Saturday, March 13, 2010

FCC's broadband plan to include a rural subsidy

The Obama administration plans to make the Internet "the country's dominant communications network" and "a subsidy for Internet providers to wire rural parts of the country now without access" to broadband, report Brian Stelter and Jenna Wortham of The New York Times.

Congress required a 10-year plan, and the Federal Communications Commission is expected to deliver it Tuesday. It is expected to touch off an intense lobbying battle, with telecommunications companies fighting to retain market share and gain advantage. (Read more)

Citizens honored during Sunshine Week, for efforts to open records, are all from rural areas

All three citizens honored as Sunshine Week "local heroes" by the American Society of Newspaper Editors are activists from rural areas, or at least outside metropolitan areas.

First place prize winner Suzanne Harris is from Miramar Beach, Fla., between Pensacola and Panama City, with a population of 2,435. She sued Walton County commissioners in October after receiving no response to her e-mail requests for public documents that contained certain key phrases. As a result of its December settlement with Harris, the commissioners agreed to place the county under court scrutiny to comply with the state’s Public Records Act; hold annual training for public officials and key staff; use only official county e-mail accounts in its transactions; and designate an employee as a records management liaison officer.

Veronica Silkes, who took the second-place prize, is from Landing, N.J.,with just over 7,000 residents and 16 miles west of Parsippany, N.J., on Lake Hopatcong. Silkes is the founder of Concerned Active Residents of Mount Arlington, a small citizens group concerned about tax increases and expenditures in Mount Arlington. Silkes and her group gather public documents and share information about borough affairs through the organization’s Web site.

Phil and Ellen Winter, of Waynesboro, Va., won third place. Waynesboro is in the Shenandoah Valley, 90 miles northwest of Richmond. The Winters became concerned when they noticed that the city failed to deposit their property-tax check promptly. The couple gathered more than 100 pages of government documents that showed the city treasurer had allegedly mishandled about $400,000 in city and state taxpayer money. They shared their research with their local newspaper, ultimately resulting in the treasurer's defeat in the fall election.

Forty-eight citizens were nominated for the Sunshine Week Award. The nominees represent a broad cross-section of citizens, journalists, lawyers and elected officials, according to Sunshine Week, a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know. This year's observance runs from Sunday, March 14 through Saturday, March 20.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Justice and Agriculture departments holding first agribusiness anti-trust meeting today

UPDATE: Attorney General Eric Holder told the meeting, “We’ve learned the hard way that long periods of reckless deregulation have restricted competition and harmed farmers. We must now examine what we know for sure. It’s harder for farmers to stay in business.” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the series of meetings “is about rural America, and what can be done to stop its decline.” For blog postings from Dan Piller of the Des Moines Register, click here.

The Department of Justice and Department of Agriculture are hosting the first in yearlong series of public meetings about anti-competitive practices in agribusiness today in Ankeny, Iowa. "The meetings are intended to allow producers, competitors and activists to air their concerns about the grain, poultry, dairy and livestock industries," P. J. Huffstutter of the Los Angeles Times reports. "The government is also trying to ferret out reasons for the sometimes vast gaps between what farmers are paid for producing food and the prices shoppers pay at the grocery store."

Some experts point to the rising price of seed as a factor in rising food prices, Huffstutter reports. Four companies control 50 percent of the world's proprietary seeds for major crops, with Monsanto Co. leading the charge. The Justice Department has launched an investigation into anti-trust allegations against Monsanto concerning its Roundup Ready seeds. You can read our most recent report on that here. At least three state attorneys general are also investigating anti-trust claims against Monsanto.

"There's a growing sentiment in this White House administration that competition, and the lack of it, is getting to be a serious problem in the food sector," Neil E. Harl, an Iowa farmer and a retired Iowa State University economics professor, told Huffstutter. "The question will be whether the government will, after these hearings, take a more active approach." (Read more)

Southwest Va. energy series wins first community journalism prize in National Journalism Awards

The first award for community journalism in the National Journalism Awards goes to Daniel Gilbert, left, of the Bristol Herald Courier "for lifting the lid on a 20-year-old state law that allowed the energy industry to profit without compensating property owners" in Southwest Virginia, says the Scripps Howard Foundation, which sponsors the awards. Each award carries a cash prize of $10,000. We noted the 28-year-old Gilbert's series in The Rural Blog in January, saying it exposed "the mess Virginia and its natural-gas companies have made of a law and program to develop the state's coalbed methane and pay royalties to those who have a claim on it." The editor of the 33,000-circulation Media General paper, J. Todd Foster, wrote that it exposed "malfeasance, corruption and outrage."

Scripps Howard established the award because "Community Journalism is vitally important, not just to journalism today, but to the future of journalism, and we wanted to recognize the outstanding work that's being done," Vice President Sue Porter said. Recognition is more likely with the new category; Gilbert's entry impressed judges in the public-service competition, but was not a finalist. But one community journalist was a finalist in another category.

