Friday, September 16, 2011

White House Rural Council report a campaign document, Nonprofit Quarterly writer says

In June, President Obama created the White House Rural Council, saying it would help his administration better address issues in rural America. Last month, the council released a report, "Jobs and Economic Security for Rural America," essentially a talking paper for a wide range of administration initatives. Most rural advocates might be disappointed in the report, which is "basically a campaign document, not a blueprint for laying out problems and calling people to action," writes Rick Cohen, national correspondent for the Nonprofit Quarterly.

The report doesn't mention non-profits or foundations, and Obama didn't mention them or public-private partnerships in a speech in Peosta, Iowa, at what was billed as the White House Rural Economic Forum. Cohen writes that the speech was more of a hackneyed attempt to garner votes than an effort to enlighten people about rural America's problems and how to fix them. (2009 photo)

"A forum plus 'commitments' that involve no new laws and no new resources, just repositioned or retargeted dollars, as he said in his speech, don’t do much, and the words feel like American exceptionalism cheerleading, not a solid response to the poverty of rural America," Cohen writes. He adds that of America's 200 poorest counties, 192 are rural. (Read more)

Proposed broadband connectivity plan has states concerned; rural phone rates may rise

Many states' regulators and the Federal Communications Commission are at odds over the Broadband Connectivity Plan proposed by six of the biggest phone companies serving rural areas. The proposal by AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Frontier Communications, Windstream and FairPoint Communications, addresses intercarrier compensation and the Universal Service Fund, which the FCC wants to reform in hopes of expanding broadband networks to rural areas, Kim Hart of Politico reports. (Associated Press photo)

Some state regulators say "the proposed plan pre-empts their role in regulating how phone companies operate in their territories," in violation of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Hart reports. State commissioners plan to plead their case to the FCC and lawmakers in Washington next week.

Historically, states have taken the lead in determining intrastate rates, the fees local carriers pay to connect to long-distance carriers, while the FCC has managed interstate rates. The new proposal would set the default rate at $0.0007 per minute for all calls, regardless of distance, doing away with "a fundamental piece of state regulators' authority" and significantly cutting revenues "rural companies rely on to serve remote regions," Hart reports. As a result, rural customers may see price increases. (Read more)

Bad weather spurs farmers' desire for better crop insurance, but none dare call it climate change

A recent string of crop-destroying weather has helped spur farmers to ask for more federal crop insurance, making disaster relief a top priority in the 2012 Farm Bill, perhaps at the expense of direct subsidies. However, as they ask for more insurance, farmers and their lobbies don't acknowledge climate change as a possible cause for the troublesome weather and aren't attempting to adapt to it, Jean Chemnick of Greenwire reports in The New York Times.

Kansas corn growers have had to deal with both drought and flood this year, and the executive director of the Kansas Corn Commission, Jere White, told Chemnick that climate change is not discussed when his group talks policy. He said the increased interest in crop insurance has more to do with the fundamentals of farming than climate change. Richard Krause, senior director for congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Chemnick that increasing crop insurance would be a way to "fill the gap" if Congress stops direct subsidy payments to farmers through spending cuts.

However, Brian Murray, director of economic analysis at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University, told Chemnick that federal insurance programs protect against disaster with no guarantee of payment, while subsidies do guarantee a minimum return on investment. He suggested that farmers are using crop insurance as a way to adapt to increasingly extreme weather without discussing climate change, even though adapting to weather and climate is part of being a farmer.

Jim French, an agriculture advocate for Oxfam America, told Chemnick that farmers could better prepare for extreme weather if they would be willing to acknowledge climate change, adding that a cap-and-trade bill would help fund these adaptation efforts by paying farmers for agricultural practicies that keep carbon from entering the atmosphere. The only farm lobby that has accepted climate change as the reason for extreme weather patterns is the liberally oriented National Farmers Union, which backed legislation during the last Congress to cap industrial greenhouse-gas emissions. (Read more)

'Bob-white!' Call of the quail heard less often; farmers, hunters, conservationists try to help

The familiar call of the bobwhite quail might have become a thing of the past in the Eastern U.S. had farmers, bird watchers, hunters and conservationists not come together to save the ground-dwelling fowl. Still, its numbers have plummeted since the 1960s, by 75 percent in Tennessee alone, reports Anne Paine of The Tennessean. That's a drop of about 3 percent a year.

