Saturday, January 22, 2011

Recently retired rural reporters, w/80 years total experience, win Ky. community service award

Tonight, two longtime rural reporters who recently retired were presented a Kentucky Press Association award that usually goes to publishers. Bill Bartleman of Paducah and Herb Brock of Danville won the Lewis Owens Community Service Award, named for a Lexington Herald-Leader publisher who exemplified community service by a newspaper employee.

Bartleman, left, retired recently from The Paducah Sun after 39 years at the Paxton Media Group's hometown newspaper. He was Kentucky's longest-running legislative reporter, covering 34 sessions, and made a point to keep track of statewide politicians' visits to West Kentucky, a largely rural region that is closer to other states than the bulk of Kentucky and often feels left out. ("West Kentucky" is the term of choice in far Western Kentucky.) He has been active in community and church activities.

Brock, right, worked at The Advocate-Messenger before it was bought in the late 1970s by Schurz Communications of South Bend, Ind., and five years before that at the Cynthiana Democrat. He was a very versatile reporter and columnist, and helped start a regular political speaking in Danville for statewide candidates. But in presenting the award, Herald-Leader Editor Peter Baniak said Brock's proudest moment in his 36 years at the Danville paper may have been when his son David joined the small daily's staff two years ago.

Friday, January 21, 2011

N.C. community colleges may bar admission to students who seem threatening

North Carolina's community college board is considering whether to allow schools to bar admission to students who appear to pose a threat, reports Emery P. Dalesio for The Associated Press. The new admission policy has been in the works since August and was a result of the shootings by a student at Virginia Tech in 2007. It has taken on new urgency since the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords by suspect Jared Loughner, a former Arizona community college student. North Carolina's community college system is one of the largest in the U.S. The state has a community college in most of its counties.

The current policy for the 17-campus University of North Carolina system does not bar people who present possible health or safety threats, writes Dalesio. How admissions officers could screen potential applicants among the more than 800,000 students statewide isn't clear. "There may be the tell-tale sign that an admissions person might recognize that this person might be a threat to that campus," said Stephen Scott, president of Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh. Community colleges are a major factor in rural areas.

Disabilities advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union are concerned the lack of clarity in the policy could open the door to discrimination against "people who are not a danger because they make people or they make administrators uncomfortable," said Sarah Preston of the ACLU. Preston cites those who suffer from HIV/AIDS as a potential example. (Read more)

Rural Southern writer Reynolds Price dies

Reynolds Price, a writer known for his "vivid evocation of rural Southern life," died Thursday, in Durham, N.C.  William Grimes reports for the New York Times that Price's "novels and stories about ordinary people in rural North Carolina struggling to find their place in the world established him as one of the most important voices in modern Southern fiction." Price died of complications from a heart attack.

His first novel, published in 1962,  was "A Long and Happy Life," the tale of Rosacoke Mustian, a young woman desperate to clarify her relationship with an untamable boyfriend, Wesley Beavers, writes Grimes. The opening sentence of the novel: "Just with his body and from inside like a snake, leaning that black motorcycle side to side, cutting in and out of the slow line of cars to get there first, staring due-north through goggles towards Mount Moriah and switching coon tails in everybody’s face was Wesley Beavers." Harper's Magazine published the entire novel as a supplement.

For more than 50 years, he taught writing and poetry at Duke University where he had studied with Eudora Welty. His first class at Duke included a promising 16-year-old named Anne Tyler, whom he encouraged to write. "He seemed genuinely joyous when we did the slightest thing right," said Tyler.  (Read more)

New Yorker writer Ian Crouch posts a remembrance of Price, who had been his professor at Duke: "He was a proud member of the university family ... he lamented the occasionally limited emotional and intellectual range of the young people among whom he lived and worked, bridling at their predilection for drunken parties, and taking a special pride, it seemed, in horrifying his students by sharing his distaste for Duke’s men’s basketball. ... He was a commanding presence in an era when fewer and fewer professors are able or willing to strike fear in the hearts of their students. He required attendance, participation, and most of all, preparation." (Read more)

State Dept. picks coal documentary for showcase

The documentary, "Deep Down: A story from the heart of coal country," which details an Eastern Kentucky community's battle over a mountaintop removal permit, has been selected by the U.S. State Department for its American Documentary Showcase. You can read our previous coverage of the film here and here.

