Saturday, January 24, 2009

New Ky. Press Assn. president wants group and its members to help make unhealthy state healthier

State newspaper associations exist to protect the interests of newspapers, and also the shared public interest in open government and freedom of imformation. But we've never heard of one doing what the new president of the Kentucky Press Association wants to do -- encourage health and wellness through its activities and those of its members.

Edmund Shelby, editor of the Beattyville Enterprise, said in a speech to KPA's annual convention yesterday that its directors had granted his request to "move the association into areas of mutual concern for the people of Kentucky," as part of a process of "re-branding" newspapers and the trade group. He said the first should be health and wellness, and he also mentioned research on renewable energy. "Our future is inextricably tied with our communities, and with our state. To help ourselves we must help Kentucky and all Kentuckians."

"Kentucky is one of the unhealthiest states in the union," Shelby noted, citing the state's dismal rankings for smoking, obesity, diabetes and oral health. "These statistics all relate to behavior, and so, in theory, can be changed," he said, asking Gov. Steve Beshear, who spoke next, to form a task force to make proposals for wellness, such as required physical education in schools, paid for with a tax on junk food. Then he introduced representatives of the state medical and hospital associations and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, whom he said should be on the task force, and said its ultimate goal should be universal health care.

Not all of KPA's members, or even its directors, embrace such specific ideas, but there was a sense at the convention that Kentucky's newspapers -- almost all of them community papers, and most of them rural -- could play a role in helping improve the state's health status. Shelby said KPA "could use influence in the legislature to push forward a health-care agenda. Also, we would share ... editorials and stories on the subject." He said the group will start a story-sharing service and discuss issues at a series of regional meetings.

It remains to be seen whether this initiative will outlast Shelby's one-year presidency, but we hope it does. As we said in a presentation on health coverage at last year's KPA convention, and elsewhere, "If a newspaper can't stand for better health care and better health, what can it stand for?" As our research shows, most weekly newspapers in Kentucky don't have a regular editorial page, and only a third have a real voice, through editorials or columns by the editor or publisher. Campaigning for better health could provide some needed exercise to those flabby editorial muscles.

Shelby's call for action was well timed. That day's Louisville Courier-Journal had a Page One story by Laura Ungar about a new federal report saying that "Smoking kills Kentuckians at the highest rate in America," and Beshear has proposed more than tripling the state cigarette tax to help meet a state revenue shortfall and reduce health-care expenses in the long term. "I've got a health initiative for you, and I hope each of you will take it to heart," Beshear said. "I know how loyal people all across Kentucky are to their local newspapers." For KPA's press release, including all award winners, click here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Maine pushes wind power as way to boost jobs

First Wind wildlife biologist Bob Roy ties a ribbon to the guardrails of a wind turbine on eastern Maine's Stetson Mountain in preparation for ceremonial opening of the largest wind-energy project in New England. (Bangor Daily News photo by Gabor Degre) The 38 turbines will produce 57 megawatts. In Maine, "Wind farms that would produce more than 400 megawatts are being built or are under permit review for possible construction next year," reports Nick Sambides Jr. of the Daily News. "At least another 230 megawatts are listed in early, or post-2010, development."

Thursday's startup drew 10 protesters from the Friends of Lincoln Lakes group, which opposes a wind farm that First Wind has proposed on Rollins Mountain. "The group fears that wind farms will blight the landscape, lower property values and cause health problems associated with the turbines’ noise and light flicker," Sambides reports. But the company says the project will reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, and Gov. John Baldacci and other state officials are pushing wind power as a way to get lower-cost electricity to the state's paper mills and other industries. (Read more)

Climate change causing early tree death in West

A new study has found that rising temperatures are resulting in prolonged drought for many areas of the western U.S. The result of these prolonged droughts has been that trees are dying at twice the rate they did just two decades ago. The droughts have also lessened trees' ability to absorb carbon dioxide, leaving them more susceptible to pests and fire.

