Saturday, December 31, 2011

Communitarian-conservative blogger goes back to small town, gets write-up from big-time pundit

"They decided to accept the limitations of small-town life in exchange for the privilege of being a part of a community." That's how conservative columnist David Brooks, a pretty good sociologist, summed up the decision of conservative blogger Rod Dreher and his wife to return to St. Francisville, La., after they witnessed its outpouring of kindness for his sister, who did of cancer this year.

"They moved in just before Christmas," Brooks notes, linking to the blog post about the decision. Dreher's sister and mother "had a tradition of going to a nearby cemetery on Christmas Eve to put candles on all the graves," but her mom "was too sad to do it," Brooks reports in The New York Times. "But, as she was driving by the cemetery that night, she noticed little flames dotting the graveyard." A neighbor had filled the vacuum.

"Dreher is a writer for The American Conservative and is part of a communitarian conservative tradition that goes back to thinkers like Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet," Brooks writes. "Forty years ago, Kirk led one of the two great poles of conservatism. It existed in creative tension with the other great pole, Milton Friedman’s free-market philosophy. In recent decades, the communitarian conservatism has become less popular while the market conservatism dominates. But that doesn’t make Kirk’s insights into small towns, traditions and community any less true, as Rod Dreher so powerfully rediscovered." For The Rural Blog, it's a nice way to end 2011. (Read more)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Oversight panel says Postal Service used unreliable data to draw up post-office closure list

The Postal Regulatory Commission, which advises the U.S. Postal Service and Congress, said today that the service used questionable data to choose more than 3,600 post offices for possible closure. The PRC opinion is pretty dense, and the press release isn't much better, but Lisa Rein of The Washington Post sums it up nicely: "In many cases the selection process ignored whether an alternate post office was nearby and which closures would reduce costs the most and lacked sufficient data and analysis to make the best decisions."

“We certainly challenge their methodology,” Commission Chairman Ruth Goldway told the Post. “They had a simple screening process, but it did not optimize the choices. They don’t have really good data that tells them which post offices will continue to grow or be on a downhill path.” The commission said in its opinion that it could not "develop reliable cost-savings estimates because the Postal Service does not collect facility-specific revenue and cost data, or separate retail costs from other operational costs. The commission found that such data should be available for use in comprehensive facility closing plans."

Rein notes, "The opinion is not binding, but it carries weight with Congress, which has questioned whether so many closures are necessary. Lawmakers are worried about leaving too many constituents without mail service, especially in rural areas. Under pressure from Congress, the Postal Service earlier this month agreed to delay the proposed closures and consolidations until the spring in hopes that pending legislation to shore up the agency’s finances will pass."

The service said it was most likely to close rural post offices "that take in less than $27,000 in revenue each year and suburban and urban ones with less than $500,000," Rein reports. "But the oversight commission consulted economists and other experts who concluded that other factors should come into play: How many miles away is the nearest post office? Would closing deny service to large groups of customers, such as seniors, who would have trouble finding alternatives?" (Read more) The same concerns have been voiced at many public meetings held by USPS about possible closures of individual offices.

'Business as usual' by big energy company, hiding its leasing, angers Mich. farmers denied bonuses

An investigation by the Reuters news service has found that Chesapeake Energy Corp., the No. 2 natural-gas driller in the U.S., used shell companies to conceal its role in a big gas play in rural Northern Michigan, and has since voided the deals, leaving farmers without the bonuses they expected.

"Chesapeake's effort to hide its involvement isn't illegal," Joshua Schneyer and Brian Grow report for Reuters. "To the contrary, the company's maneuvering exemplifies how U.S. corporations routinely can conceal financial and corporate transactions through the use of shell companies. President Barack Obama has called on other nations to improve corporate transparency, but under state laws governing corporate formation in America, privately held businesses aren't required to disclose the individuals or companies who really own them."

Grow and Schneyer note that the Chesapeake website advises landowners that their "main consideration" in leasing should be "to discover who will ultimately be producing your minerals." However, "Chesapeake's strategy made that extremely difficult for the Michigan landowners," they note.

Joshua Fershee, a contract law professor at the University of North Dakota, told Reuters that Chesapeake's tactics "raise moral and ethical questions about how entities can be used," but John Lowe, a professor of energy law at Southern Methodist University, calls it "business as usual" in the oil and gas industry. If large companies are known to be interested in leasing, that tends to drive up lease prices. (Read more)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Spokane paper has good take on troubles that may lie ahead for rural hospitals

Here's a good, localized look at the challenges facing rural hospitals all over the U.S., by John Stucke of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane: "Many of Eastern Washington’s small hospitals are bracing for cutbacks as federal and state governments look to save money.

"Consider Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Chewelah [pin on MapQuest image]: On any given day perhaps nine of its 25 patient beds are occupied. Two of those patients might have private insurance. One might not pay the medical bill. The rest will be covered by government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

"And yet the hospital has made money in four of the past five years, in part because rural hospitals receive richer payments from government than larger urban hospitals to care for proportionally higher numbers of the poor, elderly and uninsured who populate rural America.

"It’s a bottom-line boost that has kept 38 hospitals in rural Washington afloat. But that extra money from Medicare and Medicaid is drawing the attention of budget cutters. If proposals to retool and scale back the payments are adopted, up to half of these hospitals could be closed within a matter of years, say administrators and policy analysts." (Read more)

Idealistic Southern farmers and chefs find synergy in reviving, retaining old and tasty foodways

South Carolina heritage hog farmer Emile DeFelice, right, is "part of a thriving movement of idealistic Southern food producers who have a grander plan than just farm-to-table cuisine," Julia Moskin reports for The New York Times. "They want to reclaim the agrarian roots of Southern cooking, restore its lost traditions and dignity, and if all goes according to plan, completely redefine American cuisine for a global audience. Their work is being encouraged, and sponsored, by a new generation of chefs who have pushed Southern cooking into the vanguard of world cuisine — and who depend on these small producers to literally flesh out their ambitions." (Times photo by Kathryn Wagner)

Moskin says the synergy has high potential: "Like California in the 1970s — when Alice Waters collaborated with farmers, foragers and cheesemakers on the food at Chez Panisse — the South today has just the right combination of climate, culinary skill, regional chic and receptive audience." She says many Southern chefs are working along the same line as chef Sean Brock, from Wise County, Virginia, whose Charleston restaurant Husk " serves only food produced south of the Mason-Dixon line, from Georgia olive oil to Tennessee chocolate to capers made from locally foraged elderberries. . . . Perhaps most important, they are paying (and charging) big-city prices for down-home ingredients: money that is keeping food traditions, and small producers, alive."

Moskin notes, "The quest for 'real' Southern food isn’t new," citing the Southern Foodways Alliance and Slow Food USA. "Today, purists believe, Southern cooking is too often represented by its worst elements: feedlot hams, cheap fried chicken and chains like Cracker Barrel." DeFelice told her, "My mother didn’t cook like that, and my grandmother didn’t cook like that. And if you want to come down here and talk about shrimp and grits, well, we’re tired of that, too. Southern cooking is a lot more interesting than people think.” (Read more)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Stream gauges may be turned off, leaving communities at greater risk for flooding

Floods are hard to predict, but the U.S. Geological Survey attempts to warn of them through the National Streamflow Information Program, which enlists a system of stream gauges to track water levels of rivers, lakes and streams. The program is running out of money, though, and if the survey can't get funding by March 1, they will likely shut down 580 gauges, leaving communities with less warning about the possibility of major floods.

