Friday, February 11, 2011

Ky. environmentalists win in courts of justice, PR

UPDATE, Feb. 13: A rally was held outside the state Capitol this afternoon to support the protesters, who stayed inside because they would not have been able to get back in. Author-poet-farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry, 76, was among those who looked out the Capitol's front doors. (See item below; Courier-Journal photo by James Crisp)

Environmentalists in Kentucky scored twice today, once in a court of justice and once in a court of public relations.

A judge ruled that environmental groups and individuals can challenge a settlement between the state and "two coal companies accused of submitting false water pollution discharge reports from mountaintop removal" coal mines, reports Ronnie Ellis, state-capital correspondent for Community Newpaper Holdings Inc.

The ruling "came on the same day that environmentalists occupied the outer office of Gov. Steve Beshear's office and forced a meeting with him at which they questioned the governor about support of the coal industry at what they say is the expense of clean, safe drinking water," Ellis writes, in one of many stories generated by the event.

The meeting turned into a sit-in, and then a "slumber party" in which more than a dozen protesters are camping out in the office over the weekend, Ellis reports. "At first Beshear said his schedule wouldn’t allow him to meet with them, but he changed his mind and underwent about 45 minutes of intense questions from about 25 protestors. Then he invited them to stay for the weekend, ordering capitol security to stay nearby but not to arrest them, and 16 of them accepted." (Read more)

Coal foes start sit-in at Ky. governor's office

UPDATE, Feb. 13: A reporter and photographer from the Kentucky Kernel, the student newspaper at the University of Kentucky, are inside with the protesters and filing updates.

video
Opponents of surface mining in Appalachia are staging a sit-in at the office of Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, saying they will not leave his office and are willing to be arrested. They have been furnishing a live videostream here. (Video by Chad Berry, director, Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, Berea College)

Beshear met with the group, and as he tried to adjourn the meeting, he was told that the discussion had not been satisfactory, that the group was not ready to leave and would engage in an act of peaceful, civil disobedience. "I'm prepared to stay as long as the Lord spares me," author Wendell Berry told a reporter. For a report from coal critic Jeff Biggers on the Huffington Post, click here.

New Fla. governor's budget strategy would nip in the bud a system to track painkiller prescriptions

Last month we reported that the prescription pill pipeline between Florida and Central Appalachia had not been closed despite a new Florida law to tighten controls on the drugs. One concern raised in that story was the uncertain funding of the Florida program. Those concerns appear to have been validated. Much to the chagrin of Kentucky lawmakers, new Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott proposed eliminating the program as part of his budget proposal, Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. "I'm infuriated," Kentucky Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo told Estep. He said ending the Florida program was like "setting up billboards across the country saying, 'Come to Florida and get your drugs'."

"Everyone up here, law enforcement, feels like we've been kicked in the teeth," said Frank Rapier, director of the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, based in London. "To take a step back like this is incredible." The proposal would need to be approved by the state legislature, where state Sen. Mike Fasano, who sponsored the bill that created the tracking program, said he would fight it.

Scott's office didn't not respond to the Herald-Leader's request for comment. A "spokesman for Scott had been quoted saying Scott didn't think it was appropriate for the government to be involved in the monitoring program," Estep reports. "Florida is facing a steep budget shortfall, but the monitoring system, set up mostly with federal money, would cost only $500,000 a year to run, said Bruce Grant, former head of Florida's Office of Drug Control," Estep writes.  (Read more)

Maine county promotes skiing-based lifestyle

Increasing tourism is a common economic strategy for rural communities, but some, including one in northern Maine, are taking that a step further with "lifestyle" investments. Aroostock County, which has the largest land area of a U.S. county east of the Mississippi River, this week is hosting the World Cup in biathlon, a combination of skiing and shooting. The event, which is expected to attract 35,000 spectators, is just the latest step in the county's attempt to build a tourism reputation around a skiing lifestyle, the Daily Yonder reports.

"Andy Shepherd, a former L.L. Bean strategist, and others created the Maine Winter Sports Center in 1999, to develop a new economic model for Northern Maine,'" the Yonder reports. The founders, using funding from the Libra Foundation, set out to create "a model for the sustainability of rural communities through a skiing lifestyle." Local schools provide ski programs for students. "Nationally, 'lifestyle' economies seem to be the trails of the future," the Yonder observes. "Aroostook’s endeavor – focusing on a winter sport with health benefits and tourist potential, as well as ties to local history and culture – is a visionary idea." (Read more)

Obama calls for rural broadband investment

Yesterday President Obama proposed investing $5 billion in a fund that would ensure broadband Internet access is available across rural America. "This isn't just about a faster Internet or being able to find a friend on Facebook. It's about connecting every corner of America to the digital age," Obama told an audience at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. Obama also announced a proposal that will be included in his 2012 fiscal budget that would invest $10.7 billion in developing a wireless network to support public safety agencies, Jeff Mason of Reuters reports.

