Saturday, August 03, 2019

Death of a rural newspaper: An obituary, an autopsy, and a case study of the causes and import of a 'news desert'

Ruth Stukel, 93, former librarian and two-term mayor in Warroad, Minnesota, read the paper at the Warroad Senior Living Center and said, “I’m gonna miss it. I’m missing it already.” (Photo by Tim Gruber, The New York Times)
Warroad and Roseau County, Minnesota (Google map)
On May 10, The Rural Blog reported on the death the Warroad Pioneer, a weekly newspaper in northern Minnesota, including some comments that New York Times reporter Richard Fausset made to Minnesota Public Radio. This week Fausset's story about the paper's death appeared, and it is an obituary, an autopsy and a case study that includes factors that surely led to the closure of almost 2,000 newspapers in the last 15 years -- most of them in non-county-seat towns like Warroad, now called "news deserts," a term coined by Penny Abernathy of the University of North Carolina, the researcher who inventories the newspaper industry.

"It had been a death by familiar cuts," Fausset reports. "Hardly anyone took out a classified ad anymore. Amazon, with its doorstep retail service, has felt particularly miraculous in this remote stretch of Minnesota, where winter temperatures can dip to minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Storefront retail has suffered. Doug’s Supermarket, the only grocer in town, preferred to put its color shopping inserts inside a fat, free, ads-only mailer called The Northland Trading Post. . . . More than a year ago, [Publisher Rebecca] Colden was forced to lay off her sole freelance local government reporter. The desert was already creeping, and people felt it." Factory worker Bill Boyd, 55, told Fausset, “If you wanted to get a snowblower, you used to look at the paper. Now all of that’s on Facebook.”

Fausset writes, "This, then, was what the desert might look like: No hometown paper to print the obituaries from the Helgeson Funeral Home. No place to chronicle the exploits of the beloved high school hockey teams. No historical record for the little town museum, which had carefully kept the newspaper in boxes going back to 1897." A new, free-distribution paper, The Warroad Advocate, is in the midst of what its publishers call a 13-week trial, its fate dependent "on community and advertiser support," Fausset reports.

Without a local paper, some in Warroad "imagined the news moving from person to person, unedited and unchecked, on Facebook or other social media networks," Fausset reports. “A lot of it is going to be word of mouth through kaffeeklatsches,” former county commissioner Todd Miller told him. “And who knows what variant of BS gets passed around there.”

Fausset also describes the fundamental conflict in community journalism: the professional obligation to publish without fear or favor, and the personal desire to be a friend and neighbor in the community.

"There were only so many people in Warroad the paper could afford to offend," he writes. "In early April, they learned of the case against Joshua Demmerly, a hometown boy who became a Warroad police officer. In court documents, the authorities accused Mr. Demmerly, 29, of stalking, kidnapping and sexually assaulting a Warroad teenager. Detailed descriptions of the allegations were divulged in other, bigger Minnesota news outlets. And though The Pioneer ran the article on its front page, it was mostly just a bare-bones list of the charges."

But Colden also showed her professional steel "in April 2010, when she was forced to tangle with John W. Marvin," known as Jake, then CEO of Marvin Windows and Doors, the town's main employer. "The paper had published an article about Mr. Marvin’s daughter, Brooke Marvin, above the fold, along with her mug shot. The story described a chaotic scene at a trailer park, and reported that Ms. Marvin had been arrested on charges of misdemeanor domestic assault, obstructing arrest and criminal damage to property," Fausset reports. "It was a bold move. Mr. Marvin’s brother, Bob Marvin, has been Warroad’s mayor since 1995. During the recession, the company earned the gratitude of the community by refusing to lay off workers, instead cutting hours and pay — a strategy that also earned repeated praise from President Barack Obama. Ms. Colden said she heard from Jake Marvin soon after the article came out. He was angry. 'Your name’s no different than anybody else’s name,' she recalls telling him, 'and we publish other people’s children who get in trouble the same way.'" But no one does that now.

New generation of entrepreneurs emerges in Great Plains

Can “energy combined with business and social media savvy” seen in a new kind of young agribusiness entrepreneur help reverse the population decline in rural America?

That’s the question posed in a Christian Science Monitor story by Laurent Belsie, who gives anecdotal evidence that the Great Plains has a new generation of entrepreneurs — the first born after the farm crisis in the 1980s — who want to make their way by starting businesses in America’s farming communities. He describes them as “young people who straddle the end of the millennial generation and the beginning of Generation Z.”

Great Plains (Department of the Interior)
They go straight to building businesses in small communities rather than going first to cities to acquire skills.

“Unlike those who take over a conventional farm and help make it bigger and more efficient, these enterprising young people are starting small and unconventional operations,” Belsie writes.

Among several examples of young entrepreneurs starting “small and unconventional operations” is Hannah Esch of Nebraska, who owns Oak Barn Beef. Her new business has $52,000 in sales and has sold out of beef four times. She expects to double the business in the next year, around the time she finishes college.

Twin brothers Matt and Joe Brugger, who market beef directly from their own cows and grow hops for microbreweries, are renovating an old farmhouse on their family homestead. Free housing is a benefit, but there’s more to their desire to be back home. “It’s the place their great-grandfather bought when he moved here from Switzerland. It’s where their grandfather was born and where they played as children when the house was later rented by people who kept sheep.”

Gothenburg in Dawson County
and Nebraska (Wikipedia map)
Last September in Gothenburg, Neb. (pop. 3,448), Taylor Walker opened T. Walker’s restaurant on Main Street. He left college a year short of a teaching degree, explaining, “I’m not a real fan of the big cities … I had seen how the community of Gothenburg treated my dad with his businesses. If they continue that for me, then I owe it to them to be here.” Gothenburg also has a new newspaper, the Gothenburg Leader, started by two local entrepreneurs. The town is a financial and services center for the surrounding agricultural area.

“There is a spirit in these young people that is different than anything I’ve ever experienced,” says Tom Field, director of the eight-year-old Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Of the 120 or more of its alumni, “90 percent of them say their goal is to return — or they choose to live in — a small or rural community. These are students who have had international experiences, had internships on both coasts, but they choose to live and work and play in places where they have a deep affinity with the culture, the people, and the landscape.”

Trade war escalates with new, broader tariffs on Chinese imports; more pressure on farmers, maybe through 2020

The U.S. trade war with China escalated again Thursday when President Trump said he would put a 10 percent tariff on an additional $300 billion worth of Chinese imports in September.

The announcement came as trade talks continued and as the president complained China didn’t follow through with a promise to buy more American farm products, and charged that China hasn’t stemmed the flow of the deadly opioid fentanyl to the U.S.

The tariffs would be in addition to 25 percent Trump previously imposed on $250 billion worth of goods from China. His announcement "stunned financial markets" and brought a warning from China that it would "have to take necessary counter-measures," Reuters reports.

The Associated Press notes, "U.S. consumers are likely to feel the pain if Trump proceeds with the new tariffs. Trump’s earlier tariffs had been designed to minimize the impact on ordinary Americans by focusing on industrial goods. The new tariffs will hit a vast range of consumer products from cellphones to silk scarves."

