Friday, October 29, 2010

Congressman from nation's most rural district in line to head House Appropriations

The Republican congressman from the nation's most rural district, which is also one of the poorest, said yesterday that he has the votes to become chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee if his party takes control of the chamber as a result of Tuesday's elections, as expected.

Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers of Kentucky's 5th District told The Rural Blog that he has 19 of the 33 votes on the Republican Steering Committee, which determines chairmanships. Rogers, an Appropriations subcommittee chairman in his 30th year in Congress, is a member of the committee.

In a later conversation with reporters, Rogers crossed his fingers and said Rep. John Boehner, the House Republican leader and would-be speaker, had reminded him that the only votes you can count in such intramural elections are those of "the people who say they're voting against you." Rogers is from Somerset, just outside the Central Appalachian coalfield. The district's population is 79 percent rural.( map)

The Appropriations chairmanship has been in some doubt because the House rule limiting chairs to three terms is open to interpretation and Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., was chairman for two terms until Republicans lost control of the House in 2006. Since then he has been the top-ranking minority member. A spokesman for Boehner told Sara Jerome of The Hill this week that the term limit includes time in the minority. (Read more)

The rule allows for waivers, and Lewis reportedly has asked for one. Richard Simon of the Los Angeles Times reported this week that Lewis "could return" as chairman. However, John Gizzi of the conservative publication Human Events quoted an unnamed "senior Republican" Oct. 9 as saying that "John Boehner just won't let Jerry get it." Boehner has five votes on the Steering Committee, and Gizzi reported that Rogers is "the runaway favorite to chair the spending panel." (Read more)

UPDATE, Oct. 30: Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader notes that the Steering Committee will be reconstituted after Tuesday's election, and "Rogers may have to line up votes from some new members." But he also reports that Rogers is a close friend of Boehner. Estep also notes, "Rogers has been adept at getting federal money for a range of programs and projects, including economic development, infrastructure, tourism and anti-drug efforts. . . . Rogers said Republicans have a moratorium on earmarks and have pledged to reduce spending and knock down the deficit. That means more austerity going forward, he said." But he also told Estep, "There'll be a lot of things we'll be able to help Kentucky with." (Read more)

James R. Carroll of The Courier-Journal reports that Rogers has funneled $857,000 to Republican candidates and party committees for Tuesday's election, "generosity that reflects his plans to become the most powerful House committee chairman." Once the Steering Committee is re-elected, Carroll reports for the Louisville newspaper, "The Kentuckian’s pitch to his colleagues has been that he has been a member of the spending panel for 28 years, has been chairman of three subcommittees and a member of eight subcommittees." (Read more)

Error in newspaper's political ad conveys the wrong message at the worst possible time

The Sabine County Reporter in Texas learned this week why it's important to carefully proofread political ads and stories in the last edition before an election.  Keith Nabours bought an advertisement in this week's paper, the last before Tuesday's election for District 2 commissioner in the county of about 10,000.

"What was supposed to be in my ad was, 'There is a way to achieve economic prosperity without raising your taxes,'" Nabours told KTRE-TV. But he said the ad read (emphasis added), "There's no way to achieve economic prosperity without raising your taxes," reversing the meaning. The paper said the error was unintentional, but since the paper is a weekly it cannot reprint the ad correctly. (Read more) However, it is running a prominent correction on its website, with the full text of the ad and an introduction saying "Nabours believes economic prosperity can be obtained in Sabine County without raising taxes." (Read more)

Sustainability conference to be held in West Virginia

West Virginia is hosting a summit on sustainability, Nov. 12, in Morgantown, W.Va., "Building a 21st Century Economy." The day-long seminar, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., includes three panels: Smart Business – The Case for Sustainability; Emerging Opportunities for Sustainable Business; and Green Job Resources, Training & Certification. The keynote speaker is Sen. Jay Rockefeller. The cost of $75 includes continental breakfast, lunch, beverage breaks, and summit materials. More information, contact Discover the Real West Virginia Foundation.

Private prison industry played role in crafting Arizona immigration law

Arizona's controversial immigration law was pushed along behind the scenes from one group that stood to benefit heavily from its passage: the private prison industry, National Public Radio reports. Benson, Ariz., City Manager Glenn Nichols remembers two men showing up in his town with an ambitious plan to build a prison to house only illegal immigrant women and children, but Nichols said he couldn't understand how the men planned to stock such a prison. The men were confident they would have no problem finding prisoners, "because prison companies like this one had a plan — a new business model to lock up illegal immigrants. And the plan became Arizona's immigration law," Laura Sullivan of NPR reports.

"NPR spent the past several months analyzing hundreds of pages of campaign finance reports, lobbying documents and corporate records," Sullivan writes. "What they show is a quiet, behind-the-scenes effort to help draft and pass Arizona Senate Bill 1070 by an industry that stands to benefit from it: the private prison industry." The private prison industry stands to earn hundreds of millions of dollars in profits if the law withstands court battles and sends thousands of illegal immigrants to prison that wouldn't have been there without it. Arizona Republican State Sen. Russell Pearce maintains the bill was his idea, telling Sullivan it is about what is best for the country not private prisons.

Two sources present for the drafting of the bill said officials from the private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America, were included in the approximately 50 people there. Pearce said CCA officials had been coming to meetings of the American Legislative Exchange Council, where the bill was drafted for years. NPR's review of CCA reports show the company believed immigrant detention is its next big market, writing last year that CCA expected to bring in "a significant portion of our revenues" from Immigration and Customs Enforcement

ALEC is a "membership organization of state legislators and powerful corporations and associations, such as the tobacco company Reynolds American Inc., ExxonMobil and the National Rifle Association," Sullivan writes, noting nothing about it is illegal. Michael Hough, who was staff director of the meeting, said it wasn't unusual for private companies to get to write model bills for legislators. "Yeah, that's the way it's set up," he told Sullivan. "It's a public-private partnership. We believe both sides, businesses and lawmakers should be at the same table, together." (Read more)

Egg industry, government working on new safety standards

In the wake of the summer's salmonella outbreak, the egg industry and government regulators are both working to improve egg safety. The United Egg Producers is "developing safety standards for the industry that would go beyond federal regulations" and "the Food and Drug Administration, which is primarily responsible for egg safety but has a limited force of inspectors, plans to train Agriculture Department personnel in how to catch potential problems at egg farms and to conduct inspections," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports.

