Friday, November 05, 2010

'Nashville Chrome' fictionalizes life of musical group and Elvis contemporary, The Browns

In the 1950s, three siblings -- Jim Ed, Maxine, and Bonnie Brown -- left poverty behind and became the musical group, The Browns. They sold more records than Elvis Presley, then disappeared. Their story has been told in a novel, Nashville Chrome, by Rick Bass.

 In an Atlanta Journal and Constitution review of the book, Gina Webb writes that the three from rural Arkansas had their career peak in 1959 with a number one hit, "The Three Bells." Their close harmonies and syrupy voices eventually defined "the Nashville sound," that according to Webb, is "a slick pop-influenced product of the ’50s and early ’60s, heavy on the violins and background vocals."

The Los Angeles Times review by Susan Salter Reynolds points out how the novel portrays each sibling: "The Browns, in Bass' telling, all had their flaws: Floyd was a drunk who often endangered his children; Birdie was slavishly devoted to her children but also to Floyd; Maxine loved the limelight; and so on. Bass captures their trying, that sheer human effort central not only to our existence but to our ability to forgive and evolve."

Elvis is present throughout the novel. In the Washington Post, writer Dave Shiflett mentions that the novel describes Elvis as a "gentle soul who walked in their shadow. Yet he was a marked man who was eventually transformed into what Bass calls 'the bloated extrapolation of insatiable American appetite and surface showmanship.' Even after becoming famous beyond earlier imagining, he told the Browns, 'he was pretty sad most of the time.'"

The author, Rick Bass, has written 24 other books, most set in Texas where he grew up and Montana, where he has lived many years, according to a review by Bryan Woolley in the Dallas Morning News. Woolley writes, "Fame is the theme of Nashville Chrome: how people deal with it while they have it and how they do without it when it's gone. After the trio broke up, Bonnie happily became a mother and middle-school music teacher. Jim Ed, the Browns' lead singer and guitarist, continued as a journeyman Nashville musician. But Maxine, the eldest and most ambitious, couldn't cope with the loss of the spotlight. In old age, living alone in obscurity and penury, she still expected the phone to ring, for an agent to offer her a chance at a comeback, for Hollywood to call and propose a movie about her. It is in her mind that the reader spends much of the novel. ... Nashville Chrome is a splendid novel, perhaps Rick Bass' best."

Cap-and-trade fishing rules set to take effect

Cap and trade may be dead in relation to U.S. carbon emissions, but the Obama administration is moving ahead with a cap-and-trade policy for U.S. fisheries. On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's plan that encourages regional fishery managers to use "catch shares" in a bid to end overfishing and restore depleted stocks took effect, Allison Winter of Environment & Energy News reports. (Environmental Defense Fund Photo, Red Snapper)

"The purpose of this policy is to provide a strong foundation for the widespread consideration of catch shares, which have proven to be an effective tool to help rebuild fisheries," said Monica Medina, NOAA's principal deputy undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere. The policy imposes "an overall catch limit and divides the total catch among buyers," Winter writes. "Six fishery management councils are already using catch shares to manage 14 fisheries."

"Catch-share advocates say catch shares halt the 'race for fish' encouraged by traditional fishery-management systems that set daily or seasonal catch limits or open fisheries for limited periods," Winter writes. "Critics of the conventional schemes say they encourage fishing vessels to race to haul in the most fish possible before a fishery closes." Studies published last year in the journals Science and Nature reported catch shares can increase the abundance of fish and cut the fishery collapse rate in half. (Read more, subscription required) 

Rural states among those most vulnerable to gas price hikes

U.S. drivers spent a smaller share of their income on gasoline in 2009 than in previous years, but several rural states are among those most at risk to gasoline price fluctuations, says a new report. The report, released by the Natural Resources Defense Council, says "states would be wise to act now to promote alternatives to petroleum-based transportation fuels" as gas prices are expected to increase again as the economy improves, Jason Plautz of Environment & Energy News reports. Mississippi and Montana were ranked the two states the most vulnerable to gas price fluctuations with residents of both states spending over six percent of their income on gasoline.

Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Kentucky, Utah, Idaho and Arkansas rounded out the top ten list of states most vulnerable to gas price fluctuations. Deron Lovaas, federal transportation policy director for NRDC and the report's author, said "a state's high ranking on the vulnerability scale could be due to sprawling development that forces people to drive more or inefficient government fleets that drive up oil consumption," Plautz writes. "The calculation is also dependent on income, which puts poorer states like Mississippi at a disadvantage."

The report also ranked the 10 states doing the most to reduce their dependence on oil, headlined by California, Oregon, Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut. The states doing the least to wean themselves from oil include Alaska, Wyoming, Nebraska, Ohio and West Virginia. "We currently don't control our destiny when it comes to the cost of gasoline," Lovaas told Plautz. "State and federal leaders can put us right back in the driver's seat. ... They can and should adopt policies" to reduce oil dependence. (Read more, subscription required)

Rural black, Hispanic and children of single mothers more likely to live in poverty

Rural children are more likely to be living in poverty than their urban and suburban counterparts, and black and Hispanic rural children have particularly high poverty rates. A new brief from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire reveals 55.8 percent of rural black children under six years old and 40.8 percent of rural Hispanic children live in poverty. The national rate is 41 percent for black children and 33.6 percent for Hispanic children. In central cities, 45.3 percent of black children and 37.3 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty.

