Saturday, March 26, 2011

House Appropriations boss, from most-rural and 2nd-poorest district, thinks earmarks are over

Are the days of congressional earmarks over? "I think so," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers said in a television interview broadcast today. Rogers represents southeastern Kentucky's 5th Congressional District, which is the most rural district and the second poorest, and he has used earmarks to funnel money to it for more than two decades.

Now that era appears to be over, Rogers, R-Somerset, told interviewer Bill Bryant of Lexington's WKYT-TV on "Kentucky Newsmakers," which aired this morning. Rogers said he didn't like the idea of executive-branch officials making all specific spending decisions, but "We'll be looking over their shoulder."

Rogers' main job right now is as a House negotiator for his Republican-controlled chamber's $61 billion in current budget cuts, which the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Obama administration are strongly resisting. He said making the cuts was painful. "It’s hard to do," he said. "The most difficult thing to do, though, is to try to make it as fair and even as you can." He said his constituents have indicated they are willing to go along: "As long as it’s fairly spread we’re willing to have shared sacrifices." (Lexington Herald-Leader photo by David Perry)

Rogers said the programs that he started and maintained in and near his district with earmarks will be able to continue with suppoprt from private sources and state and local governments. Perhaps the leading example is Operation UNITE (Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education). "They will be eligible to apply for grants on a competitive basis … I think successfully," he said. "They’re going to be OK." He said private support will also continue Kentucky PRIDE (Personal Responsibility In a Desirable Environment) which has cleaned up dumps, stopped blackwater discharges and taken other steps to restore and preserve the natural beauty of 38 counties he has represented in Eastern and Southern Kentucky.

Preliminary tests show electric barriers won't keep small Asian carp out of the Great Lakes

The electric barrier designed to keep rapacious Asian bighead and silver carp out of the Great Lakes probably needs more voltage to stop small fish that may eventually make their way to the man-made connection of the lakes' watershed and the Mississippi River system in which they live, preliminary research indicates.

"Federal officials said Friday that lab testing found the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal's electric dispersal barriers . . . were effective for large fish 5.4 inches or longer," the Chicago Tribune's Katherine Skiba reports. "However, higher electric power levels might be needed to immobilize small Asian carp about 2 to 3 inches long, they said." The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the closest small carp are 116 miles downstream of the barrier.

The tests were done at a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lab in Vicksburg, Miss. "Because of the lab setting's physical limits," Skiba reports, officials said "more field research near the fish barrier system is needed." (Read more)

Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation seems overcome by horse crisis; failing farms, animals

"One of the largest private organizations in the world dedicated to caring for former racehorses has been so slow or delinquent in paying for the upkeep of the more than 1,000 horses under its care that scores have wound up starved and neglected, some fatally, according to interviews and inspection reports," Joe Drape reports for The New York Times.

The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation "has received millions in donations from some pillars of the industry," writes Drape, the newspaper's top Thoroughbred writer. "But over the past two years, according to the foundation’s financial disclosure documents, it has been operating at a deficit, and as a result has not reliably been paying the 25 farms it contracts with to oversee the retired horses." When Oklahoma farm owner Gayle England, below, complained about TRF's chronic slow pay and apparent lack of regard for the farms and the animals, 26 horses were taken from her. She has since received others. (NYT photo by Brandi Simons)
This month in Kentucky, inspectors found that 34 horses at a farm that is supposed to get funds from the foundation were in “poor” or “emaciated” condition, and one "had to be euthanized because of malnutrition," Drape reports. Stacey Huntington, the Missouri veterinarian in charge of inspections, "found that the foundation’s education of the caretakers and oversight of their farms had been poor," Drape writes. "At one farm, Dr. Huntington said, the horses were being fed cattle feed that contained a toxic element." The inspections are being conducted at the behest of the estate of financier Paul Mellon, which has put $7 million into the foundation's endowment.

The foundation's president, George Grayson, told Drape that it has been pinched by circumstances: “We have dug ourselves a big hole financially, and we’re still behind. ... It’s been a struggle to keep up with the costs associated with a large and aging horse population, at a time when the economy and giving is down.” (Read more) "Days after the article appeared, the TRF ended its association with Huntington," reports Glenye Cain Oakford of the Daily Racing Form, which offers many more numbers and details. (Read more)

Rural unemployment down 1 point from last year

Though the rural unemployment rate increased in January, it was still down one percentage point from the year before, from 11.2 percent to 10.2 percent. The January rate in both urban and exurban counties was 9.7 percent this January, down from 10.4 percent and 10.6 percent, respectively, Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder reports. While the rural unemployment rate was down as a whole from last year, the largest groups of unemployed remain clustered.

