Saturday, September 15, 2012

Study says almost 40 percent of rural Americans are obese, while only about a third of urbanites are

Getty Images photo via ABC News
Rural people are more likely to be obese, according to a new study, "the first in more than 30 years to use actual measurements of height and weight, rather than self-reported data, which can be unreliable," reports Mary McVean of the Los Angeles Times. The study "suggests rural obesity is a bigger problem than we realized," writes Dr. Julielynn Wong of the ABC News medical unit.

"People tend to overestimate how tall they are and underestimate how much they weigh," said the lead researcher, Christie Befort, assistant professor of preventive medicine and public health at the University of Kansas Medical Center. "The differences between rural and urban were most pronounced for younger adults between the ages of 20 and 39."

She said the rural-urban disparity could be a result of the "cultural diet" of rural people, which generally has more meat and fat, and isolation from better food sources and exercise facilities. The Times story also says "another factor could be the increased mechanization of farm work," but that presumes that a large percentage of rural Americans work on farms, which is not true.

The study found that 39.6 percent of rural Americans are obese, while 33.4 percent of urban residents were, but the story does not give the study's time period or how it defined "rural."

The study appears in the latest issue of the subscription-only quarterly Journal of Rural Health, which is subscription-only; the journal's site says abstracts of its articles are available from the National Library of Medicine's PubMed service, but the article has not been posted at this writing. for the Times story, click here.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Teachers from elsewhere give hope in Eastern Ky.

TFA's Liz Selden teaches math
(Photo by Amy Wallot, Ky. Dept. of Ed.)
Teach for America, which for 20 years has been placing top students from top colleges in low-income school districts, placed its first teachers in Appalachia only a year ago. The program is expanding, and now has 36 teachers in 20 schools in 11 Eastern Kentucky counties.

This relatively small group of young teachers in Eastern Kentucky is stirring hope that their sharp minds, youthful energy, diverse backgrounds and fresh perspectives will inspire their students, their colleagues, school officials and their communities to dream bigger dreams and achieve more of them, raising the region's education levels, attracting brighter students to teaching and boosting the chronically poor region's economy.

And because most of the traditional teachers in the 11 counties are natives who went to the nearest college, the coming of TFA has put traditional teacher-preparation programs under pressure to improve, and focused fresh attention on teacher quality and effectiveness.

All these topics and more are explored in four stories written for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues by its first iHigh writer in residence: John James Snidow, an Eastern Kentucky native who earned a Harvard University degree in economics with honors and is now at Yale Law School. To read the stories, click here.

Drought expands slightly; weather patterns indicate little or no relief should be expected in early 2013

The worst drought in more than 50 years has expanded slightly for the third consecutive week, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Exceptional drought, the most severe category, now covers 6.2 percent of the U.S., up from 6.1 percent last week. All levels of drought increased to 64.2 percent from 63.4, the highest percentage this year.
There were "minor improvements" in the Midwest, Northeast, mid-Atlantic, Arizona and the Great Basin, Brian Sullivan of Bloomberg reports. Drought has caused corn and soybean prices to rise as the size of harvests shrunk, creating hardship for livestock and dairy producers who could no longer afford feed. It has also caused Mississippi River levels to drop in some places, making river travel difficult to impossible. (Read more)

Relief from drought conditions may be years away. Iowa State University extension climatologist Elwynn Taylor said the La Nina weather pattern causing the drought will likely stick around through early 2013. An El Nino pattern that would bring enough rain to quench U.S. soil isn't anywhere on the horizon, Jeff Caldwell of reports. "If weather patterns respond to a neutral or to an early 2013 development of La Nina," Taylor said, "it will be likely that the U.S. corn yield will fall below the 30-year trend line for a fourth consecutive year." (Read more)

'Pink slime' maker suing ABC News for defamation

The beef company most affected by the "pink slime" controversy earlier this year is taking legal action against ABC and its news division for defamation of character. Beef Products Inc. claims the news organization cost the company $400 million. Anchor Diane Sawyer and reporters Jim Avila and David Kerley are also named as defendants.

“ABC ran for about 30 days a vicious disinformation campaign that consists of almost 200 false and misleading defamatory statements,” BPI attorney Dan Webb told Tim Carman of The Washington Post. The South Dakota-based company is asking for $1.2 billion because the state's Agricultural Food Products Disparagement Act allows plaintiffs to triple the amount of damages. ABC News senior vice president Jeffrey Schneider said the lawsuit "is without merit," and that the organization will "contest it vigorously."

