Saturday, April 30, 2011

Ailes ran surveillance on his weekly newspaper's editor and reporters, who quit, Gawker reports

Three months ago we passed along The New Yorker magazine's take on Fox News boss Roger Ailes, his wife Beth (right) and their weekly newspapers in Putnam County, New York, saying that local news coverage had improved because of them and a competitor that started after they arrived in the market. This month, their editor and two reporters quit "after Ailes told them he'd had them followed, and their private conversations surveilled, to catch them saying mean things about him," John Cook and Hamilton Nolan reported April 18 for Gawker. (Photo from Gawker)

Editor Joe Lindsley, 27, served notice even before The New Yorker's article, in which he praised the Aileses, Gawker reports. "At some point during the first week of April, Lindsley abruptly cut his transition short and quit outright, as did two of his young reporters, T.J. Haley and Carli-Rae Panny. The reason, multiple former employees say, is that in late March, Ailes confronted the three staffers and accused them of badmouthing him and Elizabeth during their lunch breaks." The story also reports, apparently with Lindsley as its source, that after he left, a security staffer for News Corp., parent of Fox, followed him.

Beth Ailes told Gawker, "These rambling allegations are untrue and in fact not even reality based. The paper hoped for Joe's success in spite of his personal habits and lack of performance, which included getting the weekly editions out late and over budget for three months. There's a sad disconnect between his claims of undying gratitude and his current state of agitation." There's a lot more in the story.

Big telecoms complain that stimulus money is creating competition for broadband providers

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, a lobby for companies that provide TV, phone and Internet service, released a study this week to show that federal economic-stimulus money has been "used to duplicate services that already exist" in Kansas, Minnesota and Montana, Jonathan Ellis reports for USA Today.

"The study focuses on three projects worth $231.7 million in grants and loans from [the] Rural Utilities Service," Ellis writes. "It concludes that more than 85 percent of households in those project areas already have access to some form of broadband service, whether through cable broadband, DSL or fixed wireless broadband providers."

RUS Administrator Jonathan Adelstein said the projects were needed to promote economic development in the three areas. The law allows RUS "to fund projects as long as 75 percent of the area lacks sufficient access to high-speed broadband to support rural economic development," partly to encourage young people to stay in rural areas, Ellis notes.

For example, Kansas' Rural Telephone Service "received more than $100 million in grants and loans to bring broadband to unserved communities in northwestern Kansas," Ellis reports. "The company used some of the money to expand in Hays, which already had service providers. By establishing a presence in Hays, [CEO Larry] Sevier says, the company had access to a customer pool that will enable it to pay back its loans and reach communities without service." (Read more)

Baptist divinity-school dean: Mountaintop-removal coal mining 'is just plain wrong'

The dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity tells his fellow Baptists in a column for Associated Baptist Press this week, "Some things are just plain wrong. And mountaintop removal (MTR) is just plain wrong. It may have approval from certain corporations; Congress, local municipalities and some mountain folk, but it is still just plain wrong. Indeed, MTR is fast becoming a ghastly symptom of what is wrong with America: an abiding loss of identity politically, economically, communally and spiritually."

Dean Bill Leonard, left, cites a senior thesis by "a son of Appalachia," Wake graduate student Greg Griffey; Uneven Ground, the recent book by renowned Appalachian historian Ron Eller about the region's economy since 1945; and the 1995 book Appalachian Mountain Religion by Deborah McCauley, who wrote: "The mountainous terrain that is the Appalachian region has had enormous impact on its character, its texture, and its religious values."

Leonard writes, "Building on the work of Eller and McCauley, Greg Griffey insists that: 'By destroying the mountainous landscape of a geographical region formed millions of years ago, we are now effacing, and thereby choosing to forget, storied identities that have beckoned habitation, provided navigation through space, and evoked senses of rootedness in the mountains for thousands of years.' . . . These studies suggest that a dramatic symbol of the loss of American regional and religious identity is found in the environment." (Read more)

Leonard and Eller, a history professor at the University of Kentucky, are members of the national advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which is based at UK and publishes The Rural Blog.

Protestant pastors increasingly skpetical of global warming and human cause, along red-blue lines

"Sixty percent of Protestant pastors disagree that global warming is real and man-made," contrary to a "strong scientific consensus," and "All the usual red-blue divides apply," Courier-Journal religion reporter Peter Smith writes in his "Faith and Works" column for the Louisville newspaper. The numbers from LifeWay Research show more skepticism about global warming than the last time the firm asked the question, in 2008, it said in a news release.