Jim Malewitz of Stateline reports the program is a partnership between all levels of government, costing a total of $146 million to operate. If all 580 stations are closed, it would save about $8.9 million, but some hydrologists and weather experts say the savings aren't worth putting communities at risk. In recent years, floods across the country have caused billions in damages, and flash floods have great potential to take lives; but National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration studies show warning systems greatly reduce both economic and human risk. Malewitz reports an hour of lead time can reduce damage by 10 percent and save an estimated $163 million annually.

The gauges also provide long-term data about weather patterns and changes, Malewitz reports. Losing older gauges is difficult, researchers say, because long-term data is "essential for documenting slowly developing climate changes." Shutting off gauges leaves gaps in data, making it less precise. Experts fear lawmakers won't see the importance of gauges, and say to open their eyes, another flooding disaster the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina will have to happen. (Read more)

More young people may be getting into farming

While the five-year Census of Agriculture won't be available until next year, increases in "enrollment in university agriculture programs" and "interest in farmer-training programs" show a growing number of 20-to-30-year-olds are taking up farming, Dinesh Ramde of The Associated Press reports.

Utah State University is among the universities seeing growth in its agriculture program. "In total, from spring 2008 to fall 2011, the College of Agriculture had one of the largest double-digit increases in enrollment over the last three years," writes Kevin Opsahl of The Herald Journal in Logan, Utah. Janet Anderson, associate dean of the college, says the economy, sustainability and the college's recruiting initiatives may all contribute to the increase. (Read more)

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started giving money to universities and nonprofit groups to help train beginning farmers. The first year, the grants help train 5,000 people and the USDA estimates more than twice as many benefited this year. Faye Jones, who works with new farmers in Wisconsin, says she sees as many as 100 people on "some farm tours where would-be farmers can learn and share information," Ramde reports.

Young entrepreneurs typically cite two reasons for turning to farming: lack of job security in the corporate world and a growing demand for locally grown and organic foods, Ramde reports. Laura Frerichs, 31, of Hutchinson, Minn., and her husband own their own organic farm and believe that while it won't make them rich, they can definitely "earn a living" farming.

Frerichs told Ramde, there is "growing consciousness around locally grown foods, around organic foods . . . in the Twin Cities, there's been great demand for that." Many young farmers are even promoting their agricultural products by blogging, tweeting and using other social media. (Read more)

Farming and food industries voice concerns about EPA proposal to limit dioxins in animal feed

Many in the farming and food industries are raising concern about an Environmental Protection Agency proposal to limit human consumption of dioxins, a chemical that has been found in meat, seafood and dairy products and is known to cause cancer, Philip Brasher reports for the Des Moines Register. Industry groups argue EPA's proposed daily exposure limit for dioxin isn't justified and may scare consumers away from their products.

In a letter to the White House, the American Farm Bureau Federation and groups representing feed companies, meat processors and dairy manufacturers accused EPA of creating a situation "in which most U.S. agricultural products could arbitrarily be classified as unfit for consumption." EPA's proposed standard would not implement any new regulations for farmers or the food industry, but it could lead to future recommendations restricting content for livestock feed and reducing "the amount of dioxins that people could consume," Brasher reports. The National Fisheries Institute and the International Dairy Foods Association have asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Food and Drug Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to get involved.

EPA said its proposal is a result of an extensive review process that "incorporated significant new scientific findings." Some EPA officials have said industry groups are overreacting to the proposed standard, but Steve Kopperud of the American Feed Industry Association told Brasher the industry is "concerned about the overreaction of the consumer" and fears the measure could lead to "a ban on animal byproducts in livestock feed." (Read more)

Colorado Education Department tries to help rural school districts deal with reforms

Rural school districts often struggle with tight budgets, high numbers of low-income students and a myriad of issues specific to their location. States with a large number of rural districts could take note of a new initiative in Colorado, where the state has created the Rural Education Council to help rural districts address concerns specific to their area.

The Pueblo Chieftain reports creation of the council stems from a Colorado Department of Education study of rural districts. The results are nothing new: Rural schools have small student populations, small numbers of teachers, and low per-pupil revenue. They also face "severe economic constraints, significant population shifts and increased compliance requirements." All Colorado districts are facing new major reforms, and in rural areas incorporation of those reforms is typically led by one administrator. Many rural districts are still trying to implement initiatives from several years ago. Rural administrators also say federal mandates are hard to implement because the federal education department has even less understanding of rural districts than the state department.

The Chieftain reports out of the state's 178 school districts, 142 are rural, but educate only 20 percent of the state's students. The newly formed council consists of 17 members representing a rural region made up of several school districts. They recently met for the first time to "find ways to ease the rural districts’ burdens." (Read more)

Bats may be developing resistance to killer fungus

There may be hope for bats threatened by a disease that has killed millions in the Northeast and is moving into the South and Midwest, reports Darryl Fears of The Washington Post. In Vermont, he writes, "Scientists who visited more than a dozen sites where the bats nest in the western part of the state found thriving colonies that appear to be resistant to white-nose syndrome, a disease caused by an aggressive fungus. Pennsylvania biologists are also monitoring about 2,000 bats that appear to be healthy in an abandoned coal mine in Luzerne County in the state’s northeast, The Associated Press reported." (Alan Hicks photo: bats with syndrome)

“It’s just a ray of hope that there are bats that have survived over three years of white-nose syndrome, and we want to know how they survived, or if they will continue to survive, and if this is enough bats to . . . recover a population,” Scott Darling, a biologist for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, told the Post. Bats are important to agriculture, as eaters of harmful insects and as pollinators.

Fears writes that the discovery "raised hopes that bats in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions where the disease is established have somehow developed an immunity" to the fungus that linked to the disease and turns bats' faces white, says a study published last week in the journal Nature. Mollie Matteson, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity in Richmond, Vt., cautioned, “I don’t want people to get the sense that this crisis is done,” Matteson said. “It’s good news in the sense that bats haven’t entirely fallen off the cliff yet. They’re still hanging on by a tiny little fingernail.” (Read more)

EPA issues rules on mercury, other toxics from coal plants; expected to be political issue in 2012

As expected, the Obama administration issued the first limits on mercury and other toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants yesterday, but the 20-year battle over the issue will continue, writes Neela Banerjee of the Los Angeles Times.

The rules and the administration's plan to delay a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf until 2013 "are political gambles for President Obama, since Republican challengers could push the jobs argument in crucial coal-reliant states like Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania," Banerjee writes. "Obama put himself squarely behind the mercury decision, releasing a short video in which he underscored the fact that President George H.W. Bush had signed the 'bold and necessary' law authorizing the EPA to reduce toxic substances in the air in 1990."

The rules would allow power plants to emit 1.2 pounds of mercury per million BTUs of energy produced. The industry wanted a 1.4-pound limit, but the Environmental Protection Agency "arrived at its figure based on a formula set out under the Clean Air Act, and analysts said the agency could not deviate from it," Banerjee reports. "The rule would remove 90 percent of the mercury spewing into the air, the EPA said." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Small Ozarks towns go all-out to save post offices; 'You don't have to take a stick and beat us'

Retired Postmaster Kathy Henthorne looks at a display
about the Fox Post Office at a meeting on its possible 
closure. (Photo by Lori Freeze, Stone County Leader)
All across America, rural residents have mobilized to save their post offices. This is a story of two towns in the Ozarks: Ponce de Leon, Mo., which has probably lost its battle, and Fox, Ark., which remains on tenterhooks.

