Saturday, September 08, 2007

Bill Moyers updates story on mountaintop removal and evangelicals with news of proposed new rule

Last fall, Bill Moyers reported on PBS about evangelical Christians who were implementing their faith to fight the mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal. "Bill Moyers' Journal" updated the report last night, letting viewers know we are in a 60-day comment period on a regulation proposed by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, aimed at eliminating legal barriers to the controversial practice.

Both reports focused on West Virginia and quoted Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch: "I wonder which one of these mountains do you think God will come down here and blow up? Which one of these hollers do you think Jesus would store waste in?" Moyers reported, "Bonds was a raised a Christian, then strayed from the church. This fight, she says, has brought her back to God. . . . Allen Johnson is part of the same campaign. He co-founded an advocacy group Christians for the Mountains." (Photo of Johnson from the Journal)

Johnson said, "Some people say that churches are in the pockets of the coal company. And maybe they want to build a picnic shelter, so the coal company helped -- give a nice donation. I think there are some pointed questions we can ask these churches. And we can ask them, now 'Are you gonna say nothing because you're getting some money?' Or, are you gonna say, 'We don't wanna say anything because somebody in our church is getting their job is connected with the polluters?' And so, you don't . . . say anything. What does that say? Now, justify that scripturally." For a transcript of the report, click here. To watch it, click here.

The Office of Surface Mining, part of the Interior Department, has posted a detailed "fact sheet" responding to news reports and environmentalists' criticism of the agency and its proposed rule. To read it, click here. The agency's news release and "How to Comment" section does not list the deadline for filing comments, but the federal Web site lists the deadline as Oct. 23.

Iowa Republican Grassley is optimistic about a Senate vote to cap commodity payments

As the Senate tackles the Farm Bill, Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, want its version to include "a firm cap on commodity program payments of $250,000," Dan Look of Successful Farming magazine writes on Looker reports that Grassley is optimistic he will have the votes to have the limits included in the bill.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Grassley said getting limits in the final House-Senate conference version should be helped by the Democratic takeover of the House, reports Tom Steever of Brownfield Network. "I believe that the philosophical approach of (House Agriculture Committee) Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) is much different than it was for the Republican chairman," Grassley said. (Read more)

Grassley and Dorgan say their payment limits, which would be much lower apply more broadly than current limits, would help younger farmers. Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register quotes a letter they sent the Senate Agriculture Committee: "The current payment limits promote farm consolidation, artificially increase land prices, and create barriers for a new generation of farmers eager to enter the industry." (Read more)

In an op-ed piece in the Fargo Forum, Dorgan writes that "a new farm bill must end the practice of providing giant payments to giant corporate farms that have nothing to do with family farming." He continues, "The purpose of a farm bill is to help family farmers through tough times. It was never meant to be a set of golden arches for big corporations that want to farm the farm program."

David Mercer of The Associated Press reports that Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns wants the limit lowered from the House bill's figure of $1 million. Current law sets a limit of $2.5 million. (Read more)

Tallahassee Democrat series on springs, Roanoke Times project on mountaintop removal win awards

The Society of Environmental Journalists announced the winners of its Awards for Reporting on the Environment this week, and two extensive series on rural environmental problems won the top prizes in the Small Market category.

The Tallahassee Democrat's team of Bruce Ritchie, Glenn Beil, Jennifer Portman and John Roberge won first place for their series "Saving Our Springs." The three-part series details the problems of the area's Wakulla Springs (above in a photo by Glenn Beil of The Democrat), whose clear blue waters had been "dulled by a tangle of supercharged aquarium weed and algae, tamed only by an annual dose of weed killer that allows about 150,000 people a year to enjoy the park's popular river boats and swimming hole." In describing the piece, the judges said,"The goal of top quality environmental journalism is to present a clear, balanced case to educate the community and inspire action to correct a harmful problem. The Democrat pulled out all the quality journalistic stops and its community won."