Several media outlets reported on lean, finely textured beef, that was once widely used in fast-food burgers, school lunch programs and sold in grocery stores. But reporters discovered a reference to LFTB as "pink slime" in 2002 by former U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein, and it was revealed that ammonia was combined with meat during the process of making LFTB.

Beef Products is singling out ABC because it says that since March 7 the network reported about LFTB in 11 broadcasts, 14 online reports and in social-media statements that allegedly contained 200 false statements about the product. But media libel defense lawyer Laura Handman told Schneider that Beef Products could have a difficult time winning the suit because it will be hard to determine whether ABC knew what it reported was false. (Read more)

Most of big electric co-op's board quits, amid threat to CEO's job and strong community reaction

In a highly unusual move, most directors of Kentucky's largest rural electric cooperative have resigned after friction between board members and the co-op manager generated a public controversy.

Four of the seven directors of the South Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative Corp. quit at the close of yesterday's board meeting. Last month, rumors that veteran CEO Allen Anderson would be terminated caused some in the Somerset area to rise up in protest. Anderson confirmed to The Commonwealth Journal's Jeff Neal last month that the rumors were based in fact. (CJ photo: Anderson hugs co-op member)

Anderson told Neal last month that he raised the issue of his employment with the board. "If they're actively trying to replace me, I think after 34 years I deserved for them to talk directly to me," he told Neal. "I think we all understand now that the [co-op] members will be watching and taking stock of what's happening." He said there had been a "rift" between him and some board members when the co-op's 50,000 member-customers didn't re-elect some incumbents. Some co-op employees were reportedly involved in the insurgents' campaigns, something that Anderson said he discouraged.

Yesterday, Board Chairman Richard "Rick" Stephens, left, board members John Pruitt Jr., William Shearer and Charles Gore resigned, along with board attorney Darrell Saunders. Stephens, who was on the board for 36 years, chairing it for the last 12, had been the target of a campaign to remove him from the board, reports Ken Shmidheiser of The Commonwealth Journal. The campaign was led by three local businessmen, who launched a website, Save SKRECC, that listed allegations against Stephens, including sweetheart land deals and possible conflicts of interest.

The co-op paid "just over $1 million, almost double what a company called Speculative Ventures had paid for the land just months earlier," for an 84-acre site for its new headquarters in 2003, reports Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The Kentucky Public Service Commission denied South Kentucky's request to build an $18 million office at the site in 2009, saying the price was too high."

Read more here:"

Stephens defended himself by saying everything was voted on by the entire board and supported by the management. "I am just one of seven individuals on the board, and do not have the authority to act alone," he wrote in The McCreary County Voice, a weekly newspaper that is owned by his family and competes with the McCreary County Record, which like The Commonwealth Journal is owned by Community Newspaper Holdings. (Read more)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

People moving away from traditional banks, loading pre-paid debit cards instead

A significant percentage of Americans have abandoned traditional banking, with 8.2 percent of households managing finances without a bank, according to Census Bureau data compiled by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. That's up from 7.7 percent in 2009. Another 28.3 percent of households -- an increase from 25.6 percent -- are "underbanked," or still have a bank account, but step outside traditional banking systems by using payday loans or prepaid cards, Gary Fields and Maya Jackson-Randall of The Wall Street Journal report.

The unbanked and underbanked may be disproprotionately rural. Some who have forsaken banks are irritated over banking charges, including overdraft fees that cost customers $31.6 billion last year, and others are spurred by the financial crisis and a loss of confidence in traditional institutions.

The fastest growing type of nontraditional banking is prepaid debit cards offered by NetSpend and Green Dot Corp. Customers can buy cards at grocery stores and load money onto them to pay for "a wide variety of purchases -- just as they would do with a regular credit or debit card," Fields and Jackson-Randall report. But, customers must buy the card and pay a monthly fee to keep it. (Read more)

In debate, presidential candidates' surrogates give glimpses of their positions on farm and rural policy

Chris Clayton, agriculture-policy editor for DTN/The Progressive Farmer, sums up yesterday's debate on such issues between surrogates for the presidential candidates:

"Democratic President Barack Obama has supported rural America as farmers achieved record income over the past four years or is 'anti-agriculture' and helped induce an unprecedented regulatory burden on rural America.