The U.S. Postal Service has delayed closure of any post offices until May, but that is unlikely to save the one in Ponce de Leon, despite residents' concerted efforts to save it.

Debbie Essick, the postmistress in unincorporated town about 20 miles southwest of Springfield, got a notice last week saying that if Congress doesn't intervene, her office will close in May, reports Mary Moloney of Springfield's KSPR-TV.

To help save the office, residents had staged a campaign of letter-writing to lawmakers, and buying merchandise to increase the office's sales. They gave the small office one of its busiest days this year on Monday, with close to $400 in sales. They say they do it all because the post office, which has served the rural community since 1800, is more than just a building.

Local illustrator Shelly Smith, who uses the office to mail business items, told Moloney she can't do that any other way. "In this little town, it's the last business in this community. It is vital to this community. And if it goes away, this community will, I think fall apart really," she said. The closest post office to Ponce de Leon is 10 miles away in Spokane. Another resident, Annie Grobe, told Moloney if the post office goes, the community will suffer: "I understand that little towns have to fade away, but you don't have to take a stick and beat us to death. Give us a fighting chance to at least make life out here as simple as possible. Don't make it any harder than it has to be." (Read more)

In Fox, nearly 200 people turned out for the Postal Service's Nov. 28 community meeting on the future of the post office. Locals had worked hard to draw a crowd, posting banners, a YouTube video and a display showing what the office means to the community. "The daily walk to the mailbox or the post office gives many residents a reason to get out in the fresh air and exercise," Kathy Mulady writes for Equal Voice, a news outlet for poor families. "And the post office serves as a community hub: There is always the chance of running into friends or family picking up packages or placing a money order."

Mulady's 1,160-word story, drawn in part from The Associated Press, is a good summary of the issue. To read it, click here.

National Guard troops along U.S.-Mexican border will be replaced by air surveillance

The Defense Department announced this week that most National Guard troops stationed at the Mexican-American border will come home next month, and will be replaced by helicopters and planes to save money, reports Daniel Gonzalez of The Arizona Republic. Aircraft can cover more ground than troops, Defense and Department of Homeland Security officials said.

The decision was made because illegal immigration from Mexico has fallen to one-fifth the level in 2000 (in Arizona, the number is at its lowest in 17 years) and the Defense Department has to cut its budget by hundreds of millions. The new strategy will use National Guard aircraft as a deterrent and for surveillance and reconnaissance missions to assist Border Patrol on the ground. Aircraft will also transport Border Patrol agents to rugged and roadless areas. Officials also hope soldiers in aircraft will be better able to spot drug and human trafficking activities from Mexico.

The Obama administration authorized 1,200 troops stationed at the border last year, and the total cost of deployment was $180 million. The aircraft mission will cost $60 million, and its ultimate goal is to end National Guard deployment at the boarder by the end of 2012 as Border Patrol continues to increase in size. (Read more)

Backlogs of work pile up as state budgets shrink

An increase in demand for services during rough economic times is creating a backlog of work for many state agencies, where budget cuts have decreased their ability to keep up, Stateline's Melissa Maynard reports. Her investigation discovered budgets for agencies like public housing, crime labs, restaurant inspectors and court systems have been squeezed by four years of layoffs, furloughs, hiring freezes and unfilled vacancies. Most of the government services affected are necessary to the lives of rural Americans. Some of the most severe backlogs are in Hawaii, Georgia, California, Texas, Michigan, Arizona and Iowa.

At best, taxpayers will be waiting longer for marriage licenses or birth certificates; at worst, these backlogs take a toll on at-risk children, the elderly, the disabled and investigations about abuse and neglect. Maynard reports the most severe backlogs are the result of "chronic underfunding and mismanagement, sloppy hiring and training practices, obsolete technology and data management systems, and low morale tied to crushing caseloads." Bureaucratic processes make the situation worse, and once the backlogs exist they are difficult to eliminate.

Overloaded agencies try to handle backlogs by prioritizing work. "If there’s not enough manpower to handle every case, the thinking goes, better to focus first on the ones that cost the most or leave vulnerable people at the greatest risk. The cases that would appear most scandalous if they hit the evening news," Maynard reports. However, this leads less severe cases waiting in the wings, and they don't go away, making them harder to resolve the longer they wait. Also, backlogs in one section of government contribute to backlogs in others, Maynard reports.

More farmers' markets are open in winter

Tomorrow is the first day of winter, normally a down time for farmers' markets. But winter farmers' markets have expanded by 38 percent since last year, according to National Farmers Market Directory data. They now make up almost 17 percent of the more than 7,000 farmers markets nationwide. In a news release from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said winter markets fill the need of consumers who want to continue buying local produce and of farmers to generate income in the off-season.

According to the news release, "hoop house" technology has allowed growers to extend production into winter at low cost, and has contributed to the growth of winter farmers markets. The USDA also provides support to winter growers through many programs, including AMS Specialty Crop Block Grants Program and Farmers Market Promotion Program. The top 10 states with winter markets are New York, California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, Maryland, Florida, Massachusetts, Virginia and Michigan. (Read more)

A song about center-pivot irrigation, illustrated

Some may find it hard to write a song about farm equipment, but New Jersey's self-described "indie folkpop star" Sarah Donner was up to the challenge. She performed "The Center Pivot Irrigation Song" on YouTube, which landed her a guest spot on NPR's "You Bet Your Garden" blog last year. It's not clear if she comes from an agricultural background, but it is clear she has a lot of knowledge about this irrigation system, used mainly in the drier parts of the Great Plains.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

New York Times Co. selling rural, small-city papers

UPDATE, Dec. 27: The Times announced the sale, for $143 million, a price media analyst Ken Doctor called “incredibly low” for papers' that had approximately $264 million in revenue in 2010. (Read more)

The New York Times Co., whose flagship newspaper often provides the best coverage of rural America because it has reporters chasing rural stories over most of the country, is completing its long, drawn-out withdrawal from the rural newspaper business.
The company said yesterday it was in "advanced discussions" to sell its Regional Media Group to Halifax Media Holdings LLC, which owns, among other papers, the Daytona Beach News-Journal. Five of the Times regional papers are in Florida: the News Chief of Winter Haven, the Gainesville Sun, the Star-Banner of Ocala, The Ledger of Lakeland and Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the largest paper in the chain at 76,000 circulation.

Most of the 16 papers are in the Southeast, but the chain also includes three California papers: The Press-Democrat of Santa Rosa, second largest in the chain; the weekly Petaluma Argus-Courier, and the North Bay Business Journal. Other major papers in the chain include The Star-News in Wilmington, N.C., the Herald-Journal of Spartanburg, S.C., and The Tuscaloosa News in Alabama.

Besides the News-Chief (circ. 4,839) and the weekly business paper, the truly community papers in the chain are The Gadsden Times of Alabama, 20,663; The Courier of Houma, La., 14,715; the Times-News of Hendersonville, N.C., 13,603; the Daily Comet of Thibodaux, La.; The Dispatch of Lexington, N.C. All told, the papers have a weekday circulation of 433,251 and 1,755 full-time employees.

