Saturday, August 25, 2012

Community newspaper's lip-dub video shows a staff that has fun and cares about the community

One of America's best non-daily newspapers, The Pilot of Southern Pines, N.C., has done th usual fine job as it joined the bandwagon of lib-dubs of Carly Rae Jepsen's hit song "Call Me Maybe." Producers Hannah Sharpe and Cassie Butler, right, describe the process. (Pilot photo by Glenn Sides)

John Nagy, editor of the thrice-weekly, told John Robinson of the Poynter Institute, “We just wanted to practice one of our core corporate values: have fun. It was a great way to break up the long summer and show everyone we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

Robinson writes, “They’ve succeeded. This is a place that has fun and clearly cares about its community. To me, this feels as if you could walk on in and be invited to sit and have a cup of coffee. Sadly, that’s exactly what many newspapers don’t feel like.” (Read more) Here's the video:

Friday, August 24, 2012

Regulator's OK means full speed ahead on USPS plan to cut hours of post offices, mostly rural

The U.S. Postal Service’s regulatory overseer has endorsed the agency’s plan to shorten hours at thousands of mostly rural post offices. USPS offered the plan to reduce hours at roughly 13,000 offices as it dropped one to shutter thousands of them. Here's a USA Today map of the offices that would be affected; for an interactive version, click here.
Postal Regulatory Commission Chair Ruth Goldway said she believed the proposal would ensure sufficient postal access nationwide. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has said the move would save the service roughly $500 million a year, through both the shorter hours and reduced benefits costs. An agency spokeswoman told The Hill that USPS was pleased with the regulator’s decision and would move full speed ahead on implementing the service changes. (Read more) The reduced hours appear likely to be in place before the end of the year. 

Postal discount to direct mailer OKd; newspapers going to court, say watchdog role threatened

UPDATE, Sept. 2: For a PDF of frequently asked questions about the deal, with answers from NNA, click here.

The Postal Regulatory Commission has voted 4 to 1 to support to a U.S. Postal Service plan to give a discount to a prominent direct mailer, a move that struggling newspapers say will probably reduce an important income stream for them. For background, click here.

Under the service's three-year deal with Valassis, the company will get a discount on additional pieces sent. Ruth Goldway, the commission’s chairwoman, acknowledged that newspapers were upset with the proposed deal, but said that the discount given to Valassis would not give the company an unfair advantage. “The Commission understands that both newspapers and the Postal Service are experiencing declining revenues as new technologies based on the Internet grow in popularity," she said. "Today’s decision affirms that fair competition between these two important institutions is consistent with the law.”

The Newspaper Association of America, representing most dailies, said it was “stunned” by the decision and would take it to court. (Read more)  National Newspaper Association President Reed Anfinson, publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson, Minn., said the association of weeklies and small dailies was "deeply disappointed" in the commission’s analysis.

"The commission begins with the presumption that having a federal enterprise competing head-on with the newspaper industry is a good thing, but it does not explain how any business can be on a level playing field when competing with its own government," Anfinson said. "The mailing contract with Valassis is an unfair deal in which the principal result is to drive down the advertiser’s prices and not necessarily to bring any new mail volume to the Postal Service. What the commission does not explain is why this goal is in the best interest of either newspapers or the Postal Service. Nor does it take seriously the arguments raised by many that this deal will force more newspapers out of the mail and create a net loss for the Postal Service after the deal kicks in."

Anfinson took issue with the commission's view, as he described it, that there is no "problem with the Postal Service’s draining revenues from news-gathering organizations. Somehow it seems to believe the centuries-old mailing category for periodicals created by Congress is able to equal out the harm from contracts like this one. . . . We know that in thousands of communities around this nation that newspapers remain the most vigorous watchdog of government as well as the primary source of community news."

Romney would give states control over drilling on federal land, provide less support for renewable energy

Romney talks energy in Hobbs, N.M.
(NYT photo by Jim Wilson)

Mitt Romney proposed an end to a century of federal control over oil and gas drilling and coal mining on government land Thursday, in an energy plan that also calls for less support for renewable energy.

"The federal government owns about 28 percent of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States. But as of March 2012, only about 37 million acres were under lease for oil and gas operations, of which about 16.3 million acres have active oil and gas production or exploration, according to the Interior Department," Eric Lipton and Clifford Krauss of The New York Times write. "Under President Obama, officials in Washington have played a bigger role in drilling and mining decisions on federal lands in the states, and such involvement rankles many residents and energy executives, who prefer the usually lighter touch of local officials."

