Thursday, August 09, 2007

Wisconsin county rejects limit on confined animal feeding operations, looks at zoning

The Board of Supervisors in Vernon County, Wisconsin, this week rejected a a six-month ban on confined animal feeding operations with between 500 and 1,000 animals. That means "a proposed 2,400-head hog operation . . . will start construction by end of the month," the Vernon County Broadcaster reports.

"The 23-6 vote was greeted by applause," Tim Hundt writes. "The board did vote to tighten some restrictions on farms by passing a 'livestock facility licensing ordinance.' The board also voted to form a comprehensive planning commission that will start to look at land-use planning. The board voted 15-14 in favor of the animal siting ordinance and 24-5 in favor of forming the comprehensive planning commission "

"The state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection had cautioned the moratorium faced legal issues with Wisconsin’s Livestock Facilities Siting Rule," reports Bob Meyer of Brownfield Network. The ordinance passed by the commission gives it limited auithority under state law. County Corporation Counsel Greg Lunde said the county "would not be the best test case to challenge some of the issues mainly because the county has no zoning," Hundt reports. (Read more)

Volunteer, online 'paper' in New Hampshire gets Knight-Batten Award for innovation

An all-volunteer online newspaper in Deerfield, N.H., that "has become the major source of news for three rural communities" won one of this year's Knight-Batten Awards for Innovation in Journalism, J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism, announced yesterday.

The Forum is two years old, getting a start-up grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's New Voices program, which J-Lab also administers. "In a readership area of 7,000 homes, it has more than 200 bylined contributors and averages 37 original articles per week, excluding obituaries, classifieds, letters to the editor and events listings," J-Lab said in its news release. To read it, click here.

The Forum was the only rural-related winner this year. Each of the six winners will get at least $1,000. A national panel of judges has chosen winners of a $10,000 grand prize and a $2,000 "first-place award." Four other entries among the total of 133 were given honorable mention. The top winners will be announced Sept. 17 at a symposium and luncheon, "Creativity Unleashed," at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Foes of mountaintop-removal coal mining, rebuffed at state and local levels, look to Congress for help

Opponents of mountaintop-removal coal mining like Sam Gilbert, above, "have found some allies in their fight, but most come from outside the Appalachian coalfield -- activists, authors and journalists who write stories for national and regional newspapers and magazines," Mary Jo Shafer writes for The Mountain Eagle and other newspapers. "Much the same has been said in the legislatures of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, where efforts to limit mountaintop removal have failed or never gotten off the ground. So now the debate is moving to the halls of Congress, where opponents think they have a better chance for change."

Shafer's story includes polling done by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, showing that opinion about use and conservation of natural resources is deeply divided in southeastern Kentucky's Harlan and Letcher counties, part of the area where mountaintops are mined. The Eagle is published in Letcher County, where Gilbert lives. (The report does not name the two counties, but their inclusion was confirmed for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues by Mil Duncan of Carsey.)

Shafer, now the assistant city editor at The Anniston (Ala.) Star, did the report for the Institute as part of an internship to earn a master's degree in community journalism from the University of Alabama, through the Knight Community Journalism Fellows program, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Shafer's report also includes stories about a Kentucky legislator who is trying to limit mountaintop removal and also interviewed coalfield residents and an industry official who see mountaintop mining as a source of jobs and land for development or tourism. Another story examines the state of the United Mine Workers of America in Eastern Kentucky -- no working miners, but members in other fields and a strong heritage.

At Montana conference, foundations hear pleas and strategies for giving more to rural areas

Suzanne Perry of the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports from Missoula, Mont.: “Foundations could help alleviate many of the nation’s most pressing problems by focusing more on the challenges and opportunities of rural America, speakers at a conference on rural philanthropy here said. While they receive fewer philanthropic dollars than urban areas, rural regions have been hit hard by some of the issues that are at the top of the country’s policy agenda — access to health care, immigration of low-wage workers, the need for better schools, and the loss of industrial jobs, they said.”

The conference is sponsored by the Council on Foundations and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, challenged foundations last year to do more for rural areas. Council President Steve Gunderson said that shouldn't mean less for urban areas, because rural areas should tap into “the huge transfer of wealth that is expected to take place over the next 50 years as people die and leave their estates to their heirs,” Perry writes. A good deal of that wealth is in rural land and other assets.