One of Halifax's key investors is Stephens Capital Partners, a Little Rock, Ark.-based private equity firm. It owns Stephens Media Group, a Las Vegas-based company that owns 11 daily and 64 weekly newspapers in nine states, primarily in Nevada and Arkansas. Its flagship is the Las Vegas Review-Journal," reports Kevin McCallum of the Press-Democrat. "The Times Co. has shed assets as it tries to focus on its anchor newspapers: The New York Times, The Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune."

Amy Chozik of the Times writes that the company "went on a regional-newspaper buying spree in the 1970s and 1980s," but does not note that it began selling some of its smaller papers, such as those in the Kentucky coal towns of Harlan, Middlesboro and Madisonville, a few years later.

Essay on small-town druggist gets award from national columnist

A long essay in The New Yorker about the life of a small-town druggist in southwestern Colorado is among the latest winners of a Sidney Award, named for philosopher Sidney Hook, which New York Times columnist David Brooks gives to essays that he deems to be the best of a year.

New Yorker illustration by Ben Katchor
The first winner was Peter Hessler’s article, “Dr. Don: The life of a small-town druggist,” Don Colcord of Nucla, Colo., a local native who "serves that community medically, spiritually, financially and beyond," Brooks writes. "The article is a beautiful description of what it’s like to live in a small town, where everybody knows each other’s sins and virtues." He cites one resident's view: “I like to play chess. I moved to a small town and nobody played chess there, but one guy challenged me to checkers. I always thought it was kind of a simple game, but I accepted. And he beat me nine or 10 games in a row. That’s sort of like living in a small town. It’s a simple game, but it’s played at a higher level.” (Read more)

Hessler introduced his subject to readers this way: "Don Colcord has owned Nucla’s Apothecary Shoppe for more than thirty years. In the past, such stores played a key role in American rural health care, and this region had three more pharmacies, but all of them have closed. Some people drive eighty miles just to visit the Apothecary Shoppe. It consists of a few rows of grocery shelves, a gift-card rack, a Pepsi fountain, and a diabetes section, which is decorated with the mounted heads of two mule deer and an antelope. Next to the game heads is the pharmacist’s counter. Customers don’t line up at a discreet distance, the way city folk do; in Nucla they crowd the counter and talk loudly about health problems." (Read more)

Hillman Prizes seek journalism 'in service of the common good'

The Sidney Hillman Foundation, named for a pioneer labor leader, seeks entries for the 2012 Hillman Prizes in Journalism. "The annual $5,000 prizes are for excellence in journalism in service of the common good," the foundation says. Categories include book, newspaper, magazine, broadcast, photojournalism, web and opinion journalism. Eligible work must have been published or released in 2011. The contest is open to journalists and subjects around the world, but the work must have been published in the U.S. Go to for more details. The postmark deadline for entries is Jan. 31. Winners will be announced in April.

Many state oil and gas regulators come from the business, and some of them are still in it

There could well be a story in the backgrounds of your state oil and gas regulators, because they may be regulating an industry in which they still have a personal interest. (Photo by Joel Sartore, Getty Images)

"More than 40 percent of officials regulating oil and gas production in the top drilling states, records show, come from the industry they are charged with policing," Mike Soraghan reports for Energy & Environment News. "It is a degree of self-regulation enjoyed by few other industries, if any. And it heightens suspicion among critics of the nation's drilling boom that companies are allowed to damage the environment with impunity."

Supporters of the approach, and the industry, say regulators need the technical experience that can be gained mainly through working in the industry. But critics say it's going too far when most members of the state oil and gas board have their own drilling companies, as is the case in Arkansas. "Among the 71 members of boards and commissions, at least 20 are actively engaged in the business they are regulating," Soraghan reports. Of the 95 commissioners, board members and agency heads in the top 27 major producing states, "39 had an oil and gas background, or 41 percent." Most Eastern states don't have boards or commissions, but are part of a governor's administration. "In at least eight states, the head of the state oil and gas agency comes from industry."

Soraghan notes, "The laws creating the governing panels often require that industry be guaranteed seats on commissions, along with royalty owners, local government officials and sometimes environmentalists. Others designate that some number of the board have 'substantial experience' in the industry, the environment or fields like petroleum geology." Arkansas requires the board to have three owners of oil or gas production companies, but the nine-member board has five. For the rest of the story and the figures from your state, click here.

Virtual education in Maine helps isolated rural students graduate, stay social

"Rural isolation is a problem all over the world," Patricia Hughes, adult education director for the western Waldo County School District in Maine, told Abigail Curtis of the Bangor Daily News. Her district is using technology to ease this problem and reduce illiteracy and poverty. In September 2010, the district launched a new adult education initiative called RSU3, a virtual learning center based at Mount View High School. The center goes beyond traditional distance learning by having students create avatars and interact with students in virtual hallways and classrooms.

Jack Wheeler, an 18-year-old who recently moved to the area to live with his fiancee and baby, is using RSU3 to earn remaining credits needed for his high-school diploma. Traveling literacy teacher Beth Lurie told Curtis how a young, stay-at-home mom who has no driver's license uses the program to break from the isolation. "She can go in there and not be so lonely."

Students can take classes in biology, English and math with real teachers popping in to check each student's progress. Kennebec Valley Community College has joined the program, allowing students to take English and math classes with college professors and apply for financial aid, Curtis reports. (Read more) Click here to see a demonstration of the 'virtual world.'

Ethanol industry bids goodbye to federal tax break

The Renewable Fuels Association is not seeking to revive the ethanol blenders tax incentive next year, Jason Plautz of Greenwire reports. The association said in a news release that the federal incentive helped build the industry and "ensure it is stable and successful" so now it is time for it to fade away. Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis told Plautz the industry's focus has shifted to "making sure we have fair, open access to the marketplace so consumers can make the choice."

Without the incentives, consumers could see a slight price increase at the pump, which some distributors believe may hurt their sales, Plautz reports. However, Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, which opposes the subsidy, said in a statement: "At a time of high federal deficits, every American taxpayer should welcome the elimination of ethanol subsidies, which wasted $6 billion of taxpayer funds last year." (Read more)

Treasure that pie: High prices and tough economy lead to subculture of pecan theft in Georgia

Pecan theft has long been a reality for farmers in the Deep South, but with the nuts now selling for $1.50 a pound and up, the frequency of thefts has increased, reports Kim Severson of The New York Times. One deputy sheriff told Severson the rough economy is also contributing to the rise in thefts. In Georgia, it's a felony to steal more than $500 worth of agricultural products; police are now frequently making use of that law, and have made twice as many pecan-theft arrests this year as last. (Photo:

Pecans are an easy target for thieves. Growers shake the nuts from trees and leave them to be scooped up days later by machines. Acres of pecan farms are not patrolled, leaving them open to thieves, who sometimes cut holes in fences and get away with thousands of dollars worth of pecans. Many growers have installed security cameras, hired guards and added barbed wire to deter theft, but the land is still too expansive to patrol effectively.

