Saturday, July 03, 2010

National Guard members with rural backgrounds help farmers in Afghanistan

As American forces mark their ninth straught Independence Day in Afghanistan, here's a feel-good story for the Fourth, by Jim Warren of the Lexington Herald-Leader: "About 60 Kentucky National Guard members returned home Friday, after spending the last year fighting the war in Afghanistan with bee hives instead of bullets, and soybeans instead of shells."

Guard members from about eight states "showed Afghan farmers how to prevent soil erosion and irrigate more efficiently; helped veterinary students sharpen their skills; and empowered Afghan women to start their own agribusiness ventures," Warren reports. "Guard members from across Kentucky were selected for the team because they had skills in areas related to agriculture, such as biology, entomology or veterinary science." (Army photo: Lt. Col. Ruth Graves of Franklin worked with the Kentucky Agribusiness Development Team to demonstrate how to hook up an automatic seeder to a tractor at Al Biruni University in Kapisa province.)

The Kentuckians implemented an idea from their counterparts in Nebraska, "a women's empowerment project that called for distributing hundreds of bee hives to Afghan farm wives" and showing them "how to manage the bees and increase the number of hives as the bee populations grew. The women then collected honey from the hives for sale at local markets and bazaars." They also introduced soybeans as a protein source. Another team is now in Afghanistan, "and a third will deploy there early next year," Warren reports.

Permit ruling shows how EPA allows mountaintop mining to continue, with new techniques

In its conditional approval for a new mountaintop-removal coal mine in southern West Virginia, the Environmental Protection Agency has illustrated how the practice can continue under stricter regulations and different engineering, mining and reclamation methods.

EPA said it would allow the Army Corps of Engineers to issue a Clean Water Act permit for Arch Coal Inc. subsidiary Coal-Mac Inc.'s Pine Creek Surface Mine near Omar, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reported: "EPA officials praised the company for taking steps to reduce downstream water pollution, but said they also want the company to agree to build its valley fill waste piles one at a time. Coal-Mac cut its stream impacts by 22 percent, agreed to haul waste rock and dirt for disposal on an adjacent mine site rather than in streams, and increased the deck of its valley fills in another move to reduce the length of waterways buried."

A key word in the regulatory process is "practicable." EPA's regional environmental assessment director, John Pomponio, told orps District Engineer Robert D. Peterson in a June 21 letter, "Where practicable, the applicant has maximized the amount of spoil returned to the mine bench and minimized the amount of excess spoil that must be disposed of in streams." But Ward also reports that a recent study by EPA and University of Kentucky scientists "found that ditches mine operators build to channel runoff do not replicate the important ecological functions of headwater streams." (Read more)

EPA rules for Chesapeake Bay watershed are tougher than expected

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed tougher-than-expected pollution limits for Chesapeake Bay that would force the six states in the watershed, below, to "double the pace at which they've been removing nitrogen, one of the two nutrients fouling the bay," Timothy Wheeler of The Baltimore Sun reports, calling it "a regimen likely to require costly upgrades to sewage treatment plants, expensive retrofits of storm drains in urban and suburban areas, and major new curbs on runoff of fertilizer and chicken manure."

EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin said the target of a 15 percent nitrogen reduction over seven years "would not be easy for the states to achieve, but they represent federal scientists' best estimates of what's needed to restore fish-sustaining oxygen to the waters of North America's largest estuary," Wheeler writes. "Dead zones form every summer in the Chesapeake from algae blooms that are fed by sewage plants, farm and urban and suburban runoff and air pollution."

Wheeler reports, "The limits represent the first major step toward putting the Bay states on a "pollution diet" aimed at restoring the Chesapeake's water quality by 2025. Maryland and other states must tell the EPA by Sept. 1 how they intend to curb nutrients and sediment enough to reach their goals." (Read more)

Friday, July 02, 2010

Senate chairman doubts passage of carbon limit

The Senate is unlikely to pass any limit on carbon-dioxide emissions this year, says Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), right, who as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has been working on a cap-and-trade bill that would apply only to power plants. (New Mexico Independent photo)

Bingaman told Environment & Energy News that he is "somewhat dubious" that his bill could get the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. He also said he doubts that congressional leaders would use a House-Senate conference committee, even after the Nov. 2 election, "to ratchet up the climate regulations past what the Senate agreed to and beyond what Democratic House centrists want," Robin Bravender, Noelle Straub and Josh Voorhees of E&E write for Greenwire.

"Bingaman's comments contradict those made previously by key members of the Democratic caucus, which suggest they plan to anchor their climate and energy efforts to the spill response legislation and then dare Republicans to vote against it," the reporters write. (Read more, subscription required)

Clinton: Byrd Klan episode evoked rural background

Sen. Robert Byrd's membership in the Ku Klux Klan as a young man was a function of his rural background, former President Bill Clinton said at Byrd's funeral on the steps of the West Virginia State Capitol today. (Video from Talking Points Memo)

Near the end of what The Washington Post called "a rousing tribute," Clinton said Byrd joined the Klan because "He was a country boy from the hills and hollows of West Virginia. He was trying to get elected. And maybe he did something he shouldn't have done. And he spent the rest of his life making it up. And that's what a good person does," Clinton said, waving his index finger and winning applause. "There are no perfect people. There are certainly no perfect politicians."

"In defending the compromises Byrd made to attain power, Clinton could just as easily have been defending his own." Steve Kornacki writes in Salon's War Room. "The usual excuse for his Klan association is that he had been young and naive, and that as the years went by, he saw his error, repented, and went on to rack up a laudable legislative record on civil rights issues," Kornacki writes of Byrd, and then of Clinton: "The important thing, he seemed to believe, was to be in office and to make as many right decisions then as politics would allow." (Read more)

President Obama, delivering the final tribute of the 140-minute service, including the formal eulogy, recalled that Byrd referred to the brief Klan episode the first time they met, telling him "There are things I regret in my youth. You may know that." Obama said he replied, "None of us are absent some regrets, Senator. That's why we seek and enjoy the grace of God." Obama told the crowd, "As I reflect on the full sweep of his 92 years, it seems to me that his life bent toward justice."

Byrd joined Southern Democrats' filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but not many years elapsed before he changed his views. As Vicki Kennedy, the widow of Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, told the crowd, "Robert Byrd moved with our country and he moved  our country forward." For all the speeches, transcribed by The Charleston Gazetteclick here.

Farmers use social media to fight negative portrayals

The battle between animal-rights activists and agriculture has taken a new turn in the world of social media. When angry animal rights groups recently released a YouTube video of dairy cows being abused by farmers, the video led to much outrage online, but not just from those appalled by the images, Juliana Barbassa of The Associated Press reports. "It also raised a flurry of outrage from another corner of the Internet," Barbassa writes. "Farmers fought back, blogging, tweeting, uploading their own videos and chatting on Facebook to defend their industry and explain the abuse did not represent their practices."