"The Romney campaign acknowledged that such a significant policy change would require the approval of Congress, the Times reports. "Getting such legislation passed, even if Republicans controlled the House and the Senate, would be very difficult, given certain opposition by Democrats and perhaps even some Republicans."  (Read more)

The National Journal reported month that some farmers are uneasy with the GOP ticket’s "opposition to renewable-energy policies that have helped them economically." Romney opposes a wind-energy tax credit "that has helped farmers bring in thousands of dollars in extra income by leasing their land to wind producers." His running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., opposes the mandate for a certain amount of ethanol production, which has driven up demand — and probably prices — for corn. "Romney stands by his support of the ethanol mandate," but "Ryan’s record of full-throated opposition to it rubs corn and crop farmers the wrong way," Coral Davenport writes. "In addition, Ryan’s budget roadmap proposes deep cuts in renewable-energy and nutrition programs that help farmers." (Read more)

Drought worse; seems to have reduced tornadoes

The government announced Thursday that the nation's unrelenting drought has now spread to 63 percent of the country, most of that centered in the parched earth of the southern Midwest. For some residents outside municipal water districts there and dependent on wells, it has become a struggle to wash dishes, or fill a coffee urn, even to flush the toilet, reports John Eligon of The New York Times.
The absent clouds do seem to have a beneficial lining in the region, known as Tornado Alley. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said today that fewer tornadoes plowed across the U.S. in July than during any other July in the 60 years since reliable numbers began being recorded. The same analysis shows that the summer of 2012 may break the record for the fewest tornadoes for any U.S. summer.

Eric Adler of The Kansas City Star reports that in prime tornado season, from mid-April to late July, the U.S. typically sees about 850 twisters -- two-thirds of the 1,300 or so that sweep across the nation yearly. The drought might be to thank for that, said Harold Brooks, a research meteorologist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., who analyzed the data with colleague Greg Carbin, a meteorologist at NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center, also in Norman. (Read more)

PBS documentary following two rural soldiers gets Emmy nomination

The story of Dominic and Cole, best friends who join the National Guard after graduating from their rural Northern Michigan high school, became the PBS documentary that The Washington Post called "hauntingly beautiful and deeply felt." Where Soldiers Come From is now also an Emmy nominee for Outstanding Continuing Coverage of a New Story, Long Form. For the documentary, director Heather Courtney returned to her own hometown to gain extraordinary access to Dominic and Cole to show how two men from a small town grew and changed, almost overnight, to become men, looking for bombs on the roadsides of Afghanistan. And how they came home again, victims of traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress, eventually disillusioned about their choices and their mission.

The National Priorities Project reports that, in 2004, 44 percent of military recruits came from rural areas. In contrast, only 14 percent came from major cities. Regionally, the Pentagon reports that most enlistees come from the South (40 percent) and the West (24 percent).

Where Soldiers Come From won the 2012 Independent Spirit Truer Than Fiction Award. The 33rd annual News and Documentary Emmy Award winners will be announced at a gala event at Frederick P. Rose Hall, located in the Time-Warner Center, on Monday, Oct. 1, in New York City.

Horse rescue groups overwhelmed as drought-plagued owners give up without access to hay

Horse rescue groups have struggled to care for a growing number of animals abandoned since the recession began in 2008, but leaders say their work has become even more difficult and expensive as drought and wildfires burned up pastures and sent hay prices skyrocketing. Many people who held on to their horses in the downturn are now letting them go because they can't find or afford feed that has more than doubled in price, reports Grant Schulte of the Associated Press. (AP photo by Nati Harnik)

This is what drought looks like to rescue organizations: Jami Salter at the Double R Horse Rescue Ranch in Riverdale, Neb., said she's still getting three or four calls a week from people asking her to take their horses, and at one point, people were abandoning one or two animals a week. "People would just drop horses off without asking me," Salter said. "Every morning, I went out to water them, and I'd have more horses than the day before."

Most farmers and ranchers have had trouble growing hay this year because of the drought that stretches from Ohio west to California, reports Schulte. Salter said a company that donates to her rescue got 46 bales last year from a 22-acre plot but this year expects only six or seven.  "There's no place to go with a horse you can't feed," said Iowa Horse Council President Bill Paynter, of New Virginia, Iowa. And, say advocates, it's only going to get worse.

(See also a Financial Times story on hay a as key U.S. commodity here. The viewing is free but readers must register to be allowed onto the site.)

Ky. agriculture commissioner, Sen. Rand Paul start push to legalize hemp as an industrial crop

Kentucky's agriculture commissioner and one of its U.S. senators launched a push yesterday for the legalization of hemp as a fiber and oil product, a move that would require changes in state and federal laws — changes opposed by police who fight marijuana.