"The scientists, who analyzed tree census data collected in 1955 and in later years, found that the mortality of trees increased in 87 percent of the 76 forest plots studied," reports Mireya Navarro of The New York Times. "In some plots, the die-off rate doubled in as little as 17 years; in others, it doubled after 29 years, the study found." (Read more)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

W.Va. coal-ash dam inspections sporadic at best

"Most of the coal-ash impoundments in West Virginia haven't been examined by a state dam safety inspector for at least five years, according to data released by the state Department of Environmental Protection," reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. "Some of the facilities have gone more than 20 years without a government inspection, according to the DEP data."

Under federal and state strip-mine laws, coal-slurry impoundments require inspection by government officials monthly. Coal-ash dumps are a different story. Under the federal strip-mine law, they are exempt from monthly inspections. According to state data 14 of West Virginia's coal-ash dams have been inspected within the last two years but only six of the 16 have been inpsected by state the state in the last decade. State law only requires periodic inspections by engineers hired by the owners of the dams.

Ward writes, "Brian Long, longtime chief of the DEP's dam safety section, said state law requires coal-ash dams to meet the same stability and stormwater retention standards as coal-slurry dams." (Read more)

Vilsack is on the job, but who will be his deputy?

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack officially became secretary of agriculture Wednedday and, taking a cue from President Obama, went to work stopping late regulations from the Bush administration. "Vilsack, who late in the day met briefly with reporters in a conference room off his office, said he would heed a White House directive and put a hold on all regulations that the USDA issued in the Bush administration's final days," reports Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register.

Another task deemed important enough for the first day on the job was attending a meeting on civil rights. "The Department of Agriculture has been embroiled in a long-running dispute over its handling of complaints by black farmers," Brasher notes. (Read more) All in a day's work. Now folks are wondering what sort of deputy secretary Vilsack will choose -- a reformer who might have trouble getting confirmed, or a safer pick?

UPDATE, Jan. 25: In the Daily Yonder, northwest Missouri farmer Richard Oswald endorses Chuck Hassebrook, left, director of the Center For Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb., population 963. He also speaks highly of Jim Miller of the National Farmers Union and Karen Ross, president of the California Winegrape Growers Association. The Yonder says in its subhead, "The team that takes over the Department of Agriculture needs a working knowledge of small towns and a realization that power is too concentrated." (Read more)

So far rural counties have fared better in recession

The period of December 2007 through November of 2008 saw 1.26 million U.S. jobs lost, but data show nearly 99 percent were in urban and exurban counties, report Tim Murphy and Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder. "The total number of employed workers in rural counties fell by only 14,868 during this time," "That accounts for only about 1 percent of the nation's total decline in employment." (Yonder chart)

Nevertheless, unemployment in rural counties is still slightly higher than in urban areas. In November rural unemployment stood at 6.8 percent. Urban unemployment was 6.4 percent.

There was a good deal of disparity in rural job loss from region to region and state to state. "Job growth was particularly strong in the rural Great Plains, write Murphy and Bishop. "Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas all showed strong employment gains during the first 11 months of the recession." The rural South had the greatest concentration of job loss.

Rural America has been somewhat insulated from the recession. "Rural economies were bolstered in 2008 by high prices for grains, rising land prices, strong equipment sales, new exploration for oil and gas and large investments in renewable energy, such as wind turbines and ethanol," Murphy and Bishop note, adding that there are signs this trend is ending. While rural housing prices have not suffered and rural banks continue to make loans, "The decline in energy and agriculture is already affecting portions of rural America." (Read more)

Drug overdose death rate high in some small towns

"It may not be surprising that well-known urban centers like New Orleans, Baltimore, and San Francisco appear on the Forbes list of cities dealing with the worst drug problems in the nation," reports Nathan Vardi of Forbes. "But some smaller communities are also facing epic battles with drugs." In many small towns, rates of drug-related deaths can far exceed the national rate of 7.3 per 100,000 population.

Many of these communities are trying to bring down the number of deaths associated with drug use. Techniques include distributing Narcan, used to reverse the effects of an overdose, and granting people immunity from prosecution for possession of illegal drugs when calling 911 to or taking someone to the hospital when seeking help for an overdose. "But certain areas of the country continue to see huge drug problems for reasons that sometimes confound those trying to dam the tide," writes Vardi.