The brief also examined child poverty levels in relation to family structure, revealing 49.4 percent of rural children living in single-mother households live in poverty. Nationally, 40 percent of children living in single-mother households live in poverty and 43.8 percent in central cities. Regionally, the highest rate of poverty in single-mother households came in the South where 54 percent of those families live in poverty. Just 9.9 percent of rural children living in married-couple households live in poverty, compared to a national average of 7.5 percent and central-city average of 10 percent. (Read more)

Three of four states approve hunting and fishing amendments

In September we reported Tennessee voters would have the chance to approve a constitutional amendment protecting hunting and fishing despite no clear threat to the sports. On Tuesday, voters in Tennessee, Arkansas and South Carolina approved constitutional amendments protecting hunting and fishing, while voters in Arizona rejected a similar proposal. In Tennessee, the amendment needed half the votes cast in the governor's race plus one for approval and well exceeded that threshold, the Associated Press reports. The states joined 10 others that already constitutionally protect hunting and fishing. In Arkansas, the push for a hunting amendment arose after the state legislature approved an animal cruelty law that made the offense a felony. "Backers wanted to draw a clear line that would prevent hunters and anglers from being accused of cruelty," Chuck Bartels of AP reports. The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said the amendment was unnecessary but didn't campaign against it. In South Carolina the advocates of the hunting and fishing amendment said it was needed in case gun control supporters eventually tried to restrict the sports, AP reports.

The Arizona ballot measure failed despite the support of Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, the Game and Fish Commission and the National Rifle Association, AP reports. Proposition 109 "would have given the Legislature exclusive authority to regulate those activities, although it could delegate rule-making to the state Game and Fish Commission," AP writes. Critics of the Arizona proposal said it was unnecessary because there were no real threats to the sports in the state. (Read more)

Sanctuary and slaughter are options for states with too many wild horses

What does a state do when it has too many wild horses? The horses eat grass that cattlemen want for their herds. As the horse herds continue to increase in number, the plains can't provide enough grass for the horses either, causing them to starve to death. Two western states are pursuing two different options: (Photo New Mexico Mustang & Burro Association)

In Wyoming, the Bureau of Land Management has tried to cull the herds, but the number of feral horses has nearly tripled. Currently, the U.S. has nowhere to slaughter horses since Congress blocked inspection of horse meat in 2007. State Rep. Sue Wallis wants to license a slaughterhouse in Wyoming, Mckay Coppins of Newsweek reports. While horse advocates call slaughter inhumane, Wallis anticipates enough local demand for horse meat to sustain a factory. Besides, she says, for a horse on overgrazed land, slaughter beats starvation. (Read more)

Meanwhile, in New Mexico the Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Burro Program is supporting a plan for a mustang sanctuary near Cerrillos Hills State Park. The New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department is hoping to purchase a former ranch near the park by using funds from the federal stimulus. Staci Matlock of The New Mexican reports the purchase will expand the park tenfold and will be the location of the proposed mustang ranch. Proponents of the plan say the expansion of Cerrillos Hills State Park would generate up to a half-dozen state jobs and possibly spur more tourism-related employment. Opponents say the money could be better spent elsewhere. The sanctuary would also be a center where the horses can be trained, then offered for adoption. (Read more)

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Female hopeful upset in Navajo presidential vote

On Monday we reported the Navajo Nation appeared poised to elect its first woman president, but New Mexico state Sen. Lynda Lovejoy couldn't ride the campaign momentum to victory in Tuesday's election. "Based on results of the Aug. 3 primary, plus the fact that she was the first woman to reach the general election for president, the buzz was all around the candidacy of Lynda Lovejoy," Bill Donovan of the Navajo Times reports. In the end, current Navajo Vice President Ben Shelly won by over 3,000 votes -- 33,692 to 30,357 -- according to unofficial election results, Donovan writes. (Times photo by Donovan Quintero: Leila Help-Tulley, Earl Tulley, John Lovejoy and Lynda Lovejoy.)

Former Arizona state Sen. Ben Henderson said "the election hinged on one issue - tradition, referring to creation stories of a time in the distant past when Navajo women went to live on the other side of a river," Donovan writes. There the women tried to make a go of it but "in the end the women had no place to go so they had to ask for help from the men," Henderson said. "At that time, the women promised that they would never try to go ahead of the men again." Henderson said that traditional view was bestowed by tribe elders on their children and grandchildren. "People are listening to the medicine men and the traditionalists," he told Donovan. (Read more)

"In the last weeks of campaigning, both Mr. Shelly and his running mate, the tribal council delegate Rex Lee Jim, were among the officials ensnared in a criminal investigation by the Navajo Department of Justice over misuse of tribal discretionary funds," Mireya Navarro of The New York Times reports. Lovejoy, who is asking for a recount, downplayed the role of gender during the campaign. "It’s not written anywhere that a woman can’t be at the helm of the nation," she told The New York Times during the campaign. "I don’t think about it myself. Gender is not an issue to me." (Read more)

Ethanol subsidies could be early test of campaign promises to cut federal spending

Federal subsidies for ethanol may be among the first tests for the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to follow through on promises to cut federal spending. "Efforts to secure extensions for a tax credit for blending fuel with ethanol and an import tariff for ethanol -- both set to expire at the end of year -- have faced stiff opposition in Congress, but industry players are planning to continue their push for the provisions during the lame-duck session," Dina Fine Maron of Environment & Energy Daily reports. If that push fails, fewer ethanol supporters will be in Congress come January to champion its cause.

Democrats including Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln and ethanol boosters on the House side including Reps. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Earl Pomeroy lost their seats Tuesday, Maron writes. Industry groups maintain the ethanol subsidies are a regional issue, not a partisan one, hoping the seats will be filled by other ethanol supporters. "Those who were defeated were replaced with equally strong advocates," Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, told reporters yesterday.

Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, said it remains to be seen if tea party-backed newcomers will dampen efforts to net ethanol credits. "The ethanol tax credits actually should be viewed as an investment -- an investment that provides great return in jobs and payments to farmers as well as reductions on the tremendous amount we pay for foreign oil," he said. Heather Taylor, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, countered, "If the new folks coming in really want to talk about cutting federal spending, this needs to be a place where they are seriously looking." (Read more, subscription required)

MSHA moves to shut Massey mine as scofflaw; two grand juries probing Big Branch disaster

For the first time, the Department of Labor has asked a federal judge to immediately shut down a coal mine in the interest of protecting its workers. "In filing for a preliminary injunction in U.S. District Court, the government cites persistently dangerous conditions in Massey Energy's Freedom Energy Mine No. 1 in Pike County," Howard Berkes and Robert Benincasa of National Public Radio report. "The action — the toughest enforcement action available to federal regulators — would shut down the mine until safety hazards are addressed and Massey Energy demonstrates it can operate the mine safely." Department of Labor Solicitor General M. Patricia Smith said to Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader,  "You can expect more of these on other mines." (Read more)

The agency has had the power to take mining companies to federal court for persistent safety violations since the passage of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act 33 years ago, but Wednesday's move was the first time the agency had used the "injunctive relief" section of the law. "The move is viewed by mine safety experts as one response to the deadly explosion in April at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia," the reporters write. Lexington attorney and mine-safety expert Tony Oppegard said to Hjalmarson, "Why now? I would say because when 29 miners were killed in the Massey disaster, that sent shockwaves through MSHA and the mining industry."

Two federal grand juries are investigating the big Branch disaster, Bloomberg News reports. One in Beckley is probing the disaster itself, and one in Charleston is "investigating allegations that some mine inspectors may have accepted bribes from Massey employees so that the company's mines could receive preferential treatment when being inspected," according to an unnamed source. A Massey spokesman didn't immediately returna  call seeking comment. (Read more) UPDATE, Nov. 6: Daniel Malloy and Dennis B. Roddy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report that the probe "does not include a probe into whether Massey Energy employees bribed mine inspectors, the region's prosecutor said Friday." (Read more)

The non-union Freedom Energy mine, which employs about 130 miners and was cited for safety violations more than 700 times this year alone and ordered to close 55 times, "has a high risk level for a fatal accident . . . on any given day" James Poynter, an assistant district manager at the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration, said in federal court documents. Massey said in a statement that Freedom "has struggled to comply with newer MSHA standards" because it's an older and larger mine, but "Massey does not believe the mine is unsafe." (Read more)

Obama names natural-gas development as possible area of compromise with Republicans

"President Obama's newfound interest in expanded natural gas drilling yesterday surprised many on all sides of the drilling debate, from environmentalists to drillers and even the coal industry," Mike Soraghan reports for Environment & Energy News. "Representatives of drilling groups said they had no idea that Obama would make natural gas his lead olive branch to the newly empowered Capitol Hill Republicans. But they were pleased that he did."

Obama seemed to refer to the great expansion of available natural-gas resources caused by improvements in hydraulic fracturing, allowing the long-used technique to tap gas found in deep, dense formations such as the Marcellus Shale. Asked to name possible areas of compromise with Republicans, the president said, "We've got, I think, broad agreement that we've got terrific natural gas resources in this country. Are we doing everything we can to develop those?"

Obama's remarks were "his strongest public comments to date in support of natural gas," said America's Natural Gas Alliance, a lobbying group. But coal interests, who are "feuding with gas producers about replacing coal generation with gas-fired electric plants, did not appreciate Obama's apparent focus on gas," and the president did not mention coal, Soraghan reports.

And environmental groups worried that "fracking" chemicals are contaminating drinking water, and seeking federal regulation of the practice, will surely be disappointed. Soraghan does not quote them, but writes, "It remains a mystery to key players how the Obama administration's general interest in shale gas drilling rose to become a talking point at a presidential news conference at a crucial juncture in Obama's presidency." He notes that Obama energy-environment chief Carol Browner "prominently rejected the idea of federal oversight of fracturing when she was President Clinton's EPA administrator," and that the Obama administration "refused a request by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) to help slow down drilling in upstate New York and eastern Pennsylvania," the prime area for Marcellus Shale development. (Read more, subscription required)

GOP House gains came mainly in rural areas; rural Democrats' numbers deeply slashed

Republicans won control of the U.S. House largely by taking districts where at least one of three residents is rural. "Two-thirds of the 60 House seats switching from Democrat to Republican in this election were in the congressional districts with the most rural voters," Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery of the Daily Yonder report. "Before the election almost half (61) of the 125 most rural districts were held by Democrats. By the end of the day Tuesday, the number of rural Democrats had been cut to just 22. Just 18 percent of the most rural House districts are now represented by Democrats."

The 125 most rural districts analyzed by the Yonder had at least 33 percent of their population living in rural areas. The national population is 21 percent. "There are 39 rural districts that switched from Democratic representation to Republican," Bishop and Ardery write. "These account for 65 percent of the 60 seats Republicans captured from Democrats on Tuesday." No Republican district on the most-rural list switched to Democratic.

"Most of the seats lost by the Democrats were well north of the Mason-Dixon Line, many in the Upper Midwest and New England," Bishop and Ardery write. "Yes, Democrats lost three of their seats in rural Tennessee. But they also lost three in rural New York." The National Cattlemen's  Beef Association was quick to latch onto the Republican victory as a referendum against proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture livestock rules, but "there seems to be no relationship between opposition to the livestock rules and defeat on Tuesday," Bishop and Ardery write. (Read more) (Yonder map)

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Both congressional farm panels will have new chiefs; House committee to get many new faces

Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, who is expected to become chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, has been a supporter of direct payments, "which are expected to become a major issue as the debate intensifies over the 2012 Farm Bill," Ken Anderson of Brownfield Network reports. "At the same time, there will likely be a lot of pressure on Lucas and other Republicans to follow through on their promises of cutting federal spending. That combination should make for some very interesting debate over farm programs."

Anderson notes that the panel will get many new faces, because of the defeats of Democratic Reps. Jim Marshall of Georgia, Steve Kagen of Wisconsin, Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, Travis Childers of Mississippi, Deborah Halvorson of Illinois, Kathleen Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania, Bobby Bright of Alabama, John Boccieri of Ohio, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota and Frank Kratovil of Maryland.