UEP is "developing industry standards that will mirror the agency's production rules and go a step further by requiring participating producers to vaccinate all hens against salmonella," Brasher writes. The group is also considering writing sanitation standards for feed mills because of contamination FDA found at one Iowa facility, Howard Magwire, vice president of government relations for UEP, told Brasher. FDA said until July it didn't have any standards that egg producers had to meet.

USDA and FDA have given themselves until Nov. 30 to come up with a plan for training employees to spot food-safety problems, according to a Sept. 15 letter, Brasher writes. Consumer advocate Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest applauded FDA for sending USDA inspectors to egg farms instead of relying on state regulators. "It's a more reliable system than what FDA has been using in recent years," she said. (Read more)

Massey officials refuse to testify in mine disaster investigation

Massey Energy's top safety official and at least five other company officials have refused to answers question from government investigators examining the April explosion that killed 29 West Virginia miners. Elizabeth Chamberlin, Massey's vice president for safety, and the other five officials invoked their Fifth Amendment rights and will not appear for interviews with state and federal investigators, according to documents obtained under the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports.

Other Massey officials declining to testify include Jamie Ferguson, vice president of Massey subsidiary Performance Coal; Wayne Persinger, a general manager at Upper Big Branch; Rick Nicolau, a maintenance chief at the mine; and mine foremen Rick Foster and Gary May. "Lawyers for all six officials said in letters to the state that their clients have done nothing wrong, but do not believe the investigation interviews are being conducted properly," Ward writes. A deal with West Virginia Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin allowed the officials to decline interviews by letter instead of being compelled by subpoena and invoking their Fifth Amendment rights in person.

"An interview schedule obtained by the Gazette indicates that at least five additional Massey officials have invoked their Fifth Amendment rights, but so far state regulators have refused to release the letters in which they formally confirmed that decision," Ward writes. Chamberlin's letter alleges the Mine Safety and Health Administration is using its investigation to "divert attention and blame from itself and onto others" and charges that members of Manchin's independent team have "bullied and abused" some witnesses. (Read more)

Oregon land planning sets urban against rural interests

Northwest Oregon farmers are on the defensive as four governments from a three-county region debate unprecedented urban and rural land designations that could shape the future of the region. The state Land Conservation and Development Commission is considering a plan from Portland Metro and Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties that would designate "28,615 acres of urban reserves -- places eligible for eventual development -- and 267,000 acres of rural reserves that will be maintained as farms, forests or natural areas in the three counties," Eric Mortenson of The Oregonian reports. "No other region in the U.S. has attempted such long-range planning; approval by the LCDC is the final step." (Mapquest map)

"Farmers, the conservation group 1000 Friends of Oregon and the state Department of Agriculture oppose urban designations on three areas of prime farmland north of Council Creek, north of Forest Grove and northwest of Hillsboro," Mortenson writes. "The commission heard four days of testimony last week and said it needed more details on Washington County's designations in those areas." The Agriculture Department calls each area "foundation farmland," marked by large blocks of fine soil supported by an infrastructure of fertilizer, seed and equipment dealers, crop processors and irrigation.

"I've farmed next to cities all my life, and it's really tough," Bob VanderZanden, a farmer from Hillsboro, told Mortenson. "They don't blend well. The best way is to have some natural feature that absorbs a lot of that impact." Richard Meyer, development and operations director for Cornelius, said an urban designation for the most hotly contested area, just north of Council Creek, is essential for growth. "We need 4,000 jobs to have a jobs-housing balance that would cut back on our commuting," Meyer said. "Our city limits are right at the urban growth boundary, and all around us is farming." (Read more)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Mountain lion photographed in Kansas

Mountain lions have returned to Kansas and a local hunter captured proof on a motion-activated video camera. Michael Pearce, of The Wichita Eagle, reports that Caleb Mahin, of rural Courtland, found several images of what appears to be a mountain lion on a remote-controlled camera he had placed near the Republican River in Republic County. A local biologist confirmed from the pictures that the animal is the fourth mountain lion spotted in Kansas in the past three years. (Photo by Caleb Mahin)

The presence of mountain lions has been one of the most hotly debated wildlife topics in Kansas and other prairie and eastern states for decades, Pearce reports. For many years, some accused Kansas Wildlife and Parks of stocking the animals to control deer numbers and then denying they were in Kansas. Parks department officials denied doing that. 

Mountain lions can travel long distances and have been showing up across the U.S. Cats seen in Nebraska are believed to be males looking for new territory, coming from an expanding population in the Black Hills of South Dakota. A mountain lion spotted earlier in Kansas had a radio collar that indicated he had been caught in Colorado and had traveled 200 miles to Kansas. After he was seen in Kansas, he was re-captured in New Mexico, traveling over 1,000 miles.  (Read more)

In some parts of the west, though, mountain lions are seen often enough to be considered a nuisance. In Sunny Brae, Calif., a mountain lion was sighted in town on Wednesday, reports Matt Drange, of the Eureka Times-Standard. "It happens fairly frequently," Arcata Police Department officer Sgt. Ron Sligh told Drange, adding that, "It's not uncommon to have a sighting and then have another a few days later." On Tuesday, a mountain lion with a dead deer was photographed near the Sacramento River, near Hamilton City., Calf., reports the Chico Enterprise-Record.

