Friday, August 10, 2012

As USPS's cutbacks proceed, 4,100 postmasters, mostly rural, retire -- and get written up

This week the U.S. Postal Service said that, thanks to a $20,000 incentive, nearly 3,800 postmasters had taken early retirement as of July 31, and about 300 will be retiring by the end of September, bringing the total to 4,100. Save The Post Office has compiled dozens of news articles from small newspapers that chronicled the lives and importance of those people on the communities they served. The stories show just how much the postmaster is valued in a small town and how sorry people are to bid farewell. "They provide a glimpse, into a world that’s being stamped out by POStPlan," Save the Post Office says, providing a sweet slide show of some of the departing postmasters and links (including a few that don't work) to the stories.

Here's our favorite lede of the stories we were able to read, by John Christensen of the Chronicle-Express in Penn Yan, N.Y.: "Despite the widely held belief by his coworkers that he took his oath of office from Benjamin Franklin himself, and that he would never retire, Penn Yan Postmaster Leigh MacKerchar is about to do just that after a mere 30 years braving the rain hail and sleet, and the heat of the day and dark of night. Known as one of the friendliest faces in public service, he will be sincerely missed by all who have benefited from his commitment to that service and the satisfaction of his postal customers." (Read more) Most of the stories are from newspapers, but here is one from KOLN-TV in Lincoln, Neb., which covered a musical sendoff by the Riverdale Rounders, above, for Riverdale postmaster John Schafer.

In a tribute to them all, Save The Post Office writes, "Nearly 6,000 POStPlan post offices are losing their postmasters — 1,800 to retirement and 3,900 to transfers. These post offices will not be welcoming a new full-time postmaster ever again. Instead, a postmaster relief or a clerk will be filling in until the Postal Service conducts a survey and holds a community meeting and decides the fate of the post office. Those that aren't closed will have their hours reduced, and the postmaster position will be filled by a part-time worker. All the retirements and transfers have to be causing confusion and consternation for customers and postal workers. The average length of service for the 50 retiring postmasters in those news articles was 32 years. Those 4,100 retirements thus represent over 130,000 years of experience. That’s a lot of institutional knowledge to disappear overnight." (Read more)

In thirsty times, natural-gas industry's use of water for hydraulic fracturing is getting new scrutiny

The impact of the water-hungry technique of horizontal hydraulic fracturing is increasingly coming into question, particularly in drilling hotbeds stricken by the crop-shriveling drought now covering close to two-thirds of the 48 contiguous states. In much of the West, reports Jim Malewitz of the Stateline, the news agency of The Pew Center for the States, water supplies have long been dwindling due to population expansion and climate change. This year’s drought, coupled with an uptick in drilling, is what Jason Bane, of the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates, calls a perfect storm. The drought “is changing the way people are looking at things,” says Bane, whose group is advocating for more study of fracking’s effect on available water. (Associated Press photo)

How much fracking impacts the availability of water depends on geography — "and on how you define impact," Malewitz writes. "So far, there has been little comprehensive research" on the topic.  "Depending on the depth of the drilling, it can take anywhere from 2 to 12 million gallons of water to frack one well. Those numbers may appear staggering to laymen," but drilling companies prefer to compare them to those of the heaviest users. Chesapeake Energy, the nation’s second largest producer of natural gas, has circulated a fact sheet that states that the company’s water use amounts to just a fraction of agriculture's 82 percent of water use or 8 percent for public water supplies.

"Environmental groups frame the issue differently," Malewitz notes. Western Resource Advocates estimated this year that drilling companies "were consuming enough water to meet the needs of between 66,400 and 118,400 households. The industry is researching ways to reduce water use and improve treatment and recycling, but with current technology, returning water to its natural cycle remains a daunting, costly task." See a related story from CNN/Money here.

Despite lower crop forecasts, Vilsack insists U.S. will remain leader in food aid and food exports

UPDATE: In his weekly address, President Obama says his administration’s has an "all-hands-on-deck" approach to the drought, and lists steps it has taken, including opening more federal land for haying and grazing; giving farmers, ranchers, and small businesses access to low-interest emergency loans; and providing assistance to get more water to livestock and restore land affected by the drought. The audio and video of the address will be available at at 6 a.m. ET, Saturday, August 11.
The government slashed its expectations for U.S. corn and soybean production for the second consecutive month Friday, predicting what could be the lowest average corn yield in more than 15 years as the worst drought in decades grips major farm states. The Associated Press reports that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack insisted that U.S. farmers and ranchers will remain resilient and the country will continue to meet demand as the global leader in farm exports and food aid. For a more thorough reading of the USDA Drought Monitor, go here.

