Saturday, August 22, 2009

Pot plots more prevalent on forest land in West

Increased security along the Mexican border has led to more marijuana growing in rural areas in the Western U.S. Jesse McKinley of The New York Times quotes Santa Barbara County, Calif., sheriff Bill Brown: "It’s [border control] made it much more difficult for the cartels to smuggle into the country, particularly marijuana, which is large and bulky. It’s easier to grow it here.” A 90,000-acre wildfire in the county was started by pot growers for a Mexican drug cartel last week.

In Colorado, Kirk Mitchell of The Denver Post reported that 20,000 marijuana plants were found on Colorado national forest land this summer. (U. S. Forest Service photo) "The operations pose a significant safety hazard to hikers who may happen upon the armed farmers in the woods," Mitchell writes. "They also threaten streams that can be polluted by chemicals used to grow marijuana."

McKinley notes that marijuana plots have long been "a fixture of the nation's public lands" but says they have become more numerous in recent years. Some of the largest marijuana farms in Colorado and California history have been discovered this summer, both reporters found. Mitchell reports that the U. S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region has asked for $100,000 to cover the cost of searching for the farms, but even with more resources, officials face an almost impossible task. McKinley reports that Santa Barbara County officials say in 18 raids they have captured 225,000 plants but made no arrests.

A story that will make you want to visit a state fair

"Louisville may be the state's largest city, but for 11 days each August it becomes the center of rural Kentucky at its best," writes Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen. "You will find farm families from across the state, showing off the bounty of their hard work, rich land and considerable ingenuity." (Read more)

But if you go, don't touch the pigs. Not to keep yourself from getting H1N1 ("swine") flu, but to keep you from giving it to them. Monica Davey of The New York Times reports on new safeguards at state fairs.

Political columnist asks: Do we have a free marketplace of ideas or a cheering contest?

We've written a good bit this month about the responsibility of journalists at all levels to help voters sort out the health-reform debate amid the partisan and ideological messages that have dominated the conversation and are usually biased and often misleading. Today in his weekly column, Ronnie Ellis of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. urges readers to consider information from more than one side.

"If everyone you know believes the earth is flat, why wouldn’t you?" asks Ellis, a reporter based in the Kentucky state capital of Frankfort. "More and more people get their news – and views – from inside the echo chamber of their own political philosophy or party. Walk into offices of Democrats and you are not likely to see Fox News on the television. You’ll see nothing else down the hall in the Republican’s office."

Ellis calls for a return to "original libertarian" John Stuart Mill's “free marketplace of ideas,” a place where ideas can compete."If you never listen to the other side, you won’t notice when they may be on to something. That attitude also makes it difficult for the two major parties to tolerate dissent within their own ranks. ... The 'competition' of ideas comes more to resemble the attitude of sports fans – cheering for one side not because that side is right or is intellectually or morally superior but because of the party name in front of their name. ... Of course, when you already know the earth is flat, why listen to those who say otherwise?" (Read more)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Amish paper obeys its readers, limits online news

The oldest and largest Amish newspaper in the U.S. has decided not to put more news online because readers "feared their plainspoken dispatches would become fodder for entertainment in the 'English,' or non-Amish, world," Meghan Barr reports for The Associated Press. "My gosh, they spoke in volume," Publisher Keith Rathbun, right, told Barr. (AP photo by Kiichiro Sato)

The paper's Web site says, "Online you will find highlights of our weekly Local Edition coverage. Out of respect for our 116-year relationship with our Amish and Mennonite writers, readers and friends, the National Edition remains available only in its printed format." Each edition has a circulation of about 10,000. "The national edition — and the source of its faithful following — is a patchwork of dispatches from scribes, which include both fresh-faced teenagers and bearded old men," Barr writes. "The news isn't always upbeat. They'll write about the child whose arm got caught in a threshing machine, and the family that was killed in a buggy accident. When a gunman shot and killed five Amish girls in Nickel Mines, Pa., in 2006, the scribes detailed the aftermath."

The paper is owned by "a local, non-Amish family who own a chain of dry goods stores that cater to the Amish," and has a non-Amish staff, but "is the dominant means of communication among the Amish, a Christian denomination with about 227,000 members nationwide who shun cars for horse-drawn buggies and avoid hooking up to the electrical grid," Barr reports. "The Budget is published in Sugarcreek, an eastern Ohio town of dairy farmers and bricklayers at the heart of the nation's largest Amish settlement." (Encarta map) The paper says it is the "most popular and widely read local weekly newspaper" in Holmes County and parts of three adjoining counties. For the full story, click here.

Census estimates how many uninsured in counties

Here's an excellent way to bring the debate over health-insurance reform home: The Census Bureau has estimated how many people in your county do not have health coverage. The estimates are indirect, based on statistical models that use surveys, the decennial census and administrative data. Click here for the county list. Here's the county-by-county map; for a larger version, click on it.

