A digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. Links may expire, require subscription or go behind pay walls. Please send news and knowledge you think would be useful to email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter @RuralJournalism
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Cattle ranchers say they quashed backdoor effort by feds to require registration of farm premises
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has canceled a September memorandum that would have required registration of premises owned by "producers involved in interstate commerce and in any of the federally regulated disease programs," according to R-CALF USA, the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America.
"R-CALF had demanded the agency retract the memo," reports Tom Johnston of MeatingPlace. R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard told Bob Meyer of Brownfield Network that the retraction wouldn't affect states that require premises registration, but "Bullard says there are a number of challenges to state laws either filed or in the works and R-CALF has submitted affidavits in support of some of those producers." (Read more)
Iowa Independent posts its brag sheet for 2008
First on the list is Doug Burns' June 29 prediction that Arizona Sen. John McCain would pick Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. The prediction was only in the headline, but Doug wrote it. His lede said (emphasis added) that Palin "could vault from relative national obscurity," and our friend deserves credit for a very perceptive guess, and for much good reporting on a wide range of topics.
Five of the Independent's eight scoops dealt with the presidential election, in which Iowa cast the first votes, made Barack Obama the front-runner and was a battleground state for most of the general-election race before falling into the Obama column. For the Independent's report on itself, click here.
Monday, December 29, 2008
State legislator has bill to ban corn ethanol in N.H.
"It makes no sense environmentally when making a gallon of ethanol has a bigger carbon footprint than a gallon of gasoline, and it makes no sense to allow it to drive up food costs and availability when millions of people around the globe are facing starvation,” David Campbell told Taylor, who writes that the lawmaker is "undeterred" despite advice from "state bureaucrats" who say his idea "is an impossibility in light of ethanol mandates coming down from Washington."
Taylor, who recently retired after a long tenure as New Hampshire's appointed agriculture commissioner, reports that Campbell has allies in "owners of chainsaws, snowmobiles, outboard boat motors, weed whackers and other power equipment who have already seen their machines damaged by fuel containing ethanol. They’re the leading edge of what the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, a Washington trade group, says is going to be a huge and angry mass of equipment owners should the Environmental Protection Agency go along with proposals to allow gasoline to be formulated at more than the current 10 percent level for ethanol content."
Taylor, right, also reports, "Many in the gasoline industry claim ... unscrupulous marketers are boosting ethanol content well beyond the present E-10 limit because they can make money doing it." (Read more)
So, does Taylor think Campbell's idea will go anywhere? "When it comes to setting public policy, New Hampshire is usually either first or last. An ethanol ban will be sure to stir things up, but I'll bet it will get referred to study," he told us in an e-mail. "But the New Hampshire legislature can do some startling things when it looks from the outside like an idea will go nowhere. The best recent example is a law that banned private entities from mining unknowing patients' medical records for profit. The law was recently upheld by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, to the consternation of drug companies, and now a couple of other states are looking to copy."
Threatened, rural South Carolinians accept zoning
The move was prompted by a proposal for "a dense, 100-acre subdivision" with septic tanks, Szobody writes. The plan faltered, but it made zoning-shy residents think about "what robust growth is doing to the farthest reaches of a county that still contains vast swaths of prime unzoned property, and how attitudes are changing about planning ahead of growth by way of land-use restrictions." (Read more)
Massey to pay record fine in deadly coal-mine fire
Aracoma Coal Co. also agreed to plead guilty to 10 criminal violations, including one felony. The violations included "not providing a proper escape tunnel out of the underground mine, to not conducting required evacuation drills, and to faking a record book so it appeared the drills had been done," Ken Ward Jr. and Andrew Clevenger wrote.
The deal with federal prosecutors disposes of more than 1,300 health and safety violations at the Alma No. 1 mine, where the fire occured, and the nearby Henshaw mine. Last month, Massey settled a wrongful-death lawsuit by the two widows. The chief administrative law judge of the federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission wrote that he approved the settlement "reluctantly," because the $1.7 million penalty is 61 percent of the amount the federal government initially sought, while Massey CEO Don Blankenship got a raise of more than 35 percent last year, to "a compensation package that probably exceeded $23 million." (Read more)
Wal-Mart settles most suits over labor violations
"The company disclosed in a regulatory filing earlier this year that it had 76 such cases; resolving 63 in one fell swoop would leave just 12 remaining cases. Wal-Mart settled a case in Minnesota earlier this month," reports Miguel Bustillo of The Wall Street Journal. "Wal-Mart lost similar cases in California in 2005 and Pennsylvania in 2006 and was ordered to pay $172 million and $187 million, respectively, for denying breaks to thousands of employees. The company has appealed both cases and they are not part of the settlement."
Paul Secunda, a Marquette University law professor, told Bustillo that Wal-Mart may have wanted to settle not only to avoid further such verdicts, but "to get their labor house in order" before Congress takes up the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow workplaces to be organized by signatures of employees rather than secret-ballot elections. The bill "is fiercely opposed by Wal-Mart because the company worries it will make it easier for workers to unionize," Bustillo writes. Settling the suits could cost as much as $640 million, but Secunda said, "Compared to what unionization might cost them, I think they probably realized it was a small price to pay."
Wal-Mart said the settlements were "in the best interest of our company, our shareholders and our associates. Many of these lawsuits were filed years ago and are not representative of the company we are today." (Read more; subscription may be required)
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In addition to the blog, the Institute conducts research, holds seminars on issues, makes presentations at other organizations' meetings and maintains a Web site, http://www.ruraljournalism.org/, that is a resource for rural journalists. For the Institute's annual report for 2008, click here.