Jim Kenyon, a staff writer for The Valley News in Lebanon, N.H., and White River Junction, Vt., circulation 16,000, was a finalist in the NJA's commentary competition, along with Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal. The winner was Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. For examples of Kenyon's work, taking Dartmouth College administrators and faculty to task for not sharing in the pain of budget cuts, and uncovering preferential treatment for a movie star who got caught speeding on a rural highway, click here. In the editorial writing category, Jamie Lucke of the Lexington Herald-Leader was a finalist with a package that partly addressed rural-Kentucky issues such as coal mining and bad teeth. The other finalist was Barb Arrigo of the Detroit Free Press; the winner was Robert Greene of the Los Angeles Times.

Also of rural interest, Charles Duhigg of The New York Times won the environmental reporting award for his "Toxic Waters" series about inadequacies of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The series, several pieces of which have been excerpted on The Rural Blog, "prompted wide-ranging overhauls in enforcement of the 1970s laws," the foundation says. Finalists in the category included Abrahm Lustgarten and Joaquin Sapien of ProPublica, who brought national attention to the problems caused by deep natural-gas drilling, also often excerpted here. And Thomas Frank of USA Today won the Raymond Clapper Award for Washington Reporting, for his stories on how a tax on airline tickets funds general-aviation airports, many if not most of them in rural areas.

A book featuring the winners and their work, and videos about the winners' work and acceptance speeches, will be available at www.scripps.com/foundation after the April 23 awards presentation. A printed copy may also be requested. The community-journalism category was judged by Kerry Duke, managing editor of KyPost.com; Rusty Coats, vice president of content and marketing for E.W. Scripps Co.; and the undersigned, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Missouri bill would reimburse USDA for inspecting horse slaughter plants; feds dubious of idea

In February we reported several state attempts to re-establish horse slaughter facilities closed after Congress in 2006 prohibited spending of federal funds to inspect them. One of those state efforts is gaining steam in Missouri, but could still violate the federal provision. Republican state Rep. Jim Viebrock's bill, which would have Missouri reimburse the Department of Agriculture for inspection expenses, has the support of the state's director of agriculture and many in the horse industry, Georgina Gustin of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

Federal authorities remain unconvinced the law would work because the national rule prohibits USDA from spending money on facility inspections even if it is eventually reimbursed, Gustin reports. "In theory, you could have a state facility," Caleb Weaver, a USDA spokesman, told Gustin. "But you can only ship in the state and couldn't cross borders to go elsewhere." Viebrock and his supporters remain optimistic, and say the bill's success will depend on how the federal law is interpreted.

Horse-slaughter advocates say reopening slaughterhouses would provide a much-needed floor for a struggling horse market and prevent rampant horse neglect and abuse. Anti-slaughter groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, say the recession is the dominant cause of the horse crisis and slaughterhouses won't fix it.

"The reason the horses aren't getting any money is because there is no money, slaughter or no slaughter," Alex Brown, a Pennsylvania-based exercise jockey who runs one of the country's largest anti-slaughter campaigns, told Gustin. "Slaughter hasn't gone away, so to say that bringing it back here is going to affect the market makes no sense." (Read more) Overbreeding has also been blamed for the crisis.

Administration debunks online rumor of fishing ban

If your newspaper is planning to run a column or letter claiming that the Obama administration is planning to ban or severely limit recreational sport fishing, or even that there is a rumor to that effect, think again.

"Both commercial and recreational fishing are vitally important to this nation," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco told a House panel yesterday "We are not proposing any blanket ban on recreational fishing. I would strongly oppose that, and it is not in the works." The rumors evidently started from a column from ESPN outdoors writer Robert Montgomery, "which said the administration's new oceans policy could prohibit fishing in oceans, Great Lakes and inland waters," Allison Winter of Greenwire reports for The New York Times.

Eric Schwaab, the National Marine Fisheries Service chief, also released a statement saying NOAA "is committed to adopting policies that will ensure that current and future generations have the opportunity to enjoy the great tradition of recreational fishing." The initial column was reposted on the news blog Drudge Report and picked up by right-wing bloggers and television pundits. Reps. Paul Broun, R-Ga., and Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Pa., both expressed concerns about the rumor at Wednesday's House Science Committee hearing.

"The inter-agency ocean task force has released draft plans that would set ocean conservation as a top national priority and lay the groundwork for marine planning," Winter writes, adding "the plan could eventually lead to efforts to map the sea for different uses, but draft reports from the group made no suggestions to ban fishing." (Read more)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Grants to hire reporters at rural Arkansas papers get less interest than press association expected

UPDATE, April 3: Twent-six newspapers have applied and the winners will be decided and announced April 9. For the story, click here.