"The counties with large numbers of rural unemployed are clustered in the Southeast, the Midwest, the Northeast and in the large counties in the western states," Bishop writes. "The rural unemployment rate in the states was highest in California, with a rate of 15 percent in rural counties. That is almost four times higher than the 4.3 percent unemployment rate in rural Nebraska, the state with the lowest rural unemployment rate in January." (Read more) (Yonder map omits metropolitan-area counties)

Interior overstated income from Wyo. coal sale

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar appears to have vastly overstated the economic benefits of coal lease sales in the Powder River Basin in announcing his department's decision to advance lease sales of 758 million tons of coal earlier this week, the Casper Star-Tribune reports.

Salazar said Tuesday the sales "would add between $13.4 billion and $21.3 billion to government coffers over the life of the leases — numbers repeated by media outlets worldwide, including the Star-Tribune," Jeremy Fugleberg writes for the newspaper. "The likely total is far lower, or the amount you get if you move the decimal point over one spot to the left."

"That was off by a factor of 10," Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, told Fugleberg. Loomis said the proceeds from 758 million tons of coal would more likely produce about $2 billion, with almost half of that going to state coffers. An Interior Department representative referred the Star-Tribune to a Bureau of Land Management spokesperson who did not respond to several calls. "A spokeswoman for the Wyoming BLM office said the office was looking into the numbers," Fugleberg writes.

"Salazar’s numbers would mean the government would get $17 to $28 per ton of the newly available coal," Fugleberg writes. "But that number is considerably higher than the current spot sale price for a ton of coal" in the basin. The federal Energy Information Administration reports a ton of 8,800-BTU Powder River coal is selling for $13.65. (Read more)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Ethanol industry pushes USDA to change the way it accounts for use of grain

In the latest attempt to improve its public image, the ethanol industry is pushing the Agriculture Department to change the way it reports the use of grain. Governors of ethanol-producing states say the reports undercount the amount of corn fed to livestock, leading to unfair criticism of the industry, Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. "The governors said the numbers fail to note that some of the corn that is processed into ethanol winds up as a byproduct called distillers grains that is widely fed to cattle," Brasher writes.

USDA is considering adding the words "and co-products" to the report category that shows corn-for-ethanol usage. The change could be made in time for the next supply-and-demand report on April 8. "Adding a few words to the report, however, is unlikely to go far enough to satisfy the ethanol industry, which would like to see changes in way the numbers are calculated," Brasher writes. Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, said, "Most people don't know the arithmetic as to how many pounds (of corn) goes into distillers grains."

The industry's concerns reflect the public-relations battle it is "waging to quell concerns about the impact of biofuel production on global food prices, concerns that complicate the industry's efforts to persuade Congress to extend its subsidies," Brasher writes. RFA says one-third of every bushel of corn used for ethanol production ends up as livestock feed, and the Governors' Biofuels Coalition wrote in a recent letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that USDA was "inadvertently perpetuating" a damaging misconception about how much corn is available for feed. (Read more)

Pending construction of solar plant in Arizona leads to the end of a popular hunt

In what may be a harbinger of things to come, construction of a solar power plant in the West has led to cancellation of a popular hunt.

After the Arizona Game and Fish Commission scratched the pronghorn antelope hunt, Chair Robert Woodhouse "said this was the first time in the commission's history it canceled a hunt because of a public access closure," Joanna Dodder Nellans of The Daily Courier of Prescott reports. Chino Grande Ranch "owners informed Game and Fish last week that they won't allow any hunting this fall on the nearly 50,000-acre ranch in the Big Chino Valley, so the commission members voted to cancel the entire 19B hunt and its 65 antelope tags." The ranch accounts for about a third of the antelope habitat in state area 19B.