Initiatives have been started in Tennessee that many hope will rejuvenate the state's bobwhite population. Paine reports that farmers are starting to allow tall, native grasses, the natural bobwhite quail habitat, to grow along their fences; state officials have shortened the quail hunting season from 14 to 11 weeks; and Tennessee is now one of 25 states participating in the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative.

Though some believe wild turkeys, raccoons and skunks are to blame for the lack of quail, the loss of tall, native grasses is the main reason for the bobwhite's decline, Paine writes. Replacing such habitat can attract other birds, such as prairie warblers and loggerhead shrikes, and pollinators such as bees and butterflies that thrive among the same grasses. Paine reports that there are programs, like the federal Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, which pays much of the cost of such measures. (Read more)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Facing Sept. 30 deadline, Congress works to keep money flowing to national-forest counties

Congress has started work on legislation to "reauthorize or replace the Secure Rural Schools program, which pays millions of dollars annually to counties with large portions of nontaxable federal lands to help fund schools, roads, emergency services and forest restoration. The program expires at the end of the month," reports Phil Taylor of Environment & Energy News.

The House Natural Resources Committee has a draft proposal that would "boost logging, mining and other uses on national forests to help Western counties fund schools and create new jobs," Taylor writes. The plan "seeks to revive logging as a principal means of funding county programs." The program was started to replace revenues from Western logging that was curtailed mainly for environmental reasons.

In the Senate, a spokeswoman for the Energy and Natural Resources Committee told Taylor that senators of both parties are working on the issue as well as extending payments in lieu of taxes, which play a similar role in national-forest counties in the East. (Read more, subscription required)

Senators file bill to ban farm-dust regulation, ask EPA to back its statements by endorsing it

Federal officials say they have no plans to regulate dust from farms, but some of their statements and actions appear to have created much skepticism, if not disbelief. Some Republican senators have introduced a bill to prohibit such regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is proposing to tighten general standards for dust.

Sens. Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Charles Grassley of Iowa wrote EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson asking her to endorse their bill, "given your previous statements, which appear to be completely consistent with this legislation." The bill would prohibit regulation of farm dust unless there was scientific proof that it causes harm, reports Elise Viebeck of The Hill.

The uncertainty may stem from EPA's attempts to reduce dust in Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes Phoenix. In February, the agency found that the county had failed to limit dust to currently allowable levels. "EPA is proposing 53 measures in the Maricopa area to reduce dust. Many of these measures impact agriculture," lawyer-farmer Gary Baise of Illinois wrote for Farm Futures.

EPA has been regulating farm dust in the desert county since 1996. Here is a report about it. In June, EPA complimented the county for its new dust-abatement handbook. Recently the county suffered huge dust storms.

USPS says it wants to close most sorting centers

"Snail mail is about to get even slower." That's how Patrick Rizzo of MSNBC summed up today's announcement by the U.S. Postal Service that it would move to close more than half of its regional mail-sorting facilities. "The moves will mean first-class mail will no longer reach most customers the day after it was dropped in the mailbox," Rizzo wrote.

Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post notes, "Lawmakers are considering four competing legislative proposals that would generally grant USPS the flexibility to end Saturday mail deliveries, close post offices based on market conditions and recalculate how much it pays annually into federal retirement, health-care and workers compensation accounts."

The Postal Regulatory Commission recommended in March, after testimony from the National Newspaper Association and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, that the postal service conduct more research on the impact of five-day delivery on rural areas.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

New report finds rural roads in dismal shape; state groups seek ways to fund work

The nation's rural roads have been neglected and are in dire need of repair, according to a recently released transportation study conducted by The Road Information Program. TRIP is a Washington-based non-profit charged with studying the condition of the nation's highways.