Democrats kept control of the Senate, but Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln lost, so "There will be a new chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee," Anderson notes. "Her likely Democratic successor at this point is thought to be Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Sources close to the panel says Stabenow is well-liked by her colleagues and earned their respect during the last round of farm bill negotiations by bridging the interests of states with commodity crops and those with specialty fruit and vegetables." (Read more)

Analysis from the Environmental Working Group shows 46 seats "that flipped from Democratic to Republican hands represent districts that rank in the top half of those that get federal subsidies," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. "Mark Maslyn of the American Farm Bureau Federation worries that the Democrats who will join the House  committee to fill empty seats may come from more urban and suburban districts and will be more interested in nutrition and environmental issues than farm programs." (Read more)

Rural march toward Republicans resumes, and Appalachian coalfields are a prime example

"In a bloodbath of a night for Democrats, the most gruesome returns came in from rural America," Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin write for Politico. "They lost the overwhelming number of gubernatorial and Senate races in the South, Midwest and interior West. Even more striking, House Democrats lost seats in every one of the 11 states of the old Confederacy."

The casualties included Reps. John Spratt of South Carolina, the Budget Committee chairman; James Oberstar of Minnesota, the Transportation committee chairman; Ike Skelton of Missouri, the Armed Services Committee chairman; and "long-serving political survivors such as Allen Boyd (Fla.), Gene Taylor (Miss.), Earl Pomeroy (N.D.) and Chet Edwards (Tex.). So did more junior members such as Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.), Harry Teague (N.M.), and Ohioans Charlie Wilson and Zack Space. The decades-long march toward the GOP among rural and small-town voters – interrupted and even reversed in 2006 and 2008 – has resumed." (Read more) Skelton's defeat "epitomizes the power" of the Republican wave, National Journal reports.

The two-year conflict between the Obama administration and coal industry culminated Tuesday with several Appalachian Democrats losing their House seats. "Voters in the region's coal and manufacturing districts rejected half a dozen Democratic incumbents, including nine-term Virginia Rep. Rick Boucher," Patrick Reis of Environment & Energy Daily reports. "Other losers were Democratic Reps. Zack Space of Ohio -- who fell by 14 percentage points to state Sen. Bob Gibbs (R) -- Charlie Wilson and John Boccieri of Ohio, Tom Perriello of Virginia and Lincoln Davis of Tennessee."

Democrats appear to have lost West Virginia's 1st District, which the party had held for more than four decades. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Republican David McKinley held a 1,500-plus vote lead over Democrat Mike Oliverio, who defeated 14-term Rep. Alan Mollohan in the primary. "The turnover follows two tense years between national Democrats and the central Appalachian corridor, a string of districts running through West Virginia and along the edges of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee," Reis writes.

"While party leaders pushed a cap-and-trade bill -- a proposal panned by most U.S. coal companies -- U.S. EPA in April singled out the six states for special restrictions on mountaintop removal coal mining," Reis writes. "Regional Democrats worked to distance themselves from the Obama agenda by protesting the mining regulations, looking to carve out funding for the coal industry in the cap-and-trade bill, and in many cases breaking party lines to vote against the measure." West Virginia Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, who voted against cap-and-trade held off Republican challenger Elliot "Spike" Maynard, and Kentucky Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler, who voted for cap-and-trade, holds a 600-vote lead over Republican Andy Barr with all precincts reporting. (Read more, subscription required)

Chandler is a member of the Blue Dogs, a group of moderate-to-conservative Democrats, many with strong rural constituencies. "The Blue Dog pack was cut by more than half Tuesday night, as at least 28 of the 54 members of the coalition of moderate House Democrats were defeated," Politico's Glenn Thrush reports. UPDATE, Nov. 8: "We got swamped by the vote in the rural areas," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told radio host Bill Press on Friday. "Someone said we lost half our geographic territory." The comment was recorded and posted by C-SPAN, "which saves the in-studio video footage of Press's show in its online archive," reports Chris Good of

Rural teens more likely to abuse prescription drugs

Rural teens are 26 percent more likely to use prescription drugs for non-medical purposes than their urban counterparts, says a new study from the University of Kentucky. "Non-medical prescription drug use  is a growing problem that increased 212 percent among U.S. teens from 1992 to 2003, according to the study," Ann  J. Curley of CNN reports. "It is an area of concern because it’s associated with the use of other drugs including cocaine and heroin, and in problem behaviors such as gambling, increased sexual activity, and 'impulsivity,' the study said."

The study revealed rural and urban teens had roughly the same levels of illicit drug use, but 13 percent of rural teens reported using prescription drugs for non-medical purposes compared to 10 percent of urban teens. "Among rural teens, 11.5 percent  had used pain relievers non-medically, compared with 10.3 percent of urban teens," Curley writes, adding. "3.5 percent of rural teens had tried tranquilizers non-medically, compared with 2.5 percent of urban teens."

The study revealed rural non-medical prescription drug abuse was more likely in teens that reported poorer health, depression or other substance abuse. Living in a household with two parents and enrollment in school were shown to reduce the likelihood of non-medical prescription drug use. For the study researchers from UK's College of Medicine analyzed data from the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which is produced annually by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Just over half the 17,872 teens surveyed lived in urban areas while 17.1 percent lived in rural areas. (Read more)

Rural NPR affiliates under attack in wake of Juan Williams' firing

In the weeks since National Public Radio fired Juan Williams over remarks he made on Fox News about sometimes feeling afraid of Muslims on airplanes, there has been no shortage of criticism for NPR. Rural America has made its way into the controversy after the conservative National Review argued Congress should cut funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting so NPR could no longer broadcast its "coastal liberalism" to middle America. "NPR is sort of like Amtrak: Self-sufficient in urban areas where it has lots of listeners but dependent on taxpayer subsidies to broadcast its programming nationwide," the National Review writes. (Read more)

That argument rings hollow for Matthew Schmitz of First Thoughts. "When just a few years ago I worked in the summers as an apprentice electrician I would tune in [to NPR] every day at four o’clock for a stream of remarkably calm, far-ranging reporting would carry me to the end of the work day," Schmitz, who is from Ogallalla, Neb., writes. "In a media environment that often blurs the line between information and provocation, article and advert, public radio provided a welcome respite." Schmitz notes he isn't sure if NPR's virtues are conservative, but many of his Ogallalla neighbors who listened to it were.

