Saturday, October 13, 2007

As rich buy up timberland near national forests, loggers and environmentalists align

"A new wave of investors and landowners across the West ... are snapping up open spaces as private playgrounds on the borders of national parks and national forests," The New York Times reports, in the second in a series of articles looking at the changing demands on federal land in the West. "In style and temperament, this new money differs greatly from the Western land barons of old — the timber magnates, copper kings and cattlemen who created the extraction-based economy that dominated the region for a century."

Reporter Kirk Johnson's object example is William P. Foley II, above, who bought a mountain because he thought it was being logged too heavily. He "proudly calls himself a conservationist who wants Montana to stay as wild as possible," Johnson writes. "That does not mean no development and no profit. Mr. Foley, the chairman of a major title insurance company, Fidelity National Financial, based in Florida, also owns a chain of Montana restaurants, a ski resort and a huge cattle ranch on which he is building homes." Foley told Johnson, “A lot of it is more for fun than for making money.”

Johnson's larger view of economic change: "With the timber industry in steep decline, recreation is pushing aside logging as the biggest undertaking in the national forests and grasslands, making nearby private tracts more desirable — and valuable, in a sort of ratchet effect — to people who enjoy outdoor activities and ample elbow room and who have the means to take title to what they want. ... The United States Forest Service projects that over the next 25 years, an area the size of Maine — all of it bordering the national forests and grasslands — will face development pressure and increased housing density."

Private development has left the timber industry short of trees of private land, increasing pressure for logging in national forests. "In ways that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, environmentalists and representatives of the timber industry are reaching across the table, drafting plans that would get loggers back into the national forests in exchange for agreements that would set aside certain areas for protection," Johnson writes. "Both groups are feeling under siege: timber executives because of the decline in logging, and environmentalists because of the explosion of growth on the margins of the public lands." (Read more)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

House plans to vote Tuesday on federal shield law

The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a bill that would establish a shield law, or reporter's privilege, in federal statutes. A strong vote for HR 2102, titled the Free Flow of Information Act, could help the law get through the Senate, where a similar bill emerged from committee last week, and perhaps even avoid a presidential veto.

Rural news outlets have a stake in this bill, perhaps more than they might think. Defending a subpoena "could be catastrophic" for a small newspaper or broadcast station, says the National Newspaper Association. "For small media, subpoenas are particularly disruptive and can cripple a newsroom."

Journalists are merely asking Congress to do what 33 states and the District of Columbia, and courts in all other states except Wyoming, have done to protect reporters from being compelled to reveal confidential sources. "Such protections are crucial to preserving an important channel of communication between anonymous government officials and the press." NNA says. "Without them, citizens and government officials may be deterred from disclosing important information to the press."

The push for a shield law has increased as subpoenas to journalists have become more common. Here are some talking points for shield laws, from NNA: "Without the benefit of being anonymous, sources will not inform the press of valuable information that is of great importance to the public for fear they will be publicly named. Only extreme cases should merit disclosure. Courts should use clear, strict standards to govern the use of subpoenas when dealing with the press." For details on the law, from the Society of Professional Journalists, click here.

As dentists' fees rise faster than inflation, more people leave cavities untreated

For many Americans, perhaps the only thing more dreaded than a trip to the dentist is getting the bill afterward. The costs of dentists' fees have risen faster than inflation in recent years, and more than 100 million Americans remain without dental insurance, reports The New York Times. Add those two factors to a lack of dentists in many rural areas, and it's not hard to see why the number of Americans with untreated cavities is on the rise after decades of progress in dental health. (Times charts)

Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that in 2003 and 2004, 27 percent of children and 29 percent of adults did not receive treatment for their cavities, the highest such figures since the late 1980s, writes Alex Berenson. The average American spends $600 annually on dental care, of which about half is covered by insurance. That's not the case for poor families whose Medicaid coverage is not accepted by most dentists. In most places, Medicaid won't cover basic care, and dentists prefer the steady income of patients that pay cash or have private insurance.

“Most dentists consider themselves to be in the business of dentistry rather than the practice of dentistry,” said Dr. David A. Nash, a professor of pediatric dentistry at the University of Kentucky. “I’m a cynic about my profession, but the data are there. It’s embarrassing.”

To combat a growing shortage of dentists, especially in rural America, many want dental hygienists and dental therapists to be allowed to provide basic care such as drilling and filling cavities. State dental boards and the American Dental Association have lobbied against such plans and won. Dental therapists are technicians without the general medical training of dentists, and they practice in more than 5o nations, including parts of Western Europe.