The American Documentary Showcase "brings award-winning American documentaries to audiences around the world to offer a view of American society and culture as seen by independent documentary filmmakers," says a news release from the Deep Down filmmakers. "Deep Down" is one of 19 films chosen for the showcase this year. (Read more)

EPA likely to approve ethanol blend for older cars

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected today to approve a 15 percent blend for ethanol in gasoline for automobiles made between 2001 and 2006. The agency last fall approved the E15 blend for vehicles made in 2007 or later. Stephen Power of The Wall Street Journal reports the agency had been awaiting results of tests on older models before deciding if the higher blend was appropriate for them.

"The cause of boosting ethanol use in cars has been strongly championed by Growth Energy, an ethanol trade group led by Wesley Clark, the retired Army general and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate," Power writes. Growth Energy said without the increase the country will not be able to meet the congressional mandate requiring 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended into domestic fuel by 2022. Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports  the impact of the decision "still is likely to be modest in the short term because few gasoline retailers have the pump and storage tank configurations to accommodate another fuel blend." (Read more)

Lawmakers take issue with USDA's restrictions on planting sites for genetically modified alfalfa

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack's move to restrict where genetically modified alfalfa can be grown drew criticism from the House Agriculture Committee Thursday. The panel's chairman, Oklahoma Republican Rep. Frank Lucas, said the proposed restrictions would set a bad precedent and "shift the financial burden from those who choose to produce organic to other producers who choose a different cropping system," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. Vilsack told the committee that the alfalfa was safe but the planting restrictions may be needed to protect nonbiotech farmers.

"A decision on planting rules could come next week," Brasher writes. "Vilsack said the proposed rules would essentially ban the use of the biotech alfalfa seed in some parts of the nation." The biotech industry claims the restrictions would slow development and commercialization of new biotech crops. "This is not picking sides," Vilsack said. "This is trying to figure out how we can have all sides of agriculture be able to prosper in this country." Vilsack said the industry could be helped by compromising on a policy with organic and nonbiotech farmers that would prevent endless litigation. (Read more)

Budget proposal by House committee includes cuts to Appalachian and rural programs

The Appalachian Regional Commission, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, sugar price supports and some smaller farm programs are among dozens that would be eliminated by a spending-cut proposal from the Republican Study Committee, which "counts more than two-thirds of House Republicans as members," David M. Herszenhorn of The New York Times reports. The $2.5 trillion in budget cuts through 2021 would exclude the military, Medicare and Social Security.

The bill calls for "immediate reductions of at least $100 billion, compared with cuts in the current fiscal year of up to $80 billion being sought by party leaders," Herszenhorn writes. "The cuts would require the agreement of the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House, which is highly unlikely." Herszenhorn notes that House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders have not "specifically endorsed" the plan, but it does offer "the clearest picture yet of the cuts envisioned by Republicans as they seek to rein in spending, which they view as a mandate given to them by voters in November."

North Dakota Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad, who served on President Obama's commission on lowering the national debt, called the proposal "ill-conceived and unworkable because it focused only on cuts to discretionary spending and not on overhauling the tax code or addressing entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security," Herszenhorn writes. (Read more)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Pro-coal group changes wording for rally

A pro-coal industry group has removed its "call to arms" slogan for a Thursday West Virginia rally after complaints that it played on the violent rhetoric preceeding the Tucson, Ariz., shootings. A column from liberal-writer Jeff Biggers on and inquiries from Ken Ward of The Charleston Gazette on Wednesday brought attention to the slogan. Industry group Friends of Coal displayed the slogan on a banner advertising West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's "rally for coal" planned at the state capitol. When asked if the group was encouraging supporters to bring firearms to the rally, Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, told Ward the phrase was "a figure of speech" and "everyone should be on their best behavior." (Screen capture by Ward of Friends of Coal banner)

Still, the group had changed the banner to read "Alert! Alert! Alert!" by Wednesday evening. Jacqueline Proctor, spokeswoman for Tomblin, said the "'call to arms' was 'an unfortunate use of words' but that the Friends of Coal site wasn’t the governor’s to control or comment about," Ward writes on his Coal Tattoo blog. "Proctor said she did not know if the governor planned to speak to coal industry groups about the use of such rhetoric." In the wake of the Tuscon shootings, Ward published a blog post last week calling for those involved in the coal debate to tone down violent rhetoric, pointing to a campaign ad in which Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin used a rifle to shoot a copy of the "cap and trade bill." (Read more)

Agribusiness losing strong advocate with retirement of North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad

North Dakota Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad's retirement could have big implications for agriculture spending. Conrad, right, "is one of the strongest and most influential defenders of farm subsidies in Congress," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. Brasher notes "there are few retirements that would be as significant for agribusiness," pointing to Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley as another.