The Obama administration "has endorsed making 500 megahertz of wireless airwaves, or spectrum, available over the next decade to meet the growing demand for broadband services," Mason reports. "The Federal Communications Commission hopes to 'repurpose' 120 megahertz of spectrum through incentive auctions where television broadcasters would voluntarily give up spectrum in exchange for a portion of the auction proceeds." Obama noted, "By selling private companies the rights to these airwaves, we won't just encourage private investment and expand wireless access; we'll actually going to bring in revenues that lower our deficits." (Read more)

"A plan such as this necessarily requires a lot of assumptions," Matt Wood, associate director of the Media Access Project, a nonprofit advocacy group, told Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times. "It is very hard to predict exactly how much money these auctions would raise, and how much will have to be shared with incumbent licensees. Thus, while these initiatives may be on the right track, questions remain as to whether this plan will work." Obama chose to make his announcement in Marquette, population about 21,000, because NMU "has worked on ways to expand wireless access for students and the surrounding areas," Stolberg writes. "For more than a decade, the university has given a new laptop to every incoming student." (Read more)

You can read more coverage of Obama's appearance in Marquette from The Mining Journal.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Scripps matches prize-winning reporter's gift to boost rural computer-assisted reporting

The Scripps Howard Foundation has given $10,000 to the Fund for Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting (R-CAR) in the endowment of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. The gift matches the $10,000 that Pulitzer Prize-winner Daniel Gilbert used to start R-CAR – money Scripps awarded him for winning the Community Journalism category in the 2010 National Journalism Awards sponsored by Scripps.

As with all donations to the endowment before April 30, the gifts have been matched by Kentucky’s state Research Challenge Trust Fund, bringing the fund to $40,000. Earnings on that amount will fund fellowships for two rural journalists each year to attend the computer-assisted reporting boot camps of Investigative Reporters and Editors. Donations to the fund are still being accepted.

The analytical tools that Gilbert, left, learned at an IRE boot camp helped him expose mismanagement of natural-gas royalties in southwest Virginia, winning not only the Community Journalism award but earning the Bristol Herald Courier the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and the IRE Award for newspapers of less than 100,000 circulation.

“We were so impressed that Dan Gilbert would use his prize money to support other community journalists,” Scripps Howard Foundation President Mike Philipps said. “We wanted to honor his commitment and perhaps encourage others by matching it with a foundation gift.”

Gilbert, now with The Wall Street Journal, applauded the gift. “Scripps has demonstrated that it is not only committed to recognizing great journalism by reporters at small newspapers, but also to enabling and furthering their work," he said.

Philipps said the gift “happens to align with our interest in rural and small-market journalism. Despite all the changes our industry is undergoing, these local editors and news directors are often the sole source of local news and continue to be an important part of the fabric of the communities they serve.”

“Mike knows the score,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. “As metropolitan media have cut back on rural coverage, it has left a gap that smaller newspapers and broadcast stations need to fill. We help them do that, and we are proud to be custodians of a fund created by such thoughtful givers.”

IRE Executive Director Mark Horvit said, “This generous support from Scripps makes a tremendous difference and will enable the fund to increase its reach immediately. Computer-assisted reporting skills are more important than ever for journalists, and donations like this allow more reporters and editors who cover rural areas to gain tools that provide better in-depth coverage for their communities."

Successful applicants for R-CAR fellowships will be selected by IRE, Gilbert and the Institute, which is part of the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Telecommunications. IRE’s next Computer-Assisted Reporting Boot Camp will be held March 27 through April 1 at the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, Mo. Applications for the fellowship are due by Feb. 18. For more information on the rural fellowship go here; for an application, go here.

Follow R-CAR via “Rural Journalism” on Facebook here. To donate, go to https://giveto.uky.edu/CIS_p/cis.htm.

Republicans propose cuts to at least 70 programs, many of which have rural implications

House Republicans on Wednesday unveiled a broad raft of budget cuts, many that would have rural impact, that they plan to attach to legislation that would keep the government funded after March 4.

"While making these cuts is hard, we have a unique opportunity to right our fiscal ship and begin to reduce our massive deficits and debt," said Rep. Hal Rogers, left, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, whose southeastern Kentucky 5th District is the nation's most rural and one of its poorest. "We have taken a wire brush to the discretionary budget and scoured every program to find real savings that are responsible and justifiable to the American people."

Republicans released 70 of their proposed cuts, but noted those were only a "partial list." The proposal would cut $237 million from President Obama's fiscal 2011 request for Rural Development programs in the Department of Agriculture, $201 million from USDA's Farm Services Agency, $246 million from agriculture research, $46 million from USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, $348 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, $72 million from the Fish and Wildlife Service and $51 million from the National Park Service. Spending on energy programs were among the cuts with energy efficiency and renewable energy programs cut by $889 million, nuclear energy cut by $169 million and fossil energy research cut by $31 million. The proposal would cut $1.6 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency. (Read more)

Rogers said today that he intends to propose more cuts, to reach the $100 billion figure "originally introduced by House Republican leaders last year in their Pledge to America. GOP leaders had later acknowledged that cutting $100 billion was unrealistic," reports Felicia Sonmez of The Washington Post.

TheCrimeReport.org, a service of Criminal Justice Journalists and the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the City University of New York, reports, "Major cuts in federal criminal justice programs could be in store during the current federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30," including "$600 million for the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, $256 million in state and local law enforcement assistance, $74 million for the FBI, $69 million for the White House drug czar's office, and $52 million for law enforcement wireless communications. This is just the start of a congressional process that includes committee and floor debate in both Houses and negotiations with the White House, but it signals potentially major reductions in federal programs. Some newly elected House Republicans want to make even deeper cuts." For the committee's press release, go here.