Commissioner James Comer and Sen. Rand Paul, both Republicans, held a press conference with Democratic state Sen. Joey Pendleton of Hopkinsville before the annual state-fair breakfast of the Kentucky Farm Bureau, which Comer said is now neutral on the idea after opposing it. Paul (speaking in Courier-Journal photo by Aaron Borton) said every other industrialized country allows the production of industrial hemp, and he wore a hemp shirt that he said he ordered online from Canada. Comer said that if Kentucky could be a pilot state for legalization, it would be a long-term advantage. The state was once a big hemp producer.

"The efforts by Comer and Paul face an uphill battle in both legislatures," writes Greg Hall, farm reporter for The Courier-Journal. "U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-[Louisville], said it’s unlikely that an industrial hemp bill would pass in a Congress that hasn’t been eager to deal with other weighty issues. . . . Both of the agriculture committee chairmen in the Kentucky legislature said Thursday that they are willing to discuss the issue — but stopped short of saying they’d allow a vote." (Read more)

Drought likely to add delectability to Midwest wine

The ever-optimistic are out there. And they are growing grapes. Most of the grapes in Glenn Warnebold's vineyard in Missouri's picturesque wine country this year are about two-thirds of their usual size. Others have been reduced to raisins by the drought that burned up many crops across the Midwest this summer. Yet, writes Jim Suhr of the Associated Press, Warnebold figures it could be a good year with the drought concentrating the fruit's flavors and sugar, which will turn to alcohol during fermentation. His red Norton and white Chardonel grapes, while small, hold the promise of standout wine from a region better known for corn and soybeans. "The fruit will be better, overall, for reds and whites, then last year, when it was wet," said Tony Debevc, who has a 170-acre Ohio vineyard. "If it continues to be dry like this, the wine industry will be better overall. And personally, we can expand in the red category, and it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing."

But Suhr notes that not all is rosy. The drought has still stressed the vines, making them less likely to survive a harsh winter and produce next season. The harvest will almost certainly be smaller too. Warnebold figures he will get 2,500 cases of wine this year -- 1,500 less than what he typically might expect -- from his six-acre vineyard atop a bluff overlooking the Missouri River.

For those who understand this kind of talk: This year's wines from America's heartland "will be nice, fruity and very approachable and soft on the palate," predicted Diego Meraviglia, vice president and education director for the California-based North American Sommelier Association. But he believes the drought has cost some grape varieties complexities that may hinder the wines' abilities to age, meaning "you have to drink them within a year or they'll go bad." Warnebold, for the record, was none too impressed with that analysis. "I've been to a lot of wine conferences with a lot of wine experts, and I've never heard that theory before," he said. Brad Beam, an Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association enologist, downplayed the debate, saying "a lot of our wine is best drunk on the young side anyway." No matter. Seems it might be long debate, with a lot of talk about the drought conditions being more or less a common thing in these parts from here on in. That talk, of course, has the winemakers discussing whether to irrigate or not, and if so, how much, and, then, how much better their reds can get.
(Read more)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

TVA liable in big coal-ash spill, judge rules

"A federal judge ruled today that the Tennessee Valley Authority is liable for the December 2008 coal ash spill that buried a large swath of Roane County, Tenn., under 5 million cubic yards of sludge," Manuel Quinones reports for Environment & Energy News. "U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Varlan for the Eastern District of Tennessee said that while events beyond TVA's control caused the ash pond failure, the utility's actions contributed to the spill. He also ruled certain liability protections do not apply in this case." For the ruling, click here.

"Varlan said the failure was caused by multiple TVA actions, including the placement and design of the failed dike and its decision to continue building up the wet coal ash stack at the site. The ruling also found that TVA’s failure to inform and train its personnel and the negligent performance of those personnel were substantial contributing causes," the Knoxville News-Sentinel reports. "Varlan indicated the next phase of the trial will look at questions related to individual property owners, such as whether coal ash was present on each plaintiff’s property; whether it damaged each specific property; and the amount of damage, if any, to each property and to each plaintiff." (Read more)

Western farmers report shortage of farm laborers, blame more stringent border controls

There's a shortage of farm labor in the West, and many blame stronger border controls and a stagnant guest-worker program. The Western Growers Association reports its members are experiencing a 20 percent drop in laborers this year. (Getty Images photo)

The lack of workers is forcing farmers to pay more for the labor they do get and to not harvest some crops, reports Jane Wells of CNBC. California farmer Craig Underwood said some of his crops have been "left in the field" because there weren't enough people to pick them. He's also paying pickers about $9.25 an hour to harvest peppers, Wells reports. Underwood also said much of his workforce is aging and they aren't being replaced because "migratory flows between Mexico and the United States have come to a halt." (Read more)

Ranchers continue struggle to feed herds, deal with severe drought in different ways

This summer's oppressive drought has crippled the Midwest. Crops have died in fields, stretches of the Mississippi River are at reached near record lows. It's all having an impact on the price of meat, dairy, corn and hay, and cattle producers have been struggling to feed and water their herds.  National Public Radio's Neal Conan spoke with some of them, and an agricultural economist.

