Friday, December 19, 2008

Old energy vs. new energy: Will Coal River Mountain be mined or be home to a wind farm?

A seminal battle between old, extractive energy and new, renewable energy is shaping up on the aptly named Coal River Mountain in southern West Virginia (in background of Associated Press photo). Environmental groups are appealing the state's "approval of a key permit change for a Massey Energy strip mine at a site where citizen groups are promoting alternative plans for a wind-energy facility," The Charleston Gazette reports.

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

By selecting "two of the nation's most prominent scientific advocates for a vigorous response to climate change to serve in his administration," President-elect Barack Obama has sent "the strongest signal yet that he will reverse Bush administration policies on energy and global warming," The Washington Post reports.

"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 schools in Alabama generally score lower on achievement tests, and are more likely to have dropouts, but a few, such as J.S. Ervin Elementary, where Jakiyah Bridges studies (photo by Micky Welsh), do much better. School officials are taking a close look at those schools to see if their sucess can be replicated elsewhere, with the help of the Center for Rural Alabama, an agency in the state Department of Agriculture.

"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

With only a month left in the Bush administration, another proposal has been made to ease regulations for the National Park Service. This time, the Department of the Interior is seeking greater discretion for individual park supervisors to decide whether to allow mountain bikes and motorcycles on park trails.

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

Electric and coal companies want President-elect Barack Obama's stimulus plan to include a restart of their project to build the first commercial-scale generating plant that can capture and store greenhouse gases, "setting up a fight with the anti-coal wing of Mr. Obama's base," Siobhan Hughes reports for The Wall Street Journal. "In one sign of its confidence, the FutureGen Alliance, along with a development group for Coles County, Ill., last week bought a 400-acre site for $7 million." (Encarta map: Mattoon, the city nearest the site)

The federal government was to pay most of the project's cost, but pulled out early this year after the estimate nearly doubled, to $1.8 billion. The Bush administration planned to parcel out the federal money to smaller-scale projects, but FutureGen and its allies in Congress stoutly opposed such a move. Now, worries about spending have taken a back seat to desires for stimulating the economy, but some Obama advisers may think that the technology isn't ready for a commercial-scale test. Herb Meeker of Coles County's Journal-Gazette and Times-Courier notes that Obama's pick for energy secretary, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, said of clean coal at a March conference on energy futures, “If people think this is the solution, think again. A lot of research is needed.” (Read more)
"Technology to take the carbon dioxide out of the exhaust from a coal-fired power plant could take 10 to 15 years to develop on a commercial scale, and even then would be costly," Hughes writes. (Read more) For more background on clean coal, click here.
Competition for stimulus money could be stiff. "The profusion of requests from governors, transportation groups, environmental activists and business organizations is spawning fears that the package could be loaded with provisions that satisfy important Democratic constituencies but fail to provide the jolt needed to pull the nation out of a deepening recession," Lori Montgomery reports for The Washington Post. She quotes an unnamed Obama adviser as sayign that Obama is focused on funding ideas that would quickly pump money into the economy, to meet his promise to create or preserve 2.5 million jobs by 2011. (Read more)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

New York Times notices that smaller papers have fewer people to cover congressional delegations

We suppose they've noticed for some time, but our friends at The New York Times have a story today about a phenomenon that we've been reporting for many months: the gradual disappearance of Washington reporters for regional newspapers and broadcast stations, keys to the coverage of House members from rural districts.

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

In new regulations issued under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), also known as the Buckley Amendment, the U.S. Department of Education is making more information about students difficult to get.

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

Ethanol distillers want "an immediate $1 billion to finance current operations and avoid layoffs and a $50 billion federal loan guarantee program to build new conversion facilities and pipelines," plus unspecified incentives for research and development and a tax credit for job creation, as part of the economic stimulus being planned by President-elect Barack Obama, reports Congressional Quarterly.

"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

One rural North Carolina community has started a "teacher cadet" program to recruit local students to return to their hometown to teach. Bertie County, in the northeastern corner of the state, is also the state's poorest school district, and has struggled to retain qualified teachers.

The program selects promising high school seniors who "have a strong academic record, demonstrate a desire to remain in Bertie County, and commit to becoming a teacher in math, science, or English," says The Rural School and Community Trust. In exchange for five years of service after graduation, the community, in partnership with Shaw University in Raleigh, pays for tuition and books for four years, then receive a salary of $25,000 with full benefits.

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

President-elect Barack Obama's picks to head the agriculture and interior departments will provide "two rural-tuned voices to the Cabinet of the most urban president in at least 100 years," write Jim Tankersley and Bettina Boxall for the Los Angeles Times. "The majority of conservationists and rural interest groups say ... Obama has taken a step toward fulfilling his campaign promise of revitalizing rural economies."

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

States expect to fall $30 billion short of covering their budgeted expenses in the fiscal year that ends June 30, according to the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers. "That figure is likely to grow in the coming months," as the economy stagnates, and 22 states have already cut spending -- often by reducing money for local governments, "which already are slashing police, firefighters and other services," Conor Daugherty and Amy Merrick report in The Wall Street Journal.

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

UPDATE, Dec. 23: Qunnipiac University journalism professor and former metro editor Paul Janensch warns in The Connecticut Post of Bridgeport, a Hearst daily, against anything resembling a government bailout: "You can't expect a watchdog to bite the hand that feeds it. New Britain and Bristol each deserve its own newspaper to cover town news. What about an online publication, not printed on presses and not distributed by trucks but delivered over the Internet? Around the country, there are five online nonprofit publications, each supported by foundation money. One is the New Haven Independent. I have misgivings about a news provider being a recipient of charity. But that's better than being beholden to government." (Read more)

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'

"President-elect Barack Obama's pick for U.S. energy secretary isn't sold on the idea that technology to capture greenhouse emissions and pump them underground will save the coal industry," writes Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. Steven Chu's selection concerns observers in the coal industry, which sees clean coal as its future though the technology remains unproven.

