kentucky English professor Gurney Norman was inducted today as Kentucky's poet laureate. To marking the occasion, a colleague and former student wrote a tribute focusing on how his writing advocates for the land that defines the state. "I have witnessed in him an unflagging devotion to teaching that Kentucky is an ancient place, a place and people of mythic proportions who have consequential work to do. These mountains that define us are elders in this world's terrain — and they have much to give to us, and much to require of us, as we reckon with our own finite and eternal selves," writes Rebecca Gayle Howell, professor of creative writing at Morehead State University, in an op-ed for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

She compares his writing, rooted in the land, to Wendell Berry, with its belief that "the human condition is both specific and timeless — the teaching is the same: ground your feet in this earth, this distinct place on Earth, our home, raise your mind to the sky."

"Gurney," Howell concludes, "you once told me that 'We are all Appalachian' — and in it, you were telling me that I was writing, thinking, reading and living in the spiritual seedbed of North America — and beyond. You were telling me, in fact, that I was one of those seeds. How many countless of us are there who have had this conversation with you? Thank you. My ear is to the track for what you will say to us now. May the many gods in your pantheon bless you as you enter this next hero's journey." (Read more)

UPDATE, April 26: Candace Chaney writes a tribute to Norman in the Sunday Herald-Leader: "Norman is critically acclaimed for Divine Right's Trip and Kinfolks: The Wilgus Stories, but it is his behind-the-scenes work that is perhaps his greatest legacy." She also notes his television program about the Kentucky River, "Time and the River." (Read more)

Colo. bank's failure leaves farmers without credit

Many Colorado farmers are scrambling for loans after the largest bank in the northern part of the state was recently taken over by federal officials. New Frontier Bank's failure comes just as many farmers need loans for seeds, fertilizer and other upfront costs. “This is the time of year when farmers need to rely on a line of credit,” said Tony Miller, president of First FarmBank. And as banks fail across the nation, it's a story that's bound to be repeated in a number of agricultural communities.

"Miller said First FarmBank has had 20 to 25 applications from former New Frontier borrowers, seeking loans of about $16 million," writes Bill Jackson of the Greeley Tribune. Miller said that is too much for his bank, and many others in the area. (Read more)

Broadband is only one part of rural jobs formula

High-speed Internet access has been promoted as a catalyst for rural economic development, and more than $7 billion is written into the stimulus package to provide broadband to areas where it would otherwise be unprofitable for broadband companies to invest. But economists are divided over whether broadband really is the solution to rural America's economic woes. "You can't just drop an Internet line and expect jobs growth," says Larry Irving, former head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the government agency administering most of the broadband stimulus money. "Getting broadband access is only the first part," he told Cecilia Kang of The Washington Post.

Critics of the plan point to two towns in Appalachian Virginia: Lebanon and Rose Hill. The former has been promoted as the future for rural broadband access. After the community received state-supported broadband, two major companies came to the area, creating 700 jobs with average salaries of $50,000. In Rose Hill, however, only a third of 140 potential customers signed up for the service, and few jobs were created.

Analysts offer a number of possible reasons for the disparity between the two communities. John Horrigan, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, says "Skills and relevance still remain a barrier." King reports that one of Lebanon's new businesses, software maker CGI, "said it was attracted by Lebanon's willingness to train workers and by higher levels of education than in other parts of the region." The way the community approaches possible job creation may also affect their success. Lebanon "took a holistic view of its workforce with support programs, and they see it as a long process," says Karen Jackson, director of the state's Office of Telework Promotion and Broadband Assistance. (Read more)

Appalachian scholar calls for strip-mine ban; top lawmaker says no, but calls for better land use

Ron Eller, the leading historian of modern Appalachia, told an annual gathering of Eastern Kentucky leaders last night that strip mining should be banned "for the good of the state's economy," reports Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Eller, left, author of Uneven Ground, a recently published history of Appalachian development since 1945, gave the keynote speech at the East Kentucky Leadership Conference in Hazard. He "said the state must recognize declining coal reserves, political opposition to coal-fired energy, and rising regulations on carbon-dioxide emissions," Hjalmarson writes.