Editor: Exciting times in agriculture will need 'new blood and passion' to build rural communities

With populations moving out of rural areas, with some farmers finding it hard to press on against drought, with a lot of other obstacles we name daily, here comes Susan Crowell, editor of the Eastern Corn Belt's Farm and Dairy, to do a bit of cheerleading under the hot August sun. It's just so refreshing, we include a bit of it here, to wrap up the week.

"There’s farm material in carpets, plywood, concrete sealer, the foam in automobiles, industrial coatings, adhesives, lubricants, and, of course, fuel," Crowell writes. "Last year, PepsiCo unveiled a new bottle that was made entirely of plant material (switchgrass, pine bark and corn husks, among other things). In Missouri, they’re even breaking down hog manure into a tarry product that can either be burned to generate electricity, or used as an asphalt binder. That’s right, the road to agriculture’s future is paved with hog manure. . . Not only do we need these new products and new opportunities, but we need that new blood and passion to continue to build our rural communities."

Crowell then quotes Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack saying recently, "The greatness of this country, the soul of this country, lives in rural America." Crowell was clearly moved by that. "This year may be a difficult year for many farmers, but these are exciting times in agriculture. I wish I was 21 again." (Read more)

Ho no: The summer water Scrooge that is hitting Christmas tree crop now will be felt in the future

It makes no difference where you live, this story is a tough one to bear: An NBC affiliate in Iowa is reporting that this year's drought could already have some negative impact on Christmas trees in eight years or so, and a long while on those who grow them. "We started planting trees on our farm in 1980 and fought a couple of bad years but this is by far the worse we've seen," Bob Moulds, who owns Wapsie Pines Tree Farm in Fairbank, Iowa, told KWWL of Waterloo. (KWWL photo)

Moulds said the most popular Christmas tree, a fir, has been hit the hardest by the heat and drought. Crop losses have been significant. "Most of our losses are in this year's planting. And in this particular area over 50 percent. And before it's over I think almost all of them will be gone," Moulds saidThe grower has already taken steps for the shortage of trees his farm will see in the future, ordering extra seedlings to "make up the difference because in about eight years from now we'll probably have a little gap in the number of trees we have available." He said some fir growers in Wisconsin and Michigan have also lost everything they've planted. (Read more)

Study: Injection of fracking's waste near faultlines, not drilling, is responsible for quakes

A new study has found that deep injection of oil and gas wastewater appears to be causing more earthquakes than previously thought. Cliff Frohlich, a senior research scientist at the University of Texas' Institute for Geophysics, said that his findings should be taken seriously by drillers especially as the practice spreads to more densely populated areas. His work, reports Mike Soraghan of EnergyWire, was done around the Barnett Shale around Dallas to measure small earthquakes taking place near injection wells. His peer-reviewed study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Soraghan explains that "Frohlich did not find any suggestion that the earthquakes were caused by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. But fracturing creates millions of gallons of briny, toxic wastewater that drillers must eventually dispose of, usually by injecting it into the type of injection wells Frohlich was studying. That suggests, he said, that earthquakes occur only if there is a fault nearby that is susceptible to being triggered by high volumes of fluid." This suggested to Frolich that drillers could stop the earthquakes by choosing an alternate site to dispose of their wastewater. (Read more)

Thursday, August 09, 2012

UMWA plans no endorsement in presidential race

The United Mine Workers of America does not plan to endorse either presidential candidate in the upcoming election, something that has not happened in memory, Amy Harder of the National Journal reports.

The vice president of the UMWA's International Executive Board, Mike Caputo, right, told Harder that he wanted the organization to stay out of the fray. "I don't think quite frankly that coalfield folks are crazy about either candidate," he said. Obama and presumptive Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, are circulating ads and making stops in swing states with coal mines, such as Ohio and Virginia, to convince residents that they support the industry, Harder writes. Caputo said it's "unusual" for the UMWA to pass on presidential candidate endorsement. The organization hasn't officially completed its endorsement selection decisions, but expects to by mid-September; it had endorsed Obama by May in 2008.

"Politically, the Environmental Protection Agency is the culprit for the coal industry's woes," Harder writes, and this has influenced UMWA member's decisions on endorsement. Caputo said new mercury emission regulations were first introduced under George H.W. Bush, but "whoever is in charge is going to get blamed." Labor unions traditionally side with Democratic candidates, but the UMWA "has been ranting more about Obama for much of 2012," Harder writes, perhaps peaking with UMWA President Cecil Roberts' description of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's actions on regulation as terroristic. (Read more)

Large-scale agriculture is using more groundwater than nature can replenish

Humans in large agricultural regions are over-exploiting underground water, depleting it faster than nature can replenish it, a new study of international aquifer use concludes.