Arizona Senate Majority Whip Steve Pierce, a Prescott-area rancher, told Nellans he is concerned about the continuing loss of hunting access of private property, but he said he understands private landowners have the right to close off their land. Ranch co-owner Larry Geare said "The antelope will have plenty of room to roam" even aftre the plant is built. (Read more)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Commission tells Postal Service to gauge impact on rural areas before ending Saturday delivery

The U.S. Postal Service should not eliminate Saturday delivery without more study of the impact on rural customers, the Postal Regulatory Commission said in an advisory opinion today.

"The Commission recommends that the Postal Service, before implementing five-day delivery, create a plan that provides an acceptable level of service to rural, remote or non-contiguous areas that may be particularly affected," the opinion concluded. "Such a plan should mitigate any disparity in service caused by five-day delivery."

The opinion "takes a skeptical look at many of the Postal Service’s assumptions about the impact of the proposed change," the National Newspaper Association, which fought the service's proposal, said in a news release. "While it does not firmly recommend for or against five-day mail, the PRC advises the Postal Service and Congress that USPS has over-estimated how much money it would save, under-estimated how much business it would lose and failed to sufficiently analyze the impact on rural, remote and non-contiguous areas (like Alaska and Hawaii) if Saturday delivery is eliminated."

Congress has long required six-day and rural delivery, but reconsiders the subject annually, and the Postal Service is eager to find ways to save money to erase its multi-billion-dollar deficits. Now it must "respond to the commission’s reservations about potential financial gain" from eliminating Saturday delivery, NNA said.

The commission's opinion pointed out several ways five-day delivery would hurt rural areas. "A number of post offices in rural areas are not open on Saturday or operate on a limited-hour basis, and the Postal Service has not indicated if it will maintain existing post office hours," it said. "Furthermore, the Postal Service is also proceeding with plans to close post offices stations, and branches and reduce the number of blue collection boxes available."

It would be better to eliminate Saturday delivery than "close thousands of small post offices," Commissioner Tony Hammond said in a supplementary opinion that amounted to a dissent. But the full commission's opinion noted other factors, such as the heavy use of mail-order pharmacies by rural residents, and pointed out that that more parcels are delivered on Saturday than any other day.

The commisison said the Postal Service "made no attempt to develop information on the unique postal needs" of rural areas, and noted in its news release that commissioners "received significant input from rural America." That included testimony from Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, who argued that the mail is a more important part of the civic infrastructure in rural America.

The Postal Service argued that a poll showed Americans would prefer the loss of Saturday mail to a postage rate increase, but the commission said the survey used "an improbable 10 percent rate increase, which may have biased the responses." The opinion is a 211-page PDF, available here.

Splitsville is a rural place now: Rural divorce rate has caught up with the urban rate

The gap between rural and urban divorce rates has all but disappeared, 2010 census data show. "Forty years ago, divorced people were more concentrated in cities and suburbs. But geographic distinctions have all but vanished, and now, for the first time, rural Americans are just as likely to be divorced as city dwellers," Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff of The New York Times report.

June Carbone, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, told the Times that college-educated Americans are more likely than high-school graduates to get married and stay married. This is important because census data show one in six rural residents has a college degree compared to one in three in the cities, Tayernise and Gebeloff report.

"Nationally, there were about 121 million married adults and 26 million divorced people in 2009, compared with about 100 million married and 11 million divorced people in 1980," the reporters write.

"It has hit the whitest, most married, most idyllic heart of America — Iowa," said Maria Kefalas, a sociology professor at St. Joseph's University. "The cultural narrative about marriage — you get a job, you marry your sweetheart, you buy a house, you educate your kids — has been torn to shreds. Without that economic foundation, the story cannot support itself." Carbone siad, "A blue-collar guy has less to offer today than he did in 1979," Carbone told the Times, adding that those shifting forces "create a mismatch between expectation and reality,"that result in women becoming frustrated and leaving, because now they can.

In Sioux County, Iowa, the low divorce rate in the 1970s resembled the national rate of the 1910s. The rate is up seven-fold since then, and while the county's rate is still lower than the national average, "its sharp jump illustrates a fundamental change in the patterns of family life," the reporters write. (Read more)

Organic growers lose ground in battle with genetic engineering; disappointed in administration

Based on recent rulings, the genetic engineering industry seems victorious in the battle over organics and genetically engineered crops. "The administration has announced a trio of decisions that have clouded the future of organics and boosted the position of genetically engineered crops," Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post reports. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack "approved genetically modified alfalfa and a modified corn to be made into ethanol, and he gave limited approval to GE sugar beets," Layton notes.