American farmers are particularly vulnerable in the trade war, so the administration announced another aid package for farmers hurt by it, but the source of money for that is running short, and many observers expect the Chinese to hang tough until after the presidential election in 15 months.

A Democratic-leaning group, Tariffs Hurt the Heartland, warned that more tariffs could result in farm failures: “The administration is doubling down on a failing strategy. Nobody wins in a trade war, and raising tariffs further on American businesses and consumers will only result in slower economic growth, more farm bankruptcies, fewer jobs and higher prices. . . . We all agree China is a bad actor, but an unprecedented tax hike on hardworking Americans is not the answer. It's time for the administration to come up with a real strategy, put a stop to harmful tariffs and finally deliver the trade deal Americans were promised."

FDA approval of 'plant blood' would allow Impossible Burger to be sold in raw form at grocery stores beginning Sept. 4

The Food and Drug Administration has cleared the way for the Impossible Burger with soy leghemoglobin — also known as "plant blood" — to be sold in its raw form in grocery stores.

The Impossible Burger (Photo by Getty Images)
An FDA rule making soy leghemoglobin a safe color additive will take effect Sept. 4 if no objections are raised that cause the agency to reverse its ruling, Bloomberg reports.

When heated, soy leghemoglobin lends the look and taste of real ground beef to the Impossible Burger by releasing the iron-based compound heme “the same way myoglobin in beef would release its heme,” Pat Clinton writes for The New Food Economy. “Heme is part of the characteristic flavor of meat, which is why Impossible wanted it in the first place.”

The Impossible Burger has been sold in restaurants for years (Burger King will offer an Impossible Whopper at all of its 7,000 U.S. restaurants beginning Aug. 8), but the raw version couldn’t be sold in stores without an FDA rule change about the safety of the color additive. Now Impossible Burger is poised to compete in stores with the other major plant-based, fake meat, Beyond Burger.

“Beyond’s shares have rocketed nearly eightfold since the company’s May initial public offering, putting the company’s current value at $11.8 billion,” The Wall Street Journal reports. “Late Wednesday, Beyond conducted a sale of 3.25 million shares at $160 each. Meanwhile, Impossible in May raised $300 million in new funding from private investors, valuing the company at $2 billion.”

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Small town in Western Kentucky dedicating statue to honor the legacy of African-American journalist Alice Dunnigan

A small county-seat town in Western Kentucky will honor native daughter Alice Allison Dunnigan (1906-1983), the first African-American woman to receive White House press credentials, with the dedication of a bronze statue Friday, Aug. 2.

Alice Dunnigan statue in her hometown
(Photo by sculptor Amanda Matthews)
The Dunnigan statue will stand in Russellville’s civil rights park, at East Sixth and Morgan streets, as a permanent memorial. The ceremony will begin at 4 p.m.

Dunnigan was the daughter of a tobacco sharecropper and a laundress in Logan County. She attended segregated schools in Russellville and earned her teaching credentials at Kentucky State University. She taught for 18 years in Logan and Todd County schools in Kentucky before moving to Washington during World War II. She worked for the Associated Negro Press and became its Washington bureau chief in 1947.

“In August of that year, after she had successfully lobbied for a change in the rules of the U.S. Senate to allow African-American journalists to attend presidential press conferences, Dunnigan began her career reporting on all branches of the federal government,” O.J. Stapleton reports for the News-Democrat & Leader in Russellville.

Dunnigan traveled on a whistle-stop tour with President Harry S. Truman, paying her own way because her boss said women didn’t make such trips. “Her statue has been on its own whistle-stop tour, having been displayed at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., the University of Kentucky, the Truman Presidential Library and Museum, and Kentucky State University,” Stapleton writes. “The statue was created by Amanda Matthews and Brad Connell, owners of Prometheus Art of Lexington.”

Stapleton notes that Dunnigan received more than 50 awards and is in the Kentucky halls of fame for civil rights, journalism and writers, "and the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Black Journalists. She authored two books: A Black Woman's Experience from the School House to the White House and The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Traditions."

Dunnigan’s story is an important one to teach because it gives people a reason to celebrate heritage, the community and the nation, Russellville resident and retired African-American studies professor Nancy Dawson told WKMS, the public radio station in Murray, Kentucky:  “With all the things we have going on politically, that’s more important … that people take pride and learn how to get past certain divisions and learn to work together. And I think these things do that.”

Pipeline that blew up, killing one, has exploded before; it remains a threat, says lawyer who settled suit with company


Lexington Herald-Leader drone video by Alex Slitz shows scene of Thursday's explosion

The natural-gas pipeline that blew up Thursday in Central Kentucky, killing one person and injuring several, has blown up several times -- and remains a threat to people living near it from Texas to New York, says a lawyer who negotiated a confidential settlement for a Pennsylvania woman injured in one blast, Valarie Honeycutt Spears and Beth Musgrave report for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Alfred Miler of the Louisville Courier Journal reports that since 2011, the pipeline has has 29 "significant incidents," according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In 1985, an explosion on the line about 70 miles southwest killed five people.

The line, owned by Enbridge Inc., exploded Jan. 21 in Noble County, Ohio, injuring two and destroying two homes, the Herald-Leader reports, adding: "In 2016, an explosion at a Greensburg, Pa., on the [same] Texas Eastern Transmission pipeline burned one person and prompted evacuation of the area about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh." In 1986-87, the line blew up in three places in Kentucky in 10 months, and the last one, just a few miles from Thursday's blast site, "prompted revisions in federal operating regulations for all pipeline companies. . . . The probable cause of the explosion was corrosion. A federal investigation later showed the company had known for about five months that the line was badly corroded but failed to repair it."

Enbridge Inc. map via Lexington Herald-Leader
Minnesota lawyer Fred Pritzker, who represented the victim in the 2016 Pennsylvania case, "said in that case and many other pipeline failure incidents, corrosion is the problem," the Herald-Leader reports, quoting him: “With the rate of corrosion on this pipeline, there are many sections of the pipeline that are essentially a ticking time bomb. These pipelines are not supposed to suddenly blow apart. When they do blow apart, it’s usually because of internal and external corrosion which eats away at the pipe wall to the point where the pipeline is no longer capable of withstanding . . . the pressure and it basically just blows it apart, the gas rushes out and it’s ignited by a spark."

Enbridge spokesman Michael Barnes told the Herald-Leader that Enbridge has owned the pipeline since February 2017. "He said he was unaware of the problems that occurred more than 30 years ago but would look into the history," the paper reports. "Barnes said a variety of things can cause a pipeline rupture, including land moving because of rain. He said the investigations could take months."

Administration poised to relax truck driver safety rules; critics say deadly truck crashes up 40% since 2009

The Trump administration is expected to relax trucking safety rules that many drivers see as too restrictive, but safety advocates disagree and point to a sharp rise in deadly truck crashes in the past decade, Frank Morris reports for NPR.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is expected to issue a notice that “will open a two month comment period on hours of service changes. Then the administration can move forward with new rules,” Morris reports. The agency is considering exceptions to the rule that caps driving time at 11 hours a day and requires at least 30 minutes of rest during that time. If the changes go through, the government would ease some regulations, including allowing drivers to break up their required sleep time.