Scientists mapped the "groundwater footprint" of 15 major agricultural regions, Monte Morin of the Los Angeles Times reports. The study, published in the journal Nature, concluded that the global groundwater footprint of agricultural regions was 3.5 times higher than the size of all aquifers combined. (Click on map for larger version)
Lead author and McGill University professor Tom Gleeson said the heavy consumption was "driven by a handful of areas," Morin reports, including the High Plains of the U.S. California's Central Valley had a groundwater footprint larger than its aquifer, but it was almost a third smaller than in the High Plains. About 80 percent of the world's aquifers had a footprint smaller than their size, but the major agricultural regions contributed to a global deficit, Morin reports.

Founder of Christian Appalachian Project has died

Monsignor Ralph Beiting, the Roman Catholic priest who founded the Christian Appalachian Project and served the people of Eastern Kentucky since World War II, has died. He was 89.

Beiting was introduced to Appalachia when he traveled to the region on a mission trip in 1946. He had lived through the Great Depression and was familiar with living in poverty, but in Appalachia, he said during an interview with Story Corps, he had found "that there was another America ... the America of Appalachia." He said the poverty there at the time was the worst he had ever witnessed.

Charles Compton of WEKU, the public station at Eastern Kentucky University, reports that Beiting was called in 1950 to start a Catholic church in Berea, just outside the Appalachian coalfield, and though his reception was not warm, he continued to "spread the faith and raise money" to build more churches throughout Eastern Kentucky. In the 1950s, Beiting launched a summer camp, Cliffview Lodge, that offered recreation and fellowship to boys from poor families. In 1964, the camp became the Christian Appalachian Project, which Beiting declared would "be a group that would roll up our sleeves and get the job done." It expanded its work to a variety of projects to help the Appalachian poor.

Beiting served as pastor of parishes in the Berea region until 1981, when he transferred to Eastern Kentucky, where he founded and/or constructed 20 churches. He served as CAP's president until 1986 and was chairman until 1999. Here are links to three videos of Beiting and Father Terry Hoppenjans talking about their work.

New EPA rules for Four Corners power plant could reduce air pollution at national parks

The Environmental Protection Agency issued its final rule aimed at reducing emissions at the largest single source of haze-causing pollution in the U.S., the Four Corners Power Plant in northwestern New Mexico. The agency says plant operators can either reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by upgrading five generators at the plant or permanently shut down three and install pollution controls on the two others.

Either move would cut emissions that can limit visibility at several Western national parks by 80 to 87 percent, reports Felicia Fonseca of The Associated Press. Regional EPA Administrator Jared Blumenfeld said reducing emissions is a "commonsense approach" that will improve air quality at parks that are "crucial to the economy of Four Corners." Arizona Public Service plans to close three units and install pollution controls. The plant provides electricity to about 300,000 homes in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.

The EPA has long considered whether the Four Corners plant and another on the Navajo Reservation would need upgrades, Fonseca reports. Under the APS's proposal to shutter three generators, it would install $290 million in pollution controls, and spokesman Damon Gross said the Navajo, local economy, customers and the environment would all benefit. However, the Navajo fear a loss of about $9 million a year in coal royalties that would come if three generators are shut down. (Read more)

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Europeans designing robots to harvest delicate fruits; Japan already has a strawberry picker

What would happen if human weren't in the field any more to pick the most delicate of crops -- fruits in orchards or the grapes for premium wine? You know, the high-value stuff. And, let's go one more, what if humans were removed one more step: What if something could target the protective pesticide spray so it only touched the foliage and never once touched the fruit? That's be kind of amazing. No, that'd be a robot. And it's a new project that’s part of the European Union Seventh Framework Program (FP7) called Clever Robots for Crops, or "cRops."

According to Forbes magazine contributing writer Jennifer Hicks, these robots will be able to detect the fruit's ripeness, then grasp and softly detach only ripe fruit. The robots would also be able to reliably detect and classify obstacles and other objects to enable successful navigation and operation in plantations and forests. "Projects like cRrops are significant because they can accelerate sustainable development of agriculture," said Catherine Simon, founder and organizer of Innorobo, a robotics conference set for 2013.

Hicks' sources say it will take at least five more years before the whole thing could be commercialized. So why is Europe moving so slowly? “One of the main reasons is simply because robotics is still in an early stage of maturity and we continue to see projects coming out of academia, government or EU commissions,” said Simon,“Europe needs to make the shift from projects to product faster like the United States if we want to remain a leader in the the field of robotics."