For The Roanoke Times, Tim Thornton took second place for his series "Moving the Mountains: An Exploration of Mountaintop Removal Mining." The series offers a comprehensive look at the debate surrounding mountaintop removal, and its online version includes photo galleries, graphics and video that tell the story from a variety of angles. Thornton offers descriptive portrayals of life before and after mountaintop removal, and he explores the various ways former mining sites have been reclaimed. He displays solid research and reporting, especially in his work with the residents of the affected communities.

"This is what environmental reporting is all about," the SEJ judges write. "Mr. Thornton takes a complex topic of importance to the region, clearly explains it with balance and enhances the package with graphics and the testimony of experts and ordinary residents of the affected area." For a complete list of the winners, go here.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Israeli-Australian virus is chief suspect in collapse of U.S. bee colonies

"Scientists have found a virus associated with the destruction of a large fraction of American commercial bee colonies, but they have not been able to prove that it is the cause of the mysterious disease that has wreaked havoc on the bee industry," reports Thomas H. Maugh II of the Los Angeles Times.

"The virus, Israeli acute paralysis, may have been introduced by bees from Australia whose importation was first permitted in 2004, about the same time that the disease, Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, began appearing in the United States," Maugh reports. "Australian bees do not suffer from the disorder, leading researchers to speculate that the virus interacts with chemicals in the environment or with another infectious agent, such as the varroa mite, which is not common in Australia." Investigation is continuing.

Maugh offers useful background: "Although the United States has experienced other bee die-offs, the latest episode has been one of the worst, affecting about 23 percent of beekeepers. Typically, 50 to 90 percent of a keeper's colonies are affected as worker bees fail to return to their hives, leaving the queen with a handful of newborns. Agricultural experts view the deaths with alarm because bees are required to pollinate about a third of the nation's food crops, including almonds, cherries, pears, blueberries, strawberries and pumpkins."

"We don't have a great deal of buffer" for dealing with bee losses, because the U.S. has 2.5 million bee colonies, half as many as in the 1940s and '50s, entomologist Diana Cox-Foster of Penn State told Maugh. Another researcher reported that about 30 percent of bees he studied in Israel incorporated the virus into their genes and had become resistant to it. "If the virus is shown to be the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, it may be possible to replace current bee colonies with hives of resistant specimens," Maugh writes. (Read more)

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Small Kentucky weekly solicits, gets 'big ideas' from readers for community progress

The Todd County Standard of Elkton, Ky., has a circulation of about 2,500, but it does a better job than many larger weeklies of putting items on the public agenda. On May 17 we noted its four-story package about the need for broadband Internet service in the county, part of the paper's year-long "Focus on the Future" series, which continued with "Some BIG Ideas" for the county of 12,000 people, which we noted July 11.

The paper presented ideas without regard to what they might cost, but none were outlandish. "Let's just talk about what might be possible and perhaps someday someone with the resources or the drive might just succeed," said the staff-written story. The paper planted seeds, giving them a first dose of water and hoping others will agree to take over. Then it invited readers to submit their own ideas, published this week.

The ideas included a Corvette raceway and resort, linked to the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, where the sports car is made; improvements in the current Jeff Davis Days festival (the Confederate president was born in the county) and making sure that visitors know that the county is also the birthplace of Robert Penn Warren, America's first poet laureate. The Standard has no Web site, but click here to see the story.

Confederacy museum, struggling to find a new site, plans to split into three

Struggling from "image and financial problems," the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., is making another attempt to preserve its collection with a plan to create exhibits at three battlefield sites in Virginia, reports Neely Tucker of The Washington Post. (Photo of "The White House of the Confederacy" by Steve Helber, Associated Press.)

The $15 million plan would divide the collection of the 117-year-old museum among rural sites at Chancellorsville, Appomattox and a third battlefield to be determined, Tucker writes. The battlefield exhibits would open by 2011, while the current museum would close, officials told Tucker. The "White House of the Confederacy," the home and headquarters of CSA President Jefferson Davis during the Civil War, would stay open. But funding for the project has not been secured.

