Saturday, February 23, 2008

Wind energy has arrived, and Texas is its capital

When famous Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens tells The New York Times, “I have the same feelings about wind as I had about the best oil field I ever found,” and says he will spend $10 billion to build the world's biggest wind farm, you can say that wind energy has arrived -- even in the former petroleum capital of North America.

Texas "is rapidly turning into the capital of wind power," Clifford Kraus reports for the Times from Sweetwater, where Brian Harkin took this photo of workers on a wind turbine. "After breakneck growth the last three years, Texas has reached the point that more than 3 percent of its electricity, enough to supply power to one million homes, comes from wind turbines." According to the American Wind Energy Association, the No. 2 through 10 states in megawatts from wind are California, Minnesota, Iowa, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Illinois, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

Wind power is booming "amid rising concern about greenhouse gases from coal-burning power plants," Krauss writes. "Installed wind capacity in the United States grew 45 percent last year, albeit from a small base, and a comparable increase is expected this year. At growth rates like that, experts said, wind power could eventually make an important contribution to the nation’s electrical supply. It already supplies about 1 percent of American electricity, powering the equivalent of 4.5 million homes. Environmental advocates contend it could eventually hit 20 percent, as has already happened in Denmark. Energy consultants say that 5 to 7 percent is a more realistic goal in this country."

There are downsides, Krauss notes: "Electricity from wind remains costlier than that generated from fossil fuels. Moreover, wind power is intermittent and unpredictable, and the hottest days, when electricity is needed most, are usually not windy. The turbines are getting bigger and their blades can kill birds and bats. Aesthetic and wildlife issues have led to opposition emerging around the country." But owners of the land where turbine towers are built are paid well. Krauss begins his story from the viewpoint of rancher Louis Brooks, who gets $500 a month for each of 78 towers on his land and is expecting 76 more, which would bring his wind income to $77,000 a month. (Read more)

Roanoke Times explores a touchy question: Should ministers evangelize at funerals and weddings?

The Rev. Kenneth Wright of First Baptist Church in Gainsboro, Va., preached during a recent funeral service. The photo by Jared Soares of The Roanoke Times illustrates a story that gets to a basic question, rarely discussed in public, about one of the most emotion-laden moments in life: Should evangelical ministers evangelize at funerals and weddings?

"In an era when church attendance in many denominations is in decline, some pastors see funerals and weddings as increasingly important venues for oratory that can border on revivalism," reports the Times' Rob Johnson. "The one place nonbelievers will step into a church in our day is at weddings and funerals," the Rev. Quigg Lawrence, pastor of the Church of the Holy Spirit, an Anglican evangelical congregation near Roanoke, told Johnson.

On the other hand, "Some pastors say that although a bit of preaching is acceptable, they're wary of a message that puts pressure on guests at weddings or funerals to examine and perhaps affirm their faith then and there," Johnson writes. "After all, they reason, nonbelievers should be allowed to share grief or joy for loved ones and friends."

The Rev. Bryan Smith at First Baptist Church in Roanoke "believes that all pastors will someday have to answer to God on whether they took every chance to spread their faith," Johnson reports. "But when it comes to the standard evangelical punchline, extending an invitation for those present to either affirm their commitment to Christ, or make one for the first time, he asks permission ahead of time from the family of the deceased or the wedding couple. He's rarely denied."

Johnson has other good interviews, and a nice back-and-forth box giving pros and cons of preaching at funerals and weddings. It's a good example of how to tackle a touchy subject. To read it, click here.

Interior secretary says he will propose easing ban on guns in national parks

"In a victory for gun-rights advocates, the federal government is preparing to relax a decades-old ban on bringing loaded firearms into national parks . . . in states with few gun restrictions," report Richard Simon and Judy Pasternak of the Los Angeles Times. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne responded to pressure from members of Congress, including 50 senators. "Senators from both parties have backed a drive to repeal the ban, which has been in place in some parks for at least 100 years," the Times notes.

The National Rifle Association and other Second Amendment groups praised the action as common sense. ""If you're hiking in the backcountry and there is a problem with a criminal or an aggressive animal, there's no 911 box where you can call police and have a 60-second response time," Gary S. Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, told the Times.

Erika Bolstad, Washington reporter for the Idaho Statesman, offers another rural viewpoint and a summary of current rules: "It is common for outdoorsmen to carry guns in the backcountry for hunting and self-protection, and citizens can carry loaded guns on most federal lands. Sometimes, people must stop, break down a gun and stow it in a carrying case when they cross from state lands to federal lands. ... Generally, people who carry or transport guns in national parks or wildlife refuges must render them inoperable. However, there are some exceptions, especially in national parkland in remote parts of Alaska. Loaded guns also are allowed in some national parks and refuges where hunting is permitted." (Read more)

Some park rangers and advocates say "permitting firearms would be dangerous for visitors and wildlife and would alter the national park experience," Simon and Pasternak write. Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said the move was "alarming" and "a blow to the national parks and the 300 million visitors who enjoy them every year." (Read more)

Friday, February 22, 2008

W. Va. legislators reject extra protection for miners who blow whistle on unsafe conditions

The West Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee "shot down a bill that aimed to expand an anti-discrimination law that covers miners who report, file complaints or testify about alleged safety rules violations or dangers," reports The Associated Press. The bill lost 8-6.