There are fruit-picking robots already. In Japan in 2010, the Institute of Agricultural Machinery’s Bio-oriented Technology Research Advancement Institution created a strawberry picking robot with a stereo camera system that images the strawberries in 3D and, with fancy math, determines their ripeness. "If a strawberry is at least 80 percent red, the machine snips it at the stem and puts it in a padded bin. It can harvest 60 percent of the strawberry crop, taking only nine seconds to pick a strawberry," writes Hicks. Used to be this was all academic -- funding, that is, but "times are changing," she reports, and things could go a lot faster. "We are starting to see a true shift in the ecosystem surrounding robotics." Think Google money. Think big. (Read more)

Once destitute Calif. tribes fight to keep others from benefiting from off-reservation casinos

Thomas  Lozano at the planned
Enterprise Rancheria Casino site
(NYT photo by Max Whittaker)

To pull itself out of poverty, the Maidu Indian Tribe of California in 2002 applied to build an off-reservation casino about 35 miles south of the few acres of reservation land where a handful of the tribe's people live in broken-down trailers. The federal government has approved the plan, but the final decision rests with California Gov. Jerry Brown, who is expected to decide on the fate of the planned Enterprise Rancheria casino and another tribe’s off-reservation proposal by an Aug. 31 deadline. But, reports Norimitsu Onishia of The New York Times, "Plans for the two casinos are drawing fierce opposition and last-minute lobbying in the state capital from an unexpected source: nearby tribes with casinos that they say will be hurt by the newcomers. Leading the fight against Enterprise is the United Auburn Indian Community, whose casino, Thunder Valley, has become one of America’s most profitable and has brought the formerly destitute tribe unimaginable riches."

How unimaginable? Onishia reports that "with 80 percent of its revenues coming directly from gambling, Thunder Valley is so profitable that it has transformed the lives of its owners, the 400-member United Auburn tribe, most of whom received welfare benefits until the casino opened in 2003. The tribal council has provided housing for members, built group homes for troubled children and connected residential areas to water and sewer systems. All members receive free health care and dental benefits. Children making the honor roll receive hundreds of dollars in incentives. The tribe’s 200 adult members each get a share of the casino’s revenues, which local news media have reported as $30,000 per month, and which industry experts have estimate is more. Douglas G. Elmets, a spokesman for the tribe and a former White House spokesman during the Reagan administration, said only that members did not need to work for financial reasons, but that many did in tribal affairs."

Since Indian gambling was legalized in the United States in 1988, only five tribes have gotten final clearance to build casinos off their reservations.  The issue in California now has raised larger issues in Indian communities across the nation about the goals of gambling. A decade ago, tribes were united in their efforts to further Indian gambling, which was supposed to give them the means to become self-sufficient, said Steven Light, co-director of the University of North Dakota’s Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy. But he said that talk of “fairness and justice” has given way in an increasingly competitive market. (Read more)

Two seemingly like-minded Nebraskans square off over threat of Keystone XL to water supply

A dispute has erupted in Nebraska between two previous allies -- environmentally outspoken and traditional Democratic activist Jane Kleeb and water expert and all-around green guy James Goecke. The public fight is over Keystone XL, the already much disputed 1,700-mile steel pipeline that would carry heavy, low-quality crude from Canada’s oil sands to refineries in Texas. At issue, writes Washington Post reporter Steven Mufson, is whether the pipeline would pose a threat to the massive Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest underground sources of fresh water which sits firmly under Nebraska and likely holds enough water to cover the country’s 48 contiguous states two feet deep.

TransCanada, the pipeline's owner, plans to bury the pipeline at least four feet underground, and in many places could be putting it in the aquifer. Kleeb says that if the pipeline should spring a leak where it touches the aquifer or even above it, oil could quickly seep into and through the porous, sandy soil, contaminating the aquifer. Goecke disputes that. A hydrogeologist and professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska, Goecke has been measuring water tables in Nebraska’s ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region since 1970. He says opposition to the pipeline is driven by misunderstanding of how the aquifer works. “I’ve spent my career drilling holes to and through the Ogallala Formation. I’ve probably seen as much of the Ogallala as anybody,” he says in a TV commercial for TransCanada. “There’s a misconception that if the aquifer is contaminated, the entire water supply of Nebraska is going to be endangered, and that’s absolutely false. If people recognize the science of the situation, I think that should allay a lot of the fears.” (Read more)

Real truth about crime: Breathe easy, you're safer than you think

A lot of what you think about crime, writes John Roman of the Urban Institute, is just not true. Too much television, too many headlines and too much thinking it was better when you were little have made feel unsafe. "Fact: if you are under 40, on average you are safer now than you have ever been," Roman reports. Suburbs are safer than cities, yes, but "The trend is better for cities than suburbs. At the peak of the crime wave in 1991 there were 138 homicides in Prince George's County and 479 in Washington, D.C. Last year, there were 82 homicides in PG (down 40 percent) and 132 in DC (down almost 75 percent)."