Study suggests soft drinks may have more fructose than thought

A new study published in the journal Obesity reports soft drinks sweetened with corn may have a bigger impact on weight gain and other health issues than previously thought. The study from researchers at the University of Southern California found "the sugar found in soft drinks may contain as much as 65 percent fructose," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports on the Green Fields blog. "The corn sweetener level used in sodas is supposed to contained a nearly equal mixture of fructose and glucose, a similar ratio to that found in table sugar."

Researchers said fructose may be a larger contributor to weight gain than glucose because of the way the body metabolizes it. "Fructose consumption also may be linked to high blood pressure and other health problems," Brasher writes. "The highest levels of fructose were found in Coca-Cola, Sprite and Pepsi products, both those sold in bottles and as fountain drinks." Maureen Storey, a senior vice president of the American Beverage Association, countered it is implausible for soft drinks to have more than 55 percent fructose, the level in the high fructose corn syrup used to sweeten them.

"Why would we ship more fructose than we would need to, given the fact that we now have a good scientific consensus that HFCS-55 is equivalent to sugar in terms of its nutrition? To do that just doesn’t make reasonable sense," industry consultant John White told Brasher. "It is more reasonable that somebody who has never before measured HFCS in anything is using a procedure that is getting erroneous results." Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University and authority on the food industry, "has argued the corn sweetener couldn’t be worse than table sugar because both sweeteners were roughly equal parts fructose and glucose," Brasher writes. But Tuesday, Nestle wrote on her blog "A percentage of 55 is not much different biologically than 50, which is why the assumption has been that there is no biologically meaningful difference between HFCS and table sugar." (Read more)

As more people move to woodsy areas, costs of fighting fires rise

Almost half the U.S Forest Service's budget has been devoted to fire suppression costs in recent years as more people move to the areas most at risk for forest fires. "Where firefighters might normally just let a fire go, they rush in to stop it if houses and people are in danger -- requiring costly maneuvering," Dina Fine Maron of ClimateWire reports for The New York Times. The most recent fire in Colorado, where 20 percent of the population has chosen to live close to the population, cost around $10 million to fight and $217 million in property damage.

"The more residents you have [in such areas], the more expensive the fire becomes," Bret Gibson, chief of the Four Mile Fire Protection District in Colorado, told Fine Maron. In Colorado "people who chose to live in homes abutting wilderness are not planning on surrendering the territory," Fine Maron writes. The Colorado Statewide Forest Resource Assessment reports much of the state's projected population growth in the next 30 years will come in those woodsy areas.

Homeowners living near at-risk forests can take steps to mitigate their fire risk, but many say it is too expensive and alters the so-called "natural state" of the surrounding woods. "Some feel edicts that they completely clear 3-foot buffer zones and thin out surrounding trees infringe on their property rights," Fine Maron writes. Gibson also noted the current crowded forests aren't actually the natural state as forests were much thinner before the 19th century gold rush. "We are looked at and asked how are you going to prevent fires, but that is like blaming the police for you failing to lock your back door when you get robbed," said Gibson. "We are not land managers. We don't own the land. We don't have the authority to make people take action -- it ain't our fire." (Read more)

USDA report says farmers need to do more to protect Chesapeake Bay

A new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture finds major shortcomings in the way farmers in a six-state region are trying to protect the Chesapeake Bay from pollution, despite claims from farmers they are doing their best to reduce pollution. The reports says "while farmers have made 'good progress' in reducing the amount of soil and fertilizer washing off their fields into the bay and its rivers, more pollution controls are needed on about 81 percent of all the croplands," Timothy B. Wheeler of The Baltimore Sun reports. The report says nearly half the region's 4.3 million acres of farmland are "critically under treated" in regard to pollution control.

"The 161-page federal report — the most comprehensive analysis of farm conservation practices in the bay region to date — relies on computer modeling and hundreds of soil and other samples taken across the region, plus a survey of farmers," Wheeler writes. USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service released a statement saying the draft report suggests that conservation practices in the Chesapeake Bay are working but "more work remains to be done." The Environmental Protection Agency is working on a "pollution diet" that would require renewed efforts to clean the Chesapeake.

"Farmers and agriculture officials across the region are pushing back against the EPA plan, asserting that they've done more than city dwellers and suburbanites to help clean up the bay and that they aren't getting credit for all their conservation efforts," Wheeler writes. Chesapeake cleanup advocates noted the source of the report may have been the biggest news. "Agriculture has been one of the most reticent groups as a whole," Gerald W. Winegrad, a former Maryland state senator and outspoken critic of farm pollution control efforts, told Wheeler. "Whether it's the local farm bureau or national farm bureau, USDA or Maryland Department of Agriculture, to acknowledge there is a substantial problem to the bay from agriculture, and that current efforts aren't nearly enough." (Read more)

Survey shows Iowa overwhelmingly supports farmers

As the national conversation about agriculture focuses on large-scale farming and its impact on the environment, Iowans continue to hold a positive view of their farmers. A poll from the Des Moines Register reveals 62 percent of Iowans say they have a mostly positive view of farmers and 30 percent say they have a very positive view, Philip Brasher reports. "But many Iowans do have concerns about the effects of farming on Iowa's air and water," Brasher writes, noting "one in three people surveyed said he believes the state's air and water quality is getting worse."

"My concern is on pollution," John Fisher of Des Moines told Brasher. "They have to use chemicals to gain their production, but I think they use too many." Farm groups across the country have been fighting back with public relations campaigns against recent hits to agriculture's images from a series of best-sellers and documentaries that blame the nation's obesity problem on agriculture, and corn in particular, Brasher writes. Just 33 percent of survey respondents felt that air quality is getting better, while 34 percent thought it's getting worse.