"Republican Mitt Romney will either wreck the rural economy and cut meaningful rural programs or unleash greater prosperity by stopping new regulations on farmers and businesses while more aggressively championing free trade deals.

"Those were the stark contrasts for farmers as surrogates for both campaigns debated positions on agricultural and rural issues on Wednesday before a group largely made up of members of the National Association of State Directors of Agriculture." (Read more)

Video aims to get more rural Native Americans registered to vote and to the polls

There's always a push to get more youth involved in presidential elections, but there may be a different angle in the concerted effort by College Horizons, a nonprofit organization focused on the higher education of Native American youth. Aura Bogado of The Nation reports that the magazine's newest community journalist, Hillary Abe, has produced a video in Northern Arizona "geared towards mobilizing rural Native youth to vote."

It's perhaps a noble effort, given that 34 percent of Native Americans aged 18 or older in 2008, more than 1 million, did not cast a ballot. Native Vote 2012, a website geared toward getting youth to register, claims that "the Native vote can have a game changing impact on elections at the local, state and federal level, and that's why in 2012 we are working tirelessly to turn out the largest Native note ever."

Petition would force vote on Farm Bill in full House

House Republican leaders have refused to allow a vote on a new Farm Bill until after the November election, even though the Agriculture Committee approved one in July. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, has initiated a discharge petition, which can bring a bill to the floor if it has 218 signatures, a majority of the House.

But the bill has to be formally reported to the floor before the discharge can be launched, and Speaker John Boehner has kept it from being reported, even though House rules require a "prompt" report, Bob Meyer of Brownfield Agricultural News reports.  "Committee Chairman Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., did not report the bill to the House clerk until Monday," reports Michael Catalini of the National Journal, citing an unnamed Democratic aide. "Discharge petitions can only be introduced either after bills have been reported out of committee, or after 30 legislative days go by."

Braley said in a statement yesterday, "Speaker Boehner is using all the moves in the procedural playbook . . . personally overruling a bipartisan and geographically diverse coalition that I’m helping lead, 50 different farm groups, and what I believe to be a bipartisan majority of the House. If he put this bill on the floor, it would pass, and we’d be one step closer to bringing stability and relief to American farmers and consumers." Braley said that of the last five farm bills, the longest delay between a vote to report and the actual reporting was 20 days. The vote was 66 days ago. (Read more)

Few state oil and gas agencies seek help from experts who review programs, suggest changes

There exists a team of oil and gas regulators, industry officials and environmental advocates who offer comprehensive reviews of state oil and gas oversight programs and make recommendations for improvement. It's called State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations, but states aren't volunteering their oversight programs for evaluation. It's a predicament for STRONGER, Ellen Gilmer of Energy and Environment News reports.

State oil and gas regulatory officials are feeling pressure from the public and environmentalists to increase regulations on the booming industry, but Gilmer reports agency leaders are leery of STRONGER and the services it provides. They either don't have resources for it, or they fear increased public backlash. STRONGER's latest review was in 2007 in Tennessee. It did evaluate North Carolina's Department of Environmental and Natural Resources this year, but the state doesn't yet have any actual oil or gas wells.

The group has been evaluating hydraulic fracturing in Colorado, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania since 2010, but "It's unclear which states will come next or whether checked-off states' evolving regulations merit further review," Gilmer writes. Mississippi officials have never asked for a review. Kansas officials seemed interested, but haven't asked. Gilmer reports that Texas could be a candidate, but officials there are writing new rules that will likely have to be finished before a review is requested. (Read more) Many state oil and gas agencies are dominates by people from the industries they regulate.

Emerald ash borer sighted in Mass. for first time

The emerald ash borer is eating its way up the East Coast, leaving swaths of dead or dying ash trees in its wake. It has been spotted in Massachusetts for the first time, officials said yesterday, in Berkshire County in the hilly western part of the state. Ash trees are the main component of the state's northern hardwood forest.

State officials said they are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to limit the beetle's impact on forests and the wood-products industry, Ros Krasny of Reuters reports. Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation commissioner Ed Lambert said officials "are not taking its presence lightly" and are defining a quarantine area to limit movement of certain wood products, and working with landowners to properly treat and dispose of infested timber.