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Many rural TV viewers in fringe areas will lose 'local' stations in transition to digital signals
The Federal Communications Commission released maps last week of the current and expected coverage areas of the 319 stations -- about 18 percent of the 1,749 full-power stations -- that are expected to lose at least 2 percent of their viewers. For a market-by-market list of those maps, click here. (The maps do not account for repeater or translator stations that rebroadcast signals to targeted areas.) In some cases, a more sensitive antenna, plus the converter box needed for all antennas, will bring in the digital signal. Rural residents may also be able to use satellite or cable service to get channels that the FCC deems local. (Read more)
The switch to digital TV is a major story in rural America, but one that many rural journalists may have difficulty covering because it's an unfamiliar subject and the sources are mostly in Washington. The National Press Foundation is sponsoring a free, 75-minute webinar on the subject on Jan. 22. Space is limited, and available on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, click here.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
As Tennessee goes agog at coal-ash spill, enviros urge Obama to block more disposal in old mines
The day after a coal-ash retention pond broke at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tenn., closing a river and inundating about a dozen homes with sludge, 39 environmental groups asked President-elect Barack Obama to reject a pending regulation that would make it easier to dispose of such ash in abandoned coal mines.
On Monday, an estimated 500 million gallons of sludge went into the Emory River near its confluence with the Clinch River, which shortly downsteam flows into the Tennessee River, impounded as Watts Bar Lake. Residents "had trouble coming to grips with the scope," reports Terri Likens of the Roane County News (who took the photo). "Depending on where they looked, the scene was like a moonscape or piles of pavement scraped up from a giant roadway." (Read more)
On Tuesday, the environmental groups said coal ash "has already polluted water in 23 states and the new rule would open the way for more pollution by failing to require consideration of risks to human health and the environment before new disposal sites are approved," reports Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"Coal-fired power plants produce approximately 129 million tons of waste ash a year, the second-largest industrial waste stream in the nation. About 25 million tons are dumped in coal mines," Hopey writes. "The waste contains numerous hazardous materials including arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, boron, thallium and molybdenum. Water pollution has resulted in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, North Dakota and New Mexico." (Read more)
Big electric co-op in trouble; board has a conflict
EKPC, which generates and trasmits electricity, is owned by 16 small co-ops that distribute power to more than half a million consumer-members -- and that each have one director on the EKPC board. The state Public Service Commission said those directors have a conflict of interest because "They must balance East Kentucky Power's need for revenue with the desire for low electricity rates for its customers," Jim Jordan writes for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The customers' desire for low rates can hurt the long-term health of the company." (Herald-Leader map)
Many other generation-and-transmission cooperatives have similar board structures. Does yours? How's it working?
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Injury hospitalization rate is higher in rural areas
“As the population density decreases, the risk continues to increase,” said Dr. Jeffrey H. Coben of the Injury Control Research Center at West Virginia University. “If you just look at violence – person against person – the rates are higher in urban areas. But for virtually every other cause of trauma, the risks are substantially greater in rural areas.”
Previous studies found that death rates from injuries are higher in rural areas. This study examined all injuries that prompted admissions to U.S. hospitals in 2004. Hospitalization rates for injuries were 35 percent higher in sparsely populated rural counties and 27 percent higher in more populated rural counties. (The release from Newswise, a research-reporting service, didn't make clear whether the comparisons were with metropolitan-area counties or the U.S. as a whole.) The study is published in the January issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Why is rural riskier? In addition to promptness of care, other factors include higher-risk occupations such as farming, longer commuting distances, and a host of other possible factors. "Previous studies have shown that people who live in rural areas are more likely to take part in risky behaviors such as recreational drug use, drunken driving or failing to use seatbelts," Newswise reports. "Plus a culture of self-reliance may cause people to undertake household fix-up chores that are inherently dangerous, such as roof repairs." (Read more)
Gov. Palin creates Rural Subcabinet for Alaska
Although the migration numbers were not as bad as expected, Palin said if economic pressures were causing the trend, the state needs to act: "I want the Rural Subcabinet to look for ways to make certain migration is a result of personal decisions, not despair or a lack of choice resulting from economic pressures or other factors." (Read more)
Rural Kansas towns struggle to keep pharmacies
The limited number of pharmacy-school graduates also adds to the challenge. "When the school is only graduating about a 100 a year, and you figure only a handful want to come to a small town, that is hard," says Dick Stanley, who is on a task force to recruit a pharmacist to Hoisington, population 3,000. "You are competing against every other western Kansas community that wants to attract the same person." While recently, state legislators moved to expand the pharmacy school at the University of Kansas, proposed budget cuts are threatening that expansion. (Read more)
Big Gates Foundation grant will create high-speed Internet access in libraries in seven states
Almost $7 million in grants will be shared by Connected Nation, a non-profit broadband advocacy group, and the American Library Association's Office for Information Technology Policy. The grants will support faster Internet connections at libraries in Arkansas, California, Kansas, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, and Virginia.
The foundation's press release notes that, with the economy's decline, library visits have increased significantly. “Our nation’s future depends on our ability to compete successfully in global markets,” ALA President Jim Rettig said. “To maintain our competitive edge, citizens must be guaranteed access to the ever-expanding universe of knowledge, tools, services, and resources available on the Internet. Public libraries not only can and should provide that access, they also act as catalysts for improving Internet service for entire communities." (Read more)
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Indiana electric co-op fighting insurance company
The deal is much too complicated to explain in a short blog item, but Morgenson says it illustrates how "collateral damage from the credit crisis continues to crop up in the most unlikely places." It's also a tale of how investment bankers used a non-profit's tax-exempt status to rack up millions in fees and rob the Treasury of tax revenue. And how John Hancock Life Insurance Co. filed the default notice just as Hoosier Energy was about to strike another deal to avoid it. Hoosier believes John Hancock is trying to use the situation "to generate a quick $120 million," Morgenson writes.