LifeWay is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, but its results "echo other polling," Smith reports. "Evangelicals, Republicans, pastors in the South and those with lower educations are more likely to be skeptical of warming being man-made. . . . Pastors in mainline congregations, which tend to be more liberal, tend to believe in man-made warming, as do Democrats and those in the Northeast." (Read more)

Friday, April 29, 2011

Tornadoes may have wiped out one-quarter of poultry houses in Alabama, state officials say

"Alabama officials estimated that up to 25 percent of the poultry houses in the state were destroyed or damaged Wednesday by the tornado outbreak, likely killing millions of birds," Scott Kilman reports for The Wall Street Journal reports. "Preliminary reports indicate that about 200 poultry houses were destroyed and another 180 were damaged by the fierce storms."

Alabama is the third-ranking producer of chicken, behind Arkansas and Georgia. State officials "were having a difficult time gauging the damage because many rural roads were impassable Thursday," Scott Kilman writes. "Likewise, electric power was out and telephone systems were down in many areas." (Read more)

Preachers who cite war, famine and quakes as signs of the apocalypse have their facts wrong

Last week, on the Easter edition of ABC's "This Week," the Rev. Franklin Graham said "I believe we are in the latter days of this age" because "The things that the Bible predicts, earthquakes and famines, nation rising against nation, we see this happening with more frequency and more intensity." We've heard similar statements for more than 40 years from some rural preachers.

The preachers are wrong, says, the nonpartisan service of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania: "Today’s famines and armed conflicts are fewer and relatively smaller than those in the last century, and the frequency of major earthquakes has remained about the same." (Read more)

Had lots of rain lately? Drink well water? Test it!

If you drink water from a well and your weather has been unusually wet lately, it's a good time to get your water tested, because saturated soil “loses its ability, or its ability is reduced, to remove pollutants,” says Karen Mancl, a professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at The Ohio State University.

“The soil is one of the really important tools that we use in rural areas to protect our ground water from contamination,” Mancl says. “You should test your water for bacteria, for pH, for nitrate and for total dissolved solids, those are the four things I recommend people test their well for annually.”

Mancl has more information, including publications at her Soil Environment Technology Learning website. For a five-minute interview with Mancl, from Brownfield Network, click here. As luck would have it, May 1-7 is Drinking Water Week.

Deal on puppy-mill law, which pit Mo. urbanites against rural animal owners, takes effect

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed a compromise concerning the state's puppy mill referendum into law on Wednesday. Last week we reported the battle over the referendum on Proposition B had largely been divided on rural-urban lines. Nixon actually signed two bills into law; SB 113 substantially watered down the restrictions enacted by voters last fall, and SB 161, contained compromise language brokered by Nixon.
"Nixon downplayed the initial bill signing on Wednesday, but was effusive in his praise for the final bill," Jason Noble of The Kansas City Star reports. The governor said, "At a time in which people spend a lot of their time figuring out the easiest way to disagree, everybody here gave up a little to make sure we found ways to agree. That’s really, really important."
Proposition B "enacted strict new regulations on the state’s dog breeders, including a limit on the number of breeding dogs, requirements for greater animal enclosures and access to the outdoors, stronger veterinary oversight and criminal penalties for violations," Noble writes. SB 113 was passed under pressure from agriculture groups and removed Prop B's strictest elements. "The compromise legislation, SB 161, puts no limits on the number of dogs, but boosts requirements for veterinary care at breeding operations and phases in larger space requirements for animal enclosures." (Read more)

Vilsack: Environmental-justice interests should pay more attention to rural America

Rural areas are too often overlooked in conversations about environmental justice, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at the State of Environmental Justice conference in Atlanta Thursday. "Environmental justice is generally defined as the concern that certain communities, especially those with large minority populations, are more likely to be exposed to environmental perils than wealthier and whiter areas," John McArdle and Emily Yehle of Environment and Energy Daily reports. "But often the highest profile battles on that issue are waged in at-risk neighborhoods in major cities or at Superfund sites located near populated urban and suburban areas."

"If anything, I don't think people understand the scope of environmental justice," Vilsack said in an interview after his speech. He said rural issues are overlooked because 84 percent of Americans live in cities and suburbs. "We don't want to forget those 16 percent" in rural communities, he said. The Department of Agriculture has funded 2,575 clean water projects in the last two years to address problems ranging from wastewater treatment to sewage treatment, Vilsack said.

"That tells me there is extraordinary need in rural America for clean water," he told the reporters. "That's all about environment and it's clearly about justice because if you don't have clean water, you don't have economic opportunity and that's so often forgotten." Like many federal programs the Obama administration's efforts to address environmental justice are complicated by the budget situation, Vilsack said. "There is still going to be money in these [environmental justice] programs and the challenge will be for us to make sure that we properly prioritize," he said. (Read more, subscription required)

National Rural Assembly is June 28-30 in St. Paul

Registration is open for the 2011 National Rural Assembly, scheduled for June 28-30 in St. Paul, Minn. The Assembly has identified several objectives: Articulate a message that raises national awareness of rural issues; raise a call to action for assembly members around the issues identified in the Rural Compact; provide opportunities for action planning on rural policy issues; create opportunities for participants to make connections that will forward their work on policy issues; and educate policymakers and other leaders on issues prevalent in rural policy.