Some supporters of organics say they have been disappointed by the administration, which they hoped would be friendlier to their interests. "It was boom, boom boom," Walter Robb, co-chief executive of Whole Foods Markets, a major player in organics, told Layton. "These were deeply disappointing. They were such one-sided decisions."

The argument centers on concerns about contamination. Organics supporters fear that pollen and seeds from GE crops could drift across fields to nearby organic crops. "Contamination can cost organic growers — some overseas markets, for example, have rejected organic products when tests showed they carried even trace amounts of GE material," Layton writes. GE crop advocates say the industry's farmers "should be free to grow the crops because they do not harm other plants," Layton writes.

Jim Greenwood, head of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, told Layton, "Biotechnology can help crops thrive in drought-prone areas, improve the nutrition content of foods, grow alternative energy sources and improve the lives of farmers and rural communities around the globe."

Vilsack seemed poised to restrict genetically engineered crops prior to the alfalfa ruling, but he said "ultimately regulations prevented him from restricting GE crops," Layton writes. Despite the recent rulings, Vilsack told Layton he hopes the two sides can co-exist. "I had no expectation that the dialogue was going to end in some grand understanding or a kum-ba-ya moment," he said. "This is going to require a lot of work by reasonable, smart people to get this done. It’s in the interest of the country for these folks to stop fighting and get together and figure out how to live in the same neighborhood." (Read more)

Grain bin deaths reach record high in 2010

Deaths from grain-bin accidents hit a record high in 2010. Judith Graham of the Chicago Tribune reports, "51 men and boys were engulfed by grain stored in towering metal structures that dot rural landscapes, and 26 died — the highest number on record, according to a report issued by Purdue University." (Tribune graphic)

"Accidents can occur when someone enters a bin to break up clumps that form when grains are moist and have started decomposing", Graham writes. When someone steps into flowing grain they can sink up to the chest, becoming immobilized within 10 seconds. Within another 10 seconds the person can be submerged and unable to breathe, Jeffrey Adkisson, executive vice president of the Grain & Feed Association of Illinois, told Graham, adding, "The 2009 corn crop was a particularly wet one, leading to more stuck-together grain than usual. In turn, that caused more workers to go into grain bins in 2010, exposing them to potential danger."

Graham writes, "If machinery is on, helping to keep corn flowing, a sinkhole can form and pull down a worker who gets too close. Or corn caked on the sides of a bin can collapse like an avalanche, burying someone. Or someone may walk across the top of the corn, thinking it's safe, and plunge under the surface."

With proper safeguards, almost all such accidents are preventable, Graham reports. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration recommends "turning off machinery that helps move grain when someone enters a grain bin, and using body harnesses so workers can be pulled to safety," Graham writes. (Read more)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Key Democratic senator says farm-subsidy cuts are inevitable; GOP colleague targets sugar

A pair of influential U.S. senators, one of each party, had bad news for agriculture this week. Democrat Max Baucus of Montana told farmers in his home state Monday that they should start thinking about what subsidies they can live without, because cuts are coming, Tom Lutey of the Billings Gazette reports. "Agriculture is still our largest industry by far," Baucus said. "Half our economy is tied to it, so we better make sure it stays strong." Baucus said he would make sure the "budget isn’t balanced on the backs of rural states, although cuts were certain," Lutey writes.

While serious talks about the Farm Bill may be a year away, conversations about what programs to cut have already begun, Baucus said. Among the early targets are the Conservation Reserve Enhancement program and the direct-payment program. One Montana farmer at the meeting, Don Steinbeisser, said he didn't want small-cost programs like the federal sugar program cut, but if Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar has his way that program is in trouble. (Read more)

Lugar told Robert Costa of National Review that he plans to soon introduce legislation that would eliminate the government-mandated tariffs, quotas, subsidies and related price-inflating mechanisms that benefit the sugar industry. "I’m energized to take on the sugar program again because many more Americans understand that they personally pay the costs of government overreach," Lugar said. "It’s time to leave Franklin Roosevelt’s farm policies behind us."