Here's a map of the Hoosier service area, its headquarters, five generating stations and 18 member cooperatives, which have 800,000 member-customers:
Friday, December 19, 2008
Old energy vs. new energy: Will Coal River Mountain be mined or be home to a wind farm?
Coal River Mountain Watch and the Sierra Club argue that the state revised a mine permit without ensuring that the changes complied with federal law and state policy on exemptions from the general rule that strip-mined land be returned to its approximate original contour.
This month, the consulting group Downstream Strategies concluded that a wind farm on the mountain "would provide more jobs and tax revenue than a mountaintop removal mine," like the one on Kayford Mountain in the foreground of the photo, writes Ken Ward Jr. "Massey officials have said that if environmental groups think wind projects are such a good idea, they should buy land, obtain permits and build such projects themselves." (Read more)
Obama expected to name advocates of strong action against global warming to top science posts
"The appointments of Harvard University physicist John Holdren as presidential science advisor and Oregon State University marine biologist Jane Lubchenco as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, both of which will be announced Saturday, dismayed conservatives, and heartened environmentalists and researchers," the Post reports.
Ala. studying good rural schools to see what works
"Rural Alabama is headed down a long, desolate road when it comes to turning out a well-trained work force," Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks said when he announced the study. "We knew that there were some schools doing a tremendous job under difficult circumstances, so we wanted to find them -- and learn from them."
Ervin Elementary boosted its reading scores above the statewide average with "reading tutors, dedicated teachers, structure, new programs -- and enough money to make more of a difference," reports Kym Klass of the Montgomery Advertiser. "Ervin has its challenges. For example, it can't afford more teachers so it relies heavily on parents to monitor and help with their children's education." (Read more)
Rule would ease motorcycling restrictions in parks
Currently, parks must go through a rulemaking process that formally considers environmental concerns and park patrons. The proposal would waive that requirement. At least one former park superintendent says the proposal would cause more difficulties. Denny Huffman, former superintendent for Dinosaur National Monument, said in a statement, "This proposed regulation change would only open more park superintendents and managers to pressure by mountain bikers to open trails where that use conflicts with other visitors."
Juliet Eilpern of The Washington Post writes that "While the White House has barred agencies from issuing rules with a major impact on the economy less than 60 days before Bush leaves office, Bush spokesman Tony Fratto wrote in an e-mail that 'this was a non-significant rule.'" (Read more)
Clean-coal backers want stimulus to revive project
Thursday, December 18, 2008
New York Times notices that smaller papers have fewer people to cover congressional delegations
The newspapers and corporate owners are "eliminating hundreds of journalists’ jobs at a time when the federal government — and journalistic oversight of it — matters more than ever. Television and radio operations in Washington are shrinking, too, although not as sharply," Richard Pérez-Peña writes. "The times may be news-rich, but newspapers are cash-poor, facing their direst financial straits since the Depression. Racing to cut costs as they lose revenue, most have decided that their future lies in local news, not national or international events."
The Houston Chronicle’s Washington bureau has three people. Two years ago, it had nine. Republican Rep. Kevin Brady told the Times, “From an informed public standpoint, it’s alarming. They’re letting go those with the most institutional knowledge, which helps reporters hold elected officials accountable.” For example, George Condon of the San Diego Union-Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for stories that brought down corrupt Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Now his bureau is closed. He told the Times, “No matter how much great journalism is done by national organizations, they’re simply not geared to monitor closely a member of Congress ... who’s not a national leader.”(Read more)
Education Department expands privacy of school records, bringing objections from journalists
The 1974 amendment was intended to "safeguard against disclosure of personally identifying 'education records' such as attendance records and transcripts," writes Frank LoMonte for the Student Press Law Center. If schools violate the law, they run the risk of losing federal education funding.
The latest regulation issued under the law, published in the Dec. 9 Federal Register, broadens the definition of "educational record" to include "redacted" records -- documents and records that have already had names and identifying information deleted from them. "The final regulation says that a redacted record is confidential if a person's identity could be determined by people in the school -- so that, in DOE's view, a record about an incident not well-known to the public but known to people within the school will become confidential," writes LoMonte.
The center, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Education Writers Association are questioning the necessity of expanding the scope of confidentiality. They argue that existing regulations are already abused by schools that withhold information that should be public. The new rule would even apply to documents naming a student named who "voluntarily revealed his or her identity to the media."
The rule is expected to go into effect just before the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration. Read the center's whole story here.
Ethanol industry wants a piece of Obama stimulus
"The industry, which has been battered by falling fuel prices and erratic commodity markets, denies it is asking for a bailout," writes Aliya Sternstein. "But environmentalists and the food industry are calling the ethanol stimulus ideas irresponsible and potentially detrimental to the rest of the alternative energy sector." Craig Cox, Midwest vice president of the Environmental Working Group, told CQ that ethanol may increase greenhouse-gas emissions through increased tilling of land, and is "essentially eating up" money that could be used to subsidize other forms of renewable energy. "I think we need to question whether this industry can really ever stand on its own," he said.
"Ethanol producers argue that they are the best available solution to the energy crisis and are integral to any 'green' initiative aimed at energy independence, job opportunities and fighting global warming," Sternstein reports. "Ethanol companies have been pinched by decreased demand for fuel as well as the national credit crunch, according to the [Renewable Fuels]Association. In addition, ethanol manufacturers lost money by using the commodities markets to bet that corn futures prices would rise. Those prices recently dropped." (Story is not available online.)
UPDATE, Dec. 30: The Renewable Fuels Association says its request for part of the stimulus should not be considered a bailout.