"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'

Naming his interior and agriculture secretaries this morning, President-elect Barack Obama said "I am confident we have the team we need to make the rural agenda America's agenda." As reported here yesterday, Obama said his agriculture secretary will be Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa and the interior boss will be Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, who wore a cowboy hat and a string tie to the announcement. (Associated Press photo)

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

A new study published by the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford shows that instances of diabetes among adults are higher in rural populations than in urban.

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

Our friend Bill Bishop, right, who edits the Daily Yonder with his wife, Julie Ardery, steps up to the plate and hits for extra bases today, taking on urbanites who "sweep rural America out of the conversation about the future."

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

Rural women working full-time make less money than their urban counterparts, and the disparity is greater than it was almost 40 years ago, according to a study released yesterday by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

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

Last month, The Rural Blog posted a story about one city's solution to road salt shortages and higher salt prices. But Galena, Ill., in the state's northwest corner, is finding that shortages and higher costs are not the only threat to the city's salt supply.

"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

We reported last week that overdoses of prescription drugs increased greatly in the last few years, especially in largely rural states, led by West Virginia. Now Julie Ardery of the Daily Yonder takes a closer look at the Centers for Disease Control study and delivers a state-by-state map of the rates of overdoses in 2004 that were not deemed intentional:
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'

Citing unnamed sources, Mike Glover of The Associated Press bureau in Des Moines reports that President-elect Barack Obama will appoint former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack secretary of agriculture. "Last month, Vilsack dismissed rumors that he would take the position," AP notes. "He said in an e-mail that he had never been contacted by Obama or his aides." (Read more)

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)

The Register's Washington reporter, Philip Brasher, weighs in with a fast analysis noting that Iowa gets more farm-subsidy money than any other state and Vilsack is "sympathetic to big agribusiness that dominates Iowa and a believer in biofuels and agricultural biotechnology. In short, Vilsack is not likely to shift the U.S. Agriculture Department in the radical new direction as many of Obama’s liberal supporters had hoped." But Vilsack "could prove to be a reformer" in tackling two topics important in Iowa, "managing the growth of the biofuels industry" and addressing a National Academy of Sciences recommendation to limit use, in the Mississippi River watershed, of fertilizers that cause a recurring dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. (Read more)

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

Citing sources, The Associated Press reports that President-elect Barack Obama will appoint former Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa secretary of agriculture. "Last month, Vilsack dismissed rumors that he would take the position," AP notes. "He said in an e-mail that he had never been contacted by Obama or his aides."

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 shrinking of metropolitan daily newspapers' circulation territories continues. The Oregonian will no longer deliver its daily edition to the state's second largest metropolitan area, Eugene-Springfield, "and apparently other, more distant areas of the state," reports Joe Mosley of The Register-Guard in 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

The shortage of emergency workers in rural areas continues to be a growing problem. The Oklahoman reports the Sooner State's ambulance services face mounting financial challenges, and The Associated Press reports problems recruiting workers to staff volunteer fire and EMT services in rural Idaho.

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

U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, right, has agreed to become secretary of the interior pending a background check by President-elect Barack Obama's transition team and is "all but certain" to get the job, reports The Denver Post, citing multiple sources. The Washington Post reports that Salazar is expected to get the job, which overses a diverse array of agencies, such as the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Office of Surface Mining.

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

Even as the election results seemed to make more likely a law mandating network neutrality -- no special treatment for any user of the Internet -- the principle has lost "some powerful defenders," namely Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc., report Vishesh Kumar and Christopher Rhoads of The Wall Street Journal.

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

State parks and historic sites, which can be major contributors to rural economies, are reducing schedules or even closing as state governments see tax revenue falling with the national economy, Laura Bruno of New Jersey's Daily Record writes for USA Today.

"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 Environmental Protection Agency has "exempted factory farms from a requirement to report hazardous air pollution to the federal government," writes R. Jeffery Smith of The Washington Post. The rule is one of several being pushed through in the waning days of the Bush administration despite considerable opposition.

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

Public officials, civic leaders and newspaper staffs in central Connecticut are trying to keep alive two daily and 11 weekly newspapers that the financially troubled Journal Register Co. says it will close next month unless a buyer is found.

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

Urban areas, with their high concentration of voters, often reap the benefits of government funding over rural areas. This is particularly true in Pennsylvania, where Philadelphia and Pittsburgh help make make the population of urban counties triple that of rural counties. But one writer says with all of the focus on economic stimulus plans, Pennsylvania should take the opportunity to invest in better infrastructure in non-metropolitan areas.

"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 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

The rise of fuel prices this year has been blamed for a surge of rural Alaskan residents moving to larger cities, but the Anchorage Daily News says those reports have been exaggerated. "Statewide school data don't support the fearful scenario described by Native leaders, elected officials and media reports around the time of [credit] freeze-up: families abandoning once-vibrant villages in Grapes of Wrath numbers and swamping schools and social service agencies in Anchorage and Fairbanks," Tom Kizzia writes for the ADN.

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

Add to the list of metropolitan newspapers that will no longer claim statewide circulation the one with the largest territory, the Anchorage Daily News. After Sunday, Dec. 28, the McClatchy Co. paper will no longer use air freight to ship about 1,500 copies of the paper to communities that are off the road system, places known in Alaska as "the bush." (Encarta map)

"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.