Roman notes that the public also likes to believe that "there are two typical types of offenders: One is the brilliant loner psychopath who commits serial crimes and can’t be caught without the aid of large task forces, luck, and equally brilliant loner detectives. Fact: most criminals are far less educated, poorer, and sicker than the average American. Type two is the ruthless, soulless gang-banger who can only be contained (but never defeated) by armies of police. Fact: gang members are typically teenagers, generally in a gang for about a year before voluntarily leaving, and commit as many crimes against their fellow gang members as others. "

In taking apart the statistics, Roman has found astonishing facts that fly in the face of a lot of our perceived fears: "The FBI estimates that in 2008 a total of 155 children were kidnapped by strangers, thus a child is about 5 times more likely to drown than be kidnapped (and) of the almost 15,000 homicides in 2010, perhaps one percent were victims of a serial killer." (Read more)

As the nation's population shifts, Midwest's schools shrink and communities suffer

As more Americans have left Midwestern communities in recent years, those places have lost the vitality and life of more than 2,100 public schools. As a result, Steve Rich of USA Today reports, school districts and whole communities have scrambled to survive. From 2006-07 and 2010-2011, according to a USA Today analysis of U.S. Department of Education data, the population gains were largely in California, Texas and Arizona, which added 1,133 schools.

The loss is not just physical. The mass closings, which often see students moved to other buildings in a district, can affect home prices and businesses and often take an emotional toll on residents. "It's like losing the soul of the community," said Terry Ryan, vice president for Ohio Programs & Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a center focused on education.

Further analysis of the data, writes Rich, found much of the Midwest's school loss came in three states: Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio. The schools that closed during the five years studied had served nearly 1.5 million students. 
(Read more)

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Obama orders additional drought-relief measures

President Obama told the Agriculture Department today to authorize another $30 million to help crop and livestock producers damaged by the nation's worst drought in 50 years, and announced some other steps intended to mitigate the drought's impact, including a program to help commercial truck drivers make deliveries to drought-stricken areas.

Obama said the Small Business Administration "is working with other government agencies to connect even more eligible farmers, ranchers and businesses with low-interest emergency loans as well as counseling and workforce programs," and "The National Credit Union Administration is allowing an additional 1,000 credit unions to increase lending to small businesses."

The president said the White House is actively soliciting other ideas for drought relief. also called on Congress, which just started a five-week recess, to pass a Farm Bill with drought relief. "That's the single best way to help rural communities both in the short term and in the long term," he said. For the White House's drought "fact sheet," click here.

As schools prepare to follow new federal lunch rules, fruit and vegetable snack program up for debate

Bloomberg photo by Ian Waldie
As students and teachers return to school, food-service directors are working to implement the new federal school lunch regulations that take effect Oct. 1 -- a story for any local news outlet, since it affects almost every student.

Meanwhile, another school food program is up for debate. Congress is deciding whether frozen, canned and dried produce should be included in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. House Republicans say yes, to save money and make a wider range of options available year round. But the Senate is pushing to keep the program limited to fresh fruit and vegetables only. The argument — or food fight, as Dina ElBoghdady of The Washington Post calls it — has trade and other groups weighing in.

"If the goal is to expand and improve upon childhood nutrition, it doesn't make sense to limit the kinds of fruit and vegetables that schools serve," said Corey Henry, a spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute. "Let the schools decide." But Sandi Kaur, acting director of nutrition services at the California Department of Education, disagrees, saying "it's the fresh that makes this program unique."

The program allows schools to distribute fresh fruit and vegetables as snacks to students and has "raised consumption in participating schools by a quarter-cup per day, or 15 percent," ElBoghdady reports. "The increase did not contribute to weight gain, suggesting that the fruit and vegetables replaced other foods." Last year, USDA spent $150 million to pay for the snacks for 3 million children. (Read more)

Amish one of U.S.'s fastest-growing religious groups

A new Amish community is established about every three and a half weeks in the U.S. and more than 60 percent of all existing Amish communities have been founded since 1990, according to a new census of the Amish population by Ohio State University researchers. They say this suggests that the Amish are growing more rapidly than most other religions in the U.S. The growth can be linked to large families and high baptism rates, while growth in other religions would more likely be linked to conversion. The study restricted its count to "Old Order" Amish and others who limit their use of most modern technologies. (Fotosearch image)

There are now 456 Amish settlements, compared to just 179 in 1990, according to the census, Science Daily reports. If the growth continues at its current rate, there could be more than 1 million Amish people living in more than 1,000 settlements across the U.S. by 2050, which would "bring economic, cultural, social and religious change to the rural areas that attract Amish settlement." Researchers predict Amish will buy land vacated by farmers, but "the availability of farmland might not keep pace with population growth," forcing many Amish men to seek non-farm work, including woodworking and construction, which could increase land prices and enhance local economies.

