Friday, December 02, 2016

Researchers use video game to educate college and high-school students about farm safety

Hazard Ridge screen shot
Researchers at the University of Kentucky are using a video game to educate young people about the dangers of agriculture, a line of work that has one of the highest rates of workplace fatalities in the U.S., Olivia McCoy reports for UKnow.

Since 2013 researchers at the UK College of Education and the Southeast Center for Agricultural Health and Injury Prevention, in UK's College of Public Health, have been teaching agriculture students and high-school students ag safety using a 3-D game called Hazard Ridge, which "simulates an injury that has occurred in a small rural town where teens are disappearing and the town is going bankrupt," McCoy writes.

"Players serve as the investigator of this issue and learn how agricultural injuries have negative effects on the town’s economy and citizens," McCoy writes. "The game teaches investigative skills and educates on how to conduct a financial analysis of injury." To play the game, click here.

Jennifer Watson, research coordinator for the Southeast Center for Agricultural Health and Injury Prevention, "said one of the goals for the game is to 'overcome the culture of comfort'," McCoy writes. Watson told McCoy, "Spending their entire lives around dangerous equipment lulls those working and living on farms into a false sense of safety and lessens their belief that they are at risk for injury." She said preventive measures, such as the game, reduces the risk of injury or death. (Read more)

Trump deportation plan could snag in immigration-court system; cases often take years to be heard

President-elect Donald Trump's plan to deport as many as 3 million immigrants who he says have criminal records could hit a roadblock in a cluttered U.S. immigration-court system, Julia Preston reports for The New York Times. "Many of those deportations—at least hundreds of thousands—would have to be approved by immigration judges."

The immigration-court system is weighed down by a backlog of more than 520,000 cases and is failing "to deliver timely, fair decisions to people fighting deportation or asking for refuge, according to interviews with lawyers, judges and government officials," Preston reports. "With too few judges, overworked clerks and an antiquated docket based on stacks of paper files, many of the 56 courts nationwide have become crippled by delays and bureaucratic breakdowns." The backlog leads to cases sometimes taking years to be heard.

Trump's plan to freeze federal hiring would only make matters worse, preventing courts from bringing in new judges and clerks, who are federal employees, Preston writes. "Without significant new resources, the courts would probably slow Trump’s deportations to a stall. Unlike other federal courts, which are part of the judiciary, immigration courts are run by the Justice Department, making them subject to shifting political priorities in Washington."

The backlog was created by a combination of President Obama increasing immigration enforcement and Congress clamping down on spending, Preston writes. "In the past two years, the administration won increases for the courts from Congress, and the number of immigration judges rose by 65 to about 300 today. But the hiring of judges is glacially slow. With each judge completing an average of 750 cases a year, the courts would need at least 520 judges to eliminate the backlog within one year, according to an analysis by Human Rights First, a watchdog group in New York." (Ohio State University map: U.S. immigration courts)

Trump's victory and pick to lead health services could end free birth control under ACA

Donald Trump's presidential victory and his announcement that he has tabbed Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) to lead the Department of Health and Human Services could lead women to lose free birth control under federal health reform, Lesley Clark reports for McClatchy Newspapers. While running for president Trump said he would repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. He has since said he would keep certain popular features. But Price, who has 100 percent anti-abortion-rights voting record, "would be able to revoke the contraceptive measure, which is unpopular with foes of abortion rights, without engaging Congress."

"Price, who, like the president-elect, has championed repealing the ACA, would not have to wait for the overall law to be targeted by Congress because the contraceptive measure exists due to a rule enacted by the Obama administration," Clark writes. "The ACA provision requires job-based health-insurance plans to provide women with free coverage for all contraceptive services approved by the Food and Drug Administration and prescribed by health professionals. They include diaphragms, birth-control pills and intrauterine devices."

In 2010 Price "questioned the need for health insurers to offer birth control at no cost, saying he didn’t believe there were women who couldn’t afford coverage." He said at the time during an interview with ThinkProgress, “Bring me one woman who has been left behind. Bring me one. There’s not one.”

Trump's victory already has some women flocking to get birth control. Planned Parenthood of Illinois said its online appointments for intrauterine devices in November was up 82 percent—an increase of 200 appointments—over November 2015, Lisa Schencker reports for the Chicago Tribune. "After the election, appointments made online for all kinds of birth control services spiked 40 percent over the same time last year."

Dr. Amy Whitaker, medical director of Planned Parenthood of Illinois, said some women cited Trump's pledge to repeal the ACA for making appointments, Schencker writes. Whitaker told her, "People are legitimately worried that they might lose their insurance."

Humans blamed for rising grizzly bear deaths at Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone grizzly bear (Reuters photo by Jim Urquhart)
Humans are being blamed for an unusually high number of grizzly bear deaths in Yellowstone National Park, Laura Zuckerman reports for Reuters. This year 55 grizzly-bear carcasses have been found, with wildlife advocates expecting the number of dead to grow to at least 61 by the end of the year, compared to 28 in 2014 and 29 in 2013.

"Nearly half the grizzlies were killed by government bear managers for preying on cattle, sheep and the like," Zuckerman writes, but the increase in deaths is being blamed on a "growing number of the bruins harming livestock or challenging hunters over freshly killed game. ... The uptick in bear deaths comes as the Obama administration says the population of roughly 690 bears in and around Yellowstone has come back from the brink of extinction and should be stripped of U.S. Endangered Species Act protections. The plan, proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year, opens the way for hunting in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, the Northern Rocky Mountain states that border the park."

