Saturday, February 04, 2012

Feb. 20 is deadline to nominate a Local Hero for using open-government laws to make a difference

Do you know someone who has made a difference in their community by using information gleaned through freedom of information laws of the states or federal government? You have until Feb. 20 to nominate them as a "Local Hero" to be recognized during Sunshine Week, March 11-17.

Sunshine Week is designed to focus attention on, and spur dialogue about, the importance ofprotecting and utilizing access to government information.Nominations for “Local Heroes” may be submitted online by going here.

Ron Paul counts on rural votes in Nevada, Maine; falls short in the Silver State

UPDATE: Mitt Romney easily won the Nevada caucuses, getting about 40 percent of the vote in early returns. Ron Paul, running third with 15 percent of the vote counted, carried rural Nye and Esmerelda counties; Newt Gingrich, running second, carried rural Mineral County. For coverage from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, go here. Politico reports, "In a state where expectations for his campaign were higher than anywhere else to date, the Texas congressman’s third-place finish marked an underwhelming outcome for a candidate whose strategy is predicated on running well in caucus states like Nevada." (Read more)

Photo (via Politico): Nevada rally
Ron Paul is counting on a big vote from rural Nevada in today's Republican caucuses, reports James Hohmann of Politico: "In Pahrump, Paul tailored his message to rural voters who are even more interested than his typical backers in government leaving them alone. 'Independence' was the key buzzword. He decried the loss of property rights and drew some of his biggest cheers when he pledged to eliminate the Department of the Interior. (Read more)

In the crowd were owners and employees of brothels, which are legal in most of rural Nevada. Dennis Hof, owner of the Bunny Ranch near Carson City, almost 400 miles northeast of Pahrump, told NBC's Anthony Terrell, "The Bunny Ranch bunnies are supporting Ron Paul because he’s for states' rights." Hof's girlfriend, Cami Parker, added, "All the bunny babes are registered Republicans. We will be at the caucus on Saturday and we are pimping for Paul." (Read more)

Maine, the most rural state, also has caucuses today, but they will continue until next Saturday. There, Politico says,  it's a two-man race between Paul and Romney.

Cuts in home-heating assistance hit hard in Maine

Cuts in the home-heating assistance program are hitting hard in Maine, where "at this time of year, almost nothing matters here as much as basic heat," writes Dan Barry of The New York Times. "While federal officials try to wean the country from messy and expensive heating oil, Maine remains addicted. The housing stock is old, most communities are rural, and many residents cannot afford to switch to a cleaner heat source." (Times photo by Nicole Bengiveno)

Barry runs the numbers: "As part of the drive to cut spending, the Obama administration and Congress have trimmed the energy-assistance program that helps the poor — 65,000 households in Maine alone — to pay their heating bills. Eligibility is harder now, and the average amount given here is $483, down from $804 last year, all at a time when the price of oil has risen more than 40 cents in a year, to $3.71 a gallon."

Barry's article is built around a heart-rending tale of a man who saw his heating assistance cut by three-fourths, was running out of oil and had no money to buy a load, and had unpaid bills that kept him from getting a third load on credit. To read the tale, click here.

The state tightened eligibility requirements, reports Emily Guerin of The Forecaster in Falmouth. Governments in some towns (every place in rural New England is part of a town) and nonprofit organizations are supplementing assistance. "Some have aggressively raised money, while others have set aside tax revenue to help heat residents' homes," Guerin writes.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Kansas agriculture interests want feds to OK program to place illegal immigrants in jobs

Kansas Agriculture Secretary Dale Rodman, right, wants the federal government to start a pilot program that would connect undocumented immigrants who have been in the state for five years with agricultural employers who Rodman says are struggling to find workers. "You've got to listen to your customers," Rodman told Tim Carpenter of The Capital-Journal in Topeka.

The federal Department of Homeland Security "hasn't signaled approval," Carpenter writes, but "Those officials haven't closed the door either." He adds, "A powerful coalition of business interests is preparing to tackle the issue in Topeka," including the state Chamber of Commerce and Farm Bureau.