Deadly bat disease discovered in N.C. caves

The deadly disease decimating bat populations across the Eastern United States has reached North Carolina, wildlife officials said yesterday. White-nose syndrome "has been documented at a closed mine in Avery County and in a cave at Grandfather Mountain State Park," Bruce Henderson of the Charlotte Observer reports. The disease had been found in neighboring Virginia and Tennessee. "This discovery marks the arrival of one of the most devastating threats to bat conservation in our time," Gabrielle Graeter, an N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologist, told Henderson. (NY Department of Environmental Conservation photo of white-nose infected bats in New York by Nancy Heaslip)

"Scientists believe the disease is caused by a newly discovered fungus that often grows into white tufts on the muzzles of infected bats," Henderson writes. "The fungus was first identified in New York state in 2006 and has spread into Canada and south to Tennessee." Sue Cameron, an endangered-species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, noted, "The discovery does not bode well for the future of many species of bats in Western North Carolina." The infected bats were found during FWS-funded investigations at mines and caves across Western North Carolina this winter. (Read more)

Catholic schools in rural Minn. are dwindling

Schools in rural Catholic parishes in Minnesota are going through some changes, reports Katie Humphrey of the Star Tribune, like St. Mathias School in Hampton, a town with fewer than 1,000 residents. It is closing after 90 years in the town. "It's kind of sad," said Irene Nicolai, 91, a cook at St. Mathias School for 22 years. "Our parish can't afford it anymore." (Photo by Richard Sennott, Star Tribune, of The Rev. Stan Mader at St. Mathias School)

Other rural schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis are also closing or merging as the diocese deals with a projected shortage of priests, changing demographics and tighter budgets. Families aren't as big as they once were and the n aging population means fewer children enrolling in school. The changes have affected schools and churches alike, writes Humphrey. "The towns are places where streets are named after longtime priests and church history can be found on menus at supper clubs, where Friday fish fries are as much a tradition as Saturday evening mass. Catholic schools were part of the package," reports Humphrey.

The Catholic schools near bigger cities are still attracting enough students to keep the doors open. At St. Mathias, students will be offered $1,000 scholarships from St. Mathias Church so they can attend a Catholic school elsewhere. (Read more)

U.S. corn surplus hits 16-year low

Surplus corn stocks have hit their lowest point since 1995 amid increased demand from ethanol and other sources, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said yesterday. "That surplus amounts to an 18-day supply of corn ready for immediate use, compared with more than 40 days a year ago," Dan Piller of the Des Moines Register reports. The increased demand has led corn prices to double from their $3.50 price last June, and food makers and restaurants have already begun warning consumers they will see the effect of the soaring prices as a result. (Register graphic)

"For Iowa's economy, the surge in prices for corn and soybeans has added an extra $7 billion in cash above the $13 billion farmers received for their corn and soybeans a year ago," Piller writes. The use of corn for ethanol has risen 33 percent since 2008 and will consume almost 40 percent of the corn produced last year. The Renewable Fuels Association jumped ahead of likely food versus fuel arguments with a statement, saying, "Many will use strong ethanol demand as the rationale to drive the price of corn futures as high as the market will bear. In turn, this will likely cause ill-informed industries and talking heads to pronounce U.S. ethanol production as the root cause of food inflation the world over."

USDA's report also outlined a number of factors facilitating the decline in surplus corn stocks other than ethanol, including a drop in the corn harvest from 13.1 billion bushels in 2009 to 12.4 billion bushels last season. USDA also reported use of corn for seed and food had risen from 5.9 billion bushels last may to 6.2 billion bushels this month and the amount of corn used for feed, despite an overall reduction in U.S. livestock herds, had increased by 60 billion bushels. The U.S. also increased corn exports by 434 million bushels, stimulated largely by crop shortfalls in Russia and Ukraine and expected smaller crops in Argentina, Piller writes. (Read more)

NOAA proposes first federal aquaculture guidelines

Yesterday the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration unveiled the federal government's first policy guidelines for aquaculture. The guidelines pave the way for "farm-raised seafood to be produced in federal waters as long as the operations do not threaten wild fish stocks or saltwater ecosystems," Cornelia Dean of The New York Times reports. In 2009, farmed fish and shellfish passed wild-caught stocks as the major source of seafood worldwide, Dean writes. NOAA estimates that the U.S. imports 84 percent of the seafood consumed in the country with half of that produced through aquaculture. Public comment on the guidelines is open until April 11.

"While shellfish aquaculture is common in state waters, which typically extend to three miles offshore, most fin fish farmed in the United States are freshwater plant-eating fish like tilapia," Dean writes. "There has been little farming of saltwater fin fish." NOAA allowed an aquaculture plan for the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to proceed in 2009 because the agency said in the absence of a federal policy they had no grounds to block the gulf plan. NOAA officials told Dean that plan would be re-evaluated in light of the new guidelines. The guidelines call for more research on "alternate feeds" and call for a ban on stocking fish farms with non-native fish. (Read more)

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

EPA announces extensive study of 'fracking'

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a draft plan on Tuesday to examine every "aspect of hydraulic fracturing, from water withdrawals to waste disposal," reports Nicholas Kusnetz for ProPublica. "If the study goes forward as planned, it would be the most comprehensive investigation of whether the drilling technique risks polluting drinking water near oil and gas wells across the nation," writes Kusnetz.