"The measure sought to increase the circumstances under which miners can allege unsafe conditions without fear of firing or other retaliation," AP reports. The circumstances included refusal "to work in an area or under conditions which he or she believes to be unsafe."

Opponents said the bill added little to existing law and that even if passed, might not protect whistleblowers. That riled a co-sponsor, Sen. Randy White, D-Webster County, whose district includes the Sago Mine, scene of the biggest mine disaster in recent years. "This is not false hope,'' White told AP. "This is a statement that no man or woman in this state has to fear for their job if they refuse to go into an unsafe mine. This is about protecting their families.'' (Read more)

Secretary says VA must do better for rural veterans

Since hospitals can be far way and doctors sparse, rural veterans face challenges their urban counterparts do not when it comes to health care. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. James B. Peake spoke in Helena, Mont., this week and promised to improve the care rural veterans receive, reports Eric Newhouse of the Great Falls Tribune. (Newhouse also took the photo of Peake, speaking, and Sen. Jon Tester, who invited him.)

"Peake, who was appointed to the post by President George Bush two months ago, said that more than one-third of Montana's vets live in extreme rural conditions, compared to about 1.7 percent of vets nationwide," Newhouse writes. Earlier that day, Peake announced the creation of a rural health advisory committee to advise senior leaders of the agency about health care issues affecting veterans in rural areas.

"Rural environments make it a challenge to hire mental health care professionals, as you have found in Montana," Peak said during the meeting with veterans. Peake mentioned the VA is "exploring making greater use of tele-health care for some conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder," Newhouse writes.(Read more)

A news release from the VA offers an overview of the advisory panel's goals. The VA's Web site also links to a 2004 study comparing rural and urban veterans, which "shows those in rural areas are in poorer health than their urban counterparts."

Federal researchers criticize study that claimed biofuel growth will increase greenhouse gases

Earlier this month, we mentioned a study from the journal Science that said increased production of biofuels would increase greenhouse gas emissions due to the conversion of more land to crop production. The study continues to get coverage, but now two researchers from the Department of Energy "found fault with a number of assumptions in the study, including about how land is currently being used and how much crop yields may increase in coming years," reports Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register.

Michael Wang of the Argonne National Laboratory and Zia Haq of the Energy Department's biomass program office wrote a letter to Science detailing their criticisms. "At this time, it is not clear what land-use changes could occur globally as a result of U.S. corn ethanol production," they wrote. (Read more)

Most recent studies on biofuel production have touted using waste products such as corn stover to make biofuels, but a recent poll suggested Iowa farmers are hesitant to do so. Iowa State University's 2007 Survey Report on Iowa Farmers' Views on the Bioeconomy found that while 79 percent of farmers surveyed though ethanol production could help rural areas, almost as many had concerns about the economic impact of using corn stover or bringing marginal land into production. "Reactions to the prospective removal of corn stover for ethanol production were negative on the whole, with 75 percent of farmers in agreement that doing so would increase soil erosion," according to the report. "Likewise, 77 percent of farmers agreed that bringing marginal land into grain production—a distinct possibility if ethanol-induced price increases are maintained—would reduce wildlife habitat."

For other parts of the Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll, go here.

More tools to find data to compare local schools

There are plenty of resources on the Web for data to help reporting on local schools — as long as you know where to look. Katherine Boehret of the Wall Street Journal reviews three good sites for education research:, and includes a school finder feature that lets users compare public and charter schools (from elementary through high school). The site currently only has data from California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, but it says other states will be added soon. The older has a similar feature, but it has all 50 states and it includes some information on private schools. (I searched for my Catholic grade school and found teacher-to-student ratio, some parents' reviews and an overview.) While the other two sites also include articles on education and children, focuses on data and users can find plenty.

"Both and base a good portion of their data on information gathered by the Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics, the government entity that collects and analyzes data related to education," Boehret explains. ", a service of Standard & Poor's, is more bare-bones, containing quick statistical comparisons of schools. (S&P is a unit of McGraw-Hill Cos.) This site gets its content from various sources, including state departments of education, private research firms, the Census and National Public Education Finance Survey." (Read more)

Another useful site is, sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The site offers current national, state and local information on schools, including test scores, finances and demographics. The downside, however, is the site is not geared to journalists and seems to discourage reporters from using it too often. A disclaimer on the site reads: "If you are not associated with an academic institution or nonprofit organization you may only reproduce, distribute, display, or transmit de minimus amounts of Education Data on an infrequent basis and only for noncommercial purposes."