A recent National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy report, Rural Philanthropy: Building Dialogue From Within, "suggests that grant makers send their staff members on more site visits to rural areas and pay for events that bring urban foundations and rural nonprofit groups together,” Perry writes. “People fund people they know,” Dorfman said. “Relationships matter.” The conference ends Thursday. (Read more)

A survey of foundation staffs for the Center for Rural Strategies found “A perception that rural nonprofits lack the capacity to handle grants, a belief that rural funding falls outside many foundations’ interests and missions and sense that physical distance and cultural differences between urban-based philanthropies and rural organizations separate the foundation world and rural America,” the center's Tim Marema writes in the Daily Yonder, the center's new rural-news site. (Read more)

Utah mine where six are trapped used ‘most dangerous’ method, mining roof-supporting pillars

The Washington Bureau of the Los Angeles Times, long the domain of our friend and founder Rudy Abramson, gets back into his old coal beat today with the latest national story on "retreat mining," a method the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration authorized in June at the Crandall Canyon Mine of Murray Energy Corp. near Huntington, Utah, where six miners are trapped, their fate unknown.

"It's a delicate endeavor," writes Judy Pasternak of the Times. "Columns of coal are left in place to hold up the roof of the mine while the vein is tapped. Once the reserves have been extracted, the miners harvest the last of the coal on the way out, cutting carefully into the pillars and scrambling out of the way as the roof caves in. The final column to be slashed is known among miners as the 'suicide pillar'."

Tony Oppegard, a mine-safety lawyer and former federal mine-safety official, told the Times, "It's the most dangerous type of mining that there is." Pasternak writes that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health considers "the last phase of room-and-pillar mining is disproportionately dangerous," accounting for 10 percent of U.S. coal production, but 27 percent of mining deaths in a 2003 study. Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association told Pasternak the sample of 100 fatalities was small.

Mine owner Robert Murray has denied that the six miners were doing retreat mining, and contends that the roof collapse was caused by an earthquake, an event never recorded in Utah. Outside experts say the seismic jolt registered at the time seems to have been caused by the collapse itself. Pasternak writes that retreat mining "dislodges such tremendous volume of earth with such force that it causes quake activity." (Read more)

Murray has been the coal industry's "best friend," The Washington Post reports, drawing on a long interview he gave reporter Alec MacGillis this summer. To read MacGillis's story, click here.

Weekly paper's aggressive coverage holds Okla. authorities accountable, helps capture escapee

John Wylie, publisher of Oklahoma's weekly Oologah Lake Leader, was reading the nearby Vinita Daily Journal on June 5, and knew something was wrong when he saw that his neighbor editor was replying to a reader's complaint about a mental patient who had "walked away from a picnic." Wylie was in an excellent position to have heard about such an incident, and had heard nothing.

He did some digging and learned that the patient had walked away from a picnic at Oologah Lake, in the adjoining county, and that the escapee "had a two-state felony record including aggravated assault and battery with a deadly weapon, and had repeatedly threatened to kill law enforcement officers, jailers and friends," Wylie told Stan Schwartz of the National Newspaper Association. Escapee Randy Thweatt "had an escape history and had tried to kill a McCurtain County woman with a rifle."

"The only call the hospital made after discovering Thweatt was missing was to the McCurtain County Sheriff's Office in Idabel so it could warn the woman. In Rogers County, where Thweatt had escaped, authorities were not notified," Schwartz writes in the latest edition of NNA's Publisher's Auxiliary. Wylie broke the news, alerted a TV reporter in nearby Tulsa, and "Thweatt was apprehended by two Oklahoma Highway Patrol officers within 48 hours of the Leader's story," Schwartz writes. (For a PDF of the story's jump, click here.) "Oklahoma Rep. Chuck Hoskin, D-Vinta, issued a statement praising Wylie: 'I believe had it not been for the vigilance of the press -- in this case John Wylie of the Oologah Lake Leader and Lori Fullbright of KOTV-Tulsa -- this dangerous criminal may have remained at large.'"

Wylie reported the capture (story and jump) but the story wasn't over. He learned that "At that same lake just a week later, while Thweatt was still at large, more than 100 Girl Scouts held a campout," Schwartz writes. "It was also the 30th anniversary of the Locust Grove Girl Scout murders. Three young girls had been raped and killed at that site. The community still remembers that time." Click here for Wylie's story. Finally, the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health apologized for the incident, and put a six-month suspension on all outings, but when Wylie asked for a copy of the order, he found that it it wasn't in writing.