"A majority of the 803 respondents, 51 percent, felt that food is safer than a generation ago," Brasher writes. "A plurality thought that the nutritional value of food is improving, soil erosion is less of a problem and livestock are being treated more humanely." Thirty-nine percent believed water quality was improving, compared to 34 percent who said it was getting worse. Craig Lang, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, said the poll was good news for Iowa farmers considering it came after the summer's nation-wide salmonella outbreak linked to two Iowa-based egg producers. "From the perception of consumers, I think farmers came out relatively strong, but we need to continue to work and make sure that consumers know what we're doing and the reasons why," Lang said. (Read more)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Medical marijuana prescriptions complicate law enforcement in California

The evolving regulation of marijuana in California is complicating day-to-day law enforcement activity in rural Humboldt County. California currently allows those with medical marijuana permits to grow a 100-square-foot canopy, though a proposition on the Nov. 2 ballot would make it legal for people over 21 to grow and use small amounts of marijuana, Sam Quinones of The Los Angeles Times reports. For law enforcement in Humboldt County, which Quinones terms "the center of California's marijuana outback," the uncertainty surrounding marijuana has made Deputy Sheriff Robert Hamilton's job more difficult.

"In a region where marijuana is not merely tolerated but is a pillar of the economy, there isn't much a deputy can do but play along with the fantasies that surround semi-legal weed: that unemployed 20-somethings who buy $50,000 trucks earned the money legally; that supply shops for marijuana farmers are innocent home-and-garden centers; that growers who flash medical marijuana cards are not producing for sale but solely for their own medical needs," Quinones writes. After recently visiting a pot farm where the growers presented medical marijuana prescriptions, Hamilton told Quinones, "Cheech and Chong cannot smoke that much dope."

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has promised to enforce federal laws against recreational marijuana even if California passes its Nov. 2 ballot proposition, further complicating enforcement. "The current climate is to [go after] big commercial growers, ignore small growers," Humboldt County Sheriff Gary Philp told Quinones. "But you see more and more grow houses. If they're not going to be prosecuted, at a certain point they affect the community. We've had home invasions, shootings, homicides." Humboldt County Dist. Atty. Paul Gallegos, who supports legalization of pot, maintains his office isn't soft on illegal marijuana farming. "If someone has a [medical marijuana] recommendation, and they're within the ordinances, it's presumed they're lawful," Gallegos said. (Read more)

Research suggests fracking could lead to uranium groundwater contamination

Researchers at State University of New York at Buffalo say hydraulic fracturing may release more than natural gas from shale formations as the process can mobilize uranium as well. Scientists say the uranium could pollute groundwater near "fracking" operations, the Environmental News Service reports. "Marcellus shale naturally traps metals such as uranium and at levels higher than usually found naturally, but lower than man made contamination levels," lead researcher Tracy Bank, PhD, assistant professor of geology in UB's College of Arts and Sciences, said.

"My question was, if they start drilling and pumping millions of gallons of water into these underground rocks, will that force the uranium into the soluble phase and mobilize it?" Bank said. "Will uranium then show up in groundwater?" Researchers scanned the surfaces of Marcellus Shale samples from Western New York and Pennsylvania and found uranium bonded to hydrocarbons. "That led me to believe that uranium in solution could be more of an issue because the process of drilling to extract the hydrocarbons could start mobilizing the metals as well," Bank said, "forcing them into the soluble phase and causing them to move around."

Bank warned that water from fracking could contain uranium contaminants when it is brought to the surface, potentially polluting streams and generating hazardous waste. "Even though at these levels, uranium is not a radioactive risk, it is still a toxic, deadly metal," Bank said. "We need a fundamental understanding of how uranium exists in shale. The more we understand about how it exists, the more we can better predict how it will react to fracking." (Read more)

Pa. governor halts leasing state forests for natural gas drilling

On Tuesday Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Edward Rendell signed an executive order banning further leasing of state forests for Marcelllus Shale drilling. "Rendell, who will leave office in January, signed the moratorium in a bitter denouement to the legislature's failure to enact a natural gas severance tax, which left Democrats and Republicans blaming each other for the breakdown," Andrew Maykuth of The Philadelphia Inquirer reports. During the announcement, Rendell also urged voters to support Democrats in next week's election, leading Republican leaders to call the move political posturing. (Photo Ed Rendell, by Christine Baker, Patriot-News)

"Maybe he thinks it will somehow help the Democratic candidates he's helping to elect," Republican state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi told Maykuth. "I don't think it advances on the serious and important issue of how to maximize the benefit of the natural resource we have here in the Commonwealth." Rendell's successor would have to sign a rescinding order if he chose to lease the state lands. "Senate Republican leaders, committed to not raising taxes, are unwilling to declare the state forests off-limits to more leasing," Maykuth writes. "About 725,000 of the state's 2.1 million acres of forests have been leased - 65,000 acres this year."

"We cannot keep the ecological balance, we cannot keep the character of our wild and natural lands, if we allow any expansion of drilling," Rendell said. John Quigley, secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the state's green certification, which supports the sustainable timber industry, would be in jeopardy if the state lease much more forest land for natural gas drilling. "On Monday DCNR approved a new policy requiring the state to conduct environmental reviews on drilling on 290,000 acres of land upon which the state does not own the mineral rights," Maykuth writes. (Read more)

Rural Maine public school hopes to attract tuition-paying Chinese students

Facing diminishing enrollment numbers and revenue, one rural Maine school is turning to an unlikely place for more students: China. While Millinocket, Maine, is a hour's drive from the nearest mall, the town's schools superintendent Kenneth Smith "so certain that Chinese students will eventually arrive by the dozen — paying $27,000 a year in tuition, room and board — that he is scouting vacant properties to convert to dormitories," Abby Goodnough of The New York Times reports. Smith is spending this week in China pitching Stearns High School to school officials, parents and students in Beijing, Shanghai and two other cities.