Only one Arkansas newspaper has expressed interest in a grant to hire an extra reporter to provide more in-depth coverage of local issues over the next two years, the executive director of the Arkansas Press Association reports in this week's Arkansas Publisher Weekly.

"I fully expected to be inundated with questions regarding the grants, but to date only one APA member has called with a question and that one regarding when the applications would be available," Tom Larimer writes. They are now, and the deadline is March 26.

The $252,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and matching money of about $140,000 to be raised by the Arkansas Community Foundation is supposed to get five community newspapers in Arkansas an extra reporter each, to be paid $35,000 a year. "Write for Arkansas" is designed "to provide more in-depth coverage of local issues," including economic development, the Knight Foundation said in its January announcement. "The reporters will write articles for print and blog about their communities and experiences on a new Write for Arkansas Web site. The additional reporting staff will help Arkansas residents and leaders have a greater understanding of the state’s challenges and needs. Meanwhile, the project’s online component will chronicle local issues from across the state and open a new channel of communication allowing residents to participate in the news." Maybe. We hope so.

UPDATE, March 18: Larimer writes in his latest edition, "This is one of the best deals to come along for APA member newspapers in a long time, and I hope most if not all our members make application for one of the grants. Some APA members I’ve talked with about the Write for Arkansas grants say the hardest part may be finding someone to fill the reporter slots. Finding good help has always been a challenge for newspapers. The fact that the grants require reporter candidates to have a college degree and at least one year experience also make it difficult. One might think that some of the journalists who have lost their jobs due to down-sizing might be around to fill these slots, and that may turn out to be true. Unfortunately, several of these have left the business to accept jobs in other sectors. Still, if I’m a newspaper with a shot at getting a free reporter for two years to cover local news in my market, you can bet I’m going to give it my all." (Read more)

Obama aide: Gas frackers should reveal chemicals

President Obama's top environmental adviser said this week that the natural-gas industry should reveal the chemicals it uses in hydraulic fracturing to release gas from deep, tight shale formations. Joseph Aldy, special assistant to the president for energy and the environment, told attendees at a natural-gas conference Tuesday that "Concerns about water contamination from drilling chemicals could lead to states requiring disclosure and that could deter additional investment," Jon Hurdle of Reuters reports. Yesterday we reported a new study by an industry expert saying federal regulation is not needed to protect drinking water from the chemicals.

"You can't leave this in the status quo if you think we are going to have significant shale gas development in the United States," Aldy told Hurdle. Aldy said he didn't have enough information to say if the wastewater from fracking was mixing with groundwater, but said the industry is under pressure from people who think it does either way. He also declined to tell Hurdle whether the administration endorses the "FRAC Act" before Congress that would require drilling companies to disclose chemicals and give the Environmental Protection Agency oversight of the industry, which is now regulated almost entirely by states. (Read more)

Is broadband investment too much? New report says it's a requirement for socio-economic inclusion

Supporters of the $7.2 billion eonomic stimulus investment in rural broadband say without such money, some rural areas may never have access to high-speed Internet, but not everyone agrees the investment is a good idea. "The move casts a virtual lifeline to the country’s most remote residents, even as it poses a question of how far government must go to help rural areas keep pace," Scott Canon of The Kansas City Star reports. "Or whether government even needs to."

"There’s no God-given right to broadband at a certain speed," Jim Harper, the director of information policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, told Canon. "Living in a rural area has a cost, just like living in an urban area has a cost." Harper thinks "businesses would come up with more inspired ways to wire the country’s plains and valleys if they didn’t feel in competition with subsidized services," Canon writes. (Read more)

That's pretty speculative, especially at a time of economic stress and limited investment, the current situation reminds us of the Great Depression, when most rural Americans lacked electricity because private power companies considered running lines to them too expensive. Only through the Rural Electrification Administration [now the Rural Utilities Service], the Tennessee Valley Authority, other federal programs and rural electric cooperatives did they get electricity. One has to wonder how long they would have waited for it without those programs, and how long today's rural Americans will have to wait for broadband -- a utility that didn't exist when most of them decided to live where they do, but one that "has become a requirement of socio-economic inclusion, and low-income communities know this," says a new report from the Social Science Research Council. The study, sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission, found price is just one factor in adoption of broadband, and often relates to more than just a monthly fee. Libraries and other community organizations are also facing added pressure to fill the gap between low rates of home broadband access and high demand for it in rural communities. --Al Cross, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Colorado woman no longer a cop after she decides not to arrest local editor; he's suspended

Aspen, Colo., police officer Valerie McFarlane lost her job last month after she decided not to arrest one of the local newspaper editors for drunk driving, the competing newspaper reports. "Instead, McFarlane, who was on work-related probation at the time, gave Aspen Daily News Editor Troy Hooper a ride to a residence," writes Rick Carroll of The Aspen Times. Upon arriving at Hooper's home, he and McFarlane began a 26-minute conversation, recorded by the squad car's equipment, during which he suggested he would provide more favorable treatment at the newspaper in exchange for no charges being filed.