The Amish should not be confused with Mennonites, who are similar and share common backgrounds, but are more "assimilated into mainstream culture and are more likely to live in urban and suburban settings," according to the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, whose senior fellow is Amish scholar and expert Donald Kraybill. The Ohio State census found that Amish live in 29 states, mostly in the Midwest and Great Lakes region, but as far south as Florida and Texas, as far northeast as Maine and as far west as Montana. Ohio contains the most Amish, Pennsylvania is second and Indiana is third. New York has seen the most recent growth in settlements, with 15 founded since 2010. (Read more)

About 250 localities have tried to limit drilling's reach, worrying industry and some state officials

Many local officials in rural communities are not opposed to natural-gas drilling, but they are opposed to drilling close to homes, schools or hospitals. Citizens are increasingly turning to their city and town governments to help fight encroachment of drilling rigs when they feel state regulations aren't strict enough to control the drilling close to their towns. Jim Malewitz of Stateline reports the trend is "worrying" industry representatives and state officials who want to expand the "industry's reach."

At least 246 cities or towns in 15 states have passed laws restricting drilling on local land, according to Food and Water Watch, an environmental group. Malewitz reports some of the ordinances are "merely symbolic" because those towns don't sit atop gas reserves. More than 90 cities or towns in New York have passed resolutions addressing gas drilling, 14 in Pennsylvania have passed regulations, and some in Colorado are doing the same. A Pennsylvania appellate-court panel recently struck down a new state law that barred local officials from using zoning to prohibit drilling in certain areas.

State regulators and industry advocates say local pushback is "misguided and a dangerous obstacle to economic growth," Malewitz reports. Advocates say drillers should be exempt from local zoning laws because extraction depends on where the resources are, and sometimes residential areas and towns are included. Zoning laws differ from town to town, and Malewitz explains some zoning laws in several states. (Read more)

Kansas program forgives student loans for those who move to struggling rural communities

UPDATE, Sept. 4: Julianne Couch wrote a nice feature story for the Daily Yonder about the program.

Click on map to view larger version
Rural areas across the country could learn from Kansas about how to repopulate and revive economically struggling communities. The state started its Rural Opportunity Zones program last year in 50 rural counties: mostly poor, agricultural communities that had lost about 10 percent of their population since 2000. If college graduates move to some of those areas (with stars on map) for at least five years, $15,000 of their student loans are forgiven.

Hillsboro Development Corp. Executive Director Clint Seibel told Benjamin Reeves of International Business Times that rural Kansas needs more young people. "We've done a great job educating our young people in rural America and then we buy them a suitcase and send them to a major university and never see them again," Seibel said. The program draws about one new applicant per day. Almost 75 percent of applicants, aged 25 to 35, meet program requirements, and most are from Kansas, with a large portion coming from Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado. But others have come from California, New York and Florida.

Some in the region are opposed to the program, including the Jefferson City, Mo., News Tribune's editorial board, who said the program offers no direct financial incentives and worries it will use tax dollars to supplement loan repayments. It called the program "inequitable and elitist." Reeves reports many local residents in Kansas' Rural Opportunity Zones "resent the encroachment of those they perceive as overeducated outsiders." The opposition has led the state's lawmakers to cut the program's budget by $250,000. (Read more)

Study suggests keys to local progress in Appalachia

A new University of Tennessee study highlights the strengths and weaknesses of Appalachian rural communities by examining the challenges facing economic and community development in 10 Appalachian counties in eight states from Pennsylvania to Mississippi. The report explains how local governments, agencies and community organizations respond to those challenges, and shows how five formerly distressed counties improved their local economies as an example to other communities.

"Location is often a key factor in a county's success," the report found. Non-distressed counties "generally benefited" from their proximity to urban areas. Attitudes about local economy, entrepreneurship and business development also contribute to a county's success, according to the report. The study says that education is very important to development in Appalachia. Improvement to local schools and community colleges, in particular, has boosted local economies. Partnerships with universities also "brings important benefits to Appalachian communities." 