Sportsmen and ranchers support the plan, claiming "the number of conflicts will diminish by targeting bears that bounce hunters off freshly shot game or which harm livestock," Zuckerman writes, Conservationists and Native Americans, who consider the grizzly to be sacred, oppose removing the bears from endangered status. (Read more)

Public Notice Resource Center contest to award $500 for top story based on a paid public notice

Good story ideas are often found in the small print of paid public notices, often called legal advertising. The Public Notice Resource Center is holding its annual Public Notice Journalism Contest, which awards a grand prize of $500 and a trip to Washington, D.C., where the winner will be honored at the National Press Club. There is no fee to enter. The entry deadline is Jan. 27, 2017.

Entries are required to be a reported story, or series of stories, based on a paid public notice that was published in a newspaper in 2016. Opinion pieces and editorials will not be accepted. The story must refer to the public notice, which the contest considers to be "an announcement or disclosure the law requires a private party or governmental entity to publish in a statutorily qualified newspaper." For more information or to submit an entry, click here.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

State-level data shows where most opioid deaths occur; Ohio had the most, W.Va. had the top rate

Ohio leads the nation in opioid overdose deaths and West Virginia has the highest per-capita death rate, says a study by the Center For Disease Control and Prevention. The study found that the U.S. had 28,467 opioid-overdose deaths in 2014. The Kaiser Family Foundation used the study to create state-level data that found Ohio had the most opioid deaths with 2,106. California, which has more than three times the population of Ohio, was next, at 2,024, followed by New York (1,739), Florida (1,399) and Illinois (1,205). Ohio accounted for 7.4 percent of all opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2014.

West Virginia had the highest rate of opioid deaths, at 35.5 per every 100,000 people, states the CDC report. New Mexico was second at 27.3, followed by New Hampshire (26.2), Kentucky (24.7) and Ohio (24.6). "States with statistically significant increases in the rate of drug overdose deaths from 2013 to 2014 included Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia."

The Kaiser study totaled state-level data for total deaths and percentage of overdose deaths statewide and nationally for natural and semisynthetic opioids, synthetic opioids other than methadone, methadone, heroin and overall opioid deaths. (Screenshot of interactive Kaiser map: Opioid deaths in the U.S. in 2014, highlighting Ohio)
The opioid epidemic in Ohio has gotten worse since the CDC study's data period, Chris Stewart reports for the Journal-News in Dayton. The Ohio Department of Health reported 2,590 opioid deaths in 2015, a 23 percent increase from 2014. Helen Jones-Kelley, executive director of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Montgomery County, told Stewart, "We still have not peaked yet. That’s the scariest part.”

Farm income to decline for third straight year

Farm income is predicted to decline in 2016 for the third straight year since reaching record highs in 2013, says a report by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Net cash farm income is forecast at $90.1 billion, a decline of 14.6 percent, and net farm income at $66.9 billion, a decline of 17.2 percent. Net cash farm income declined 19.8 percent in 2015 and net farm income by 12.7 percent. (USDA graphic: Net farm income from 2000-2016)
While crop receipts are expected to remain mostly unchanged, "animal products receipts are forecast to drop $23.4 billion, about 12.3 percent, in 2016," Spencer Chase reports for Agri-Pulse. "For the second straight year, production expenses are expected to decrease. ERS forecasts a 2.6 percent drop in 2016 after those same expenses fell 8.1 percent in 2015. The 2016 decline is expected to total about $9.2 billion. Expenses peaked in 2014 at $390 billion. Net rent expenses are also expected to drop in 2016 by almost $20 billion, or 1.6 percent."

"Some slight relief looks to be headed to producers as production expenses are predicted to fall while government payments increase," Chase writes. "Those payments are seen rising by $2.1 billion, or just over 19 percent in 2016, pushed by a whopping 159.6 percent jump in payments under the Price Loss Coverage program and a 35.7 percent increase in the Agricultural Risk Coverage program."

Oklahoma regulations could drastically reduce earthquakes linked to fracking, says Stanford study

State regulations in Oklahoma could drastically reduce the number of magnitude-3 or higher earthquakes linked to injection wells used to dispose of drilling waste from horizontal hydraulic fracturing, says a Stanford University study published in Science Advances. Researchers say the regulations—which call for a 40 percent reduction in the volume of saltwater being injected in the seismically active areas—should significantly decrease the number of man-made earthquakes "by the end of 2016 and approach historic levels within a few years."

Oklahoma had more earthquakes in 2015—903 of magnitude 3.0 or higher—than the combined total of every state except Alaska. Prior to the oil and gas boom that began in 2009, Oklahoma averaged two earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher per year. The U.S. Geological Survey in March for the first time released maps of earthquakes attributable to human activity. USGS has attributed Oklahoma's increased seismic activity to injection wells. (Stanford map: Oklahoma earthquakes)
The study does have some problems, Mike Soraghan reports for Energywire. The model and prediction "assumes wastewater disposal doesn't increase in earthquake-prone areas. The current decline has been caused both by regulatory restrictions and reduced production because of low oil prices. The model predicts about 250 quakes of magnitude 3 or greater next year and about a 40 percent chance of a quake of magnitude 5 or greater."

Justin Rubinstein, a research geophysicist heavily involved in the Geological Survey's research into the man-made quakes, "said the Stanford model makes sense but seems optimistic," Soraghan writes. "Rubinstein noted some of the uncertainty in the study. The model is adapted from one used for much simpler scenarios—geothermal or oil and gas operations associated with a single well. And within their broad prediction," the study's authors "allow that isolated areas could continue having unusual quake levels beyond the predicted five to 10 years."