The report outlines the importance of sound transportation systems in rural areas and details the state of rural roads in each state. Key findings of the report include numbers of rural non-interstate traffic deaths, the percentage of major rural roads in poor condition and the highest share of rural bridges rated structurally deficient.

According to the report, Pennsylvania has the most rural bridges rated structurally deficient. Out of its more than 4,000 bridges, 28 percent were deficient. Seventeen percent of its rural roads were rated as being in poor condition. Jonathan Silver of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazaette reported that these issues have added significance considering the state has the third largest rural population, 2.8 million.

West Virgina ranks as the third worst in the nation in rural road fatalities, almost double the rate of other types of roads, The Associated Press reports. The report notes 27 percent of the state's rural roads are in poor condition, meaning they are damaged with rutting, cracks and potholes that call for replacement of roads that can't be resurfaced.

In Missouri, groups such as the Missouri Transportation Alliance are looking for ways to fund rural road improvement, like state gas tax or sales tax increases. However, Josh Nelson of The News Leader in Springfield reports that MTA spokesperson Bill McKenna said federal highway spending is a likely target of the 12-member congressional deficit "super committee." Silver writes that Pennsylvania state highway officials have urged Congress to create a six-year funding plan that would focus on rural infrastructure. So far, though, Congress has not passed any such measure. To see the TRIP report, entitled "Rural Connections: Challenges and Opportunities in America's Heartland," in its entirety, click here.

W.Va. jail overcrowding leads to increase in violence against local corrections staff

Following a trend in overcrowding of jails across the country, West Virginia's rate of inmate assaults on regional jail staff and inmate-on-inmate assaults has increased exponentially over the past year. Inmate-on-inmate assaults in the state's 10 regional jails rose 40 percent, from 496 to 695, while inmate on worker assaults increased 87 percent, leaving 58 correctional officers injured.

West Virginia's Regional Jail Authority executive director, Larry Parsons, told Phil Kabler of the Charleston Gazette that jails are now housing almost 2,000 more inmates than they were designed to hold, and that understaffing has become a problem; 92 correctional officer positions are open.

Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein told Kabler that a backlog of Division of Corrections inmates are housed in local jails. Rubenstein noted that prisons have not seen a rise in inmate violence. He also said the high rate of inmate-on-staff violence could be attributed to the incidents of verbal abuse and inmates throwing objects at workers that they are required to report. (Read more)

Harlan County, Ky., opens a mountain zipline

The construction of outdoor attractions has been on the rise in rural regions of the country eager to reap economic benefits of tourism. In Eastern Kentucky, one community hopes to draw visitors by capitalizing on the mountains that surround the town with a zip line called "Black Mountain Thunder." (Harlan Daily Enterprise photo by Anders Eld)

Anders Eld of the Harlan Daily Enterprise reports the zip line, located at the Evarts trailhead in Baileys Creek, was opened by the Harlan County Outdoor Recreation Board today, in what officials are calling a "soft opening." The grand opening will happen in October. It was designed and built by professional zip-line designer Robert Nickell. (Read more) For coverage following opening day, click here.

Report lists benefits, pitfalls of Marcellus fracking

A report done for New York state officials says natural-gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region that uses hydraulic fracturing, in which high volumes of water, sand and unknown chemicals are forced into deep, dense shales to release gas, could create 37,000 jobs and generate $31 to $185 million a year in state income taxes for New York. (Click on map for larger version)

The report for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation also outlines some pitfalls of drilling in the largely rural south-central and southwestern areas of the state, which the report says are likely to become the "epicenter of the expected hydrofracking activity over the next 30 years," Mireya Navarro of the New York Times writes. The  downsides include large-scale industrial activity, heavy truck traffic, more spending on police and fire protection, and higher housing prices, responding to demand.