Several recommendations were made in the report about how to continue progress in Appalachia, including making rural broadband a priority and sharing of governmental services by small counties. (Read more)

College students gravitate to agriculture, realizing it's 'more than cows and plows'

In the midst of the soul-killing drought, the mind-numbing Farm Bill fight and the constant debate about the use of pesticides, here's some news that just might make the day in farm country: Enrollment in agricultural colleges is downright booming. Why? Because, university officials tell Jens Manuel Krogstad of USA Today, "ag-related college majors appeal to both the heart and mind of a student." Better maybe still, students feel that with the degree they can help address such global issues as hunger and obesity.

"There's a better understanding that when we use the term agriculture, it's not all plows and cows," said Ian Maw, vice president for food, agriculture and natural resources at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities in Washington, D.C.

Also, students see a clear path to a job after graduation. "At traditional agriculture powerhouses such as Penn State, where enrollment is up more than 40 percent since 2004, career preparation can include cutting-edge research in areas such as plant breeding or genomics," writes Krogstad. "Schools in more urban regions draw students interested in local foods and healthy eating. Farmland prices have tripled in the U.S. in the past decade, and corn prices have doubled since mid-2010, and the high-paying jobs that follow are catching students' attention in a down economy, Maw said. 

Iowa State University, where the agriculture college this fall expects to surpass an enrollment record set 35 years ago, is straining to meet industry demand for its graduates, said Dean Wendy Wintersteen. Iowa State reports a 95 percent job-placement rate for graduates from its colleges of engineering and agriculture, and wages can start between $50,000 and $60,000, President Steven Leath said. (Read more)

Monday, August 06, 2012

Rural job-growth rate is half that of urban areas

Daily Yonder map; click on it for larger version
Jobs in rural counties grew only half as fast as in urban counties in the last year, Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder found after analyzing figures compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They show that in the 12 months beginning in June 2011, the latest period for which county data is available, jobs in urban counties increased by 1.77 percent while those in rural counties rose only 0.86 percent. Exurban counties had 1.6 percent more jobs, the same as the national rate. (Exurban counties lie within standard metropolitan statistical areas, but have half their residents living in rural settings.)

In real numbers, that means that in rural counties, there are 194,000 more jobs this June than June a year ago. In exurban counties, there are 201,000 more jobs and in urban counties there are 1,874,000.

 Many counties lost jobs over the last year, Bishop notes. One-third of rural and exurban counties had fewer people working this June than last. The largest disparity between rural and urban employment in June 2012 was in South Carolina, where the unemployment rate in June was 8.9 percent in urban areas and 12.2 in rural counties. The rural unemployment rate was in double digits in eight other states: Arizona (11%); California (12.1); Georgia (11); Mississippi (10.9); North Carolina (11); Oregon (10); and Tennessee (10.4). (Read more)

Those who raised and gave money to save Calif. parks are upset, want refunds after stash revealed

Coe Park supporters with a $279,000
check for the state three months ago.
(Preservation Fund photo)
When cash-pinched California officials announced last year that they couldn't afford to keep 70 California parks open, neighbors held bake sales, children collected nickels, cities dug into their reserves, and nonprofits rallied big donors. Most of those 70 parks at risk were in rural areas where fundraising could be a monumental, heartbreaking task anyway. With the recent disclosures of a largely unknown $54 million pile sitting in state parks accounts, the Los Angeles Times reports that the can-do spirit has been replaced by a how-could-they indignation.

The fallout from the revelation, so far, has been the forced resignation of the state's parks director who many believe knew, or should have known, about the fund. Now, Steve Chawkins and Chris Megerian report, local governments are demanding their money back, "saying they were duped at a time they could little afford it." Ventura County alone is asking for an immediate refund of $50,000 which it desperately needs for a sewer line.

An unexpected outcome of the fracas is that organizations that support parks tell the Times that the affair has tainted their already ongoing pleas for donations. "There was a sense of betrayal," said Carolyn Schoff, head of the California League of Parks Associations. "We're the ones in the trenches raising funds for state parks and now there's a dark shadow over us." State officials have urged the public to bear with them as they try to make sense of the situation. In a letter to parks donors, Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird and Janelle Beland, acting director of state parks, said they were "as outraged as you are about this news." (Read more)

Longtime enviro lawyer declines award from strip-mine regulators, saying law's promise not fulfilled

Courier-Journal photo
by Tyler Bissmeyer
Kentucky's leading environmental lawyer has turned down an award from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation and Enforcement with a letter that amounts to an indictment of the Interior Department agency and its congressional overseers and funders.