Hooper, who covers law enforcement and the courts for the Daily News as well as editing the paper, had written two stories about McFarlane's September suspension. "You have also been fairly or unfairly put in a position," Hooper told McFarlane during the conversation. "Not only am I willing to give you the opportunity to walk away from that, I'll give you a few of those opportunities, I really will." Police Chief Richard Pryor declined to reveal if McFarlane had been fired or left of her own accord, but he did say she should have handled the situation differently because of her history with the paper. The Daily News had no mention of the story on its Web site as of Thursday afternoon. (Read more)

UPDATE, March 19: The Daily News reports in a long story that Hooper has been suspended for two weeks. Ina n apology, Hooper writes, “At the Aspen Daily News, we have always upheld the standard that ‘If you don’t want it printed, don’t let it happen.’ This applies as much to me as anyone.”

As cities drink from more rural land, federal agency helps farmers manage water to help both areas

Texas ranchers are squeezing water from their land to supply the cities, reports Asher Price in the Austin American-Statesman. As water supplies become more valuable, conservationists say proper range management is needed. The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service has begun an effort it calls "Rural Land-Urban Water," offering eligible farmers and ranchers financial and technical help to implement water-conservation practices, such as cutting down trees like cedars and junipers, which draw heavily from groundwater. A video shows how one farmer rejuvenated a spring on his property, to the delight of his wife.

A landowner who enters into a contract with the NRCS bears 40 percent of the cost and the federal government pays 60 percent. The land has to be in production to qualify, and contracts are typically from one to three years, Price reports. (Read more) April 27 will mark the 75th anniversary of the NRCS, once known as the Soil Conservation Service.

Gas drilling booms mean more heavy equipment on rural roads, many not built to take the pounding

Much of the concern about the natural-gas drilling boom has been on possible pollution from wastewater, a factor over which local governments have little to no control. But rural regions preparing for increased gas drilling and production should pay attention to the effect of the industry's heavy equipment on rural roads, Sue Heavenrich writes for the Daily Yonder.

Jim Goldstein, town supervisor of Lebanon, N.Y., told Heavnerich the wear and tear on his community's roads from drilling-related traffic cost $550,000 in repairs since 2007. His efforts and hours of negotiations with the drilling company, Nornew Inc., has kept the taxpayers from footing the bill, Heavenrich reports. The negotiations weren't easy. "There was a period of four to five years when Nornew would not communicate with us," Goldstein told Heavenrich.

Goldstein eventually worked out a deal where Nornew is reponsible for repairing the roads at its own cost after drilling is finished, but he told Heavenrich the situation has still set the town back 15 years in respect to taxes and funding. "Local governments in New York have little jurisdiction over gas drilling," Heavenrich writes. "The one aspect of the drilling boom that the state’s towns can control is truck traffic on local roads." Hydraulic fracturing pumps water and chemicals into a well under extremely high pressure to fracture shale and release gas. (Read more)

Suicide rates higher in Western mountain states

A University of Florida study has found that rates of suicide are higher in the mountain states of the West than in more urban areas of the U.S. The nationwide study, spanning three decades, found mountain location to be a factor whether people lived in, had left or were just visiting some of the mountain states. Suicide levels for visitors of Western states were actually a little higher than they were for people who lived there, according to Ilan Shrira, a psychologist who worked on the study.

The research, scheduled to be published this year in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, examines individuals’ characteristics, access to guns, population density and availability of mental health services.

Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming had the highest rates of suicide during the survey period, 1973 through 2004. Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York had the lowest. (Read more)

'Pocket size' farms don't make up for loss of other farms, so food in S.F. Bay Area is even less local

The local-food movement has brought many "pocket-size farms" to the San Francisco Bay area in recent years, but "the continuing decline in the availability of farmland in the Bay Area's traditional growing areas threatens to leave consumers further away than ever from where their food is cultivated, Justin Scheck writes for The Wall Street Journal. "In recent years, the region has lost large tracts of farmland to housing and commercial development." (WSJ photo by Brian Frank: Goats at Alemany Farm in San Francisco)

"It's really a conundrum," Sibella Kraus, president of Sustainable Agriculture Education, a nonprofit group, told Scheck. "There is this demand for local, but we're not really investing in local." SAGE wants state and local governments to offer more incentives to prevent loss of farmland when the economy improves enough to spur demand for real-estate development.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Federal 'fracking' rules wouldn't inhibit drilling, but not needed to protect drinking water: study

Federal regulation of fracturing deep oil and gas reservoirs such as the Marcellus Shale "would have little effect on companies' ability to drill for shale gas," says a study by Daniel Yergin, chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates and author of The Prize, a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the oil business. But the study also found that "a regulatory expansion is not needed to protect drinking water," reports Energy and Environment News (subscription only). "Drinking water supplies appear to have been safeguarded from contamination" by state regulators, says an executive summary of Yergin's report.