Driver Michael Whitaker told Morris that tweaks in the regulations would make it easier for drivers to avoid rush-hour traffic. "We don't want to interact with cars during rush hour traffic. We want to stay as far away from you all as possible," he said.

Another driver, Carmen Anderson, said, “It's kind of like when you're in kindergarten and they're sitting there saying, OK, it's nap time. You have to take a nap.” Recalling a time when she was stranded in an industrial area, Anderson said she once spent 17 hours parked in a spot with no restrooms and no security because she had no flexibility in the regulations for hours of service.

Safety advocates disagree with the proposed changes. Dawn King, volunteer president of the Truck Safety Coalition, told Morris that the trucking industry has not produced data to show relaxed standards would increase safety. King said her father was killed by a tired trucker in 2004.

"We really should not be considering weakening the regulations we should be considering enhancing them," said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "The safety of everyone traveling on our roads is at stake." Chase said deadly truck crashes are up 40 percent since 2009.

Montana sportsmen, conservationists oppose appointment of public-lands opponent as co-director of BLM

This week’s appointment of William Perry Pendley as co-director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has drawn fire from Montana conservationists and sportsmen who see Perry as an opponent of public ownership of land.

William Perry Pendley
(Missoula Current photo)
A coalition including Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Montana Wilderness Association, the Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana Trout Unlimited and Montana Conservation Voters voice strong opposition to Pendley’s appointment, the Missoula Current reports.

“The BLM manages some of the most revered places in Montana, and we now have someone in charge of the BLM who would prefer to sell those places off rather than do the job of caring for them on behalf of all Americans,” said Kayje Booker, Montana Wilderness Association policy and advocacy director. “It’s hard to imagine anyone in this position more dangerous than William Perry Pendley.”

Pendley, of Colorado, was lead counsel for a Louisiana oil company that is suing the federal government for oil-drilling rights in the Badger-Two Medicine National Monument. He was also president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a property-rights group.

“On July 15, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt hired Pendley as the BLM’s deputy director of policy and programs, a position newly created for him. A week later, Bernhardt moved Pendley into a co-leadership spot with Michael Nedd after the previous acting director, Casey Hammond, stepped down,” Missoula Current staff writer Laura Lundquist reports.

“Pendley now oversees the management of 250 million acres of public land and 700 million acres of subsurface mineral rights throughout the nation. In Montana, the BLM manages approximately 8 million acres of public land, including a region just east of Missoula where conservation groups are opposing a recent draft management plan that emphasizes extractive activities.”

Blackjewel bankruptcy halts mine work in 4 states; unpaid Ky. miners block train; auction could reopen some mines

The bankruptcy of coal company Blackjewel LLC put more than 1,000 miners out of work in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Wyoming, and sparked a peaceful protest among miners in Eastern Kentucky whose paychecks bounced. But there was hope of some miners getting their jobs back with an auction scheduled today in federal bankruptcy court.

The Associated Press reported: “Bristol, Tennessee-based Contura Energy last week offered $20.6 million as the stalking horse bidder for two mines in Wyoming and one in West Virginia . . . The purchase could put hundreds back to work at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines in Wyoming and Pax Surface Mine in Scarbro, W.Va. They've been closed since Blackjewel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection July 1. According to the bidding process, other qualifying bids made by Wednesday's deadline triggered the auction. The notice didn't disclose the other bids. . . . Blackjewel also operates mines in Kentucky and Virginia, and the fate of those depends on the outcome of the bidding process.”

In Kentucky, where miners blocked railroad tracks to prevent Blackjewel from transporting coal, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported that the coal company failed to comply with state regulations that would have protected miners from losing pay for work they did.

Chris Kenning of the Courier Journal drove the 225 miles from Louisville to Harlan, which has seen coal booms and busts for a century, and reported that the Blackjewel debacle "roiled Harlan with unusual intensity . . . Difficult talks are playing out over dinner tables across Harlan County: whether to ride out such bankruptcies, sticking with coal as long as possible; leave home for steadier coal jobs in places like Alabama; or bet on a new career as local leaders try to attract new employers. The question on everyone’s mind: whether to quit coal, or wait until coal quits you."

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, issued a statement Thursday, criticizing Blackjewel and calling for federal assistance for miners affected by the coal company’s bankruptcy.

“I fully understand the number of coal companies that continue to struggle in the aftermath of the War on Coal, but undercutting employees who invested their time and talents to mine one of our greatest natural resources, is a shameful way to conduct business. Our coal miners deserve better and I will continue fighting for them," he said.

Rogers said he’s working to expedite assistance. The U.S. Department of Labor sent staff to Kentucky to interview the employees, he said.

He commended SOAR – Shaping Our Appalachian Region – for providing a tour bus to transport local coal miners to the hearing in Charleston on Monday.

The general manager of WYMT-TV, a CBS affiliate in nearby Hazard, weighed in with an editorial. Neil Middleton, who grew up in the region, called Blackjewel’s actions “shameful.” He wrote, “The peaceful protest is gaining support from across the state and country. More than 1,100 miners in Kentucky, Wyoming, West Virginia and Virginia lost their jobs when the bankrupt company shut down. The miners' paychecks bounced, leaving hundreds overdrawn and needing help. And in my opinion, a full investigation is warranted. Blackjewel has filed bankruptcy, but the court has not ordered the company to pay the miners back. State Representative Adam Bowling is crafting legislation to compel the company to pay the miners' back wages. Let's hope he is successful. The miners did the work. They earned their wages. They should be paid.”

How to characterize climate change? How about 'diabetes of the planet,' requiring action to keep it from getting worse?

Weather events and political debates have prompted more dire language to describe climate change, which was once called global warming. The editor of Axios Generate, a daily newsletter about energy and related issues, has some useful reflections on the topic, which The Rural Blog presents in toto:

By Amy Harder

As climate change and our debate around it intensifies, so are the words we use to describe it. The presidential election season is directing more attention to our words and characterizations as we follow debates and rallies around the country. Words are especially important on a topic like climate change that is less tangible than others, like healthcare.

Activists and many progressive politicians are calling climate change an emergency, while most Democrats say it’s a crisis. Certain media outlets are revamping their coverage and, in some cases, changing their stylebooks. Some Republicans, meanwhile, are slowly coming back around to acknowledging the problem publicly, yet are turned off by the intensifying language used by many on the left. Conservatives aren’t (for now) offering much in the way of new, big policies.

I use words like "issue" or "problem" to describe climate change. Elevating that description to crisis or emergency doesn't really fit because it implies a sudden urgency that doesn't capture how long the problem has been developing or how long we'll live with it. Some outlets are adopting words like "climate crisis" and "emergency," such as the left-leaning British publication The Guardian.

I asked a spokesman for The Associated Press, whose stylebook is considered the standard across journalism, for a comment. He sent me the entry for climate change, which does not include the terms crisis or emergency. He declined to respond to a question about whether the AP would change its style.