About half of U.S. adults are fatter than they think they are, say Gallup poll and CDC study

One of the biggest problems with the obesity epidemic could be that many Americans think they're not as overweight as they really are, Art Swift reports for The Gallup Organization. An annual Gallup poll conducted earlier this month of 1,019 adults in all 50 states found that 37 percent of adults feel they are somewhat overweight or very overweight, matching the average trend from polls since 2010. Those numbers are down from 41 percent from 2000-2009 and 44 percent from 1990-99.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that 56 percent of Americans in 1990 were considered obese or overweight and 48 percent of Gallup poll respondents that year agreed, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post. Today, 70.4 percent of Americans are obese or overweight, nearly twice as many as said so on the most recent Gallup poll.

Also, the ideal weight and actual weight are on the rise, Ingraham writes. The average weight for men has risen from 180 in 1990 to 194 today, with the ideal weight increasing from 171 to 182. For women, the actual weight has increased from 142 to 158 and the ideal weight from 129 to 140. (Post graphic: Percent of overweight adults vs. those who say they are overweight)
Yale University physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis, who specializes in biological behavior, told Ingraham, "As a person's social contacts gain weight, it seems to change the person’s idea about what an acceptable body size is. This may result in the person him/herself gaining weight, or, even if it does not, it makes the person more accepting of other people’s weight gain."

Twenty-five states have adult obesity rates over 30 percent, according to the 2016 State of Obesity report. Nine of the 11 most obese states are in the South, and 22 of the top 25 are in the South and Midwest. Louisiana has the highest obesity rate, 36.2 percent. Obesity rates are above 20 percent in every state; in 1991, no state had a rate above 20 percent.

Federal court orders N.C. to redraw GOP-friendly legislative districts and hold special elections

"A federal court on Tuesday ordered North Carolina to hold a special legislative election next year after 28 state House and Senate districts are redrawn to comply with a gerrymandering ruling," Colin Campbell reports for The News & Observer in Raleigh. "U.S. District Court judges earlier this year threw out the current legislative district map, ruling that 28 of them were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. They allowed the 2016 election to continue under the old maps, but ordered legislators to draw new districts in 2017." Some states—typically ones controlled by Republicans—have been accused of redrawing district maps to ensure that GOP candidates win races.

Legislators have until March 15 to redraw new maps, Campbell writes. "Every legislator whose district is altered will have their current term shortened. A primary would be held in late August or early September—the legislature is responsible for setting the exact date – with the general election in November, the order says."

State Republicans were critical of the decision, which they are appealing, Campbell report. Legislators said in a release: "This politically motivated decision, which would effectively undo the will of millions of North Carolinians just days after they cast their ballots, is a gross overreach that blatantly disregards the constitutional guarantee for voters to duly elect their legislators to biennial terms."

Top strip-mine regulator says Trump should see abandoned-mine damage before making promises

President-elect Donald Trump, who promised to revive coal, needs to see first-hand the negative effects of abandoned coal mines in Appalachia before continuing to make promises, the director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement told Bloomberg News.

Joseph Pizarchik told reporter Stephen Lee, “He doesn’t have to go far. Just go from New York City to northeastern Pennsylvania. He can see thousands of acres of dangerous mines, polluted mine water, destroyed lands, destroyed communities, communities that were abandoned by companies after they destroyed the land and water.”

While Trump says "lifting regulations on the coal sector will bring back jobs and revive struggling communities," experts say the industry's main problem isn't regulations, but cheaper natural gas, Lee writes. Pizarchik told Lee, “I can appreciate his desire to want to help people. But if you mine more coal, you have to have a market for it. Just mining it is not going to create jobs in the long run.”

Not everyone agrees with Pizarchik, Lee writes. Christian Palich, president of the Ohio Coal Association, "said those who question coal’s future 'might be the same people who predicted Trump wouldn’t have a path to 270' votes in the electoral college." Palich told Lee, "With a president that supports coal, I think you definitely could see a rally. Create the right atmosphere and the market will do what the market does. Once you have a president not picking winners and losers, I think coal is going to be in a very good position to thrive.” (Read more)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Rural areas can help revitalize local economies by training more students in computer science

Gina Green teaches computer science in Bolivar, Mo.(CNN photo)
Computer coding, a fast-growing industry, could help revitalize struggling rural economies if more of those areas concentrated on educating students, Matt McFarland reports for CNN Money. "There are more than half a million open computing jobs nationwide, according to Code.org. But students growing up in the countryside aren't prepared for them. Rural students are far less likely than their peers in cities and suburbs to gain exposure to rigorous computer science training."

The College Board's Computer Science A course is its fastest growing AP course, with enrollment doubling in the past five years, McFarland writes. Barbara Ericson of Georgia Tech told him that urban students are more likely to enroll in it. 

One problem in rural areas is there aren't enough qualified teachers to train students, McFarland writes. Another problem is funding. "If budget cuts happen, computer science, which generally isn't part of a core curriculum, may land on the chopping block." Also, a 2015 Gallup poll found that 43 percent of rural school boards believe computer science classes are important, compared to 52 percent from urban areas.

Gina Green, who teaches computer science in rural Bolivar, Mo., told McFarland, "It's imperative that in rural America that we say, this is an option for you. All these jobs are disappearing. All across the nation, these traditional jobs are disappearing. I think it's an opportunity for these kids to achieve the American Dream."

Rural America favored Trump, but agendas of many rural residents and farmers are not the same

Many in the agricultural industry cheered Donald Trump's presidential victory as a sign that rural America had made its voice heard loud and clear, Dan Charles reports for NPR. But farmers and non-farmers in rural areas do not all share the same agendas, and are adverse to each other on some key issues.

Many rural residents supported Trump's stance on deportation and tighter border security, including building a wall along the U.S./Mexican border, Charles writes. Farmers rely on immigrant labor—often consisting of undocumented immigrants. They also "favor trade deals that Trump attacked during his campaign, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, which could expand their exports of pork, beef and grain."