"This is the same coalition that contributed in the 2011 session to blocking a version of the controversial Arizona immigration measure compelling  police officers to detain individuals they think might be undocumented," Carpenter notes. "The plan is to reach out to experienced, committed workers with no criminal background. A likely candidate would be a person who entered Kansas on a visa that expired years ago." (Read more)

Foundations, others discuss ideas for increasing philanthropy in rural America

One of the greatest disparities between rural and urban America is in philanthropy. As you might expect, rural places get the short end of the stick. Recently the Council on Foundations and the Chronicle of Philanthropy held a Twitter chat with representatives from various foundations  and others to discuss the issue.

"Some of the topics discussed were: common goals and interests of rural funders, challenges rural funders are facing, how rural funders identify community, how can rural funders use public policy and public-philanthropy more effectively and whether the resources are available to capture the transfer of wealth opportunity in rural communities," reports the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship of the Rural Policy Research Institute.

"There were a lot of great takeaways for the success of rural philanthropy," Ahmet Binerer of the center reports. "Participants emphasized the importance of youth retention and attraction (this is vital for the future of rural communities), involvement in community meetings (social media can be utilized to get more people involved in community meetings, strengthening connection to place), and success stories (very powerful to get the message across)." The full conversation is archived here.

This is the 6,000th post on The Rural Blog since it migrated to Blogger in 2007.

Big Rural Brainstorm in Kan. aims to develop ideas for small towns, connect with those who might help

At least 200 people have showed up today in Newton, Kan., at the Big Rural Brainstorm, designed to "develop ideas and projects for improving small Kansas communities in the areas of economic development, education, small business, environment, entertainment, housing, telecommunications and community foundations," reports Emily Behlmann of the Wichita Business Journal.

"Another goal of the event, planners say, is to match needs with those who can fulfill needs," Behlmann reports. "The event included a 'bank' where individuals from small towns could post things they needed to improve their communities, like talent or funds. Attendees will be able to view the needs to see if they can help. The brainstorm also gives special emphasis to the generation [organizer Marci] Penner dubbed the Power-Ups ... 21- to 39-year-olds who choose to live in rural Kansas." For an advance story by James Jordan of The Kansan in Newton, go here.

Telecoms try to erect obstacles to publicly provided broadband in Georgia

Georgia is the latest state where telecommunications companies are trying to get laws passed to make it more difficult for local governments to provide broadband service. "Representatives of rural cities and counties across Georgia told a panel of state senators on Thursday that they had to create the broadband networks private providers refused to bring to their communities, The Associated Press reports.

The telecoms' Senate Bill 313 is sponsored by the Senate majority leader, Republican Chip Rogers. It "would prevent public broadband providers from paying for communication networks with tax or government funds and from offering their services at below-cost prices," AP reports. "It would also require local governments to hold hearings and a special election to become a public provider." (Read more)

Thursday, February 02, 2012

A leader of the Blue Dog Democrats hangs it up

Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, a leader of the conservative and mostly rural Blue Dog Democrats in the House, announced today that he would not run for re-election in his 11th District, which "was dramatically redrawn last year, removing the dependably Democratic heart of Asheville," reports John Boyle of that city's Citizen-Times. (C-T photo)

Shuler, a former quarterback for the University of Tennessee and the Washington Redskins, "is the 12th House Democrat to announce his retirement," notes Rachel Weiner of The Washington Post. "Another eight are running for other office, leaving 20 open seats for Democrats to defend. On the GOP side, seven lawmakers are retiring and seven are running for other office, for a total of 14 open seats." (Read more)

Retired veterinarian 'conflicted' on horse slaughter

Gayle England and horses in Oklahoma
(Brandy Simons, The New York Times)
There has been much commentary about passage of the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture appropriation bill, which could lead to reopening of horse slaughterhouses. Most commentaries are on one side or the other, but retired veterinarian Nell Ahl of Middle Tennessee provides another perspective on the issue throughher column in The Hickman County Times of Centerville, and she reflects the conflicted feelings many of us have on the subject.

Ahl writes that she was appalled to learn in vet school that horses were slaughtered for meat, mainly for export, but after a professor explained some realities to her, she saw things a little differently.