The event will include several work sessions, which will "provide participants with the opportunity to go deep and build a set of recommendations that will then be carried forward to policymakers by the Rural Assembly in the coming year," the assembly says in a news release. Session topics include housing, climate change, tribal issues, philanthropy, immigration, the Farm Bill, youth policy and rural education grants, Social Security and green jobs. Registration costs $150, and participants are expected to pay for their own travel and lodging expenses. Meals are included in the registration fee. You can register for the event here.

Project to improve rural high schools in New England to be focus of free webinar May 11

A project from the Plymouth, Mass., School District and the Center for Secondary School Redesign will be the subject of the next Rural School Innovations Webinar from the Rural School and Community Trust. The project, the New England Network for Personalization and Performance (NETWORK), "envisions a redesigned rural high school where learning happens anytime, anyplace, and where students demonstrate their learning through complex, rigorous performance assessments," RSCT says in a news release. The free webinar is scheduled for May 11.

NETWORK "builds on very innovative work that has been accomplished in a number of rural schools in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont that have implemented performance-based initiatives," RSCT writes. Three representatives of rural New Hampshire school districts will speak during the webinar: Chris Geraghty, a teacher at Kearsarge High School; Steve Beals, principal at Laconia High School; and John Freeman, a superintendent from Pittsfield, N. H. You can register for the event here.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

W.Va. environmental officials at odds over water-conductivity standards for mountaintop mines

West Virginia environmental regulators are at odds over how to implement water conductivity standards to limit pollution from mountaintop-removal coal mining. "The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is appealing in court a decision by the state's Environmental Quality Board ordering the agency to modify its permit for a Patriot Mining Company Inc. strip mining project in Monongalia County," Manuel Quinones of Environment and Energy News reports. "In issuing its decision, the board sided, at least in part, with environmentalists who urged permit modifications, including a numeric standard for conductivity in nearby waterways."

The controversy comes as the White House is reviewing the Environmental Protection Agency's interim conductivity standard. The West Virginia board did not grant environmentalists' request to establish a conductivity standard, but told state regulators to include a specific standard in a revised permit for the Patriot mine. "This particular permit had no limits on conductivity, sulfates, really not much of anything," Petra Wood, a Sierra Club member involved in appealing the permit, told Quinones. You can read our report about the federal conductivity standard here. "DEP believes the board overstepped its legal bounds by mandating a conductivity standard," Quinones writes. (Read more, Subscription required)

New administration in Pa. forsakes local blowout team for Texas crew, and water gets polluted

Texas-based emergency response teams took more than 10 hours to respond to two gas well blowouts in Pennsylvania last year, so John Hanger, then secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, announced "that Texas-based CUDD Well Control would open a new facility in Bradford County and that 16 specially trained responders would be able to reach any well in Pennsylvania in five hours or so," Nicholas Kusnetz of ProPublica reports. After a January blowout, the new crew was on site and had the well under control in less than four hours.

But when a Chesapeake Energy team lost control of a well on April 19, the company called Texas emergency teams that did not arrive on the scene for more than 13 hours. By then "brine water and hydraulic fracturing fluids from the well had spewed across nearby fields and into a creek," Kusnetz writes. Where was the Pennsylvania team? Dennis Corley, CUDD's vice-president, says he offered Chesapeake the team's services but was told the company was already under contract with another emergency responder.

Under a new administration since January, the state DEP did not request CUDD's assistance, and DEP Secretary Michael Krancer did not respond to phone calls and emails from ProPublica for comment. Hanger said the state's agreement with CUDD was still in effect when he left office. The agreement "was put in place to make sure it was a matter of a few hours" before help arrived, he told Kusnetz. "That was the point." (Read more)

Bug causing stink for mid-Atlantic farmers

Stinkbugs plaguing the mid-Atlantic region and are causing major trouble for the region's farmers. The bugs "take their long needle-like mouthpiece and stick it into the flesh of fruits and vegetables, leaving them bruised and disfigured," Sabri Ben-Achour of National Public Radio reports. Bob Black, who runs Catoctin Mountain Orchard in Thurmont, Md., said half of one apple variety was damaged: "I can handle a few percent, but gets up to 25 percent, 50 percent — that's pretty devastating to me." (USDA photo by Jeff Wildonger)

"They're now found in more than 30 states, as far west as Washington and California; as far south as Florida they've been detected," said Mike Raup, an entomologist at the University of Maryland. "But right here in the mid-Atlantic region — this is ground zero for the brown marmorated stink bug." Pesticides have had little effect on the bugs. This year's invasion is projected to be even worse than last year's, leaving farmers to look for new solutions.