"Part of  Conrad’s influence comes from the fact that he knows the details of farm policy cold," Brasher writes. "But Conrad was also a consummate horse-trader who knows what it takes to enact policies that protect the interests of farmers in his state, and he does." Conrad supported tightening caps on the amount of subsidies a farmer can receive, but he didn't push the issue as some of his colleagues did. Conrad told Brasher years ago, "that he understood that lower caps were unacceptable to southern farmers." Conrad has authored commodity sections of farm bills even without ever being the chairman of the Senate Agriculture committee. (Read more)

USDA issues labels for green products

Consumers looking to buy green may soon be more sure of their purchase as the U.S. Department of Agriculture issues labels on a wide variety of products made with bio-based ingredients. The new label "is aimed at doing for bio-based products what the government's Energy Star program has done in helping shoppers identify energy-efficient appliances," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. The labels are similar to the ones USDA issues for organic foods.

"We know we have consumers who are looking to do better environmentally and are trying to find some way to guide their purchasing decisions," Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan told Brasher. The seal will say "USDA Certified Biobased Product" and will display what percentage of the product is made from corn, soy and other renewable sources. "Given a little bit of time and a little bit of exposure, given what we know about the interest level of consumers, I think it's going to resonate," William Horner, CEO of Totally Green, which sells water in corn-based bottles and plans to use the labels, told Brasher. "I think its time has come." (Read more)

Cost to graze cattle on public land is not changing

The Obama administration this week rejected a proposal that would have raised the price ranchers pay to graze livestock on public land. The decision "suggests ranchers will continue to be charged below-market prices to graze cattle on federal rangelands," Phil Taylor of Greenwire reports for The New York Times. "The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service in separate letters yesterday to environmental groups said other priorities prevent them from pursuing new rules to revise the current grazing fee."

Both agencies disagreed with the groups' 2005 arguments that challenged the legality of the fee structure. "Joel Holtrop, deputy chief of the National Forest System, said the agency is pursuing separate rulemakings to revise its forest planning rule and respond to Colorado's roadless proposal, each of which have drained agency resources," Taylor writes. Holtrop said in the letter that "roughly 4,000 grazing allotments on Forest Service property are in need of environmental analyses that will help determine the best management of rangeland resources," Taylor writes.

Environmental groups the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians, Great Old Broads for Wilderness and Oregon Natural Desert Association filed a lawsuit last summer seeking to raise the public land grazing prices and re-evaluate the effects of grazing on public lands. "Ranchers currently pay the federal government $1.35 a month to graze one cow and her calf -- several times lower than the cost of grazing on private lands," Taylor writes. A Government Accountability Office report said federal government's grazing program cost taxpayers $115 million in fiscal 2004. (Read more)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Shooting of dog in rural Indiana puts neighbor against neighbor

Two neighbors in rural Indiana are reacting to the shooting death of a champion labrador retriever. They agree what happened -- Tony Williams shot the dog -- but the fallout for the two men is very different.

Nick Werner reports for The Star Press that since the shooting, Williams has received death threats and hate mail. Williams told police that the dog, named Moose, was behaving agressively. The owner of the dog, Jimmy Jessie, said the dog accidentally got out of their yard and wandered to his neighbor's farm. Williams and his wife, Pam, told Werner that the reaction to the shooting has left them prisoners in their own farmhouse. Users of the online social media website Facebook created at least three related pages, including "Tony Williams of Spiceland is a JERK!!!!!," which has 320 members. The Williamses disconnected their old phone number after they said they received 30 threatening calls, and the couple showed The Star Press hate mail from St. Paul, Minn., advocating that Tony Williams suffer the same fate as the dog did.