The invasive Asian beetle has destroyed tens of millions of trees in the U.S. since being accidentally introduced here in the 1990s. It was first discovered in Michigan in 2002, and has been found in 17 other states since then. Its larvae feed on the inner bark of trees, cutting off their ability to take in water and nutrients. Infested ash trees die within a few years. (Read more)

New website helps farmers keep agritourism safe

Safe Agritourism photo
Agritourism has become increasingly popular as visitors travel to farms to pick their own pumpkins, get lost in corn mazes or pick their own fruit. Keeping those visitors safe is a top priority for farmers, and now they have access to a website guide that can help them do that.

Farmers can use Safe Agritourism to select virtual walk-throughs that are most appropriate for their property and identify health and safety hazard that could exist. Resources are offered that will help farmers fix these hazards. The guidelines are based on "Agritourism Health and Safety Guidelines for Children" that were published in 2007 by the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety.

Features of the interactive website include: pictures that contrast unsafe practices with best practices and guidelines; review questions and resource information; checklists to conduct customized safety walk-throughs; and a resources pages that provides signs, policies, logs and other ready-to-print items. (Read more)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Postal Service seeks community input, often limited, about post offices without postmasters

Post office in Windsor, Mass.
The U.S. Postal Service intends to quickly implement its restructuring scheme, POstPlan, and is starting by reviewing any post office without a postmaster. There are several thousand post offices in this category, most of them in rural places. The agency is asking for community input, but Steve Hutkins of Save the Post Office says some residents are being left out.

There are 13,000 post offices listed for review under POstPlan, and about 8,000 of those are without a postmaster and will be reviewed "very soon," Hutkins reports. Many patrons of post offices on the list have received a letter describing the plan, with a survey of their preferences about what should happen to their post office.

Though the Postal Regulatory Commission's formal opinion on the plan says all customers of a post office that is being reviewed will receive a survey, in some places only post-office box holders are receiving it, and those on home delivery are not, Hutkins reports. Community meetings with postal officials will be scheduled, but Hutkins reports some meetings are being scheduled during work hours, preventing many people from attending.

Hutkins describes the process: "The plan involves scheduling the community meeting and then sending out the surveys about six weeks before the meeting. Customers are asked to return the survey within two weeks, which will give the Postal Service about a month to tabulate the results. At the meeting, the results of the survey will be shared and discussed, and those customers who haven’t filled out a survey can do so at the meeting. One week later, the Postal Service will announce its decision about the future of the post office. If the decision is to reduce the hours rather than discontinue the office, the new hours of operation will be posted, and they’ll take effect 30 days later." The surveys are being sent out now, the meetings will begin in October, and the reduced hours will take effect starting in November. (Read more)

Small cities, rural areas becoming more diverse

The rural U.S. is quickly becoming more diverse as minorities move out of major cities and into smaller towns and rural areas, according to a study released last week. The trend is being led by large Hispanic and Asian populations nationwide.

The study looked at the 15,000 jurisdictions in the country that govern their own fiscal affairs, which are disproportionately rural, 82.6 percent were mostly white in 2010. That was a drop from 93.4 percent in 1980. Localities where whites made up at least 90 percent of the population fell to 36 percent from 65.8.

The study is part of the US 2010 Project at Brown University and is a series of demographic studies by academics across the country. It's the latest study showing that suburbs, small cities and rural areas are now "on the front lines of changing demographics and culture," Conor Dougherty and Miriam Jordan of The Wall Street Journal report.

The trend is "striking in rural areas where white populations are shrinking as young people leave and the elderly who stay die," Haya El Nasser of USA Today reports. As minority populations move into these areas, their children alter community dynamics. Many rural schools have added classes in English as a second language, and social-service agencies have hired translators, El Nasser reports. "There are literally hundreds of American counties that would be losing population if it were not for minority growth," University of New Hampshire Carsey Institute demographer Kenneth Johnson said. "This diversity is bringing them young people they had been losing for a long time and new opportunities." (Read more)

Rural homeschooling increasing, for varied reasons

Homeschooling in the U.S. is on the rise in rural areas, and parents' reasons for the shift are varied, including educational excellence, practical training and religion, author Pamela Price reports for the Daily Yonder. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 1.5 million children were estimated to have been homeschooled in 2007, the most recent year for which data are available, and at least one researcher estimated that number to have grown to 2 million in 2010.