Obama health plan in the ditch because he didn't hitch his wagon to rural senators, expert writes

"What promised to be a consensus-building search for solutions for American’s unsustainable fragment health problems has turned into a debacle," and the blame lies squarely with the president, Obama supporter and former Kentucky health commissioner Robert Slaton opines for the Daily Yonder.

"His first mistake was to discount the good advice he was getting from rural senators on both sides of the aisle," Slaton writes. "Obama is an urban president and he’s been looking to the coasts for direction. He should be looking more to the Plains," to senators like Democrat Max Baucus of Montana, left, and Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa, right, who have been the key players in trying to salvage a bipartisan compromise in the Senate.

Last November, Baucus offered a plan that built on a growing consensus for action on health care, and even included a public option for coverage. Slaton suspects Obama ignored it because he and Grassley "were from rural states and didn’t have the clout with the President and his team that the elite East and West coast urban liberal Democrats held. This is symptomatic of the President’s first crucial mistake — assuming that his election was a mandate for a major shift to the left."

Slaton, right, says other mistakes were letting congressional committees write various plans, forcing Obama "to explain and sell a plan that does not yet exist;" and making a villain of the insurance industry. With that last move, "He abandoned all hope of equally offending everyone while getting them all to give up something in return for the greater good." (Read more) Slaton is a member of the executive committee of the national advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

New USDA report offers plenty of chapters, lots of verses and data on the state of rural health

As the debate over health-insurance reform intensifies, we have fresh data to remind us of how critical an issue health is in rural America: a new report, right, from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Health-care access and health status in rural areas tend to lag behind that in metropolitan areas. Rural populations are older, have lower education and income levels, and are more likely to be living in medically underserved areas. They have higher mortality rates, even when adjusted for age, and that gap with urban areas "has continually widened" since 1990, ERS reports.

Rural people tend to be less healthy because they make less money, are more likely to smoke, and are more likely to be obese and have lower levels of physical activity. Farmers, a small minority of the rural population, make more money than their neighbors, are more physically active and less likely to smoke, but "Farming has one of the highest occupational fatality rates of all occupations, and farm children also have high fatal accident rates," the report summary notes. "In addition, farmers are at high risk for work-related lung diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin diseases, and certain cancers associated with chemical use and prolonged sun exposure."

The report found no urban-rural gap in rates of health-insurance coverage, but "Because nonmetro incomes are lower than metro incomes, nonmetro nonelderly populations pay a greater share of household income for health care than their metro counterparts," the summary points out. "Nonmetro households are more likely than metro households to report that health care costs limit their medical care." And because their communities tend to lack many medical services, rural residents "incur higher financial and travel-time costs than urban residents for specialized treatment. As an alternative, they may substitute local generalists for specialists, or reduce their usage of health care." The Census Bureau has county-by-county estimates of health coverage.

The very detailed USDA report, which includes county-by-county maps on such topics as mortality and disability, is the subject of the main feature in the latest issue of ERS's publication, Amber Waves. For the full report, by Carol Adaire Jones, Timothy S. Parker, Mary Ahearn, Ashok K. Mishra and Jayachandran N. Variyam, click here. To listen to a 7-minute interview with Jones, senior economist in ERS's Resource and Rural Economics Division, click here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Illinois governor signs improved open-records law

Illinois, a big state that has had one of the nation's weakest open-records laws (according to David Cullier of the Society of Professional Journalists), now has a much better one, following the signature of Gov. Pat Quinn yesterday.

"The new law establishes the first-ever fines for Freedom of Information Act violations, includes training for public employees so they know how to comply with public records laws and gives the attorney general's office enforcement authority," The Associated Press reports. In a court action, the agency wanting to withhold records will have the burden of proof, and will be required to pay the other side's costs if it loses. Agencies must now respond to records requests in five days, not seven.

"Attorney General Lisa Madigan says at all levels of government, officials often ignored complaints that they've violated the state's Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act," Chicago public station WBEZ-FM reports. "Madigan says the new law will make it easier for the public to access records. And for the first time, those who violate the sunshine laws could face penalties of up to $5,000."

Quinn got "pressure not to sign or to use his amendatory veto to change the bill from the Illinois State's Attorney's Association, the Illinois Municipal League and local units of government," the weekly Ledger-Sentinel of Oswego said in an editorial that criticized Quinn's delay in signing the bill, which the legislature passed almost seven weeks ago.

Groups opposing climate bill starting rallies today

A coalition of conservative and business groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, some of its state affiliates and some other farm lobbies, is starting a series of rallies today against the House-passed "cap and trade" plan to limit climate change. The first rally will be in Houston, arguably the nation's energy capital; Energy Citizens is also planning rallies in Alaska, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states in the South and Great Plains.