Sheriff Butch Baker said these kinds of shootings are not unusual. "We have these all the time," he said. "They are not uncommon occurrences." Baker's own St. Bernard, which had a history of leaving the sheriff's property, was shot by a neighbor two years ago, writes Werner. In the three weeks since Moose died, two other dogs in Henry County have been shot and killed by a neighbor with no fanfare. The sheriff could not recall a case in which anyone had been prosecuted for shooting a dog on his property. (Read more)

Vilsack and Sebelius discuss benefits of health care reform for rural America

As the Republican-controlled House of Representative prepares to vote on a bill that would repeal the health care reform law, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke out in support of the bills benefits for rural America. Vilsack's comments came in an interview with Brownfield during which he said: "Well, when you consider the number of uninsured in rural America, when you consider the fact that rural Americans spent more out of pocket for their health care costs than anyone else in America, I would make the case that this is a bill, especially now since it limits the amount of out of pocket incurred by folks, this is a bill that directly benefits people who live in rural communities, and it’s long overdue."

Vilsack pointed out that as governor of Iowa he had seen the impact in rural communities and the human cost associated with lacking health insurance, Dave Russell reports. "I’ve essentially seen the impact in rural communities when you don’t have a physician, which makes it more difficult to attract business and industry to your town," Vilsack said. "I’ve seen the impact of folks who were faced with pre-existing conditions not being able to get coverage, I’ve seen women who have foregone a mammogram because they simply couldn’t afford the cost." (Read more)

The Kansas City Star published a commentary co-written by Vilsack and U.S. Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius: "As former governors from the Heartland, we’ve seen firsthand how Americans in rural areas struggle to get the health care they need. Whether it’s a farmer losing his health insurance because he has no good choices or a mom putting off a treatment because there aren’t enough doctors nearby, rural Americans often go without critical preventive care or key procedures. And their health suffers as a result." (Read more)

Agreement between Florida tomato growers and buyers could set precedent for rest of ag industry

We have been following the push by Florida tomato growers for higher wages from contracts negotiated with restaurants and grocery stores, most recently here. That agreement cleared its final hurdle in November "when the farmworkers’ group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a trade association, completed details of a code of conduct that included not only the wage improvement but also guarantees of increased workplace protections — like minimum-wage guarantees and a zero tolerance policy on forced and child labor — for the laborers," Kristofer Rios reports for The New York Times.

The agreement will pay the growers about a penny more for every pound of fruit they harvest. Now some are championing the agreement as precedent setting for improving working conditions and pay in other parts of the agriculture industry. "This can and will be extended to other areas of the agricultural industry," said Chris Tilly, director of the U.C.L.A. Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. Tilly said this type of agreement was uncommon and "there are potentially interesting implications for supply chains that reach outside this country." The agreement would increase workers' annual income from around $12,000 a year to about $17,000.

"At least nine major buyers — including the Whole Foods Market supermarket chain, as well as McDonald’s and Burger King — have been paying the penny-per-pound price increase," Rios writes. Still some in the industry worry the agreement could be undermined if buyers turn to competitors in other states that sell tomatoes at a cheaper price. "We hope that socially responsible businesses will purchase tomatoes from our growers and not cheaper tomatoes from Mexican farm competitors," said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the FTGE, which represents 80 percent of the state’s tomato farmers. "Everybody in the system has to be invested for it to work." (Read more)

Oregon governor champions rural job creation as key to reviving economy

To solve Oregon's economic crisis, the state must help its rural areas as much as it does the Portland metropolitan area, says the state's new governor. Speaking to a summit of business and political leaders in December, Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, left, "said government officials promoting job creation should remember that 15 new jobs in Coos Bay are similar in their local effect to 500 new positions in the Portland area," Jonathan J. Cooper of The Associated Press reports. (AP photo)

"These goals have got to apply to all Oregonians," Kitzhaber said in a speech to the Oregon Business Council's annual Leadership Summit. In a report released before the summit, the group says "government policy should be focused on job creation because getting Oregonians back to work -- and therefore paying taxes again -- will help the economy while also increasing state government revenue," Cooper writes. (Read more)

MSHA briefs families about conditions at Upper Big Branch mine before deadly explosion

Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators met for the first meeting in four months with families of the victims of the Upper Big Branch mining disaster. MSHA laid out the circumstances leading to the volatile mix of methane, excessive coal dust and sparks from machinery that led to the explosion. Only family members of the 29 victims and their lawyers were admitted to the meeting, but several spoke anonymously with Howard Berkes of National Public Radio. "MSHA investigators were careful to say that they have not reached final conclusions and noted their final report is still 60 to 90 days away," Berkes writes.