Drug use has remained steady over the last few years, with 8 percent of the population abusing drugs, but three-fourths of the country feel the war on drugs is being lost. (Read more)

Rural school closings reduce individual attention

For years, rural schools have been besieged by shrinking education budgets and the push for school consolidation under the mantra that "bigger schools offer more options." With the economy's downturn, education budgets are even more threatened and small, rural schools are in more jeopardy. They are an important source of more individualized education and community identity, writes Ashley Powers in the Los Angeles Times.

As many as 30 states are considering closing rural schools, according to Marty Strange, the policy director for the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust. Many parents say closing the schools will hurt their children. "The school far exceeds what you get unless you pay $1,000 a month for private school," said Rose Getler, the Parent Teacher Organization president at Lundy Elementary School in Mount Charleston, Nev. She told Powers "that her 9-year-old, Sofia, had breezed through the fourth-grade curriculum this fall and was now doing fifth-grade work -- something that couldn't happen in a larger school." They also lose out with long bus rides and lost community cohesion. (Read more)

Obama should reach out to poor, white, aging and rural (PWAR) communities, says Kentucky writer

President Obama needs to live up to his "uniter" reputation and reach out to poor, white, aging and rural communities, Sylvia Lovely, executive director of the Kentucky League of Cities and the New Cities Institute, says in an article for She lumps such communities under the acronym PWAR.

These communities face challenges that seem to clash with the new administration's goals. "What happens to the fortunes of the regions – the South in particular – in the new order?" Lovely asks. "Will the battle of red versus blue gain new ground or will other rivalries and labels rise up? Will a region whose economy revolves around coal have a chance in a 'new green world?'" Also hurting PWAR communities, Lovely writes, are stereotypical media portrayals.

PWAR places have faced economic hardships even during otherwise prosperous times, but Lovely says the current economic crisis presents the president with a unique opportunity to recognize the optimism and determination of residents of these communities and to include them in his plan to boost the American economy and way of life. (Read more)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Reversing Bush policy, Obama eases requests for records under Freedom of Information Act

President Barack Obama this afternoon reversed Bush Administration policies that limited freedom of information. "The disclosure rules turn existing law on its head, requiring the government to err on the side of releasing information, not on the side of keeping documents and records secret," Michael Shear of The Washington Post wrote -- perhaps not realizing (though his editors should have) that the Obama policy mirrors the policy followed in the Clinton administration. Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times properly noted that Obama "effectively reversed a post-9/11 Bush administration policy."

The roles govern how federal agencies respond to requests made under the federal Freedom of Information Act, which Obama called "perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government accountable and also transparent. ... The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is over now." Is eight years an era? Perhaps it seemed that long to some, certainly to many Democrats. In any event, we're for more freedom of information, and the FOI Act is a great tool for rural journalists to get data squirreled away in far-off places.

Obama's order was no surprise, since he spoke about government transparency in his campaign and sponsored open-government bills in Congress and the Illinois legislature. For a good rundown on the issue from Clint Hendler of Columbia Journalism Review, click here.

Obama stops federal rulemakings for reviews

"President Barack Obama's new administration ordered all federal agencies and departments on Tuesday to stop any pending regulations until they can be reviewed by incoming staff, halting last-minute Bush orders in their tracks," reports Reuters. The Bush administration tried to push through many regulations in recent weeks. The order came immediately after Obama took office.

"Controversial late rules by the outgoing Bush administration include allowing the carrying of concealed weapons in some national parks and prohibiting medical facilities from receiving federal money for discriminating against doctors and nurses who refuse to assist with abortions or dispense contraceptives based on religious grounds," adds Reuters. (Read more)

How about using stimulus to prevent forest fires?

Members of the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition have found another way to use stimulus money to help rural America. They "have recommended a $5 billion investment in work that would improve the health and productivity of public forests, provide employment for forest workers who have been displaced by the decline of timbering, and reduce the cost of fighting forest fires in the future," Tim Marema reports in the Daily Yonder.
(Photo via Imagery and Our World)

The cost of fighting forest fires has tripled over the last over the last 20 years and now consumes 42 percent of the Forest Service's discretionary budget. "There's plenty of work to be done removing hazardous fuels," writes Marema. "The Forest Service estimates that from 50 to 90 million acres need thinning. In 2007 the service had only enough money to treat 3 million acres."