Conan reports that many cattle farmers "have to decide how many animals to keep, how many to sell, how much food to preserve, what to do if conditions get worse and whether to stay in the business at all." Fifth-generation rancher Zack Jones of Haralson, Mont., told Conan that grass on his ranch is all turning gray or white, water is scarce and the air has become hazy with smoke from prairie or forest fires. He said he's practicing holistic management as a way to manage the land in a sustainable way. Through this method, cattle are allowed to graze on a patch of land, then moved to another before they eat the grass beyond the point of replenishment. Jones told Conan most ranchers don't practice holistic management, but it has worked for his family for generations.

Colorado State University professor Norman Dalsted told Conan drought has been a plague on the High Plains for at least two to three years, and this year's has intensified the consequences for ranchers. Most of those he knows are trying to "secure feed sources," he said, and some are even considering moving herds to winter in areas less affected by drought.

An Oklahoma rancher only identified as Tom told Conan that as the zwater levels drop, there's less water for cattle, and ranchers have invested their careers in building their herds. "It's something that can't be replaced overnight," he said, adding that most ranchers are aging and likely won't be willing to put 10 to 20 years into rebuilding a herd. (Read more)

Millions of rural Americans still without broadband

About 19 million Americans, 14.5 million of whom live in rural areas, do not have access to high-speed Internet, according to a new Federal Communications Commission report. That number is down from the 26 million who were without access before the FCC started the Connect America Fund to extend access across the U.S. Only about 4.5 million non-rural residents were without broadband as of July 2011.

The "ranking of states again underscored the correlation between broadband access and economic productivity," Roger Yu of USA Today reports. "Economically struggling states fared worse than more thriving areas of the country." West Virginia has the highest percentage of people without broadband at 45.9 percent. It is followed by California, Montana, South Dakota and Alaska. (Read more)

Rural matters a lot in election, liberal columnist says

It's all politics at the Iowa State Fair in this presidential election year, as it has been for decades. Presumptive Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan visited the fair last week, but left John Nichols of The Capital Times in Madison, Wis., wondering what he was doing there after refusing to answer questions about the epic drought that's devastating much of the Midwest.

Nichols suggests Ryan won't talk farm policy because farm states would likely turn against him, Mitt Romney and possibly Republican congressional candidates. Iowa, Colorado, Ohio and Wisconsin "have vast rural regions and long histories of voting with an eye toward farm, food and small-town issues," Nichols writes. But in 2010, rural regions "swung hard to the right," making two-thirds of all U.S. House gains by Republicans come from 125 of the most rural districts.

"Rural matters, a lot, in 2012," Nichols concludes. "Control of the Senate will be determined by contests in states such as Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin. To retake the House, Democrats must win back a substantial number of the 39 rural districts that shifted to Republicans in 2010." (Read more)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

With regional jet routes disappearing, smaller communities may be out of the air system entirely

Regional airlines operate half the nation's scheduled flights and are the main links between smaller communities and the national air-service network. But now, as several of those carriers are being closed or are in bankruptcy court protection, big airlines are phasing out smaller and costlier regional jets and cutting some low-traffic regional routes. As a result, reports Charisse Jones of USA Today, many smaller communities may lose some or all of their air service. (AP photo of a Comair jet by Al Behrman)

"We're going to see some airports go dark," William Swelbar, research engineer for the  International Center for Air Transportation at MIT, told Jones. "The highway is going to be the connection to the air network system." 

"We think by 2016, virtually every 50-seat jet or smaller (plane) will be out of the system," industry analyst Mike Boyd told Jones. There are nearly 500 communities in this country "that rely exclusively on regional airlines for their service," said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association. "Any one of them … is at risk of losing (some), if not all of its connectivity to the global marketplace in this environment." That troubles Ron Cox, who coordinates production and delivery of big purchases for his company. The Lubbock, Tex., resident says 95 percent of his travel is on regional jets. "Regional jets are the lifeblood of Middle America air travel," he told Jones.