"Growers aren't usually thought of as a wired, social-networking bunch," Barbassa writes. "But frustration at being the targets of tech-wise environmental or animal rights groups has inspired them to get involved with social media and answer in kind." Ray Prock Jr., a second-generation Central California dairy farmer whose blog posts and tweets relay information on everything from emergency drills for handling manure spills to lactose intolerance, explained, "There is so much negative publicity out there, and no one was getting our message out."

"This is where my family lives — I care for the air, and the water, the environment, the cows," Prock told Barbassa. "This is what I wish I could show people." Nathan Runkle, director of Mercy For Animals, the organization responsible for the video, can likely relate to that feeling as he told Barbassa animal rights groups first embraced social media because they didn't have the budget to combat the ag industry's advertising campaigns. Farmers like Prock have learned from the groups and now have taken their marketing into their own hands. "We weren't part of the conversation," Prock said. "And if we aren't telling our story, other people will, and they'll tell it the way they want to." (Read more)

$795 million in rural broadband grants announced

President Obama today announced $795 million in rural broadband awards for 66 areas with little or no high-speed Internet access. The White House said the money will create around 5,000 construction and installation jobs in the short term and will affect more than 685,000 businesses, 900 health care facilities and 2,400 schools, David Jackson of USA Today reports. "Broadband can remove geographic barriers between patients and their doctors," Obama said. "It can connect our kids to the digital skills the 21st-century education requires for the jobs of the future, and it can prepare America to run on clean energy by helping us upgrade to a smarter, stronger, more secure electrical grid."

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, was quick to qualify the announcement by noting House appropriators have voted to rescind $602 million worth of stimulus plan broadband funding and redirect it to funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Read more)

Projects in 37 states received at least a partial award; Iowa led all states with seven. Four projects encompassing more than one state were awarded funding. The largest local award went to Wilkes Telephone & Electric Co., which received $48.1 million to enhance broadband communication options in Lincoln, Taliaferro and Wilkes counties in Georgia. One nationwide project, administered by the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development, got $62.5 million to create a nationwide high-capacity network between 30 existing research and educational networks. You can see the entire list of awards here.

Humane Society, Ohio Farm Bureau strike controversial agreement on animal welfare

The Humane Society of the United States and Ohio Farm Bureau reached an eleventh-hour compromise Wednesday to keep a referendum on animal cruelty off the fall ballot in exchange for stricter animal-welfare regulations. "The deal-maker apparently was [Gov. Ted] Strickland's agreement to support two new laws and sign an executive order," Alan Johnson of The Columbus Dispatch reports. "The laws relate to regulation of so-called puppy mills and toughening existing penalties for cockfighting."

"The new agreement made few strides on the most contentious issue that the ballot issue would have covered: restrictive confinement standards for egg-laying hens, pregnant sows and calves raised for veal," Johnson writes. Strickland said at a news conference, "I just did not think it was in Ohioans' best interests to have an acrimonious ballot issue debated. This is something that is good for Ohio agriculture and good for animal welfare in this state." Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society, told Johnson the governor was "very persuasive." (Read more)

The announcement was met by outrage in much of the agriculture community. "'Dismayed' and 'betrayed' are two words being used being used by farmers and ranchers in Ohio—and across the entire U.S.—in reaction to the compromise agreement between Ohio’s ag and livestock organizations and HSUS," Ken Anderson reports for Brownfield. Ohio Farm Bureau spokesman Joe Cornley said he understands the hurt feelings, but the group still agrees with detractors who think HSUS eventually wants to abolish animal agriculture. "I could not agree more with those people," Cornely says. "We at Ohio Farm Bureau fully recognize and believe that is the ultimate goal of the Humane Society of the United States—just as our ultimate goal is to not let that happen. We haven’t given up the battle—we’ve just changed the rules of engagement." (Read more)

New York considers law to count prisoners at home

In April we reported Maryland had become the first state to pass legislation requiring prison populations be counted in their hometowns instead of the districts they are housed in, and now similar legislation in New York is starting to gain steam. On Monday The New York Times editorial board endorsed a measure to count prisoners in their hometowns for drawing legislative districts. Advocates for counting prisoners at their last home say it’s a civil rights issue, Newsweek reports, while representatives from prison districts say counting them at prison sites rewards constituents for the inconveniences they incur. (Newsweek graphic)

The New York's proposal's "prospects are good in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, but it may not get through the nearly evenly split State Senate, where seven districts, including those of two Democrats, would need to be redrawn due to insufficient population if they lost their prisoners in redistricting," Newsweek reports. "Senators from those districts contend that their constituents are absorbing a public need, not just government dollars, because the prisoners exact a toll on the surrounding areas."

"Upstate communities accepted prisons for the economic benefit, but there’s also other impacts, both positive and negative," Sen. Joe Griffo told Newsweek. "The fire department, police department, and hospitals all have to respond to the prison and the inmates." State Sen. Betty Little, whose district includes 11 prisons, notes many locals fear that prisoners’ families will move to the area with the prisons but there is little evidence that actually happens. "Although the New York proposal, like the new law in Maryland, would affect only legislative redistricting, not state funding for social services, Griffo argues that political power always translates into government funding, so prison-heavy districts upstate have a real financial stake in preserving their claim on prisoners in redistricting," Newsweek writes. (Read more)

School consolidation center of Ark. political battle

Six years ago Arkansas enacted a law requiring school consolidation if a district has fewer than 350 students two years in a row. The law has been a common target of politicians hoping to gain traction among rural voters, but so far no serious challenge has been mounted to it, Andrew DeMillo of The Associated Press reports. The latest district on the merger block is the Weiner School District in Northeast Arkansas, which had just 313 students last year and is set to be merged with neighboring Harrisburg this week, though an advocacy group has filed a lawsuit seeking a last-minute reprieve.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Keet is the latest politician to campaign against the consolidation law, but even he was reluctant to embrace the Weiner district's cause. "If I thought this was a good political issue for me, I would probably need to have my head examined," Keet told reporters last week. Keet said he favors a law that considers school performance. "I would rather have a school district that has 342 students and is doing an excellent job than one that has 400 students in it that is doing a poor job of educating our children," Keet said. "I think it's all based on performance."

"The consolidation law was enacted as part of the state's response to a long-running school funding lawsuit that ended in 2009 when the state Supreme Court said that Arkansas had adequately funded its schools," contrarry to the suit's contentions, DeMillo writes. State Rep. Buddy Lovell held up the Education Department's budget last year in hopes of amending the law to give rural schools more time to boost their enrollment, but his proposal died in a Senate committee. Now advocates for changing the law hope Arkansas' term limits will improve their chances, as fewer lawmakers who were around for the original battle remain in the legislature. (Read more)

Writing in the Daily Yonder, Timothy Collins, assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University, argues, "Conditions across rural America now make the case for small, community schools even more compelling." (Read more)

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Publisher's novel celebrates community journalism

Tim Spitzack, editor and publisher of an urban community-newspaper publishing company in Minnesota, St. Paul Publishing Co., has a written The Messenger, a novel that he says is designed to "pay tribute to those in all communities who quietly go about their lives making a difference in the lives of their families and others around them."