Once-endangered gray wolves lose protected status, now fair game for hunters in Rockies

Last month, we mentioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was concerned about the impact of the gray wolves on elk herds in the Northern Rockies. As a result, the USFWS eased hunting rules to allow state wildlife agencies and livestock owners to kill the endangered gray wolves if they were affecting elk populations or killing pets or livestock. This week, the FWS removed the gray wolves from the endangered species list, thus making the wolves fair game for all hunters next fall in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, reports Tami Abdollah of the Los Angeles Times. (FWS photo)

"Gray wolves once were plentiful from central Mexico to the Arctic, but were killed off for decades, and by the 1930s had virtually disappeared from the American West," Abdollah writes. "In 1974, they were listed as endangered. Since then about $27 million has been spent by the federal government to conserve the wolves."

Since then, the gray wolf population has surpassed the goal of 300 and grown to more than 1,500, and the FWS said the population is expected grow by 24 percent annually. Last year, the wolves were de-listed in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. That decision is being challenged in court, and environmental groups plan lawsuits against this decision as well. "Environmental groups were dismayed by the decision, calling it shortsighted and a political concession to ranching and hunting interests," Abdollah writes. (Read more)

Founder of Western Newspapers Inc. dies; built company into multimedia enterprise

Donald Norman Soldwedel, the man behind multimedia enterprise Western Newspapers Inc. and a member of the Arizona Newspaper Hall of Fame, died Wednesday in Tucson at 83.

In an editorial, The Daily Courier of Prescott, which Soldwedel acquired in 1958, called him "an ideal prototype" for a newspaper leader. Soldwedel built Yuma-based WNI into a collection of "three daily newspapers, 12 non-dailies, 44 specialty publications, two radio stations, two telephone directories, an outdoor advertising company, a specialty sign firm, two central printing plants, one commercial print shop, and numerous news and advertising-related websites," The Courier writes in an obituary.

Soldwedel was a director of the Newspaper Association of America from 1977 t0 1985, and as part of the organization he "helped in the development of kenaf fiber as a workable substitute for trees in the production of newsprint," the Courier writes. (Read more)

Minnesotans try cooperative model to get large wind energy projects turning

For some rural Minnesota communities, a wind-power project seemed like a perfect way to spur economic development, but they could not get the projects off the ground on their own. Now they are now having success using a cooperative model with Minneapolis-based National Wind, reports Thomas Lee of The Star Tribune. (National Wind photo shows one of the successful collaborations, a 50-megawatt wind farm in Jeffers, Minn.)

"Cooperatives are nothing to new to farmers, who often pool their crops to gain pricing power," Lee writes. "Today, farmers are increasingly applying the co-op model toward wind power, a booming industry that's attracting plenty of attention from politicians and investors, especially in Minnesota, where lawmakers last year passed a bill requiring energy companies to provide 25 percent of their power through renewable energy by 2025."

National Wind has 15 co-op wind projects in development in Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. "Through a joint ownership structure, the company provides financing and wind-power expertise while the farmers contribute land and, perhaps most important, legitimacy to complex wind projects that get bogged down by regulatory hurdles and local sensitivities," Lee writes. "National Wind will typically own 30 percent of the project; the rest belongs to local farmers and landowners."

In the case of a $1.5 billion 600-megawatt wind farm, locals put up $1.5 million and National Wind generates the rest, while charging a one-time fee and securing a percentage of future power produced. With federal and state incentives for wind power, the projects can be lucrative for these rural communities. (Read more; free subscription may be required)

Bill to strengthen presumption that S. Dak. records are open dies after opposition from governor

A bill to make clear that records in South Dakota are public, unless the law says otherwise, is probably dead for this session, the bill's sponsor said after a House committee voted 7-6 against it, reports Terry Woster of The Argus Leader of Sioux Falls.

"Critics said the bill went too far and would not protect disclosure on private individuals and corporations, even though it included a ban on “unwarranted release' of information that would endanger the public or cause “irreparable harm to an individual,” writes intern Alanna Malone of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The sponsor, Sen. Nancy Turbak Berry, D-Watertown, told Woster that she probably would not try to revive Senate Bill 189, which grew out of her service on a state task force and was supported by the South Dakota Newspaper Association -- but opposed by Gov. Mike Rounds. The Reporters Committee said South Dakota is the only state without a law presuming records are open.

"State law generally says records required by law to be kept are open. Numerous specific laws close different individual records or classes of records," Woster writes. But the task force "found that a vast number of records fall somewhere between those two areas. It also found that government officials have wide discretion to make decisions on whether to open or close records. The task force was unable to agree on a bill making substantive changes in open-records laws," so Berry filed the bill, which would have "put the burden on government to show why a document should be closed."