"By 2018 about 100 fewer airports will be served," Boyd said, "but that doesn't mean 100 (more) communities won't have air service." Many people living in smaller cities already bypass the local airport to drive to a larger one farther away, where there are more flight options and lower fares, MIT's Swelbar said. He predicted that maybe only "a handful" of regional airlines will survive the current turmoil. But, he says, they could thrive by returning to their roots, flying independently and providing service to smaller markets that are left behind by larger airlines. (Read more)

Outbreak of West Nile virus is 'one of the largest'

U.S. health officials reported Wednesday three times the usual number of West Nile virus cases for this time of year, and one expert told The Associated Press it is “one of the largest” outbreaks since the virus appeared in this country in 1999. So far, 1,118 illnesses have been reported, about half of them in Texas, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In an average year, fewer than 300 cases are reported by mid-August. There have also been 41 deaths this year. Most infections are usually reported in August and September, so it’s too early to say how bad this year will end up, CDC officials said.

AP reports that West Nile virus peaked in 2002 and 2003, when severe illnesses reached nearly 3,000 and deaths surpassed 260. The best way to prevent West Nile disease, say experts, is to avoid mosquito bites. Insect repellents, screens on doors and windows and wearing long sleeves and pants are some of the recommended strategies. Also, empty standing water from buckets, kiddie pools and other places to discourage breeding. (Read more)

Experts say digitally nervous rural newspapers ignore online opportunities at their peril

Rural newspapers that ignore online opportunities may be risking their relevancy, and losing opportunities, in their communities. And what's worse, Washington State University's Benjamin Shors writes for PBS MediaShift, a recent survey suggests rural citizens are going online to look for news but struggling to find local content. That, he writes, leaves rural papers at a crossroads: To leap or not to leap to the Internet. And if they do, what content do they take with them?

"It's a 24-7 world and they come out 52 times a year," Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, told Shors. "The worst day to die in a rural area is on a Thursday; your obit won't be printed for a week." Digitally savvy rural journalists, the University of Kentucky professor said, could quickly publish breaking community news. "They rightly have been wary of putting information online for free because that cannibalizes their print content," he said. "But I think there is a way to go online ... You put things online that you can't put in print," such as official documents, videos, audio recordings, extra photographs and so on, to maintain the local-news franchise that is the newspaper's reason for being.

Cross said some rural papers could even jump directly to mobile platforms, as phone technology rapidly evolves and cellular networks continue to spread. The Federal Communications Commission reported Tuesday that about 14.5 million rural Americans — or nearly one-fourth of the 61 million people living in rural areas -- had no fast Internet service, or broadband, available at home. In contrast, only 1.8 percent of  Americans living in non-rural areas had no broadband access.

Bill Will, executive director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents about 130 community newspapers in the state, told Shors that community newspapers are struggling with the same digitally driven economic challenges that have decimated larger publications. At a spring roundtable in Washington state, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Knight Foundation, several initiatives were discussed to increase digital literacy among rural journalists and their readers. (Read more)

Marijuana's resistance to drought makes it an easier target for police this year

The drought is making marijuana crops a lot easier to spot, reports The Courier-Journal of Louisville. Indiana State Police got an early start to the annual marijuana eradication season this week, Sgt. Jerry Goodin told reporter Charlie White that the browning of drought-stricken corn makes the resilient green pot plants interspersed between them “stick out like a sore thumb.” (C-J photo by White)

In Kentucky, State Police Lt. Brent Roper said his agency started cutting outdoor marijuana plants last month. The drought hasn't affected the number of crops they've seized this year, he said, but "It does help when the corn starts browning," which is happening even in some of the state's moderate-drought areas. Roper's agency destroyed more than 120,000 plants through the end of July this year, compared with about 91,000 in the same period last year. Indiana and Kentucky continue to be among the top states for outdoor pot seizures, according to federal statistics. (Read more)

What about sorghum? Under-appreciated, drought-tolerant staple crop can also be turned into biofuel

Voice of America photo by Steve Baragona
As the worst drought in decades shrivels U.S. corn supplies, some are seeing the virtues of sorghum, a cereal grain that is a minor part of the U.S. harvest. As the climate changes, experts believe the drought-hardy food and fodder crop may become more popular. Steve Baragona, a Voice of America reporter, found a believer in Nebraska farmer Fred Propkop, above, whose corn and sorghum crops were sown side by side. One is green and lush, the other brown and lifeless.

Years like this one are why University of Nebraska researcher Ismail Dweikat is a passionate advocate for sorghum, an under-appreciated crop. In hot, dry regions of Africa, sorghum is a staple food. Its waxy leaves and deep roots are better suited for dry climates than corn, and Dweikat says that's going to be increasingly important. More droughts are expected worldwide this century as climate change warms the planet.