"Rural Americans are no more susceptible to being buffaloed by liberal bias than their suburban or urban counterparts," Schmitz writes. "National Review’s editorial assumes that NPR represents 'coastal liberalism' disconnected from middle America." That strategy has been used since Richard Nixon called for a "return to localism," Schmitz writes, but concludes that argument "misses just how connected to local communities public radio really is. NPR’s affiliates stretch their shoestring budgets in order to report on state and local issues while producing their own cultural programming."

If the National Review were to get its wish, rural NPR stations would rely solely on subscriptions to operate.While some proposals for making NPR financially independent are promising, that isn't one, Schmitz argues. He concludes, "To insist that rural stations rely solely on the subscription model that barely supports urban ones would effectively end public radio in rural America and, in turn, diminish the vitality and voice of its communities." (Read more)

Park Service hopes for more racially diverse visitors

As the National Park Service works to increase attendance at the country's 393 national parks, it hopes to improve diversity by attracting black visitors. The 285.5 million visitors to national parks in 2009 were "overwhelmingly non-Hispanic whites, with blacks the least likely group to visit," Mireya Navarro of The New York Times reports. "That reality has not changed since the 1960s, when it was first identified as an issue. The Park Service now says the problem is linked to the parks’ very survival."

The issue gained some celebrity support when The Oprah Winfrey Show devoted a full-hour in response to Yosemite National Park ranger Shelton Johnson's (photo above, by Max Whittaker for The New York Times) letter about how few of his fellow African-Americans visit national parks. The first half of the segment, which was filmed at Yosemite, aired Friday with part two scheduled to air on Wednesday. "If the American public doesn’t know that we exist or doesn’t care, our mission is potentially in jeopardy," Jonathan B. Jarvis, who took over as director of the Park Service last year, said. "There’s a disconnect that needs addressing."

"In a comprehensive survey it commissioned in 2000, only 13 percent of black respondents reported visiting a national park in the previous two years," Navarro writes. "That compared with 27 percent for Latinos, 29 percent for Asians and 36 percent for whites." Jim Gramann, a visiting social scientist with the Park Service who is overseeing a review of a follow-up survey in 2008 and 2009, said the gap persisted. "It’s all layered," said Carolyn Finney, an assistant professor of environmental science policy at the University of California, Berkeley, who is working on a book about blacks’ relationship to the natural environment. "You need ways to make people think about the parks differently." (Read more)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Wind industry is showing little growth in 2010

The U.S. wind-power industry has hit a plateau, adding just 500 megawatts of capacity since the end of the first quarter of 2010, says the latest quarterly report from the American Wind Energy Association. "In 2009 about 10,000 megawatts of new capacity came on line nationally and another 4,000 megawatts were finished in the first quarter of 2010," Dan Piller of the Des Moines Register reports on the paper's Green Fields blog. AWEA cites factors including "lack of long-term U.S. energy policies, such as a Renewable Electricity Standard, and resulting lack of certainty for business, which has the country’s utilities failing to move forward with wind build-out plans" as reasons for the decline.

"We’re increasing our dependence on fossil fuels, impacting our national security, instead of diversifying our portfolio to include more renewables," Piller heard from Denise Bode, CEO of AWEA, which claims more than 2,500 companies as members. A steep drop in prices for natural gas, "which two years ago sold for an average of $10 per thousand cubic feet but for most of this year has sold for $4 or less," has also contributed to the decline, Piller writes. Vast shale gas reserves have opened cheaper and cleaner supplies for the urbanized Eastern U.S. (Read more)

Small Oklahoma town fights coal-ash disposal site

Residents of a small town in eastern Oklahoma have injected themselves into the national debate about fly ash from coal-fired power plants, which they say is poisoning their community. "There are at least 12 fly-ash sites scattered across Oklahoma, but none bigger than the one in Bokoshe," Jennifer Loren of News on 6 TV in Tulsa reports. "It's an old mine that's being 'reclaimed' with the fly ash, but it's 55 feet tall and covers more than 20 acres. It's about a mile from the center of Bokoshe." Last year locals won their first battle when they showed the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality the ash was being dumped illegally and blanketing their town in harmful substances. (Wikipedia map)

Oklahoma DEQ now "requires that water is mixed with the ash to keep it from contaminating the air," Loren reports. Bokoshe resident Sharon Tanksley told her, "They thought that they could come into a town of about 450 people and they could do pretty much what they wanted to do and that we would sit back and allow them to do so, but they underestimated their opponent." But some, like Bokoshe resident Charles Tackett, said the win came too late. Tackett told Loren that "people in 14 of the 20 families living closest to the dump have died from or are living with cancer."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering a proposal that would label fly ash a hazardous waste and give federal regulators control over its disposal. Scott Thompson, director of DEQ's Land Protection Division, told Loren the Oklahoma Department of Mines actually regulates coal ash at the Bokoshe site. Whichever state department is in charge, locals had a clear message at the EPA's Dallas hearing on the hazardous-waste idea. Bokoshe resident Susan Holmes explained, "My message to you today is that the state regulatory agencies in Oklahoma have failed." (Read more)

Industry, environmentalists work together to find common ground for 'fracking' regulation

Energy groups and environmental activists are staunch adversaries in the hydraulic-fracturing debate, but some from the two sides are banding together in hopes of stepping up industry safety and regulation. "For environmentalists, it’s an opportunity to stiffen standards for a technique that is increasingly used nationwide and could help boost domestic supplies of a cleaner burning power source," Jennifer A. Dlouhy of the Houston Chronicle reports. "For the industry, it’s a chance to counter a major PR problem that threatens to undermine support for domestic natural gas production through this method and could drive bans on its use."