The report has become part of a broader draft document that environmental regulators will use to identify risks and propose rules to allow fracking with horizontal drilling for the first time in the state, writes Navarro. The state still plans to ban fracking in most watersheds supplying drinking water, but Navarro reports that areas on the Marcellus Shale could have tens of thousands of wells. (Read more)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Senate bill would resume federal inspections of horse slaughterhouses; ban originated in House

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee says the Appropriations Committee is moving a bill that would allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture to inspect horse slaughterhouses, in an effort to restore the bottom to the horse market and reduce abuse, neglect and abandonment of horses.

Congress denied USDA funds for such inspections in 2007, ending the American industry that supplied horsemeat for human consumption to Japan and Europe. Montana Sen. Max Baucus cited the Government Accountabilty Office study that found the ban at least partly responsible for a decline in horse sales and prices and an increase in abandonment and neglect.

"Many animal welfare organizations have opposed any move to resume horse slaughter, saying it often results in inhumane shipment and painful deaths and is not the only alternative to preventing neglect," the Los Angeles Times reports. "The Humane Society of the United States said in a report that 92 percent of horses slaughtered are in good condition. The Times adds, "The ban resulted in a more than 600 percent increase in the number of horses being shipped to Mexico, where animal welfare groups say facilities are often horrific."

The ban arose in the House, which voted this year to keep it in place, but after a relatively close vote on its Appropriations Committee.

Rural development spending draws critics, then the story about them draws another

"The Obama administration is investing billions of dollars to promote economic development in rural areas by bringing broadband service and small-business financing to regions with chronic poverty and high unemployment," Ron Nixon reports for The New York Times. "But critics say the administration has little to show for its efforts, which highlight the difficulties of creating jobs in remote areas. They say the money has gone to areas where it is not needed, to promote broadband where it already exists and for industrial parks designed to attract business and jobs that may never materialize."

Nixon notes that the rural poverty rate is higher than the national average, but the Daily Yonder notes that Nixon names only two critics: "One is from the conservative Cato Institute, which is philosophically opposed to most government spending and one isn't so much a critic as an analyst," on the topic of broadband. The Yonder also notes that Nixon "mentions one project," a Mississippi industrial park. "We would agree that industrial parks are probably not the best way to spend development money in either rural or urban settings." (Read more)

Nine Amish men jailed for refusal to use slow-moving-vehicle signs and pay fines and costs

Nine Amish men are now being sent to jail for not paying fines and court costs levied against them after they refused to display orange triangle signs on the back of their horse-drawn buggies in Graves County in far Western Kentucky, reports Peter Smith of The Courier-Journal in Louisville. (Photo by Smith)

The men appealed their 2008 misdemeanor convictions in June, but the state Court of Appeals said religious practices can't supersede the rights and safety of the public at large. Smith reports that Graves District Judge Deborah Hawkins Crooks sentenced the men to between three and 10 days in jail for refusing to pay fines ranging between $148 to more than $600. The length of their sentences depended on their respective fines.

The men belong to a strict Amish sect, Old Order Swartzentruber, that forbids wearing bright colors or trusting man-made symbols in their safety. The men agree that complying with the law and paying the fines would be a violation of their beliefs. One of the men, Levi Zook, told Smith, "I don’t think it’s right to put somebody in jail for practicing their religious beliefs ... but that’s what we’ll do if that’s what it takes to abide by the biblical laws."

The men have appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court, but the court has not decided whether or not to hear their cases. Meanwhile, Crooks told Smith that trial dates have been set in the coming months for several other Amish men, who have other pending charges, including some of those now serving sentences. (Read more)

UPDATE, Oct. 10: Two more members of the sect were convicted, Smith reports.

Obama proposes billions to repair schools, with rural emphasis; Republicans skeptical at best

President Obama has included a provision in his proposed American Jobs Act that would pour billions into public schools across the country, with a special emphasis on rural schools. According to a White House fact sheet, his proposal would amount to a $25 billion investment in infrastructure for 35,000 public schools. An additional $5 billion would be provided to community colleges.

The fact sheet cites a backlog of school maintenance and repair projects totaling between $270 to $500 billion, and says overstretched districts in the nation's poorest areas have to defer repairs, forcing students and teachers into overcrowded classrooms with little or outdated technology in buildings that average 40 years old.