Energy in Depth, an oil and gas industry group, was not enthusiastic about the plan. "Our guys are and will continue to be supportive of a study approach that’s based on the science, true to its original intent and scope," a statement from the group read. "But at first blush, this document doesn’t appear to definitively say whether it’s an approach EPA will ultimately take." In the proposal, the EPA says that 603 rigs were drilling horizontal wells in June 2010, more than twice as many as were operating a year earlier. As drilling for gas increases, public concerns also increase. The EPA estimates that fracking uses 70 to 140 billion gallons of water annually, or about the same amount used by one or two cities of 2.5 million people.

The public can comment on the study after March 7-8, after the EPA's science advisory board reviews the draft plan. The full report is expected in 2014. (Read more)

President to visit Michigan town to tout wireless

President Barack Obama goes rural tomorrow with a speech in Marquette, Mich., a town of 21,000 on the state's Upper Peninsula, and one of U.S. News and World Report's 10 best Winter Wonderlands for Retirement. The high on Thursday is expected to be 13 degrees, with a forecast for snow, then more snow. (Mapquest image; click for a larger version.)

Sam Eggleston of The Detroit News reports that Marquette Mayor John Kivela is coming back from the balmy temperatures in Florida. "I'm flying back … so I can be a part of this," said Kivela from the 13th hole of a golf course in Bradenton, which is enjoying 70-degree weather.

One of the local elementary schools, Sandy Knoll, is holding a "Red, White and Blue Day" and encouraging students to wear clothing in that color scheme in honor of the occasion. Marquette's 44-person police department is working with the Secret Service, White House staff, the Marquette County Sheriff's Office and the Michigan State Police to coordinate the motorcade and security. (Read more)

Marquette was chosen because Northern Michigan University has a wireless network that is a model the Obama administration wants to replicate in rural areas. David Shepardson and Nathan Hurst of the Detroit News Washington Bureau report that Marquette is a good pick also because businesses there are using the newly available wireless networks to expand. "There are businesses in Marquette . . . where they have been able to build their companies because they're selling their goods across the United States or overseas," White House Deputy Communications Director Jen Psaki said. "The programs that are going on in Marquette are models. We're pretty excited about it."

In Obama's State of the Union address, he called for a National Wireless Initiative to extend wireless coverage to 98 percent of the U.S. population. (Read more)

EPA steps up enforcement of biotech restrictions

The Environmental Protection Agency has begun a crackdown on bitoech corn farmers in an attempt to ensure insect-resistant varieties of the crop remain effective. This year EPA "is requiring Pioneer Hi-Bred and other seed companies to contract with outside firms to inspect farmers who may be out of compliance," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. "Farmers caught violating the rules at least two years out of five will be barred from buying seed from the same company the next season." In 2010 the companies will begin adding special tags to seed bags to explain the planting restrictions.

The restrictions limit where and how much seed the farmers can plant, and "one of the rules requires farmers in the Midwest to plant at least 20 percent of their corn to varieties that don't contain a biotech toxin, known as Bt, that kills the targeted insect larvae," Brasher writes. The rule prevents insects from becoming resistant to the toxin. "Rules also stipulate how far the toxin-free field has to be from the insect-resistant fields," Brasher writes.

According to a required annual report, a third or more farmers violated at least one restriction last year. "The long-term value of that technology far exceeds any short-term gain that might be derived by circumventing those guidelines," said Julius Schaaf, a farmer at Randolph who is a long-time leader in industry groups. Schaaf noted industry and grower groups have worked hard to increase awareness of the restrictions. "Pioneer has given a training DVD to its sales force this year in hopes of improving farmer compliance," Brasher writes. (Read more)

Agriculture competition issues must be addressed to ensure sustainability

Sustainability has been a buzzword in food and agriculture for several years. But the push for sustainability can come at the expense of other agriculture issues, Richard Oswald writes for the Daily Yonder. Oswald pointed to Mark Bittman’s first Food Manifesto column in The New York Times as one such example. "This is what the new Times food columnist seems to miss: the connection between who controls markets and what happens on the farm and at the retail store," Oswald writes. "If you miss the connection between the lack of competition in agriculture and the nature of food, then you’ve overlooked the works."

Oswald notes that farm subsidies rose as the livestock industry was controlled by "ever-larger integrators" and opaque markets. "Stratospheric grain prices and falling dollars may converge in unexpected changes," Oswald writes. "The new food industrialists (whom Bittman doesn’t mention in his column) will have to cut back livestock production, import more food at higher cost from hungry nations, or do more work for less money." The other problem with Bittman's call for sustainability is the ongoing debate over what the definition of sustainability should be, Oswald writes.

"If people want truly sustainable food, the first order is to respect both the health of consumers and the realities of food production without watering down rules on safety or competition," Oswald writes. In order for those protections to be ensured, "real people will have to barricade the doors of the conference hall when final rules are written. Otherwise, big business will be there in force, pressing their own agenda," Oswald writes. He concludes, "The battle is far from won. Bureaucrats on their way up the executive escalator could end up writing sustainable rules for food that looks, tastes, and is exactly like the stuff we’ve been eating for decades. There's a world of difference between changing labels and changing food." (Read more)

Use of biotech seeds on wildlife refuges questioned

Farming is a common strategy to restore natural habitats, but some organic farming advocates are worried about using genetically engineered crops there. "Prompted by a lawsuit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the next few months is conducting an environmental review of the use of genetically modified crops on wildlife refuge lands, including those in Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa," Clay Masters of Harvest Public Media reports. FWS is inviting public comment on draft Environmental Assessments through Feb. 14 for the Midwest Region and through March 4 for the Mountain-Prairie Region.