Lugar said that by supporting the sugar industry the government has caused U.S. citizens to pay more than double the world's price in sugar, and the industry is driving jobs in the candy business and others out of the country. "Cutting sugar subsidies was an early vote I took when I came to the Senate in 1977," he told Costa. "Since that time, I’ve authored various bills to end the sugar program and reform the entire Farm Bill subsidy system. Those bills could have saved taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, but usually I found myself nearly alone when push came to shove on voting in favor of reform." (Read more)

Florida prescription-pill database's main supporter, opponent in legislature meeting

In February we reported new Florida Gov. Rick Scott had proposed eliminating a program that was designed to curb the prescription-pill pipeline from Florida to Central Appalachia, but now the opposition could be softening. Scott continues to voice opposition to the program, which would create an electronic database to track prescriptions, but today the leading opponent and supporter of the program in the state legislature, both Republicans like Scott, are meeting to hash out their differences, Meg Laughlin of the St. Petersburg Times reports.

"The pill-mill issue is a major issue in our state. And we are losing people every day. So we've got to come up with a plan that's going to solve this issue," Scott said Tuesday, noting he still feared the database could breach patient confidentiality. "With regard to the database, I am very uncomfortable where we are now because of privacy," he said. Laughlin notes that Scott's Tea Party supporters did not include the database on a list of the 11 issues that matter most to the organization.

Today Republican Rep. Rob Schenck, who has been among the most outspoken opponents of the database, and Republican Sen. Mike Fasano, who has been its lead supporter, will meet to discuss how to move forward. (Read more)

As health reform turns 1, big farm employers worry about providing coverage, now scant

To mark today's anniversary of the health-care reform law, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Secretary Tom Visack issued a statement lauding the law's benefits for rural people, saying “For too long, rural Americans have been getting the short end of the health-care stick, with limited insurance options, fewer doctors and nurses, and higher out-of-pocket expenses. The health-care law is helping to change that – increasing payments to rural health-care providers, strengthening Medicare and training thousands of new primary care doctors to serve in rural areas.”

But some in rural America have problems with the law. On January 1, 2014, employers with 50 or more full-time workers will be required to offer health insurance to their employees, and that will be a challenge for big farms; only 10 to 15 percent of the 1.6 million agricultural workers in the U.S. have even basic health insurance, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

The specialty-crop industry says that creates a significant problem since approximately “70 percent or more of [its workers] are believed to be falsely documented,” reports Agri-Pulse, “largely due to the transitory nature of the workforce, which often migrates from farm to farm and sometimes from state to state, creating administrative headaches for employers.” The industry is lobbying Congress for changes.

The law will also cost employers, most of whom are expected to have employees paying higher insurance premiums and/or co-pays, reports Agri-Pulse, and “For the vast majority of migrant workers, health care coverage may cost more than they are willing to pay.” Cathleen Enright, vice president of federal government affairs at Western Growers Association, which represents about half the nation's produce output, told the newsletter that many seasonal agriculture workers will elect to get cheaper state coverage or no coverage at all, triggering a penalty for employers.

Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but offers a free four-issue trial subscription.

Resistance to hydraulic fracturing in gas drilling continues in Marcellus Shale states

As Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania introduced legislation for federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing in natural-gas drilling last week, there was action in other states underlain by the deep, dense, gas-rich Marcellus Shale (map), a prime target of the frackers.

Maryland’s House of Delegates "advanced a plan calling for a two-year study of Marcellus Shale drilling, overriding the objections of Western Maryland lawmakers who want to see the potentially lucrative activity sooner, " writes Julie Bykowicz of the Baltimore Sun. Delegate Maggie McIntosh said "the state needs time to study hydraulic fracturing and that proceeding quickly could prove harmful to Maryland's waterways," Bykowicz reports.
In West Virginia, after the legislature declined to establish new regulations for Marcellus drilling, “Lawmakers and surface-owner groups met to announce the signing of a letter urging Randy Huffman, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, to use his emergency authority to halt the issuance of new horizontal drilling permits in the Marcellus Shale,” reports Taylor Kuykendall of the Register-Herald in Beckley.

Supporters of the moratorium in West Virginia include the Lewisburg City Council, which Peggy Mackenzie of the Mountain Messenger reports “may well be the first municipality in the state to declare the prohibition of locating, drilling, equipping, operating or producing any oil and gas wells within the city limits.” The council approved a resolution expressing “concerns about the lack of protection afforded the state’s water resources, particularly the Greenbrier River watershed, which is the source of water for Lewisburg’s regional system, serving 4,732 customers,” writes Tina Alvey of the Register-Herald.