"Our mission is to use our artifact collection to educate the public, and you have to get people to see the stuff in order to do that," S. Waite Rawls III, the museum's executive director, told Tucker.

Earlier this year, the museum sought to move its entire collection to a new location, and looked at 10 sites, all of which remained confidential except Lexington, Va., where the city council approved the idea 4-2 after hearing opposition from African Americans. The Rockbridge Weekly writes that "opponents of the Museum of the Confederacy locating in Lexington must be breathing a sigh of relief this week." That article goes on to say that "substantial opposition developed" as Lexington sought to lure the museum.

The museum's current site, next to the "White House of the Confederacy," has been surrounded by a new medical complex, and it is large enough to display only 10 percent of the museum's total collection of about 14,000 artifacts, The Roanoke Times reports. With the change in the neighborhood and the completion of the more politically correct American Civil War Center, attendance has dropped from a peak of 91,000 annually to 44,000 last year, the Associated Press reports. An audit also revealed the museum's endowment had been drained to cover operating costs, The Washington Post reports.

In need of workers, American farmers move operations to Mexico

Since American farmers now risk serious legal troubles if they are caught with undocumented workers, some are taking their crops to a place where they know the workers are legal -- Mexico. (Photo of American-run broccoli farm in central Mexico by Janet Jarman)

In an article from The New York Times, Julia Preston reports from Celaya, Mexico, and describes American farmers who have taken their operations here. She points to signs that it might be a growing trend. She reports that the Western Growers, an association representing farmers in California and Arizona, surveyed members over the phone and found that 12 large agribusinesses "acknowledged having operations in Mexico reported a total of 11,000 workers here."

“It seems there is a bigger rush to Mexico and elsewhere,” Tom Nassif, the Western Growers president, told Preston, adding that that Central American countries also are drawing American farms. Although there are no official stats on American farms in Mexico, Preston reports that U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has "displayed a map on the Senate floor in July locating more than 46,000 acres that American growers were cultivating in just two Mexican states, Guanajuato and Baja California." There, American growers have a steady and cheap workforce, which they pay about $11 per day, instead of $9 an hour back in California.

Of the 2.5 million farm workers in the United States, an estimated 53 percent are illegal immigrants, according to the Department of Labor. Preston reports that growers and labor unions say "as much as 70 percent of younger field hands are illegal." With illegal immigration targeted by authorities, farmers must find a way to maintain their workforce, here or abroad.
“I’m as American red-blood as it gets,” Steve Scaroni, one of those American growers, told Preston, “but I’m tired of fighting the fight on the immigration issue.” (Read more)

Hugoton, Kan., welcomes first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant

Late last month, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and other state officials, along with representatives of the transnational energy corporation Abengoa descended upon the small town of Hugoton. They had big news to announce for the town of less than 4,000: It would be the site of the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the country. (Encarta Maps)

According to a story in The Garden City Telegram, the facility will use plant fiber or other biomass to produce renewable fuel and cover about 400 acres west of Hugoton, and should be completed by late 2010. Once operational, the biomass biorefinery could produce as much as 13 million gallons of ethanol annually "using 930 tons per day of cellulosic crop residue from plants, including switch grass, cornstalks, milo and wheat straw," The Telegram writes. The plant also will produce about 88 million gallons of ethanol annually from grain. The Telegram reports that the part of the funding for the plant will come from a $77 million Department of Energy grant to Abengoa as a result of President Bush's energy initiative.

The Telegram also explains that Hugoton was not at the top of Abengoa's list originally, but one of the town's residents, Walter Beesley, made contact with the company when he heard about the grant. Beesley, a local farmer, made a visit to another of the company's plants and helped spark interest in Hugoton as a natural site for the plant's 125 jobs and $5.5 million payroll. (Read more)

'Music of Coal' chronicles the history of Appalachian mining in song

With 48 songs on two CDs and a 76-page hardcover book, the "Music of Coal" offers a comprehensive look at "labor struggles, union organizing, unemployment, economic depression, environmental impacts, mining lifestyles and the heritage of mining," reports The Coalfield Progress in Norton, Va.