The primary reason for homeschooling most commonly cited by NCES in 2007 was "a desire by parents to provide religious or moral instruction in tandem with traditional subjects." Other prevalent reasons included safety concerns, dissatisfaction with academic achievement in public schools, and special health concerns.

Homeschool Legal Defense Association senior counsel Scott Woodruff told Price that homeschooling is a popular option because of an increasing awareness that public schools are underperforming. "Many parents are saying, 'I'm going to take this, the education of my children, on myself," he said, adding that technology now gives parents more options for homeschooling. (Read more)

Water pollution from oil and gas drilling can be expected in karst regions, federal expert says

More and more drilling applications have been filed during the natural-gas boom for karst regions, with "a type of geology made of rocks that dissolve in mildly acidic water over time," and and oil and gas wells do fail over time in karst regions, which provide easy geologic pathways for pollution, says James Goodbar, head of the Bureau of Land Management's caves and karst resources program, reports Gayathri Valdyanathan of Energy and Environment News.

Scientists worry that contamination will increase if drilling increases in these regions. If drilling is properly done, with the correct amount of steel and cement casings, not much casing is needed in most geologic structures. But when well bores intersect with caves, drilling can pose greater risks. The cement and metal can corrode and leak over time because it's not surrounded by rock. "Threats to the springs and the wildlife that depend on them may be significant," Valdyanathan reports.

The BLM updated requirements for karst drilling in 2006, requiring at least three layers of high-grade steel and cementing, and plugging from the lowest karst zone when abandoning a well. But those standards aren't applicable on non-federal karst lands, or on older wells. (Read more)

Small rural and urban wireless carriers join forces to compete with AT&T and Verizon's near-duopoly

Urban and rural wireless carriers are banding together to take on the two largest carriers in the U.S., AT&T and Verizon. The Rural Cellular Association, a Washington lobbying group, is rebranding itself as the Competitive Carrier Association as more small urban, regional and smaller national carriers join the organization.

"AT&T and Verizon Wireless have gotten so big so fast," CEO Steven Berry told Marguerite Reardon of CNET. "The newly branded organization reflects the policy issues that have developed as the market has turned into a duopoly. Whether they are rural carriers or bigger nationwide carriers, they all share some of the same policy concerns around spectrum allocation, data roaming, and device interoperability."

AT&T and Verizon "have managed to gobble up nearly every tier-two carrier that had been operating," Reardon reports. The two companies control more than 70 percent of the wireless market, reporting a combined 216.5 million subscribers at the end of the second quarter of 2012, more than the combined total number of subscribers from Sprint, T-Mobile and every other competitive carrier in the U.S. Smaller carriers are primarily concerned about the control the big two have over the wireless spectrum, roaming arrangements and device interoperability. (Read more)

Mayors along Mississippi want feds to pay attention to the river's issues

More than 20 mayors from cities and towns along the length of the Mississippi River, from Minnesota to Louisiana, will gather in St. Louis Thursday and Friday to discuss a plan to bring national attention to problems with the river at a time when budgets are tight and money to address the issues is scarce, reports Bill Lambrecht of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Many river communities suffered a "one-two punch" recently as drought dried fields and hindered river traffic, then Hurricane Isaac flooded those fields, drowning much of the livestock of small-scale producers. But local officials were concerned about lack of attention to a laundry list of river issues, including crumbling ports and aging locks and dams, long before this summer, Lambrecht reports.

About 40 mayors have signed onto a new initiative to argue the river's case collectively to Congress, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. The mayors will first pressure Congress to pass the Farm Bill, which contains drought and disaster relief. Then, they intent to ask for more robust flood insurance legislation. Lambrecht reports they plan to present a detailed platform of the river's needs early next year. (Read more)

Monday, September 10, 2012

The poor and near-poor are more numerous now, and deserve coverage; here are thoughts and tips

With the national poverty rate at 15 percent, higher than at any time since 1993, and millions more Americans near the poverty line, you'd think there would be more coverage of them and the problems they face each day. For whatever reason, there is not, and a group of journalists with some experience in covering the subject got together over the weekend to talk about improving coverage of it.

The conference at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., was called "The New American Poverty: Reporting the Recession's Impact," but it included a lots of basics and history on the subject -- and some useful comments at the start, from poverty researchers and some folks who run programs for the poor and disadvantaged in Lexington and Rockbridge County.