'Crop Mob' helps farmers in central North Carolina grow small, sustainable farms

Sustainable agriculture has a new North Carolina advocate, a growing grassroots organization called Crop Mob. It's "a roving band of volunteers dedicated to helping young farmers build sustainable small farms," David Zucchino of the Los Angeles Times reports. "It's a modern version of a barn-raising, with volunteers brought together by Google and Facebook." Crop Mob gathers once a month at a farm. It has expanded from 19 volunteers at the first mob in 2008 to more than 80 last month.

"Crop Mob is not a charity. At its core, it's about community -- farmers helping farmers," Rob Jones, one of Crop Mob's founders, who holds a master's degree in environmental education, told Zucchino. "And when the 'agricurious' come out to help them and learn, well, that's just icing on the top." The group has helped farmers across several counties in central North Carolina, an area ripe for its mission due to the success of the sustainable agriculture program at nearby Central Carolina Community College. (Read more)

On its Web site, Crop Mob explains that no money is exchanged for its work, its projects are focused on small, sustainable farms, and mob gatherings usually feature a warm meal provided by the host. "The more tedious the work we have, the better," Jones told Christine Muhlke of The New York Times in February. " Because part of Crop Mob is about community and camaraderie, you find there’s nothing like picking rocks out of fields to bring people together." Already Jones has been commissioned for advice to other would-be mini-mobbers across North Carolina. Two members are planning a trip to Spain to work with farmers there, Muhlke reported. (Read more)

Double disaster at coal mine gets historic marker; 1976 coverage by local weekly is posted online

Thirty-four years ago yesterday and tomorrow, explosions in the Scotia Coal Co. mine in Letcher County, Kentucky, killed 26 miners and federal inspectors. The first one killed 15 miners, and the second killed eight miners and three inspectors who were on a mission to investigate what happened. On the 34th anniversary of the first blast, a historic highway marker about the double disaster was placed on US 119 at Oven Fork. (Harlan Daily Enterprise photo by Nola Sizemore; for her story, click here)

The disasters, caused by poor ventilation and a buildup of methane, led to new federal and state laws and regulations to make coal mines safer. That effort goes on; a Labor Department official said at a public meeting in Letcher County yesterday that the Mine Safety and Health Administration "is trying to have new regulations to limit miners' dust exposure ready for public hearings in the fall," reports Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Gregory Wagner, the deputy assistant secretary of labor for MSHA policy, said the miners and inspectors died at Scotia because "production was chosen over the lives of the men who mined the coal. . . . We're here to remember why it happened and to make sure it never happens again."

Some of the best reporting on Scotia was done by the local weekly newspaper, The Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg, published then and now by the Gish family. PDFs of its initial coverage are available here.

Ky. may be next to boost community foundations

UPDATE, March 26: The legislature has passed the bill and sent it to the governor, though without the originally proposed tax credit, because of budget implications.

Last month we excerpted an editorial from Eastern Kentucky community organizer Gerry Roll advocating that the state encourage investment in rural community foundations. Now her state senator, Republican Brandon Smith of Hazard, has taken the first step in that process by introducing Senate Bill 227 which would create the Endow Kentucky Program to boost community foundation endowments.

A community foundation is a tax-exempt public charity developed to serve a specific geographic region. Advocates of such foundations say they provide a trusted place for residents or expatriates to make gifts or bequests to help their home areas, and are especially needed in rural areas, which tend to lag when mit comes to philanthropy.

SB 227 would create a community endowment fund with private donations and later appropriations from the state to offer competitive grants to community foundations, and create a commission tasked with "planning, implementation and direction of a strategic and collaborative philanthropic partnership to focus on building endowment funds that will address community needs through community foundations." It would also create a tax credit for contributions to community foundations.

At least 20 states offer special tax credits or deductions for gifts to philanthropic organizations, the Rural Development Philanthropy Network reports. A few states, including Ohio and South Dakota, have devoted state funds to community foundation support, and Iowa created an endowment challenge fund, funded by gambling revenue. Iowa reports the 85 counties that are eligible for the program because they have no legal gambling have all developed active community foundations since the law was implemented in 2005. Community foundations eligible for the Kentucky programs would be required to meet the national standards for community foundations established by the National Council on Foundations.

The Foundation Center, a national nonprofit service organization, has published detailed data about community foundations across. The Rural Development Philanthropy Network has brochures teaching rural community foundations how to build endowments and the role local media can play in development of such foundations.