There would be further benefits to creating healthy forests. Marema adds, "restoring watersheds and streams, removing noxious weeds and other invasive species, maintaining roads and trails, taking inventories of timber, and upgrading public forest facilities to be more energy efficient," would also be possible with stimulus money.

"The forest restoration initiative is a distinctly rural take on economic recovery," writes Marema. "Large scale forests are, by definition, rural, and the rural communities that are part of these forested lands have traditionally built their wealth on trees." (Read more)

EPA study looks to reduce E. coli in Ohio River

Six states that border the Ohio River are joining an Environmental Protection Agency study which is trying to identify and reduce unsafe levels of E. coli bacteria in the river. "The analysis, which officials plan to finish next year, will identify how much bacteria sewage treatment plants, factories and farms, among others, can discharge into the river without exceeding safety standards," reports Bob Driehaus of The New York Times.

Limiting the release of pollutants into the river could be challenging. "In 49 cities and towns, combined sewer and storm water systems release untreated sewage directly into the river during heavy rains," writes Driehaus. "Upgrading those systems will cost billions of dollars, officials said, and federal regulations require sewage treatment plant operators to assemble long-term improvement plans, which will be taken into consideration in the new study." Fertilizer runoff for nearby farms is also thought to be a contributing factor, but states have little power in regulating its use.

"Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are participating, as well as the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, which has collected weekly water samples during the recreational season, May through October, since 1992," adds Driehaus. (Read more)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

How to sustain agriculture in urbanizing counties?

"Sustaining Agriculture in Urbanizing Counties," a report released Dec. 16, "sought to identify conditions under which farming may remain viable in agriculturally important areas that are subject to substantial development pressures," reports the American Farmland Trust. The report examined 15 county-level case studies from 14 different states and covers topics such production inputs, marketing, farmland protection and the future agricultural outlook.

Providing information for coping with growing urbanization is important since the majority of rural Americans live in or adjacent to metropolitan counties. To read a list of key findings and recommendations from the report, click here. To read a large PDF of the full report click here.

Ky. walking horse board ousts dubious members

"Members of the Kentucky Walking Horse Association have ousted from their board a controversial former president and vice president who stepped down after the state breeders' incentive fund began scrutinizing the organization last fall," reports Janet Patton of the Lexington Herald-Leader. There is concern that funds may have been given to breeders who had violated the Horse Protection Act.

Earl Rogers Jr., former president of the KWHA, and Gary Oliver, former vice president, deny that any money from the breeders' incentive fund went to violators of the act, "but the Herald-Leader and state investigations found 12 to 15 payments to violators, prompting a new Racing Commission regulation to explicitly prohibit such payments in the future," writes Patton, in the latest of a series of stories she has done on the subject. (Read more)

Several horse issues will face the new Congress

With the start of the 111th Congress, many in the horse industry are wondering what steps the lawmakers will take on equine issues. The new Congress faces issues ranging from economics, with a bill to lengthen the holding period for capital gains tax, to immigration, which is a major concern in an industry which depends on foreign workers.

Animal welfare laws are also anticipated to return as a major issue this session, as well as questions of federal land use rights. But a Democrat-majority does not necessarily signal where legislators will fall on specific votes. "For the most part, issues affecting the horse industry are not partisan," American Horse Council president Jay Hickey told The Northwest Horse Source. "Like most industries, our legislative concerns don't clearly split along party lines." (Read more)

Newspapers' battle to keep legal-notice ads may heat up as governments look for ways to save

The declining economy will increase local and state governments' efforts to save money by putting required public notices on government Web sites instead of paying to put them in local newspapers, Jack Murphy, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association reports from last month's meeting of Newspaper Association Managers.

Legal ads can be a major source of revenue for rural newspapers. Many state press associations have created Web sites on which newspapers can post legals, to reach audiences that may not be reached by print advertising. John Fearing, the assistant director of the Arizona Newspaper Association, said newspapers should check town records to determine how much money was being spent on newspaper advertising versus other expenses, such as travel, and point out surveys showing that citizens do read printed legals.