Sorghum also has potential as a biofuel crop. Dweikat says sweet sorghum, grown for its sugar cane-like stalks rather than for grain, can be turned into ethanol more efficiently than corn. (Read more)

Forest Service suspends 'burn out' policy in West; shift requires it to fight every fire

The U.S. Forest Service has temporarily suspended a long-standing policy of allowing small fires in the West to burn out, according to a memo from the agency's deputy chief of forestry. Nathanael Massey of Environment & Energy News reports that "while the memo acknowledges the necessity of employing fire as a tool of restoration, noting that suppression of all fires 'is not a desirable approach in the long-run,' it cites the need to protect life and personal property -- as well as budgetary concerns -- in its decision." The current elevated fire risk, he writes, is a result of higher-than-average temperatures and a profusion of fuel, the product of nearly a century of fire suppression policies. (Wildlandfire.com photo)

The decision, while not a direct reversal of policy, does represent a departure from that practice of natural restoration, said Jennifer Jones, a Forest Service spokeswoman. "We realize that we are making some trade-offs here," she told Massey. "We're working within short-term fiscal restraints, and that almost always requires making tough choices." The Forest Service's suppression budget was cut 6.3 percent this year, she added, while the country has experienced a rise in fire severity.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Drought increases hay prices, making it even more difficult for livestock producers to feed herds

The price of bales of hay has more than doubled this year, with average prices reaching record levels. The price increase has made hay a major commodity in drought-stressed areas of the U.S., "far out-pacing the rally in corn and soybeans prices," Gregory Meyer of the Financial Times reports. The increase is also putting more stress on ranchers who are struggling to feed their herds.

Hay supplies per animal are at the lowest level in more than 25 years, Department of Agriculture economists told Meyer. This will increase meat and dairy prices as ranchers shrink herds because they can't afford to feed them. Ranchers would typically be grazing cattle now and mowing hay supplies for winter, but corn-price increases and poor pasture conditions are forcing many to use existing hay stores. The U.S. faces its smallest hay harvest since 1976, Meyer reports.

The rise of hay prices has been "largely unnoticed outside the cattle industry," but its price increase is significant, Meyer reports. At an auction in Iowa last week, hay sold for $300 per short ton, a 150 percent increase from last August. In Missouri, prices rose by 70 percent, according to the Agricultural Marketing Service. Hay has been delivered to Iowa from as far as Manitoba, Canada. (Read more)

Federal appeals court strikes down EPA's cross-state air pollution rule

A federal appeals court has struck down the Environmental Protection Agency's air pollution rule for emissions that cross state lines, ruling that the EPA exceeded its statutory authority with the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, aimed at 28 Eastern states. More than a dozen states and several power companies challenged the rule last year, claiming it put undue burdens on them to implement.

"To put it colloquially, the good-neighbor provision requires upwind states to bear responsibility for their fair share of the mess in downwind states," the opinion of the three-judge panel says, but goez too far "by requiring steep pollution cuts from states beyond what they actually contribute to other states' air quality problems," Politico's Erica Martinson reports. The ruling also says the agency should not have set "implementation plans" for states telling them how and where to make pollution cuts to meet air emission limits.

Judge Judith Rogers disagreed with the majority, saying in her dissent that the ruling will result in "a redesign of Congress's vision of cooperative federalism between the states and the federal government in implementing the Clean Air Act based on the court's own notions of absurdity and logic that are unsupported by a factual record." The Natural Resources Defense Council's Clean Air Program senior attorney and Director John Walke said the majority "got the precedent badly wrong," and that the NRDC will urge the Obama administration to appeal the court's ruling. (Read more)

Budget cuts have put strain on national parks, and seem likely to put even more

National parks have been struggling for more than a decade against a tide of federal budget cuts that have left them short-staffed and with little money for upkeep and repairs. Construction and maintenance projects have been put on hold, and Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post reports "the signs of strain" are starting to show at parks across the country. (Photo: Gettysburg National Military Park)

Chatham Manor, the 241-year-old Georgian house that was a Union headquarters near Fredericksburg, Va., during the Civil War, is marred by overgrown gardens and a greenhouse with broken windows and rotting wood frames. The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, which stretches from Virginia to North Carolina, has a $385 million backlog of projects and hasn't been able to fill 75 positions since 2003. New Mexico's Bandelier National Monument doesn't have money to hire someone to protect its archeological ruins.