New York state is enforcing a moratorium on Marcellus drilling until at least July 2011, reports the Associated Press.

‘Coal’ TV show being previewed in Appalachia

The producer of the new documentary-style show "Coal" gave a sneak preview to a Pikeville, Ky., audience Tuesday, the first of several previews in Appalachia before it premieres on the cable-and-satellite channel Spike TV March 30 at 10 p.m.

The show is produced by Thom Beers, who also produces "Deadliest Catch," "Ice Road Truckers" and "Ax Men." He said Tuesday that he had the idea of the show in his mind for several years but finally had found the right people to work with in Tom Roberts and Mike Crowder of Cobalt Coal, whose underground mine in West Virginia is the focus of the program, Bill Archer of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph reports. You can see our previous item about the show here.

Roberts and Crowder fielded questions from journalists at the event about a variety of issues, including mine safety, state and federal mine-safety agencies, and reaction from the environmental community about the show, Archer writes. "My job is to make everyday heroes out of these coal miners," Beers said. "Coal’ is not about politics. It’s about these men." (Read more) For more on Beers, from Luaine Lee of McClatchy-Tribune, go here. For his company's release on the show, here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Rural paper delivers bad census news frankly

How does a community newspaper deliver bad news about the community as a whole? Straight from the shoulder, not mincing words and getting responsible reaction from knowledgeable sources. That's what Jeff Noble, editor of the Times-Voice in Jackson, Ky., did when he found that Breathitt County had the largest percentage population loss in 2000-2010 of any county in the state, 13.8 percent.

(Wikipedia map) "The 2010 Census figures are out, and they weren't kind to Breathitt County," Noble wrote. "Many say the lack of jobs here, and a better quality of life in the Bluegrass region, are the real reason for the population decline."

As commentary on covering this topic, this blog item is too late for most places, since almost all states have received their preliminary census figures, but Noble's story takes a good approach and also illustrates an all-too-familiar rural trend: Most young people who leave rural areas to attend college don't come back. The Times-Voice has no website, so we have posted the story on the website of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, here.

Search for a bee bugaboo suggests many causes, and bodes ill for flowering plant species

Instead of one bugaboo causing the collapse of bee colonies across the world, more than a dozen factors may be involved. "Scientists are warning that without profound changes to the way human beings manage the planet, declines in pollinators needed to feed a growing global population are likely to continue," Southwest Farm Press reports. In a new study, "Global Bee Colony Disorders and other Threats to Insect Pollinators," the UN Environment Programme found an estimated 20,000 flowering plant species could be lost over the coming decades if conservation efforts are not increased. (Photo: Bee and almond tree flower)

The study "indicates that bees are early warning indicators of wider impacts on animal and plant life and that measures to boost pollinators could not only improve food security but the fate of many other economically and environmentally-important plants and animals," Southwest Farm Press reports. The study's authors call for farmers and landowners to adopt pollinator-friendly habits, including placing flowering plants next to crop-producing fields. The report notes that managed bee hives can be moved to avoid insecticides, but wild populations are completely vulnerable to the chemicals, which have been implicated in colony collapse.

"The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st Century. The fact is that of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of the world's food, over 70 are pollinated by bees," Achim Steiner, UN undersecretary-general and executive director of the environment program, said. Steiner and others are pointing to next year's Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro as an important step in developing a global, sustainable, green economy. The summit "is an opportunity to move beyond narrow definitions of wealth and to bring the often invisible, multi-trillion dollar services of nature -- including pollination from insects such as bees -- into national and global accounts," Steiner said. (Read more)

AT&T says T-Mobile merger will help rural areas

Earlier this month we reported low-cost cell-phone firm T-Mobile had joined a coalition of smaller wirelesss carriers opposing the Obama administration's National Broadband Plan on grounds it would benefit large companies. On Monday T-Mobile announced it was merging with the largest of those outfits: AT&T, which says the merger will help rural areas. AT&T's materials announcing the merger "pulled language directly from the president’s State of the Union message with references to providing wireless high-speed Internet to nearly all Americans in the next five years," Edward Wyatt of The New York Times reports.

