A digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. Links may expire, require subscription or go behind pay walls. Please send news and knowledge you think would be useful to email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter @RuralJournalism
Friday, February 19, 2010
Alabama electronic bingo facilities spark debate about what kind of jobs rural areas need
"It comes down to the fact that desperate people do desperate things," Larry Lee, a former economic developer in Covington County and other parts of the state, told Tomberlin. "Whatever it is we have called 'rural development' for years in Alabama has failed miserably. We've just not taken a meaningful approach to it, and those chickens are coming home to roost." Neal Wade, the executive director of the Alabama Development Office, disagrees telling Tomberlin the "state's economic development efforts must be attached to safer bets."
Proponents of the facilities say they account for nearly 5,000 jobs, while the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations reports the figure is fewer than 2,200. Local officials tell Tomberlin "by either measure, those are jobs those counties can't afford to lose." But one of the governor's spokespersons told Tomberlin the casinos have been no economic cure for those counties. Federal data shows the unemployment rate in December was 15.6 percent in Lowndes County, 15 percent in Greene County and 12 percent in Macon County. Houston County's 9 percent rate made it the only county with a large bingo facility and an unemployment rate less than the state's 11 percent average. (Read more)
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Stories raise questions about just how important the coal industry really is to Southwest Virginia
Whoa, say Bill Bishop and Tim Marema of the Daily Yonder, who point out Bureau of Economic Analysis data showing that coal mining employs many in Wise County, focal point of the Post story, but the industry hires fewer people than retail trade (14. 1 percent) or government (21.7 percent). "Instead of the complex reality, however, we get the rural stereotype," Bishop and Marema write. "Appalachians are coal miners, right? After all, aren’t most Kansans farmers? (No.) Aren’t most folks in Maine lobstermen (No again). Most Texans cowboys? (See previous parenthetical statements.)" (Read more)Then there is this story from Debra McCown of The Bristol Herald-Courier asserting that a six-county region in southwest Virginia is doing better economically than the surrounding region and nation as a whole, thanks mainly to coal. McCown's source is the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority, which credits "the relative prosperity to a combination of coal and natural gas, with a growing high-technology industry and the construction of a coal-fired power plant." Even VCEDA's profile of Wise County, part of the coalition, reports natural resources and mining employ 1,858 while trade transportation and utilities employ 2,748 and education and health service employ 4,097 in the county. VCEDA reported the region's relative economic prosperity was because the "coal industry has been strong, professional business services are growing and construction is showing growth as well," in a news release McCown provided to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. (Read more)
White House approves additional money for black farmers in long-simmering discrimination lawsuit
Congress must still approve the deal. "I'm going to focus all my time and resources on making that happen," Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said. "The president is prepared to indicate that it's a priority not just for his administration but for the country." The new agreement would "provide cash payments and debt relief to farmers who applied too late to participate in the earlier settlement," Johnson reports. The settlement also stipulates farmers can walk away from the agreement if Congress does not act by March 31.
"Since black farmers first filed the lawsuit, known as the Pigford case, in 1997, Hispanic farmers, women and Native Americans have also sued the government, based on alleged widespread discrimination in awarding agriculture loans and subsidies," Johnson writes. Advocates of those groups are expected to lobby Congress to be included in the new settlement. Administration officials said outlines of the settlement had met with bipartisan support, Johnson reports, but House appropriators said they "needed more time to review the settlement before offering solid predictions as to its fate." (Read more)
House committee looking at natural-gas 'fracking'
Some members of Congress are pushing for legislation that would give the Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate fracking, a drilling process that injects a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into rock formations at high pressure to force out oil and natural gas, Rascoe and Doggett report. The committee asked for information from eight companies: Halliburton, BJ Services, Schlumberger, Frac Tech Services, Superior Well Services, Universal Well Services, Sanjel Corporation and Calfrac Well Services, that use the technique. (Read more)
The committee is particularly interested in the use of diesel fuel after documents from BJ Services and Halliburton showed they continued to use diesel even after reaching a voluntary agreement with the EPA to stop using it, Ben Casselman of The Wall Street Journal reports. BJ Chief Financial Officer Jeff Smith told Casselman the company had "inadvertently used diesel on a couple of jobs" but had since fixed the error. "You wonder what the real purpose is here when the track record on natural-gas operations has been stellar," Erik Milito, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, told Casselman. (Read more)
Postal Service drops plan to raise thin papers' rate
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Guns allowed in some national parks starting Mon.