Civil-rights advocates say hate groups proliferate, especially in rural areas

Concerns about presidential security have increased during Barack Obama's presidency, and at least one group points to his race as the primary cause. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which calls itself a "nonprofit civil-rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society," has been keeping track of potentially violent domestic militia groups since the 1990s and reports activity is up dramatically since Obama won the Democratic nomination in September 2008. Much of the violent activity can be traced to rural areas, reports Ed Pilkington of The Guardian, a leading and liberal British newspaper.

The center's latest report says the 149 anti-government groups in 2008 more than tripled in 2009 to 512 groups, 127 of which were classified as paramilitary. Brian Levin, a criminologist who heads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, told Pilkington the phenomenon is evident in rural areas around the Appalachian Mountains and Great Lakes and into the West and Pacific Northwest. "We've always had people who hate the president, we've always had conspiracies," Levin told Pilkington, "but the fact that we have a black president at a time of economic tumult makes these conspiracies much more volatile among a far wider group of people."

Chip Berlet, an analyst of right-wing extremism for Political Research Associates, "estimates that there have been nine murders by individuals who have white supremacist, xenophobic or anti-semitic leanings since the inauguration of Obama," Pilkington writes. "The hatred that's there is very real," Travis McAdam, who has been tracking such activity for the last two decades on behalf of the Montana Human Rights Network, told Pilkington. "It's more than a gut-level hatred of having an African-American as president, it's also ideological – these people see black people as sub-human. Groups are popping up that have a new message and are using Obama to recruit new members." (Read more)

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Farmers added to agenda of first workshop on competition and regulation in agriculture

UPDATE, March 11: Attorney General Eric Holder will join Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the workshop.

Farmers are now listed on the agenda of the first federal workshop to discuss regulatory practices, competition and possible antitrust violations in agriculture. The Department of Justice and the Department of Agriculture "at least tentatively agree that the voices of individuals who make a direct living off the land should be featured," Lynda Waddington writes for The Iowa Independent.

The Friday workshop in the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny "drew the ire of rural activists when the announced slate of participants was severely lacking direct farmer and producer input," and pressure from Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin to change that, Waddington reports. "Whether due to Harkin’s persistence or public outcry, the agenda posted on the DOJ’s Web site has been changed to include a 45-minute presentation of the issues by farmers," she writes, but "Advocates for a pure grower voice in the day’s activities aren’t yet convinced that the federal agencies are truly making room for everyday producers and farmers to speak their mind. They contend that the choices don’t provide a true independent voice," because of their leadership or membership in lobbying groups. (Read more)

Agri-Pulse has an audio interview with University of Wisconsin law professor and anti-trust expert Peter Carstensen, who "talks about why the workshops are necessary and what regulatory actions he hopes will follow."

Web-only statehouse media, some secretive, raise questions about who is paying for the news

As traditional media outlets scale back staff and coverage of state governments, organizations of all shapes and sizes are filling the gap. Lucy Morgan, the legendary statehouse correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times, reports on the growth of Web-only reporting, especially in the Florida capital of Tallahassee, where the Times and The Miami Herald now have a combined bureau to save money.

In some states officials have denied press credentials to groups that do not disclose their ownership or those that represent left- or right-wing groups, but in Florida the Capitol Police issue credentials to individuals after confirming the name of each employer and doing a criminal records check. There are no formal rules defining who can be a journalist.

Morgan reports that a couple of the better-financed Web operations have moved into the Florida Press Center, taking offices once occupied by newspapers that cut staff or eliminated bureaus. Sunshine State News , which has set up shop in the Herald's old suite, seems to appeal more to business-oriented readers than mainstream publications. It refuses to disclose the names of its investors. Managing Editor John Wark says they want to maintain a "firewall'' between the owners and the reporters.

"Some find the secrecy surrounding Sunshine troubling in an industry with a long tradition of identifying those who provide the news," Morgan writes. Generally, readers, listeners and viewers can better evaluate the news if they know who pays for it. "All of us who respect the craft of journalism should be alarmed and wary,'' John Iarussi, one owner of LobbyTools, another online information business expanding into Web news coverage, told Morgan. (Read more)

Broadband could be key to closing education gap between rural and urban areas, scholars say

Broadband development in rural areas may not be an economic panacea, but could help bridge the education gap between rural and urban residents, according to two telecommunication scholars. Bringing broadband to rural areas provides the possibility "for rural residents to enroll in distance learning courses that will help them to become more competitive in the national and global marketplace," Sharon Stover, director of the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute at the University of Texas, and Nick Muntean, a doctoral student in UT's Radio-Television-Film Department, write forthe Daily Yonder.