The bugs were introduced in Allentown, Pa., in the 1990s from Asia, but their natural predators did not come with them. At a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Newark, Del., researchers are working on a way to introduce one of the bug's natural predators. The most likely candidate is the Trissolcus wasp, which does not bite or sting, and is the natural nemesis of the brown marmorated stink bug in Asia, Ben-Achour writes. The wasps depend on finding the stink bugs and their eggs to survive. "If they can't find stink bugs or stink bug eggs to lay their own eggs in, they'll die. They can't survive on anything else," entomologist Kim Hoelmer told Ben-Achour. Hoelmer says it will take three years to determine if the wasps are not a threat to the other 300 types of stink bugs in the U.S., so farmers in seven states are asking the Environmental Protection Agency to relax pesticide regulations in the meantime. (Read more)

County considers fines to discourage dumping, mistreatment of unwanted horses

At least one rural county is considering anordinance to control escaped or released farm animals, some of which appear to be horses loosely abandoned by their owners or dumped by owners who are no longer willing or able to care for them.

Under the proposed ordinance, Lincoln County could fines owners of animals bothering public or private property and charge for the capture, feed and medical care of roaming animals, Michael Broihier of The Interior Journal in Stanford reports. (Dickinson Press photo by Bess Davis)

In response to concerns raised at a county Fiscal Court meeting by the Lincoln County Cattlemen's Association, County Attorney Daryl Day said "This ordinance will cover everything but cattle. . . We want to put everyone else on equal footing with cattle farmers." State law covers nothing but cattle, Broihier writes.

Day said the county was trying to specifically address horses running loose on a local road, the Interior Journal reports. Sheriff Curt Folger told Broihier, "The problem wasn't only horse owners refusing to restrain their animals, but a lot of horses were being dumped in rural areas." (Read more)

Delinquent penalties for mine-safety violations remain a problem for the industry and the feds

Coal and other mining companies delinquent in paying penalties are a problem for the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Treasury Department. MSHA had "16,438 penalty cases with $56 million in unpaid, delinquent penalties on Feb. 25, 2011 by operators, contractors and individuals," Mine Safety and Health News reports.

This one-day snapshot does not include the most recent payments or delinquencies because MSHA "may have a one month to six week 'lag time' for entering payments into the system," the newsletter reports. But the snapshot "does show a pattern of delinquent payments for some of the biggest companies operating in the U.S." On Feb. 25, Consol Energy, Massey Energy, James C. Justice II, Arch Coal, LaFarge, Yukon Nevada Gold Corp., Cemex SA and one controller with both coal and metal/nonmetal mines had more than $200,000 in delinquent penalties.

In an effort "to make it easier for agencies to collect civil penalties, in 2000 the Treasury introduced the Debt Collection Act that uses letters, phone calls, private collection agencies and the Internal Revenue Service to collect delinquent penalties, but it is still unclear how the government can force companies to pay delinquent penalties. The Mine Safety and Health News authors believe the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act, rejected in Congress last year but reintroduced in the Senate this year, "would force operators to pay in a timely manner. . . because after 180 days, MSHA would have the authority to withdraw miners from the mine with the delinquency until a payment plan is in place."

Mine Safety and Health News is a subscription-only newsletter, but it has made this part of its current edition available for free. For its detailed, comprehensive report, click here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Oklahoma weekly sees a rash of open-meeting violations, takes stand for open government

A free weekly newspaper in Oklahoma is holding local government leaders accountable for alleged violations of the state's open-meetings law. "Transparency and openness in government are key, which makes it that much more important to hold elected leaders’ feet to the fire so to say," writes William Swaim, the executive editor of the Broken Arrow Ledger. "And maybe even more importantly, for district attorneys or the attorney general to hold these officials accountable for their transgressions." Swaim and the newspaper allege the Manford Public School Board, the Broken Arrow Public School Board and Wagner County commissioners each recently violated the state Open Meeting Act.

When Manford board members closed their doors to talk about a specific employee, instead of identifying that employee they provided a list of all the school system's employees, saying any of them could be discussed. The Broken Arrow board says it only discussed administration organization at a recent closed meeting, not specific employees, and "provided a list of 43 titles on an organizational chart and discussed employees whose titles were listed on the chart," Swaim writes. Joey Senat, a journalism professor at Oklahoma State University, told the Ledger the Broken Arrow board was in violation of the law even if it did not discuss specific employees.