I decided to consult the good ol’ dictionary for more insight. Merriam Webster defines emergency as "an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action."
Climate change is neither unforeseen nor requiring immediate action compared to, say, a flood or power outage.

One definition for crisis is an "unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending." This description is a little better, but it still doesn’t capture the hardest part: the long-term nature. We've been fueling climate change for decades and we will be dealing with it for centuries. Crisis implies an end would occur, which is unlikely here (to say nothing of the accuracy of the 12-year framing.)

If you think it’s a little simplistic pulling from a dictionary, I got the idea from the well-respected Congressional Research Service, which conducts nonpartisan research on behalf of lawmakers. The CRS did that in a report it issued in March about President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at America’s southern border.

The other side: The biggest drivers of Earth’s rising temperature — oil, natural gas and coal — also have huge benefits to the world. That point has often been absent in the discourse as the problem of climate change worsens. This makes the problem of climate change even harder, as nations work to swiftly reduce their dependence on these fuels without raising energy costs on their people.

The bottom line: Climate change is like diabetes for the planet, which when left unchecked (like the path we’re on) can worsen emergencies like flooding and crises like heat waves. The best we can do is simultaneously cut carbon emissions and adapt to a warmer planet. That may not be the best description to grab headlines, win debates and rally activists — but it is the most accurate.

Middle Eastern farming techniques and skills are the secret to success of organic vegetable farmers in New York state

A couple who run an organic vegetable farm in Norwich, New York, have become highly popular with restaurant chefs who shop at a Manhattan stand, and their success stems from an unusual business model in agriculture.

Zaid and Haifa Kurdieh in a high tunnel (NYT photo)
“If (Zaid and Haifa) Kurdiehs’ produce is uncommon, so is the way they grow it — with technology and farmers from one of the world’s oldest, most advanced agricultural nations: Egypt,” reports Priya Krishna of The New York Times.

“Each year, they enlist about 25 farmers from that country to work for six to 10 months. They use high tunnels, unheated greenhouses developed in the 1950s and still not widely used in the United States, and even adapt some varieties that are popular in the Middle East.”

The Kurdiehs bought a house in Norwich where real estate was inexpensive and started growing vegetables in the backyard in 1998. Then they bought some acreage nearby and installed high tunnels, a type of low-tech greenhouse that requires less equipment and maintenance.

Today their business, Norwich Meadows Farm, is a certified organic grower of produce, poultry and eggs with a heavy reliance on high tunnels to gain control over adverse weather at their farm. They also design and build high tunnels for other farms.

Chefs know the Kurdiehs because they produce unique varieties of vegetables that thrive with cultivation methods unique to the Middle East. Zaid Kurdieh, 55, was born in the United States but grew up in the Middle East. His father was an oil industry engineer.

As the farm expanded, the Kurdiehs wanted to leverage skills they knew existed along the Nile River. “In 2002, Mr. Kurdieh flew to Egypt, an early adopter of the high-tunnel system, and found a group of farmers to work for him. Before they arrived in Norwich, Mr. Kurdieh was cultivating 200 varieties; he now grows more than 1,300 on the 250-acre farm,” the Times reports.

West Virginia bets big on gas and plastics, seeks Trump administration backing for huge underground storage facility

West Virginia officials, including Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, are seeking a $1.9 billion federal loan guarantee to construct a massive underground facility to store ethane and other natural-gas liquids that are byproducts of plastics manufacturing.

If their plan is successful, a facility capable of storing 10 million barrels of liquid gas would be developed in the region along the Ohio River that has the world’s largest natural gas field.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice at a rally with President Trump on Aug. 3,
2017, in Huntington, West Virginia. (Photo by Getty Images)
Proponents argue the Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub could transform the economy of the region, where the gas field stretches along the Ohio River in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

A report by ProPublica and the Charleston Gazette-Mail found several problems with the viability of such a hub: Their “examination has found that the proposed storage facility would be far larger than the region could support and that questions about its cost, its viability and its environmental risks have been overshadowed by a public relations strategy heavy on the politics of jobs and light on the economics of energy policy.”

Top officials in West Virginia, with Manchin’s backing, are seeking a $1.9 million federal loan guarantee need to attract several billion more in private investment. The region’s support of President Donald Trump is seen as key to the administration’s backing.

An environmental expert described the plan as risky. “This whole project is a gamble,” said Dustin White, project coordinator with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, based in Huntington, W.Va.. “Billions of dollars could go up in smoke. We just need to stop it now.”

An energy-industry leader also raised questions. “If that project gets a federal loan guarantee, banks will be lining up 10 deep,” said James Cutler, an energy industry investor and veteran chemical plant builder from Houston. “Anybody who gets involved gets 1.5 to 2 percent in fees just for getting the deals together. If you have a $4 billion, $5 billion project, that’s $80 million, $100 million.”

But Energy Secretary Rick Perry argues a West Virginia facility would have geographic advantages. “To develop that in another region of this country, the Appalachian basin, makes sense because you’re sitting on top of Marcellus and Utica, which are prolific gas fields,” Perry told the committee during the March 2018 hearing.

The ProPublica report notes two companies — Energy Storage Ventures and Marathon Pipeline — “are cautiously examining the potential to establish much smaller, privately financed gas liquids storage facilities across the river in Ohio.”

David Hooker, president of Energy Storage Ventures, said, “We’d like to believe there is local demand for 2 million to 3 million barrels of storage in the Appalachian region. We question the need for 10-plus million barrels based on what exists today or the foreseeable future.”

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Len Press, inspired by rural Kentucky to build a statewide TV network that became a national model, dies at 97

O. Leonard Press
O. Leonard Press, who came from the Northeast to a rural, poorly educated state, then built an educational television network that became a model for the nation and a beacon in the state's farthest reaches, died Wednesday night in Lexington, Ky. He was 97.

Press “did more for education in Kentucky than many of the state’s university presidents,” said his friend, retired publisher Al Smith, who hosted a popular panel-discussion show on Kentucky Educational Television for 33 years.

A native of Lowell, Mass., and a veteran of World War II, Press earned a degree in communications from Boston University, and the school "hired him to handle all radio and TV spots for the university," work that he expanded into tele-courses that won him national recognition, reports Jack Brammer of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

He and his wife Lillian "had their sights on New York City," but they came to the University of Kentucky, which was planning a TV station, Brammer notes. While doing a special in Eastern Kentucky with Louisville's WHAS-TV, he was inspired to create the network, and got the legislature to create the Kentucky Authority for Educational Television. He was its first executive director.

The network went on the air in 1968, initially broadcasting weekdays during school hours. It began doing its own public-affairs programs, and in 1974 took a risky step by starting "Comment on Kentucky" with Smith, which soon evolved into a discussion show in which journalists delivered frank commentary and analysis, sometimes about politicians who held the network's purse strings. Press insulated Smith and others at KET from political interference.

Press retired in 1991. He is survived by his wife, Lillian, and their son, Lowell Press of Washington state. A visitation and memorial service will be scheduled later, Smith told the Herald-Leader. (Smith is chair emeritus, and Press was a member, of the advisory board of UK's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.)