"I had never though about what happens when a horse gets old, is unable to work or is just not wanted anymore," Ahl writes. Her professor explained that horses are expensive animals because of hoof care, hay costs and medical concerns. Horses are often left to starve to death over a long period of time, suffering a lot of pain. "Just remember, a truck ride of 100 miles or less, a quick bullet to the head, and all this pain is averted. The professor's arguments made sense," she says.

She recounts horrors horses faced when Congress forced the closure of horse slaughterhouses after 2006 by withholding money for inspecting the abattoirs, a stand recently reversed. Horses were often stuffed two-high into trucks and driven for thousands of miles to Canada or Mexico where slaughterhouses remained open. Now that they may be poised to re-open in the U.S., Ahl says she's still conflicted about the issue, but one thing's certain: "If it can help the suffering of neglected and abandoned horses in Hickman County, maybe it's not such a bad idea." (Read more)

Artist Christo's Arkansas R. draping draws local ire

Fremont County, Colorado, commissioners listened to more than 50 people voice concern or support Tuesday evening for a proposed art installation across the Arkansas River, reports Carie Canterbury of the Cañon City Daily Record. The artist, Christo, left, hopes to begin construction of his outdoor art installation "Over the River" this summer, and has submitted a temporary use permit for the project, to drape almost six miles of the river with fabric suspended bank-to-bank.
Federal land managers approved an environmental impact statement for the project last year, but opponents, mostly locals, filed suit in federal court yesterday to block construction. The group's lawsuit argues land managers didn't "adequately address" long-term effects on wildlife, specifically bighorn sheep, or the impact of boreholes, rock bolts and anchors that allegedly will have an effect "not unlike industrial mining." An Over the River spokesman said the environmental impact statement would not be undone by a lawsuit.(New York Times photo: Artist's rendering of final installation)

Photo by Jeff Shane, Daily Record
Members of Rags Over the Arkansas River say their concerns aren't being heard. ROAR President Dan Ainsworth, left, said supporters "painted a very rosy picture ... for a tragic event that's about to happen." Supporters, including local officials, contend "Over the River" is a once-in-a-lifetime event that will re-energize the local economy. "This is a $100 million economic gift from Christo over the next two years," said Doug Shane, executive director of the Cañon City Chamber of Commerce. The installation is projected to draw more than 400,000 visitors to Southern Colorado during its two-year construction and two-week final exhibition. Fremont County commissioners have received more than 470 letters about the project, and will use those and comments in public meetings to make their final decision about the temporary use permit. (Read more)

ROAR maintains "moneyed interests and state politicians were pushing a project that would mostly benefit outsiders," reports Kirk Johnson of The New York Times

W.Va. group calls for raising severance tax 20% to create fund for the time when coal runs out

The West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy has asked lawmakers to add 1 percentage point to the 5 percent severance tax on coal and natural gas and put the extra money in a long-term trust fund "to prepare our state for the day the coal and natural gas run out," reports The Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. The fund could be used for a variety of economic development efforts, including early childhood education, college grants to workforce training and infrastructure improvements. Similar programs exist in Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming, Ward notes.

The policy center released a report saying that without a permanent trust fund, "The economic benefit from the natural resources extraction will decline along with the natural resources themselves," and "West Virginia is one of the least economically diverse states in the nation and relies heavily on its natural resources for revenue." If such a program had been created in 1980, the center says, the state would have a trust fund with assets of almost $1.9 billion. If a trust were started now, it would contain an estimated $5.8 billion by 2035. (Read more)

Ward doesn't speculate on the prospects for a higher severance tax, but Charleston Daily Mail Business Editor George Hohmann mentions that the legislature is already considering a much more modest planning-ahead idea from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin that wouldn't raise taxes, "an infrastructure reserve fund. It would receive a portion of the state's rainy-day fund and would help pay for road improvements, growing Medicaid expenses and water and sewer projects." (Read more)

Rural airport subsidies cut, but just a smidgen

The Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes air service to rural communities will be cut, but not as much as many of them feared, under a congressional agreement this week on operating authority for the Federal Aviation Administration over the next four years. The program will be cut to $190 million a year, from $200 million, The Associated Press reports

Communities that are within 175 miles of a hub airport and average fewer than 10 passengers a day would lose their federal subsidy. About a dozen communities would lose service if those rules were applied today. No new communities will be allowed to enter the program. This compromise comes months after House Republicans attempted to cut 13 cities from air subsidies and make it difficult for airline workers to unionize. But the agreement should "pave the way" for continued investment in rural airports, Paul Nyden of The Charleston Gazette reports.