The committee did approve a bill that would "give citizens seeking government records a place to go if their requests are denied or if they are told the documents would cost a great deal to provide," Woster reports. Disputes would be settled by the state Office of Hearing Examiners. (Read more)

Tap a tree: American maple-syrup industry booms

The appeal of maple syrup has long traveled far beyond the woods of New Hampshire and Vermont; now that appeal has reached Europe and Asia. That growth in customers, plus the weak U.S. dollar, has helped the American maple industry outsell its Canadian rivals, former New Hampshire agriculture commissioner Steve Taylor writes for The Valley News in White River Junction, Vt., and Lebanon, N.H.

"Folks long used to buying a gallon of new-crop Vermont or New Hampshire syrup hot from the evaporator for $35 will be in for a surprise this year, for the reality is that there are buyers in Japan or someplace else who are willing to pay far more, although it will probably be packaged in many tiny bottles," Taylor writes. "Though these new economics may make it seem like a bonanza is in the offing for syrup producers, sharp increases in energy costs for evaporating and for the plastic tubing that is now the norm for gathering sap will restrain any exuberance."

Taylor, whose family sells syrup, explains that the increased demand has helped New England producers compete with Quebec, which accounts for 75 percent of the world's maple syrup. The province's Federation — the price-fixing organization a producer must join — has set the baseline for maple syrup for everyone in North America, but its mismanagement of surpluses and the weak U.S. dollar have created demand for American product, Taylor reports. Still, all maple syrup is more valuable now, and the price could continue to climb about 10 percent annually as the supply can't keep up with demand. Keeping up with demand is the concern for those in the risky industry, so producers are upgrading technology in hopes of maximizing output. (Read more)

Missouri Press Association plans ad campaign to combat newspaper circulation declines

With the struggles of major newspapers much in the news, the Missouri Press Association wants to address the issues that are behind declines in circulation and readership. In February's Bulletin, the MPA's publication, the organization announced it would be working with Strategists LLC to "develop a message on the value of newspapers to reach and influence your existing and potential subscribers and readers."

MPA wants input from newspapers in the early stages of this process, as it seeks to combat negative perceptions of newspapers. "The perception that we represent an outdated, maturing industry that's tied to old technology is wrong and it has hurt us . . . We are the source of the vast majority of news and information in our communities," the MPA writes in the Bulletin. "It's important for us to tell the story." (Read more)

MPA Executive Director Doug Crews told us the association plans to hold a March 13 meeting to discuss the initial ideas and visions for the campaign. If you have ideas for him, feel free to contact him. Go here for full contact information for the MPA.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Rural voters are on Obama's bandwagon

"Barack Obama’s win in Wisconsin Tuesday underscored his rising popularity among rural voters, a constituency that some political observers say has been neglected by national Democrats," writes Neil H. Simon, a Washington reporter for Richmond-based Media General News Service.

Simon cites the analyses of the Center for Rural Strategies, which categorize counties as rural, exurban or urban, based on boundaries of metropolitan areas. They showed Obama getting 37 percent of the rural vote on Super Tuesday, 51 percent the following week in Virginia and Maryland, and 55 percent in Wisconsin last Tuesday. For the Wisconsin analysis, from the Daily Yonder, click here. Exit-poll results, based on precinct locations, showed a similar trend.

The center's vice president for communications, Tim Marema, told Simon that rural voters may just be part of a national Obama bandwagon, because the candidates “have not really made the types of substantive overtures to rural people that would explain the change.” Whatever the reasons, “Rural support is essential support for Democrats to get elected,” U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher of rural Southwest Virginia's 9th District, an Obama supporter, told Simon.

“Elected officials who support Obama said that in rural America, a Clinton at the top of the ticket can be a burden,” Simon reports. However, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who supports Hillary Clinton, told him that rural voters in his state want more specifics than Obama offers. “People who are of the struggling, working class support (Clinton) and you find a lot of those folks in rural areas,” he said. “She's talking in very direct, practical ways.” (Read more)

Scholarships offer chance at college for most high school graduates in Christian County, Kentucky

Hopkinsville and Christian County, Ky., are in a metropolitan area with Clarksville, Tenn., centered on Fort Campbell, but in the city of 30,000 a grain elevator is the tallest building. Only 13 percent of adults in the county have college degrees, but the Hopkinsville Rotary Club aims to increase that number by giving free rides to most high school graduates, reports Jennifer P. Brown of the Kentucky New Era.

"Beginning in 2012, students who finish high school with at least a 2.5 grade point average and a good attendance record will be eligible for full-tuition scholarships to attend Hopkinsville Community College," Brown writes. "This year's eighth graders will be the first to qualify for the scholarships."