MSHA investigators said they still were not certain of the source of the excess methane present in the mine on the day of the explosion, but noted the shearer -- a longwall cutting tool -- was creating more sparks than usual as it cut into coal and sandstone. The carbide-tipped teeth on the blade had been worn down to bare steel. "Those sparks would have been contained, cooled or extinguished by a system of water sprayers at the shearer but they were not working properly, as NPR has reported," Berkes writes. The faulty water sprayers also contributed to a buildup of coal dust which is an accelerant when it ignites.

"One of the government's experts told the families most of the mine was lined with excessive coal dust," Berkes writes. "At Upper Big Branch, without working water sprayers, the investigators said, the small methane ignition persisted. Floating coal dust fueled it and when it finally blew, the resulting blast was fed by coal dust spread throughout the mine, which explains an explosion that turned corners and killed along a two-mile path." Officials did not blame Massey Energy, the owner of the mine, during the Tuesday briefing but noted the company was "non-compliant" in multiple ways. Massey is expected to brief the families on its own investigation on Friday. (Read more)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Medical school, another university and a rural hospital in unique partnership to train rural docs

A new program in rural Kentucky aims to get more physicians practicing in rural areas and improve rural residents' access to health care.

The Rural Physician Leadership Program is the result of a partnership between the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, Morehead State University and St. Claire Regional Medical Center in Morehead (MapQuest image). UK and the RPLP work together to identify and recruit students interested in rural medicine. "We approach potential students when they're in college, sometimes even in high school," Dr. Anthony Weaver, assistant dean for RPLP, told The Morehead News.

Students accepted in the program spend their first two years of college at UK taking basic science courses. They also are part of groups in which rural and community medicine is discussed. In their third year, they go to Morehead to work with physicians in clinics, nursing homes and hospitals, mainly St. Claire. In the fourth year they are exposed to specialties such as internal medicine, neurology and gynecology. Students also have rotations in family medicine.

The program also has a business component, teaching students how to pinpoint and work with community organizations. "There is no other program quite like this one, where the collaboration between a medical school, a teaching hospital and a regional university has been so carefully planned as to create opportunities to improve patient care in rural areas," Weaver told the News. (Read more)

Cost of rural Ga. fishing museum causing a stink

A rural Georgia fishing museum may have been designed to provide families an affordable way to experience one of the state's biggest attractions, but now it is used as an example of wasteful government spending. The Go Fish Georgia Educational Center is located in Perry, Ga., population about 13,000. (Photo, left,  by Rich Addicks for The New York Times; a largemouth bass dominates the hatchery display at Go Fish Georgia Educational Center.)

The $1.6 million yearly operating costs are financed by the state government thanks to a 2007 bill. "Republicans and Democrats alike groaned over $1.6 million a year in bond payments and operating costs," Robbie Brown of The New York Times reports. "And even supporters concede that the museum would never have gotten financed in 2007 if the legislature knew where the economy was headed."

The $14 million facility includes allows visitors to watch bream and bass swim in aquarium-size tanks,  play with an interactive model of a fishing boat and try to catch fish on a computer simulation, Brown writes. For Michael Morris and his 2-year-old son, Jacob, their weekly trips to the museum cost just $5 thanks to the government financing. "We simply can’t afford it — not in this economy," Debbie Dooley, the Georgia coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, who likened the museum to Alaska’s infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," told Brown. "When you want to talk about wasteful spending in Georgia, the first thing everyone brings up is Go Fish."