The money would allow districts to upgrade facilities, make renovations and emergency repairs, upgrade "greening" and energy efficiency, complete asbestos abatement and removal, participate in modernization efforts to build new science and computer labs, upgrade technology infrastructure in our schools, and make upgrades to continue shared spaces as adult vocational and job development centers.

Almost 40 percent of the money would go to the 100 largest high-need schools, or those with the most students living in poverty. The remaining 60 percent of funds would be given to states to disperse. The amount each state gets will be determined by its share of funding from Title I, the main federal program for school in poor areas. They would have to distribute the funds by September 30, 2012 and give priority to rural districts.

Some Republican leaders have denounced Obama's overall proposal, saying he should roll back regulations that they say "kill American jobs" if he wants to keep people working. Andy Sullivan of Reuters reports that House Republican Leader Eric Cantor said he wouldn't support the proposal because it's "akin to the stimulus bill," and he didn't think the American people would want it.

To read the fact sheet, and see a chart outlining the amount of money to which each state is entitled, the number of jobs these projects are likely to create and the amount community colleges in each state could receive, click here.

U.S. poverty rate increases to 15%; some of the more rural states have the highest rates

The percentage of Americans living in poverty is now the largest since 1959, when the Census Bureau first started tracking the poverty rate. There are now 46 million people living in poverty, bringing the rate up to 15.1.

Mississippi has the highest poverty rate at 22.7 percent, followed closely by Louisiana, the District of Columbia, Georgia, New Mexico and Arizona. Hope Yethat the recession, which left millions of Americans grappling with long-term unemployment, is to blame. The poverty rate rose faster from 2007 to 2010 than in any previous three-year period since the early 1980s.

Poverty rose among all racial and ethnic groups except Asians. Hispanics went from 25.3 to 26.6 percent, blacks from 25.8 to 27.4 percent and whites from 9.4 to 9.9 percent. The percentage of children in poverty rose from 20.7 to 22. (Read more)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Gas-drilling foes in Pa. trying local referenda, believed to be the first such votes in nation

"Challengers to natural gas drilling are taking a new approach in Pennsylvania, putting the rights of energy companies to drill in the massive Marcellus Shale basin on the ballot in what are believed to be the nation's first voter initiatives seeking to ban such activity," The Wall Street Journal reports. (WSJ map)

The referenda will be in Peters Township and State College, and maybe Warren. Gas companies argue that state law pre-empts such local legislation. "Such complete bans on drilling have yet to be ruled on by a court in Pennsylvania, but legal experts are doubtful they would survive," Kris Maher writes. A judge threw out a ban in Morgantown, W. Va. Opposition to drilling centers on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which water, chemicals and sand at high pressure are used to release gas from the deep, dense shale.

Investors see promise in America's farms; some bankers see a possible bubble

Money continues to pour into America's farmland, but not by those who actually till the dirt and plant the crops. The continually rising price of food worldwide and the lack of arable land on which to plant is driving the cost of corn, soybeans, wheat and other crops up, something rich investors who have never planted a seed say makes buying this land a sound investment. (Photo by Joe Raymond, The Associated Press)

In Iowa, the value of farmland has almost doubled in six years, while values of farms in Nebraska and Kansas are up more than 50 percent, reports AP's National Association of RealtorsThomas Hoenig, head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. He told Condon that current prices may be in an "unsustainable bubble." Others don't see it that way. Perry Vieth, a veteran bond trader and owner of Ceres Partners, a private investment fund, told Condon he is buying for 71 investors. His company owns 65 farms and he has returned 15 percent annually to his investors.

Citizens unaware of records they can get, newspaper says in reporting local officials' pay

Most people in rural areas are not aware they can file open-records requests to obtain information they are entitled to see, such as salaries of public employees, reports Dave Boucher of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, Ky.

In a recent weekend issue of the paper (Aug. 27-28), Boucher reported that he filed 20 records requests to acquire information on city and county employee salaries. Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, told Boucher that public officials in rural places "can feel like a request to know their salary is an invasion of privacy," a feeling that stems from rural community culture in which a public office can be regarded as a private possession.