"He said governments must foster entrepreneurship and a regional, homegrown economy that is not dependent on extractive industries. Eller said jobs lost in surface mining could be buoyed by underground mining and replaced by sustainable forestry, tourism and green energy production. There is potential for tourism but only if the environment is preserved."

"Reaction was not entirely warm," Hjalmarson reports. Eller's 20-minute speech drew much applause but several in the room sat silently. As he accepted the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation's award for service to the region by a private individual, he joked, "I wasn't sure you were still going to give me this." Between his appearances at the lectern, Chad Warrix and David Tolliver of the country-music duo Halfway 2 Hazard, winners of the foundation's annual arts and culture award, won applause when they said they were supporters of the coal industry.

Eller closed his speech with an emotional observation that when he joined the University of Kentucky history department, he took the office left by the late Harry Caudill, author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands, which drew national attention to the area in the 1960s. To this observer, it seemed that our friend Ron was channeling our friend Harry, whose monogrammed briefcase still sits on the office bookcase. We agree with union steelworker Willie Blevins of Ashland, who won the Tony Turner Award for service to the region and complimented the foundation "for encouraging dialogue and debate on those very serious issues that confront our region today." The conference continues today.

UPDATE: State House Speaker Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg, right, the final speaker of the conference, revised his remarks to respond to Eller today, Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen reports: "Some of what Stumbo said was defensive: Why do people who no longer live in the mountains think they know what's best for them? Subdivisions built on Lexington farmland are just as bad for the environment as surface mining in the mountains. Some of it was matter of fact: We must move beyond coal, which will eventually be gone. We also must understand that coal produces half the nation's electricity — and more than 90 percent of Kentucky's electricity — and nothing can change that any time soon."

"And some of what Stumbo said was new and interesting: Rather than abolish surface mining, which he said isn't economically practical, leaders in Eastern Kentucky must become more creative and demanding about how mined land is reclaimed and reused. Stumbo cited several examples where mined land has been turned into airports, subdivisions, parks, golf courses and commercial development. But he also acknowledged that much other mined land has been poorly reclaimed as useless 'pasture.' " Stumbo lives in a golf-course subdivision developed on a reclaimed strip mine with federal and state assistance.

To read Eblen's column, click here. To listen to his excerpts of Eller's and Stumbo's speeches, click here. For Eller's full speech, click here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

FDA sets date for final feed ban, says downer cattle could be composted or landfilled

The Food and Drug Administration has confirmed that the final rule banning cattle materials at a high risk of carrying bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, from all animal feed will go into effect Monday, April 27. Tom Johnston of Meatingplace reports, "FDA had proposed delaying the ... effective date by two months and allowed a week-long comment period after industry organizations turned up the volume on concerns about the disposal of prohibited cattle materials and difficulties in modifying operations to comply with the rule."

We reported here that "regulation for animal-feed manufacturers is not only increasing the cost for cattle farmers to dispose of dead cows, but in many areas, is eliminating all options for disposal -- expensive or not."

The FDA said in its formal notice, "The rule provided a 12-month delayed effective date to allow sufficient time to arrange for alternative disposal. Where services to remove brain and spinal cord will not be available, such arrangements might include composting dead stock cattle, or disposing of dead stock cattle in landfills." (Read more)

Poll: Most back Obama in fight over farm subsidies

The Obama administration has faced a tough fight trying to cut farm subsidies in next year's budget. Farm-state lawmakers have fought tooth and nail to block any effort to cut subsidies. But according to a new poll conducted by most Americans support the administration's efforts.

"Clearly, U.S. policy on farm subsidies is far out of step with the preferences of the American public," said Steven Kull, director of the firm. "The vast majority of U.S. subsidies go to large farming businesses on a regular annual basis. However, only one in three Americans approve of subsidies to large farming businesses and less than one in six approve doing so on a regular annual basis."

The polling data did not indicate any strong partisan split on the issue, and little difference between major agricultural states and others. (Read more)

Institute for Rural Journalism recognized with East Kentucky Leadership Foundation's media award

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (logo and link at left) is receiving this year's Media Award from the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation tonight in Hazard, Ky. "The Institute serves as a public policy center to help rural journalists grasp the local impact of broader issues, find sources, and develop new story approaches," reports Marie Luby of WYMT-TV in Hazard.