Christian County has a population of about 72,000, about 24 percent black. Last year, the county's four high schools produced 550 graduates and on average about 250 to 300 go to college. The Rotary Club, which also has a long-running student loan program, said the scholarships should cost about $90,000 in the first year and $180,000 in the second. The tuition at Hopkinsville Community College is $1,380 per student per semester; the scholarship covers four consecutive semesters. The Rotary Club will add a fund-raising effort to augment its annual auction. Last year's six-day auction raised a record $306,000. (Read more; subscription required)

Rotarians said the scholarship is unique in Kentucky since it offers aid to students who "simply maintain at least average grades," Brown writes in a follow-up story. While in college, the Rotary Scholars must maintain a 3.0 grade point average in college, the same grades required for students who receive federal Pell grants.

"Supporters said it has the potential to alter the entire community by boosting the number of students who attend college," Brown writes. "The program has been called a 'carrot' for students who might otherwise finish high school with a poor grade point average." (Read more; scholarship required)

In an editorial, the Kentucky New Era calls the program "probably the most innovative and energizing idea to hit local education in years." The newspaper imagines the program could "bear many fruits" for the community such as improved high school test scores and perhaps a better educated workforce in the future. (Read more; scholarship required)

Balloons offering Internet access in rural areas

Many rural areas are still waiting for something many Americans take for granted: access to the Internet. Logistical and geographic obstacles have kept more than a third of rural Americans without Internet connections, and so the issue requires some creativity, such as the answer from Space Data Corp. which is drawing attention from Google. Space Data sends balloons carrying a "shoebox-size payload" of electronic gear 20 miles into the stratosphere, and from that height, they offer miles of wireless coverage below, reports The Wall Street Journal's Amol Sharma (who also took the photo).

The balloons don't float forever; after about day, they pop and the electronics — protected by Styrofoam — glide back to earth on a parachute. "This means Space Data must constantly send up new balloons," Sharma writes. "To do that, it hires mechanics employed at small airports across the South. It also hires farmers — particularly, dairy farmers." The farmers are paid $50 per launch, and the company offers $100 for every electronics unit recovered.

Currently, the Arizona-based company has at least 10 balloons aloft constantly, which provide wireless service for oil companies and truckers in the South. Some environmentalists have concerns about the shreds of latex that fall to earth after the balloon pop, but the company's chief executive, Jerry Knoblach, told Sharma the operation has been reviewed by a dozen federally agencies and found to have no environmental impact. In fact, he said, there might be a positive effect since balloons do the work of 40 cell phone towers. (Read more)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Budget for coal mine safety is less now than it was 25 years ago, when adjusted for inflation

The federal budget for coal mine safety and health in the Mine Safety and Health Administration "has been particularly abused" for the last 30 years and when adjusted for inflation is 15 percent less than it was at its peak in 1979, reports OMB Watch, the government watchdog publication that focuses on the Office of Management and Budget.

"Even though MSHA's budget increased in the late 1990s and in the early 2000s, employment levels struggled to grow, and since FY 2001, have dropped," the report says. "From FY 1997, when the agency's budget reached its historical nadir, to FY 2007, the agency's budget grew almost 19 percent when adjusted for inflation. However, staffing levels did not follow a similar trend. In FY 2006, MSHA's staffing level reached an all-time low of 2,078. . . . With national attention focused on high-profile mine disasters, Congress and President Bush have made efforts to bolster the program's budget. However, it is still lower than it was throughout the 1980s. "

OMB Watch suggests that the cuts have cost lives. "In recent years, the safety of America's coal mines has come into question as a downward trend in the coal miner fatality rate has reversed and numerous coal mine disasters have drawn national attention," the report says. "A more in-depth look at MSHA's budget shows the federal government has neglected to provide adequate funds to MSHA for its coal mine safety program. . . . Since 1985, the fatality rate for coal miners has improved little more than half as much as the rate for metal and nonmetal miners." (OMB Watch graph below)

The report also notes, as we have here, MSHA's failure to make required inspections and meet deadlines to rulemaking under new mine-safety laws, and a recent critical report on such issues by the inspector general of the Labor Department, MSHA's parent agency.

Small Tennessee radio station turns old high school football games into programming

High school sports are serious business in many rural areas, and local radio stations still carry all the big games live. Those basketball and football games get taped and then get packed away, but a radio station in Carthage, Tenn., dusted off some old football game tapes and started replaying them in the off season. The idea has paid off for WUCZ-FM/WKRM-AM.

"It turns out that the 40-year-olds of today love to listen to their glory days," writes Al Tompkins for Poynter Online. "And those 40-year-olds now are the community business leaders, so naturally they buy ads for the flashback games."

Tompkins interviewed the man behind the idea, Dennis Banka, during a workshop with the Tennessee Broadcasters Association. The interview is available here.