People simply don't understand what types of information they are entitled to see, Cross told Boucher. According to the Kentucky Open Records Act, any agency that receives at least 25 percent of its funding from public sources is subject to a request, Boucher writes. There are some exemptions, including "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" and classified information, but salaries are not on that list. (Read more)

Asian carp are still moving toward Great Lakes; canal barrier's voltage to be increased

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will increase the voltage on an electric fence designed to keep Asian carp from traveling into the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River system. Preliminary tests of the fence's power showed the voltage was not high enough to deter the invasive fish from entering the lakes.

Paul Quinlan of Enviropnment & Energy News reports that the three-part barrier will be placed in a Chicago shipping canal to keep the fish from entering Lake Michigan, where a carp was spotted last year. Lawmakers and environmentalist are worried the fish could "wreak havoc on the bottom of the food chain and ultimately destroy the $7 billion sport fishery" in the Great Lakes.

Maj. Gen. John Peabody, commander of the Corps' Great Lakes and Ohio River Division, told Quinlan the voltage will be raised this fall, but will not harm people. The Corps also reported that monitoring has shown small Asian carp are not swimming close to the barrier. (Read more)

Pipeline safety regulators focus on population centers, leaving rural areas more vulnerable

After two recent oil spills, one in Montana and one in Michigan, that released over 885,000 gallons of crude into nearby rivers, much attention has been paid to lack of oversight of the 167,000 miles of hazardous-liquid pipelines that cross the nation's rural areas.

Dan Frosch and Janet Roberts of The New York Times discovered through investigation of federal reports and safety documents that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, charged with oversight of safety and regulation of the pipeline system, only has 118 inspectors, 17 fewer than federal law authorizes, and does not have the resources to hire more. This is increasingly leaving oversight in the hands of pipeline operators.

Though the pipeline industry reported 25 percent fewer spill incidents from 2001 to 2010 than in the prior decade, there are still more than 100 significant spills every year, Frosch and Roberts write. The agency only requires inspectors to focus on 44 percent of land-based pipelines close to population centers and delicate environmental areas, leaving thousands of miles of pipelines in rural areas to be "loosely regulated and operating essentially on the honor system."

These concerns come close to the State Department's recent approval of the controversial Keystone XL, a proposed 1,661-mile pipeline from Canada to Texas. Paired with a report recently released by the National Transportation Safety Board about a natural-gas pipeline explosion in California that claimed eight lives, the safety of the proposed line and the 40- to 60-year-old nationwide pipeline infrastructure has been brought into question. (Read more)

To see a Times map showing where these spills most frequently occur, along with data about the main causes of these spills, click here.

New rules in Canada would block building of coal-fired power plants without carbon capture

The Canadain government is considering new regulations for coal-fired power plants that will require plants "to emit roughly the same greenhouse gases as natural gas generators," Christa Marshall of ClimateWire reports. The 2020 goal is to have emission rates 17 percent below the 2005 levels, Environment Minister Peter Kent said in a ceremony in Saskatchewan. Coal fuels about 17 percent of Canada's electricity and is responsible for about 13 percent of the country's greenhouse gases.

The new rules, which should take effect in 2015, will require companies constructing new plants to invest in new carbon-capture technologies or avoid coal altogether. Emissions will be limited to 375 metric tons of carbon dioxide per gigawatt of electricity. Analysts say the only way to achieve that level is "with yet-to-be commercialized technology," Marshall writes.

Most of the nation's coal plants would remain in operation past 2020, which has many environmentalists upset. "About two-thirds of current plants would not have to meet the standard until after 2020, and nine would operate past 2030 without constraint", Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank reports. This "would do little initially for climate change," Tim Weis, an analyst at Pembina told Marshall. (Read more; subscription may be required)

The 60-day public comment period will close late next month, but Kent told Rebecca Penty of the Calgary Herald, he does not expect the any substantial changes. (Read more)