The Institute is being recognized for its role helping rural journalists tackle tough stories and keeping rural communities informed. "It's a lot more difficult to be a good, ethical, hard-nosed journalist in a small town than it is a big city because you never know when someone's going to come in, walk right in to your office, no receptionist or security guard, and start banging on your desk about something you wrote," IRJCI Director Al Cross told Luby.

The Institute was founded by the University of Kentucky in 2001 and staffed in 2004 with the hiring of Cross, thanks to a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Its initial focus was on Appalachia, and though it quickly became a national program, the region and the state are its homes. The university has adopted the program, which is raising money for an endowment to expand its work. To read the story and watch an interview with Cross, click here.

Rural Kentucky county stirred by zoning proposal

Few public issues can stir emotions in a rural community than a proposal to start planning and zoning. As a crowd filled a meeting room Wednesday in Bracken County, Kentucky, the county judge-executive warned, "You will come up to the front, state your name, address the court and there will be no arguing among yourselves or you will be escorted out by the sheriff," reports Wendy Mitchell of the Ledger Independent in nearby Maysville.

"Many of those in attendance described themselves as farmers and property owners concerned about governmental interference in the use of their property," Mitchell reports, while officials say "Lack of zoning plans have detoured industrial site development." In a video posted with Mitchell's story, a local landowner said many people move to the county for its rural ambience and might not want it industrialized.

One of the magistrates on the county fiscal court, Kentucky's equivalent of a county commission, got into an argument with a planning commission member over past problems, including the placement of the magistrate's business into a non-business zone. (The business would still be allowed to operate.) To the opponents, a member of the 10-year-old county planning commission said, "We really tried to educate the people. There were many meetings over the years .... Where were you guys?" The proposal is still pending. (Read more)

Cooperative paper born during Depression struggles to survive, by staying true to its roots

Publishing a newspaper in the middle of an economic crisis is not new to the Inter-County Leader. The cooperative weekly began publishing in northwest Wisconsin in 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression, as a forum for pressing issues such as foreclosures and bankruptcies. Farmers and other business leaders invested $5 each for share of the stock.

Today, the paper is still $5 per share (although shareholders must also have a subscription), foreclosures and bankruptcies are once again pressing issues, and the paper is struggling, along with the economy. Advertising is way down, and Doug Panek, the cooperative's manager, is doubful that they can make a profit this year. But he recognizes that the paper is much more secure than others: "We are pretty well off financially. We can take a hard year and survive," he told Bill Glauber of Milwaukee's Journal Sentinel.

Even as profits are down, the paper is working hard to avoid sacrificing coverage. Glauber writes, "A recent issue ran 64 pages and was crammed with news ranging from a cougar sighting to an unsightly pile of trees." Additional revenue comes from sales in the main office, which doesn't simply sell subscriptions, but "evertyhing from stationary to trash bags filled with 30 pounds of shredded newsprint, which makes great bedding for livestock."

As the staff tries to ride out the recession, they plan to continue doing what they do best: covering their community, from the hard news to the human-interest to the homespun. Editor Gary King, who has been at the paper since 1983, remains hopeful that the community will continue to support them, as long as they keep reporting the stories that matter to local residents. "People are willing to pay for their small town news," he said. (Read more; visit the paper's website)

Rural Georgia town bucks national downturn as automaker opens up shop

While Main Street businesses around the nation are closing as a result of recession, one rural Georgia town is seeing the opposite trend, thanks to a new car-manufacturing plant -- the only such plant in the nation planning to open this year. West Point, a town of 3,400 near the state's Alabama border, will be home to a new Kia plant, and residents are well-aware of their good fortune.

"It's hard all over the place," said Debbie Williams, co-owner of a local barbecue joint. "But in this little bitty town, we're so fortunate.' Williams' restaurant is one of many businesses experiencing a surge in popularity as the area prepares for the 7,000-10,000 new manufacturing jobs that will stem from the plant and businesses supplying parts to the company. Recently, Kenneth Thompson of the nearby LaGrange Daily News reported that the area had one of the highest unemployment rate in the state, with the local textile industry suffering major hits in the recession.