Wylie wrote an editorial about dealing with the mentally ill, and related his own experience: When he was a big-city reporter, he covered a mentally ill veteran "who held police at bay for a day with volleys from high-powered weapons," then "got past security at The Kansas City Star, and pled his case with a .45-caliber handgun aimed straight and true at our heart through the pocket of his raincoat." (Read more)

Farmland prices rising, especially around ethanol plants in the Midwest

"Skyrocketing farmland prices, particularly in states like Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska, giddy with the promise of corn-based ethanol, are stirring new optimism among established farmers," reports Monica Davey of The New York Times. "But for younger farmers, already rare in this graying profession, and for small farmers with dreams of expanding and grabbing a piece of the ethanol craze, the news is oddly grim. The higher prices feel out of reach."

Davey reports from DeKalb, Ill., citing an 80-acre tract "that sold for $10,000 an acre at auction this spring, a price that astonished even the auctioneer," Davey writes. "In central Illinois, prime farmland is selling for about $5,000 an acre on average, up from just over $3,000 an acre five years ago, a study showed. In Nebraska, meanwhile, land values rose 17 percent in the first quarter of this year over the same time last year, the swiftest such gain in more than a quarter century."

Davey also writes, "A federal-government analysis of farm real estate values released Friday showed record average-per-acre values across the country. The analysis said property prices averaged $2,160 an acre at the start of 2007, up 14 percent from a year earlier. . . . In Iowa, which produces more corn and is home to more ethanol plants than any other state, farm rental prices are mimicking purchase prices: they were up about 10 percent this spring over a year ago, according to a study by William Edwards, a professor at Iowa State University, who said it was the largest jump since he started tracking farm rents in 1994."

Some of the highest prices are near the nearly 200 existing or proposed ethanol plants, "where the cost of transporting the corn would be the cheapest," Davey reports. Jason Henderson, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, told the Times that that land close to such facilities, most of which are in the Midwest, had jumped by as much as 30 percent over a year ago. (Read more)

UPDATE: A Times editorial Aug. 10 says the ethanol boom "gives bigger, richer farmers and outside investors the ability to out-compete their smaller neighbors. It cuts young farmers hoping to get a start out of the equation entirely. It reduces diversity in crops and in farm size." (Read more)

Monday, August 06, 2007

Senate passes bill to improve federal Freedom of Information Act; prospects for final passage good

The first Freedom of Information Act reform in 11 years passed the Senate without dissent Friday night after being held up for two months by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. Among other reforms, the bill would create an obmudsman to resolve disputes about records requests, some of which have lingered for years because there is no penalty for failing to meet the law's deadlines for response.

The bill would also create a tracking system and hotline allowing requesters to follow their request through the system, and ensure that those who sue to get records will be get reimbursed for attorney fees when a federal agency hands over records right before a court order that might have included a fee award. It is called the Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act, or OPEN Government Act. It is promoted by the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups.

The voice vote by unanimous consent came after a series of negotiations between Kyl’s staff and that of the sponsors, Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Tex., reports Pete Weitzel of the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government. Kyl and the Justice Department "objected to the definition of the media for fee waiver purposes, to a measure restoring the recovery of attorneys fees (changed by a 2001 court ruling), to the penalty provision if an agency fails to meet the 20-day response time, to the creation of an ombudsman, and to a section calling for reporting on Critical Infrastructure Information," Weitzel reports.

"The compromise made changes to the first three in ways we do not believe harmful," Weitzel writes. "The penalty provision was changed to match that in the House bill, which we thought more practical. The ombudsman provision, as negotiated, primarily adds language to the Leahy-Cornyn bill that puts into statute the requirement that each agency have a chief FOIA officer and a public liaison. Those were established by presidential executive order last year. The CII section is not really related to FOIA reform but is something Sen. Leahy felt strongly about. It is not in the House bill and we did not object to its being dropped."

Weitzel says the best scenario for supporters of freedom of information is for the House to accept the Senate version. If not, a House-Senate conference committee will be required. "Either way, we believe we’ll see the bill going to the president soon." For Weitzel's detailed analysis of the changes, click here.