The protagonist is John Jenkins, a young journalist marking time at the Marquette Messenger until he can get into a larger market. He thinks nothing significant ever happens in a farming community, but one day he is told to write the obituary of an elderly local farmer. The remarkable, untold story Jenkins uncovers through his investigation, happenstance encounters with people who knew the man, and covert visits to his farm, challenge everything the young reporter holds dear. "The Messenger is a poignant glimpse of the heart wounds of WWII vets on both sides of the line," says the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association Bulletin.

"There's a popular phrase in community journalism that says there are no bad stories, only bad writers," Spitzack says. "What this means is that there are a multitude of interesting stories about our fellow citizens to discover if we are willing to scratch below the surface. I wrote The Messenger to pay tribute to the people who live quiet lives, but through their acts of love and compassion influence the lives of so many others." Published by OakTara, the first chapter and a half are in the media kit at

Mainer brought more than an award back from weekly editors' annual conference

Mo Mehlsak, editor of The Forecaster of Falmouth, Maine, attended last week's International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors conference to accept the annual Golden Quill award for editorial writing, but he took away much more from the event than his award, he writes in an editorial. "Although I've been a member of ISWNE since shortly after joining The Forecaster six years ago, I'd never attended the annual meeting," Mehlsak, right, writes. "This one, based at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond and organized by EKU's Communication Department and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, left me feeling sorry I've missed the others." (Forecaster photo)

Mahlsak wrote of the eclectic group of editors from six nations and 21 U.S. states, "Our area codes and circulation numbers may be different, but we face common challenges. Workshops on the impact of the Internet on weekly publishing and journalism ethics, the use of video on the Web and competition from online-only news providers provoked thoughtful discussions and provided plenty of food for thought."

The trip to Kentucky's Bluegrass region and Eastern Kentucky mining communities also left its impression on Mehlsak, but perhaps no event had more lasting impact that meeting with the editor of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg. "I was honored to accept my award for editorial writing on the same evening that ISWNE presented Ben Gish (and his parents) with the 35th annual Gene Cervi Award, named for a Colorado editor who exemplified the conviction that "good journalism begets good government," Mehlsak writes. "It was an inspiring conclusion to an inspiring week." (Read more)

You can read Mehlask's acceptance speech at the bottom of his story above, and see The Rural Blog's previous reporting on the conference here and here.

Vilsack takes issue with media portrayal of farmers

The American public owes farmers gratitude for how little it pays for food, and farmers have been unfairly villianized by the media, says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "You may never need a police officer. I hope you never need a police officer. But every day, two or three times a day, you need a farmer," Vilsack told a Senate committe Tuesday.

The former Iowa governor also took issue with a recent segment of MSNBC’s Morning Joe talk show featuring Spencer Wells, a geneticist, anthropologist and author of  Pandora’s Seed, which argues that growing grain crops "made humans more sedentary and unhealthy and made the planet more crowded," Phillip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports on the Green Fields blog.

Vilsack said he was so annoyed by the segment, which he said portrayed agriculture as "the worst thing that ever happened to humankind," that he asked the network for equal time to rebut the position. A spokeswoman for NBC Universal told Brasher the network had received no such request.

Part of the blame for negative portrayal of farmers goes to newspapers, Vilsak said, explaining they are "reducing staff and reducing it in agriculture at a time when agriculture is so fundamentally important." (Read more)

As oil blowout continues, Southern Baptists support stronger environmental regulation

The Gulf of Mexico oil blowout has led many in the Southern Baptist Convention to reverse their long-held distrust of government regulation by calling for more government protection for the environment. A seminary dean who helped push through a convention resolution calling for more regulation says "the catastrophe has the potential to galvanize conservative evangelicals just like the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion," Peter Smith of The Courier-Journal in Louisville reports. The resolution, which called on "governing authorities to act ... with undeterred resolve to end this crisis," passed overwhelmingly.

"In many ways, this ecological catastrophe can provide the exact same awakening for evangelicals," said Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and chairman of the resolutions committee at last week's convention in Orlando. The resolution called for the government to "fortify our coastal defenses; to ensure full corporate accountability for damages, clean-up, and restoration; to ensure that government and private industry are not again caught without planning for such possibilities; and to promote future energy policies based on prudence, conservation, accountability, and safety."

Southern Baptists have generally favored private stewardship of the environment. In 2006 the convention "charged that some unspecified government policy proposals were based on disputed claims of  'extremist' and 'neo-pagan' environmental groups," Smith writes. Moore, who supported a 2007 resolution that cast doubt on the ability of proposed carbon-emissions regulations to stop global warming, told Smith his views were altered after a recent trip to Biloxi, Miss. Jonathan Merritt, a Southern Baptist and author of the book Green Like God, told Smith he hopes this is a sign of things to come. "My hope is if this kind of transformation can happen with a conservative dean at one of the most conservative seminaries in the United States, then this type of experience can easily happen in the churches and pews and universities ... in even the most conservative places in the United States," Merritt said. (Read more)

Rural communities support libraries in referenda, even in hard economic times

Rural libraries continue to boast strong local support at the polls but must adapt to remain relevant, writes one Kansas library director. A report from the Library Journal reveals last year "voters in communities of fewer than 10,000 people approved 85 percent of the library operating referenda that came up for a vote, as well as 55 percent of the building referenda," Marcel LaFlamme, library director of Independence Community College of Independence, Kan., reports for the Daily Yonder. "Meanwhile, rural communities like Seldovia, Alaska, (pop. 241) and Capitan, New Mexico, (pop. 1510) are operating municipal libraries staffed entirely by volunteers."

"The fact that rural communities across the country continue to support their libraries, even in these grim economic times, speaks to the esteem rural communities hold for these places," LaFlamme writes. But for rural libraries to maintain this type of loyalty they must adapt to become "platforms for the civic activism and engagement that are needed to revitalize rural America," she argues. LaFlamme outlines a five-step process for accomplishing that goal: creating public space, promoting information literacy, embracing open access, toeing the line on "free" and remembering it's about the people, not the stuff.