The automaker's decision to locate in the community reflects a growing trend, albeit one that has, for the most part, been put on hold as the country faces economic downturn. "Foreign automakers have flocked to the South," writes Michael Luo of The New York Times, "drawn by huge incentives offered by state officials, cheaper labor costs and the nonunion environment."
For their part, town residents hope that their town's future is not just a fluke, but is the beginning of a national economic upturn. But for now, they can appreciate their town's status as a symbol of hope. "We are the place that has the light at the end of the tunnel," said Mayor Drew Ferguson IV. (Read more)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Obama's Earth Day: Where Maytags once rolled off the line, towers for wind turbines are now made

Highlighting the priorities of renewable energy and sustainability, President Obama and his administration kicked off Earth Day at a wind-turbine power plant in Newton, Iowa. "The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy -- it's a choice between prosperity and decline," Obama said.

Obama sees the plant, which employs 91 people and expects the creation of 100 more jobs in the next two years, "as a model of how the nation's manufacturing economy can be transformed to accommodate a renewable energy future," Michael A. Fletcher reports for The Washington Post. "While the plant is creating jobs, its scale pales" next to the old Maytag plant that once employed 1,800 in the same building, Fletcher notes.

Obama was accompanied by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, who announced $144.3 million in loans and grants for infrastructure improvements to improve water availability and quality. For the USDA release, click here. Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis contributed their own Earth Day thoughts in an op-ed piece. They wrote that a 'green' revolution will lay the foundation for sustainable change: "By providing the training that will turn 20th century blue-collar jobs into secure 21st century green-collar jobs, we are paving a pathway out of poverty; strengthening urban and rural communities; rebuilding a strong middle class; and protecting the health of our citizens and planet." Read more here and here.

Some county recorders in Iowa don't want to issue licenses for same-sex marriages

The Iowa Supreme Court's decision allowing same-sex marriage took effect this week, and county recorders prepared to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Some recorders in rural counties said they would refuse to license such marriages, and some Republican legislators tried to pass language that would have allowed recorders to refuse to issue a marriage license as a “matter of conscience” without fear of prosecution. That language was ruled out of order. Afterward, a clerk from Republican state Rep. Kent Sorenson's office was discovered contacting county recorders and asking them why they were willing to follow the Supreme Court’s ruling, since “it’s not a law, it’s an opinion.”

The legislative efforts were rebuked Wednesday by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller. In a statement to the Iowa Independent, Miller said “Our country lives by and thrives by the rule of law, and the rule of law means we all follow the law as interpreted by our courts — not by ourselves. We don’t each get to decide what the law is; that would lead to chaos. We must live by and follow what the courts decide.” Jason Hancock reports for the Independent here.

Adam Belz writes for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids that "Iowa has no residency requirement, so out-of-state gay couples can be married in Iowa as long as they either wait for three days after they get a marriage license or obtain a waiver from a county clerk of courts." That fact may invite more same-sex couples to the state as they vie for marriage certificates. Read more here.

Rural Alaska population shrinking, affecting schools and the economy

Rural Alaska is being depopulated. A state report released last week from the Division of Community and Regional Affairs, claims that over the past eight years, population has fallen 3.6 percent in rural areas, equaling 138,898 residents - almost the same count as in 1990.

The fastest shrinking group is school-age children, presenting state funding and educational obstacles for rural communities. Alex Demarban reports for Alaska Newspapers Inc. that the rural population of children has plummeted by 11 percent. As a result, several schools report the risk of losing state funding because of the lack of students. Demarban writes that there is a 10-student minimum required for full state funding, a number more than 20 schools are having a difficult time reaching. Although rural population rose slightly in 2008 by 57 people, the long-term trend is a cause for concern. Increased fuel and utility prices and unemployment were reasons cited for the trend. Read more.

Federal formula, skewed against rural schools, now used for stimulus; webinar scheduled

The formula used to determine who federal funds are distributed by the U.S. Department of Education may be unfair to small, rural school districts. Title I of the No Child Left Behind Act is designed to help students at risk for failure due to poverty. "The way the formula works, a small school district with a high percentage of poor students earns less per student than a large school district with a smaller percentage of poor students," Caitlin Howley writes in the Daily Yonder. "As a result, small rural districts receive a far smaller share of Title I funds, even if they serve larger percentages of impoverished students."