On the occasion of KET’s 50th anniversary last year, Press said, “Don’t ever fear imagining. Don’t ever fear doing what you think is bigger than you should. Know that almost anything is possible … if you put your heart and soul into it. You don’t have to be smart. You have to be determined.”

Author and farmer Wendell Berry addresses biased views about rural America in lengthy New Yorker interview

Rural Americans often see themselves portrayed in unflattering ways in the national news media, which tend to report on people from small and/or remote communities without much consideration for the nuances of opinion and diversity.
Wendell Berry has lived on his family farm in Henry
County, Kentucky, since returning home in 1964.
(Photo from Modern Farmer)

The bias that paints rural people with a broad brush was a topic in a lengthy interview with Kentucky author and farmer Wendell Berry, published recently by The New Yorker.

The interview resulted from Berry’s correspondence with Amanda Petrusich, a 39-year-old staff writer for the magazine, who sent a letter to Berry seeking advice because she was feeling “existentially adrift about the future of the planet.”

Berry is the author of more than 80 books. One of his first, The Unsettling of America, in 1977, remains highly regarded for its promotion of responsible, small-scale agriculture.

“Berry, who is now 84, does not own a computer or a cell phone, and his landline is not connected to an answering machine,” Petrusich wrote. “We corresponded by mail for a year, and in November, 2018, he invited me to visit him at his farmhouse, in Port Royal, a small community in Henry County, Kentucky, with a population of less than a hundred.”

In the interview, Berry recalled his decision, with his wife Tanya, to move back to Kentucky:

“When I came to teach at the University of Kentucky, Tanya and I thought we would live in Lexington, and we would have ‘a country place.’ And we hardly had laid our hands to this house, which needed some preservation work, when we realized, we’re not going to have a country place; we’re going to live here. And so we have. We bought this home and twelve acres in the fall of 1964, and moved in, in the midst of renovations, in the summer of 1965. That put our children here, and now we’ve got grandchildren who are at home here. That comes from a decision that we made to be here, and to be here permanently.”

Petrusich asked Berry how his peers in New York reacted to his decision to return to Kentucky. “Well, here I was going to the provinces. I was going to put myself under the influence of what one of my friends called ‘the village virus’ … (which is) To be narrow-minded. To be what everybody’s saying now about rural America. Racist, sexist, backward. Stupid.”

Petrusich asked, “What do you think people – journalists, commentators, citizens – mean when they use the term ‘rural America’?”

Berry replied, “Since the election, liberal commentators have made ‘rural America’ a term of denigration, the same as ‘boondocks’ and ‘nowhere.’ It is noticed now, by people who never noticed it before, only because of its support for Donald Trump. Rural America could have supported Trump, these people conclude, only because it is full of bigoted ‘non-college’ white people who hate everybody but themselves. These liberals apparently don’t know that, with their consent, urban America has been freely plundering rural America of agricultural products since about the middle of the last century – and of coal for half a century longer. Conservation groups have accepted this abuse of non-wilderness land about as readily as the corporate shareholders. [1950s Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft] Benson gave permission to urban America to accept that industrial technology could solve all the problems of food production. And so urban America could just forget about rural America. What a relief! And then Mr. Trump arrived. A century ago Robert Frost spoke of 'the need of being versed in country things,' and that need has now been reinforced, at least politically."

Read the full interview here.

Study finds reasons for lack of health-insurance competition, high cost in rural America; story has link to interactive map

Map by The Daily Yonder with data from Kaiser Family Foundation; for an interactive version click here.
A key goal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — to increase access to health insurance by fostering competition among insurance companies — is not as effective in rural America as it is in metropolitan areas, a new study finds.

The impact of market-focused strategies is diminished by the lack of competition among health insurers in rural areas, Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. And rural areas are less competitive in the insurance market because of many complex factors – not just population density, the study concluded. The study could be valuable to policymakers who need a better understanding of how rural markets work. The Yonder has an interactive, county-by-county map.

The study by the Institute for Rural Health Policy Analysis in the Rural Policy Research Institute “looked at insurer participation data across three market-based health insurance programs — the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program Medicare Advantage and Health Insurance Marketplaces (HIMs, which the Affordable Care Act created),” Carey writes.

The researchers wanted to see if competition affected decisions to purchase health insurance. “The study found that, in areas that had been dominated by a smaller number of insurers in the past, the Affordable Care Act’s health-insurance marketplaces for individual policies had lower enrollment.” Population density alone does not lower health-insurance enrollment, but an area’s previous lack of competition did predict lower enrollment rates.

Abby Barker of the Rural Policy Research Institute, told the Yonder, “I think you could say that population density, and some of those other population-related measures … are expected to be significant. But what we added is this measure of competition that shows that another explanatory factor is how concentrated the market is and has been over time. The methods don’t really identify which is more important, but the contribution of this work is to say that prior market concentration matters. In my view, it suggests that policies that rely on competition to achieve certain access/affordability goals, really have to be intentional about overcoming this sort of inertia that tends to exist. Once certain insurance issuers are established in a particular geographic region, it’s a little harder for new ones to come in.”

Penn State researchers estimate opioid epidemic costs states $6-10 billion a year, at least $130 billion so far

Twenty researchers at Penn State say they have produced the country’s first “comprehensive tally of state opioid costs,” with an aim to better understand the financial burden to state governments in four areas: Medicaid, tax revenue, criminal justice and child care.

“Our studies tallied about $85 billion in estimated financial costs to state budgets during the periods identified in each one. After extrapolating that to cover costs through 2018, we think the total comes to at least about $130 billion, with an ongoing bill of $6 billion to $10 billion every year,” the team’s five lead researchers wrote in a summary on The Conversation. “Our estimates also provide a benchmark states can use in litigation as they seek to recoup these costs to help cover the ongoing expenses associated with containing and ending the epidemic – and hint at why so many opioid manufacturers are mulling bankruptcy.”

By far, the largest expense to state governments is through Medicaid: “Our team crunched the data from 17 states’ Medicaid claims databases and then extrapolated the data to make national-level estimates. We estimate that overall, state Medicaid programs spent at least $72 billion due to opioid misuse from 1999 to 2013, the most recent year with available data. Based on an estimate of Medicaid costs of $8.4 billion in 2013, we estimate states likely spent an additional $40 billion since then, bringing the total bill to at least $112 billion.”

States also take a hit in reduced revenue, the researchers write: “We estimate that states may have lost nearly $12 billion in tax revenue from 2000 to 2016 due to the effect of opioid misuse on individuals’ ability to work. Ongoing costs are about $700 million a year, bringing an estimated total through 2018 to over $13 billion.”

Costs associated with criminal justice were more difficult to determine, they write: “Due to the difficulty of obtaining reliable data, our team focused on Pennsylvania. We estimate that, from 2007 to 2016, the opioid crisis cost the criminal justice system in the state $526 million.”