Pennsylvania open-records law, unchanged for 50 years, gets a big overhaul

Pennsylvania passed its Right to Know Law in 1957, and the state had not changed the open- records law since. Last week, Gov. Ed Rendell (in a photo from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association) signed Senate Bill 1, which overhauled the law and helped the state begin to "shed the unflattering distinction of having one of the worst records in the nation -- many believe it is the worst -- on providing access to government documents," reports Angela Couloumbis of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The new law makes all state and local government records public unless "specifically exempted," and it creates the Office of Open Records to handle disputes between the public and agencies, Couloumbis explains. Still, the law does not make 911 transcripts or autopsy reports public, two types of records that are available in many other states. "There is nothing in the bill that is unusually open or exotic, but it does call for good, solid, mainstream, ordinary transparency," Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Couloumbis.

Rendell echoed that sentiment during the signing ceremony, but said the new law was a clear improvement. "Is it a perfect bill? No. Is it a good bill? Absolutely," he said. "Is it a step on the road to reform? Without a doubt." (To watch Rendell's news conference after the signing ceremony, go here.) The new law goes into effect in January. (Read more)

The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association also praised the law. "In 2006 we rolled out anambitious legislative initiative, titled 'Brighter Pennsylvania,'" PNA President Tim Williams said in a news release. "Our goal was to improve Pennsylvania's open records law, which is widely regarded as one of the worst in the country, and expand citizens' access to government. Senate Bill 1 accomplishes a number of our goals." For more coverage of the legislation, including reaction from the state's newspapers, go here.

Iowa farmers awake to potential of agri-tourism; Kentucky starts Web site to promote it

While other states have more experience with agri-tourism, Iowa and its farmers are working to catch up and cash in, reports Erin Crawford of the Des Moines Register. The trend of using farms as tourist draws began in Vermont about 25 years ago, and states such as Kentucky and Nebraska have created cooperative groups and Web sites to encourage the industry. Because Iowa "hasn't developed a cohesive marketing effort for the state's agri-tourism," the state trails its neighbor, but some groups are to trying to change that, Crawford writes.

Dianna and Loren Engelbrecht (in a Register photo by Harry Baunert) "are among the few in Iowa to offer farm stays, which treat the farm as a mini-theme park, with cows and chickens instead of roller coasters and bumper cars," Crawford writes. "About 80 percent of the approximately 1,000 tourists they attracted last year live in urban areas."

The Iowa Agritourism Working Group hopes to gather marketing and business resources to help farmers learn more about the industry. The group also will host a conference on March 15 in Ames. Nebraska's Country Adventures Web site offers "a national online mall for rural tourism" and lest farmers pay $7.50 for a listing, plus 15 percent of sales. Similarly, Oklahoma Agritourism offers resources for farmers interested in getting started. Iowa does not have such a site, so starting one is a priority for the Iowa Agritourism Working Group. (Read more)

Meanwhile, in a state that has been actively promoting agri-tourism for several years, and just started a Web site for it, The Kentucky Standard's Brian Walker reports on a visit by the state agency's director to Bardstown, a town of 10,000 with a longstanding tourism industry. “There are 145 venues defined on the site already,” Stephen Yates said. “We’re confident there are almost that many more not listed that should be.” The site is free. “Those places that don’t have a Web site of their own, this will at least get consumers a name, address and phone number.” (Read more)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides information on agritourism here.

Congress in recess, but Farm Bill negotiations go on

Congress may be on its Presidents' Day break, but negotiations about the Farm Bill continue as the House and Senate try to reconcile their versions of the bill, reports Peter Shinn of Brownfield Network. Last week, the House Agriculture Committee submitted a bipartisan proposal that "called for raising no revenue and spending about $6 billion over the Congressional Budget Office baseline for farm programs," while the Senate committee countered with an offer that spent $12.3 billion over the baseline, Shinn writes.

Now, the two sides are trying to meet in the middle, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told Shinn and other reporters on Tuesday. "The Senate received a counter-offer from the House of the Representatives over the weekend on the farm bill," Grassley announced. "It's my understanding that that proposal was $8 to $10 billion over baseline compared to the Senate counter-offer to the original House bill."