Struggling small towns might not need farmers, who make up a very small minority of rural residents, as much as farmers might need the small town, Charles writes. Chuck Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Iowa, told Charles that farmers "are worrying about that car dealer, and they're worrying about that bank, and they're worrying about the small insurance company and they're hoping to God that they don't lose their school."

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall in his post-election statement "referred interchangeably to 'rural Americans' and 'America's farmers and ranchers,' suggesting that those are the same people," Charles notes. Duvall talked about "free trade, environmental deregulation, immigration policies that don't take away farm workers and continued funding for programs that help farmers financially when prices fall or bad weather ruins their crops. But does the rest of rural America care about these issues?"

A recurring theme in many small towns is a need to keep young people from moving away to ensure the town's future, Charles writes. "This, in fact, is why many Midwestern mayors and county commissioners are no longer quite so focused on getting companies to move to their communities, in order to bring in new jobs. Jobs aren't enough to make their millennials stay." That means investing in youth and the community in ways that make the younger generation want to stay or return home after college. (Read more)

Rural library in northeast Oregon gets creative to boost child participation by 143%

The Pajama Story Time and Stuffed Animal Sleepover
event has been a popular addition to the library
(Union-Bulletin photo by Michael Lopez)
A once struggling rural library in the Northwest has gotten creative to get children through the doors, Sheila Hagar reports for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. Since Erin Wells took over two years ago as library director at the Milton-Freewater Public Library just across the Washington-Oregon border, child participation has increased 143 percent and circulation by 35 percent.

"Experts say while most libraries around the nation have survived the e-book scare, they’ve had to evolve to stay relevant in a culture that reads digitally more often than print, and buys books online with the click of a button," Hagar writes. "That’s meant developing new ways to serve library patrons, and in rural areas it takes creativity to meet the challenge with what are often bare-bones budgets."

Through grants and community donations the library has been able to triple the size of space dedicated to children’s books and activities, Hagar writes. They also added a no-shush zone so children can be free to make noise and a teen room equipped with black chairs and video games. Wells told Hagar, “It’s no longer focused on how many books are getting checked out, but more about the programs, more about how to serve the community.”

Best Places map
Nationally, about 8,400 public libraries are located in rural areas, says a 2013 study by the Association for Rural & Small Libraries, Hagar writes. "That study found that declining budgets and how people perceive libraries are among the most serious concerns in rural settings." The study's authors wrote: “The aging of the small library workforce, coupled with the financing challenges facing many small libraries and the growing perception that libraries are no longer needed, suggest that small community libraries are facing, over the next decade, a fight for survival."

Potential candidates for agriculture secretary include Kansas governor, former Georgia governor

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (MSNBC image)
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has made a point of pushing rural areas to the forefront during his eight years in office. With a change of administration coming in January, there will be a new agriculture secretary. While President-elect Donald Trump hasn't focused much on agriculture or Vilsack's replacement, there are some names floating around that could take the helm, Dan Nosowitz, reports for Modern Farmer. Nosowitz looks at four potential candidates. He doesn't mention Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp, who earlier this month expressed interest in being agriculture secretary.

Here are four potential candidates:

Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback "was the secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture from 1986 to 1993 and while a senator served on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee," Nosowitz writes. Brownback, who has voted to increase minimum wage and to limit farm subsidies, "supports increasing the number of legal immigrants and was a co-sponsor of the 2005 Kennedy/McCain bill aimed at creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He especially supports more foreign workers in the U.S. for farm work and has worked to establish a guest worker program." He also opposed universal healthcare.

Chuck Conner, former former deputy ag secretary under George W. Bush, "has gone on record supporting improved access to global markets, a substantial safety net for farmers and a reduction in regulations from the EPA," Nosowitz writes. "He has supported a guest worker program and has vigorously supported an overhaul of the immigration system to ensure that immigrant workers can safely and legally take on farm work."

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller reversed "the ban on soft drinks and fried foods in Texas public schools," Nosowitz writes. "Miller has been extremely controversial in Texas, at the center of several firestorms about unethical financial transactions like using public funds to receive a cure-all medical shot and compete in a rodeo, or hiring his closest advisor’s wife, or the repayment of loans with campaign funds. An early Trump supporter, Miller is best known outside Texas for calling Hillary Clinton an extremely bad word on Twitter."

Sonny Perdue, the former governor of Georgia, "did not focus on agriculture in his governorship (2003-2011)," Nosowitz writes. "He won his initial governorship campaign by opposing the removal of the Confederate symbol from the Georgia state flag. He has opposed universal health care and access to welfare and other services for illegal immigrants."

HIV among rural white drug users not falling as urban figure is; areas lack syringe exchanges

HIV infections among people who
inject drugs (CDC graphic)
The number of HIV cases connected to intravenous drug use among rural whites dropped 28 percent from 2008 to 2012, but remained stable in 2010-14, says a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The main reason is a lack of syringe-exchange programs, the report states.

While HIV cases among rural whites have remained stable, they decreased 50 percent among rural and urban blacks and Hispanics from 2008 to 2014. HIV cases declined 28 percent among urban whites from 2008 to 2012, but remained stable in 2012-14.

The study, which used National HIV Surveillance System data from 2008-14 and interviews of people who inject drugs in 22 cities, found that syringe-exchange programs have steadily increased, "but most people who inject drugs still don’t always use sterile needles," Lena Sun reports for The Washington Post. In the study area, only 29 percent of Hispanics, 28 percent of blacks and 22 percent of whites got their needles from a syringe exchange.