"There's no one way for rural libraries to fulfill their promise," LaFamme writes. "Some will consolidate services at the county or regional level, while others will continue to maintain a footprint on Main Street. Some libraries will actively position themselves as agents of social and economic development, while others will hew to a more traditional definition of library service. And that's a good thing. In fact, it is precisely this obstinate localism, this exuberant, country-fried messiness that makes rural America strong." (Read more)

'1 for All' campaign for First Amendment launched

1for All, a nonpartisan program to build understanding and support for First Amendment freedoms, officially launches today with publication of advertisements like the one at right. The program offers teaching materials to schools, supports educational events on college campuses, "and reminds the public that the First Amendment serves everyone, regardless of faith, race, gender or political leanings," its website says. "It is truly one amendment for all."

The program is headed by Ken Paulson of the Newseum, who announced it a month ago in a column published here. "For all the poetic flourish of the Declaration of Independence, the most powerful passage in America’s history can be found in the First Amendment to the Constitution," Paulson wrote. "The five freedoms guaranteed there gave Americans the right to speak out against injustice, to report about inequality, to protest and petition, and to draw strength from freedom of faith. . . . Yet despite its pivotal role in making America what it is today, there are no fireworks celebrating the First Amendment. The anniversary of its ratification on Dec. 15 goes largely unnoticed."

There's a better reason for the campaign, and for journalists to support it. "Most Americans have no idea what the First Amendment says," Paulson wrote. "Surveys indicate that only one American in 25 can name the freedoms of the First Amendment and that a majority – when pressed – can come up with only one, typically freedom of speech. It’s Constitutional illiteracy of the highest order."

The campaign offers ads and other messages that are nonpartisan and will remain so, Paulson says: "At a time of deep political polarization, we choose not to take sides. In fact, a shared commitment to freedom of speech, press and faith should unify this nation. . . . We need a little help from our friends: Marketing is expensive and an organization determined not to engage in political advocacy or take a partisan position faces an uphill battle in raising the funds needed to spread the word. So we’re not going to try. Instead, we’re going to provide the ad campaign to news media, First Amendment groups, educational organizations, performing arts groups and anyone else who believes in this cause. We ask that these 1 For All partners use one of the ads on the July 1 launch date and then publish additional ads whenever space allows. 1 For All is not asking for money; we’re asking for media."
For more information about “1 for All,” and how your to join the campaign, visit

Calif. weekly, 1 of 4 in county, goes to e-mails and texts; publisher says print no longer viable for it

Many rural newspapers have had trouble adapting to the Internet, but one Northern California weekly is going digital-only without a website. The Pioneer Press of Siskiyou County, Calif., which borders Oregon, will now publish only via e-mail and text messaging, Jamie Genter of the Siskiyou Daily News reports. Editor-Publisher Daniel Webster said he and two staffers will continue to provide news to subscribers via email and text message for a fee of $2 per month. "I believe the news we produce is worth 50 cents a week – give or take a quarter or two given the week’s headlines and opinions," Webster said in a letter to readers published in the final print edition of the newspaper.

Webster told Genter the response has been overwhelmingly supportive, with many readers already sending him their e-mail addresses for the new service. "My subscribers and my readers have been probably the most loyal of any media readers in Siskiyou County," Webster said. "I have intensely loyal subscribers. They have, en masse, stuck with us and signed up. It’s been a real encouraging couple of days." In addition to the Pioneer Press and the Siskiyou Daily News, Siskiyou County (Wikipedia map) has three other weekly newspapers: the Dunsmuir News, the Mount Shasta Herald and the Weed Press.

Webster filed for bankruptcy over a year ago. Webster said he is currently working on a unnamed news project which he will announce at a later date. "This wasn’t a matter of a bank issue," he told Genter. "The bankruptcy was hoping to save the Pioneer Press and get ‘The Project’ launched. The timing was wise to cut the print edition now. It’s a choice that every single newspaper will have to make at some point in time. It is no longer a financially viable business. For some it is right now, but at some point it won’t be." In his final print edition Webster described the project as a "worldwide news project" that will bring people their news by phone, television and computers. The Pioneer Press was founded in 1972 and termed itself the "official newspaper of the State of Jefferson." (Read more)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Interior sends checks to 1,850 local governments to cover costs of serving non-taxable federal land

Tuesday, the Department of the Interior announced $358.1 million of funding for 1,850 local governments as part of the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program which compensates localities for non-taxable federal land. "Although there was a slight delay in payments this year, local governments received their funds by June 29," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a news release. "We deeply appreciate the support these communities provide federal lands and disbursing this money before the counties’ fiscal year begins helps them budget for essential services, such as firefighting and emergency response, and allows for additional improvements to school, road and water systems."

Interior says it collects about $4 billion a year in revenue from commercial activities on federal lands, such as oil-and-gas leasing, livestock grazing and timber harvesting. "A portion of these revenues are shared with states and counties in the form of revenue-sharing payments," the release says. "The balance is deposited in the U.S. Treasury, which in turn pays for a broad array of federal activities, including PILT funding to counties." California led all states with just under $37 million, and Utah was second with just over $34 million. See the complete list of funding by state here and the county-by-county breakdown here.

Kentucky Senate nominee moderates his pre-primary opposition to agricultural subsidies

Rand Paul, the Republican U.S. Senate nominee in Kentucky, said before he won the May primary that federal subsidies to agriculture are "not a good idea." Now he has moderated that stance, embracing the largely Democratic idea of not paying subsidies farmers whose incomes exceed a certain amount.

WHAS Radio host Mandy Connell asked Paul, right, this morning about farm subsidies. He said his position was "much more moderate" than it had been portrayed. He said he would start by eliminating payments to dead farmers. That's a shorthand version of the facts; estates of dead farmers are eligible to receive subsidies if the estates continue to operate farms. The General Accounting Office said in a recent report, "USDA has made farm payments to estates more than two years after recipients died, without determining, as its regulations require, whether the estates were kept open to receive these payments."

UPDATE, July 2: Ronnie Ellis, statehouse and political reporter for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. papers in Kentucky, checked Paul's figures on the number of payments to dead farmers. The Department of Agriculture said they were far from correct.

Paul then suggested denying subsidies to farmers whose incomes are above $2 million a year. He said 2,700 farmers fit that description. The Obama adminstration tried to enact a lower income cap in the latest Farm Bill and in recent legislation, but rural Democrats blocked that.

More specifically, Paul called for repealing the Conservation Reserve and similar programs that pay farmers not to plant on land that is marginal because it is prone to soil erosion. He did not describe it that way, saying instead that $1 billion of $13 billion in farm subsidies is "spent paying people not to grow. . . . I don’t think that's a good idea, to pay people not to farm. . . . Let's grow more and export it."

A spokeswoman for Paul's Democratic opponent, Attorney General Jack Conway, told the Lexington Herald-Leader that “Paul’s willingness to yank these programs away from our farmers is another example of why Kentucky can’t afford Rand Paul.” (Read more)

Defining mid-size farming proves troublesome, but could be important in Farm Bill

Many people may envision the type of farms eligible for help from Farm Aid as small, organic operations or those not much larger than some backyards, but the actual definition for "family farmers" isn't that clear. Alicia Harvie, Farm Aid program manager and author of the recently-released report, "Rebuilding America’s Economy with Family-Farm Centered Food Systems," says that definition defies any type of one-size fits all description, reports Agri-Pulse, a subscription-only service.