Grassley said some tax-code changes, similar to what the Bush administration made in its budget proposal, could pay for the increased funding. With an agreement on funding, Grassley said the legislation will be close to completion, though "controversial issues, like payment limits and the livestock competition title of the Farm Bill, may require public votes," Shinn writes. (Read more, including audio of the Grassley news conference)

One of those contested issues is the amount of funding for conservation programs. This week, 60 House members signed a letter to House leaders asking them to support the Senate version's $5.1 billion in funding for programs related to conservation efforts, reports advocacy group Environmental Defense. (Read more)

In a column for the Des Moines Register, Chuck Hassebrook, the director of the Center for Rural Affairs, says a "new alliance" could deliver genuine reform in the Farm Bill. "The bottom line is simple," he writes. "Both the Senate and House farm bills would subsidize the destruction of family farming and undermine the agricultural communities of rural Iowa and rural America. The administration proposal is scarcely better. But the administration's insistence on more reform, together with the standoff between the two Houses of Congress, creates an opportunity for a new alliance." (Read more)

Cotton industry shrinks in Southern California due to pests, overseas competitors

The cotton industry of Southern California is fading away after decades of success due to the rise of overseas producers, a tightening water supply and pests, Rebecca Cathcart of The New York Times. (In an NYT photo by Sandy Huffaker, Bobby Reed works at Planters Ginning Co., which will close soon due to fewer farmers growing the crop.)

"Pest infestations in recent decades caused a decline in cotton acreage, and the decline accelerated as fuel costs soared and urban centers like San Diego, about 90 miles to the west, pushed for a larger share of the state’s stretched water supply," Cathcart writes. "Cotton is a water-intensive crop, and the fields here are irrigated by canals that draw from the Colorado River, the source of drinking water for much of Southern California."

Total cotton acreage in California has dropped by 50 percent in the last five years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Farmers are turning to alfalfa hay, corn and wheat, commodities that require less irrigation and have been dipped in gold by the competing demands for biofuel and cattle feed," Cathcart writes. These crops are far more lucrative, but the transition is still tough for farmers who have spent their lives growing cotton. Bobby Reed works for Planters. With China and India now increasing cotton production, the California cotton is shrinking fast. (Read more)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Obama posts marginal exit-poll edge among rural voters in winning Wisconsin presidential primary

Barack Obama probably carried the rural vote in winning Wisconsin's Democratic presidential primary tonight, according to the exit poll for the National Election Pool composed of television networks and other major media outlets.

Pollsters deemed 33 percent of their sample precincts to be rural, very close to the state's rural-population figure of 32 percent in the 2000 census. At those precincts, Obama got 53 percent of the poll respondents and Clinton got 45 percent. Applying the error margin of 4.51 percentage points for the sample of rural voters (472) to each candidate's figure, at the standard 95 percent confidence level (19 out of 20 cases), it's possible Clinton carried the rural vote, but not likely.

Among the 45 percent of voters that the pollsters considered suburban, Obama led 54 to 46. Among urban residents, he led 62-35. With 99 percent of the statewide vote counted, Obama led Clinton 58.7 percent to 41.2 percent, with 0.1 percent voting for "uninstructed" delegates.

By geographic area, Clinton won only in the largely rural northwestern part of the state, and by only 51-47, well within the much larger error margin for that sample (20 percent of the statewide total). Clinton also had marginal edges among other subsamples: 52-47 among white Democrats (the primary was open), 51-48 among the 12 percent of voters who said the race of the candidate was important, and 50-47 among the 35 percent who said national economic conditions are poor. Obama carried white voters overall, 52-46, just outside the error margin.

As oil prices soar, wood becomes hot commodity for heating homes

With heating costs on the rise, many rural residents are turning to cheaper alternatives to keep warm this winter. In New England, wood has made a comeback with many homeowners who are put off by the rising cost of oil, reports Katie Zezima of The New York Times.

"After years of steep decline, wood heat is back, with people flocking to dealers to buy new wood stoves, wood boilers and stoves that burn pellets made of wood byproducts.," Zezima writes. "Others ... to the dismay of environmentalists, are dusting off old wood-burning devices that are less efficient and more polluting."

The Environmental Protection Agency put limits on wood-burning stoves made after 1988, but some people are putting those older models to use again. In 1993, 3.1 million homes used wood for heating, but by 2001, that number was 2 million, according to the Energy Information Administration of the Department of Energy. That number could be rising again. (Read more)

In the Midwest, rising propane costs are a major concern for rural residents who depend on deliverable fuels for heat. For state-by-state energy profiles, go here.

Monday, February 18, 2008

W. Va. lawmakers, reacting to decline in hunting, want optional gun classes in high schools

For more than a decade, two West Virginia lawmakers have tried to make a gun safety course part of the high school curriculum. Unsuccessful so far, they are making progress with their latest attempt, in which "gun safety" becomes "hunter safety," veteran statehouse reporter Mannix Porterfield writes for The Register- Herald in Beckley.

Sens. Billy Wayne Bailey, D-Wyoming County, and Shirley Love, D-Fayette County, introduced the bill that would compel the states' schools to "offer the optional instruction period" for a "two-week, 10-hour course that dovetails with graduation requirements for physical education classes," Porterfield writes. Bailey said the bill could help address a decline in hunting because young people would be able to gain hunting certification from the state's Department of Natural Resources. Currently, new hunters have to take a three-hour evening class to get that license. No live ammunition would be on school campuses and only teachers will handle disabled guns.