"We are going full-bore," Smith said. "You’ve got to move if you’ve got something you believe is the right thing to do." Smith has also "hired a consultant to help him make connections in China, lobbied Millinocket’s elected officials and business owners to embrace the plan and even directed the school’s cafeteria workers to add Chinese food to the menu," Goodnough writes. The move to court Chinese tuition-paying students is unprecedented in public schools, even as they scramble for new revenue sources, Goodnough reports.

Smith still faces at least one major hurdle as the State Department currently allows foreign students to attend public U.S. high schools for only one year. Smith, who says the rule is unfair because foreign students can attend private high schools for four years, "is pressing Maine’s Congressional delegation to seek a change, but in the meantime, he intends to recruit a handful of Chinese students to attend Stearns next year," Goodnough writes.

Why would Chinese parents spend $27,000 to send their children to rural Millinocket? "We’re a community full of assets," Smith said "There’s the beauty, No. 1, and the fresh air. And the roads are good." English teacher Terry Given added, "Why not? We won’t know until we get the opportunity to know them and give them the opportunity to know us. There’s something to be said for putting ourselves out there to see if we can be the prize that’s claimed." (Read more)

When the Bangor Daily News first reported the Stearns High School plan in September, Smith voiced big hopes for the program. "We will probably see 100 [students], and if everything falls into place, we could see 200," Smith told Nick Sambides Jr. of the Daily News. "Certainly by three years we will have 300. We hope to have dormitories. Certainly community members will be taking kids in, but I see no reason why we can’t do all of the accommodations." (Read more)

Readers, boss react to sports editor's column questioning deer hunting as sport

The sports editor for the Covington News, in Newton County, Ga., (pop. 94,947), not far from Atlanta, created quite a reaction with his column, "What if the hunter was the hunted?" Josh Briggs had received a photo of a deer hunter and the dead deer and felt moved to comment. Briggs started this way: "If I'm going to run deer hunting pictures in my section, I can at least give my take on it, right?" He goes on to explain, "When you are at war, it's you or your enemy. You look for the upper hand. You find an elevated position, sit for hours or even days on end and wait. That's fine. At least your enemy knows you're out there. ... But a deer has no clue. When you sit in a tree stand and wait for a deer to come through your baited area, it's just a matter of time. ... Where's the sport in sitting your lazy butt in a tree stand and waiting for a deer to pass by?" (For larger view of map)

The reaction was swift and vocal, with 750 letters from around the world and network news coverage. One wildlife biologist explained deer hunting as "the scientifically proven BEST method of controlling these populations without letting starvation and disease do it for us." He added, "I will be boycotting the entire newspaper because of this article and will be persuading my friends and family to do so as well." Nearby Augusta Chronicle writer Ron Pavey also felt the need to comment: "Being from California, where they do things differently, [Briggs] proceeded to attack deer hunters as lazy, insinuated that wildlife management through controlled hunting was a myth and made the erroneous assumption that people who hunt from a treestand are doing so over bait." He then invited readers to submit their deer hunting photos to the Augusta Chronicle (see photo).

Pat Cavanaugh, the general manager of The Covington News, responded in a column published three days later. "It still catches me off guard and amazes me what type of story will really get readers’ attention. ... the shock of what [Briggs] wrote caused me to spill my coffee on myself and almost choke on my muffin. I knew our publisher, Charles Hill Morris, himself part of a family that has a hunting tradition that goes way back, would be shocked and mortified." Ultimately, the general manager supported his editor. "For those of you who have told us that you and your friends are taking up a collection to send our sports editor packing, that is not going to happen. We encourage the people who work at our paper to have and express their own opinions, as we encourage you. ... As for the many calls we have received, we appreciate them ... not only on this issue but any issue that appears in The Covington News. We look at your thoughts, either ones we like or we don’t like, as proof that the First Amendment ... is still alive and well and protecting all of us from tyranny."

Briggs responded in his column on Tuesday by apologizing. "I apologize to you for being so extreme with such a sensitive issue. I apologize to our advertisers for the negative attention and to the hunters in the community who go about the sport the right way."

Free conference Nov. 3 will focus on revitalizing abused land in Central Appalachia

The Kentucky Brownfield Program and the Kentucky Division of Compliance Assistance are holding a day-long conference, "Exploring Community Revitalization in Central Appalachia." According to the announcement of the conference, "Communities in Appalachia are faced with properties that cannot be redeveloped or reused due to real or perceived contamination. The Kentucky Brownfield Program invites you to participate in a first-ever event to explore how federal, state and local programs, both governmental and nongovernmental, can work together to turn these properties into productive areas that can revitalize a community."

The list of topics to be discussed includes jobs, post-mining land use and redeveloping land used for waste dumping.  The free conference will be held Wednesday, Nov. 3, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Greenbo Lake State Resort Park near Greenup. To register click here.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Some Navajos want to move away from coal and toward greener future

Coal has long been a fixture on Navajo reservations, but some Navajos are hoping to move away from the fossil fuel toward a clean-energy future. "Seeking to reverse years of environmental degradation and return to their traditional values, many Navajos are calling for a future built instead on solar farms, ecotourism and microbusinesses," Mireya Navarro of The New York Times reports. Earl Tulley, a Navajo housing official, is running for vice president of the Navajo Nation in the Nov. 2 election and has become the face of the new movement. (NYT map)

Tulley "represents a growing movement among Navajos that embraces environmental healing and greater reliance on the sun and wind, abundant resources on a 17 million-acre reservation spanning Arizona, New Mexico and Utah," Navarro writes. At 300,000 members, the Navajo Nation is the country's largest tribe and has the largest reservation. "Coal mines and coal-fired power plants on the reservation and on lands shared with the Hopi provide about 1,500 jobs and more than a third of the tribe’s annual operating budget, the largest source of revenue after government grants and taxes," Navarro writes.