"For us, ag in the middle is more about marketing of the middle," Karl Kuper, who helped found Shepard's Grain in Washington and is profiled in the report, told Agri-Pulse. He believes there is probably a better way to define the "middle" than by farm size or sales. "We are all family-owned and family-operated with direct links to consumers." One definition for a mid-size farm comes from the Agriculture of the Middle Project, which defines mid-sized farms as farm operations that "operate in the space between the vertically integrated commodity markets and the direct markets."

"While family ownership is an important part of the 'middle' distinction, it’s just one of several ways that politicians and think tanks are now defining mid-size operations---and trying to figure out how federal resources can help them grow," Agri-Pulse says. How mid-size farms are defined could have major impacts for the 2012 Farm Bill, but for now "Some say that identifying farmers 'in the middle' is a little like defining pornography: you’ll know it when you see it."

The Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service reports the number of mid-sized farms has been decreasing since 1982 while the number of large farms and very small farms has gone up. The number of farms with sales over $250,000 grew from 85,000 to 152,000 from 1982 to 2002, but most of that growth came from farms with sales over $500,000, which doubled, and over $999,999, which tripled, Agri-Pulse reports. (Read more)

TV meteorologist in northern Alabama looks to better inform viewers about climate change

The South might not be the first place you would look for defenders of the science behind global warming, but a television meteorologist in Huntsville, Ala., is making it his mission to better educate his viewers about climate change. Dan Satterfield, right, weatherman at WHNT, "recognizes that many in his audience are 'climatically challenged,' and his profession has the power to help those afflicted by science illiteracy," Lynne Peeples writes in OnEarth, the journal of the National Resources Defense Council. Only about 7 percent of all TV meteorologists work at a station with a designated science reporter, which often turns them into the station expert, Kris Wilson of the University of Texas, told Peeples. (OnEarth photo by Alex Martinez)

"People learn to trust weathercasters and like them, so whatever they say about things like climate change carries tremendous weight," Wilson said. "By choice or by default, weathercasters end up being the science experts." Satterfield said he remained unconvinced regarding global warming until the mid-1990s, but repeated exposure to the "overwhelming evidence" of climate change, made him finally say, "Whoa, I need to start looking into this." After going back to school for a master's degree in earth science, Satterfield began sharing his views on the air. He expected a backlash from his conservative audience, but "aside from a handful of complaints, the show's ratings and viewer questions suggested that people were listening," Peeples writes.

"Satterfield has a backbone," Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, told Peeples. "He makes other meteorologists think, 'If he can do it in Huntsville, I can do it in Cleveland.'" Satterfield as produced longer specials about climate change in addition to frequent snippets in his three-minute weather segments, where he says "something short but powerful that dispels a climate myth." (Read more)

Satterfield's efforts are even more impressive as climate change skepticism appear to be on the rise even after global warming appeared to gain more support during the last decade. Part of that rise may be attributed to the news media, which has been "doing a lousy job of putting things in context," Kevin Krajick writes for OnEarth. He concludes "papers need to explain: scientists know the seas are rising; they don't know exactly how much; one study is only one study, and there will be many more to come before we arrive at a reliable number." You can read his exhaustive review of several texts examining climate change skepticism and examples of what he considers good climate reporting here.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Rural voters could cost Democrats control of House; Republicans add districts to target list

Rural voters are a big reason why Democrats might lose control of the House in the November elections, Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro and Ali Weinberg of NBC News wrote this morning on the network's First Read blog.

"There are a few reasons why Democrats are more likely to lose the House than the Senate, but one reason that hasn't received as much attention is the issue of race and geography. As it turns out, much of the competitive House battlefield is in mostly white and mostly rural congressional districts," the correspondents wrote.

President Obama's numbers are not strong in such districts, they report: "According to our most recent NBC/WSJ poll, just 36 percent of whites and 31 percent of rural Americans approved of the president’s job (by the way, those numbers are about where George W. Bush was with whites from 2006 through 2008). On the other hand, Obama may very well be able to help in several Senate races that could determine the control of that chamber -- California, Pennsylvania (Philly), and Washington state, thanks to the fact his numbers are holding up with urban and minority voters." (Read more)

UPDATE: The National Republican Congressional Committee "is unveiling 16 new additions to the top level of its 'Young Guns' list, giving 15 Republican House nominees and one promising primary candidate access to fresh fundraising and strategic support from the party," First Read reports today. "The list includes many of the GOP's top candidates to emerge from competitive nomination fights," including Illinois hopefuls Bob Dold (IL-10), Adam Kinzinger (IL-11) and Randy Hultgren (IL-14), Virginia state Sen. Robert Hurt (VA-05), former state legislators David McKinley (WV-01) and Joe Heck (NV-03) and South Dakota state Rep. Kristi Noem (SD-AL). ... Also making the cut are Todd Young (IN-09), Andy Barr (KY-06), David Harmer (CA-11), Rick Crawford (AR-01), Tom Reed (NY-29), Mike Fitzpatrick (PA-08), Mick Mulvaney (SC-05) and Keith Fimian (VA-11)."

The list also includes one new candidate who still faces a primary: Stephen Fincher in Tennessee's 8th Congressional District. First Read describes him as "a farmer and gospel singer locked in a costly primary race for retiring Democrat John Tanner's open seat." As we reported several weeks ago, Fincher is a farmer who gets federal subsidies, making him unacceptable to some Tea Party activists in northwest Tennessee.

Democrats offer to scale back climate bill; might be written to apply only to power plants

"Key Senate Democrats offered ... to scale back their ambitious plans to cap greenhouse gases across multiple sectors of the economy" during a White House meeting today, Politico's Darren Samuelshon writes. The meeting with President Obama included "skeptical Republicans," Politico reports.

Obama still wants to put a price on greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels, but "he could agree to a more limited climate and energy bill than any the senators had previously drafted," according to Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the chief sponsors. "Lieberman said a couple of Republicans in the meeting promised to keep talking about the prospect of a less-ambitious climate program that includes a price on carbon, though he wouldn't name names," Politico reports.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is drafting a bill that would focus on coal by applying only to emissions by power plants. Rural electric cooperatives get 80 percent of their power from burning coal. The idea "is gaining traction in Washington amid fresh concerns about what carrots might be dangled in front of power plants as incentive to sign on," reports Robin Bravender of Environment & Energy News. "Utilities are divided on the approach. Some say a cap on just their sector will offer certainty and is better than none at all; others are reluctant to go it alone."