University of Kentucky plans more rural branches, more students for its medical school

The University of Kentucky's College of Medicine will develop regional training centers at state universities in Morehead and Murray in an effort to bring more doctors to rural areas, reports Karla Ward of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. announced the plan, which would increase the size of the size of the medical school's incoming classes from 103 students to 130 over the next few years. Beginning with the class of 2008, each class would have 10 students spend time in their third and fourth years training at Morehead State University, in the northeastern part of the state. The plan is dependent upon receiving $2 million more in funds from the state legislation to accommodate more students and pay faculty and staff at Morehead. If the program works there, UK hopes to add another site at Murray State University by 2012, which would bring 10 students from each class to the southwestern part of the state.

Last week, the Herald-Leader reported that Kentucky was in dire need of more doctors, especially in rural areas. The state has 8,981 doctors serving a population of 4 million, or a ratio of 213.5 doctors per 100,000 residents, according to a report from the Kentucky Institute of Medicine. The national average is 267.9 doctors per 100,000 people, which means the state needs 2,298 more doctors right now. (Read more)

With rural homeless increasing in number, a North Carolina county takes action

While most of America's homeless people are in its urban areas, there is growing number in rural areas, especially where farms are consolidating or factories are disappearing. While harder to find, these rural homeless raise the same issues for their communities as their urban counterparts.

Surry County in northwest North Carolina has recognized the trend, so the Surry Homeless and Affordable Housing Coalition will use a $180,000 federal grant to hire a full-time caseworker for the homeless and to provide subsidized housing for homeless people with disabilities, reports the Winston-Salem Journal. Both are firsts for the county, which hopes to tackle the problem before it becomes even larger.

“I think a lot of folks assume that homelessness is a problem that only exists in the cities,” Wayne Black, the county’s director of social services, told the Journal’s Sherry Youngquist. “We do have homelessness in rural areas. The economy has been an issue. They layoffs from many manufacturer plants - that trickles down.”

The first difficulty in addressing the issue is first finding the rural homeless. A January count in Surry County tallied 90 homeless, but officials said that number is low. In Colorado, officials faced the same problem last year as they undertook the first count of rural homeless in 17 years, reports The Denver Post. In addition to the issue of counting the homeless, rural communities have fewer resources to offer those homeless, and thus the need for programs such as this one in Surry County.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Biofuels drive demand, prices for animal fat

As the demand for biodiesel has grown, so has the demand for animal fat used to make it. There is not enough fat to fill everyone's needs, reports the Des Moines Register. Over the last year, the price of animal fat has doubled thanks to the rising cost of corn brought on by the ethanol boom, writes Paula Lavigne. "Today's higher prices for feed corn, fueled by increased ethanol production, are causing livestock producers to supplant more of their animals' diets with fat. Fats and greases also can be used to make biodiesel, and can be cheaper than making the fuel with soybean oil."

Two plants in Iowa, and five others around the nation, are using fat to make biofuels. With the rise in demand, hog farmers and poultry breeders stand to profit. The demand won't spark them to make more fat, but it has led to some interesting partnerships. Lavigne highlights the example of meat processor Tyson Foods and its deal with ConocoPhillips oil company, and Syntroleum, a Tulsa fuel technology company, to make a combined 250 million gallons of renewable diesel per year. (Renewable diesel is not the same as biodiesel, since it is made using a different process.)

While the demand fat can mean more money for livestock owners, it is not changing the industry completely. "It probably isn't going to drive the market the way that demand for meat products can, but it can help maintain strong prices at a time when we're facing high operating costs," said Joe Schuele, spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. (Read more)

West Virginia timber firm seeks tax cut to compete against imported wood products

It is no secret that China is the source for many of the cheap consumer goods we buy in the America. Furniture is no different, and timber firms in West Virginia need help to compete with those products, one owner told the state legislature's Forest Management Review Commission, in a meeting covered by Tom Searls of The Charleston Gazette.

John Crites, owner of Allegheny Wood Products, said Chinese products are made to look like they are made of hardwoods, and thus they drive down the prices consumers are willing to for genuine hardwood furniture. His profits are falling — he said he has not "made a penny" in three years — and so he wants the state to drop its 4 percent severance tax on timber. “Timber is renewable,” Crites said. “It’s like a crop of corn.”