In addition to the two school-board meetings, Swaim says the Opening Meeting Act was violated when three Wagoner County commissioners recently met at least three times to discuss county business without providing proper notice of the meeting. "You might be saying to yourself, why so much concern over these violations?" Swaim writes. "The public deserves an open and transparent government, and one that is accountable to the public. It’s a matter of trust. Secrecy breeds mistrust." (Read more)

Anti-fracking sentiment spreads to Texas

Texas may have seemed immune from the most vocal protests surrounding hydraulic fracturing, but that may be changing. Last week "several dozen protesters marched through downtown Fort Worth, waving signs and chanting anti-drilling slogans that reflected concern over air and water pollution," Kate Galbraith of The Texas Tribune reports for The New York Times. Fracking, which has been used for decades but only recently to access natural gas in deep shale formations, is common in Texas's Barnett Shale. (Texas Tribune photo by Stuart Palley)

"The protest, organized by the group Rising Tide North Texas, is the latest sign of a backlash against drilling in Texas," Galbraith writes. A few Texas communities have imposed moratoriums on drilling permits and yard signs saying "Get the Frack Out of Here" and "Protect Our Kids/No Drilling" have popped up in at least one community. "Dallas set up a task force last week to examine drilling regulations within its city limits," Galbraith writes.

Analysts say the new discontent in Texas is likely a result of highly publicized fracking concerns in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania and New York. Mike Slattery, the director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at Texas Christian University, also notes that lease payments by gas companies have dropped significantly in Texas since natural gas prices hit highs in 2008. Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for drilling company Range Resources, said the industry needs to be more responsive to public concerns. "For the most part, I would view these as self-inflicted wounds," he told Galbraith. (Read more)

Fracking chemicals are less of a secret now, thanks to groups' and agencies' initiatives

Much of the ongoing controversy surrounding hydraulic fracturing for natural gas has centered on secrecy of the chemicals used by drilling companies. Limited voluntary and some mandatory state disclosure has revealed some of the chemicals. "In an effort to increase transparency, a new website called FracFocus provides some limited information on substances used in specific wells," the Society of Environmental Journalists reports in its most recent "Tip Sheet." The site includes information voluntarily supplied by some companies with fracking operations.

The site, developed by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, "can provide one starting point for your coverage of this angle," SEJ writes. Another valuable resource for fracking reporting is a report on April 16 from House Democrats that identifies 750 substances used from 2005-2009 in fracking operations. Additional disclosure information can be obtained from new programs initiated by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2010 and the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission in 2011, SEJ says. (Read more)

Closures of rural maternity wards leave expectant mothers with few options

Rural women may be facing a shortage of adequate, accessible maternity care as more rural hospitals across the country close their maternity wards. In Hyden, Ky., Mary Breckinridge Hospital, named for the woman who helped bring the midwifery model of care to the U.S., closed its ward last year. "The hospital cited poor reimbursement from Medicaid, large malpractice insurance premiums for maternity care providers, and fewer births," Kelli B. Haywood reports for the Daily Yonder. Virginia, Ohio and Alabama also have seen maternity ward closures in recent months. (Haywood photo: Jaxon Shell at Mary Breckinridge Hospital)

"While there may be fewer births in some rural areas, it must be recognized that these areas are still underserved when it comes to maternity care," Haywood writes. The Center for Rural Health, a unit of the University of Kentucky, reports just seven obstetricians serve every 100,000 rural Kentuckians. In the state's urban areas the ratio is 11 to 100,000. Due to this disparity, "Rural women will face added problems and expense of transportation and child care if they hope to receive prenatal care," Haywood writes. "These costs could be high enough that some rural women, especially those who either are uninsured or who rely on government assistance for proper maternity care, would not be able to obtain it."

Research suggests medical intervention, like inducing labor or performing Cesarean surgery, is more common during births at rural hospitals where providers feel pressure from high patient loads. Haywood concludes, "Rather than fighting to keep a system that is not benefiting rural women, health care providers, or state governments, we need new models of care and ways in which that care can be obtained safely, close to home." (Read more)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A fish story, and photo, good enough for the front

It's rare for a fish to make a front page, but the Lewis County Herald in Vanceburg, Ky., put one there this week when a local angler caught, by broad definition, a 65-pound goldfish.

Merle “Plut” Horsley, right, was using a minnow on a 12-pound-test line. "After about 20 minutes something took the bait and a two-hour struggle to land a 65-pound, 49-inch-long goldfish ensued," Dennis Brown writes for the Herald. "While the species of fish hasn’t been officially confirmed, the size of the catch is remarkable. Goldfish are members of the carp family and in the wild have been know to mate with certain other species of carp, creating a hybrid."

A fish-hatchery manager for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources "said he believes the fish could be an albino or gold-colored bighead carp, noting that the scales on the fish are too small for a goldfish or common carp," Brown writes. He took the photo, too, and he owns and edits the paper. For a look at the front page, click here.