Evan Lehmann and Saqib Rahim of E&E report on ClimateWire, "Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe expressed support yesterday for making electric utilities pay fees for releasing carbon dioxide, giving Senate Democrats a critical Republican supporter in their stalled pursuit of climate legislation." Snowe "has been discussing the utility option privately with colleagues for months." (Read more, subscription required)

UPDATE, June 30: Snowe's Maine seatmate and fellow Republican moderate, Susan Collins, also backs the idea, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post reports, but "Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said any measure that imposes mandatory limits on greenhouse gases and makes emitters pay for carbon dioxide output 'will not sell in this country.' And Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who also attended the meeting, said he told the president to focus instead on pouring federal dollars into energy research and development, building nuclear power plants, and electrifying the nation's auto fleet." (Read more)

Study calls for development of perennial grains to combat hunger and help the environment

New research suggests the future of agriculture could lie with perennial grain crops that could be developed within the next 20 years. Perennial grains are considered more environmentally friendly because they would grow with less fertilizer, herbicide, fuel, and erosion than grains planted annually, Seed Daily reports, citing a paper mainly written by John Reganold, Washington State University regents professor of soil science. He said "Perennial grains would be one of the largest innovations in the 10,000-year history of agriculture, and could arrive even sooner with the right breeding programs."

"It really depends on the breakthroughs," Reganold told Seed Daily. "The more people involved in this, the more it cuts down the time." Reganold classified the paper in the journal Science as a call to action because half the world lives on marginal land at risk of being degraded by cultivation of annual grains. "People talk about food security," Reganold explained. "That's only half the issue. We need to talk about both food and ecosystem security."
Perennial grains "have longer growing seasons than annual crops and deeper roots that let the plants take greater advantage of precipitation," Seed Daily notes. "Their larger roots, which can reach 10 to 12 feet down, reduce erosion, build soil and sequester carbon from the atmosphere." Reganold added, "Developing perennial versions of our major grain crops would address many of the environmental limitations of annuals while helping to feed an increasingly hungry planet." (Read more)

Rural areas are short on mental-health help, especially for children

Rural Americans have higher suicide rates and less access to mental-health professionals than those in cities, and mental-health help for rural children can be especially hard to find. Data from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reveals "62 million Americans live in rural areas with federally designated shortages of mental health providers," David Wahlberg of the Wisconsin State Journal reports. "Big cities have 6.9 child psychiatrists per 100,000 youth, while rural areas have 0.3 child psychiatrists per 100,000 youth."

"Social workers, therapists, psychologists and pediatricians try to meet rural children's mental health needs," Wahlberg writes. "But many children end up in emergency rooms, residential facilities, detention centers or state hospitals." One reason for the shortage is child psychiatrists are required to finish one additional year of training but make roughly the same salary as general psychiatrists. "In rural areas, with few colleagues for support, burnout can come quickly," Wahlberg writes, noting at least eight child psychiatrists have left northern Wisconsin in the past dozen years.

Compounding the shortage of child psychiatrists is an increasing demand for services, Dr. Hugh Johnston, a Madison child psychiatrist who heads a state committee addressing the problem, told Wahlberg. "More children are being helped by new medications for conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder, and psychiatrists are needed to manage the drugs," Wahlberg writes. In the wake of the child-psychiatrist shortage, pediatricians and school counselors are often asked to fill in. During the wait for adequate care, the child's "behavior and emotional need become more severe," Lisa Kunelius, a psychologist at the elementary school in Minocqua, told Wahlberg. (Read more)

Wahlberg's report is part of the State Journal's on-going series "Out of reach: The rural health care gap," partially sponsored by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

FDA doesn't like use of antibiotics to spur growth in livestock; could propose rules to limit practice

The Food and Drug Administration doesn't like antibiotics being "used for growth promotion in livestock" but isn't ready to issue regulations limiting the practice, common in confined animal feeding operations, Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports on the paper's Green Fields blog. "The FDA issued a draft guidance document outlining the agency’s thinking ... that veterinarians should oversee all use of antimicrobials on farms." The 19-page guidance document is "in line with the policy the agency announced a year ago at a House of Representatives hearing to the chagrin of the livestock industry," Brasher writes.

"Using medically important antimicrobial drugs for production purposes is not in the interest of promoting and protecting" human health, said Joshua Sharfstein, the FDA’s principal deputy commissioner. FDA will take public comment for 60 days. Dave Warner, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, said the FDA policy "could lead to the elimination or costly review of previously approved" drugs and that there "appears to be no science" behind the agency’s document. (Read more)

Researcher warns carbon capture and storage could just delay global warming, due to leaks

Carbon capture and storage projects have been pointed to as one opportunity to curb global warming, but a new study suggests seepage from CCS projects may just delay global warming instead of stopping it. "Unless the seepage rate of sequestered carbon dioxide can be held to 1 percent every 1,000 years, overall temperature rise could still reach dangerous levels that cause sea level rise and ocean acidification, concludes the research published yesterday in Nature Geoscience," Christa Marshall of Environment & Energy Daily reports. The study was conducted by Gary Shaffer, a professor at the University of Copenhagen and Chile's University of ConcepciĆ³n.

"The delayed warming resulting from escapes of gas would occur gradually for hundreds of years, but could be problematic and expensive for future generations who would have to figure out how to recapture the CO2 from the atmosphere," Marshall writes. Shafer explained, "It may be a useful thing to carry out this carbon sequestration, but there are dangers, and the best thing would be to decrease emissions in other ways that make it unnecessary." Even a leakage rate of 1 percent every decade could be "very serious," Shafer told Marshall. At that rate temperature would spike about 3 degrees Celsius in the next century and a rise close to 4 degrees Celsius over the following 2,000 years. (Read more, subscription required)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Asian carp have come closer, closer to Great Lakes

An Asian carp, right, was netted last Tuesday in Lake Calumet, below, a short distance by water from Lake Michigan (upper right corner of photo). The catch renewed fears that the voracious fish will destroy the $7 billion sportfishing industry of the Great Lakes. The 20-pound male carp "was the first to be found north of an electrical barrier installed to block their path, after a months-long search and two multimillion-dollar mass fish-poisonings turned up nothing but a lot of dead fish and some floating DNA evidence, reports Paul Quinlan of Environment & Energy News (subscription required).

The news "prompted Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) to call a hearing of the Energy and Natural Resources' Water and Power Subcommittee for [2:30 p.m.] Thursday to discuss what the federal government is going to do," Quinlan reports. "Last week's discovery was not enough to persuade the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to close the two navigational locks or alter any immediate plans for containing the fish." The corps essentially said the finding of one fish would not justify the disruption to shipping, reports Shawn Allee, who covers the Chicago area for Michigan Radio. Listen to his story.