Hunting will still be banned in the parks, and firearms will still not be permitted in federally owned buildings such as ranger stations and visitor centers. "We will take the 'firearms prohibited' signs off at the front gate," parks spokesman David Barna told Hiner. "A lot of the burden is on the public to know the laws of your state." Regulations will also vary within some parks like Yellowstone which covers land in three states, and the Appalachian Trail, which runs through nine states. (Read more)
"The move concerns current and former employees of the National Park Service who are convinced that the move will damage the spirit of the nation's park system," reports Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post. "Congress lifted the gun ban last spring, after years of efforts by a bipartisan coalition that said differences in state and federal firearms laws made it difficult for gun owners to travel between state and federal laws." (Read more)
Vilsack: Biodiesel credit essential for rural growth
"I want to express concern about the future of 2.2 million farmers and ranchers and the 50 million-plus people who live in rural America," Vilsack said. "We need to understand the value of rural America and begin paying more attention to it than we have in the past." The secretary called for the federal government to "get serious" about rural America by improving support for farmers, local food systems, conservation and renewable energy. Vilsack told Winter extending the tax credit was essential to promote the biofuels industry still in its infancy that could be spurred by renewable energy development. (Read more)
Last week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., stripped the tax credit from a jobs bill that had been proposed by the leaders of the Senate Finance Committee, Phillip Brasher of The Des Moines Register reports. Vilsack didn't insist that the credit be re-added to the jobs bill. "The key is getting it (the biodiesel credit) into a bill that’s a must-do," Vilsack told reporters. "I doesn’t necessarily have to be the jobs bill, but it has to be a must-do bill." (Read more)
Group organizes to get broadband for rural area
Windstream offers high-speed access to much of the rural area surrounding Pine Mountain and advertises heavily there. One resident, Samantha Sparkman, says she's gotten as far as having a Windstream representative schedule an appointment for her house to be outfit for a connection only to see the technician never show up, Smith writes. They don't feel like they need to bring the Internet to us because there aren't enough houses," Sparkman said at a recent PMRB meeting.
Windstream spokesperson David Avery told Smith the company "has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to deploy broadband service to roughly 89 percent of our voice customers. We constantly explore ways to make broadband available to the remaining areas of our network, but the costs are often prohibitive to earn back the investment at affordable rates for customers." To help accomplish its goal PMRB has teamed up with other community organizations through the Web site DialupRocks.org. The group's Web site includes an online pledge to bring equal Internet access to all, and this music video for "The Dial-Up Blues" from Randy and Gabe Wilson.
Deadly bat disease reaches Tennessee, raising prospect of more insects, disease and pesticides
In November we reported the mysterious white-nose syndrome affecting bats in the Northeast might be moving south. Now those fears have been confirmed. Two bats that died during hibernation in Worley's Cave in Sullivan County in northeast Tennessee have tested positive for the highly contagious disease, Anne Paine of The Tennessean reports. The cave is near Virginia, the southernmost state where the disease had been recorded.
Tennessee officials fear bat losses in their state from the disease could match the entire losses in the Northeast because the state has more than 9,600 caves, some of which host colonies of up to 100,000 bats during the winter, Paine reports. "If we lose these guys, we're going to end up with a lot more insects flying around destroying agricultural crops and forest trees and defoliating them," Thomas Kunz, professor of biology and director of the Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology at Boston University, told Paine. The 1 million bats killed by the disease in the northeast since 2006 "would have eaten an estimated 694 tons of insects over the warm months," Paine writes.
Increased pesticide use is one option for combating the increased insect population. "That has adverse consequences on human health and other things," Kunz told Paine. "Keystone species keep things in balance — the balance of nature. They hold up the arch that is the ecosystem. When you remove a keystone species, the ecosystem collapses." Many think the disease is spread by human cavers on their equipment. State-owned caves in Tennessee have been closed to try and combat the spread, but the white-nose cases occurred in a privately owned cave. Most caves are privately owned. (Read more)
Reclaimed strip mines still have environmental impact, report for Congress says
The non-partisan investigative arm of Congress cited poor reforestation efforts, contaminated streams that harm aquatic organisms, water-flow issues and failure to restore approximate original contour to sites that may be called “mountaintop removal” but are actually permitted as area mines.
State officials, who enforce strip-mine laws with oversight by federal officials, called the report overbroad, but its sponsor endorsed it. The report, coupled with one in December on mountaintop removal, could help inform the debate about surface mining in Central Appalachia, a debate that has intensified from both sides but one that is often dominated by opinion rather than fact. Download the report here. For our story on it, go here.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
How does your county rank in health? Here it is
Rural counties rank particularly low. Some of the poor rural scores can be attributed to higher disease and death rates in those areas, the authors said during the live Twittercast to release the data. In our home state of Kentucky, rural Wolfe County in Eastern Kentucky ranked last among the 120 counties while Boone County in the greater Cincinnati area ranked first. More important than rankings, which can reflect very small differences, are changes in a county's health status over time. In Kentucky, the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky maintains a Web site, KentuckyHealthFacts.org, that updates information as it becomes available.