The researchers estimated opioid misuse “may be associated with $2.8 billion in costs to the child welfare system across all states from 2011 to 2016.” They said there is also a huge cost to child welfare systems and special education programs from babies born to mothers using opioids: “A very rough estimate of the nationwide costs would be in the ballpark of at least $50 million per year.”

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant helps Cumberland Plateau in Tenn.; Ky. adds to Pine Mtn. trail

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is giving $1.3 million to several nonprofits and a Tennessee state agency to restore habitat on the Cumberland Plateau.

“The grants will engage more than 1,400 private landowners through outreach and assistance and will be matched to bring the total to $2.6 million. The groups will largely work with landowners of large properties to teach proper land management skills,” Mark Pace reports for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Image from Flickr.com; click on it to enlarge
Jay Jensen, the foundation's southern regional office director, said, "From our standpoint, for that whole region, the Cumberland Plateau is one amazing place for wildlife.”

The foundation's annual Cumberland Plateau Stewardship Fund works to “restore, enhance and protect shortleaf pine and riparian forests and in-stream habitats in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee.” Riparian refers to forested or woodland areas adjacent to a body of water such as a stream, river or pond.

The projects covered by the grants will focus on the plateau’s shortleaf pine and oak stands. “Their ecosystems have dwindled due to forest conversion, a lack of prescribed fire, disease and pest infestation. That loss converted much of the land to heavily forested area and contributed to the decline of bird species such as Bachman's sparrow, brown-headed nuthatch and prairie warbler,” the Times Free Press reported.

Appalachian plateaus (ImusGeographics.com)
The Cumberland Plateau is the southern portion of the Appalachian Plateaus and includes most of Eastern Kentucky (where it is more eroded, making it more mountainous), much of East Tennessee and parts of northern Alabama and northwest Georgia.

In a separate conservation project, the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund has acquired 2,040 forested acres to provide “hiking, birding and other passive recreation opportunities, as well as conserve a habitat for rare species, including the federally listed Northern long-eared bat and several state-listed plants,” the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet announced.

The acreage is part of the Pine Mountain State Scenic Trail in Bell County and provides the closest access from Pineville, where the Cumberland River cuts through Pine Mountain, on the western edge of the Ridge and Valley Belt of the Appalachian Mountains, just east of the plateaus.

“Pine Mountain is truly one of Kentucky’s natural treasures, and the Pine Mountain Trail plays an important role in helping folks experience and enjoy the mountain,” Zeb Weese, KHLCF chairman and executive director of the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves, said in a news release.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Several Society of Environmental Journalists awards have rural resonance; beat reporting choice may be controversial

The Society of Environmental Journalists has announced the winners of its Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment, and several have rural resonance.

"Polluted by Money" by Rob Davis, Beth Nakamura, Teresa Mahoney, Mark Friesen and Steve Suo for The Oregonian won second place for investigative reporting in smaller markets. "The Oregonian team's exposé on how the lack of campaign-funding regulation affected environmental policies in one of the greenest states in America was comprehensive and beautifully crafted," the judges wrote. "To connect campaign funding and its impact on the environment is not an easy task, but this project executed well with the use of documents, data and easily accessible anecdotes."

"Tire Failure," a series about lax regulation leading to "mountains of mosquito-infested, flammable tires in South Carolina," won an honorable mention for The Post and Courier of Charleston. "This story demonstrates the importance of local watchdog journalism to hold the powerful accountable by nailing the bureaucracy that affects communities," the judges wrote. (Lindsay Fendt of World Politics Review won first place for reporting on anti-mining activists in the Philippines.)

For explanatory reporting, first place went to "Ocean Shock" by Maurice Tamman, Matthew Green, Mari Saito, Sarah Slobin and Maryanne Murray of Reuters, "a breathtakingly comprehensive look at the many factors that are harming our seas," the judges wrote.

Oil and gas production in the Permian
Basin of West Texas and New Mexico
was the focus of one honored project.
Second place in explanatory reporting went to "Blowout: Inside America's Energy Gamble" by the Center for Public Integrity, The Texas Tribune, Newsy and The Associated Press. The judges called it "a compelling series that probes the environmental and climate health effects of the country's biggest oil and natural-gas production boom in West Texas and part of New Mexico."

In a departure that some journalists may find jarring, first place for beat reporting in large markets went to David Roberts of Vox, whose package included stories with headlines that made clear the pieces were written from an unapologetic point of view, such as "What Genuine, No-bullshit Ambition on Climate Change Would Look Like" and "Why Conservatives Keep Gaslighting the Nation About Climate Change." The judges wrote, "Roberts deftly combines sharp commentary with strong reporting on climate change." Sarah Bowman of The Indianapolis Star won an honorable mention in the category for a beat package that included stories about contaminated water in Franklin, Ind., and its connection to cancer cases and deaths.

The small-market prize for beat reporting went to Alex Kuffner of The Providence Journal for a package that included this story: "Has Rhode Island Starved Its Watchdog?" The judges called his reporting "a model for small-market journalists covering an environmental beat." Honorable mentions went to Luke Runyon of KUNC for reporting on the Colorado River basin, Kristina Marusic of Environmental Health News for reports on air pollution in Western Pennsylvania and Angus Thuermer of WyoFile for "Wyoming's Challenged Landscape."

A complete list of winners, with links to their work, is here. It also includes judges and credentials. SEJ says its contest "is the world’s largest and most comprehensive environmental journalism competition, recognizing the best news coverage of the most important stories on the planet." the awards will be presented Oct. 12 at SEJ’s 29th annual conference in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Company brings recycling to rural areas by using independent contractors with pickup trucks, a la Uber

A company that uses independent contractors to collect from its recycling customers has diverted 4 million pounds of waste from landfills and recycled nearly 2,000 tons of material since its inception in 2014, briniging more recycling to rural areas, Jeff Kart of Forbes magazine reports.

(Recyclops photo)
"With the cost of recycling increasing due to the Chinese ban, small towns have had their (already small) recycling budgets slashed or eliminated, forcing many of them to take such actions as reduce what materials are considered 'recyclable,' discontinue local drop-off locations and some have completely ended their curbside programs," Recyclops’s founder and CEO Ryan Smith told the magazine. "A lack of options has resulted in previously recycled materials—cardboard, paper, aluminum and more—ending up in landfills."

Recyclops and other companies like it have been compared to Uber because of the reliance on independent contractors with pickup trucks.

The company charges $10 a month for twice-monthly collection. The independent haulers gross $25 an hour, according to Smith. "To compare that to other curbside recycling services, urban recycling programs can be as cheap as $1-3 monthly and in rural areas, recycling programs prices can range from $10- $25 a month," he said, noting that in the remote city of Moab, Utah, curbside pickup costs $12 a month.

Recyclops operates in Utah, Idaho, Colorado and Arizona. Smith said he plans to expand to Texas.

"In 2018, Recyclops conducted an independent survey that included an analysis of 1,000 towns and cities across the U.S. and found that 34 million rural and peri-urban homes lack access to convenient affordable recycling,” Smith told Forbes. "The current problems with our recycling system as a whole will not be solved until recycling is made accessible and affordable to rural towns and communities in this country, in addition to large urban cities."