"The new project is still in the very beginning stages, with the Environmental Defense Fund and Houston-based Southwestern Energy at the core," Dlouhy writes. "More than a dozen other companies and environmental groups have been approached about joining the discussion, and several are now part of the talks to develop model regulations that participants say will be 'as environmentally protective as reasonably possible.'" The discussions build on months of talks between Mark Boling, executive vice president of Southwestern Energy, and Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser for EDF.

Boling and Anderson expect "a final proposal, which could be ready next year, will deal with a raft of subsurface issues, from the composition of fracking fluids to the integrity of underground wells," Dlouhy writes. The coalition has included developing new standards to ensure the integrity of wells, given explosions and groundwater contamination linked by some to natural gas wells, high on its priority list. A similar coalition helped craft guidelines for the capture and storage of carbon dioxide, but Anderson notes CCS was a new technology. "It wasn’t polarized," he told Dlouhy. "This is much harder to do in a collaborative way." (Read more)

House members from more-rural districts divided on proposed USDA livestock rules

Members of Congress with more rural constituents than average are divided about the U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposed rule that would govern livestock markets, reports the Daily Yonder. "Early this month, 115 members of Congress — 46 Democrats and 69 Republicans, largely from rural districts — wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack opposing the rule," Yonder Co-Editor Bill Bishop reports. "Vilsack wrote back saying the rules were needed." USDA says the rules, which we previously reported here, intended "to turn the clock back by stemming the decline of independent livestock producers," Bishop writes.

Of the 190 representatives from Congressional districts where more than the national average of 21 percent of the population lives in rural areas, 44 percent signed the letter to Vilsack. Rural members from 106 districts did not sign the letter, while members from 31 urban districts did. Support for the letter also varied across regions. "Representatives in the upper Great Plains didn't sign the letter," Bishop writes. "Those in cattle areas in the lower Plains did. Alabama lawmakers didn't sign. Missouri and Arkansas legislators did." While the majority of rural representatives didn't sign the letter, several important ones did, including the current chair of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota and the ranking Republican and likely chairman come January, Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma. (Yonder map)

USDA is accepting public comment on the proposal until Nov. 22 Debate has grown heated as the deadline approaches, Bishop reports. R-CALF, a group of mainly small cattle ranchers, reported that the 115 signers of the letter to Vilsack "had received over $48 million in contributions from businesses or individuals connected with agriculture," Bishop writes.

The National Farmers Union also supports the rules, but larger groups, such as the National Beef Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, oppose them. “Secretary Vilsack’s response may work for bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., but for those of us out in the countryside, he has done nothing more than ignore the pleas of thousands of cattle producers,"  NCBA President Steve Foglesong said. "His refusal leaves my fellow cattle producers and me asking, 'What are they trying to hide?'" (Read more)

Rural House Democrats increasingly at risk

More rural Democrats in the House have been added to the list of those that expert observers consider at risk in Tuesday's election, in which Republicans are expected to take control of the chamber.

Charles Cook, Washington's leading political handicapper, moved two veteran Democrats into the "toss-up" category: Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar of northeast Minnesota, an 18-year veteran, and 14-term Rep. Rick Boucher, right, of southwest Virginia's 9th District. Boucher represents the nation's eighth most rural district, with a 66 percent rural population in the 2000 census. Oberstar's 8th District is the 13th most rural, at 63 percent. Cook's ratings are proprietary, but some examples were reported by Alex Isenstadt of Politico. (Politco photo montage)

Politico also noted that Cook moved Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine's 1st District into the toss-up column. Nate Silver of The New York Times' political blog, Five Thirty Eight, projected that Pingree still has a three-in-four chance of winning, but that is down from a 97 percent chance his statistical estimates gave her 10 days ago.

Silver projects defeat for Democratic Rep. Lincoln Davis of Tennessee's 4th District, the nation's fourth most rural, with a rural population of 68 percent. Silver says Davis has only a 27 percent chance of winning, and that he will lose to Republican Scott DesJarlais by 5.2 percentage points. He also says freshman Democratic Reps. William Owens (NY-23) and Tom Perriello (VA-5) will lose. They represent the ninth and 11th most rural districts. And he predicts the defeat of veteran Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri's 4th District, the 18th most rural in population.

For a list of Silver's projections in the 25 most rural districts, click here. For his site, go here.

What have candidates said to rural voters?

Rural residents are important voting blocs in many states, and candidates have a wiode range of appeals to rural voters, to-wit:

Strickland counts on his rural roots, Columbus Dispatch, current Democratic Ohio Governor Ted Strickland is running against  Republican challenger John Kasich. Strickland said about his rural base that in previous elections he carried by 70 percent: "We've been living through very significant economic disruption and upheaval and so, no, I don't expect to win this area with 70 percent, but I expect to win it."

Following the footsteps of Walkin' Lawton. The St. Petersburg Times covers Democrat Alex Sink, running against Republican Rick Scott for governor in rural northern Florida: "I grew up on a tobacco farm. Tobacco, cows, hogs — whatever my daddy could make money at. Year by year, it was a big decision."

Congress and governor candidates quizzed on rural issues: The Anchorage Daily News polled candidates for congress and governor on a variety of topics. The question posed on rural issues: "Rural Alaska communities continue to be hit by very high rates of unemployment, suicide, abuse and neglect. Is there anything you would do to address these issues? What specifically?" Each candidate responded.