Crites said the state's tax is the highest of its kind east of the Mississippi, and that among the states bordering West Virginia, only Virginia has such a tax. Thanks to the threat of major forest fires due to the state's drought conditions, as well as the possibility of increased competition from European timber firms, the future of West Virginia's timber industry is in dire need of help, he said. (Read more)

AEP, feds reach air-pollution settlement that EPA says is the largest in American history

American Electric Power and federal regulators have reached a $4.6 billion settlement for new air-pollution controls, many of which it is "well on its way to finishing," reports Ken Ward Jr. in The Charleston Gazette. "Regulators say their lawsuit pushed AEP into those reforms, while critics argue the Bush administration is taking too much credit for the new settlement." The settlement covers 16 power plants in five states: Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. "Government lawyers continued the fight through numerous legal delays, endless battles over document requests and evidence secrecy, and Bush administration moves to essentially eliminate the regulations at the heart of the case," Ward reports. (Read more)

The settlement "will bring $1.6 billion in new pollution controls" to the world's largest coal-fired power plant, above, at Rockport, Ind., by 2019, writes James Bruggers of The Courier-Journal in Louisville. (Photo by John Dunham, The Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Ky.) "John Blair, an Evansville, Ind., an environmentalist whose organization, Valley Watch Inc., was among the plaintiffs in the case against AEP, said yesterday he has withdrawn from the lawsuit in part because the deadlines for pollution cuts at the Rockport plant are too far in the future." (Read more)

The deal was announced yesterday, the day that an eight-year-old federal lawsuit against AEP was supposed to go to trial in Columbus, Ohio, where the company is based. The Environmental Protection Agency "is calling the agreement the largest environmental settlement in U.S. history," reports The Columbus Dispatch, under the bylines of Kevin Mayhood, Jonathan Riskind and Paul Wilson. (Read more)

Judge decides to keep Crandall Canyon mine investigations closed to news media

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration can continue to bar the media from its special meetings related to the Crandall Canyon mine collapse in Utah, a federal judge ruled this week.

A number of news outlets — including The Associated Press, CNN, the Salt Lake Tribune and The Deseret Newsfiled suit Oct. 1 against Labor Secretary Elaine Chao for access to MSHA's fact-finding meetings, Nate Carlisle of the Tribune reports. The news outlets cited the precedent of access in criminal investigations, but U.S. District Judge Dee Benson disagreed, saying, "The court cannot make the leap that plaintiffs suggest by concluding that because the public has a First Amendment right of access to hear witnesses in a criminal trial, they also have a right of access to private government investigatory interviews." Tribune editor Nancy Conway said the news outlets had not decided if they would appeal.

Since Sept. 17, the MSHA panel — made up of MSHA employees and Utah Labor Commissioner Sherrue Hayashi — has worked to issue a public report about the Aug. 6 and Aug. 16 collapses at Crandall Canyon mine that killed nine people. The panel is interviewing people knowledgeable about the mine and the collapses, and it reviews related documents. The meetings occur at various locations around the state, and many interviewees are under oath. (Read more)

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Columnist: Rural voices must speak up to bring change to their towns

In his final column for the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI), Thomas D. Rowley at right does not want to look back. Because with the debate over the Farm Bill just beginning, he says now is the time for rural America to speak even louder.

Rowley has written the column for five years, and while it may be ending he says that does not mean "the job I’ve been doing is done." While there is much work left to do, he highlights the efforts of the National Rural Assembly, which gathered 300 rural leaders to create an agenda for rural progress in June, and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who has called on philanthropies to double their donations to rural causes. Right now, however, the Farm Bill should demand rural America's attention and its voices, he writes.

Pointing to the rural development title in Sen. Tom Harkin's draft, Rowley hopes the Iowa Democrat "will be able to deliver some real help to rural communities and not just to the big-in-size-yet-small-in-number farmers that have always gotten the lion’s share of federal rural support." The Campaign for a Renewed Rural Development has brought together more than 600 national, regional and local groups in its call for more funding in the Farm Bill, and Rowley wants more to join. "So get out your pen, get on your phone or crank up the computer," he writes. "Add your voice to those calling for renewed rural development." (Read more)

Virginia plans to put tobacco-settlement money into coal-to-liquid research facility in mountains

The Virginia Tobacco Commission, which distributes grants from the state's share of the national settlement with cigarette manufacturers, plans to give $1 million to a proposed coal research and development facility at the Lonesome Pine Business and Technology Park just east of Wise, near the Kentucky border. So reports Jodi Deal of The Coalfield Progress in Norton.

The commission will meet at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap Oct. 25, County Administrator Glen “Skip” Skinner reminded county commissioners last week, with a big grin, noting that "he’d just arrived from a meeting of the commission’s Southwest Virginia Economic Development Committee," Deal wrote, quoting him: "They may be bringing us a present."