Jeri Schaff, services director for the Valley Program for Aging Services, said she couldn't recall ever seeing a news story addressing the daily struggle faced by many old people (hers don't like the "seniors" label, she said), especially in rural areas. The coverage of poverty tends to focus on cities, she said.

"Rural poverty is very different than urban poverty," said Suzanne Sheridan, director of the Rockbridge Area Free Clinic. The big difference, she said in an interview, is lack of resources: supermarkets, public transportation, health care, even a reliable water supply.

Paul Overberg of USA Today gave an excellent presentation on using Census Bureau data to cover poverty. For his handout on using the bureau's American Community Survey data, click here. For other help in covering rural poverty, go to, a recently revised Washington and Lee site for journalists;, with tutorials from the University of Georgia; and, whose owners include author Barbara Ehrenreich, who has written best-selling books about the poor and near-poor. For more details on the conference, click here.

Survey data on party ID show rural and small-town voters make up 40% of GOP, 30% of Democrats

Recent survey data collected by Frank N. Magid and Associates clearly display the sharp differences between today’s party coalitions. The data, gathered in August from nearly 3,300 Americans between 18 and 85, indicate that a majority of voters who identify with or lean to the Republican Party "are males and members of America’s two oldest generations -- baby boomers, those in their 50s to mid-60s; and silents or seniors who together make up 53 percent of Republicans," write Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, fellows at the New Policy Institute.

"The GOP coalition is 81 percent white. It is disproportionately Southern (38 percent of all Republicans and 41 percent of strong Republican identifiers) and 40 percent reside in small towns and rural areas. Two-thirds of Republicans are married, and three-quarters are Christian; only 7 percent are unaffiliated with any faith. A third of all GOP identifiers and 42 percent of strong Republicans attend religious services at least weekly. And, not surprisingly, 56 percent of all Republicans and 68 percent of strong Republican identifiers are self-professed conservatives."

By contrast, note the study coauthors, "A majority of Democratic identifiers (from that same data) are women and from the country’s two youngest generations — Millennials, voters in their 20s; and Generation X, people in their 30s and 40s, who in total make up 57 percent of Democrats. Forty-one percent of all Democrats and 45 percent of strong Democrats are nonwhite, with about equal numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics.

Nearly half of Democrats live in the Northeast and West, and a disproportionately large number, 70 percent, live in big cities or suburbs. Just half are married. Only 57 percent are Christian, and about one in five are either of non-Christian denominations or unaffiliated with any faith. Just 21 percent of Democrats attend a religious service weekly. Slightly more, 24 percent, never do. The Democratic coalition is, however, more diverse ideologically than the Republican: While a plurality, 42 percent, are either self-identified liberals or progressives, nearly as many, 35 percent, say they are politically moderate."

Both President Obama and Mitt Romney, Winograd and Hais explain, recognize the emergence of Millennials and have tried to enunciate a "new civic ethos" that will enable their respective parties to build a majority electoral and governing coalition if they wish to dominate U.S. politics in the future. (Read more)

Despite safety concerns, you can soon go 85 mph, legally, on a toll road in Texas

You say, as Sammy Hagar sang, "I can't drive 55?" Head to Texas, where soon the legal limit for cars will be 85 miles per hour -- yes, 85 -- on a stretch of freeway between Austin and San Antonio. The Texas Transportation Commission voted in favor of what will be the nation's highest allowed speed limit for a 41-mile piece of a toll road, State Highway 130, reports Nathan Koppel of The Wall Street Journal. This section of the less than remote highway is scheduled to open this fall and is expected to provide a quicker connection between two of the state's largest cities. (Rick Scibelli photo: current limits)

As you can imagine, the high speed limit has prompted concern among some safety experts. "When you increase speed limits, you have an increase in the severity of injuries," said Lee Friedman, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has studied the correlation between speed limits and traffic fatalities. Many Texas motorists, he said, likely will exceed the new speed limit and travel more than 90 mph. That would be faster than the average speeds allowed on those famous German autobahns. Veronica Beyer, a spokeswoman for the Texas commission, told Koppel that the toll road has been designed and tested for high-speed travel. "Safety is our top priority," she said.