At the end, Byrd spoke truth to the power of coal

This morning's death of West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd prompts us to note that he "ended his career by . . . questioning the state's powerful coal industry," as Greg Moore writes in The Charleston Gazette. I posted the following on The Arena on Politico this morning:

As someone who watched Byrd from across a state line in the Central Appalachian coalfield, I will remember him for the statements he made about the coal industry in the last two years of his life. While other West Virginia politicians were giving the usual knee-jerk reactions in support of the industry, which accounts for 7 percent of West Virginia’s gross state product, Byrd said the industry should “never dominate our politics to the detriment of local communities” and “Coal must embrace the future” in response to industry complaints about the Obama administration’s effort to crack down on the mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal.

Yes, he surely knew that he was nearing the end of his life and would never be on another ballot, but I give him credit for saying what people in Central Appalachia needed to hear at a time when their major industry was facing change and other politicians offered little more than Pablum. This was power speaking truth to power. --Al Cross, director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Local environmental impact of ethanol called into question as industry pushes for more production

Two weeks ago we reported the Environmental Protection Agency had delayed deciding whether to increase the allowable ethanol blend in gasoline to 15 percent, a decision that was widely criticized by the ethanol industry. The industry has launched a public-relations blitz, calling ethanol "America’s clean fuel" and blanketing Washington, D.C., with ads saying "No beaches have been closed due to ethanol spills," but is the fuel as clean as the industry says? "There has been hot debate about whether carbon emissions from ethanol production and use are lower than those from oil and whether the 33 percent of the U.S. corn crop diverted to ethanol drives up the price of food," Erica Gies reports for The New York Times. "Local effects of ethanol production, however, including water pollution and consumption, have received less scrutiny."

The EPA ruling was delayed because the agency said further research was needed into the chances that fuel would corrode conventional car engines at higher percentages. "As ethanol plants have sprouted, mostly in the Midwestern Corn Belt, environmental effects have followed," Gies writes. "An analysis by Perry Beeman, a reporter for the Des Moines Register in Iowa, found 394 violations of environmental regulations by ethanol processing plants in that state between 2001 and 2007." A 2008 study reported that increasing corn production to meet the 2007 renewable fuels target would increase nitrogen pollution in the Gulf of Mexico by 10 to 34 percent.

"There may be a small number of acres coming into production, but they are likely highly environmentally sensitive," Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources for the Environmental Working Group and a former undersecretary for natural resources at the Agriculture Department, told Gies. Investment in corn ethanol "seems like a very expensive detour from an energy policy point of view," said Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources for EWG, told Gies. "This is really agricultural policy masquerading as energy policy." (Read more)

First round of economic-stimulus rural broadband funding could offer insight into future awards

The Rural Utilities Service recently released its detailed report of the first round of rural broadband awards from the economic stimulus package, offering insight for communities planning to apply for the next round of funding, one expert writes. RUS awarded $1.068 billion to 68 recipients in 31 states and one U.S. territory in the first round, and details on many of the projects that received awards can be found at Connecting Rural America. Craig Settles, an Oakland, Calif., Internet consultant, writes for the Daily Yonder, "Before diving into the report, it’s important to remember that this was a process unlike any previous broadband initiative. Though the stimulus program received a lot of criticism, much good came from it that will ripple out to other communities."

RUS reports the projects it funded will bring broadband service to 529,249 households, 92,754 businesses, and 3,332 anchor institutions such as schools, libraries and hospitals across more than 172,000 square miles and will create approximately 5,000 immediate and direct jobs. The first-round awards included a heavy emphasis on wired networks, with 48 projects being fiber networks and 14 Digital Subscriber Lines, while only 23 are wireless. Settles disagrees with that emphasis, writing he believed "RUS could have gotten a bigger bang for its bucks even for last-mile projects by funding more proposals that were heavy on wireless -- such as WiMAX -- while relying on fiber mainly for select institutions."

"The decision to fund 49 non-remote last-mile networks is helpful," Settles writes. "As West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller pointed out, many communities are well within 50 miles of major metropolitan areas (the cutoff point for being considered 'remote'), but due to geographic obstacles they are as lacking in broadband as communities in remote areas are." Settles concludes that after examining the round one awards you can "be reasonably satisfied that quite a few communities should benefit from the stimulus program. It depends on whom you speak with, though, whether you think that the program will achieve as much as it could. We'll all know more late next year, when some of these projects should bear early fruit." (Read more)

Russia lifts embargo on American poultry products

Russia announced last week it was ending its embargo of U.S. poultry, a move the industry says could pay huge dividends domestically. In Minnesota, the country's No. 1 state for turkey and No. 10 for chicken and eggs, the move to end the five-month embargo was seen as a positive because "more of the turkey raised in the state is exported to other countries than consumed in-state," Derek Wallbank of the Minnesota Post reports. "It's a pretty large deal," Steve Olson, the executive director of  the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and the Broiler and Egg Association of Minnesota, told Wallbank. "Russia is the third-largest foreign market for us."

"Russia had been the No. 2 export market for Minnesota turkey, but a rise in Chinese demand coupled with on-and-off embargos dropped it to third," Wallbank writes. "Nationally, it remains the No. 1 foreign destination for U.S. turkey, with $800 million worth of turkey exported there annually." Olson told Wallbank he's "guardedly optimistic," noting that the details of how and when the ban would be lifted have yet to be ironed out. (Read more)

In a statement praising the decision U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, which recently became a big chicken state, said, "This is great news for the thousands of Kentuckians whose livelihoods depend on the poultry industry." Over the last three years, Kentucky exported $150 million in poultry to Russia and has 7,000 poultry industry employees and around 800 growers in 42 of its counties, a McConnell release said.

New leader of Appalachian Regional Commission looks for new strategies amid criticism

When the Appalachian Regional Commission was founded in 1965 one in three Appalachians lived in poverty and 223 of the 420 counties in the region were classified as distressed. Today that number has dropped to 86 but not everyone in the region believes the ARC has been the driving force behind that improvement, Travis Crayton reports for the Daily Yonder. "Too much money was being put into roads and not enough into community development of smaller communities," Helen Lewis, a sociologist and educator who has written extensively about Appalachia and who was among the ARC’s early critics, told Crayton. "I think they could’ve done more to preserve community health centers, [and] they could’ve done more on some of the health problems."

Today ARC co-chair Eric Gohl, in his fourth month on the job, maintains the ARC has a record of accomplishment but is working to develop a new strategic plan to guide funding from 2011 to 2016 and outline the agency’s priorities. Gohl said he sees himself as an "Appalachian advocate, responsible for listening to governors and local communities and monitoring emerging issues in the region," Crayton writes. "From 2000 to 2007, Appalachia lost 424,000 manufacturing jobs and 35,000 jobs in mining, forestry, and natural resources. And that was before the start of the recession," Gohl told Crayton. "We have our work cut out for us in helping to create new, well paying jobs to replace all the ones that have been lost."