The committee endorsed a staff recommendation that the coal-research facility get $1 million and a proposed data center get $450,000. "Coal companies and Virginia Tech are expected to work together at the facility, which is eventually intended to support a coal-to-liquid fuels industry throughout the coalfields and seek out other alternative energy sources, according to the county’s application to the tobacco commission," Deal reports. "About 200 new high-wage jobs would likely be created at the facility, the grant application notes." (Read more, subscription required) UPDATE, Oct. 30: The Progress reports on the grant awards.

Feds try ease entry of workers, as immigration crackdown leaves fields short of harvest labor

Federal agencies have begun rewriting rules on legal foreign workers in an effort to fill the labor gap created by a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, the Los Angeles Times reports. Officials at the U.S. departments of Homeland Security, State and Labor are attempting to adjust the farm-worker program by "lengthening the time workers may stay, expanding the types of work they can do, simplifying the way applications are processed and even redefining terms such as 'temporary,'" writes Nicole Gaouette. Still, time is running short for many areas experiencing labor shortages, such as in California's Imperial Valley (above in a Times photo by Mark Boster) or the San Joaquin Valley where there is a 20 percent shortfall. Many just hope that help arrives in time for the harvest. "It's like a ticking time bomb that's going to go off," Luawanna Hallstrom, chief operating officer of Harry Singh & Sons, a third-generation family farm in Oceanside that grows tomatoes, told Gaouette. "I'm looking at my fellow farmers and saying, 'Oh my God, what's going on?'"

Fewer than 2 percent of American farms use the existing program. One of the key areas for change would be the H2A visa program, which has been notorious for its inefficiency, Gaouette writes. On average 60,000 applications for H2A visas have been filed in the past, just a dent in the 3 million farm jobs that need to be filled now. In addition to gripes about the old process, some farmers complain about the increased wages an H2A worker receives compared to an illegal one. (Read more)

Tribes use radio to connect on reservations where phones are rare

While cell phones and computers have come to almost every neighborhood in America, many Native Americans are still waiting. Until the technology reaches these reservations, Native Public Media wants to use radio to bridge the communications gap. The group seeks to put a radio station in each of America's tribal communities, because in many, radio remains natives' main contact with each other and the rest of the country, reports New American Media.

“On some Navajo land, they still don’t have telephone lines and sometimes people can’t afford cell phones – and even if they can, reservations are often black holes for cell phone service. A lot of reservations are nowhere near connecting to the Internet,” Loris Ann Taylor, executive director of Native Public Media, told Neelanjana Banerjee. “In this landscape, the radio is their information highway.”

Currently, the group is encouraging native broadcasters to apply for non-commercial educational broadcast FM licenses while the Federal Communications Commission is taking requests for frequencies. The application window is open today through Oct. 12, and Taylor said it is the best chance to add more stations.

The greatest success in Native radio has been Native America Calling, a live, daily radio call-in program that broadcasts from Albuquerque, N.M. Founded 12 years ago, the show now draws 500,000 listeners over 52 stations in 15 states and two countries. Like other Native radio shows, it often is the best source for information about local health issues. (Read more)

Cristina Azocar, president of the Native American Journalists Association, says the strength of Native America Calling comes from its recognition of diversity. “They help recognize the differences among us, which mainstream media doesn’t when it comes to Native issues,” she says. “You can really see the diversity of opinions around Indian Country by listening to the show.”

Monday, October 08, 2007

Calif. opens up meeting records but governor vetoes bill aimed at quashing 'serial meetings'

California journalists and citizens who put a priority on open government won one and lost one as their legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, right, probably wrapped up legislative business relating to freedom of information and open meetings.

Schwarzenegger vetoed Senate Bill 964, which would have overturned a 2006 appellate court decision that may have gutted the state law which bars a majority of a public agency to use a series of communications to “develop a collective concurrence” about action to be taken on a public issue. The bill passed by margins "large enough to override the governor's veto, some Republican Senators could peel off -- if they want to defer to the governor," writes Frank Russo, publisher of California Progress Report. (Read more)

Schwarzenegger said "It is of the utmost importance to ensure openness and transparency of local government decision making," but said the bill "imposes an impractical standard for compliance on local officials and could potentially prohibit communication among officials and agency staff outside of a public meeting. I urge the Legislature to consider legislation next year that more judiciously addresses the problem of serial meetings." The bill was opposed by the California School Districts Association, school administrators and community colleges. For more information from the California Newspaper Publishers Association, click here.