Rural hospitals struggling most in states where lawmakers declined Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act

People living in the most politically conservative areas of rural America are seeing local hospitals “founder and close” because their state lawmakers opposed expanding Medicaid under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, says a story by a GateHouse Media reporting team. Of the 106 rural hospitals that have closed since 2010, 77 are in states that haven't expanded Medicaid.

“Fiercely conservative and inherently distrustful of the federal government, state politicians balked at picking up 10 percent of the Medicaid expansion cost [as of 2020] and repeatedly expressed fears that Washington bureaucrats would renege on generous Obamacare funding, leaving states to cover an ever increasing share of the healthcare burden,” Michael Braga, Jennifer F. A. Borresen, Dak Le and Jonathan Riley reported for Gatehouse.

John Henderson, who heads The Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals, told GateHouse he supports the Medicaid expansion his state did not accept. “The irony to me is that we’re paying federal income taxes to expand coverage in other states. We’re exporting our coverage and leaving billions of dollars on the table.”

Hospital closures affect “farmers and farm workers, small business owners and their employees, the old and infirm,” the story notes. “More than half of all rural hospitals in Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia and Oklahoma lost money from 2011 through 2017. In Kansas, the bloodletting was even more widespread. Two out of three rural hospitals in the state operated in the red during the seven-year period. Five were forced to shut down.”

The GateHouse reporters analyzed financial data from 2,200 rural hospitals to see which ones are losing money and could close under the financial strain. The reporters also looked at academic studies and interviewed hospital officials and other experts in the field. They wrote:
Rural America is in the midst of a deep and prolonged crisis that resulted in 106 hospital closures since 2010. Nearly 700 more are on shaky ground, and nearly 200 are on the verge of collapse right now, according to reports from Massachusetts consulting firm iVantage Health Analytics and the Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Hospitals faring the worst are mainly in states that refused to expand Medicaid. Those states account for 77 of the 106 closures over the past decade. They also are home to a greater percentage of money losing facilities and lower collective profit margins.
“At the bottom of the pack is Kansas, where Gov. Sam Brownback’s conservative politics reigned for eight years. Seventy of its 109 rural hospitals lost money from 2011 through 2017, and seven ranked among the 20 worst performing rural hospitals in the country. Hospitals in nearby Oklahoma did not perform much better, and the same can be said for many states in the Deep South.
But one state, whose residents only recently voted to expand Medicaid, bucked the national trend. Thanks to sacrifices made by urban hospitals and their willingness to work with their small town counterparts, rural hospitals in Utah were among the most profitable in the country from 2011 through 2017. Only 14 percent lost money during the period and not one was forced to shut down.”

Texas newspaper's watchdog reporting uncovers county's rubber-stamp spending of Hurricane Harvey relief money

A reduced version of the graphic that the Victoria Advocate ran with its story.
The Victoria Advocate in Texas has uncovered lax oversight of $2.1 million the county government spent with one contractor for Hurricane Harvey repairs at the local airport and other public properties.

Staff writer Jessica Preist’s reporting is a textbook example of local watchdog journalism that advances government transparency when elected officials fail to act in the best interest of taxpayers. Her story demonstrates how local newspapers can and should report on government financial procedures that often get buried as routine matters in public meetings where elected officials approve expenditures with little or no question.

That’s what Preist discovered when she looked into a contract awarded to The Virtus Group one month after the hurricane struck southeast Texas. The contract “did not include a scope of work nor did it set a cap on how much could be spent,” Preist wrote. Virtus did not have to compete for the contract because the Victoria County Commission declared an emergency to bypass a state law that requires a bidding process on projects of $50,000 or more.

“Some Victoria Airport commissioners first raised concerns about the Harvey spending at their June 27 meeting,” Preist wrote. “Those concerns led July 15 to a packed joint Victoria County Commission-Victoria Regional Airport Commission meeting, during which County Judge Ben Zeller and county commissioners Clint Ives, Kevin Janak and Danny Garcia defended the process.”

Only one of the county’s four commissioners, Gary Burns, questioned the approval process for payments to Virtus, but a business owner who often bids on county jobs also raised alarms. “It’s so far out in left field; it’s comical what they did over there,” John Clegg told the Advocate.

Following up on questions raised about the Virtus payments, the newspaper filed an open-records request for invoices, which showed the county issued six checks totaling about $2.1 million from Feb. 26, 2018, to April 22.

In Texas, a county with 10,200 or more residents must have a county auditor appointed by a local district judge to ensure independent oversight of public officials. The Advocate story included this from a pamphlet published by the Texas Association of County Auditors: “Both the county auditor and commissioners court are required, by law, to approve or reject claims for disbursement of county funds. . . . This system works, not because there is a county auditor and not because there is a commissioners court; it works because neither has creative or authoritative control over the other.”

Auditors have the power to tell elected county officials “no” to expenses, District Judge Stephen Williams explained to the newspaper. But as Preist’s reporting revealed, two previous auditors and the county treasurer all failed to provide proper oversight on the Virtus payments – and the current auditor apparently does not know she has the authority to deny approval of payments by the county.

The Victoria Advocate was established in 1846, making it the second oldest newspaper in Texas. The daily has been solely owned by the same family since 1961.

USDA to hear from farm owners who can't access programs because their land was passed down without a will

The Farm Service Agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture has responded to news reports that detailed widespread farm losses among heirs whose land has been passed down without a will. The FSA will conduct listening sessions to seek ideas on how heirs can access USDA farm programs that are often blocked to them because they do not have a clear title to the land, ProPublica reports.

At two public two public meetings — on July 31 in Jackson, Miss., and Aug. 14 in Washington, D.C., — FSA will get input on ways the agency “can streamline and improve program delivery, as well as enhance outreach” of a program to help heirs qualify for USDA programs, ProPublica reports. The 2018 Farm Bill “included a re-lending program to help clear titles for heirs’ property owners and listed alternative routes for heirs’ property owners to qualify for certain USDA programs for farmers,” but the program was not funded, ProPublica and The New Yorker magazine revealed.

Following the story, Sens. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) urged USDA to implement property provisions for heirs outlined in the Farm Bill. They wrote, “The inability to participate in USDA programs has not only contributed to a startlingly negative trend in African-American land ownership but has also hindered African-American farmers and ranchers from experiencing economic equality.”

April Simpson of Stateline notes that the Farm Bill made it easier for heirs to put farmland back into production, with provisions for them to get an FSA farm number, "akin to a driver’s license for agriculture, which unlocks key programs and enables participation in local FSA elections.”

But heirs can't make full use of the provisions if a state has not enacted the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act. That, wrote Simpson, “gives co-owners the opportunity to buy out heirs who want to sell their share. . . . If a buyout doesn’t resolve the issue, a court may consider dividing the property between the owners or selling the property and dividing the proceeds equitably between the owners. . . .  Open-market sales, rather than auctions, are preferred to ensure a higher sale price.”