USDA starts mortgage refinancing program, enterprise grant program for rural areas

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is launching a pilot program to help rural homeowners refinance mortgages to lower monthly payments as part of its "ongoing efforts to help middle-class families, create jobs and strengthen the economy," a USDA press release said. The Single Family Housing Guaranteed Rural Refinance program will operate in 19 states hit hardest by the housing market downturn, and where homeowners have loans that were made or guaranteed by USDA Rural Development.

To be eligible, borrowers must have made mortgage payments on time for 12 consecutive months and the refinanced rates must be lower than original rates. Rural Development expects about 235,000 people will be eligible for the program, which will be reviewed after two years to determine its future. The 19 states are: Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Rural Development is also accepting applications for rural enterprise grants. Funding is available to public bodies, nonprofits and Indian tribes. "The goal is to facilitate and finance the development of small and emerging private business enterprises in rural communities and cities with up to 50,000 in population," reports Megan Kamerick of New Mexico Business Weekly. Priority will be given to requests of $50,000 or less and for projects that support renewable energy, local food systems, multi-county or mulit-state economic and community development, cooperatives, business programs in counties with persistent poverty and underserved populations, including minority and women-owned businesses. (Read more)

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Feds to revise, and apparently relax, proposal that would have tightened rules on child farm labor

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

The U.S. Department of Labor will revise and apparently relax the controversial regulation that would have allowed children under 16 to do farm work only on farms wholly owned by their parents.

An unnamed department official told reporters on a conference call this afternoon that the new rule will take into account changes in corporate structure over the past few decades and the devices that farm families use to transfer ownership between generations, sometimes gradually. That was a major point of contention for farmers who objected to the proposal.

Department officials said they hope to propose a revised rule by early summer. Meanwhile, they said the department would revert to a less strict enforcement policy, last used 10 or more years ago, regarding child labor.

A 1966 federal law that prohibits children from doing certain hazardous jobs on farms "allows children of any age who are employed by their parent, or a person standing in the place of a parent, to perform any job on a farm owned or operated by their parent or such person standing in the place of a parent," a department press release noted.

In 2002 or perhaps earlier, the department began interpreting "owned" to mean "wholly owned," and the proposed regulation would have formalized that policy, the department official said. Now, until the revised regulation is adopted, it will revert to the previous definition of "substantially owned."

Asked what that phrase means, the official talked instead about the rule to come: "It clearly will allow for a variety of corporate structures and family owners of a farm while still meeting the intent of Congress that the parent is in a unique position to look out for the welfare of the child in that context."

The new rule could also apply to grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in the press release that her agency "appreciates and respects the role of parents in raising their children and assigning tasks and chores to their children on farms and of relatives such as grandparents, aunts and uncles in keeping grandchildren, nieces and nephews out of harm's way."

The proposed regulation stirred many complaints from farm and members of Congress. When the revised regulation is published, there will be another comment period, probably 60 days, before a final and perhaps further revised version of the rule can take effect. The department will take into account comments “particularly from rural communities and owners of family farms,” said the department official, who spoke on the condition that she be identified in that manner.

For more mainstream media coverage, see The Kalamazoo Gazette, the Greeley Tribune or The Wall Street Journal, which were among the outlets with reporters on the call who asked questions.