Pot planting on private land is a growing concern in California: 'a little-spoken-of war'

The federal government may be focusing on stopping illegal marijuana crops on public lands, but that is not helping California private landowners and law enforcement officials stop pot growers from trespassing on private lands to grow their crop. "A little-spoken-of war is taking place behind California’s fences and property lines – trespassing marijuana growers are setting booby traps, resorting to violence and vandalism, and spoiling the land by stealing water and spraying dangerous chemicals that leach into streams," Robert Townsend of California Watch reports. The task for stopping these growers has fallen to local law enforcement.

"They’re dangerous people, but we’re in a situation, and I think they’re very much aware of this, where we’d be shooting each other," Rob Brown, a county supervisor in rural Lake County, told Townsend. "They're armed more for the idea of protecting their families at home than they are for themselves. That's not a theory or opinion; that's an absolute fact."

Some landowners worry about the environmental impact in addition to the violence from trespassing pot growers. Last year a Mendocino County grand jury found "trespassing growers had cut down trees, destroyed vegetation, diverted streams and littered the landscape with animal carcasses, garbage, human waste, herbicides and animal poisons," Townsend writes.

"Locating marijuana in Mendocino County is not our problem," Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, who estimates 30 percent of his budget goes to marijuana issues during the growing months, said. "We’ll take all the tips possible. However, I hope the citizens understand that we can’t investigate every marijuana tip that we get … especially this time of year." While budget cuts may have hampered law enforcement's ability to fight marijuana growers, they unanimously discourage landowners from trying to remove the crops themselves, Townsend writes. (Read more)

Budget cuts force another university to cut extension; more are probably on the way

South Dakota is the latest victim of budget cuts to land-grant universities, which are being proposed or considered all over the nation. South Dakota State University recently announced elimination of 90.8 positions, including 20 extension jobs and closures of two research experiment stations and two campus testing laboratories, Andrea J. Cook of the Rapid City Journal reports. These cuts are part of a $1.2 million loss in in state and federal funds to the university.

Counties now provide office space, equipment and other administrative services for extension offices, and the university pays the salary of the extension specialists, once called agents. “The impact to counties will be determined, to a large degree, by county commissions,” said Barry Dunn, dean of the university's College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences. (Read more)

In Oregon, Gov. John Kitzhaber has proposed an 18 percent cut in funding for statewide extension services. "The money would have to be gathered by charging more for research, or 4-H membership or by somehow finding a lot of donations," and Oregon State University "would have to close research facilities," the East Oregonian of Pendleton says in an editorial.

Analyst says U.S. producing too much chicken

Rita Jane Gabbett reports for MeatingPlace, "The chicken industry needs to cut production by 1 percent to 2 percent to return to profitability and cut by 2 percent to 3 percent to return to normalized levels of profit, a Wall Street analyst predicted."

The analyst was Heather Jones of BB&T Capital Markets. In a report on Pilgrim's Pride, she "painted a grim picture of the chicken industry in general, predicting continued high feed prices and sluggish demand and noting the industry has been slow to respond to a market in which producers are already losing money," Gabbett writes. (Read more; subscription may be required)

Michigan imposes power over struggling schools; South Dakota has 24 tiny schools remaining

The Michigan Legislature voted to give state-appointed emergency managers unprecedented control over local governments and school districts, and those managers may be poised to take over several rural districts. Republicans in the legislature voted for the expanded powers but "so far the new powers have been used only in heavily Democratic cities," Eartha Jane Melzer of The Michigan Messenger reports. Now "rural Republican lawmakers who don’t represent cities or schools under takeover threat — yet — are starting to raise questions as to how far Lansing should go," Melzer reports. (Read more)

Meanwhile in South Dakota, there were 24 one- or two-teacher schools in the state during the 2009-2010 school year, Jennifer Jungwirth of The Daily Republic in Mitchell reports. "The country schools served a real need years ago. They were vital with a larger agriculture population," Melody Schopp, South Dakota secretary of education told Jungwirth. "As the population declined in rural areas, it became a financial issue." (Read more)

Test scores raise question: Are 'advanced' high school courses really advanced?

The percentage of high school students taking classes that sound rigorous nearly tripled in the last 20 years, but some studies reports that hasn't translated into higher test scores. "The reason, according to a growing body of research, is that the content of these courses is not as high-achieving as their names — the course-title equivalent of grade inflation," Sam Dillon of The New York Times reports. "Algebra II is sometimes just Algebra I. And College Preparatory Biology can be just Biology." We wonder if problem is more prevalent in rural schools, which may lack faculty to teach truly advanced courses. It's a question for any school district.

Lynn T. Mellor, a researcher in Texas, compares the phenomenon to labeling orange soda as healthier orange juice. "Like the misleading drink labels, course titles may bear little relationship to what students have actually learned," said Mellor, who has analyzed course completion, test records and other student data in Texas. "We see students taking more and more advanced courses, but still not performing well on end-of-course exams." The nation's 17-year-olds on average scored no higher on federal tests in 2009 than they did in 1973, and SAT scores have leveled out since 2000, Dillon writes.