The merger would leave AT&T and Verizon controlling almost 80 percent of the national wireless market and Sprint, the third-largest company, lagging far behind. West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller was among the lawmakers to critcize the merger, calling for the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission to "leave no stone unturned in determining what the impact of this combination is on the American people." To counter Rockefeller's concerns, AT&T out on its website a map, below, of how the merger would expand its service in West Virginia. (Read more)

Renewed nuclear concerns may boost gas, coal

The concerns arising from the crisis at a nuclear power plant in Japan, in the wake of the massive earthquake earlier this month, may be the latest point boost for natural gas as a source of electricity. The nuclear concerns, combined with the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil blowout and linkage of coal-fired energy to global warming, have helped boost natural gas's role in the U.S. energy mix, and "Gas has overcome two of its biggest hurdles — volatile prices and questionable supplies," Jad Mouawad of The New York Times reports.

Despite the positive forecast for gas, Mouawad writes, "It is far too early to say for sure whether the calamitous events in Japan may roll back the global nuclear revival and lead to a surge in natural gas demand." Since the earthquake, uranium prices have dropped by 30 percent and gas prices in the U.S. and Europe have risen by 10 percent. John Rowe, chairman of Exelon, told Mouawad the prohibitive price of building nuclear or coal-fired power plants in the coming years will make it easier for companies to overlook gas price fluctuations that have held back the fuel in the past. (Read more)

And while the Times didn't make note of it, the nuclear disaster is also a boost for coal, at least in the short term, Barron's reports.

Walmart plans to double local produce it sells

Walmart says it plans to triple the amount of food it buys from small and medium farmers by 2015. As part of the company's efforts to improve its global-sustainability efforts it also plans to provide training to 1 million farmers in its food supply chain, Andria Cheng of The Wall Street Journal reports. In the U.S. Walmart says it plans to double, to 10 percent, the amount of local produce it sells. (Read more)

Monday, March 21, 2011

After public outcry, Utah governor calls session to repeal bill that would weaken records law

UPDATE, March 28: The law has been repealed.

Citing "a loss of public confidence," Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, left, reversed himself and said today he is calling the Legislature into special session Friday to repeal "the controversial bill restricting access to many government records," Paul Koepp of The Deseret News reports. "House Republicans said they plan to repeal the bill," Koepp writes, but Republicans who run the Senate seemed miffed.

The bill would exempt electronic records from the state open-records law and "allow officials to charge overhead and administrative cost — and possibly costly attorney's fees — for especially broad requests," Koepp notes. A poll taken for the newspaper and KSL-TV found 61 percent of Utah adults opposed to raising the fees, and 83 percent supporting "disclosure of elected officials' text messages on public business." (Read more) For more background, click here.

Where to count prisoners in redistricting?

Many rural areas have sought prisons as boons to economic development; they can also have the effect of increasing their neighbors' political clout, because most states count prisoners where they are confined, not their last permenent address. But that is changing, and now that almost all states and localities have data from the 2010 census, the debate over where to count inmates for redistricting has emerged as one of the key issues in the process.

Here's an extreme example: In Anamosa, Iowa, one of the four city council wards, supposedly equal in population, had hardly any voters because it was the site of a correctional institution. (Prison Policy Initiative map)

In Somerset County, Md., Commissioner Craig Mathies won his race with just 307 of 542 votes while other districts produced at least 1,400 votes each. Maithes' district had a low vote total because more than 3,300 of his constituents are inmates of the Eastern Correctional Institution Complex who can't vote, Josh Goodman of reports. Soon that distortion in Somerset County will change, because Maryland was the first state to "require that, for the purposes of local, state legislative and congressional redistricting, prisoners must be counted at their last permanent address — not the place where they’re incarcerated," Goodman writes. Since Maryland passed its law, New York and Delaware have followed suit. In New York "the state Senate map drawn 10 years ago used prison counts to boost the representation of Upstate Republican counties, where a disproportionate number of state prisons are located."

Two states, Vermont and Maine, allow prisoners to vote, but both use the prisoners' permanent residence for voting purposes. Many people want that approach adopted elsewhere. "People in prison are being used in many ways as filler," Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, told Goodman. "The districts’ population is built on the backs of the ghost population."