Rural N.C. school district recruits teachers locally
The program selects promising high school seniors who "have a strong academic record, demonstrate a desire to remain in
The program aims to recruit 20 students per year, which would cost the community $670,000 annually. “We pitched this in economic development terms,” says Superintendent Chip Zullinger. “We’re keeping county money in the county and investing in our own young people.” (Read more)
Salazar, Vilsack will be Cabinet's rural voices
The appointment of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack has prompted a look back at his record to gain a sense of what changes he may bring to the Department of Agriculture. "On matters of agriculture, Vilsack was a pragmatic centrist, content with incremental changes and reluctant to take steps to significantly disrupt the status quo," writes Chase Martyn of The Iowa Independent.
In his two terms as governor Vilsack worked to endear himself to both the left and right, meaning he tended to stay away from divisive issues such a factory-style hog farms. "Vilsack remained largely above the fray of ongoing feuds over the placement of confined animal feeding operations near rural communities," writes Martyn. "Groups on the left who would like to give local communities stricter control over where the CAFOs are allowed felt betrayed by their governor’s unwillingness to help, but his stance kept agribusiness interests relatively quiet."
In fact, "Vilsack’s most noticeable impact on rural Iowa did not involve changes to agricultural policy or stricter environmental regulations, but rather tax credits and business incentives," adds Martyn. But he favors tighter limits on farm subsidies, as does Obama. "Expect the incoming secretary of agriculture to achieve tangible results that are easy to explain, because that is Vilsack’s style," writes Martyn. "He will immerse himself in a few specific issues, come up with a few policy ideas, and set to work building a political consensus, diluting the original ideas when necessary." (Read more)
Salazar also has a reputation as a centrist. "Salazar is expected to forge compromises with those who have competing interests over mining, drilling on public land and the protection of endangered species," write Karen Crummy and Anne Mulkern in The Denver Post. "While this has bothered some liberal groups, Salazar has received a mostly warm reception by environmentalists and business groups." One of the first challenges Salazar would likely face at the Department of the Interior is the issue of oil shale mining on federal lands. Salazar has opposed what he considered the Bush administration's hasty attempt to allow commercial developers to lease Western lands for shale mining and processing. (Read more)
The department and its Office of Surface Mining will also be involved in discussions about changes in laws or regulations on mountaintop-removal strip mining for coal. Shares of publicly traded U.S. coal firms rose after Obama's announcement, suggesting Salazar is more favorable to coal than the president-elect, analyst Jeremy Sussman of Natixis Bleichroeder told the Reuters news service. "He is practical and not too ideological," Sussman said. "A bill he sponsored on capture and storage of carbon emissions was widely supported." (Read more) UPDATE, 12/19: Big coal operator Massey Energy led a decline in energy stocks, The Wall Street Journal reports.
State budget cuts hurt localities, mine inspections
Kentucky, which was 44 percent rural at the 2000 census, plans to cut money for county jails, which house state prisoners, and reduce inspections of coal mines and other rural facilities. "Budget cuts will prevent Kentucky from doubling the number of safety inspections at coal mines next year as mandated by lawmakers in 2007 following a series of fatal mining accidents," Beth Musgrave writes in the Lexington Herald-Leader. "There will be delays in annual air and water quality inspections as well." (Read more)
New Hampshire, which is about 40 percent rural, is the only state expected to be more than 15 percent short of its budget this year. In the state with the motto "Live Free or Die," prison officials have proposed shortening some prisoner sentences. Here's The Wall Street Journal's state-by-state map of state budget shortfalls:
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
An ode to a community newspaper, near death
In Bristol, Conn., a community newspaper is about to die. The Bristol Press, its sister New Britain Herald and 11 affiliated weeklies in the Hartford area are at the mercy of the bankrupt Journal Register Co., the highly tenuous credit market and the efforts of some politicians -- politicians! -- who are trying to find a buyer for the paper(s) and contemplating tax breaks and other incentives.
We reported that two days ago. The same day, in The New York Times, Dan Barry used his "This Land" column to write an ode to the Press, and to the press: "The newspaper matters because it contains the intense coverage of sports at the high school and City Hall level; the listings of births, deaths and potluck suppers. ... In the 1910s it was anti-immigrant and anti-labor. In the 1920s it warned local members of the Ku Klux Klan that it knew their names. In the 1940s it published the names of 139 uniformed men from Bristol who were killed in World War II. And in the 1980s its local owners sold The Press to an out-of-town conglomerate that proved to be too fond of junk bonds."
Editor William Sarno (left, in Times photo by Angel Franco) "wonders about stories untold if The Bristol Press were to fold. Stories like that of Matt Lavoie, a Bristol boy who became an Army corporal, went to Iraq and nearly died in a roadside bombing. That was front-page news here, as was the “pasta supper fund-raiser” for the soldier, held at Nuchie’s Restaurant.
"Who knows what will replace The Bristol Press if it becomes another business out of time in this old city of watches and clocks? Maybe a weekly newspaper will step up to serve the community’s needs, or a well-crafted Web site dedicated to all things Bristol will appear. For now, a heavy-hearted editor will continue to be who he is, and do what he does. And a small band of reporters, working for a small, imperfect newspaper, will record for posterity the challenges facing a wounded soldier; the fire that roared through an animal shelter and the number of cats (30) and dogs (9) saved; the death of an 88-year-old woman named Henrietta; and the birth of a girl named Ava Marie." That is community journalism. (Read more)
For Press reporter Steve Collins' blog on efforts to save the paper, click here. For his regular blog, click here.