CDC Director Tom Frieden told the Post, “The big picture here is that we’ve had a lot of progress reducing HIV infections spread by needles and we’re at risk of stalling or reversing that progress. More people appear to be injecting drugs, more people are sharing needles, and there are more places not covered by syringe service programs.”

In June CDC identified 220 counties—most of them rural—that are most vulnerable to an HIV or hepatitis C outbreak similar to last year's epidemic in Austin, Ind., where about 200 people were diagnosed with HIV. The opioid epidemic has been growing in rural areas, especially in Central Appalachia. (CDC map: Pink areas are vulnerable to HIV and hepatitis C infection. Green areas have needle exchange programs; map needs updating)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Media haven't ignored rural, reporter-turned-professor says after researching 50 years' coverage

Alecia Swasy
A common post-election theme has been the supposed failure by the national news media to cover or understand rural America, but evidence over the last 50 years points to the contrary, Alecia Swasy, Donald W. Reynolds Chair in Business Journalism at Washington & Lee University, writes for The Poynter Institute.

Swasy, who wrote for The Wall Street JournalThe Tampa Bay Times and the Lexington Herald-Leader, reviewed articles from 1964 to 2014 in the nation’s largest newspapers, weekly magazines and the leading papers in the Southeastern U.S.  She writes, "The research shows reason for optimism: Reporters and photographers given the chance to travel to remote areas have done a terrific job of putting a face on the plight of the poor. . . . The research shows that, despite the criticism of the biggest newspapers as being out of touch, the best coverage of serious issues facing rural America has been delivered by The New York Times and The Washington Post," She writes. "Both look for stories that put a face on what really happens when policies made miles away in Congress hit small towns."

"The autopsy of the 2016 election must include some tough choices by news organizations on how to do a more consistent job of covering America’s heartland," she writes. "And those of us now teaching future journalists need to work harder to reinforce the basics of quality reporting. We must teach rigorous, critical thinking so young reporters will be more skeptical and dogged to find the best sources, unpack promises, reveal hidden agendas and follow the money trails. We must teach them that Twitter is not a replacement for knocking on doors and going to the picket lines." (Read more)

Clinton and other Democrats would've won if they hadn't ignored rural areas, rural Democrats say

Rural Democrats say Hillary Clinton would be headed to the White House and Congress would be coming under Democratic control if those candidates had paid the slightest attention to rural areas, Alex Roarty reports for Roll Call. "Strategists and party officials say their warnings about the party’s lackluster outreach to rural voters went unheeded by Democratic leaders for years," leading those areas to propel Donald Trump to victory, despite the candidate losing most cities and the popular vote.

"To these old Democratic political hands—many of whom hail from well outside the cities where most party professionals live—the outcome would have been preventable if the party had developed and sustained an effort to win over these voters," Roarty writes. "Instead, they say a Democratic Party that focused on only the urban and suburban vote either ignored rural America entirely or badly mishandled the outreach it did undertake."

Vickie Rock, a member of the Nevada State Democratic Central Committee from rural Humboldt County, told Roarty, “The Democratic Party ceded rural America to the Republicans quite some time ago. They invested nothing, they built no bench. They don’t even send out signs anymore, which is a staple of rural politics. All Trump had to do was peel off a small percentage of urban votes, and he was going to win. Because he already had, in his back pocket, rural America.”

Democratic strategists say one problem is that many candidates see all rural voters as being whites who work in agriculture, though rural areas have large black and Latino populations and are dominated by other occupations, Roarty writes. Others say voters just want to be made to feel important, a task that could have been accomplished if candidates had simply shown up in rural areas. Many didn't. And when they did, strategists say they "were ill-equipped for the nuances of a campaign in rural America" and told voters what to do, instead of listening to concerns. (Read more)

As more states pass animal welfare laws, ag groups step up fight against further regulations

A hog feeding operation near Tribune, Kan. (AP photo)
Massachusetts voters earlier this month passed an animal-welfare law, making it the 12th state "to ban the use of some livestock- and poultry-raising cages or crates, such as gestation crates for sows, veal crates for calves or battery cages for chickens," Jen Fifield reports for Stateline. All 12 states "have relatively small agriculture industries for animals and animal products and fewer large-scale farming operations."

But producers in states with large-scale farming, backed by state Farm Bureaus, have seen the writing on the wall and have begun proposing changes "that would make it harder for states to further regulate the way they do business," Fifield writes. "North Dakota and Missouri adopted amendments in the last few years that enshrined into their constitutions the right of farmers and ranchers to use current practices and technology. Legislatures in many states, including Indiana, Mississippi, Nebraska and West Virginia, considered proposed amendments this year. And Oklahoma voters this month rejected a similar amendment sent to them by the Legislature."

Daisy Freund, director of farm animal welfare for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said "the amendments would not only prevent states from passing new animal treatment laws, but would make it harder for anyone to win a lawsuit against an agriculture business, even if the operation was affecting nearby quality of life, or air or water quality," Fifield writes.

In recent years the agricultural industry has pushed for "ag-gag" laws to make it illegal to take photos or videos of private farm property without the owner’s permission or to lie about where they worked when they applying for a job on a farm, Fifield writes. "About 26 states considered ag-gag laws from 2010 to 2015, but only nine—Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming—passed them. Idaho’s ag-gag law was overturned last year by a U.S. district judge who said it suppressed freedom of speech and violated the Equal Protection Clause. Lawsuits are pending in North Carolina, Wyoming and Utah." 