This disparity has become more important because it is now being used to determine how economic-stimulus money is distributed. President Obama seemed to signify his support for small rural schools when he invited a student from one to sit next to Michelle Obama during his address to Congress. But the Rural School and Community Trust points out that under the current system, the student's school "in rural South Carolina receives $1,057 for each student qualifying under Title I," writes Howley. "Dillon has a student poverty rate of 38.5 percent. However, the nearby Greenville school district — one of the largest in the state — receives $1,467 for each eligible student, but its poverty rate is only 13.8%."

The trust adds: “The poorest 800 rural districts enroll almost a million students and have an average poverty rate of 35.52 percent. They get a little over $1,200 per poor student in Title I stimulus. Among the seven urban districts with the largest enrollment of poor students, only Detroit has a higher poverty rate than the rural 800 and all seven get more per poor student in Title I funding—in both the regular federal budget and the stimulus package.”

Howley suggests that the only way to fix the problem and eliminate the disparity is to eliminate weighting by the number of eligible students. "Title I funds would then go to districts with high poverty rates, regardless of their size," adds Howley. (Read more) The trust will conduct a webinar Wednesday, April 29 at 2 pm EDT on "Innovative Ways for Rural Schools to Invest Title I Stimulus Funds." To register, click here.

Mountaintop mine foe in write-up

In a recent interview with Newsweek, Julia "Judy" Bonds, co-director of the watchdog group Coal River Mountain Watch, discussed the difficulty in fighting an industry that provides jobs for so many rural workers. But she insists that ultimately a shift away from a coal economy to renewable energy such as wind is the only way to empower local communities and improve the lives of Appalachians. (Coal River Mountain Watch photo)

"Bonds, who lives in Boone County, W.Va., calls her region the epicenter of coal's effects on human health," Daniel Stone writes in an online-only story for the magazine. "But she says it's also the site of a budding environmental movement." Her own family finds it hard to support her cause "primarily because the coal industry is the only job in town," adds Stone.

Bonds explained that the more people who are affected by polluted air and water and have to live with the daily blasting associated with mountaintop removal, the more activists against coal are created. Or as she put it "the most ardent and passionate activist is the one who's just been blasted or flooded." (Read more)

USDA grounds to be an organic vegetable garden

The Department of Agriculture announced that it plans to plant a 1,300 square-foot organic vegetable garden, making it slightly larger than the new White House garden. It will be called the People's Garden, after the original name of the department when created under Abraham Lincoln, the People's Department. It is another sign that the USDA is embracing sustainable food, reports Jane Black of The Washington Post.

Vilsack said he came up with the idea while jogging the grounds and seeing people look at the existing landscaping. "A thriving garden, he thought, would be a better way to communicate the agency's mission of sustainability and in particular the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables, a cornerstone of the agency's push to improve school nutrition and reduce childhood obesity," Black writes.

Vilsack had initially envisioned a smaller project but strong public support convinced him to expand it. "The garden now will encompass all of the agency's property on the Mall, and the department will work with organizations across the country to encourage individuals, schools and communities to establish gardens," adds Black.

All the food grown in the garden will be donated to local food banks but the main function of the garden is to serve as an educational tool. "Gardeners will work toward winning it organic certification; signs and possibly a video at the USDA visitors' center will explain the process and benefits of organic agriculture," writes Black. "The goal is to illustrate the many ways to grow food, dispelling the notion that gardeners need large plots of land."

The People's Garden may come as a surprise to many who criticized the appointment of Vilsack to head the agency. "In his first 91 days, the secretary has made concerted efforts to win food advocates' trust," adds Black. "He has met with progressive farm groups and food policy organizations and watched a screening of 'Food Inc.,' a searing indictment of the industrial food system, with authors Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, two leaders of the sustainable-food movement." (Read more)

People's Garden Concept Drawing (PDF)

Farmers want climate legislation to compensate them for carbon-storage measures already taken

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told agricultural journalists yesterday that farmers stand to gain from legislation to limit climate change, but details of how much they will get paid for preventing emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases has not yet been worked out.