Energy secretary pick called coal 'worst nightmare'
"Coal is my worst nightmare," Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, said in an April speech. Ward writes, "Chu said existing pilot projects involving a few million tons of carbon dioxide sequestration are far too small to tell if the process would work on the scale needed." There is concern that carbon dioxide pumped into the ground could escape, or turn acidic and cause cracks in geological formations, leading to leaks. Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas reponsible for global warming. To watch Chu's speech, click here.
Carol Raulston of the National Mining Association reminded Ward that Obama has endorsed development of clean-coal technology, and "pointed to a presentation Chu gave to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in October 2007 in which he said, 'Technologies for capturing and sequestering carbon from fossil fuels can play a central role in the cost-effective management of global carbon dioxide emissions.' Environmental groups and other advocates of swift and serious action to deal with the climate change crisis said Chu's comments on coal reflect a clear understanding of the scientific basis for concern and a practical view of the challenges for reducing the energy industry's greenhouse impacts." (Read more)
Obama says Tom Vilsack and Ken Salazar will help him make his rural agenda 'America's agenda'
Obama called the two "as accomplished a pair of public servants as we have in America." As usual, he took three questions at the press conference; most of the discussion dealt with Interior Department issues, because a CBS reporter asked about Obama's delay in releasing contacts his staff had with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Tom Beaumont of The Des Moines Register asked what happened since Vilsack told the Register last month that he hadn't been contacted by the transition team and didn't expect to get the job. "I dont know who led him to believe that," Obama said. "Whoever did that was misinformed."
The third question also went to a home-state reporter, Karen Crummy of The Denver Post, who asked Obama what he meant when he said he envisioned and expanded role for the interior secretary. Obama said the "deeply troubled" department has "been seen as an appendage of commercial interests as opposed to a place where the values and interests of the American people are served." He said he wants the agency to be "at the cutting edge of environment and energy policy so commercial interests are just one group among many groups that are being listened to."
Vilsack said the Agriculture Department "must expand opportunities for rural communities." Obama said Vilsack has been "fiercely protective of family farms and the farm economy" but also "forward-looking," pushing development of cellulosic ethanol and wind and solar power "to give a boost to our rural economies."
Jim Wiesemeyer of Washington-based Informa Economics tells Ken Anderson of Brownfield Network that suring his brief presidential campaign last year, Vilsack "suggested maybe reducing some of the more traditional farm subsidies and moving them more toward the water and conservation payments area, and to the alternative energy area." (Read more)
Study finds higher rate of diabetes in rural areas
Mike DeDoncker of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass., writes, "9.7 percent of the adults living in rural areas, identified as being outside metropolitan or suburban areas, had diabetes and 8.2 percent in the metropolitan and suburban areas had diabetes." That means that rural residents are 16 percent more likely to develop diabetes.
The study did not look for contributing factors, but it seems counterintuitive to DeDoncker, who writes, "You would think that, living in a rural area, maybe you were eating better, healthier foods and maybe being more physically active as opposed to people living in the city who you might think would be getting more fatty foods, being very sedentary and using their car to go to everywhere."(Read more) But other studies have indicated that as rural residents become dependent on motor vehicles to get to jobs, often far from their homes, they become less active and have less time for physical activity.
Rural and urban have rich connections that some urbanites fail to recognize, writer says
His particular target is Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, who inspired a February New York Times editorial criticizing presidential candidates for appealing to rural voters and wrote with associate Jennifer Bradley in The New Republic, "metros, not small towns, are where our economy is, where our population is, and where our country's future is." The article, playing off Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's small-town profile, was titled "Village Idiocy."
That's bunk, Bishop writes. "What we find over and again at the Yonder are the rich connections between rural and urban places. The creation of a rural energy economy is essential for urban growth. A fight by Great Plains ranchers for open cattle markets is essential for city consumers. People flow from rural counties to urban ones to work and live. There is simply no way to decouple rural from urban.
"Having lived in both small towns and big cities, I can assure Katz that rural residents spend far more time in urban areas than my city neighbors do in small towns. People come from the countryside to the cities to shop, do business, find specialized health care, attend arts events or visit friends. They are much more comfortable with urbanity than city residents are with rural places. They understand that rural and urban are neighbors. And neighbors take care of each other." (Read more)
Pay inequity between rural, urban women grows
The study, "Working Hard for the Money: Trends in Women's Employment 1970-2006," found that 42 percent of rural women and 44 percent of urban women worked full-time. In 1970, the corresponding numbers were 26% and 24%. However, the pay inequity has increased. In 1969, rural women earned 83 cents for every dollar earned by an urban woman; in 2006, they made only 77 cents.
Analysis "suggests that rural and urban areas may have different labor markets for highly educated women, with fewer high-paying opportunities for women in rural areas," writes Kristin Smith, who conducted the study. Smith also notes that, as fewer jobs are available for men in "traditional rural industries," many rural women are finding full-time employment necessary for their families' economic survival. (Read the full report)
Thieves repeatedly steal from town's road-salt pile
"The city seems to have missed three important potential sources of loss: a $131 per ton price on salt; pickup trucks; and larcenous people," writes Richard Clark of The Galena Gazette. He reports that, on at least three occasions, salt has been stolen from the town's distribution center. Each time, about a "small pickup truck load" of salt went missing. The price on road salt is currently around $131 per ton, making the loss fairly significant for the town. (Read more)
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Rural states led the rise in prescription overdoses
Among the findings Ardery notes: The surge in prescription-drug addiction and overdoses can be traced to a 1997 liberalization of the guidelines for dispensing pain medications. "As so many more powerful analgesic drugs became widely available, so did unsupervised use of these medications. The researchers found that of those who died from accidental prescription drug overdose in West Virginia during 2006, 63 percent had no record of prescription for these drugs." (Read more)
BREAKING, UPDATED: Vilsack to be secretary of agriculture, giving Obama a real 'Team of Rivals'
The Des Moines Register reports it has a source confirming the appointment, completing (in basketball terms) the "Team of Rivals" discussed since Obama's selection of Joe Biden for vice president, Hillary Clinton for secretary of state and Bill Richardson for commerce secretary. Vilsasck ran briefly for president, then endorsed Clinton and "campaigned aggressively" for her until Obama sewed up the nomination, the Register's Thomas Beaumont notes. (Iowa Politics photo shows Vilsack dropping out of the race.)