Some spiritual guides say Navajo culture equates extracting coal and other natural resources with cutting skin, representing a betrayal of a duty to protect the land, Navarro reports. Still most of the shift is spurred by economic considerations, as "tribal leaders say the Navajo Nation’s income from coal has dwindled 15 percent to 20 percent in recent years as federal and state pollution regulations have imposed costly restrictions and lessened the demand for mining," Navarro writes. Tulley explained, "At some point we have to wean ourselves," adding, "We need to look at the bigger picture of sustainable development." (Read more)

Alaska newspapers endorse incumbent Sen. Murkowski as write-in candidate

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski's write-in candidacy for re-election hasn't stopped newspapers around the state from endorsing her in the upcoming election. "The Anchorage Daily News, the Juneau Empire and Alaska Newspapers Inc., which publishes six weeklies, tout Murkowski's seniority in their endorsements," of the incumbent senator, who holds a leadership position on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Katie Howell of Environment & Energy Daily reports. Murkowski lost the Republican primary in August to tea party favorite Joe Miller, but following the loss she announced a write-in bid to retain her seat, drawing criticism from Republican leadership. (Lisa Murkowski, Photo by Erik Hill/Anchorage Daily News)

"Alaskans need someone who has a grasp of the large issues that will allow the state to advance without missing the fact that we need to move forward together -- tiny villages and all," the Alaska Newspapers Inc. editorial board writes. "Murkowski's experience -- and Alaskans' experience with her leadership -- shows she's the right candidate for the job." Alaska Newspapers owns The Arctic Sounder, The Bristol Bay Times, The Cordova Times, The Dutch Harbor Fisherman, The Seward Phoenix LOG and The Tundra Drums. The Anchorage Daily News touts Murkowski's ability to work across political aisles in its endorsement, writing, "The last thing we need, as Alaskans or Americans, is more extreme partisanship in Washington, D.C."

"Current polls show her running neck and neck with Miller, while Democrat Scott McAdams trails," Howell writes. "Still, because of the complicated nature of write-in campaigns, it is difficult to know whether that support in the polls will translate into real votes on Election Day." The Daily News notes the decision to run as a write-in candidate "was not the easy choice for her," adding, "she is running where she truly lives -- near the political center -- and where she has rediscovered that most Alaskans and Americans live." (Read more, subscription required)

Murkowski's chances may hinge in part on a superior court judge's ruling, expected Wednesday, as to whether the state Division of Election can provide a list of write-in candidates to voters who request it. "The Democratic and Republican state parties argued Monday afternoon for a temporary restraining order to stop" the division of election from providing the information, Joshua Saul of the Alaska Dispatch reports. "The crux of the argument between the two sides hinges on the definition of  'information,'" Saul writes. "A Division of Election regulation states that 'Information regarding a write-in candidate may not be discussed, exhibited, or provided at the polling place.'" Margaret Paton-Walsh, the assistant attorney general representing the Division of Election said, "Alaskans who want to vote for a write-in candidate should be given all the assistance they require. The list is the most neutral way we can provide that information." (Read more)

Northeast Texas high school parents link fracking to students' health problems

Parents of students at a Texas high school are worried that hydraulic fracturing operations near the school are causing adverse health effects among their children. One parent, Kelly Grant, says since "gas drilling began near Argyle High School in recent weeks, her daughter has experienced severe symptoms of asthma, a condition she had controlled for years," Lowell Brown and Britney Tabor of the Denton Record-Chronicle reports. Grant says twice in recent weeks her daughter had to leave marching band practice because of dense fumes on the field.

"Grant described the scene for Argyle school board members Monday night, joining a group of parents, residents and local environmentalists with expertise on Barnett Shale community impacts, all concerned about increasing natural gas development in the area," the reporters write. One "fracking" well, known as Whitehead pad, is about a half-mile from the high school while a second well, known as the Jenkins pad, is about 1,500 feet from Argyle Intermediate School and about half a mile from Hilltop Elementary School. "Complaints about students with nosebleeds, dizziness, disorientation and nausea started appearing on the [Argyle-Bartonville Communities Alliance]’s blog in early October," Brown and Tabor report.

Andrea Morrow, a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said the agency had responded to complaints in the area three times this month and taken an air canister sample on one visit. Results of the test are still pending, Morrow said. "In 2008, the Argyle school district signed leases with Hillwood and Williams Production allowing gas exploration on about 110 acres of district-owned property," the reporters write. "To date, the district has received $680,681.25 in revenue from the leases." Superintendent Telena Wright said she had spoken with a TCEQ investigator about the problem and was awaiting results from the air test. (Read more)

Conn. newspaper makes 'fact checking' easy for readers

A newspaper in Leitchfield County, Conn., has added a feature to its Web site to allow readers to "fact check" the story they are reading (see box above). The fact check box appears on every story at the Register Citizen. At, editor Matt DeRienzo explained to readers that, "On any given day, we are going to make mistakes. We, unfortunately, do more than our share of simply 'getting it wrong.' ... We don’t go deep enough into a story, or we miss pieces of information and perspective that would change readers’ perception of an issue."  (Read more)

The newspaper has a print circulation of 8,000 and 140,000 unique visitors to its Web site each month. Since adding the check box in May, reports are flowing in and the majority of submissions are worth reviewing, DeRienzo told the Columbia Journalism Review. "Probably from June, July, and September we got 100-plus substantial reports." And since they added the box to every story on the site a few weeks ago? "Four times that much." DeRienzo added, "One of the key things about it to make it successful is to report back regularly to readers about how it’s working," he says. "Don’t just make it so that people send [reports] out into the ether and don’t know if an editor has seen it or not." (Read more)

U.S. Dept. of Education says bullying based on sexual orientation or religion may be illegal

Harrassment rooted in sexual orientation or religious differences may be violations of federal civil- rights protections, even though those groups are not specifically mentioned in the applicable federal law, the U. S. Department of Education is telling state and local school officials today.