"The promises made to the people of the coalfields remain largely unkept," 35 years after the federal strip-mine law was enacted and 55 years after efforts began to pass it, Tom FitzGerald of Louisville told Director Joe Pizarchik in declining to accept the agency's first Environment, Community, Humanity and Ownership Award, which OSMRE says is aimed to honor someone "who promotes the ideals of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 while also advocating for the “appropriate balance between meeting the nation’s need for energy without compromising protection of people, the environment and the surrounding community."

"The law promised to curb abusive mining practices with the goal of protecting landowners, the public, and the environment from the adverse effects of surface coal mining operations. In substantial measure, these promises have been betrayed," FitzGerald wrote. "Though Congress intended that the choice of technology would follow, rather than dictate, environmental protection, the coal industry has over the decades systematically replaced the workforce with larger machines more indiscriminate to the terrain, and key concepts in the law have been weakened by regulatory interpretations in order to accommodate this shift."

FitzGerald said the Obama administration "has done precious little of substance" to undo the damage by 30 years of OSMRE management that has been hostile or indifferent to the intent of lawmakers who wrote the bill that became law Aug. 3, 1977. He cited examples, including lack of timely reclamation, mis-classification of mountaintop-removal mines as area mines, and ignorance of the law's requirement that mined land be restored to its approximate original contour. His letter is here.

Director Pizarchik, Secretary Salazar
"OSM takes seriously Mr. FitzGerald’s concerns," agency spokesman Chris Holmes told James Bruggers of The Courier-Journal, noting that Pizarchik said "OSM and its state regulatory partners can and should do better. The theme of the director’s speech was that 35th anniversary … is a time to recommit to protecting the nation’s economy, energy supply, and environment, and ultimately, the people who live and work in coal country." FitzGerald told the Louisville newspaper that he didn't blame Pizarchik, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

The award went to ecologist David Clark of New Mexico's Mining and Minerals Division who led development of a reclamation technique "that returns mined lands to the closest form and function of the land before mining," Holmes said. (Read more)

CDC warns of 12 new cases of swine flu, 10 linked to swine exposure at county fair in southwest Ohio

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials in Atlanta say 29 human cases of the new strain of the H3N2 swine flu have been confirmed in the last year, including 12 last week. Ten of the new cases were linked to the Butler County Fair in southwest Ohio, which ended last weekend. The county is just north of Cincinnati. None of the cases have been tied to human-to-human transmission, and all 12 of the new patients had close contact with swine before getting sick. The two other new cases occurred in Hawaii and Indiana. (CBS News photo)

Health officials told CBS that those attending state and county fairs should avoid taking food and drinks into barns, and should wash their hands after they have been near animals. Pregnant women, young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are especially at risk for developing the flu strain.  So far, the strain hasn't spread easily, and recent cases have been mild. (Read more)

Being deep-fried at a fair takes on new meaning in drought and heat wave

In much of rural America, it's that most wonderful time of year -- fair season. A time when country life is on proud display, where generations of farm families gather and deep-fried foods seem guiltless. But at many county and state fairs this year, the most widespread drought since the 1950s is also evident, reports Monica Davey of The New York Times. (Keeping cool at the Ozaukee County Fair in Wisconsin was a full-time job; NYT photo by Darren Hauck)

“You see the stress of this all on individuals everywhere you go, even the fair,” said Vivian Hallett, who most years has entries (and winners) in nearly every imaginable plant category at the Coles County Fair in Illinois. Not this year. “We just didn’t have the stuff,” said Hallett, 65. “All our pumpkins have died. Zucchinis? Dead. Our green beans are just sitting there turning rubbery. And my gladiolas never came up at all.”

Bad, yes, but human attendance has shriveled, to -- the combination, organizers say, of miserably hot weather and larger, overwhelming concerns back home on the farms. “It was the roughest I’ve seen,” said Gary Shemanski, facilities manager at the Johnson County Fair in Iowa. There, he told Davey, attendance fell, four rabbits perished in heat that exceeded 100 degrees, and a beloved, final fireworks display was canceled for fear of setting off a blaze in the bone-dry county.

Why go at all? Because, organizers say, rural families may need a distraction more than ever. “The fair is just in your blood — you don’t think about it, you just go,” said Jean Klug, 63, of Cedarburg, Iowa. “It’s just country living,” said Bob Hartwig, who added that his children had intended to bring five cows to Wisconsin's Ozaukee County Fair but downsized to three just as his family was weighing downsizing a larger herd at home. Fair organizers say they are bracing for the possibility of still more fallout next year, writes Davey, when raising an extra pig for a fair may become an impossible luxury. “They may decide feed prices are just too high the next time,” said Brian Bolan, agriculture director for the Wisconsin State Fair.  (Read more)