Phillip Rucker and Al Kamen of The Washington Post report that Obama will announce the appointments of Vilsack and Sen. Ken Salazar as interior secretary tomorrow. Beaumont gives the time: 10:45 a.m. Central.
AP has a profile of Vilsack, noting his political career "began as a small-town mayor forced into the job because of a sensational shooting spree," in which the mayor of Mount Pleasant, population 8,700, was killed by an angry constituent. Vilsack, a Pittsburgh native who had joined his father-in-law's legal practice, "was appointed mayor of the largely Republican city." (Encarta map)
National Farmers Union President Tom Buis, whom reformers had pushed for secretary, said in a statement: "I think Gov. Vilsack is a great choice and I look forward to working with him. Being from Iowa, Gov. Vilsack has an understanding of the challenges and opportunities that exist in rural America." For more from Nebraska Rural Radio, click here.
BREAKING: Vilsack to be secretary of agriculture
The Des Moines Register reports it has a source confirming the appointment. Vilsasck ran briefly for president, then endorsed Clinton and "campaigned aggressively" for her until Obama sewed up the nomination, the Register's Thomas Beaumont notes.
Oregonian cuts delivery area again, stiffing Eugene
The Oregonian will keep delivering Sunday papers in the Eugene area, where it has about 1,000 subscribers. Other areas apparently will be affected because the paper is eliminating an early press run that enabled it to truck copies 110 miloes south to Eugene, where they were distributed by The Register-Guard. The Oregonian didn't return Mosley's calls, and we couldn't find anything on the paper's Web site about it, other than a posting by reader Betsy Boyd of Eugene, who wrote: "The news hit me first like an unexpected loss in the night. But when the morning came (along with my newspapers), it felt more like a dear yet provoking and distinguished member of the community had just made an incomprehensible mistake, too strange and disastrous to overlook. The neighbors are talking. Some are angry. Everyone is aghast."
Mosley writes, "The Oregonian’s elimination of home delivery in Lane County and beyond follows a similar move by the paper two years ago, when it stopped delivering to far eastern Oregon and the southern Oregon Coast. And the move is not unique in the newspaper industry. The Medford Mail Tribune — Oregon’s fifth-largest paper — announced last week that it will cease delivery Jan. 1 in Northern California, as well as Curry County and parts of Josephine County." (Read more)
Rural emergency services need more volunteers
Three Oklahoma ambulance services have closed in the past year, making a total of 50 in the past eight years. "Shrinking tax bases, low Medicare and insurance reimbursements, and a state law requiring the closest ambulance to respond to an emergency" have all contributed to the problem, Vallery Brown writes for The Oklahoman. (Read more) To see The Rural Blog's previous coverage of Oklahoma's ambulance crisis, click here.
In Idaho, finances are not necessarily the primary concern in recruting for volunteer fire departments and emergency medical services, which make up 80 percent of Idaho's emergency-response programs. "There's so much to do today," said Phil Gridley, a fire chief in southwest Idaho. "I do 10 times more things with my grandkids than I did with my own kids. Really and truly, I think the younger generation is busy." But Kevin Courtney, another southwest Idaho fire chief, said that it's about different priorities, that the earlier generation was "taught that this is what you do for your community." (Read more)
Sen. Ken Salazar in line for interior secretary, probably taking brother John off agriculture list
The selection of Salazar has implications for Obama's pick for agriculture secretary, since Salazar's brother, U.S. Rep. John Salazar, had been among the leading candidates for that job. Now he "could be among those considered for the appointment" to succeed his brother in the Senate, report Anne Kornblut and Philip Rucker of the Post. (Read more) Christopher Osher and Karen Crummy of the Denver paper report likewise, and note, "Speaking to the media in Chicago on Monday, Obama said he would name the interior secretary later this week. (Read more)
Last week, John Salazar was named to the House Appropriations Committee, cooling speculation that he would become agriculture secretary, but he told reporters that he was "not taking his name out of consideration" for the position, "which he said he hadn’t sought," reported Jody Hope Strogoff of The Colorado Statesman, which bills itself as "Colorado's weekly nonpartisan political newspaper." (Read more) Now the agriculture job seems even less likely, because that would put two brothers from Colorado in the Cabinet. But perhaps they could agree on moving the U.S. Forest Service from Agriculture to Interior, a switch that has long been suggested. (Did you know USDA, created in 1862, was once part of DOI?)
Other leading names for agriculture secretary include Rep. Sanford Bishop of Georgia, former Rep. Charles Stenholm of Texas and Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff, who is a dairy farmer. Others include Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, an Indiana farmer and former Senate Democratic aide; Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota, who holds that state's sole House seat; and former Rep. Jill Long Thompson of Indiana, the Democratic nominee against Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels this year. Also mentioned is former Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, a Republican. Obama said he would appoint at least one Republican to the Cabinet but hasn't yet and the seats are running short. He also hasn't appointed a Southerner, and failure to do so would be seen as a regional snub, so that factor may argue for Stenholm or Bishop, who is an African American.