Hannah Morgan writes that the compilation came from three years of work across the region that began in 2005 when Paul Kuczko, executive director of the Lonesome Pine Office on Youth, had students collect information about local coal camps for a book to celebrate the 150th birthday of Virginia's Wise County.

Morgan reports the process identified the desire for such a CD. A group of about 20 people from the nearby regional arts center Appalshop, the Ralph Stanley Museum, the Heart of Appalachia Tourism Authority and other agencies "joined with county officials, historians and various colleges and foundations to form a committee to turn the idea into a reality," she writes.

Along the way, the group found the songs were born from sorrow. "We were all about ready to commit suicide because they were so depressing," Kuczko told Morgan. To balance the blues, she writes, the group added some upbeat tunes as well as some work from current local artists. The "Music of Coal" is available at $35 each, and Kuczko said he profits from the project will go toward helping local youth record their own music, Morgan writes. (Read more)

In another piece, Morgan continues to explore the music of Appalachia, this time as she finally learns to play a mandolin that had been sitting in her home for a year. (Read more)

Cheryl Truman of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader wrote a review of the collection called "Mountain songs in a miner key," which includes audio clips of a few of the songs.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A source for social change in perhaps an unlikely place, the Highlander Center turns 75

Starting in 1932, the Highlander Folk School (now the Highlander Research and Education Center) brought leaders to the mountains of Tennessee to learn and share methods for improving social justice in America. On its 75th anniversary, author Jeff Biggers highlights the role the school played in the civil rights movement. (At left: Photo of Martin Luther King, Pete Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks and Ralph Abernathy at Highlander's 25th anniversary in Monteagle, Tenn.)
In an essay at NewAmerica, Biggers calls the school "an extraordinary American institution that recognized the ability of mountaineers and Southerners to determine their own fate in volatile times." It overcame many obstacles, including trumped-up charges that forced it to close. It relocated from Monteagle, Tenn., and reopened on Bays Mountain east of Knoxville, as founder Myles Horton said, "You can't padlock an idea."

He writes of the impact the school had on many prominent figures in the movement, including Rosa Parks, who attended a workshop at the school in 1955 just months before refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Biggers quotes from a Studs Terkel interview in which Parks recalled how the Highlander experience was a first for her: "We all were treated equally and without any tension or feeling of embarrassment or whatever goes with the artificial boundaries of racial segregation."

Biggers describes his essay as an attempt to excavate the Highlander School's legacy "from the rubble of our increasingly sanitized history lessons," and it offers a clear but succinct discussion of what the school, its leaders and participants meant to the movements for civil rights and social justice in the United States.

Hungry bears prompt warnings for hunters, hikers from W.Va. officials; rabid bruin shot in Md.

UPDATE: A rabid bear was shot near Grantsville, Md., in the far western part of the state, on Aug. 29, Joe Holley of The Washington Post reports. (Read more)

After late-spring frosts reduced a staple of bears' summer diets, the bruins have gone looking for food in backyards and other populated spots in West Virginia, reports Tara Tuckwiller of The Charleston Gazette. With bear-hunting season beginning soon in West Virginia, and campers and hikers hitting the trails, too, the state's Division of Natural Resources is warning people to take caution to avoid bears.
Bear-alert signs greet visitors and trash cans have been moved to cages in the Monongahela National Forest, where more bears have been reported than usual, Tuckwiller writes.

“The bottom line is that people enter the natural habitat of black bears when they go into the woods in West Virginia,” Dick Hall, supervisor of game management for the DNR’s wildlife resources section, told Tuckwiller. “We can focus on removing problem bears from campgrounds if necessary, but people need to recognize how to keep themselves safe as they enjoy the wild lands of the state." (Read more)

Some tips from the DNR include keeping food in an airtight container and never storing any food in a tent, carrying special bear pepper spray (the human type is not effective on bears), slowly backing away if a bear approaches, or shouting and waving a shirt or other object to look bigger if the bear continues to draw near. For more tips, go to the DNR's Web site or to For information about Tennessee's black bear hunting season, go here. For Virginia's, click here. Kentucky has no bear season.