Seen a snowy owl lately? You're not alone

Photo by Sandy Milliken, Post Falls, Idaho
The U.S. has a snow shortage this winter, but a surplus of snowy owls. Thousands of the white birds have migrated from the Arctic into the lower 48 states this winter in what some specialists are calling "the most significant wildlife event in decades," reports Laura Zuckerman of Reuters. They've been seen as far west as Montana, as far east as Massachusetts and as far south as Oklahoma, and the phenomenon is likely linked to a boom in lemmings, small rodents that are 90 percent of the bird's food supply. Large lemming populations last season probably led to an owl population boom in which breeding pairs hatched up to seven chicks, compared to two in normal seasons.

The exact reason for the mass migration is unknown, but some think greater competition for food and climate change could be factors. Owl Research Institute director Denver Holt said snowy owl populations are in decline because of lower lemming populations, which have shrunk because climate change is limiting growth of grasses they eat. Owls could be flying south in great numbers to look for more food. Bird enthusiasts from across the U.S. are traveling to view the owls, "pouring tourist dollars into local economies and crowding parks and wildlife areas." (Read more)

Yahoo misses mark on ag jobs, aggies say

Yahoo Education, a news division of the search engine, listed agriculture as the most useless college degree in a Jan. 19 article. The assumption was based on Department of Labor data about available positions for farm managers, animal scientists, farmers and ranchers. This created immediate backlash from farmers, agriculture publications and educators. Western Farm Press reports the article not only revealed a divide between those who work in agriculture and those who don't, but didn't consider agriculture-related jobs that aren't on farms: "The result was a very narrow view of an industry that encompasses 21 million U.S. jobs."

The Yahoo piece did not mention that agriculture is one of few "bright spots" in a U.S. economy that's been stagnant for almost four years, Western Farm Press noted. While other industries struggle with global exports, agriculture is thriving, accounting for $137 billion last year. Farm Press says the "greater irony" of the article is that many supporting industries, including agricultural research, need more young people to fill positions. Wheat researchers, for instance, are in high demand.

The article was still generating Twitter traffic last week, and a Facebook page created in response to it, "I Studied Agriculture & I Have A Job," had 4,500 likes. Farm Press reports that "longtime aggies" can be heartened by one happy consequence of backlash to the Yahoo article, "showing their urban friends the rich opportunities available in one of our country’s most fundamental industries." (Read more)

Conservation Stewardship Program gets more signups as Conservation Reserve shrinks

Farmers are increasingly removing land from the Conservation Reserve Program to "cash in on higher-than-ever crop prices," but the similar Conservation Stewardship Program received so many sign-ups last week it won't be able to take them all. Tom Steever of Brownfield Ag News reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture can accept only 10.8 million acres of the 19 million offered. Dave White, chief of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, said contrary to a belief that sign-ups for programs are low, "high stewardship ethics" of ranchers, farmers and forest land owners have boosted sign-ups.

Differences between the programs are slight, but significant. Both are voluntary and provide landowners yearly payments from USDA, but the CRP offers payments in exchange for planting cover vegetation on former cropland to prevent erosion and water pollution and create habitat for wildlife. The CSP calls for "improving, maintaining and managing existing conservation activities," and starting more such activities. It pays for "operation-level environmental benefits."

S.D. electric co-ops want law changed to head off EPA-driven boost in taxes they pay to schools

Saying they are trying to keep electric rates low, South Dakota's rural electric co-ops are seeking to limit the growth of taxes they pay to schools. For decades, co-ops have paid tax on gross receipts from electricity sales in lieu of property taxes. Now they want the legislature to levy a tax per kilowatt hour sold, reports Bob Mercer of the Aberdeen News. The change would cut the growth in the co-ops' tax payments to an estimated 3.7 percent annually, compared to 6.7 percent without it.