The selection is "the most telling Cabinet pick that Barack Obama will make -- and from a long-term standpoint perhaps the most meaningful one," John Nichols writes in The Nation, adding that it could also be "the pick that will give us the most insight into where Obama will lead the country." Nichols says the mission of Bush adminsitration secretaries was to "promote the agenda of corporate agribusiness with regard to trade policy and the lowering of food safety standards. As such, there is a lot of repair work to be done. The question is whether Obama will nominate someone who is ready to do the work." Nichols offers suggestions. (Read more)
Monday, December 15, 2008
Network neutrality, which could be useful for rural economic development, loses influential backers
Google "has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content," and Microsoft and Yahoo "have withdrawn quietly from a coalition formed two years ago to protect network neutrality," the Journal reports. "Each company has forged partnerships with the phone and cable companies. In addition, prominent Internet scholars, some of whom have advised President-elect Barack Obama on technology issues, have softened their views on the subject." As a candidate, Obama strongly endorsed net neutrality, joining a diverse coalition that included such groups as the National Rifle Association, concerned about preserving freedom of expression.
Supporters of neutrality argue that "the Internet could become a medium where large companies ... would control both distribution and content," the reporters write. They quote Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press: "It would mean the first part of your business plan would be a deal with AT&T to get into their super tier. That is anathema to a culture of innovation." Other advocates say neutraility is important for rural areas to play catch-up technologically and economically.
On the other hand, "Phone and cable companies argue that Internet content providers should share in their network costs, particularly with Internet traffic growing by more than 50 percent annually, according to estimates," the writers note. "Carriers say that to keep up with surging traffic, driven mainly by the proliferation of online video, they need to boost revenue to upgrade their networks." The story by Kumar and Rhoads is an excellent summary of the issue. To read it, click here.
Feeling economic pinch, states close or reduce schedules at parks and historic sites, many rural
"Illinois has taken among the most drastic actions so far, closing seven parks and cutting the historical preservation budget in half, from $5.6 million to $2.8 million, according to David Blanchette, spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency," Bruno writes. "That has meant the shuttering of 12 historical sites, including the Lincoln Log Cabin, where Lincoln's father and stepmother lived (Associated Press photo by David Mercer), and the Dana-Thomas House, designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright," in the state capital of Springfield.
Bruno lists closings and other cutbacks in New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Georgia and Florida. We doubt this list is comprehensive, and suspect it's a story for most states and many localities. (Read more)
Factory farms will still have to report hazardous air pollution to local and state officials, not to EPA
The rule would still require confimed animal feeding operations to still report local and state authorities, but not to EPA. It expands a previous EPA exemption for wastes that are chemically identical to fossil fuels so that it covers other wastes that produce similar emissions. The original proposal did not require factory farms to report even to local authorities but many were outspoken about the need to know the source of potentially hazardous emissions that could cause respiratory problems. (Read more)
Conn. leaders seek buyers for 2 daily, 11 weekly newspapers that Journal Register Co. plans to shut
State legislators "said they will do whatever they can to save about 100 jobs at the papers," Christopher Keating reported on the Capitol Watch blog of The Hartford Courant. Possibilities include a low-interest loan to the purchaser, or other incentives. "The state's top economic development official, Joan McDonald of the Department of Economic Development, stressed that the state is not interested in owning the newspapers and is not interested in a bailout," Keating reports. McDonald told one of the threatened dailies, the 10,000-circulation New Britain Herald, 10 days ago that she was “guardedly optimistic” buyers can be found.
The other daily is The Bristol Press, circulation 8,500, also in suburban Hartford. Employees of the Press said in a statement, "We shudder to think of Bristol, a city of 60,000, without the Press.'' The rescue efforts expanded to the weeklies when legislators representing their readers also voiced concern. Rep. Linda Schofield of Simsbury told Keating, "Those little papers serve an important community function. It's premature for their owners to ditch them. It's the only source of local news. It's what's going on with the Board of Selectmen or different development projects that are going on in the towns.'' (Read more)
Newspapers can't ask for a government bailout and "keep their status as a free press serving as a watchdog," writes Frank Harris III, chairman of the journalism department at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. "The bailout must come from within. It must come from owners who recognize the newspaper for its journalistic mission, rather than solely as a money-making vehicle for greater profit margins." (Read more)
Pennsylvania writer calls for a rural stimulus plan
"In rural Pennsylvania, because miles of roadway responsibility are funded by a smaller tax base per mile, the choice is between higher taxes or ignoring the problem," writes Dennis Powell, president of Massey Powell, an issues-management consulting company, writes on newgeography.com. As a result, many rural highways are deteriorating. Powell notes that largely rural Interstate 80 even became a toll road to support road construction in urban areas.
Powell worries that as the economic stimulus plan is being discussed, rural voices will once again lose out to urban interests. Rural areas "could contribute to the nation’s economic recovery and provide an alternative for many urban residents who want improved quality of life or are thinking about retiring to an area that is less expensive," he writes. "The problem is we have to get our own state officials, and the Obama administration to start paying attention." (Read more)
School data indicates migration from rural Alaska about what would be expected in economic crisis
Stories of mass migration from rural villages has dominated much of the public policy talk in Alaska this year. The Alaska Federation of Nations focused on this issue during its annual convention, while Gov. Sarah Palin formed a subcabinet to study the problem. But recent data from school districts indicates that the rate of migration has stayed fairly steady, and was no more than would be expected during an economic crisis. "When the state count of student numbers emerged in the last few weeks, however, they showed some rural areas actually gained students," Kizzia writes. "Others, where population was already ebbing, said they saw no unusual acceleration."