"One of the biggest issues for farm organizations is whether farmers can earn credits for measures they've taken before the passage of the law," writes Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register. "Many farmers in Iowa and other parts of the Midwest have reduced tillage and, in some cases, earn pay through a voluntary credit exchange." Vilsack said payments to farmers depend largely on whether greenhouse-gas allowances, sometimes called carbon credits, are sold or given away to polluters.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said climate legislation could be "punitive to agriculture" unless farmers can get paid for past practices. "Some agricultural groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, have expressed skepticism that the higher energy and fertilizer costs that result from climate legislation could outweigh potential benefits," adds Brasher. "Winning over agricultural interests is viewed by many advocates of climate legislation as critical to getting a bill through Congress." (Read more)

National Geographic editors spotlight special issue of magazine with live chat at noon EDT today

National Geographic magazine has issued a special edition about energy, exploring questions like: What energy challenges are we facing? How can we meet the rising demand without harming the planet? What are some viable solutions for the near and long-term future?

Dennis Dimick and Tim Appenzeller, the magazine's executive editors, will take part in a live online discussion about those and related issues at noon EDT today. We know Dennis as a former colleague at The Courier-Journal who has a wide range of interests. He has degrees in agriculture from Oregon State University and agricultural journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and took pictures and notes on a tour we took of mountaintop-removal mines in West Virginia during last fall's Society of Environmental Journalists conference. SEJ named Appenzeller's June 2007 cover story on global warming, "The Big Thaw," the best example of explanatory environmental reporting.

For more on the live chat, hosted by The Washington Post, click here.

Bill to stop use of mountaintop-removal coal in North Carolina is withdrawn after hearing, protest

The proposed Appalachian Mountains Preservation Act, introduced in the last two sessions of the North Carolina legislature, got a committee hearing yesterday but was then withdrawn. State Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Greensboro, "said she'd work on a resolution to encourage Congress to restrict or ban the mining practice," reports John Murawski of The Raleigh News and Observer.

Harrison's decision came after several legislators said the "bill would not stop the controversial mining practice but would only divert coal mined that way from North Carolina to markets like Europe and China," Murawski reports. The bill had grabbed attention from other coal-producing states. Representatives from the coal associations of West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky attended the hearing to voice their opposition. (Read more)

The day before, protesters in Charlotte marched on Duke Energy's headquarters, complaining about the company's environmental practices. "Duke opposes a state ban on imports of mountaintop coal," wrote Bruce Henderson of The Charlotte Observer. A Duke spokeswoman told him, "We are sensitive to the issue, and we are reviewing it." On other fronts, the company has taken steps to be more "green." (Read more) For a report on the hearing, from Jordan Schrader of the Asheville Citizen-Times, click here.

The protest was partly intended to show people in non-coal states how the coal that produces their electricity is extracted. That point was made in a St. Petersburg Times column by Robert Trigaux, who noted that local utilities Progress Energy and TECO, formerly Tampa Electric Co., have operated mountaintop-removal mines. TECO still does, and says reclaimed sites have provided needed land for public projects and other development. To read the column, click here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Rural newspapers help job seekers with free ads

With unemployment on the rise, many community newspapers are helping out by running free ads for job seekers. Neighbor Newspapers, which owns papers in 12 Oklahoma towns, "We were looking for ways to use our newspapers and our websites to make things better, because some of our communities are struggling right now," said publisher Mike Brown. For a report by Craig Day of Tulsa's KOTV-6, click here.

The Johnstown Breeze in Colorado began a similar service last week. They say that the project stems from being part of the community. "If we all work together, we can make it through this,” said publisher Lesli Bangert. “We appreciate the continued support of the communities, and want to do something to give back to the communities.”(Read more)

Chicken waste for energy becomes hot topic for candidate for governor in Virginia

Virginia's Democratic primary for governor has brought a lot of attention to a unusual topic: chicken waste. Former national Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe, right, one of three vying for the June 9 nomination, sees energy converted from chicken manure as way to provide "green jobs" while eliminating a major source of pollution for the state's waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.

While candidates have touted several environmental initiatives, "few issues have generated as much publicity as chicken waste, driven in part by McAuliffe's characteristic over-the-top zeal for the subject," writes Sandhya Somashekhar for The Washington Post. McAuliffe has inspected Virginia Tech's prototype machine that converts poultry waste into energy. "He was enthused," said Oren Heatwole, who owns the property where the machine was built, said of McAuliffe's visit. "He was very wound up on it."