Russlyn H. Ali, the department's assistant secretary for civil rights, noted that "Title VI of the Civil Rights Act already prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin, Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act, prohibit discrimination based on disability status," Christina A. Samuels reports for Education Week. "Many local districts and schools have anti-bullying and harassment policies that go beyond those protected groups."

Ali added that "even when local agencies do not have such policies, federal law imposes obligations on schools," Samuels writes. New guidance from the department notes "harassment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered students may be a form of gender stereotyping and therefore a federal offense." The department notes in a "Dear Colleague" letter to schools, colleges and universities, "harassment against students who are members of any religious group triggers a school's Title VI responsibilities when the harassment is based on the group's actual or perceived shared ancestry, or ethnic characteristics, rather than solely on its members' religious practices." (Read more)

"The agency is digging deep into case law that prohibits gender-based harassment," reports Fawn Johnson of National Journal. "There isn’t a federal civil rights statute that explicitly protects people based on their sexual orientation, but the courts have held that same-sex harassment based on gender stereotypes is unlawful." (Read more)

Failure of steep severance tax in Pennsylvania leaves it only major gas state with no such levy

Pennsylvania remains the only state among the nation’s 15 top natural-gas producers not to impose a severance tax on the industry after Gov. Ed Rendell declared the bill dead Thursday," reports Eric Boehm of the Pennsylvania Independent.

Rendell pointed to drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation as he proposed the tax, which would have been the nation's highest on gas. Republican leaders of the state Senate called for a much lower rate. "Rendell and House Democrats said the lower proposal was a gift to the industry" and bad for property owners, Boehm reports. "Attempts by the governor to bring the two sides together over the last few weeks failed."

Rendell leaves office at the end of the year. The Republican nominee, Tom Corbett, "has repeatedly stated his opposition to a severance tax," Boehm notes. "His Democratic opponent, Dan Onorato, said he did not agree with the severance tax passed by the state House, but he would support a reasonable tax on the industry." (Read more

Study suggests dental therapists are good option for underserved areas

A new study funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation reveals dental therapists in an Alaskan pilot program provide safe, competent and appropriate dental care. "The two-year, intensive evaluation is the first independent evaluation of its scale to assess care provided by dental therapists practicing in the United States," the Kellogg Foundation writes.  "It confirms what numerous prior studies of dental therapists practicing in other countries have already shown: that dental therapists provide safe care for underserved populations."

Dental therapists have been providing dental care to remote Alaska Native villages since 2006. "These findings clearly indicate to me that alternative providers such as dental therapists can successfully provide good, quality dental care in areas where people can’t gain access to dentists," Sterling K. Speirn, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s president and chief executive officer, said in a news release. "Other states and tribal areas should explore the dental therapist model as a way to expand the reach of dentists, and in the process, help millions of people get the dental care they so desperately need." The study observed dental therapists in five communities and evaluated the experience of hundreds of patients and relied on examination standards used for assessing clinical competency for board certification of U.S. dental school graduates.

The report concluded "dental therapists are technically competent to perform the procedures within their scope of work and are doing so safely and appropriately, they are consistently working under the general supervision of dentists, they are successfully treating cavities and helping to relieve pain for people who often had to wait months or travel hours to seek treatment, patient satisfaction with their care is very high and they are well-accepted in tribal villages," the Kellogg Foundation writes. The study was conducted by RTI International and was funded in part by the Rasmuson Foundation and the Bethel Community Services Foundation. (Read more)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Dark tobacco holds stable as burley declines

Burley tobacco, the mainstay of cigarettes, has declined since the federal price-support and quota program ended in 2004, but "dark tobacco — used for snuff and grown primarily in Western Kentucky — has rebounded," Greg Hall reports for The Courier-Journal of Louisville. (John Perkins photo: Dark tobacco fire-cures in a barn next to a soybean field in Calloway County)

"This year's dark tobacco crop is forecast at 41.3 million pounds, down about 10 percent from last year, but still higher than the 26 million pounds seen in the early 1990s," Hall writes. "Where Kentucky burley farmers produced more than 400 million pounds in the early 1990s, the current crop is forecast at 136.8 million pounds, down 15 percent from the 2009 crop." Dark tobacco, which can also be air-cured like burley, brings a higher price and produces more pounds per acre.

University of Kentucky agricultural economist Will Snell told Hall that tobacco companies "can't find that type of tobacco anywhere else in the world market," and Hall notes that the companies have processing plants in the Western Kentucky cities of Hopkinsville and Owensboro. (Read more)

N.C. county picked for nation's first rural youth violence prevention center

The nation's first rurally focused youth violence prevention center will be located in Robeson County, N.C. "Researchers said the county's ethnic diversity, combined with its above-average rates of poverty and juvenile violence, made it an ideal candidate for the center, which will be funded through a $6.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," Mike Hixenbaugh of The Fayetteville Observer reports. The N.C. Academic Center for Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention will be based in Lumberton and led by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Our goal, ultimately, is to promote the positive and successful development of middle school adolescents so that they can go on to have bright futures," Paul Smokowski, a professor of social work at UNC-Chapel Hill who will lead the center, told Hixenbaugh. Similar centers in metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia were established under the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control following the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Robeson County is "regarded as one of the nation's most ethnically diverse rural communities, with more than 68 percent of its 129,000 residents being American Indian, black or Hispanic," Hixenbaugh writes. The N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports the county's youth death rate of 124 per 100,000 was more than twice the state average between 2004 and 2008. "This project will enable us to develop a deeper understanding of youth violence," Mark Legerton, a partner in the federal project, told Hixenbaugh. "And it will allow us to implement interventions that can be assessed so that we can develop successful ways to prevent and reduce youth violence." (Read more)

Support of farm programs doing rural Democrats little good; cuts in subsidies may result

With just over a week until the midterm elections, rural Democrats who defended farm subsidies appear to be getting "little credit for their efforts – or for an agricultural economy that largely dodged the recession," Dan Morgan reports for The Fiscal Times. "Agricultural exports are booming, farm profits are at near record levels, and corn prices neared $6 a bushel this week, a two-year high. Farmland values, bucking national real-estate trends, are up nearly 5 percent in the northern Great Plains, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service."