Tara Jollie, director of the state's Division of Community and Regional Affairs, is now working to make sure the state gets accurate numbers: "We want public policy to be based on real facts, not myths." (Read more)
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Rural Alaska gets shorted on the news again, as Anchorage Daily News drops delivery to the bush
"Most communities served by air will lose service," reports Jay Barrett of Alaska Public Radio, quoting a Daily News executive as saying "air freight costs are just too high to continue the service . . . $25,000 a month." Air will still be used to ship copies to the large, outlying towns of Fairbanks (top of map) and Valdez (center) and the state capital of Juneau (lower right). Oil companies already pay to ship coipies to Prudhoe Bay, at the north end of the vast state.
Pat Branson, who works at the senior center on Kodiak Island (lower left corner), which will lose service, told Barrett, "We can get certain excerpts of the paper online, but it's not having the paper in your hand. There's a big difference." The paper has an online PDF subscription for $10 a month. Click here to listen to Barrett's story.
In yesterday's Daily News, Editor Pat Dougherty announced more cutbacks, in size, sections, news and features. "The bright spot for the Daily News is that modest decreases in print readership have been more than offset by increases in online readers. The result is that our total audience is growing -- something our competitors in TV and radio can't say -- and our share of the market is larger than ever," Dougherty writes. "But unlike readership, online revenues have not increased as fast as print revenues have fallen."
Apparently believing that misery loves company, Dougherty reports, "Morris Communications, owner of the Juneau, Kenai, Homer and Eagle River papers, the Alaska Journal of Commerce, KFQD and five other Anchorage radio stations, as well as Alaska magazine, is in danger of defaulting on its loans by spring." (Read more) Alaska Newspapers Inc., which publishes six weeklies in the state, eliminated its field reporters about two years ago and does most of its reporting from Anchorage.
Friday, December 12, 2008
Bush administration, on its way out, streamlines guest-worker visa program that aids growers
The administration said the new rules would spur needed expansion of the Section H2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers. Workers' rights groups said the changes "would drive down wages, displace U.S. workers and reduce federal oversight of potential abuses," Watanabe writes. (Read more)
Texas governor objects to limits on carbon dioxide
"As he stakes out his role as a high-profile dissenter on carbon legislation, Gov. Perry is leading a state that is changing," writes Russell Gold of The Wall Street Journal. "His opposition to federal cap-and-trade legislation to limit emissions plays well with Texas' traditional business community and many large campaign contributors; Texas is far and away the top carbon-dioxide-emitting state and largest coal consumer."
Perry said putting caps on carbon-dioxide emissions will slow economic growth in his state, but there are signs that Texas is inching toward a greener outlook. "Luminant, a unit of Energy Future Holdings Corp. and the state's largest electricity provider, favors a federal cap-and-trade system," writes Gold. Texas leads the nation in wind power. Many worry that opposing carbon emission standards could isolate Texas and risk potential economic gains from "green energy" technology, Gold reports. (Read more)
New regulation weakens Endangered Species Act
The rule allows the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration to rely on their own personnel to decide what impact a project could have on fish, birds, plants, animals or insects that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the rule was passed because the Endangered Species Act was not intended to be used as a tool in the fight to slow global warming. Last summer, Kempthorne put the polar bear on the endangered species list, for reasons related to climate change. (Associated Press photo)
The rule is one of several pushed through by the Bush administration in its last days in office. "Legal experts said the change seemed intended to ensure that the protection of species like the polar bear would not impede development of coal-fired power plants or other federal actions that increased emissions of heat-trapping gases," Barringer writes.
The rule goes beyond concerns over climate change. Citing Brian E. Gray, a professor at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, Barringer wrotes that a core principle of the Endangered Species Act "was that independent wildlife and fisheries agencies had the major say in determining whether an action could be taken “without jeopardizing the continued existence of the species.” (Read more)
Workers unionize largest pork plant, in rural N.C.
"A union victory is considered a coup in North Carolina, which has the lowest rate of unionization in the nation," Kristin Collins writes for The News & Observer of Raleigh. "It is part of a larger struggle to organize meat-packing plants that have moved to the Southeast in the past few decades hoping to escape the reach of unions." Most states in the region have "right-to-work" laws, which forbid contracts that require all covered employees to pay union dues.
The UFCW had tried to organize workers at the plant since it opened in 1992, Collins notes. "The results of two previous elections at the plant in the 1990s were thrown out after federal officials declared that the company had harassed and fired union supporters, even forcing an employee to stamp the words “Vote No” on dead hogs. In 2006, the union began an intense public campaign that included a national boycott and frequent protests outside grocery stores and at company shareholder meetings. The union also brought more than a dozen charges of unfair labor practices against the company. The union says it is fighting to protect Smithfield workers from dangerous and demoralizing working conditions." (Read more)
Utah newspapers mull response to political attacks
The object of concern is "Inside Utah Politics," a weekly radio talk show by state Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, that begins with the line "Where conservative politicians get even with the liberal local media." He includes the Deseret News, the daily newspaper in Salt Lake City that is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and encourages listeners to abandon the papers for a Web site, TheNewsHive.com, which calls itself "a collaborative news and information site."
Joel Campbell, right, a former Deseret News reporter and editor who now teaches at Brigham Young University, another Mormon institution, "is going to be working on news releases, advertising strategy, in-house ads and public relations materials to help counter the attacks," Pressing Issues reports. (Read more)
Thursday, December 11, 2008
New Farm Bill could be reopened to cut subsidies, says Kind, who's talking with the transition team
Kind said Congress will also have to revisit farm subsidies because Obama "wants a more multi-lateral approach" to trade, as Meyer put it. At least one aspect of commodity programs will be addressed; "Kind says he will introduce legislation shortly to allow USDA access to IRS income information," which would resolve the problem of payments to farmers whose incomes were abolve eligibility limits, as the Government Accountability Office recently reported.
"There have been hints Kind is being considered for secretary of agriculture in an Obama Administration," Meyer writes. All Kind would tell him was "Never say never." (Read more)