The idea has drawn attention from national and international media, and other states such as Colorado, Montana, Texas and Vermont are considering similar bills. (Read more)

Program offers to fund master's degrees for math and science teachers in rural high schools

Nationwide, schools need more teachers for math and science, and the need is even greater in rural areas. A new program aims to attract some teachers to rural areas with the promise of a money for a master's degree, reports Brian Wallheimer of the Journal and Courier in West Lafayette, Ind.

Funded by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, the program will begin in Indiana and will make master's degrees "available for undergraduates finishing their degrees and thinking about teaching or others in the math and science fields who want to change careers," Wallheimer writes. "They must commit to teaching in a rural school for at least three years."

Four Indiana schools — Ball State University, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, the University of Indianapolis and Purdue University — will work with the fellows on their master's degrees and will continue to guide the fellows after they start teaching. The program's goal is to add 80 fellows each year and possibly reach 400 annually soon. The first fellows would enter rural classrooms in 2010. After Indiana, other states will join the program. (Read more) For the official news release on the program, go here.

Secrecy series ends with news of possible open-government reforms in Mississippi

We mentioned the beginning of the "Secrecy in Mississippi" series last week, and the collaborative effort of the state's news organizations came to end this weekend after eight days. The series has highlighted the state's shortcomings when it comes to open government and open records, and it seems some improvements could be on way.

The end of the series coincided with the introduction and unanimous passage of an ethics and open-government reform bill in the state Senate this week, reports Bobby Harrison of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, based in Tupelo. "The legislation would allow citizens who believe a government agency violated the open meetings and open records law to ask the Ethics Commission to intervene instead of pursing costly court action," Harrison writes. "Under current law, a person has to file a lawsuit if he believes a public body has improperly closed a meeting. Under the Senate plan, a person would still have the right to sue if he or she was not happy with the Ethics Commission decision." (Read more)

The bill also would increase penalties for abuse of public office and would require officials' sources of income to be made available online in a searchable database. Those provisions are a good start, but more needs to be done to make meetings and records open, writes the editorial board of The Mississippi Press. "Solutions are varied and can even include mediation of alleged open meetings violations as is included in Senate Bill 2983," the newspaper writes. "But, there is no proposal to increase the fine, now $100, for illegally holding a closed meeting. Public officials should be subject to stiffer penalties if they are found to be holding illegal closed meetings and withholding records." In addition, the newspaper said more records should be put online. (Read more)

"I admit that I was suspicious when senators started talking about beefing up the Ethics Commission, but this is really a good bill," writes David Hampton of The Clarion-Ledger. Hampton, newspaper's editorial director, was interviewed by Mississippi Public Broadcasting, and it's available here.

Another legislator, State Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, has introduced "a bill that would create a Web site that would put all contracts, subcontracts and grants from the state online to enable the public to access the information," reports Ben Piper for the Hattiesburg American. Barker said 29 states have similar sites. (Read more)

The Hattiesburg paper also compiled information on how other states handle open government issues, and that report is available here. To see the full series and copies of Mississippi's laws on open records and open meetings, go here.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Paper spotlights Appalachia's high rate of cervical cancer, a sign of lack of access to health care

A high rate of cervical cancer indicates lack of access to health care in poor communities, and those communities tend to be rural. In parts of Appalachia, for example, death rates from cervical cancer are as high as in many poor, underdeveloped countries. Today, The Courier-Journal of Louisville takes a close look at the problem in Eastern Kentucky. (C-J map, from Kentucky Cancer Registry)

"In Kentucky's mountains, cervical cancer continues to threaten women's lives at some of the highest rates in the United States," health reporter Laura Ungar writes. "Women in Eastern Kentucky get cervical cancer at a rate more than a third higher than the U.S. average -- higher than reported rates in Pakistan, Afghanistan and China. Death rates in Appalachian Kentucky are also far higher than the U.S. average." Rates in some Appalachian counties of Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio are similar.

"It is comparable to a Third World country," Katie Dollarhide of Whitesburg, Ky., told Ungar. She helps run a cervical-cancer research project and prevention program called Faith Moves Mountains. "The reasons behind the higher incidence and deaths are similar to those in the developing world," Ungar writes. "Poverty and lack of health insurance combine with doctor shortages, transportation problems and a cultural tendency for women to care for others while neglecting their own health."

We're talking about "a preventable cancer that has largely been controlled in the United States," Ungar notes. A report from the National Cancer Institute says cervical cancer is high among "Appalachian and other rural whites; rural African Americans, particularly those in the Deep South; Latinas living near the Texas-Mexico border; and Vietnamese American and other Asian women, particularly those in California." For a copy of the report, which has maps showing the range of cancer rates for every county, click here. For Ungar's story and others, click here.