Pecans can be stored until buyers are found, but in Georgia, selling them is the equivalent of returning cans and bottles for cash, Severson reports. Drive-up buying stations are plentiful, and thieves can sell nuts retail by the roadside. Drought and heat hindered Georgia's main pecan competitor, Texas, but demand is up in China and other countries, making the price-per-pound rise to $3 for premium nuts. (Read more)

Closing power plants will improve environment but hurt local economies in Appalachia, Midwest

The Environmental Protection Agency says "32 mostly coal-fired power plants in a dozen states will be forced to close" and another 36 may close when its new rules for air pollution and mercury take effect in 2014. Communities in the Midwest and in coal states like Virginia and West Virginia will see the greatest effects from the rules, Vicki Smith and Larry O'Dell of The Associated Press report. (AP photo by Paul Foy)

Glen Lyn, Va., population 200, will see a quarter of its revenue disappear when its American Electric Power plant closes, Smith and O'Dell report. "If the town lost all of that revenue," Town Manager Howard Spencer told AP, "we would struggle to even continue to be incorporated." The closure would also mean the loss of the remaining 44 jobs in this plant in a community where a stable well-paying job is hard to find. Anticipating the closure, many workers have already transferred to other plants or are making plans to retire.

AEP's Kammer Plant near Moundsville, W.Va., will also close with the new regulations. It is outside the city limits so will not have a direct impact on the city's revenue, but City Manager Allen Hendershot says it will have a trickle-down effect on other businesses in the community. "It's hard to put an exact number on it," he told AP. "It's the coal-mine jobs, the trucking jobs, the maintenance jobs." (Read more)

Feds, Great Lakes states and locals failing to find agreement on how to deal with Asian carp

Asian carp continue to threaten Great Lakes fisheries, and agreement about how to best control the invasive fish remains elusive, reports Monica Davey of The New York Times. Some states want to cut off access from the Mississippi River system, where the carp come from; others, including Illinois, say those closings would hinder Chicago's flood control and prevent barges from transporting sand, coal, cement and salt. Some say harping about the carp is slowing discussion about other pressing Great Lakes issues, such as pollution, harbor repair and wetlands restoration.

“This is what boggles the mind here: We can send a man to the moon but we can’t stop a carp from reaching the Great Lakes?” Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette told Davey. Schuette is leading a lawsuit to make Chicago water authorities close locks between the Mississippi system and Lake Michigan. Four other states have signed onto the lawsuit, and 17 attorneys general from across the U.S. have signed a resolution urging Congress to force the Army Corps of Engineers to speed up a study of the carp issue, now set for completion in 2015.

Closing the locks could cost billions and take years, and lake advocates say it's a last resort, because it could cause flooding in the Chicago area. Some think the carp issue will draw attention to other matters, like a "remade, more attractive and cleaner Chicago River; a reinvented route for commercial barge products headed from or to the South; and long-needed fixes to the region’s flooding measures," Davey reports. (Read more)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Iowa farmers say climate is changing, and a plurality point at least in part to human activities

A poll of Iowa farmers has found most of them believe the climate is changing, and a plurality think it is caused by a mix of natural changes and human activities. It was the first Iowa State University Farm Poll to ask such questions, and it surprised extension sociologist J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr.

“There’s been quite a bit of rhetoric over the years coming from farm groups and other agricultural interests about climate change,” Arbuckle told Brownfield News, “and a lot of discussion of how the jury is still out, it’s very uncertain whether or not climate change is occurring—and if it’s occurring, then what is it attributable to? So I was probably a little bit surprised at the magnitude of agreement that climate change is actually occurring, among farmers.” To hear the interview, click here.

The mailed poll found that 68 percent of the farmers who returned it said climate change is occurring, while 28 percent said there is not enough evidence to know for sure, and only 5 percent said it is not occurring. Among those who believe in climate change, 23 percent said it is caused mostly by natural changes in the environment; 10 percent said it is caused mostly by humans; and 35 percent said it is comes from a mix of natural changes and human activities. Thus, 45 percent of those who believe the climate is changing attributed it partly or fully to humans.

The poll found relatively little trust in mainstream news media, radio talk-show hosts, environmental organizations and government agencies as sources of information on climate change:

The poll questionnaires were mailed in January and February; usable surveys were received from 1,276 Iowa farmers, whose average age was 65. For the ISU press release, click here.

Rural places more dependent on Social Security; program has major economic impact

Social Security means more to rural areas, some of which are growing more dependent on the program, Roberto Gallardo and Al Myles of the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University report for the Daily Yonder. They conducted a study of Social Security's impact on the U.S. economy using figures from 2009. They report the program has greater impact in rural areas, where 21.6 percent of the population receives a monthly check. Payments to rural areas totaled $675 billion in 2009, with 9.3 percent of those counties' total personal income coming from Social Security. (Yonder map shows trend in counties' Social Security dependence)
In 2009, more than 51 million people, or 16.7 percent of the population, received "disability, survivor or retirement benefits" from Social Security. Gallardo and Myles say slight changes in the program could have a "tremendous effect" on the economy. "If Social Security payments were reduced by only 5 percent, the nation’s economic output would decrease by $63 billion, 419,000 jobs would be lost and tax revenues would decrease by $7.8 billion,"they write.

The researchers developed an index which shows how dependent individual states and counties are on the program. The index includes three factors: "the percentage of total county population receiving Social Security; the percent of a county’s total personal income derived from Social Security; and the average per capita payment in a county (that is, the total amount of Social Security received in a county divided by the total number of residents)." To measure the increase or decrease in dependency, they compared data from 2000 to data from 2009. The 10 most dependent counties are rural and in the following states: Florida, Michigan, Idaho, Missouri, Texas and Arkansas.

The researchers found that "for every dollar of Social Security payment, an additional 80 cents of economic output was created. At the national level, Social Security’s $675 billion in payments in 2009 supported a total output in the nation of $1.2 trillion. These payments supported approximately 8.4 million jobs, full and part-time. And this activity generated $157.2 billion in tax revenues, which amounted to $71.9 billion in state and local taxes and $85.2 billion in federal taxes." (Read more)

Utah Highway Patrol Assn. taking crosses from public lands after Supreme Court lets ruling stand

In October the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear two cases surrounding the Utah Highway Patrol Association's placement of memorial crosses at sites where troopers had died. Now three state agencies want the memorials removed, and the troopers are complying. Ten of the 14 crosses are on state land. (Deseret News photo by Stuart Johnson)

Warren Richey of the Christian Science Monitor reports the case originally went before a federal judge who dismissed it, agreeing with the UHPA's statement that "the cross is a recognized symbol of death, not an endorsement of a particular faith," Richey reports. Then the case went before Senior Circuit Judge Davide Ebel of the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who concluded "the cross memorials would convey to a reasonable observer that the state of Utah is endorsing Christianity," violating the separation of church and state. (Read more)

Now three state agencies have asked the UHPA to remove all memorial crosses on public lands, Jared Page of the Deseret News reports. "Pursuant to prior agreements, you are hereby requested to remove the memorials from the land controlled by this agency at your earliest convenience," letters from the Department of Transportation and the Division of Facilities Construction and Management said to UHPA President Chad McWilliams. The third letter from Utah Highway Patrol Supt. Daniel Fuhr only calls for the removal of UHP logos. The UHPA has already removed the UHP logo from the 14 crosses, adding notes that the crosses are private memorials and are not an endorsement for any religion, Page reports. The UHPA says it will move all crosses to private property and give the court a timeline and locations. (Read more)

Ex-forest chief says timber payments should be based on counties' need, or ecology and recreation

In 2000, Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, to guarantee timber revenue to counties with much of their property in non-taxable national forests. The program expired in September after a parlous existence of several years, and the recent budget debate may replace it with a previous payment program that was, and would be, less reliable. Former U.S. Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth, left, gives an overview of the previous system, proposals before Congress and other options to continue paying counties in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times. (High Country News photo)

The previous system gave local governments 25 percent of the revenues from their county's timber harvest. Bosworth writes such a system is unpredictable and would likely reduce payments to counties at times because the amount of timber harvested and the price of timber fluctuate.