Joel Wilson retires after 50 years of service to the Glasgow (Ky.) Daily Times

In his time at the Glasgow (Ky.) Daily Times, Joel Wilson, right, served as editor for more than 40 years and spent the last four as editor emeritus, and throughout it all all, "He practiced community journalism long before the term was in fashion," writes Ronnie Ellis of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.

Such longevity and loyalty are rare these days, and Wilson deserves recognition and the gratitude of his community, Ellis writes.

Ellis, who worked for Wilson at the Daily Times before staffing CNHI's Frankfort bureau, writes that, "neither the paper nor the community will ever seem quite the same" now that Wilson has retired. To read the entire column, go here.

Monday, September 03, 2007

North Carolina's biotechnology boom is an example of why U.S. manufacturing is still strong

"As lawmakers pursue legislation aimed at softening the blow from factory closures, and as the downside of trade emerges as a talking point in the 2008 presidential campaign, it might seem that manufacturing is a dying part of the U.S. economy," writes Peter Goodman of The Washington Post. "But ... the United States makes more manufactured goods today than at any time in history, as measured by the dollar value of production adjusted for inflation -- three times as much as in the mid-1950s, the supposed heyday of American industry."

Goodman says "North Carolina encapsulates the forces remaking American manufacturing," because it is replacing traditional factory jobs with high-tech work in such fields as biotechnology. In the last few years, North Carolina has suffered the shriveling of two traditional industries, textiles and furniture. But big changes in the state's other traditional industry, tobacco, are helping the state become a leader in biotechnology.

When the national settlement with cigarette manufacturers signaled big changes in tobacco, leading to the end of federal quotas and price supports, North Carolina set aside half its settlement money for the long-term economic advancement of the No. 1 tobacco state. The largest area of investment has been in biotechnology, primarily in programs at North Carolina State University, North Carolina Central University and the state's community colleges. Here is the annual report of the Golden LEAF Foundation, which makes the grants. (Here is our comparison of settlement spending in North Carolina and Kentucky, which had the most tobacco farmers, earmarked half its settlement for agriculture and has given most of it to improve its cattle industry.)

Goodman writes about North Carolina's biotechnology program, which "seeks students from declining areas of manufacturing," and some of its graduates, such as former Yadkinville textile worker Regina Whitaker, in photo by Goodman. She's a lab technician at Targacept, "a biotech start-up in Winston-Salem that was spun off from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Where the tobacco giant had researched the use of nicotine to make people crave cigarettes, Targacept is focusing on the nicotine receptors in the brain to develop drugs for Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia. Whitaker said her salary is 'significantly more' than the $13.40 an hour she made at the yarn factory." She told Goodman, "I'm not struggling now. Before, it was paycheck to paycheck." (Read more)

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Kansas papers ask if subsidies, at issue in farm bill debate, have led to rural economic decline

Have federal farm subsidies hastened the consolidation of farms, and thus the decline of population and small towns, in rural Kansas? Some experts there think so, Harris News Service reports in the first installment of a six-part series examining the effects of agricultural subsidies on rural Kansas. The service is part of Harris Newspapers, seven papers in Kansas and The Hawk Eye in Burlington, Iowa.

"Subsidies are at the heart of the debate as Congress works to write a new farm bill this fall. Among the provisions sought by President Bush and many lawmakers are limits on federal commodity subsidies paid -- especially to the biggest farms," Mike Corn writes. "The massive scale of federal farm payments further perpetuates an ever-increasing growth in the size of farms," in the view of Jon Bailey, director of research and analysis at the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb.