"When we turn it into farming, the farmer is out there controlling the weeds on our behalf, he’s doing it for his crop, but by the end of three years most of that weed seed in the ground is gone and then we come back and seed it back with native grasses," said Gene Mack, project leader for the Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District. About 60 to 70 percent of the land farmed in the Rainwater district is seeded with genetically modified "Roundup Ready" seeds, Masters writes. Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center in Boulder, Colo., said resistant weed species may grow on those lands due to overuse of genetically modified seeds. (Read more)

Flip sides of 45s had a civil rights message

A researcher at Baylor University has discovered that many "B" sides of old 45s had gospel songs that deal with civil rights. Robert Darden, an associate professor of journalism at Baylor and a former gospel editor for "Billboard" magazine, is working to collect and preserve as many early recordings of gospel music as possible. "The reason we haven't realized this before is that when we've known about a song, it is almost always the hit or ‘A’ side," Darden said in information released from Baylor. (Photo, "O Mary, Don't you Weep," 1954, Baylor University. Click to listen to excerpt)

Darden began the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project because he was concerned that early gospel by lesser known artists might be lost. Since 2005,  Darden has gathered for the collection more than 2,000 loaned or donated LPs, 78s, 45s and tapes. The recent discovery "tells us that the gospel community was much more involved in the civil rights movement than we previously thought," said Darden. (Read more)

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Rural California court has trouble finding certified language interpreters for minority population

In rural Humboldt County, Calif., a shortage of court-certified interpreters is slowing justice and costing the courts. Thadeus Greenson of The Times-Standard reports that the county courts are having to look abroad to find interpreters. Interpreting for the court differs from translating because interpreters must speak the translations and be very accurate on the spot. In Humboldt County, the court system spent about $92,000 of its $6.8 million budget last year on interpreter expenses, and that doesn't include costs like wasted staff time and empty courtrooms when an interpreter can't show up, or other complications cause a hearing to be canceled.

The expenses, however, are a small price to pay to ensure everyone gets their constitutional right to a fair trial, Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos told Greenson. "What we want to do is make sure anyone who comes through our legal system is given fundamental rights, and that is to know what they are accused of, to know their rights as an accused person and to have an opportunity to meaningfully and effectively challenge the state's evidence."

Spanish-speaking court-certified interpreters are in greatest demand, but the courts also need more exotic language-speakers from time to time. About 8 about of Humboldt County residents speak a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census. Interpreting for the courts is not an easy job to get. To become court certified, a potential interpreter must pass both a written and an oral exam in the language. Of the hundreds who take the tests annually, about 2 percent pass both. (Read more)

'Justified,' series about a rural marshal, returns

The second season of the FX television series, "Justified," is part of the cool-to-be-rural vibe these days. The show is about Raylan Givens, a fictional U.S. marshal from rural Harlan County, Kentucky, who is "sure-footed, fearless and righteous," according to Jen Chaney in the The Washington Post. Chaney also says Givens has a "quick draw, a sexy drawl and an affection for ten-gallon hats." The actor who plays Givens, Timothy Olyphant, from Pasadena, Calif., said, "What's fun about the character ... is the ease and the charm and the sort of old-fashionedness of the guy. And yet in the same breath, the guy was able to just smack somebody in the face, or hit him with the back of a rifle, for just being rude." (Read more) (FX photo: Walter Goggins, left, as Boyd Crowder, and Olyphant as Givens)

Rob Lowman, writing for the Los Angeles Daily News, points out that "while Raylan may have an affinity for looking like a Western hero, his problems are very much today, with meth lab cookers and neo-Nazis among the sleazebags he has to deal with." The series is based on an Elmore Leonard character created for "Fire in the Hole." Writer-producer Graham Yost said one of the reasons FX was interested in the show was that it had a "degree of a frontier mentality. ... When you get back off the interstate into the hills of Kentucky, it's not lawless, but there's some; there's a lot of crime and people just looking the other way," says Yost. "It's tribal. ... You know, in the Malcolm Gladwell book (Outliers), he traces it back to the Scots-Irish clans in the Highland country, and that still exists there. So you've got a lawman coming into town, there's something pretty cool about that, and that fits the old archetype of the Westerns." (Read more)

In the real Harlan County, the reviews are mixed. Casey Cain of Cumberland told Nola Sizemore of the Harlan Daily Enterprise, that she really enjoyed season one of the  series. "I watched it faithfully every week," said Cain. "I’m very much looking forward to season two." Johnny Hinkle of Dayhoit said he liked it because it was set in Harlan County. "They show old-timey places — how it used to be in the past ... It brings back memories of how times used to be. It’s a good show and I plan to continue watching it."

But Kerry Martin of Baxte said he felt the series focuses too much on violence and negative aspects. "I think anybody who lives in Harlan knows that that’s not the way things are in Harlan," said Martin. "The setting is not even Harlan. In the beginning, they show a few pictures of Harlan, but once you get into the show, it’s not Harlan. It’s just not the way it is here." (Read more)

Farmers, agents and adjusters caught cheating on federal crop insurance

P.J. Hufstutter of the Los Angeles Times reports on a wave of insurance scams by "farmers who fraudulently claim that weather or insects destroyed their crops to cash in on a government-backed insurance program. Others sell their harvests in secret and then file claims for losses, collecting twice for the same crop."