N.D. governor orders pipeline protesters to leave, citing weather concerns; protesters staying put

5,000 to 7,000 people are camping at the protest site
(Forum News Service photo by Kevin Cederstrom)
Outgoing North Dakota Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple "has ordered an emergency evacuation of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camps on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land, citing safety concerns due to harsh winter weather," Amy Dalrymple reports for the Fargo Forum. A winter storm warning is in effect in the area through Wednesday morning, with forecasts calling for 8 to 13 inches of snow and winds reaching up to 25 miles per hour.

The emergency order, signed Monday, "states that people camping in areas near the Cannonball River are ordered to leave immediately and take their possessions with them," Dalrymple writes. "The order comes three days after the Corps told the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe it would close the Corps-managed land north of the Cannonball River on Dec. 5."

The order states: “Any person who chooses to enter, re-enter, or stay in the evacuation does so at their own risk, and assumes any and all corresponding liabilities for their unlawful presence and occupation of the evacuation area," Dalrymple writes. Jeff Zent, a spokesman for the governor, said the order will stay "in effect until rescinded, applies to Corps lands where the agency has not permitted camping." He said protesters would not be forcibly removed.

Protesters said they have no plans of leaving the camp, Dalrymple writes. Angela Bibens, an attorney who is leading a legal collective at the camp, told reporters "she does not believe the governor has jurisdiction on Corps-managed land. Bibens called the governor’s order a 'misuse of emergency declarations to justify an armed invasion of peaceful encampment' and said the collective will take legal action if any force is imposed on the camps."

Fire ravaging Great Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg eased but not stopped by overnight rain

Wildfire spread from the Chimney Tops in the Great Smoky
Mountains National Park to nearby towns. (WATE-TV image)
Rain last night and this morning has done little to quell a wildfire that started in the Tennessee part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and led to the mandatory evacuation of more than 14,000 visitors and residents in the parkside town of Gatlinburg and nearby communities, Amy J. Vellucci and Jamie Satterfield report for the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Officials from the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said "there was 'little hope' that the rainfall would bring relief anytime soon."

"Emergency responders have struggled to make a dent into the fires that have devastated Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and surrounding areas in Sevier County since high winds helped the flames spread Monday evening," Vellucci and Satterfield write. The Tennessee National Guard said it has made plans to dump water onto the flames from a helicopter. A state forestry officer said winds in advance of the front that brought the rain reached sustained speeds of 30 to 40 mph, with hurricane-force gusts, sweeping the fire from the park into the town. Three fire victims were in critical condition at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the News-Sentinel reported. UPDATE: The victims have died, The Associated Press reported. A fourth victim has been identified. UPDATE, Nov. 30: Three more victims have been identified, and some people are missing, authorities said. UPDATE, Dec. 1: The death toll reached 11.

Fire on Crockett Mountain above Sky Lift and The Gatlinburg Inn
(Photo circulated on social media)
News reports said more than 150 structures had been destroyed, including all 100 buildings of Westgate Resorts. The Dollywood amusement park in Pigeon Forge was evacuated, but no damage has been reported. Newmansville Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Bobby Balding told the News-Sentinel, "The center of Gatlinburg looks good for now. It's the Apocalypse on both sides (of downtown)." Gatlinburg Chief Greg Miller said, "This is a fire for the history books."

UPDATE, Nov. 30: Hotels and other downtown businesses are reopening, as soon as gas service can be restored. Authorities said 700 buildings or other structures had been damaged or destroyed.

Struggling energy communities in rural Colorado get a boost from legalized cannabis sales

Trinidad, Colo. (Best Places maps)
Rural Colorado communities that have been hurt by the loss of coal and oil jobs are recovering through legal marijuana, or cannabis, Leah Todd reports for The Santa Fe New Mexican. Since the state legalized recreational marijuana three years ago "the new stream of tax dollars hasn’t yet made a significant dent in Colorado’s economy statewide. In 2015, tax revenue from marijuana sales of $996 million weighed in at about $135 million, barely 1 percent of the state’s overall budge."

But the effect of legal cannabis has been felt in rural areas, Todd writes. Trinidad, a struggling coal community near the New Mexico border, "has used $1.5 million in marijuana revenue to replace old infrastructure, pay down debt and help redesign a city block as studio apartments for a growing arts community."

"De Bequem an oil town off Interstate 70 near the Utah border, is home to two recreational pot shops, an indoor growing facility and barely 500 people," Todd writes. Lance Stewart, the town administrator, said the cannabis industry has created about 35 jobs and "last year’s revenue from marijuana sales tax alone was about $340,000, nearly 20 percent of De Beque’s $2 million budget."

Rural officials remain cautiously optimistic about the boon, mainly because Colorado currently has no competition from surrounding states, Todd writes. There is fear that if neighboring states legalize cannabis, "Colorado could lose its valuable status as an island of marijuana legalization in a sea of prohibition."

Monday, November 28, 2016

A county's poor health status was, in fact, a strong predictor of its vote for Donald Trump

The Rural Blog reported anecdotal evidence a week after the presidential election of a correlation between counties that swung big to Donald Trump and those with poor health status. The Economist magazine used a weighted index of obesity, diabetes, heavy drinking, exercise and life expectancy as calculated by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Wisconsin, and found a statistical correlation with the difference in Trump's vote and the vote for Mitt Romney in 2012.

"Together, these variables explain 43 percent of Mr. Trump’s gains over Mr. Romney, just edging out the 41 percent accounted for by the share of non-college whites" in a county, which has been widely cited as the best statistical predictor of a swing to Trump. "The two categories significantly overlap: counties with a large proportion of whites without a degree also tend to fare poorly when it comes to public health. However, even after controlling for race, education, age, sex, income, marital status, immigration and employment, these figures remain highly statistically significant. Holding all other factors constant—including the share of non-college whites—the better physical shape a county’s residents are in, the worse Mr. Trump did relative to Mr. Romney."