Health rankings include a number of factors, including life expectancy, smoking, obesity, binge drinking, access to primary care providers, rates of high school graduation, rates of violent crime, air pollution levels, liquor store density, unemployment rates and number of children living in poverty. "These rankings demonstrate that health happens where we live, learn, work and play. And much of what influences how healthy we are and how long we live happens outside the doctor’s office," Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the RWJF, said in a news release. "People, no matter where they live, should have the best possible opportunity to be healthy." (See the rankings)
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Count inmates where they're from or where they are housed? Debate pits rural GOP areas v. urban
The division mostly follows party lines, with rural Republican districts benefiting from the added population. Prison advocates say the added rural legislative representation usually votes directly against the inner-city interests of the inmates. Prisoners can't vote in the rural communities, and are "more interested in drug, crime and housing laws than, say, farms," Sommerstein writes. "The system of one person, one vote entirely breaks down when we take people from one community of interest — and then credit them to a completely different community for districting purposes," Peter Wagner of PPI told Sommerstein.
"The truth of the matter is New York City and the metropolitan areas didn't want them [prisons]," Chuck Kelly, publisher of The Ogdensburg Journal in upstate New York, told Sommerstein. "We needed the jobs, so we went after those jobs." State Sen. Darrel Aubertine, who represents a district with five prisons, including the two in Ogdensburg, says the prisons use water and sewer and other infrastructure and those services are paid for in part by the inmates being counted as part of the population. (Read more)
N.D. town's effort to attract residents flounders from small-town cliquishness, extreme isolation
"Rural communities across the Great Plains, fighting a decades-long population decline, are trying a variety of ways to attract outsiders," MacPherson writes. "But the Tristanis show how the efforts can fail even at a time when many people are desperate." The Hazelton Development Corp. began its campaign in 2005 by offering families up to two free lots and $20,000 toward home purchases and businesses free lots and up to $50,000 for coming to town. "Besides cash and free land, Hazelton had little else to offer except elbow room," MacPherson writes.
The community received inquiries from around the country, but only the Tristanis made the move. Their experience was complicated by threats of vandalism from owners of a competing local coffee shop. The loss of the Tirstanis' two children would hurt the local high school, which currently has 72 students, but the superintendent expects that number to fall to 31 in four years. Hazelton's extreme remoteness may be one factor in the failure of the program. A spokeswoman for the rural advocacy group Center for Rural Affairs told MacPherson rural land-incentives usually only work in communities within 30 minutes of a larger town. (Read more)
USDA to repay student loan debt of veterinarians who set up practices in areas short of vets
"USDA can help ensure there is a first line of defense against animal diseases across the United States by placing qualified veterinarians in areas where there is a critical need," Vilsack said in a news release. "This program will help reduce veterinary shortages, especially in the area of food animal medicine, which will reduce stress on producers and improve the health of the livestock industry." The Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program will be administered by USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The program began in January when NIFA began compiling a register of shortage areas.
The program expects to begin accepting applications from interested vets by the end of April, and will repay up to $25,000 in student-loan debt in exchange for three years of service in a shortage area. NIFA has set a tentative application due date for June 30 and expects to issue offers by September 30. (Read more)
Some big media firms push investigations and legal action, but smaller outlets are demurring
"Many regional newspapers are choosing not to spend money on lawyers or are asking them to work pro bono," Arango writes. "The efforts of Hearst and the AP contrast with the state of affairs at a smaller level, where regional and local papers have largely shied away from aggressive litigation — and, in many cases, aggressive investigative reporting."
The University of Missouri's Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, added, "I’ve got to say, there’s a heck of a gap between the Hearsts of the world and all these community newspapers scattered across the country." Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Arango a group of media lawyers at a recent meeting in Florida told her access litigation was really struggling as newspapers more frequently ask for pro-bono work: "Newspapers say, when push comes to shove, we’ll get lawyers to do it for free." (Read more)
Dodge City reporter found in contempt agrees to testify after her source reveals himself
"He was moved by his own moral convictions — the only thing that could have evoked those was me demonstrating my moral convictions to that extent ... when he saw I was willing to pay the whole price," O'Brien told The Associated Press. "Hopefully it will show the Legislature how hopelessly tangled this situation can become without a clear statute showing the way." Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, told AP some state legislators have approached his group for help making Kansas the 36th state with a shield law. (Read more)
Monday, February 15, 2010
GOP using coal country fears against incumbents
In West Virginia, 17-term Rep. Nick Rahall and 14-term Rep. Alan Mollahan have come under attack for what Republicans view as a weak defense of coal interests. Former state Supreme Court judge Elliott "Spike" Maynard, who switched parties to challenge Rahall, told Martin, "Our part of the world and way of life is threatened by liberal Democrats in Washington." Rahall and Mollahan both voted against the House energy bill, but Republicans say that was only because the Democrats already had enough votes for the bill to pass.