A Republican takeover of Congress could signal cutting of farm subsidies if the party follows through on its promise to scale back government. "House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, the likely new speaker, is a longtime critic of farm programs and didn't vote for the 2008 farm bill," Morgan writes. "Former House GOP Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, who chairs the national Tea Party organizing group FreedomWorks, has also been a relentless critic of government subsidies for agriculture." Meanwhile, dozens of rural Democrats face tough re-election bids. Even in rural areas dependent on farm subsidies, conservative voters' opposition to a powerful central government appears to be taking precedent, Morgan writes. Early this month, Dawn House of the Salt Lake Tribune reported that Utah farm groups were aligned with new organizations that oppose farm subsidies.

The most prominent example of a rural Democrat struggling for re-election may be "North Dakota Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a veteran member of the Agriculture Committee, who used his seat on the Ways and Means Committee to help engineer crucial funding for the 2008 farm bill," Morgan writes. "A Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of likely voters in late September found Pomeroy trailing his Republican opponent, businessman Rick Berg, though the margin had narrowed." If the current federal spending debate spills over to the next farm bill Republicans in favor of farm subsidies may need rural Democrat support to fend off deep cuts. (Read more)

With so many key committee seats up for grabs pending the looming election, agriculture legislation in Congress is currently in flux, Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar told Dave Russell of Brownfield. "By that I mean new members, people trying to determine if they want to serve or not, new chairpersons, who are unknowns and who have not really been noted for specific advocacy of anything in particular, this is really a time of flux," said Lugar. (Read more)

Kansas rancher scores victory for endangered black-footed ferrets over prairie dogs

A Kansas rancher has secured a key victory for wildlife conservation after a judge ruled last month that Logan County commissioners couldn't exterminate prairie dogs on his property. The black-footed ferrets in question are among the most endangered mammals in the world. "Larry Haverfield, the 74-year-old rancher on whose land the colony thrives, went to court to stop commissioners in Logan County from exterminating the prairie dogs without his permission, despite a 1901 state law that allows them to do so," Joe Stumpe reports for The New York Times. (Hays Daily News photo by Steven Hausler)

"It’s important because it says the Endangered Species Act trumps a 100-year-old state law that forces the extermination of prairie dogs," said Randy Rathbun, the lawyer representing Haverfield and Gordon Barnhardt, who owns some of the land. Prairie dogs are treated as pests by most ranchers in the region as they spread rapidly and can compete with cattle for grass. "They’re a very destructive animal that comes in, and if you don’t control them some way they will take over your fields and pastures," said Lynn Kirkham, president of the Logan County Farm Bureau. "If you were in a city and had somebody next to you that was infested with rats and they kept coming over to your place and you couldn’t do anything about it, that’s how I feel about this situation."

Haverfield, who says cattle can coexist with the prairie dogs, allowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to "release endangered black-footed ferrets on his property as part of a program to increase their population," Stumpe writes. Some locals took issue with outside conservation groups like Audubon of Kansas and the Defenders of Wildlife becoming involved in the controversy. "They’re not taking economic factors into play," Kirkham said. "It’s not their livelihood." (Read more)

The success of the black-footed ferret population in Logan County has given some hope that the animal will one day be removed from the endangered species list, Mike Corn of The Hays Daily News reports. "This is one of the wonderful success stories of endangered species recovery," Travis Livieri, executive director of the Prairie Wildlife Center in Wellington, Colo., told Corn. "Look at all the volunteers and people who come out here and helped." (Read more)

West Tennessee post-office shooting highlights dangers for rural postal workers

The shooting of two postal office workers in Henning, Tenn., last week has become a stark reminder of the dangers rural postal workers face. Clerk Paula Robinson and rural carrier associate Judy Spray were shot and killed on Oct. 18 at the Henning office, Michael Lollar of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis reports. A former postal clerk, who has only worked in rural areas, said the Henning tragedy is "the realization of a daily fear in a rural post office," Lollar writes.

"Most of the (employees) are females. They don't even have alarm systems like a home does," the former clerk who asked not to be identified, said. She cited armed robberies, a rape and kidnapping in the past decade on post office properties in the region. Henning, population just under 1,000, had no security cameras, silent alarm, bulletproof glass, panic button or security guard at the post office, Lollar writes. The issue of postal robberies first surfaced in 1921 when Postmaster General William Hays armed postal employees as part of a campaign to "stop a growing number of postal robberies across the country," Lollar writes. Postal workers are no longer allowed to carry weapons on federal property.

Using regional examples, Lollar notes that the Henning tragedy is the latest example of rural postal violence. In 2001, a postmaster in Bells, Tenn., was kidnapped and raped. Three years later, the postmaster in Brunswick, Tenn., was robbed, and in 2006 the postal branch in Lake Cormorant, Miss., was held up by an armed robber. Postal spokesmen and union representatives maintain postal branch robberies are rare, Lollar writes: "I would say the three safest places in a town would be a church, a library and a post office," said John Sharkey, vice president of the sectional center that represents the Henning post office for the American Postal Workers Union. "There's nothing you can get out of a post office. It's like robbing a library." (Read more)