Residents of former coal camp being evicted to make way for Hatfield-McCoy trail development

People living in the small community of Rita in Logan County, W.Va., may be evicted to make way for businesses catering to the all-terrain vehicle trails named for the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Residents were given notice last week by DB Land LLC of Dodge City, Kan., that their rental agreements would be terminated Oct. 1, and they must remove themselves and their property from the area, Martha Sparks of the Logan Banner reports. Most of the residents are elderly, disabled or low-income.

Logan Banner photo: Spears' home
Resident Russell Spears told Sparks before DB Land owned the area, the coal company that mined there allowed them to stay as long as they paid $200 a month rent and completed all maintenance. The company gave residents the option to keep their houses, or have them torn down and replaced with mobile homes, which almost everyone did, Spears said. He said when DB Land bought the area, company representative Mike Cline initially told residents they would be allowed to buy their lots, but the company changed course and decided to build a motel and convenience store that would cater to the ATV trail system, Spears said. (Read more)

The Hatfield and McCoy trails system was created by the state legislature to generate economic development through tourism in nine southern West Virginia counties. There are six trail systems that featured 500 miles of off-road trails in five counties in 2009, one of them connecting sites related to the notorious feud, the subject of a recent cable-TV miniseries. According to the system's website, "community connecting trails" are offered to visitors which allows them to access "'ATV-friendly towns' to experience the charm of southern West Virginia."

Walmart: Express stores 'filling gap' in rural areas

Walmart started a new line of stores last year to infiltrate the urban market, but they are having an impact in rural areas, too. They're called Walmart Express, and they've been popping up in at least three states: North Carolina, Arkansas and Illinois. The company says they are designed to compete with dollar stores, which dominate the convenience and low-price market in rural areas.

Walmart Express stores average about one-tenth the size of a Walmart Supercenter, and manager of Walmart Express in Snow Hill, N.C., told Leoneda Inge of WUNC in June that the small size allows associates to have relationships with all their customers. The IGA grocery store across the street has been closed for years, and the nearest Supercenter is at least 15 miles away in Kinston. Inge reported that the Express stores are "basically grocery stores, with a pharmacy and a few extras."

Walmart Regional Vice President Ronny Hayes told Inge there's a void to fill in rural communities that are 20 or more miles away from a Supercenter. "We see this as an opportunity to come into this community and offer them, not only affordable but healthy food options and let's face it today, with the gas prices and everything else, our customers are going to appreciate that." (Read more)

Larry Gibson, who helped start the fight against mountaintop-removal mining of coal, dies at 66

Larry Gibson, who spent most of the last 25 years fighting large-scale strip mining in Central Appalachia, died yesterday after suffering a heart attack while working on his land atop Kayford Mountain in Raleigh County, West Virginia. He was 66.

In 1986, Gibson moved back to his birthplace and childhood home on Kayford Mountain and found that coal companies had started mountaintop-removal mining on his family's land, threatening his family cemetery, which was "the final resting place for his ancestors stretching back to the 18th century," reports Mackenzie Mays of The Charleston Gazette. Gibson told the Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. in 1997 that the graveyard and a nearby community park that he built was "the last 54 acres the coal companies don't own. They own all the rest. I don't think the coal companies have the right to take everything."

Gibson was among the first Appalachian people to protest publicly against mountaintop mining and faced backlash from his community as a result, according to his daughter, Victoria, 24. He was shot at, run off the road by coal trucks and burned in effigy by those who disagreed with him, she told Ashley Craig of the Charleston Daily Mail. But he never stopped fighting to save his home and the homes of other from mountaintop removal.

"When my dad passed away you could still smell the mountain air on him," she said. "You could still see the dirt underneath his nails and the stains on his hands. He was working. He lived his life devoted to the mountain."

Gibson once said, "My mother gave me birth, but this land gave me life. Growing up here was an adventure every day. I played with my pet bobcat, my fox, my hawk. All of these things, the good Lord provided on this land, But just a stone's throw away, on that mountaintop-removal mining site, you couldn't find anything alive if you wanted to. It's bare rock, uninhabitable."

He refused to sell his land for mining, and instead put 50 acres on top of Kayford Mountain into a land trust, which means it is protected and can never be sold. He built cabins there, and the area has been the site of the annual Mountain Keeper Music Festival for the last 26 years. Gibson was founder and president of the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, and was director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. He traveled the world speaking with families, communities, churches and university groups against mountaintop removal.

The Keeper of the Mountains Foundation released a statement about Gibson's passing, and Ward eulogizes him on his Coal Tattoo blog, here.