Chris Dudley visits rural Oregon as Kitzhaber prepares for Obama visit: The Oregonian reports Republican Chris Dudley is running against Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber. "Dudley may be reaching thousands of voters in Oregon's cities through his campaign commercials, but the candidate himself is spending much of his time lately in rural communities. ... At various stops, Dudley often notes that his wife is a fifth-generation Oregonian and his children attend public schools."

When in doubt, blame Harry Reid: The Los Angeles Times covers the Senate Democratic leader from Nevada running against Republican Sharron Angle. "In rural Nevada, the political is personal," said Bob Dolezal, superintendent of the White Pine County School District, who demurred as to which Senate candidate he supported. "People internalize things. It's not a disagreement of opinion, it's a personal affront."

Democrat recalls roots in appeal to rural North Carolina: Elaine Marshall, Democratic candidate for the Senate against  Republican Sen. Richard Burr, tells The Associated Press: "I knew what it was like to feel like a second-class citizen because of where I lived," she says of her rural Maryland upbringing. "As your North Carolina senator, I will remember where I came from."

Haley courts voters in rural South Carolina: Republican gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley is running against Vincent Sheheen, a Democrat. From The Post and Courier of Charleston: "Haley's been making the rounds in Hartsville. She's been here somewhere between five and a dozen times, more than any gubernatorial candidate in the past 100 years, the hometown Republican state Rep. Jay Lucas declared."

Scrapple? Candidates Christine O'Donnell and Chris Coons love the "delicacy," The Christian Science Monitor reports in a story on Republican Christine O'Donnell and Democrat Chris Coons. "At the 19th annual Apple Scrapple Festival in rural Delaware, U.S. Senate candidates Chris Coons and Christine O'Donnell worked the crowd of potential voters. And – surprise! – they both claim to love scrapple. ... For the uninitiated, scrapple is a Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy made of hog byproducts (snout, heart, liver), corn meal, flour, and spices, mixed into a mush and formed into loaves, then sliced off and fried."

In Maryland, rural residents feel pinched and perplexed, The Washington Post reports after visiting a Republican enclave in a heavily Democratic area: "Damascus is different. Thanks to geographic realities and political deal making, Republicans outnumber Democrats within a set of jury-rigged boundaries on Montgomery's northern edge. Out of the county's nearly 1 million residents, 5,809 Republican voters living here amid the soybean and corn fields lucked into having a member of Congress from their own party. "It's a red corner, for which I'm very thankful," said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a nine-term Republican whose 6th District rambles from south of Pittsburgh to east of Baltimore and includes a thumb-shaped bit of territory in Montgomery. While the county "may be predominantly blue," Bartlett said, "that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of red people there."

Monday, November 01, 2010

Local and state governments cut payroll to boost bottom line

States, cities and schools across the country are cutting payroll, a strategy that has helped improve the financial condition of both local and state governments. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows "In the past year, state and local employment has been reduced, mostly through not filling vacancies, by 258,000, or 1.3%, to 19.2 million workers," Dennis Cauchon reports for USA Today. "The cuts are the most since the recession of 1980-81. The federal workforce, meanwhile, grew 3.4% to 2.2 million in the past year."

Three-fourths of the cuts have come in New Jersey, New York, California, Ohio and Michigan. "Nationwide, 35 states reduced government payrolls in the past year while 15 states increased employment," Cauchon writes. The Bureau of Economic Analysis reports the smaller workforce, combined with federal stimulus package money and increased tax collections, has helped state and local governments operate with budget surpluses since October. The surpluses won't curb the trend as more cuts are projected, Donald Boyd, finance expert at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, N.Y., told Cauchon.

"Compensation accounts for half of the $2 trillion spent annually by governments," Cauchon writes. Overall,  cities, counties and schools have cut payroll three times as fast as states, USA Today reports. The workers who kept their jobs saw a 2.5 percent increase in compensation for the fiscal year ending June 30, compared to a .8 percent increase for private sector employees. (Read more)

Coalition walks a fine line to help state lawmakers craft legislation

On Friday we reported the private prison industry played a large role in the crafting of the controversial Arizona immigration law through an organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council. The Arizona law is far from a unique circumstance as ALEC frequently connects private industry with state legislators to write legislation, Laura Sullivan of National Public Radio reports. ALEC is a membership organization with state legislators paying $50 a year to join and private companies like tobacco company Reynolds American Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp. and drug-maker Pfizer Inc. paying tens of thousands of dollars a year to join.

"With that money, the 28 people in the ALEC offices throw three annual conferences," Sullivan writes. "The companies get to sit around a table and write 'model bills' with the state legislators, who then take them home to their states." Tax records show corporations have paid as much as $6 million a year to ALEC, Sullivan reports. "It's not an effective way to get a bill passed," Michael Bowman, ALEC senior director of policy, told Sullivan. "It's an effective way to find good legislation." ALEC operates as a non-profit because the organization is not restricted by the regulations that govern lobbyists in state governments.

If ALEC were classified as a lobbying group, "corporations wouldn't be able to reap tax benefits from giving donations to the organization or write off those donations as a business expense," Sullivan writes. "And legislators would have a hard time justifying attending a conference of lobbyists." ALEC doesn't disclose how much money it spends or where it spends it, and Bowman wouldn't tell NPR what legislators were members. When asked if the conferences constituted lobbying, Bowman responded,  "No, because we're not advocating any positions. We don't tell members to take these bills. We just expose best practices. All we're really doing is developing policies that are in model bill form." (Read more)

Navajo Nation could elect first woman president on Tuesday

While most of the country will be focused on the balance of power in Congress resulting from Tuesday's elections, the Navajo Nation is poised to complete its own significant election. "The 300,000-member nation will hold its presidential election tomorrow in what front-runner and New Mexico state Sen. Lynda Lovejoy, right, calls a turning point for Navajo history: She has a good chance of becoming the group's first woman president," Amanda Peterka of Environment & Energy Daily reports. "And her running mate, Earl Tulley, would be one of the most outspoken environmentalists elected to the vice presidency."