Distance learning could be especially attractive to rural areas because it doesn't require students to leave home to go to college. Many rural students who go away to college never come back, the reporters write. Only 19.1 percent of the rural population has a bachelor's or graduate degree compared to 29.8 percent of urban residents and 31.5 percent of suburban residents. "The best plan for creating new job opportunities in rural areas is to offer national and international businesses a new type of employee, one with a skill-set and level of education equal to those found in any other region in the world," Stover and Muntean write.

Cost remains a significant hurdle when considering distance learning in rural areas. Some still question the value and effectiveness of online classes. To combat these issues the reporters call for a government-funded campaign of public-service announcements to raise awareness of the benefits of broadband-assisted distance learning and the value of higher education. "If, as a nation, we are poised to create a true '21st century labor-force,' then we need to rethink our commitment to providing accessible forms of higher education for all of our citizenry," Stover and Muntean write, "and we need to begin that commitment where it matters most, in the rural communities across our country using the resources that broadband can bring." (Read more)

Kansas paper fires reporter who took a stand on her own to protect a confidential source

In Dodge City, Kan., the home of Marshal Dillon and Old West characters fictional and factual, reporter Claire O’Brien has paid the price for being a sort of journalistic cowboy in a judicial shootout over confidential sources.

O'Brien, a reporter for the 9,700-circulation Dodge City Daily Globe, was fired Friday, The Associated Press reports. O'Brien initially refused to appear in court when subpoenaed to testify about a confidential source and later relented when her source revealed himself. She says the firing was retaliation for comments she made to news media about the Globe refusing to support her stand. The newspaper says it doesn't comment on personnel issues.

You can read our previous report about O'Brien's comments and legal battle here. O'Brien told AP after she testified, she was forced to sign some disciplinary forms, including one claiming she had defamed GateHouse Media, owner of the Globe. She also said the locks on the newspaper building had been changed after the hearing, she was the only reporter not given a key, and a manager was required to be present whenever she was in the building. (Read more)

State parks are growing target as lawmakers look to balance budgets in the recession

UPDATE, March 15: A University of Tennessee study details the "significant positive impact" that the state's parks have on its economy.

The effort to balance recession-starved state budgets may have a new casualty: state parks, an important amenity and employer in many rural areas. A National Association of State Park Directors survey reveals lawmakers in at least a dozen states have contemplated the closure of up to 400 state parks this year, Casey Newton and Dennis Wagner of USA Today report. "They think, well, this is just play, it's frivolous ... but this is the worst time to be talking about closing parks," Philip McKnelly, the association's executive director, told the newspaper.

The number of parks to be closed is a moving target as budget negotiations continue. Compromises such as reducing hours and cutting staff could avert some closures, the reporters write. Arizona plans to close 21 of the state's 30 parks; New York plans to close 41 parks and 14 historic sites in addition to cutbacks at 24 more sites; California plans part-time closures of 60 parks with reduced services at 90 others after an initial plan to close 220 of the state's 278 parks was met by public outcry. There is good news for parks in at least one state; Virgina has abandoned its plan to close five sites. (Read more)

Shrinking budgets lead more school districts to follow rural example and adopt four-day weeks

We last reported about the push for four-day school weeks in 2008, but now the movement is gaining momentum as schools look to save expenses on travel, salaries, utilities and food. Class time is generally made up by lengthening it on the four days that school is in session.

Data from the Education Commission of the States shows that "of the nearly 15,000-plus districts nationwide, more than 100 in at least 17 states currently use the four-day system," Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal reports, and dozens of other districts are considering the move. (WSJ map; some states with four-day schools, such as Kentucky, don't have specific authorization but allow districts freedom to schedule days.) A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education told Herring she couldn't comment on four-day weeks in specific districts, but the department was generally "concerned about financial constraints leading to a reduction in learning time."

Until recently, four-day school weeks were generally found just in rural schools, but the nationwide budget crisis has brought the trend to more urban and suburban areas, Herring writes. Four-day school weeks are most common in the West, Herring reports, where as many as one=fourth of districts have adopted the policy. Around a third of Colorado's 178 districts operate on the shortened schedule.

School officials say the budget crisis has left them with little choice. "We've repeatedly asked our residents to pay higher taxes, cut some of our staff, and we may even close one of our schools," Deb Henton, superintendent of the North Branch, Minn., district, which is moving to a four-day week, told Herring. "What else can you really do?" (Read more)

Monday, March 08, 2010

About one-fifth of the electric power in Texas this morning came from wind turbines

Texas "set a new record for wind generation this morning, when — at 6:37 a.m. — about 19 percent of the electricity on the state’s main grid was supplied by turbines," Kate Galbraith reports for the Green Inc. blog of The New York Times. The peak of 6,272 megawatts "does not include turbines in the windy Panhandle because that region is on a different grid," Galbraith notes.

It's a windy season, so wind power is spiking. In 2009 Texas got 6.2 percent of its electricity from wind, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the grid that serves most of the state. "The nation as a whole has less than 2 percent wind in its electricity mix," Galbraith notes.