Bailey said subsidies allow large farmers to raise rents, bid up land prices and expand. Corn writs, "Subsidies encourage farms to grow because farmers can obtain additional payments by further increasing their acreage, he said. When the size of farms grows larger, there are fewer farms for individuals to work on, leaving fewer opportunities in farming, he said. As a result, there are fewer business opportunities directly linked to farming. Bailey told Corn, "People who don't have the resources then are sort of left out of the equation."

Bailey also also said there is evidence that larger farms "they take their business to larger, regional hubs instead of locally owned shops," Corn writes. Mary Fund, communications director at the Kansas Rural Center, told him there is evidence in the harm of subsidies in a 2005 study done by economist Mark Drabenstott for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. (For the text-only version of the study, click here.) "In many of the counties whose farmers receive the most in subsidy payments growth in employment and new businesses is the weakest. Cornelia Butler Flora, an Iowa State University professor of agriculture and sociology, concurs. She said it is essential that the biggest subsidies be capped because they are contributing to the decline of rural of communities." (Read more)

Harris has posted columns on the farm bill here. For the chain's special-projects page, click here.

Roanoke reporter, who ranged to the coalfield and the far tip of Virginia, calls it a career

Paul Dellinger, at left with photographer and fellow Roanoke Times retiree Gene Dalton, retired Friday after 44 years as one of the hardest and longest working reporters in Appalachia. His career illustrates changes in the region and newspapers over four decades.

Dellinger (pronounced with a hard "g") hired on at the Times' Southwest bureau in 1963. He was 25. "For the next four decades, Dellinger covered Southwest Virginia like a blanket -- in the beginning with reporter Hazel Brown (now deceased), and in later decades alone. One of his rare criticisms of his longtime employer is that it cut back coverage of the far southwest in the 1990s. "The Roanoke Times got all sorts of accolades for its coverage" of coal in the late 1980s, he said. "The next year, they stopped covering anything out there." But Dellinger still lives in Wytheville, site of the now-closed bureau.

When Dellinger was nearing 62, the age at which he could begin collecting limited Social Security benefits, his wife, a former reporter, asked him what he might do after newspapers. "He said, 'What I'm doing,' " she told Times writer Kevin Kittredge, who summed it up this way: "Translation: There was no 'after newspapers.'

"Seven years later, changes in the newspaper world, and recent inducements offered to older workers to retire, have convinced him otherwise. All newspapers face a murky future these days, as they try to balance the print edition with the Internet, and The Roanoke Times is no exception. Ask Dellinger what he thinks about such changes, and his answer is succinct: "I think it's time to retire." And what does a man who has written news stories for 44 years do when he retires? He keeps on writing, of course." Dellinger writes science fiction, and has written radio scripts and a play. (Read more) For a video showing Dellinger at work, and reflecting on his career, click here. For his farewell piece, click here.

Paper mills long gone, town in northern N. H. banks on prison, ATV park for economic revival

In northern New Hampshire. the town of Berlin once relied on paper mills, now long gone. "Plagued by high unemployment, vacant buildings and a recent string of fires, Berlin (pronounced BUR-lin) is trying to reinvent itself, betting that a new 1,280-bed federal prison and New England’s first all-terrain vehicle park will be the economic shot in the arm it desperately needs," Katie Zezima wites in The New York Times today.

State and federal prisons (Berlin's will be the latter) have become an important element in the rural economy, and ATV tourism is becoming more and more popular in mountainous areas. "But there is concern about the direction the city is taking. Berlin already has a state prison, and there is opposition to the federal prison," Zezima writes. "A more controversial but much smaller project is a proposal to build a 50-megawatt power plant that would run on wood chips on a mill site in downtown Berlin."

The ATV park will cover 7,500 acres and "is expected to hold about 136 miles of trail and numerous campgrounds when it is completed in the next five years. About 20 miles are open now," Zezima writes. The state bought the land from a timber company for $2.1 million and projects the park's annual revenue will be almost $700,000. “For the first time in years there’s hope,” said Mark Belanger, manager of the Berlin office of the New Hampshire Department of Employment, told the Times. (Read more)