However, "a federal study released this month of nearly 38,000 high school transcripts showed that the proportion of graduates completing a rigorous curriculum rose to 13 percent in 2009 from 5 percent in 1990," Dillon writes. Researchers suggest schools apply more rigorous names to courses to help students satisfy some states' tougher graduation requirements, satisfy parents' interest in rigorous coursework for their children and boost administrators' vanity in offering ambitious courses. Some educators argue students benefit from being exposed to more ambitious coursework even if they don't perform well, Dillon writes.

"Course-title inflation is easier to document in math and science, researchers said, but they suspect it is happening in English and other subjects, too," Dillon reports. The number of Advanced Placement exams taken by U.S. high school students almost doubled from 1.2 million in 2000 to 3.1 million in 2010 and not every student who takes an AP course, takes the exam. The failure rate rose from 36.4 percent in 2000 to 42.5 percent in 2010. (Read more)

Education secretary granting more waivers to requirements of No Child Left Behind Act

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama have called for an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act, which poses compliance problems for many rural schools, and in the meantime Duncan has been granting more waivers to the law than his predecessors. In 2009 during Duncan’s first year in office he granted 315 waivers, Michele McNeil of Education Week reports. "That marks a nine-fold increase in the number issued under his predecessor, Margaret Spellings, the year before," but many if not most are "linked to the education aid Congress provided as part of the economic-stimulus package."

Data from 2010 is not available, but "waivers continue—including some that strike at the heart of the requirement that students, schools, and districts be measured against the same state tests," McNeil writes. A Kansas school this month received a first-of-its-kind waiver to use its own standards and tests for its oldest students. In March, Utah received a waiver to let 12 districts use computer-adaptive tests for accountability purposes, a request Spellings denied in 2008, McNeil reports.

Secretary Rod Paige granted just eight waivers in 2002-04. In 2005 Spellings granted the first substantial waivers, which involved the requirement that schools and districts provide public school choice and tutoring to students who attend schools in need of improvement. Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, sees the waivers as needed flexibility. "What we have ... is a system that was well intended but had a calculus that is leading to a result that is causing the law to lose its credibility," he said. "There will be pressure on the secretary to do something to change the conditions. He may be forced to address this." (Read more)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Federal delay leads 17 states to consider regulation of for-profit colleges' recruiting

The U.S. Department of Education has delayed proposed restrictions on recruiting practices of for-profit colleges after opposition from industry lobbyists and Congress. Last fall the federal government began drafting the rules after a report from the Government Accountability Office revealed for-profit colleges "deceived potential students about graduation and job placement rates in the process of getting them to enroll and sign up for state and federal loans," David Harrison of reports. In the absence of federal action, some state lawmakers are cracking down.

"Legislators say they are simply trying to protect students and consumers in their states," Harrison writes. "Backers of the for-profit schools say fiscally troubled state governments are seeking to save money by restricting the amount of public aid that for-profit schools are entitled to." Deanne Loonin, a National Consumer Law Center laywer who tracks for-profit schools, told Harrison most of the lobbying has been at the federal level, but "There’s definitely been a lot of resources poured into the states, and I expect there will be more."

"According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, lawmakers in 17 states have introduced bills on for-profit colleges this year, many of them designed to tighten regulation of the schools," Harrison writes. Maryland's House and Senate passed bills that would "eliminate all state aid to for-profit schools, ban commissions or bonuses for student recruiting, and make all for-profit schools in the state contribute to a fund to protect students if any college in their group breaches a contract," Harrison writes. Gov. Martin O'Malley says he supports the bill and plans to sign the final version into law. (Read more)

A report released last week by State Auditor Crit Luallen says the Kentucky State Board for Proprietary Education, which oversees for-profit colleges, "provides inadequate oversight, hasn't had an outside financial audit in 10 years and lacks a clear understanding of its role," Cheryl Truman of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. "The key point is, as a state, Kentucky has a need ... for more of our people to receive a quality education," Luallen said in a news conference. "This board really has to help protect the reputable schools from unfair competitive practices or schools that may be lacking in quality. Those color the whole reputation of the proprietary education industry." (Read more)

Multiple studies, one rural, link prenatal pesticide exposure to lower IQ scores in children

Prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides, commonly used on food crops and well-known neurotoxicants, has been linked to lower IQ scores in young children, says a report from the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. The study is one of three published online April 21 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives," reports Bioscience Technology, a monthly publication for biotechnology researchers. The study sampled children living in an agricultural community in Monterey County, California; the other two, at Mt. Sinai Medical Center and Columbia University, both in New York City, focused on urban populations.

"It is very unusual to see this much consistency across populations in studies, so that speaks to the significance of the findings," lead author and UC Berkeley post-doctoral researcher Maryse Bouchard said. " The children are now at a stage where they are going to school, so it's easier to get good, valid assessments of cognitive function."