The museum has also drawn criticism for its rural location. The facility was built in the home county of then Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue and is more than 100 miles from both Atlanta and the Atlantic Coast. Perdue maintains the site was chosen due to its proximity to Interstate 75 and the state fair, Brown reports. "Since it opened, the museum has drawn a small but steady crowd," Brown writes. Economists say fishing has a $1.5 billion a year impact on Georgia's economy. "But for years, Georgia has lagged behind all neighboring states in fishing tourism," Brown writes. "It ranks sixth in the nation in sending its fishermen to other states and 22nd in luring fishermen from elsewhere." (Read more)

Experimental pay wall had limited effect on Web site traffic and advertising revenue

A study examining the effects of pay walls at about two dozen small- and medium- size newspapers revealed little negative effect on Web site traffic. "Steven Brill’s Journalism Online experiment, which developed a system that allows newspapers to charge their most regular online visitors, has analyzed its preliminary data and found that on average advertising revenue and overall traffic did not decline significantly despite predictions otherwise," Jeremy W. Peters of The New York Times reports. "The initial findings showed that newspapers found success with a pay model by setting a conservative limit for the number of articles visitors could read free each month, and by making clear that most readers would not be affected."

Monthly unique visitors to Web sites in the study fell between zero and seven percent, and page views fell between zero and 20 percent, Peters reports. No publishers reported a decline in advertising revenue. "Unlike a strict pay wall — which requires a subscription to view almost all editorial content — a model like the one Journalism Online employed does not choke off huge amounts of Web traffic," Peters writes. Brill explained, "If you set this meter conservatively, which we urge people to do, it’s a nonevent for 85, 90, 95 percent of the people who come to your Web site."

Most papers in the study set a limit between five and 20 free articles readers could view each month and charged between $3.95 to $10.95 in monthly subscription fees. L. Gordon Crovitz, a former Wall Street Journal publisher who is helping run the project, told Peters one lesson from the experiment is that "readers were willing to pay for some, but not all, content online." Consumers "will pay for the few news brands they really rely on, if they use them a lot," he said. Newspapers included in the experiment "focused on local news and included The Columbus Dispatch in Mississippi and The York Daily Record in Pennsylvania," Peters writes. (Read more)

Media commentator Steve Yelvington wrote about Journalism Online, which he says is not a paywall. He also writes about his experience with Web site traffic. ("Thinking about a paywall? Read this first") According to his blog, Yelvington was founding editor of Star Tribune Online (later rebranded in Minneapolis in 1994, and was executive editor and network content director for Cox Interactive Media. Currently, he "concentrates on longterm vision, strategy, and innovation for Morris Digital Works."

States still preserve farmland despite recession

The recession has not been enough to stop some states from spending millions to preserve farm land from suburban sprawl. "Twenty-five states have farmland preservation programs, and nearly half of them are in the densely populated Northeast, where the loss of fields to housing developments and shopping malls has been rapid and pressing," Stephen Singer of The Associated Press reports. Connecticut increased spending on preservation efforts after losing 21 percent of farmland in less than 20 years.

"It's difficult sometimes when there are so many pressing needs," former Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell said of farm preservation just days before leaving office on Jan. 5. "It's our culture, our way of life, our farms." Advocates for farmland preservation say "efforts are needed to ensure food is available locally if the national distribution system is ever disrupted," Singer writes. "They also say it helps maintain a way of life important to many Americans."

Between 1982 and 2007 all of the 48 contiguous states lost farmland to development, reports the National Resources Inventory from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Iowa State University. "More than 11 million acres of cropland, nearly 7 million acres of pasture and 5 million acres of range land were lost to developed land in the 25-year period studied," Singer writes. "State preservation programs typically buy development rights to the land, paying farmers a set amount in exchange for a promise not to build on the land or sell it to a developer." (Read more)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Real health-reform battles will be in the states

It's unlikely that this Congress will repeal the health-reform law, so the real battleground is in the states. Huffington Post contributor Don McNay, right, writes that states will adopt health-care reform "kicking and screaming," as shown by the Kentucky insurance department's recent face-off with insurance companies over children's health coverage.

Under the reform act's mandate, insurance companies that offer "child only" policies "cannot deny coverage to a child due to any preexisting condition present in that child," McNay notes. In response, when the provision took effect Sept. 23, 2010, insurance companies stopped offering that type of policy in Kentucky.

State Insurance Commissioner Sharon Clark conducted a hearing on the matter Oct. 13, 2010 and determined that "insurance companies are very concerned about suddenly getting a number of 'bad risks' that they had not planning for in their pricing," McNay reports to his international audience. Clark also determined that if insurance companies stopped offering "child only" policies, the Kentucky Access program for the uninsured would be overwhelmed with new enrollees.