Texas could use even more wind power, but its grids won't take it all. "Some turbines are slowed or shut down on windy days because the state does not have sufficient transmission wires to move all the power from the remote, windy areas of West Texas to cities like Dallas and Houston that need it," Galbraith reports. "Last night and this morning, for example, the prices for wind generation offered on the main Texas grid actually fell below zero, a sign of oversupply that usually prompts wind generators to shut down their turbines." The state is building more power lines, but those are expected to be delayed by a recent court decision, Galbraith notes. (Read more)

Missouri town says no to industrial hog farm, leading farm lobby to seek limits on local control

A small Missouri town has emerged as the center of an legal battle regarding local control of industrialized livestock operations. In 2007, residents of Arrow Rock, Mo., population 79, won a court ruling preventing a farmer who wanted to build a farm with 4,800 pigs on the outskirts of town, Lauren Etter of The Wall Street Journal reports. The ruling also appeared to keep any future applicants at least two miles away from town, but state Attorney General Chris Koster appealed the decision in state court.

"As livestock operations have grown more industrialized, residents across rural America have banded together to try to keep them out," Etter writes. "They say the bigger farms are wreaking havoc on their communities, polluting waterways with manure that can kill fish and sicken people." More communities are using county-level "local control" ordinances that govern where a large farm can locate; more than a dozen Missouri counties have such ordinances.

"In the eyes of the agricultural community, this is starting to spin out of control," Koster, whose appeal has the support of the Missouri Farm Bureau, told Etter. The farmer who was rejected decided to locate his facility elsewhere, but Koster says he needed to appeal the ruling so Missouri had a "unified regulatory structure so that we don't have 500 different zoning units over agriculture." Farm lobbies in Iowa and Ohio have recently defeated emerging local-control movements. (Read more)

Telemedicine could help cut rural outmigration, Minn. health-care policy advocate says

Telemedicine should be looked at not only as a means of improving rural health care, but also as a strategy to combat migration from rural areas, writes a Minnesota health-care policy advocate. European research into telemedicine found the service reduced costs by decreasing patient travel and hospital admissions and "included access to greater personnel resources, greater patient access to specialist care, quality of treatment, and more readily available information," writes Nina Slupphaug, a health care policy associate at the progressive think tank Minnesota 2020, writes for the Minnesota Post.

Researchers in Denmark found that "when paired with the positive attitude toward possible eHealth solutions...it probable that eHealth can, to an extent, counteract out-migration," Slupphaug writes. Out-migration decreased as rural health-care jobs were able to offer more professional support and prestige. Telemedicine in the U.S. is most commonly used for "electronic communication between hospitals, between hospitals and primary care centers, between different levels of care, and between general practitioners and specialists," Slupphaug reports.

"Photography for potential blood clots in the eye for diabetes patients, video conference for locally executed kidney dialysis, use of digitally sent images of skin disease, and home-based self-management for patients with diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, are all methods of telemedicine that have been successfully implemented in rural parts of Norway," Slupphaug writes. "It is likely that similar implementations in rural Minnesota will be beneficial as well." (Read more)

EPA delays mountaintop-removal plan after 'chilly' reaction from other feds, state officials

The Environmental Protection Agency won't be announcing its comprehensive plan to deal with mountaintop-removal mining after it "received a chilly reception from coal-state regulators and other government agencies," Greenwire (subscription-only) reports. The announcement has been delayed for several weeks, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

The plan would provide coal companies with clearer guidelines for obtaining new permits, while imposing tougher water-pollution standards and permit requirements, requiring more extensive monitoring downstream from mining operations, and propose the first limits on selenium discharges and electrical conductivity of streams, Ward reports. Conductivity is believed to be a key indicator of the presence of many harmful pollutants, including chlorides, sulfides and dissolved solids. EPA's proposal would have required "additional monitoring of any permits where conductivity was measured above 400 microsiemens per centimeter, and a reduction in mine size or a stop of mining above 500 microsiemens per centimeter," or ms/cm, Ward writes. "An EPA scientific report due out soon is expected to conclude that conductivity above 300 micro-siemens per centimeter should be avoided to protect water quality."

"If we decide that is where impairment occurs, we better be right," because the effect of a 300 ms/cm standard on West Virginia's economy would be "pretty severe," state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman told Ward. The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement declined Ward's request for an interview, indicating its displeasure with EPA's stance. Joe Lovett, director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, explained, "EPA is under significant pressure from the coal industry and its friends. But the science has now become clear that mountaintop removal is harming the state's water resources in real and measurable ways, and EPA has no choice but to do this." (Read more)

UPDATE, March 9: Ward reports in his Coal Tattoo blog on EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's appearance at the National Press Club and offers audio of her reply to a question about mountaintop removal.