Berkeley researchers observed 329 children from before birth to age seven as part of a longitudinal study for the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas and found "that every tenfold increase in measures of organophosphates detected during a mother's pregnancy corresponded to a 5.5 point drop in overall IQ scores in the 7-year-olds," Bioscience Technology reports. Children with the higest levels of prenatal pesticide exposure scored seven points lower than those children with the lowest exposures, the study shows. "These associations are substantial, especially when viewing this at a population-wide level," said Berkeley epidemiology and maternal and child health professor and principal investigator Brenda Eskenazi. (Read more)

New book explains importance of entrepreneurship for rural America

Entrepreneurship is more important than ever, and rural America stands to benefit from that importance, says the author of TheNewRural.Com. Diane Smith, who moved from Washington, D.C., to Whitefish, Mont., in 2002, says rural America is full of entrepreneurs like herself that technology has allowed to conduct nationwide business away from urban areas, Myers Reece of the Flathead Beacon reports. "I think the most creative and interesting people I know live out here," Smith, whose book centers on "the ubiquitous presence of creative businesspeople throughout rural America," said in an interview.

"In order to survive, for much of its history," Smith writes, "Rural Americans had to learn basic attributes of entrepreneurship – traits like risk taking, hard work, frugality, and self-reliance. Notably, these are the same characteristics we also use to describe America’s early pioneers." Smith adds that the Flathead River valley is equipped with the proper wired and wireless technology to foster entrepreneurship. "I travel all over America and we are emphatically competitive with the rest of America in terms of our infrastructure," Smith said. "It doesn’t mean we're done, though."

Smith identifies mobile and wired broadband networks, virtual workers, remote health care, distance learning and access to capital as necessary fundamentals for economic growth in rural areas. "Rural America should demand to be front and center on everyone’s game plan for the entrepreneurship and pioneering that our nation needs," she writes. "It’s a great place to live. It’s a great place to work. And, it’s a great time to do both. Welcome to The New Rural." (Read more)

Poems inspired by small-town upbringing made Indiana prof a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize

UPDATE, Aug. 8: Manning read to a full house as featured poet for the Holler Poets event on July 27 at Al's Bar in Lexington, Ky., Candace Chaney reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Many Kentucky writers attended.

Poet Maurice Manning used his experience growing up in Danville, Ky., population 10,000, as the basis for his latest volume of poetry, The Common Man, that was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. "It really was a tremendous surprise," Manning told Jennifer Brummett of The Advocate-Messenger in Danville. (Photo contributed to Advocate-Messenger)

Manning, an associate professor of creative writing at Indiana University, said he considers the poems in The Common Man as "tall tales and legends" still heavily based on his childhood in Central Kentucky. "A lot of them, I think, sort of have their genesis in stories that I’ve learned from my grandmothers," he told Brummett. "They’re tales from a world gone by, and more local in their doing and thinking and experience." He added, "In my memory, Danville had real local characters around. So it’s a little bit elegiac — implicit in the book is the acknowledgment this small community I knew growing up and was part of has changed." (Read more)

Glimpses of the book are available on Poem titles include: "Moonshine," "Hey, Sidewinder," "Sowing Butter Beans with a Stick" and "A Wringer Washer on the Porch."

Planting of crop to make biofuel for airplanes stalls in Montana as wheat prices soar

Two years ago the oilseed camelina was a popular crop among Montana farmers looking for the next hot biofuel source, but rising wheat prices have dropped the crop from favor. "The National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that last year Montana farmers planted 9,400 acres of camelina, less than half the acres planted just two years ago," Tom Lutey of The Billings Gazette writes. Wheat prices have soared as animal feedlots seek an alternative to corn, which is in short supply.

"I’m not going to wish for cheap wheat to get the camelina acres up, but that’s what it’s going to take," Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who five years ago called camelina his "new girlfriend," told Lutey. The oilseed has caught on as possible biofuel for the airline industry. "The Air Force last month broke the speed of sound in an F-22 burning a 50-50 blend of camelina and regular jet fuel," Lutey writes. The Air Force paid nearly $67 per gallon for camelina, leading the RAND Corporation to conclude biofuels were not worth the military's trouble.

For now Montana farmers don't see the incentive in planting camelina. "It’s price," said Logan Fisher, of Earl Fisher Biofuels. "Whatever a farmer can use his acres for to get the best price, that’s what he’s going to do." While the fuel has been proven in commercial airline tests for several years, the certification process is slow going. "Certification could come this summer when the American Society for Testing and Materials meets to consider standardizing biofuels for commercial airlines," Lutey writes. Camelina advocates hope certification will make it easier to get grants for refining and assure farmers the crop has a future. (Read more)