As a result, Clark "ordered all insurers selling individual health insurance policies in Kentucky to offer an annual enrollment each January for children under age 19," McNay notes. "It took strong action by the Kentucky insurance commissioner to get this first part of health reform implemented for a very small part of the population. It's a small battle in a small state for a small set of the population, but a big glimpse of how implementing health care reform nationwide is going to go." (Read more)

Clark works for a Democratic governor who is up for re-election this year. In some states with Republican governors and legislatures, the official atmosphere may not be so friendly.

Feds call off hearings in big mine disaster, which may have been result of water-spray malfunction

The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that killed 29 coal miners in April, making 2010 the industry's deadliest year in some time, continues to make news.

On Friday, the Labor Department announced that it had indefinitely postponed public hearings about the disaster at the request of the Justice Department, which said public hearings or release of current witness transcripts "poses a serious risk of hindering the criminal investigation into events at UBB."

And Howard Berkes of National Public Radio reported, citing "multiple sources familiar with the disaster investigation," that "Legally required water systems at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia were not functioning properly before the April 5 explosion." Berkes' online story includes a diagram and scenario for how the explosion might have happened.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Larry Craig, a great rural journalist, dies at 61

UPDATE: Here's a story on the funeral, which bespoke an amazing life.

Larry S. Craig, who blended curiosity, courage, skill and humor to become a distinctive if not unique figure in rural journalism, died today of liver failure at his home in Morgantown, Ky. He was 61. Larry was this writer's friend, so I'll use his first name and write this initial dispatch mostly from memory.

His main career was Baptist minister, but he was best known as the editor and publisher of the Green River Republican in the 1980s and was a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame and president of the Kentucky Press Association, from which he earned many awards. He pastored churches while running the paper and later teaching journalism at Western Kentucky University. When it became known in Morgantown that he had obtained a purported list of Butler County voters who were willing to sell their votes, someone shot through a front window of his newspaper office. He started carrying a gun, earning him the appellation "pistol-packing preacher-publisher." When he told WKU's student newspaper that the Ku Klux Klan was a "putrid cancer," a Klan member and/or sympathizer burned the Warren County church he was pastoring.

A lot of people might find those two careers inherently conflicting, but they’re really not, because they both are founded in morality and justice, and Larry proved it.

Larry loved to tweak politicians, and others prone to self-importance, in invocations at KPA conventions and other gatherings. "I will never forget his invocation one year, with the governor and top lawmakers in attendance, when he asked for the Lord's help in guiding us through the river of perfidy that flows through the Capitol (or something like that). He spoke truth to power for sure," Michael Lindenberger of the Dallas Morning News, a former reporter for The Courier-Journal of Louisville, wrote on my Facebook post about Larry. Other posts: "I don't believe country publisher-editors will come along in this vein any more," wrote Josh Givens, news editor of the Butler County Banner-Republican. Our mutual friend Brad Hughes said, "Feisty. Aggressive. Spirited. Energetic. Go-getter. If there was a Kentucky journalism thesaurus, it would include under these words: 'See Larry Craig.'" Former Courier-Journal editor David Hawpe told Jack Brammer of the Lexington Herald-Leader that Larry was "a special person who actually was an intellectual, sophisticated guy hiding in a country preacher's persona." (Read more)

Larry began his journalism career at the old Logan Leader and News-Democrat in Russellville, benefiting (as I did) from an association with Al Smith, who owned newspapers in Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. During the national coal strike in 1977, Larry used his connections with United Mine Workers members at his church to do what Nat Caldwell, legendary energy reporter for The Tennessean, called the best reporting on the strike from the miners' perspective.

Larry is survived by his wife, Patricia Grace Craig, and three daughters. His visitation will be held Monday from 5 to 8 p.m. at Latham Funeral Home in Elkton and Tuesday from noon to 8 p.m. and Wednesday from 8 a.m. to noon at Jones Funeral Chapel in Morgantown, where services will then be held.

Larry leaves a legacy beyond his immediate family. His nephew Ryan Craig is the editor and publisher of the Todd County Standard in their native county, and it has won the title of best small newspaper in Kentucky so many times I have lost count. Godspeed, my friend.

UPDATE, Jan. 18: In Paula Burba's story in The Courier-Journal, Al Smith, 84, calls Larry "a tremendous personality and one of the most unforgettable editors I ever knew.” (Read more)