Eilperin reports parks have been pulling from maintenance and acquisition budgets to run day-to-day operations for years. National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis told Eilperin his employees have been "entrepreneurial" in finding ways around budget cuts, but are "kind of running out of ideas at some point here." Park managers say they are scared about next year's federal budget and what might happen if a budget deal isn't reached by January. The current proposal from the House Appropriations Committee would cut 218 full-time jobs or 763 seasonal employees at the parks. (Read more)

Male life expectancy falls in some rural areas; Central Appalachian coalfield stands out

The life expectancy of the average American man increased by 2.1 years from 1999 to 2009, but only 15 percent of all rural and exurban counties matched that increase, and in 158 of them, male longevity declined, according to data compiled by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

Counties where men's lifespan is growing shorter in rural America are clustered in Appalachia, the deep South and Southern Oklahoma, report Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder and Roberto Gallardo of Center for Rural Affairs. The data suggest that rural men are "simply not keeping up with the health advances in the rest of the country," they write. Of the 50 rural or exurban counties with the largest declines in male longevity, 29 were in coal-producing counties in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia or West Virginia. Six were in Oklahoma and four were in Georgia. (Yonder map; click on image for larger version)
Bishop and Gallardo write that men were already living shorter lives in these counties than the national average before 1999; but over the last decade, men's short lives grew shorter. States with the ten counties where men's longevity shortened the most are Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and Mississippi. Five of those counties are in Kentucky and three are in West Virginia. The states with the 10 counties where men's lives grew longer are Washington, Arizona, Texas, Utah, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Minnesota. (Read more)

Natural-gas boom begets frac-sand boom in Wis.

The boom in natural gas drilling has caused a boom in one type of sand mining. Round silica sand is used in the process of hydraulic fracturing to hold open rock fractures so gas can be released. The sand boom is perhaps at its height in west-central Wisconsin, the largest producer of "frac sand" in the U.S.

There are no official employment figures for the frac-sand industry, but Kate Prengaman of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism used job-site estimates to calculate that when current and proposed mines are fully operational, the industry will employ about 2,780 people. The number of permitted and proposed frac-sand mines has doubled to 106 since last year, but sand isn't "instant money," Prengaman reports. It's expensive to transport, and local officials are charging sand companies for wear and tear on roads. The state Department of Transportation estimates the industry could produce about 50 million tons of sand a year, Prengaman reports.

Some residents are concerned sand mining will hurt air and water quality, local infrastructure and tourism. They have mounted protests and lawsuits to combat alleged wrongdoing by the industry. Local officials and industry representatives say sand mining will help local economies and increase jobs, echoing local battles in other parts of the country surrounding gas drilling. (Read more)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Nominations due Oct. 1 for Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues seeks nominations by Oct. 1 for the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism. Last year's winners were Stanley Nelson (right) and the weekly Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La., for investigating an unsolved murder from the civil-rights era, naming and interviewing a living suspect. (Read more)

The award is named for Tom and Pat Gish, who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 51 years. Tom died in 2008; Pat has health issues but remains publisher, and their son Ben is editor. The Gishes have withstood advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks, and even the burning of their office to give their readers the kind of journalism often lacking in rural areas. The family won the 2010 Eugene Cervi Award from the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, and Tom and Pat Gish were the first winners of the award named for them.

Other winners of the Gish award have been the Ezzell family of The Canadian (Tex.) Record, in 2007; Jim Prince and Stanley Dearman, current and former publishers of The Neshoba Democrat of  Philadelphia, Miss., in 2008; Samantha Swindler, editor-publisher of the Headlight Herald in Tillamook, Ore., in 2010 for work as editor of the Corbin, Ky., Times-Tribune and managing editor of the Jacksonville (Tex.) Daily Progress.

The Institute seeks nominations that measure up, in major respects, to the previous winners. Nominatons should explaining how the nominees show the kind of exemplary courage, tenacity and integrity that the Gishes demonstrated. Documentation does not have to accompany the nomination, but is helpful in choosing finalists, and additional documentation may be neded.

Nomination letters should be postmarked by Oct. 1 and mailed to: Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, 122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042. Questions may be directed to Institute Director Al Cross at 859-257-3744 or al.cross@uky.edu.

Columnist points out rural America's heavy reliance on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid

The latest offering from syndicated agricultural columnist Alan Guebert, right, delves directly into politics, starting with Mitt Romney's choice of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan as a running mate. The Wisconsin Republican's "biggest reform ideas take dead aim at America’s three costliest social programs, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security," Guebert writes. "Any change in either or all will have profound effects across farm country because rural America relies more heavily on all three than the nation’s urban areas. According to a November 2011 study by the National Academy of Social Insurance, 9.3 percent of 'total personal income' in rural counties comes from Social Security. By contrast, Social Security is just 5 percent of total personal income in urban America.