McAuliffe's rivals criticize his enthusiasm. "He's made it seem like chicken waste is the solution to the problem, and we're not even sure how much of an answer it is," said Jesse Ferguson, spokesman for Brian Moran, another Democratic candidate. But McAuliffe says it is a good way to get people thinking about the environment. "People perk up," he said. If this is what I need to do to get people's attention on alternative energy and jobs, so be it."

Monday, April 20, 2009

Writer at 34,000-circulation daily in upstate N.Y. wins Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing

An editorial writer from a 34,000-circulation newspaper in rural New York won this year's Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing today, on the strength of what the judges called "his relentless, down-to-earth editorials on the perils of local government secrecy, effectively admonishing citizens to uphold their right to know."

Mark Mahoney, right, is editorial page editor of The Post-Star in Glens Falls, the smallest paper to win a Pulitzer this year. He authors a nationally recognized blog about First Amendment issues, “Your Right to Know.”

"Editor Ken Tingley said Mahoney’s win made him think of the line from the movie 'Hoosiers,' when the basketball coach is urging on his small-school team to the championship," the Post-Star reports. Tingley said, "This is for all the small newspapers out there that never got to play in the game." Tingley said. The paper is part of Lee Enterprises.

Mahoney "has a gift for making dry topics, like the Freedom of Information Law, readable through entertaining examples and comparisons," his paper reported. He began a recent editorial about state government, "In the time it takes you to read this sentence, it will have spent about $20,000." (Encarta map)

Each entrant in the editorials category had to send in 10 examples of work. The jurors for the prize were Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Robert J. Caldwell, editorial page editor of The Oregonian; Nanya Friend, editor and publisher of the Charleston Daily Mail; Jeff Good, editor of the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H., and White River Junction, Vt.; and Jonathan Wolman, editor and publisher of The Detroit News. Tucker, who chaired the jury, and Good, a regional neighbor of Mahoney, are former Pulitzer winners.

California may not consider corn ethanol up to state's new, low-carbon fuel standard

"California regulators, trying to assess the true environmental cost of corn ethanol, are poised to declare that the biofuel cannot help the state reduce global warming," reports Matthew Cimitile of The Daily Climate. "As they see it, corn is no better – and might be worse – than petroleum when total greenhouse gas emissions are considered."

As California moves forward with its low-carbon fuel standard, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gasses from transportation fuels by 10 percent by 2020, the state is looking at the overall impact of using corn ethanol. "If increased production of corn-based ethanol in the U.S. raises corn prices and accelerates the conversion of rainforests and conservation lands to farmland worldwide," Cimitile writes, "greenhouse emissions and loss of the carbon sink associated with such deforestation and disruption must be counted towards the biofuel’s total emissions."

California is looking at the use of cleaner energy sources such as electricity, hydrogen and cellulosic ethhanol. "But federal policy is moving in an opposite direction," adds Cimitile. "Pushed by industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering upping the percentage of ethanol in the nation’s gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent." (Read more) EPA is also considerinhg whether corn ethanol meets the Renewable Fuels Standard because of the forest-to-farm conversion issue.

Recession has hurt rural manufacturing counties harder than population-losing farm counties

The nation's economic crisis has had a dramatic impact on rural communities, but more so on manufacturing communities than hose where farming is the dominant economic activity. "Out-migration, education, and long-term poverty may account for these differences," Bo Beaulieu and Roberto Gallardo of the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University write for the Daily Yonder. "These socioeconomic features may underlie the different employment outcomes in farming and manufacturing communities."

Beaulieu and Gallardo determined that there were 146 nonmetro counties with unemployment above 15 percent and 823 nonmetro counties below the national average of 7.8 percent. "Nearly 47 percent of the high-unemployment nonmetro counties are classified as manufacturing- dependent counties, while only a handful are dominated by farming (6.2 percent)," they write. "On the other hand, the largest share of low-unemployment counties is farm-dependent (36.2 percent), with only 11.2 percent being defined as manufacturing-dependent counties."