State officials urge senators to consider needs of rural areas in highway and infrastructure funding

The head of the Wyoming Department of Transportation urged Congress this month to take account of rural roads and what they mean for the country overall when passing an infrastructure bill, Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder.

“Significant federal investment in highways and transportation in rural states is a sound policy that must be continued, for many reasons,” K. Luke Reiner said in prepared testimony to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on July 10. “Consider truck movements from West Coast ports to Chicago or the East Coast. These and other movements traverse states like ours and benefit people and commerce in the metropolitan areas at both ends of the journey. In Wyoming, about 90 percent of trucks on Interstate 80 have origins and destinations beyond Wyoming’s borders. This is clearly national transportation and warrants federal investment.”

Reiner said rural states have a dwindling tax base for road and bridge work, and their residents have a high per-capita expense for the country’s transportation system; he noted that Wyoming's is highest at $312 per person, followed by the Dakota and Montana. The national average is $117.

President Trump once talked about passing an infrastructure bill, but that seems unlikely anytime soon because of Republican resistance to the taxes that would be needed to fund it. However, the law that funds and provides oversight for the Highway Trust Fund expires Sept. 30, 2020, so Congress will have to take some action on that front in the next 14 months.

Part of that debate will be environmental policy for highway projects. Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, who chairs the committee, favors streamlining the environmental permit approval process for major projects. but Sen. Tom Carper, D-Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said climate-change policy should be part of the legislation.

Wildlife migration is another consideration in rural areas, said Carlos Braceras, president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “The infrastructure system that we’ve built over the last 100 years is not the infrastructure system that we’re going to need for the next 100 years,” Braceras testified. “It needs to change and we need to help it adapt.”

Monday, July 29, 2019

Governors discuss strategies to help rural economies

At last week's annual meeting of the National Governors Association in Salt Lake City, leaders from across the nation discussed innovative ways to boost flagging economies in rural areas.

"Rural America is too vast and varied to paint with a single brush. Many rural areas are thriving. Still, it’s clear that overall, the rural economy is falling far behind major metropolitan counties," Alan Greenblatt reports for Governing. "Urban areas enjoy an outsized share of the nation’s economic growth, while 30 percent of rural ZIP codes have experienced downward mobility over the past decade. Only one in five small counties has added businesses, on net, since the Great Recession."

Rural areas also lag metropolitan areas in population growth, educational attainment, and workforce participation as well. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem noted that "We educate a lot of these students and then they leave to take jobs . . . That's probably been our biggest challenge."

Nathan Ohle of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership noted that rural jobs have historically been involved in extraction of resources, meaning harvesting crops, mining, and logging, for instance, Bethany Rodgers reports for The Salt Lake Tribune.

Many governors have championed initiatives with similar themes, including broadband expansion, building workforce housing, and expanding Medicaid, but no single approach can work because different rural economies are based on different things like tourism or agriculture. Brian Depew, executive director of the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs, suggested that it's smarter to spend more money on education and health care than on broadband or housing, Greenblatt reports.

"All these factors mean that spreading prosperity to more rural areas remains a thorny challenge that will take a considerable amount of time to work through," Greenblatt reports. "Scott Hamilton, executive director of the Appalachian Regional Commission, told governors the job was like building a cathedral in Europe, with the person laying down the cornerstone perhaps not living to see the end result." Among the suggestions: let rural leaders take a larger role in developing economic development plans. Also, listen to rural residents when they say what they need and help rural leaders shoulder the burden, Greenblatt reports.

526 Western communities of 15,000 or fewer are at higher wildfire risk than Paradise was; is your town one of them?

Wildfire hazard potential of towns with fewer than
15,000 households (Arizona Republic map)
The small California town of Paradise made national headlines when it was destroyed by wildfire last November. But 500 small towns in the West have conditions that put them even more at risk of wildfires than Paradise was, according to an in-depth, multimedia report from the Arizona Republic and USA Today.

According to an analysis of fire hazards in 4,784 communities across 760 million acres of the 11 Western states, 526 towns with fewer than 15,000 households face a greater potential risk of wildfire than Paradise, and hundreds more are also at great risk, Pamela Ren Larson and Dennis Wagner report. The story includes a searchable database. 

The Republic analyzed U.S. Forest Service data, weighing 65 risk factors such as previous fires, topography, precipitation, vegetation, and more, then simulated tens of thousands of possible fire seasons. They assigned wildfire hazard potential on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest. The median was 2.07 and Paradise was at a 3.81, Larson and Wagner report.

There are other factors in assessing human risk, though, including the number of mobile homes in a community; such homes pose a greater fire risk. The number of easily accessed exit roads also matters in an evacuation, and in Paradise the risk was greater because several of those routes away from the Camp Fire were effectively inaccessible. If a town has many older or disabled residents, that may increase the time needed for evacuation. "The median age of Camp Fire victims was 72. Among the 85 who died, at least 62 were age 65 or older; 36 were over age 75," Larson and Wagner report. "Across the West, 101 small communities have both a higher wildfire potential than Paradise and a larger percentage of residents with a disability."

Towns that lack an effective emergency notification system, or whose residents can't receive such messages by cell phone, also have a harder time evacuating. Phillip Levin, a researcher at the University of Washington and lead scientist for the Nature Conservancy, told the Republic: "Fire is natural. But the disaster happens because people didn't know to leave, or couldn't leave. It didn't have to happen."

Atlantic Coast Pipeline hits biggest roadblock yet as federal appeals panel throws out critical environmental permit

Proposed route of Atlantic Coast Pipeline
(Associated Press map; click to enlarge it)
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has been dealt one of its biggest setbacks by a federal appeals court, which threw out an important permit last week, saying lead developer Dominion Energy didn't adequately protect endangered or threatened species in the pipeline's proposed path and the federal agency that is supposed to protect them didn't do its job as it fast-tracked permitting.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals "vacated a permit that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued last year just 19 days after the same court blocked the agency’s previous finding that the massive natural gas pipeline would not jeopardize the viability of four endangered or threatened species," Michael Martz reports for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote in the opinion that Fish and Wildlife "appears to have lost sight of its mandate" under the Endangered Species Act by approving the permit so quickly, and that the agency failed to show how the pipeline wouldn't threaten endangered bumblebees in Bath County, Virginia, on the West Virginia border, or freshwater mussels in three West Virginia waterways. "The ruling also concluded that the reissued permit failed to establish 'enforceable take limits' for an endangered bat species in Virginia and West Virginia and threatened crustaceans that live in underground limestone karst formations in the Shenandoah Valley," Martz reports.

Dominion spokesperson Aaron Ruby said he expects the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Fish and Wildlife Service will be able to quickly resolve the issues raised by the court, and says he believes the project remains on track to be completed by late 2021, Martz reports.

This isn't the first time the pipeline has faced legal roadblocks. "A series of adverse rulings by the 4th Circuit on federal permits for the project prompted the pipeline company, led by Dominion, to change its construction plans earlier this year," Martz reports. "The company suspended work in December after the 4th Circuit issued a stay on the biological opinion for the entire length of the pipeline, not just the 100 miles or so that Dominion contends would affect endangered or threatened species addressed in the permit."