The farmers, assisted by insurance agents and claims adjusters, "are using the program to bilk insurance firms and the U.S. government out of millions of dollars a year, according to prosecutors, industry officials and high-tech experts who review questionable claims for the U.S. Department of Agriculture," writes Hufstutter. To help farmers recover from the Depression, the federal government created Federal Crop Insurance Corp., which by decades later, the government was subsidizing farmer premiums to encourage participation.

In 2009, taxpayers paid nearly $4 billion to the 16 insurers involved in the federal insurance program, according to the USDA's Risk Management Agency, which administers the program. Of that, $1.5 billion was paid in commissions to an estimated 15,000 insurance agents. USDA said it retained $1.4 billion, some of which came from farmers' premiums. Meanwhile, taxpayers paid $1.7 billion to subsidize farmers' premiums. The insurance industry disputes the figures. Federal budget problems have called into question farm subsidies and it's likely this program will be scrutinized as well. (Read more)

Nominate someone in your community who champions open government

As part of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information, some "regular citizens" will be honored as local heroes, announced the American Society of News Editors  "As a society, we often associate the word ‘hero’ with movie stars and athletes," said Tim Franklin, co-chair of the ASNE Freedom of Information Committee. Franklin is the Louis A. Weil Jr. Endowed Chair and Director of the National Sports Journalism Center at the Indiana University School of Journalism in Bloomington. "But in a self-governing democracy like ours, it takes the commitment and passion of average citizens doing extraordinary things to make government more open and more accountable."

The winner of the Local Heroes contest will receive an expenses-paid trip in April to San Diego to be honored by the nation’s newsroom leaders at the 2011 ASNE convention. Second- and third-place winners will receive $500 and $250 prizes, respectively, according to the Sunshine Week Web site. The nominations for the award are due Feb. 18. To nominate someone, click here.

Veterans move from front lines to farms

Agriculture is turning to veterans in hopes of replacing the aging population of U.S. farmers. In Valley Center, Calif., Colin Archipley, a decorated Marine infantry sergeant turned organic farmer, has developed a program with his wife to teach veterans and active military personnel the basics of farming in hopes they might pursue the career following their service time, Patricia Leigh Brown of The New York Times reports. "Along with 'Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots,' a new program for veterans at the University of Nebraska’s College of Technical Agriculture, and farming fellowships for wounded soldiers, the six-week course offered here is part of a nascent 'veteran-centric' farming movement," Brown writes.

"The military is not for the faint of heart, and farming isn’t either," said Michael O’Gorman, an organic farmer who founded the nonprofit Farmer-Veteran Coalition, which supports sustainable-agriculture training. "There are eight times as many farmers over age 65 as under. There is a tremendous need for young farmers, and a big wave of young people inspired to go into the service who are coming home." Military personnel are an ideal target for farming as about 45 percent of the military comes from rural communities, which account for one-sixth of the country's total population, The Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire reports. (NYT photo by Sandy Huffaker: Sgt. Matt Holzmann and Stephanie De Alba laying irrigation piping at Archipley's farm)

"In the military, grunts are the guys who get dirty, do the work and are generally underappreciated," Archipley told Brown. "I think farmers are the same." The syllabus for Archipley's program, provided by nearby Camp Pendleton's transition assistance program, "includes hands-on planting and irrigating, lectures about 'high-value niche markets' and production of a business plan that is assessed by food professionals and business professors," Brown writes. The course costs $4,500 and is administered through MiraCosta College, though Camp Pendleton offers assistance for active duty Marines. "It allows them to be physically active, be part of a unit," Archipley said of the purpose farming gives veterans. "It gives them a mission statement — a responsibility to the consumer eating their food." (Read more)

Science-minded citizenry gets smaller as science fair participation declines

Despite recent publicity from the Obama administration, participation among high school students in science fairs across the country appears to be declining. Obama hosted a science fair at the White House last fall and during his state of the union speech he said that America should celebrate its science fair winners like Sunday’s Super Bowl champions, Amy Harmon of The New York Times reports. Some educators say the cause for the decline may be the Education Department's own policy emphasizing "math and reading scores at the expense of the kind of creative, independent exploration that science fair projects require," Harmon writes. (Photo: Megan Perkins, winner of Best in Fair at the Kentucky Science and Engineering Fair)

"To say that we need engineers and ‘this is our Sputnik moment’ is meaningless if we have no time to teach students how to do science," Dean Gilbert, the president of the Los Angeles County Science Fair, told Harmon. Science fairs in many schools rely on teachers for extra work outside of class time. While organizing the Northeastern Minnesota Regional Science Fair, Cynthia Welsh, a science teacher at Cloquet High School near Duluth, Minn., reports working over 500 unpaid hours since September. Many middle schools still require participation in science fairs, but high school participation is often limited to a school's best students, who are entered in elite science competitions that require years of work and lengthy research papers, Harmon writes.