When trying to determine why farming communities have managed to avoid the high unemployment rates found in manufacturing counties it was determined that two-thirds of farm-dependent counties had lost population. "The lower unemployment rates uncovered in many farm-dependent nonmetro counties are masking some broader economic challenges facing these communities," add Beaulieu and Gallardo. "Simply put, lots of these farm dependent counties have witnessed the outmigration of many workers and families in past years, many of their residents moving on, in search of better economic opportunities." (Read more)

West Virginia activist receives environmental prize for fighting mountaintop-removal mining

After mountaintop mining destroyed the West Virginia ridge overlooking her childhood home, Maria Gunnoe turned into an environmental activist, organizing meetings, speaking at rallies, testifying at lawsuits, and many other anti-mining activities. Her efforts won her both threats from miners and one of this year's prestigious Goldman Prizes, which honor grassroots environmental activists across the world. (Photo by Antrim Caskey)

Since the mountaintop removal began near her Boone County home in 2000, "Gunnoe has lived with periodic flooding and with water pollution she blames on the Magnum Coal operation up the hollow," writes Ken Ward Jr. for The Charleston Gazette. Testifying in federal court two years ago, she said the mining "has devastated our property." (Read more)

The Web site for the Goldman Prize notes that her work for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition has led to serious threats from opponents of her work: "Gunnoe’s neighbors recently overheard people planning an arson attack on her home. Her daughter’s dog was shot dead, and 'wanted' posters of Gunnoe have appeared in local convenience stores." Gunnoe joins recipients this year from Gabon, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Russia and Suriname. (Read more)

Tom Brokaw says crisis should be catalyst for consolidation of counties, small-state functions

The economic crisis should prompt consolidation of local governments and small-state functions, Tom Brokaw of NBC News writes for The New York Times' op-ed page. His examples range from New York, where a state commission determined that consolidation could save the state more than $1 billion, to North Dakota and his native South Dakota, where Brokaw says that 17 universities for 1.5 million people in two states could better use their money by consolidating administrations into one university system with satellite campuses. (New York Sun photo)

Brokaw's example of Iowa's 99 counties for 3 million residents could be repeated for a number of states. Nebraska has more counties per capita than any state, and Kentucky is second. "Each one houses a full complement of clerks, auditors, sheriff’s deputies, jailers and commissioners," he writes. "Is there any reason beyond local pride to maintain such duplication given the economic and population pressures of our time?"

Chase Martyn of the Iowa Independent replies, "The answer to Brokaw’s question may very well be “no,” but that doesn’t mean he will get his way anytime soon. In many small towns across Iowa, local pride is all that keeps communities going. If you shut down the courthouse and a few schools in one of the smaller county seat towns here, many fear the town could evaporate in a matter of only a few years. ... A few towns would almost certainly die, and no politician wants to be responsible for that." The same could be said of every state with a plethora of counties.

Brokaw quotes General Electric Chairman Jeffrey Immelt as saying the economic crisis is "a reset" that should include fundamental changes in American institutions. "If this is a reset, it’s time to reorganize our state and local government structures for today’s realities rather than cling to the sensibilities of the 20th century," Brokaw wrotes. "If we demand this from General Motors, we should ask no less of ourselves." (Read more)

Mine supervisors sentenced for safety violations

Three mine supervisors were sentenced Thursday in southeastern Kentucky for endangering underground miners. Ira Sergent, Johnny Osborne and Reggie Raleigh were fined and put on probation for turning off the main fan at Stillhouse Mining No. 1 Mine for six hours while miners were still working. Federal regulations require workers stay in the mine without a fan for no more than 15 minutes.

Tony Oppegard, a mine-safety attorney, said that the mine violations were planned, occurring when no inspectors would be present. Inspectors caught the violation only after receiving a tip. "Foremen have a difficult job, and I understand that," Oppegard told John Middleton of the Harlan Daily Enterprise. "However, if you are told by someone higher up in management to violate the law, which is what probably happened, and you know it will put miners at risk, you have a moral obligation to go by the law."

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials say they hope the case will improve safety at other mines. "We feel like justice has been served,” said Michael Davis, the deputy assistant labor secretary for operations. “Mine operators are reminded that supervisors will be held accountable for violating the nations’ mine safety laws.” (Read more)