"There are still a lot of infrastructure challenges," Gohl added. "There are still places that don’t have clean drinking water or sanitary sewer systems, but I think the real key to turning the region around is education, training, [and] entrepreneurship. I hope the agency will keep a focus on that." Steve Fisher, a longtime educator and activist in the region, said he doesn't see how the agency can be reformed. "It’s a top-down approach," he said. "The problem with that approach is that it doesn’t work. You’ve had an improvement in the statistics in terms of poverty, but that’s a general thing that you see throughout the country. [The ARC] will claim to have taken credit for the economic development of the region, but it has not fundamentally changed the economic situation or the policy situation. It has always stayed away from issues that are at the core of what’s the matter in the region." (Read more)

Abortion pills being dispensed in rural Iowa via telemedicine; Operation Rescue objects

An anti-abortion group has asked for a criminal investigation of Planned Parenthood's unique use of telemedicine to dispense abortion pills in rural Iowa, spotlighting rural health-care considerations. Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group based in Kansas, says Planned Parenthood's system, in which a Des Moines physician interacts via computer with patients seeking abortions in small-town clinics, violates a state law requiring that all abortions be performed by a physician and has asked the state attorney general to investigate, Tony Leys of the Des Moines Register reports.

Under the system, the first of its kind in the country, a doctor meets with the patient via video conference. "Once the doctor is satisfied that the patient meets the criteria, he or she enters a computer command that opens a drawer in front of the patient," Leys writes. "The patient then reaches into the drawer, retrieves the abortion pills and takes the first dose as the doctor watches." The pills are available to women in the first nine weeks of pregnancy, The New York Times reports.

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland leaders told the Register that the system is a safe way to provide abortions in towns where the procedure otherwise would not be available. Patients are examined by on-site nurses before the video appointment and receive follow-up appointments to check for complications. Operation Rescue disagrees, writing, "Please fully investigate this risky 'telemed abortion' scheme, and take whatever legal action is appropriate, including injunctive relief and criminal charges, to protect women from an abortion process that is apparently illegal and certainly dangerous," in its letter to Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller. A spokesman for Miller said he didn't believe the attorney general had received the letter yet, but he thought the matter was better left to the Iowa Board of Medicine, with which the group had previously filed a complaint. (Read more)

Experts warn rural grocery closings could accelerate; Kansas lost 3 of every 8 in last 3 years

Experts say the long-running trend of rural grocery stores closing appears to be picking up steam. The grocery industry and government doesn't keep statistics on rural stores in particular, but a recent Kansas State University study revealed more than 38 percent of the groceries in Kansas towns of fewer than 2,500 people closed between 2006 (when there were 213 such groceries) and 2009, Betsy Blaney of The Associated Press reports. David Proctor, who studies rural communities at KSU, which has a Rural Grocery Initiative, explained that it isn't just a store that goes when groceries close. "Such closures rob towns of their vitality, with the loss of gathering places and sales tax revenue to fund local governments," Blaney writes.

"If you start to lose something key like a grocery store, people aren't likely to move there if they don't have access to food," Kathie Starkweather of the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs told Blaney. Lois Wright Morton, an ISU rural communities researcher, points to some rural residents' preference to drive to larger towns and cities with a Wal-Mart or Target as one factor in rural grocery closures. These bigger supermarkets generally boast lower prices and larger selections but the distance to these stores can be particularly troublesome for the elderly and those who can't travel.

The Obama administration hopes its Healthy Food Financing Initiative will mitigate the problem. The departments of Treasury, Agriculture and Health and Human Services would spend $400 million a year "to bring grocery stores and other healthy food retailers to underserved urban and rural communities," Blaney writes, though it isn't clear yet how the money will be split between urban and rural areas. Nonprofit groups and some motivated local residents have also sprung up in some areas to address the problem. "It's like everything else," Craig Chancellor, who closed his small grocery in the Texas Panhandle in November, told Blaney. "You don't appreciate it until it's not there anymore." (Read more)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Gish family of The Mountain Eagle wins top award from international weekly editors' group

A family that has published a crusading Appalachian weekly for more than 53 years won the top awards at the annual conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, which ended last night with an awards banquet at Eastern Kentucky University.

The Gish family of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., won ISWNE's Eugene Cervi Award for their outstanding public service through community journalism. Ben Gish, right, accepted the award on behalf of his father, Tom, who died in 2008, and his mother, Pat, who has Alzheimer's Disease.

The award is named for Eugene Cervi, who was editor of the Rocky Mountain Journal in Denver. Former ISWNE President Tim Waltner, who presented the award, said he had no doubt that Cervi, like Tom Gish the son of a coal miner, would be pleased with the selection. "For the past five decades the Gish family has continued to make a difference, not only in the community of Whitesburg, but literally across this country . . . Their commitment to craft and to the people in their community reflects the highest ideals of community journalism." (Read more) For a detailed report on the conference, click here.

Editors of sister weeklies in Wisconsin town both win in international editorial-writing contest

Abbottsford, Wis. (Wikipedia map) is not only blessed with two weekly newspapers, but two of the best editorial writers among weeklies in several English-speaking countries, at least according to the results of the 2010 contest of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. Both papers, which are owned by the same company, placed in the Golden Dozen, the 12 editorials judged the best among 96 entries in the contest.

Kevin O'Brien, editor of the Tribune-Phonograph, won for an editorial that pointed out the hyypocrisy of a new mayor who promised more openness in government but joined the city council president in "retreating to the city-hall offices  to discuss the matter privately" when the president objected to the mayor's committee appointments.

Peter Weinschenk, editor of the Record-Review, won for an editorial criticizing the Wisconsin Department of Transportation for a poor process for planning local highway improvements. It began, "First, you get a cart, and next, a horse. Importantly, you put the horse before the cart. These are transportation basics."

The top winner of the contest, and recipient of the Golden Quill award, was Mo Mehlsak of The Forecaster of Falmouth, Maine. The judges said he explained "an intricate series of city and school official maneuverings . . . in such a way that readers unfamiliar with the political figures and events can understand the problem," the school superintendent's undue influence over the appointment of a board member. To read the editorial, click here.

Others in the Golden Dozen were David Giffey, editor of the Home News in Spring Green, Wis.; Dick Crockford, publisher of the Dillon Tribune in Montana; Marcia Martinek, editor of the Herald Democrat in Leadville, Colo.; Mark Brown, executive editor of By The Sea Future of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Fla.; M. Dickey Drysdale, editor-publisher of The Herald of Randolph, Vermont; Paul MacNeill, publisher of the Eastern Graphic in Montague, P.E.I.; John Wylie, publisher of the Oologah Lake Leader in Oklahoma; Bill Knight, columnist for The Zephyr of Galesburg, Ill.; and Tim Waltner, publisher of the Freeman Courier in South Dakota. For a detailed report on the conference, click here.