Fearing "said in the last legislative session his state was facing the perfect storm of public-notice threats, with a growing complaint by lawmakers that newspapers are antiquated media, every government trying to cut spending, and a legislature sympathetic to the problems of local governments," Murphy writes. "He said the key to defusing the threat was getting publishers of his member newspapers active in the fight, because lawmakers still respond to direct pleas from constituents." (Read more)

After 3 years of decline, meth production is rising

Methamphetamine production rose in 2008 after years of decline. Between 2004 and 2007, the number of meth labs discovered in the U.S. dropped from 17,000 to 6,000, following new regulations on the sale of over-the-counter medications used to produce the drug. But falling meth prices and an increase in meth-lab seizures trouble many law enforcement agents, saying they point to savvier producers of the drug.

"Restrictions did their job for a while, but they found a way to get around them," said Abraham Azzam, Michigan director of High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal program that coordinates drug enforcement, told Brian Whitley of The Christian Science Monitor. Rural California is seeing a surge in production, thanks to recently-strengthened regulations in Mexico. Law enforcement officials are also noticing most of the increase is coming from small-scale production. (Read more)

"The problem appears to be re-emerging, and it's important to nip it in the bud," The Tennesseean says in an editorial.

White House may get a vegetable garden

With today's inauguration of President Barack Obama, some are hoping he will add something to the White House -- a vegetable garden. Advocates hope that, by growing their own vegetables, the White House could promote land conservation, sustainable farming and healthy eating habits. "This is a real opportunity for the president to lead by example," Daniel Bowman Simon, an organic farming advocate, told Anne Marie Chaker of the Wall Street Journal.

Alice Waters, a celebrity chef, says that she's optimistic that veggies will soon be grown on White House grounds. She pushed for a "victory garden" in an introduction of Michelle Obama, then followed up with a letter to the Obamas. She says the first lady responded with a note, saying, "I love the idea of planting a victory garden at the White House. I'm surprised that it hasn't happened already." (Read more)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Seeger brings 'This Land Is Your Land' full circle

We have long thought three things: Pete Seeger is a national treasure; Bruce Springsteen understands America and puts it to music; and "This Land Is Your Land," at least the first three verses, would make a better national anthem than "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Those three things made a perfect platform yesterday at the fabulous inaugural concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and it did us good to see this photo (by Mandel Ngan /AFP/Getty Images) of Springsteen and Seeger singing the song by Woody Guthrie, who was a good friend of Seeger, now 89.

We also got a kick out of learning that Seeger (who was banned from TV in the 1950s and helped get the Smothers Brothers knocked off in the '60s by signing "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," leaving no mistake that "the big fool" pushing on was Lyndon Johnson) "restored the verses that have been censored from ['This Land Is Your Land"] over the years to make it less political," Tommy Stevenson of The Tuscaloosa News writes for Truthout, a liberal news service. To read those, and watch a video of the performance, click here.

UPDATE, May 4: Seeger, who lives in rural upstate New York, celebrated his 90th birthday in New York City, with a concert featuring big musical stars. Here's a heartwarming story by Josh Getlin of the Los Angeles Times.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Conference March 5-6 to help journalists, developers get the latest on rural development

As a president who promised hope and change starts to lead the country out of its worst recession in 50 years, where will your rural communities fit into the recovery? The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and Jacksonville (Ala.) State University have designed a unique conference to answer that question for journalists, business leaders and public officials – sharing facts, opinions, tactics and strategies with experts and each other.

REWRITE$: Main Street, Media and the Recovery will recognize and enhance the roles rural newspaper publishers and editors, and broadcasters, play in their communities’ economic development. They seek expert advice and the best available information to cover the subject. To exercise editorial leadership, they need good examples from other rural media. To fulfill their civic role, they need support in dealing with both the opportunities and the conflicts that can result. Business developers in private and public enterprise also need to embrace the role of media in supporting, guiding or blocking developments.

The conference will begin at Jacksonville State at 1 p.m. CST Thursday, March 5, and conclude at 3 p.m. CST Friday, March 6. For a PDF of the conference brochure, click here. The earlybird registration deadline is Jan. 31.