President Obama has proposed phasing out the program over a two-to-five year period and funding payments from the already strapped Forest Service budget. This means the program would have to be reauthorized annually through the appropriations process, making it "difficult for many counties to provide basic services," Bosworth writes. A draft bill in the House "proposes a timber-only approach in which logging would pay for all future federal payments to counties" and would lead to more lax environmental laws and more federal spending, Bosworth writes. The Senate proposes using the current system at reduced levels for the next five years.

Bosworth says Congress should "deliver payments to counties based on economic need" or "link funding to efforts by counties to improve ecosystems and recreation opportunities on federal lands." After all, if the bill is not reauthorized, the Oregon State University Rural Studies program estimates that Oregon could lose about 4,000 jobs and be forced "to make deep cuts in school funding", not to mention how it would impact other states with national forests. (Read more)

College wins $30 million grant to help students in 3 poor Ky. counties; program's only rural grantee

Berea College in Kentucky is the only rural applicant to win one of five implementation grants from the Promise Neighborhoods Program, designed to improve the educational and developmental outcomes of children and youth in America's most distressed communities.

Berea will get a first-year grant of $6 million, totaling up to $30 million across the five-year life of the grant, which will support implementation of cradle-to-career services to improve the educational achievement and healthy development of children in Kentucky's Clay, Jackson and Owsley counties. The college was one of three rural applicants to get a planning grant last year; the others were in the Mississippi Delta and the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.

“We feel privileged to be selected as the only Promise Neighborhood grantee working in rural America,” outgoing Berea President Larry D. Shinn said in U.S. Department of Education news release. “We take the responsibility of service to communities beyond Berea very seriously and feel an even greater responsibility to serve well the Promise Neighborhood communities.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, “Promise Neighborhoods recognizes that children need to be surrounded by systems of support inside and outside of the classroom to help them be successful in school and beyond.” Plans for the project "include a range of services from improving a neighborhood’s health, safety, and stability to expanding access to learning technology and Internet connectivity, and boosting family engagement in student learning, the news release said. For teh national release, click here.

They shoot horses, don't they? Yes, that's the only vet-endorsed method, and it can easily fail

A month after the U.S. ban on horse slaughter was overturned, horse advocates, animal-rights activists and politicians are wondering if horses can be killed humanely. Jake Nichols of JH Weekly in Jackson Hole, Wyo., reports about the complexity of horse slaughter.

According to hidden-camera footage and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the inhumane treatment suffered by horses in Mexican-run slaughterhouses is "grisly." Nichols reports details of the slaughter, which leaves the horse fully aware of being paralyzed and later killed by having its throat slit. He reports this is the unintended result of the forced closure of U.S. slaughterhouses in 2007.

Nichols reports anti-slaughter activists say horses will never be killed humanely despite suggested USDA inspections. They rely on a 900-page FOIA-obtained report from a Texas slaughterhouse, Dallas Crown, which allegedly reveals abuse. Sue Wallis, a Wyoming state representative and United Horsemen member, told Nichols the allegations are false, saying USDA inspectors must be present during and after any animal is killed for human consumption. She said the USDA dealt appropriately with every case pointed out by activists.

The American Veterinary Medical Association endorses only one method for killing horses humanely: shooting in the forehead with a bullet or a 4-inch captive bolt, and even with the latter, "about the size of a roll of quarters . . . Workers sometimes need to shoot three or four times before the horse stops moving," Christopher Beam wrote for Slate in 2009.

"Horses, because of their size, are not good candidates for euthanasia by drugs – death can take hours," Nichols writes. "Dr. Temple Grandin, a noted autistic and designer of livestock handling facilities, says she struggles with her feelings about horse slaughter plants." She said at the recent Summit of the Horse "that she is skeptical whether a horse slaughter facility can ever be made humane. Horses are slaughtered using the same method as cattle. The problem is, Grandin said, that they are nothing like cattle. A horse’s flight instinct works contrary to cattle’s huddling behavior when scared, making the recommended 95 percent first-attempt kill shot difficult to achieve."

Since the ban was lifted, Congress hasn't set appropriations for Department of Agriculture inspections of horse slaughterhouses, estimated to cost $5 million annually. Chris Heyde, deputy director of government affairs for the Animal Welfare Institute, told Nichols he would be surprised if the government found money for inspections when there is such pressure to reduce its budget deficit. (Read more)

Proposed Pennsylvania law would restrict local governments' control over gas drilling

Pennsylvania lawmakers are working to approve legislation to impose "an impact fee on oil and gas companies," and tucked into that legislation is controversial language removing zoning authority over drilling from municipalities, Amanda Cregan of reports. This means towns could no longer restrict or ban drilling.

The state's Oil and Gas Act requires companies to obtain a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection, and some areas like those covered by the Delaware River Basin Commission and several townships have additional restrictions. If lawmakers approve the legislation, the state will control where and how drilling happens. "Natural gas wells could be placed anywhere and everywhere across communities," Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, told Cregan. "In residential neighborhoods, on preserved lands and historic sites, next to schools and day care facilities, in close proximity to municipal water reservoirs . . ."

Actually, the state can deny permits if it believes drilling will have a negative impact on "public resources, like historical sites, endangered habitats and drinking water supplies," Cregan writes. But Carluccio has little faith the DEP will do that. "I think it's a quid pro quo," Carluccio told Cregan. "It says 'OK, we'll pay something, but you've got to make it easy for us'." Steve Forde of the Marcellus Shale Coalition has a different view, telling Cregan that gas drilling supports 300,000 jobs in Pennsylvania with average pay of $74,000. "The new legislation would protect that job development" and give landowners interested in selling mineral rights some consistent regulations, he said. (Read more)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Administration decides on first mercury rules for coal-fired plants; to be announced next week

"The Obama administration finished crafting tough new rules Friday curbing mercury and other poisons emitted by coal-fired utilities, according to several people briefed on the decision, culminating more than two decades of work to clean up the nation’s dirtiest power plants," Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson report for The Washington Post.

"As part of last-minute negotiations between the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency, the regulations give some flexibility to power plant operators who argued they could not meet the three-year deadline for compliance outlined by the EPA. Several individuals familiar with the details declined to be identified because the agency will not announce the rules until next week."

The new limits on mercury, acid gas and other pollutants "represent one of the most significant public health and environmental measures in years," the Post reports. "The rules will prevent 91 percent of the mercury in coal from entering the air and much of the soot as well: According to EPA estimates, they will prevent 11,000 heart attacks and 120,000 asthma attacks annually by 2016. Frank O’Donnell, who heads the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, told the Post, “I think this will prove to be the signature environmental accomplishment of the Obama administration.”