However, simply counting prisoners where they came from isn't as easy as it might seem. "States lack consistent records for prisoners’ permanent home of record," Goodman writes. "The Census Bureau said this would mean that each prisoner would have to be contacted individually to make the change." (Read more) The Prison Policy Initative, which advocates counting inmates for redistricting purposes at their last permanent address, offers a primer on the issue for rural journalists. To download the PDF, click here.

Small towns offer free land to boost populations

The Homestead Act of 1862 is no longer in effect, but some small towns are giving away land in hopes of attracting new residents. "As with the homesteaders of the 1800s, the new pioneers must not be the faint of heart—they can’t be the type to shy away from the trials of building a home from the ground up, or the lack of Starbucks on every corner, or unpaved roads," Colleen Kane of CNBC reports, highlighting some of the towns (and all of Kansas) with homestead-like programs.

Beatrice, Neb., has passed its own Homestead Act of 2010, which requires people who accept free plots of land to live on those plots for at least five years. Marne, Iowa, population around 150, recently made four free lots available to attract families to the region. "The decline of the family farm affects rural areas like this," Marne Mayor Randy Baxter said. "Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there more smaller farms, and small towns supported the folks in the country, but now those homes aren’t there anymore."

Kansas is a leader in the free-land trend. Local governments and development groups offer so much free land in the state that there is "an online hub to organize all the information, the appropriately named Kansas Free Land," Kane writes. Jenny Russell, Republic County economic development coordinator, explained "Most rural areas in Kansas have been declining in population since 1900, so rural Kansas communities either fight or disappear." CNBC also highlights New Richland, Minn. (in photo), Curtis, Neb.; Muskegon, Mich.; and Camden, Maine, but the latter two are offering free land to prospective employers, an old tactic in rural America. Bone up, Colleen!(Read more)

Court rules against EPA in CAFO case

U.S. livestock groups scored a victory last week with a federal court's ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency could not require livestock operations to obtain Clean Water Act permits unless they are discharing manure into a waterway. "American Farm Bureau Federation, National Pork Producers, United Egg Producers and several other ag groups sued EPA over its so-called CAFO rule" aimed at concentrated animal feeding operations, American Agriculturalist reports. The decision of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans was the second against EPA since 2005 on the issue.

The disputed rule "required a Clean Water Act for all CAFOs that discharge or 'propose' to discharge," American Agriculturalist notes. "The rule covered production areas and crop land on which manure is applied and imposed fines of up to $37,500 a day. Doug Wolf, president of the National Pork Producers Council, said "The court recognized a clear limit on EPA's authority and required the agency to comply with the clean water law." (Read more)

Rural churches evolve with their communities

The traditional image of small rural churches is fading as their congregaitons evolve, writes one rural Kentucky pastor who has also been a journalist. "I’ve spent so much time in so many different rural churches that I’m something of a minor—and self-appointed—expert on them," Paul Prather, right, writes for the Daily Yonder. "What I mainly can say is that country congregations aren’t what they used to be." No longer are rural churches centered on farming communities, Prather writes, noting most of his congregation in Montgomery County commutes "from the towns of Mount Sterling, our county seat, and Winchester, in neighboring Clark County," on the east side of the Bluegrass Region.

The religious backgrounds of Prather's congregation at his Penecostal church are varied. "We’ve got lifelong Pentecostals, former Baptists, former Catholics, refugees from the non-instrumental Church of Christ, and people of no discernable religious heritage," he writes. He notes his congregation like most people are no longer receptive "to legalistic doctrines or fire-and- brimstone sermons." While women may have always done most of the work at rural churches, Prather writes they now do it in a more official capacity serving in leadership positions.

Smoking is now a social taboo for Prather's congregation, while drinking and swearing are much more common and accepted that he remembers as a child. While Montgomery County is traditionally made up of conservative Democrats, Prather notes his congregation has Tea Partiers, Old Glory Republicans and Barack Obama Democrats, and says he had to ban partisan discussions to prevent fistfights.

While the racial makeup of rural congregations may not have changed, the overwhelming white majority of Prather's congregation is now a more a "matter of local demographics than bigotry," writes Prather, former religion reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He concludes if you were to walk into a modern day rural congregation you would "discover they were as well-traveled and complicated and self-contradictory and holy and confused and profane and delightful and enlightened and irritating as any similar-sized group you’d stumble into in Austin or Portland." (Read more)