In Kentucky, Bluegrass-area Rep. Ben Chandler voted for cap-and-trade, which Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues Director Al Cross told Martin was the reason Republican Mike Templeman, a recently retired coal company CEO, entered an already busy primary race. In Southwest Virginia, Rep. Rick Boucher is likely facing his toughest race since his first re-election in 1974, Martin writes. In eastern Ohio, freshman Rep. John Boccieri and second-term Rep. Zack Space are facing similar fights because of their support for cap-and-trade. (Read more)
Census can't find takers in Northern Michigan
In a region with some of the highest unemployment in the nation, Debniak was surprised to be short on applicants, Hausman reports. Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Osceola, Lake, Newaygo and Mecosta counties are covered by the office, and most of the jobs are for "so-called 'enumerators' who will knock on doors of people who don’t return mailed questionnaires, among other duties," Hausman writes. Some enumerators also do counts in at institutions, such as prisons, hospitals, dormitories, group homes and assisted-living centers. (Read more)
Census pay in Michigan ranges from $11.25 per hour in northern Michigan to $16 per hour in Detroit, Dustin Dwyer of Michigan Public Radio reports. Debniak told Dwyer the problem isn't just isolated to his office, but also affects many other rural northern counties. (Read more)
How does your county rank in fast food outlets?
San Juan County, Colo. (Wikipedia map), leads the country by a wide margin with 7.117 fast food restaurants per 1,000 people (four restaurants and a population of 558), the Yonder reports in a Top 50 list. A quick glance at the Yonder map below suggests that tourism and highways have a lot to do with a high rate.
The Yonder also has county-level maps for pounds of meat and poultry eaten per person, gallons of soft drinks consumed per person, pounds of fruits and vegetables eaten per person and the percentage of obese adults. A great source for some local reporting on a national problem that in many cases is a local problem.
Residents of 13 states average spending more than $500 each per year on fast food. The data often relate to diabetes, obesity and lack of phyisical activity, as measured by continuing national surveys. Five states report less than 60 percent of their residents are defined as physically active (150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week, or some combination of the two). Kentucky is the only state in both categories. (Read more)
Asian carp threaten small Illinois town's economy
Spring Valley residents say since the Asian carp showed up a few years ago sauger fishing hasn't been the same. The Masters Walleye Circuit event each March is Spring Valley's biggest fishing tournament of the year and used to bring in 225 teams with another 30 on a waiting list, Hood reports. Last year only 100 teams registered and fewer than 40 have registered for 2010 so far. The event brought $1 million to $2 million in revenue to the community in its heyday, Hood writes.
"We need this spring tournament in our town," Spring Valley Mayor Cliff Banks told Hood. "We have one hotel that struggles here. At the gas stations and the grocery stores, we need these people in our town." Banks favors a proposal, suggested by Tim Leeds of Heartland Processing, to build a mobile fish processing plant for Asian carp in Spring Valley. Advocates say the plant could grind up as much as "4,000 pounds of carp an hour to produce marketable products from fertilizers and livestock feed to bulk protein and fish oils," Hood reports. Said Leeds: "If (the government) gets on board, it'll be a win-win for everybody. Except the carp." (Read more)
Sunday, February 14, 2010
Mexicans bring black-tar heroin to rural America
"The dealers have been especially successful in parts of Appalachia and the Rust Belt with high rates of addiction to OxyContin, Percocet and other prescription painkillers. They market their heroin as a cheap, potent alternative to pills," Quinones writes. They "drove black tar's eastward expansion, moving into Columbus and from there to parts of rural Ohio and Pennsylvania," where powdered heroin, usually from Colombia, is relatively rare. "Their product began to appear in communities where users weren't prepared for its potency," and competitionamong the dealer groups cut prices to $12.50 a dose.
The groups "have no all-powerful leader and rarely use guns, according to narcotics investigators and imprisoned former dealers," Quinones relays. "Their acumen and energy are a major reason why Mexican heroin has become more pervasive in this country." His report will be in three parts; as a teaser for tomorrow's he wries that one of the places plagued is "a small town in West Virginia, 160 miles south of Columbus, where before the fall of 2007, few people had ever heard of black-tar heroin." (Read more)