Schwarzenegger signed legislation supported by CNPA to improve public access to late-filed documents. SB 343, passed without dissent, would "require any writing relating to an agenda item of a regular meeting that is distributed within 72 hours of the meeting to be made available for public inspection at the time it is distributed to the members of the body," reports the CNPA Legislative Bulletin. An agency can comply by making the writing available at a designated location or by posting it on the agency’s Web site "in a position and manner that makes it clear that the writing relates to an item on an upcoming agenda," the Bulletin reports. "SB 343 attempts to halt the practice of local agencies using documents for deliberations and actions in open session which the public has not had an opportunity to review prior to the meeting." (Read more)

Paid public notices are still important information for citizens, revenue for rural newspapers

National Newspaper Week began yesterday, and this year the focus is keeping paid public notices in newspapers. The notices make citizens aware of government spending and other official actions, but legislators in many states want to take these notices online -- and out of newspapers. Courts in some states have ruled that publishing the information on a government Web site is sufficient, and that stance has placed the future of public notices in newspapers in doubt. This is an economic issue for rural journalism, because the income from these "legal ads" can be vital to smaller newspapers.

David T. Thompson, the executive director of the Kentucky Press Association, writes that public notices are not relics, but remain key to our democracy and are as important to open government as open meetings and open records. He calls the trio a "three-legged stool," and says that without one, there can be no truly open government.

Steve Haynes, publisher of the Oberlin Herald and five other community newspapers in Kansas, argues that Internet-only notices would be far from progress. Haynes, president of the National Newspaper Association, explains that when these notices are left to the Web sites of government agencies the information becomes obscure and far from public (especially if someone does not have Internet access). While Internet's role in journalism is expanding, Haynes writes that "the Internet must not become a tool of secrecy for governments."

Some state press associations are drawing attention to public notices by collecting those in print and posting them online in searchable databases. The Georgia Press Association maintains a site that currently has notices from newspapers in 157 of the state's 159 counties. The site draws notices from newspapers in 13 states. Such sites reach readers who get information online, while helping ensure that print-oriented readers will still get the public notices they have come to expect. A column in the Laurel Leader-Call in Mississippi says a newspaper remains "the ultimate portable document format," especially in small communities.

House floor leader in Alabama, dis-employed by news coverage, starts his own paper

Alabama House Majority Leader Ken Guin, right, likes to wear multiple hats. Forced by news coverage to give up no-work jobs at a state community college, is now a newspaper publisher who says he will emphasize good news. Guin has founded The Corridor Messenger in Walker County, reports The Associated Press. Guin gave up the jobs recently, reported The Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, the main newspaper for the county.

The Corridor Messenger debuted last week and will be distributed to homes in Walker County for free during October. Guin said the name comes from Corridor X, a long-term Appalachian Regional Commission highway project to create a first-class road between Birmingham and Memphis. Much of the road, which will become Interstate 22, has been built near Jasper.

Guin told the AP that the newspaper will draw on his undergraduate days at Auburn University and his interaction with the school's newspaper, The Plainsman. Guin, who has a law practice in Carbon Hill, has hired a news editor to help. His wife, Tanya, is the managing editor and his mother, Barbara, writes a recipe column.

"I'm convinced we can fill a newspaper every week with good news stories," Guin told Kent Faulk of The Birmingham News, which revealed community colleges' employment of legislators and other officials, forced changes in the system and won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The Daily Mountain Eagle, published by Cleveland Newspapers of Cleveland, Tenn., declined to comment to AP. (Read more)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Crank-charged radios bring programs, often religious, to rural places without electricity

"From the forests of Africa to the deserts of Mongolia and the Middle East, there have never been more religious radio networks and stations broadcasting more programming in more languages to more places," reports Kevin Sullivan of The Washington Post. "While the globalization of faith has increasingly been driven by the Internet and satellite television, religious radio broadcasters are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on one of the world's oldest methods of mass communication," but often the only one available to some rural communities -- which often use crank-charging radios that don't depend on usual electric sources and cost about $50.

Many of the radios and programs come from religious groups, which "are reaching millions of people largely cut off from the world by money, distance and language," Sullivan reports from a remote part of Mozambique, where the only light at night "comes from a kerosene lantern or the moon. ... During last year's controversy over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper, some preachers on the Islamic radio airwaves helped stoke the global Muslim outrage that led to violent protests around the world." Unlike those of other religions, most Islamic stations are government-financed.

"Of the world's 314 radio stations licensed to broadcast across borders, 83 -- or 26 percent -- are religious stations, according to the World Radio TV Handbook. At least a dozen major international Christian radio networks operate in hundreds of countries and broadcast in at least 360 languages. Most are from the United States," Sullivan reports. "Trans World Radio, a nondenominational Protestant network, is among the largest." (Read more)