The main targets appear to be "moderate Midwestern Democrats from coal, farm and manufacturing states who fear that their home industries could suffer under a system that would raise costs for coal, oil and gas use," CQPolitics reports. "Two rallies are set for New Mexico, home of Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D)," Alex Kaplun of Greenwire reports for The New York Times. Click here for a tentative list of locations, from Grist, which says the rallies are Astroturf, not "grass roots."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Forestry experts seeking stimulus money to plant trees on mountains cleared, leveled for mining

"A group promoting reforestation in Appalachia is seeking more than $422 million to plant trees on mountains that were cleared or leveled for surface mining, a program that could have far-reaching impact on the economy and environment of the region," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader, in the first of a series on mine reclamation in Appalachian Kentucky. (Photo by Charles Bertram)

Building on research at the University of Kentucky, "Leaders of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative are seeking federal stimulus money to plant 125 million trees in Central Appalachia, including Eastern Kentucky," Estep writes. "The goal is to put back trees on hundreds of thousands of acres where they once stood, but which coal companies reclaimed as grassland after surface mining over the last three decades." (Estep has a sidebar on mining practices.)

In addition to creating "an estimated 2,000 jobs for forestry technicians, tree-planters, bulldozer operators and others," Estep reports, reforestation would restore at least a facsimilie of the previous habitat for wildlife and "improve water quality in streams, reduce the potential for flooding, soak up carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and lay the foundation for an expanded wood-products economy." (Read more)

Writer knows where to find facts and do a sidebar; photographer knows how to capture the scene

When Ronnie Ellis of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. went to northeastern Kentucky to cover a big special election for a seat in the state Senate, he didn't just do the basic situation piece about the race, visiting local hangouts and interviewing voters. He produced a nice feature story on one hangout, operated by Joe Quillen, 82, above. (Photo by John Flavell, The Independent, Ashland)

"If you want to know what’s really going on, go to Quillen’s Service Station," writes Ellis, who is based in Frankfort and writes for CNHI's five daily papers and six weeklies in Kentucky. But don't expect to top off your tank. "The gas company took out the pumps years ago. ... It’s more social club than commercial enterprise. And civic club."

“They know everything – EVERYTHING,” state Rep. Tanya Pullin, D-South Shore, told Ellis. “And what they don’t know, they’ll figure out for you. And they’ll tell you when they do.” Ellis concludes, "Pullin said the group not only knows what’s going on in their community today – they know every bit of history for the past 40 years so they understand what led to today’s news." (Read more)

Every town has one or more places like Quillen's. Rural journalists, avoid them at your peril. Here's a slide show from Flavell:

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Several news outlets, new and old, plant stakes in N.H. town that recently lost its daily newspaper

The Claremont Eagle Times newspaper is dead. Long live the newspapers and other news media that want a piece of Claremont, N.H., a town of 15,000 on the Connecticut River that forms the border with Vermont. Johnny Diaz and Jenn Abelson of The Boston Globe bring us up to date on the news business in Claremont, where the independently owned Eagle Times, circulation 8,000, closed abruptly last month:

"The Claremont City Post, an eight-page paper that has published every two weeks for the past five months, hopes to become a weekly. ... The Valley News, based in Lebanon, N.H., added a reporter to cover Claremont and plans to expand sports, business, obituary, and the calendar section to include Claremont ... The Union Leader in Manchester, N.H., reassigned a correspondent to cover Claremont. The Rutland Herald in Vermont said it is planning to add at least one stringer to beef up coverage of Springfield, which borders Claremont. And WCAX-TV, a CBS affiliate in Vermont, is also evaluating similar options."

But that's just old media. "Several newcomers have also emerged," the Globe reports, including the weekly Claremont Compass, started by a co-owner of Manchester's HippoPress weekly, who got a good response at a Chamber of Commerce meeting; and a Claremont native in Virginia has started a Web site,, and says she's looking to hire a reporter to buttress the citizen journalists now contributing. It's testimony to the strong demand for local news, one reason we think closings like that of the Eagle Times won't be that common.

Programs match aging farmers with aspiring ones

As the average age of farmers increases and so does the cost of getting into the business, several states have started programs to pair up seasoned farmers with would-be farmers, reports Sharon Cohen of The Associated Press:

"Aspiring farmers then don't have to dig themselves into a half-million dollar hole to launch their careers and can hook up with a farmer in his 50s, 60s, or 70s who can plan ahead. Ideally, the older ones won't have heirs who want to follow in their footsteps. If their personalities mesh, the two can become partners. Later, the hope is the established farmer will sell, rent or make some other arrangement that keeps the younger one on the land.There's a broader goal, too: Save the family farm. And a bonus: Put more kids in rural schools, pour more money into Main Street, preserve small towns."

Cohen went to Iowa to report the story, and noted similar programs in other states: "In Oregon, a program started this spring that reaches out to aspiring farmers and those leaving agriculture, looking for possible partners. In Virginia, an online database tries to hook up the two generations. In Nebraska, there's a match program and tax breaks for farmers who rent to beginners. And in Washington state, a nonprofit group has 300 people eager to start (mostly organic) farming, and 65 landowners looking to give someone a try." (Read more)