"What has been lost, proponents of local science fairs say, is the potential to expose a much broader swath of American teenagers to the scientific process: to test an idea, evaluate evidence, ask a question about how the world works — and perhaps discover how difficult it can be to find an answer," Harmon writes. Michele Glidden, a director at Society for Science & the Public, a nonprofit group that administers 350 regional fairs, notes, "Science fairs develop skills that reach down to everybody’s lives, whether you want to be a scientist or not. The point is to breed science-minded citizens." (Read more)

Monday, February 07, 2011

FCC plans to use the USF for rural broadband

In a Tuesday meeting, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski is expected to outline the agency's plan to use the Universal Service Fund to subsidize broadband deployment in rural areas. The USF currently "subsidizes phone lines in rural areas and for low-income Americans" and "also pays for discounted Internet connections for schools and libraries," Amy Schatz of The Wall Street Journal reports. "While the world has changed around it, USF — in too many ways — has stood still, and even moved backwards," Genachowski is expected to say in a speech Monday, according to an advance copy provided by FCC staff to the WSJ.

We reported in January that the plan to use USF for broadband subsidies has been met with some resistance from rural telecommunication companies but some of those fears have been overstated. "There has been broad bipartisan support at the FCC and in Congress about the need to change the fund, but disagreements persist over how to do it," Schatz writes. "Periodic efforts to revamp the program, which was established in the mid-1990s, have failed as phone companies that risked losing funding fought the cuts." While not providing any details, FCC officials have suggested that changes in the USF formula need to be made, but the agency isn't expected to take up that issue until later this year, Schatz reports. (Read more)

If cheese made from raw milk is outlawed, only outlaws will have raw milk cheese

Federal regulators are considering new rules for cheese made with unpasteurized milk, but some cheesemakers and food enthusiasts worry the rules will hurt the cheese's taste while not markedly improving safety. "The new proposals, which are expected in the next several months, come after a very tough year for this country’s fast-growing gourmet cheese industry, marked by recalls and two multistate E. coli outbreaks that sickened nearly 50 people," William Neuman of The New York Times reports. The federal rule at the center of the debate would require cheese made from raw milk to be aged for 60 days before it is deemed safe to eat. (Photo by Los Angeles Times of raw milk cheese in process)

"Scientists have found, however, that 60 days of aging is an overly simplistic guideline, in part because there are so many types of cheese and different ones may require different safeguards," Neuman writes. The Food and Drug Administration began its review of the rule in 2009, and agency officials told Neuman the review was complete but was waiting approval before release. "The FDA has not tipped its hand, but some in the industry fear that raw milk cheese could be banned altogether or that some types of cheese deemed to pose a higher safety risk could no longer be made with raw milk," Neuman writes.

Others fear the waiting period may be extended to 90 days, which could "make it difficult or impossible for cheesemakers to continue using raw milk for some popular cheese styles, like blue cheese or taleggio-type cheeses, that may not lend themselves to such lengthy aging," Neuman writes. Liz Thorpe, a vice president of Murray’s Cheese, a Manhattan retailer where about half the cheese is made with raw milk, told Neuman, "A very important and thriving section of the American agricultural scene is in danger of being compromised or put out of business if the 60-day minimum were to be raised or if raw milk cheeses were to be entirely outlawed." (Read more)

In late January, U.S. marshals and Food and Drug Administration agents "busted outlaws they describe as pale-skinned and somewhat smelly, with mug shots worthy of Bon Appetit: 97 wedges of raw-milk Gouda cheese," writes P.J. Huffstutter for the Los Angeles Times. More than 80,000 pounds of cheese were seized from Bravo Farms after cheese from the farm was connected to 38 people becoming ill. Of 147 samples taken from Bravo Farms cheese, one tested positive for E. coli and 32 tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, a pathogen that can be fatal to children and the elderly, according to federal court documents and an FDA inspection report. Bravo is now using pasteurized milk. The FDA began testing for listeria at small farms making artisan cheeses because the federal government has a zero-tolerance policy in ready-to-eat products, according to Huffstutter.  (Read more)

Fracking debate moves into Maryland and Virginia

Most of the Marcellus Shale hydraulic fracturing controversy has been focused on Pennsylvania and New York, but now similar arguments are popping up in Maryland and Virginia. Land speculators arrived in Garrett County, Md., in 2008 to begin exploration of Marcellus Shale natural gas reserves in the region. Just like that, the 29,000-person county, "joined Rockingham County, Va., as local Washington-area governments fully engaged in the nation's debate over hydraulic drilling for natural gas and its risk of contaminating drinking water," Darryl Fears of The Washington Post reports.

At least one environmental group says the drilling technique may have negative impacts on the drinking water for Washington, D.C. "It's an issue for the Chesapeake Bay that impacts Washington, D.C.," Jessie Thomas-Blate, who monitors endangered rivers for American Rivers. "If you contaminate people's water, you can't go back." Carlton Carroll, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute maintains "fracking" is "a tried-and-true technology that promises thousands of new jobs and vast and indispensable supplies of clean-burning energy," but American Rivers cautions the "very briny wastewater" created by the process can leak into drinking water.