The correlation is indicated by the slope of a scatterplot of counties on a graph with health status as the X axis (across the bottom) and change in Republican margin from 2012 as the Y axis. The county dots were scaled by size and colored by region. The colors showed that the Midwest made the big difference for Trump.
The chart on the Economist website is interactive, with data for each county. Here's a screenshot with the cursor on Pike County, Kentucky, in the heart of the Central Appalachian coalfield:
Counties that swung Republican by more than 30 percentage points, and had a health index below 30 on a 0-100 scale, with their swing and index, were: Adams County, Wisconsin (30.4, 27.2); Grundy County, Tennessee (34.7, 27.3); Washington County, Missouri (36.2, 29.4). Near-misses were Shoshone County, Idaho (29.2, 30.0); Starke County, Indiana (31.4, 30.6); Juneau County, Wisconsin (33.3, 30.6); and Arenac County, Michigan (28.4, 30.3).

Vilsack: Journalists can help bridge rural-urban divide, help citizens understand government

Tom Vilsack at the 2013 National Rural Assembly
(Daily Yonder photo by Shawn Poynter)
Tom Vilsack, the unofficial voice of rural America in Washington, D.C., is nearing the end of his term as agriculture secretary. In an interview with Tim Marema of the Daily Yonder, Vilsack said journalists can help bridge the rural-urban gap and ease the mistrust people have of politicians that was evident in this year's election. He also said journalists continuing to push for open government is an important step in the right direction.

Vilsack told Marema, "I don’t think that we do a particularly good job, government-wide, in educating people about that partnership. I think people have a tendency to think that government is all about regulations and taxes, when in fact it is very much also about services, and assistance and help, that is making a big difference in rural areas."

"I think we also need to reach out to our friends and neighbors in cities and suburbs to make sure that they are fully aware of the role that rural Americans play in providing a quality of life second to none for those city and suburban dwellers."

Vilsack has put together a 24-page memo to assist his yet-to-be-named replacement, Marema reports. Vilsack said he hopes for continuation of the White House Rural Council, which he said has led to a significant number of jobs being created. Vilsack also has been instrumental in getting funds for opioid addiction in rural areas and promoting telemedicine and federal health reform in underserved regions.

Since the election, Vilsack has been outspoken about what Democrats need to do in rural America, but he declined to talk politics with the Yonder in what he said was an "official" call urging rural residents to sign up for coverage under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Get past stereotypes, ruralite advises neighbors

Rural Americans "have to reach past the stereotypes to understand their fellow citizens, who are increasingly diverse, and who increasingly live in urban areas." That's a message from Rich Hepworth, a retired veteran and volunteer firefighter in Cheney, Wash., just south of Spokane.

Hepworth wrote to Washington Post reporter Jeff Guo, in response to the story Guo wrote the day after the election about the resentment that rural Wisconsin residents feel toward urban areas, as documented by University of Wisconsin political-science professor Kathy Cramer in her book, The Politics of Resentment. He told Guo that as a liberal, he disagrees politically with his neighbors, but "I can attest to the hard work, decency and self-sacrifice of these people." Here's the bulk of his message, which he gave Guo permission to publish:

"As your article makes clear, city folks, minorities and elites do not understand the problems of our rural residents. However, my rural friends do not understand the the problems and dreams and unfulfilled expectations of their counterparts in the urban areas.

"My rural friends have been conditioned by 30 years of right-wing radio to automatically distrust anything that smacks of elite privilege. The Black Lives Matter movement is completely foreign to them and they cannot possibly relate to the problems with which these people grapple or why all the government money should go to 'troublemakers' like them.

"Our country friends find it hard to believe that the 'elites' and urban residents have problems, too. They wonder why all the government money goes to city dwellers, but discount the fact that a lot of money goes to them in the form of Big Ag support programs. My country neighbors feel strongly that it’s the least the government can do for them since they work so hard. At the same time my city friends, who are also not achieving the American Dream, wonder why farmers should get paid for crops they aren’t even going to grow.

"Let us not forget that people on both sides of the divide have problems that are just as big and just as hard to solve. For most of us, many, perhaps most of these problems, are the same no matter where you live."

Raleigh editorial calls for urban-rural partnership to overcome political divide in North Carolina

The growing rural-urban divide hurts everyone in North Carolina, says an editorial by the Raleigh News & Observer. "The rural counties won’t really benefit, and will continue to shrink. The urban areas, if penalized for their prosperity, will lose jobs and begin a downturn of their own." Mayor Esther Manheimer of liberal Asheville told the N&O, “To me the job of an urban area is to provide a platform for a robust economy that serves the whole state. So we need to help explain that a win for rural is a win for urban and a win for urban is a win for rural.”

The editorial says, "Big companies that do international and national business need modern transportation and easy access to airports. That’s going to draw them to cities. But many of those businesses have service centers—call centers, for example—that don’t necessarily have to be in a city. Those should be opportunities for smaller communities."

"The state’s recruiters, in other words, need to think beyond the concept of getting a business to come to Charlotte or Raleigh, provide X number of jobs, and everyone lives happily ever after," states the editorial. "The state can seek those smaller businesses that might better fit smaller towns and counties. Those smaller towns can partner with larger ones, working together."

Despite tensions among lawmakers from rural and urban areas, they need to work together to keep the state moving forward, states the editorial. "There need be no urban-rural divide. There needs to be an urban-rural partnership, with all moving forward together."