"Moreover," Guebert notes, "Social Security is the economic lifeblood of many rural counties. For example, Orangeburg County, S.C., gained $232 million of income -- or about $1 billion in overall economic activity -- in 2009 through Social Security. The story is the same for Medicare and Medicaid’s impact on farm and ranch country. While one in six, or 49 million, Americans, receive Medicare benefits, 12 million -- or one in four of those beneficiaries -- live in rural America. And that number is growing; 15 percent of rural America is 65 years old or more while just 12 percent of urban Americans are senior citizens."

Medicaid covers 16 percent of all rural residents and 35 percent of all rural children up to 18. The urban numbers, respectively, are 13 percent and 28 percent. Six out of 10 rural nursing home residents receive some form of Medicaid, and it is estimated that 56 percent of all rural physician income and 60 percent of all rural hospital cash flow is tied to Medicare and Medicaid. (To see all the documents used in this story, go here.)

Independent auditing arm of Congress says tougher coal-dust limits sound, would reduce black lung

The Obama administration used appropriate scientific studies and analysis when it proposed tightening limits on coal dust to fight a resurgence of deadly black-lung disease, says a federal government audit made public Friday. The review, mandated by Congress and done by its Government Accountability Office, supported the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration proposal and dismissed industry complaints that challenged MSHA's evidence and methodology. (MSHA photo)

In its 24-page report, the GAO said key scientific studies support MSHA's conclusion that tightening the dust limit would reduce miners' risk of getting black lung: "Our evaluation of the reports MSHA used to support its proposal and the key scientific studies on which the reports were based shows that they support the conclusion that lowering the PEL [permissible exposure limit] from 2.0 mg/m3 to 1.0 mg/m3 would reduce miners’ risk of disease. The reports and key studies concluded that miners’ cumulative exposure to coal mine dust at the current PEL over their working lives places them at an increased risk of developing progressive massive fibrosis, and decreased lung function, among other adverse health outcomes. . . . To mitigate the limitations and biases in the data, the researchers took reasonable steps, such as using multiple x-ray specialists to reduce the risk of misclassifying disease and making adjustments to coal mine dust samples where bias was suspected.

The report also says "Researchers used appropriate analytical methods to conclude that lowering the existing PEL would decrease miners’ risk of developing black lung disease. For example, in addition to taking steps to precisely estimate a miner’s cumulative exposure, the researchers accounted for several factors in their analyses—such as the age of the miners, the carbon content of the coal (coal rank), and other factors known to be associated with the disease—to better estimate the effect of cumulative exposure to coal-mine dust."

Completion of the GAO report frees MSHA to finalize the rule, but agency officials last week offered no timeline for when they would do so, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. Read the report here.

Anti-pill-mill law makes some Ky. doctors stop, or threaten to stop, writing prescriptions

Fighting prescription drug abuse, which has become epidemic in Appalachia and many other rural areas, isn't a simple matter of passing a law. Kentucky, one of the most over-medicated states, is learning that as some doctors are putting up their prescription pads, or threatening to stop prescribing, because they find a new law aimed at "pill mills" to be confusing and overreaching, reports Mike Wynn of The Courier-Journal in Louisville.

"Patients who have never been a problem are bound up in all of this," Greg Hood, Kentucky chapter governor of the American College of Physicians, told Wynn. "There are so many unintended consequences." Hood's group and the Kentucky Medical Association are trying to determine how many clinics are declining to write prescriptions, but neither is advocating that approach. According to state offices of the Drug Enforcement Administration, only three in-state doctors have voluntarily surrendered their DEA registration — required for prescribing controlled substances — in recent weeks for reasons related to the new law. (Read more)

Unlike Keystone XL, rival pipeline that traverses U.S. heartland avoids similar scrutiny

A major rival to the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline project is vastly boosting its U.S. pipeline system, and avoiding the scrutiny that federal regulators, environmentalists and landowners are giving Keystone owner TransCanada Corp. Rather than building a single new pipeline, Enbridge Inc., also based in Canada, is replacing smaller, existing pipelines with bigger pipes, adding pumping capacity and installing new supply lines alongside existing ones. They are proceeding largely unencumbered, report Matt Pearce and Neela Banjeree of the Los Angeles Times, with plans to spend $8.8 billion to transport greater volumes of petroleum to the Gulf Coast. (LAT map)

"The company already has permits from the initial construction years ago and . . . the physical work will take place in the United States," so it doesn't need new permits, the reporters write. "The task of determining the safety or wisdom of Enbridge pipeline routes falls on a patchwork of local, county and state jurisdictions through the Midwest and East, most of which lack intensive pipeline expertise."

Enbridge's recent spills raise questions about its safety record. The company was recently fined $3.7 million for a Marshall, Mich., spill that dumped 20,082 barrels of oil in the Kalamazoo River in 2010, the biggest penalty ever from the nation's pipeline authority, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation. (Read more)