Friday, December 16, 2011

Illegal pot farms on public land still an issue

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have been responding to illegal marijuana growing on public land for a long time, but are concerned about recent developments. In Northern California, pot farms have increased violence in once sleepy rural towns, and Mexican nationals have migrated to Ohio national forests to grow pot. Energy and Environment News' April Reese provides a nice round-up of issues surrounding illegal marijuana growing on public lands, mostly national and state forests. (BLM photo: BLM workers clean up a marijuana farm after destroying plants.)

Reese reports federal officials have said illegal marijuana plots "harm native plants and wildlife, contaminate streams and cut off public access." This is particularly true in the West, where David Ferrell, director of Forest Service law enforcement, told Reese there are plenty of "remote sites with thick vegetation cover, good soils and easily accessible water sources." The sophisticated operations often involve upwards of 1,000 plants covering as much as 20 acres, with financial incentives totaling as much as $3,500 per processed plant.

In response, the Forest Service, BLM, the National Park Service and local and state law enforcement have "stepped up efforts to find growing operations in the past five years." Over the past two fiscal years combined, over 7 million plants were eradicated. Volunteers, and sometimes the National Guard, have helped the Forest Service clean up after crops are destroyed, which can cost between $15,000 and $20,000. Last year, $3.5 million was spent for clean-up. Despite efforts, though, officials tell Reese "the extent of the problem continues to place a strain on resources." (Read more)

Hunting grounds near schools make parents uneasy; most states and towns lack protective laws

Two students were shot during basketball tryouts at Harwell Middle School in Edinburg, Texas. Irresponsible hunting or target shooting on leased land may be to blame for the shootings. Many rural schools are near hunting grounds and many state and local governments have little regulations in place to protect students.

In Texas, Harwell and the neighboring elementary school are surrounded by hunting lands, as are Clinton Elementary and Pena Elementary in Penitas, KRGV Channel 5 reports. Mike Cox, spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, told The Associated Press he was unaware of a "specific law or regulation that prohibits hunting close to public buildings, such as schools and hospitals," but it is illegal to "discharge firearms within city limits or along public roads."

In North Carolina, parents in Gastonia raised concerns about gunshots fired near an elementary school but police said the rabbit hunters had valid permits and did not believe they were too close to the school, WSOC Channel 9 reports. A city ordinance says landowners with at least 15 acres "can apply to the chief of police to use shotguns or .22 caliber rifles with shot load ammunition on their property" but "no firearm can be discharged within 500 feet of any occupied home or building." (Read more) Statewide, there are no regulations "prohibiting hunting near schools in unincorporated areas of counties," Brent Ward, a North Carolina wildlife officer, told WRAL-TV. Target shooting is limited to a minimum of 100 yards from occupied buildings. (Read more)

Natural-gas boom may create basic chemical manufacturing renaissance in Appalachia

Officials in Appalachian states are hoping the natural-gas boom will attract more than just controversy to their economically struggling region. Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia are offering tax breaks and incentives to "ethane crackers," or the multi-billion dollar plants that start the chain of making ethylene, a basic feedstock for chemical plants, reports Gabriel Nelson of Energy and Environment News.

No ethane cracker has been built in the U.S. since 2001 because natural-gas prices were too high, and most production was sent overseas. Since new deposits, such as those in the Marcellus Shale, have been tapped, crackers are now cheaper in the U.S. than anywhere except the Middle East. The U.S. ethane supply has grown by 25 percent over 10 years, and because it's harder to transport than methane, cracking plants must be located close to drilling sites. Nelson reports if ethane supplies stay at current levels, petrochemical companies will spend over $16 billion on pipelines and crackers.

However, the threat of new gas-industry regulations has companies worried. They've warned anything that makes gas production more expensive will threaten construction of crackers. Nelson reports the industry is lobbying against regulations, including those against hydraulic fracturing, as environmentalists and public health groups are calling for more rules to protect human health and water supplies. (Read more)

New law in W.Va. aims to regulate gas industry while attracting new chemical companies

In response to controversy surrounding hydraulic fracturing and the possibility of attracting chemical companies to the Marcellus Shale region of Appalachia, the West Virginia legislature passed the Natural Gas Horizontal Wells Control Act this week. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in a press release the bill will "open the door to new job opportunities and reasonable regulations for Marcellus shale development" and protect communities, surface owners and waterways.

Brett Dunlap of the News and Sentinel in Parkersburg, W.Va., reports the bill increases permitting fees "from around $400 to $10,000 for an initial well and $5,000 for each additional well... that should provide the $2.4 million annually the Department of Environmental Protection needs to close a deficit in its oil and gas division while fielding 14 additional well inspectors and support staff." The bill also says wells must be kept 250 feet from a water well, 625 feet from occupied houses and 1,000 feet from a public water supply intake.

The Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. writes on the newspaper's watchdog blog, Sustained Outrage, that the governor hoped new legislation would help continue the boom and attract "ethane crackers," or chemical plants that create ethylene from drilling byproducts, to the state. He says, though, the bill is "almost exclusively aimed at pleasing industry and weakening the legislation."

State transportation budget cuts mean 'huge inequities' between urban and rural schools

Many California schools face transportation budget cuts as Gov. Jerry Brown announced a $248 million cut from home-to-school transportation. The state has reimbursed 35 percent of transportation costs, but will reduce it to nearly 17 percent if this proposal goes through, Marc Benjamin of The Fresno Bee reports. California is not the only state considering cuts to school transportation, but what many states fail to realize is the impact is much greater to rural schools than urban.

Sierra Unified, a school in Auberry, Calif., will lose $335 per student if these cuts go through while Burbank Unified in Los Angeles County will lose only $10 per student, Benjamin reports. This creates "huge inequities," Stephen Rhoads of the California Association of School Transportation Officials told Benjamin. Rhoads is working with others to produce a budget that distributes those cuts evenly between districts.

If Brown's proposal becomes law, transportation funding will be cut at the end of January, leaving many rural districts using general funds for transportation. "We are not going to stop transporting kids to schools, John Clements, transportation director for Kings Canyon Unified School District, which transports about 44 percent of its 10,000 students, told Benjamin. "The funding will come out of our reserve in our general fund," taking funds from classrooms. The result may mean larger class sizes, fewer employees, and reduced services for students, Supt. David East told Benjamin. (Read more)

Economic growth in farming region is higher than in urban areas, but gap may only be temporary

Economic "growth in the areas of the region and country tied to agriculture and energy are outpacing urban areas," Creighton University economist Ernie Goss told Steve Jordon of the Omaha World-Herald. The driving factors, at least in the 10 states Goss surveyed, are "global demand for grain and other food commodities, along with consumption of corn to produce ethanol."

The survey of bankers revealed a sharp increase in the farm land price index, marking the 23rd straight month of growth. The farm equipment sales index was also up from November. The economic growth may only be temporary, Goss warns, as Europe's financial problems slow growth in agriculture and energy, making the U.S. dollar stronger compared to other currencies. This may mean lower farm and energy prices for the first half of 2012, Jordan reports.

USDA secretary tries to clarify, defend child farm-labor rules; cites high accident and death rates

For the first time since the U.S. Labor Department proposed new child farm labor regulations, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is speaking out in an attempt to clarify and defend the proposals. It is a counter to the wealth of arguments from the agriculture community, reports Julie Harker of Brownfield Ag News. Vilsack said he wants to clear up "concern and confusion" in rural America about the proposal.