Appalachia's 'forgotten people' count on Trump to fulfill promise to revive coal industry, bring jobs

Williamson, W.Va. (Best Places map)
Residents in depressed Appalachian coal communities who have said national politicians have forgotten them are now turning their hope to the White House and the man who promised to revive the coal industry, Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports for The New York Times. After winning the presidency—with huge support from Appalachia—Donald Trump echoed his campaign pledge, saying he would "create 'many millions of high-paying jobs' in energy, including coal," Stolberg notes. "Appalachians are eyeing Washington with a feeling they have not had in years; hope."

Trump's pledge will be "very difficult to keep," Stolberg writes, citing an earlier Times story and noting: "Utility companies have drastically reduced their reliance on coal, in part because of President Obama’s aggressive regulations to cut emissions that cause global warming, but also because natural gas is cheaper. Nationally, about 300 coal-fired power plants have closed since 2008, according to the National Mining Association, an industry group." Even if Trump undoes Obama's policies, many of those power plants are not coming back.

"But in this land of staggering beauty and economic pain, Trump backers said over and over again that while coal might never be what it once was, the businessman they helped send to the White House could indeed put them back to work—if not in mining, then in some other industry," Stolberg writes. "People in Appalachia are tired: tired of seeing their loved ones, and especially their children, leave for work in other states; tired of being viewed as ignorant hillbillies by well-to-do urbanites who do not recognize that when a family has been somewhere for generations, it is not so easy to pack up and leave; tired of feeling tired."

Natalie Taylor, executive director of the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce in Williamson, W.Va., told Stolberg that it didn't take much for Trump to win over Appalachia: “We’re a forgotten people. He mentions West Virginia, he mentions the coal workers, and that was pretty much all he had to do to seal this deal." (Read more)

Obamacare changes could make it more difficult for miners to get compensation for black lung

Impending changes to federal health laws could make it difficult for coal miners to get benefits for black-lung disease. "That’s because buried in the Affordable Care Act are three sentences that made it much easier to access these benefits," Eric Boodman reports for Stat, the national health-and-science website of The Boston Globe. If those sentences are repealed, "Miners will be back to where they were in 2009, when it was exceedingly difficult to be awarded compensation for black lung."

Before the 2010 law, "to qualify for benefits, miners had to prove not only that they were disabled because of breathing problems, and that they had coal workers’ black lung, but that their disability was caused by their years in the mine," Boodman writes. That was “almost impossible,” Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, told Boodman: “The vast majority of people were denied benefits. People would take these cases through the black lung court system and they would be denied because the companies could sow the shadow of a seed of a doubt.”

The reform law "shifted the burden of proof from the miners onto the mining companies," Boodman writes. "If a miner has spent 15 years or more underground and can prove respiratory disability, then it is presumed to be black lung related to mine work, unless the company can prove otherwise." Before the law, 19 percent of black lung disease claims were successful. In 2015, 28 percent of claims were successful.

The coal industry has opposed the provision. Bruce Watzman, vice president of the National Mining Association, told Boodman, “Our concern back then, which continues today is that … compensation is not based on occupational disease, but rather this is becoming a supplemental pension program, and that was not what it was ever intended to be." (Read more)

EPA releases 2017 Renewable Fuel Standards for biofuels; farm groups mostly support regulations

The Environmental Protection Agency says it "has finalized the volume requirements and associated percentage standards under the Renewable Fuel Standards program for calendar year 2017 for cellulosic biofuel, advanced biofuel, and total renewable fuel, and biomass-based diesel for 2018."

Farm and Dairy reports, "Non-advanced or 'conventional' renewable fuel will increase in 2017, meeting the 15 billion-gallon congressional target for conventional fuels. The advanced biofuel standard—comprised of biomass-based diesel, cellulosic biofuel, and other biofuel—increases 19 percent over the 2016 standard. The total renewable fuel volume will grow 1.2 billion gallons from 2016 to 2017, a 6 percent increase."

Farm groups indicated support for the standards. The National Farmers Union said: "We are appreciative that EPA has raised the RFS volume obligations from their initial proposal to meet the 15 billion volume obligations set by Congress. Today’s action shows a clear commitment to achieving the environmental benefits inherent in conventional ethanol and to protecting the future of advanced biofuels in the market."

Wesley Spurlock, a Texas farmer and National Corn Growers Association president, "said the decision was a step in the right direction," reports Farm and Dairy. The American Soybean Association "said the increases are encouraging, but said there is more opportunity," saying they "would still like to see additional support and promotion of domestically produced biodiesel, through higher volumes for the biomass-based diesel category."

Princeton has summer journalism program for good students from families with incomes below $45K

The Princeton University Summer Journalism Program, an all-expenses-paid journalism and college preparation program for high school juniors from low-income backgrounds, has opened its application process for 2017. The deadline is Feb. 24.

In the 10-day program, 35 to 40 students learn reporting skills from top journalists, cover news and sports events, produce a TV segment and their own newspaper, and are paired with a counselor who oversees their college admissions process. The program includes a diagnostic SAT or ACT exam.

The program is in its 16th year. Its website says it is "the country's only high-school program that seeks to propel low-income students into professional newsrooms by combining journalism education with intensive college admissions preparation — and pays all the expenses of students who attend. Of the program's approximately 350 alumni, 61 have gone to Ivy League schools, and alumni have gone on to jobs and internships at The New York Times, The New Yorker, NPR and many other news outlets.

To apply, students must have a grade-point average of 3.5 of a 4.0 scale. In most cases, the combined income of their custodial parents or guardians plus child support payments, if any, must not exceed $45,000. Students from households with higher incomes may apply, if they attach a statement explaining why they believe their family qualifies as financially under-resourced. The application and more information about the program can be found at www.princeton.edu/sjp and is due at 11:59 p.m. EST Friday, February 24. The program will be held at Princeton Aug. 4-14.