Last year, Maryland refused to issue drilling permits to two companies in Garrett County until studies determine that drinking water will not be harmed. County officials say that decision caused companies to cancel land leases worth millions of dollars to area farmers, Fears writes. Meanwhile, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy looked past concerns from the Rockingham County commissioner in approving one oil and gas company to drill a single exploratory well. Maryland Democratic state delegate Heather Mizeur is preparing legislation to ban fracking until the safety of the process is confirmed. "We expect robust support," she said. "The fuel source isn't bad, we're just concerned about the extraction method." (Read more)

Small Arkansas town suspects gas drilling is source of lots of little earthquakes

The earthquakes in Guy, Ark., population 563, have become so common that only about a dozen people turned out to a recent meeting on the issue, Campbell Robertson of The New York Times reports. "I think people are getting comfortable,” said Dirk DeTurck, who organized the meeting and sent out 600 fliers and made around 100 phone calls in hopes of attracting a larger crowd. "I mean, they have in California. They’ve become real comfortable with the shaking." (Map by Mapquest)

"Since the early fall, there have been thousands, none of them very large — a fraction have been felt, and the only documented damage is a cracked window in the snack bar at Woolly Hollow State Park," Robertson writes. "But in their sheer numbers, they have been relentless, creating a phenomenon that has come to be called the Guy earthquake swarm." Some locals say they have felt dozens of quakes, while others report just hearing them. "They do, however, have similar suspicions about the cause," Robertson writes, noting "Several years ago, the gas companies arrived, part of a sort of rush in Arkansas to drill for gas in a geological formation called the Fayetteville shale."

"They took advantage of people’s ignorance," said Greg Hooten, the superintendent of the local water utility, who now worries about the effect of the drilling on the groundwater. However, the current Guy earthquake storm isn't the first in the area. "Such swarms have happened around here twice in the past three decades, long before the gas companies came," Robertson writes. Despite the previous quakes "researchers with the Arkansas Geological Survey say that while there is no discernible link between earthquakes and gas production, there is 'strong temporal and spatial' evidence for a relationship between these quakes and the injection wells," Robertson reports. (Read more)

Democratic-to-Republican trend in the South continues to work its way down to the local level

Exactly two months ago, we noted the growing trend of local officials in the South changing their party afifliation from Democratic to Republican. Today we link to two more stories on the trend, one a regional piece about a state legislature, the other a national story that focuses on local officials.

Gina Smith of The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., reports that only 19 of the 124 members of the South Carolina House are white Democrats, and "many lawmakers predict" there will be fewer than 10 after this year's redistricting. African American Democrats have 28 House seats. "With Republican majorities drawing new S.C. House and Senate districts this spring, the expectation is some rural House districts, longtime strongholds for white Democrats, will be erased," because rural South Carolina is losing population.

Phil Noble, chairman of the S.C. New Democrats, reminded Smith that in places with partisan elections, “Democrats still hold a majority of county council seats. Think of all the Democratic mayors -- Beaufort, Charleston, Georgetown, Florence, Sumter, Rock Hill, Gaffney, Clemson, Columbia.” (Read more)

Richard Fausset of the Los Angeles Times leads his story with a more unusual example, a black Democrat who became a Republican: "For Democrats, Ashley Bell was the kind of comer that a party builds a future on: A young African American lawyer, he served as president of the College Democrats of America, advised presidential candidate John Edwards and spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. But after his party's midterm beat-down in November, Bell, a commissioner in northern Georgia's Hall County, jumped ship."

Bell, 30, told Fausset he had serious issues with President Obama's health-care reform. "Bell's defection is one of dozens by state and local Democratic officials in the Deep South in recent months that underscore Republicans' continued consolidation of power in the region — a process that started with presidential politics but increasingly affects government down to the level of dogcatcher."

David Avella, president of GOPAC, a Republican group that supports state and local candidates, told Fausset that Democrats' decline at the local level has been spurred by the Internet and 24-hour cable news, which have allowed Republicans to "more easily connect local politics with what's happening nationally." (Read more)

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Rural places in Ky., slave state that didn't secede but later joined the losers, remember Civil War

Exactly 150 years ago right now, the United States of America were (the prevailing verb then) becoming less united. The Deep South states had formed the Confederate States of America, and the Civil War was coming. Observances of the war's sesquicentennial have already begun, and are especially thought-provoking during Black History Month in Kentucky, a slave state that was the birth place of both wartime presidents and remained in the Union but aligned itself with the defeated South after the war.

In the last two days in Western Kentucky, which was the state's most Confederate-sympathetic area, local observances in rural places have helped bridge a racial divide that still exists in some ways.

Yesterday, in Morganfield, an expert on Frederick Douglass, local native Michael Crutcher Sr., portrayed the early civil-rights leader meeting with Abraham Lincoln, played by Jim Sayre. Lincoln hosted Douglass at the White House in 1863, after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Douglass is not known to have visited Morganfield, but Lincoln did in 1840, as a presidential elector in nearby Illinois for Kentuckian Henry Clay. "Crutcher remarked at the close of his discussion with Sayre's Lincoln that the friendship between the two men was at that time quite politically incorrect," reports Victoria Grabner of The Gleaner in Henderson. (Gleaner photo by Mike Lawrence) The observance was part of the bicentennial of Union County, which was named in 1811 after "the united desire of its residents to form a new county," according to Kentucky Place Names by Robert Rennick.

At the Fairview historic site that is the birthplace of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, "Two female African American preachers would not contain their joy Friday when a small group gathered for a black history lesson" from The Female Re-Enactors of Distinction, a group affiliated with the Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C., reports Jennifer P. Brown of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville. FREED members dress in period costumes and use period speech to portray African Americans from the era. (Read more, subscription required)