Vilsack writes on the USDA blog that "good old-fashioned farm work" has been "a longtime way of life that has helped make this country strong, and it teaches kids lessons that last a lifetime," but while "only 4 percent of working youth are in the agriculture sector, 40 percent of fatalities of working kids are associated with machines, equipment, or facilities related to agriculture. That’s way too high. We don’t want to blur the line between teaching kids about a good day’s hard work, and putting them in situations more safely handled by adults."

He says the Labor Department is "not proposing any changes to how a son or daughter can help on their family farm," and "there is nothing in the proposed rule that affects the ability of parents and families to assign chores and tasks to their children." He adds the proposed rule respects the structure of farms in rural America, including partnerships and LLC's. He says the department is only trying to protect the safety of children hired to work on farms.

Vilsack said comments about the proposal received by the agency during the extended comment period that ended Dec. 1 "ensured everyone had an opportunity to provide input." The agency wants to "ensure that children of farm families maintain their ability to help with the family farm, while working to prevent unnecessary child injuries or deaths," he says, and adds that in the months ahead, USDA will continue to work with the Department of Labor "to find a common-sense approach to strengthening our agricultural economy and keeping our farm kids safe." (Read more)

Meanwhile, the Labor Department issued a fact sheet on the proposal.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

To protect elk and livestock, U.S. agency considers again shooting wolves from airplanes

Federal agencies that protect recovering wolf populations in the West are now considering killing some of them from planes to protect wildlife and livestock, reports Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times.

Officials have secretly deployed sharpshooters in helicopters to kill wolves in the past, but Idaho officials said this week they would consider redeploying this program to kill up to 75 wolves threatening elk near the Montana border.

A 2006 photo (above) depicting a U.S. Wildlife Services plane decorated with 58 paw-print decals representing each wolf killed by shooters was recently published by Ken Cole on the Wildlife News blog, Murphy reports. He told her there's been a culture within the agency depicting wolves as the enemy, and "putting stickers representing your kills on the side of your plane is a pretty good representation of that." Lyndsay Cole, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told Murphy the stickers "represent wolves lethally removed for confirmed depredation on livestock or livestock protection dogs, with permission from the wolf management agency." They were approved by Idaho Wildlife Services, but were removed in 2009 after officials "recognized that they would be considered offensive by some individuals."

Wildlife management officials say a crucial part of helping wolves, livestock and humans coexist in the West has been removing those known to repeatedly attack sheep, cattle or prized game populations. However, wolf conservation advocates say there's no need to kill wolves from planes, and that the action provides "evidence of a cavalier attitude among federal agents whose aerial operations sometimes leave wolves painfully wounded for days before dying." (Read more)

Nurse practitioners are filling gaps in rural health care created by doctor shortages

Nurse practitioners are playing an increasingly crucial role in rural communities that have no primary care doctors or little access to them, reports Robert Joiner of the St. Louis Beacon. He writes about nurse practitioner Laurie Beach, who owns and operates the Pilot Grove Rural Health Clinic in Pilot Grove, Mo. She sees thousands of patients a day from within a 50-mile radius, and health-care providers in Missouri use her as an example of nurse practitioners' growing role in rural communities.

Even though nurse practitioners have advanced medical training and can perform many of the same tasks as primary care doctors, some patients still don't accept them as a replacement for doctors, probably because of the misguided idea that they are less capable than doctors, Joiner reports. He says they educate their patients and are often more empathetic. They also compliment the work of primary care physicians. (Read more)

Family median income in most rural counties fell during the last three years

The median family income decreased in seven out of 10 rural counties from 2007 to 2010, according to census data, reports Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder. The national median income last year was over $50,000; only 120 rural counties out of more than 2,000 had higher median incomes. (Yonder map; click for larger version)
Regions that saw large decreases in median income are parts of the West, New England, the Upper Midwest and the Southeast. Most high-income areas were metropolitan, which contained 68 percent of counties in the top quarter in terms of family income. The highest median incomes in rural America were in Virginia, where two rural counties last year saw incomes that exceeded $100,000. The five states with counties having the lowest median family income are South Dakota, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. (Read more)

USDA urges farmers to limit use of fertilizer to protect waters

America's farmland is generally over-fertilized and pollutes waterways with an abundance of nitrogen and phosphorus, NPR's Dan Charles writes on his blog, The Salt. To reduce the amount of agricultural nutrients in waterways, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has drafted the National Nutrient Management Standard, which outlines ways farmers can reduce spreading nutrients outside their fields.

Charles says the rules involve "putting farmland on a sensible diet," in which the land is "fed" only what it needs. Farmers are also instructed to not apply fertilizer, even manure, when crops don't need it, and to try and capture excess nutrients though planting "cover crops" that will trap nitrogen before it reaches waterways.

The nutrient guidelines are not enforceable regulations, though states can make them mandatory, Charles reports. However, the head of  USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, Dave White, has said farmers will adopt the practices out of "economic self-interest" because fertilizer is expensive and wasting it costs money. Self-interest can work against a nutrient-reduction solution, though, Charles says, because an experiment at Michigan State University's Kellogg Biological Research Station showed nitrogen-reduction plans require farmers to "scale back their expectations modestly, rather than pursuing the highest yields of the most profitable crop, which is corn." (Read more)

Drilling companies working against local regulation

Increased and intensive natural-gas drilling, often in areas unaccustomed to it, has left local governments wondering how much control they have through zoning laws over companies' actions, reports Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times. Local governments consider drilling an industrial activity, similar to a cement factory or gas station, and think it should be subject to zoning; companies say local regulations on top of state rules are overly burdensome and are hindering potential to provide jobs in tough economic times.

In Pennsylvania, the state legislature is considering a bill that would "sharply limit a community’s right to control where gas companies can operate on private property," giving an advantage to companies and weakening local zoning powers, the Times reports. In New York state, local governments have used zoning laws to enact rules limiting drilling noise, lighting and distance of drilling sites from homes. A spokesman for Range Resources, a Texas company, told Tavernise zoning laws were "like having to get a different driver’s license in every town." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

National report shows state education funding decreases as Medicaid costs increase

An analysis of state spending over recent years shows Medicaid budgets have been increasing steadily while education spending has decreased, reports Michael Cooper of The New York Times. This has implications in rural states that have historically housed a high number of Medicaid-eligible people. The National Association of State Budget Officers analysis says reasons for these budget shifts come from the "lingering economic downturn" and the overall struggling economy. As more people qualified for the program and medical costs rose, more stimulus money was pumped into it, increasing its overall budget. In 2009, Medicaid accounted for 21.9 percent of all state expenditures; this year, the estimate for state Medicaid expenditures is 23.6 percent.

Cooper reports education spending has decreased from 21.5 percent to 20.1 percent over the same period. In 1987, education got the largest amount of state spending, but in 2003 Medicaid became the largest state expenditure for the first time. The margin between the two used to be small, but for the past three years, Medicaid's lead has steadily increased. The report warned that states are likely to face "austere budgets" in coming years because of an uncertain economy, reduced federal aid, costs of the health-care overhaul and pressure to pay for pensions and health care for retired workers. (Read more)