"We're getting more and more excited," Lovejoy told E&E Daily. "We have a lot of support. People are just looking forward to a new leader for the Navajo Nation -- a brand new leader, new ideas, a fresh face, just a fresh government." Lovejoy, who lost in her bid for president four years ago, downplayed the role that gender has played in the campaign. "That's not really why I'm running. I happen to have the kind of leadership skills, I believe, in my abilities and in my leadership quality," she said. "I just happen to be a female." Still, Cate Stetson, a New Mexico American Indian law attorney, called Lovejoy's success stunning.

"It's a really interesting society with women having a lot of responsibility in the family and in the community, and yet, of course, there's so many of them -- the men -- well, they get like men and think that that's the way it should be because it's always been," Stetson told Peterka. Lovejoy's opponent Ben Shelly, who declined an interview request from E&E Daily, recently plead not guilty to charges of fraud, conspiracy and theft after allegations he used discretionary funds to benefit his family. The Navajo Nation also faces a major change in the structure of the Navajo Tribal Council, which will drop from 88 members to 24 on Jan. 11. (Read more, subscription required)

Virginia case raises questions about transparency in federal court sentencing

Since a federal defense attorney read some documents inadvertently mailed to his client, the courts in the Western District of Virginia are facing some criticism about transparency in sentencing, reports Mike Gangloff for the Roanoke Times. Usually after defendants are convicted in federal court, probation officers prepare a report to help judges decide punishment. The report includes a calculation of possible sentences under federal guidelines, based on scores for the offense and the defendant's criminal history. This part of the pre-sentence report is sealed from public view, but is shared with the prosecution and the defense and often debated in open court.  The part of the report not made public in most of the nation's 94 judicial districts is where the probation officer advises the judge what sentence to impose.

Federal defense lawyer Randy Cargill was representing a client who was sentenced to 33 months in prison. A month after his sentencing, the client received his routine copy of the sentencing report in the mail. But also in the envelope was the probation officer's confidential sentencing recommendation, accidentally mailed from the probation office. Cargill thought the report misrepresented his client and "fired off a letter to the head of the probation office, the U.S. attorney's office and the judicial district's chief judge. He called for a review of sentencing recommendations 'to be sure they do not contain facts that are not in the presentence report' and slammed the events that he said left his client unable to respond to inaccurate statements," writes Gangloff.

According to Gangloff, open criticism of court workings is unusual for lawyers. Chief Judge Glen Conrad believes the system works as it should: probation officers work for the court and judges -- not for the defense or the prosecution. Probation officers spend time investigating cases and defendants, often interviewing family and friends. "They may look at things ... that I would miss," Conrad told Gangloff.  (Read more)

New York Congressional race could be referendum on fracking

A Congressional race in upstate New York could end up being the first public referendum on hydraulic fracturing and shale-gas drilling. Democratic Rep. Maurice Hinchey "has been an outspoken critic of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale and an advocate of federal regulation of fracturing," Mike Soraghan of Environment & Energy Daily reports for The New York Times. "His opponent, Republican George Phillips, thinks state regulation is best and supports 'aggressive' development once regulators sign off." Phillips says that support is the key to his late surge in the polls.

"It's a huge factor," Phillips campaign spokesman Jazz Shaw told Soraghan. "The No. 1 issue is jobs. But this is probably the No. 2 issue." Hinchey's campaign disputes the prominence of the issue for voters but notes Phillips' support of the industry has led to crucial financial support in the final weeks before the election. "The natural gas issue is important among certain constituencies," Hinchey spokesman Mike Morosi told Soraghan. "But the natural gas industry is funding advertising against Congressman Hinchey based on his position on drilling."

The "527" group American Crossroads has injected $300,000 into the race, funding anti-Hinchey ads, Soraghan writes. "One of the major backers of the group is Texas natural gas magnate Trevor Rees-Jones, president of Chief Oil and Gas, a driller in the Marcellus Shale in neighboring Pennsylvania, where drilling is allowed." Hinchey, a senior-member of the Appropriations Committee, is a nine-term incumbent in the district that winds along the state's eastern border with Pennsylvania north to Ithaca. Hinchey has won by wide margins in the past.

Both candidates have tried to add nuance to their drilling positions. "Phillips wants to move forward 'aggressively' but only after state regulators say it is safe," Soraghan writes. "Hinchey has said he wants to 'make sure that this frack drilling does not occur in New York' but clarifies that such a moratorium could be lifted after a comprehensive study of drilling's effects on health and the environment." (Read more)

Support for legalizing recreational marijuana use in California is fading

California's support for legalizing marijuana for recreational use appears to be waning, reports Peter Hecht of the Sacramento Bee. Since U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced his opposition to Proposition 19, the California Field Poll is showing the ballot measure will likely fail in Tuesday's election. The new poll shows Prop 19 is losing 49 percent to 42 percent, less than a month after a September survey showed it winning by the exact margin. "Voters in September were toying with the idea of approving this," Mark DiCamillo, director of the California Field Poll, told Hecht. "I think they just got cold feet."  If the measure passes, California will be the only state to legalize marijuana for something other than medicinal use. It would also allow for local control and taxation of marijuana.

According to the poll results, the strongest opposition to Proposition 19 came from Republicans, who opposed the measure 65 percent to 25 percent. Democrats favored the measure 51 percent to 39 percent, and it led among independent voters 57 percent to 35 percent. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation reducing pot possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction with a $100 fine, meaning marijuana will be significantly decriminalized regardless of the outcome of Proposition 19, reports Hecht. (Read more)