Ed Anderson, executive director of the South Dakota Rural Electric Association, said changes are required because of new Environmental Protection Agency regulations which have forced two power plants that supply co-ops to retrofit at costs of $750 to $800 million. The costs become part of the rate base, and the basis for the gross-receipts tax. Lobbyists for the state's schools testified that schools are already "under financial strain" and can't afford to lose any revenue, but the committee voted 6-1 to send the bill to the full Senate. (Read more)

'Fear Factor' pulls segment after donkey lovers bray

Two contestants on the NBC television show "Fear Factor" leaked information about a stunt in which they participated during a taping last summer: drinking donkey semen with a urine chaser. Entertainment website broke the story over the weekend, and reported the American Donkey and Mule Society "had a visceral reaction to the news." The president of ADMS said the society doesn't "condone use of the animals in such a manner." The episode was set to air last night, but NBC pulled it. The network didn't say why. (TMZ photo

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Rural towns lose jobs, revenue as prisons close

Years ago, state governments offered to build prisons in rural communities, where they would provide jobs and tax revenue. Now, tight budgets and moves to jail fewer nonviolent offenders are causing states to close dozens of prisons. The U.S. prison population in 2010 was 1.6 million, lowest in four decades. At least 13 states closed prisons, reports Justin Jouvenal of The Washington Post.

When the Mecklenburg Correctional Center near Boydton, Va. (Wikipedia map), closes, the town will lose 20 percent of its revenue and 300 jobs. Officials said they'll have to lay off most of the town's workers, triple water rates and reduce trash pickup. They said if the state doesn't help, the town could go bankrupt and be dissolved. The prison is the town's fifth largest employer and pays it $240,000 a year for sewer service. The facility became more important to the town when its manufacturing and tobacco economies faded. Other towns actively sought prison jobs that were thought "recession proof," and many rebuilt themselves around that idea, the Post reports. Jouvenal writes, "Boydton's bicentennial could turn into its wake." (Read more)

Rick Stone of the Miami Herald reports on the closure of a prison that was "the region's primary employer and economic engine" in Monticello, Fla. Read or listen here.

Read more here:"

Canola is first genetically altered crop to go wild

Canola engineered to resist weed killer has escaped farm fields and is growing wild on roadsides in North Dakota, where 92 percent of all U.S. canola is grown, reports Lindsey Konkel of Environmental Health News. Experts fear the phenomenon will create herbicide-resistant "super weeds" that farmers would have a hard time controlling. The plant might also infiltrate organic crops. (EHN photo: roadside canola)

Canola, once better known as rape or rapeseed, is largely used in animal feed and to make canola oil. Almost 80 percent of it is genetically altered. Of 288 roadside canola plants tested by University of Arkansas researchers, 231 contained altered DNA. It's the first evidence of altered crops escaping into the wild in the U.S., and they have even spread into Canada, surprising researcher Cynthia Sagers. She said most of the spread was caused by seed spilling off trucks hauling harvested seed to market.

Less than 1 percent of the studied plants were resistant to multiple herbicides, suggesting they have changed genetically in the wild. Seed industry representatives say such modifications are not a problem because crops and weeds have exchanged genes for millennia. But farmers and scientists worry that weeds that can resist several herbicides would increase the use of more toxic herbicides. In North Dakota, farmers alternate herbicides to keep modified canola problems low. Organic farmers, who can't use genetically modified plants and shun herbicides, may struggle to keep wild canola out of crops. They try to plant earlier or later than their neighbors to avoid cross-pollination. (Read more)

Political cartoonist speaks out about her two-decade struggle with anorexia, long ended

For almost 20 years, political cartoonist Linda Boileau of The State Journal in Kentucky's capital of Frankfort, population 30,000, struggled with anorexia. At 30, she weighed 78 pounds and was told by doctors she had the bones of a 70-year-old. She overcame the disease in 1994, but only now is telling her story. State Journal reporter Jordan Smith interviewed her for an article that was published with autobiographical cartoons depicting her experience. She's also speaking out on her blog, "Starving." Editor Carl West notes that Boileau is "a survivor of the deadliest known mental illness ... and wants those who are struggling near and far to know that there is a way out." (State Journal photo)

Boileau recounts her issues with low self-esteem as a child that manifested during college into full-blown anorexia. From her graduation in 1980 to 1994, her life was an "uncompromisingly meticulous" routine of eating zero-calorie food and exercise. In 1988 Opinion Editor Todd Duvall (since deceased) and West surprised her with an intervention, which she said "began paving her way, just barely, out of starvation." As her professional life began to gain recognition (she was invited to the White House with 11 other cartoonists in 1989), she was "close to bottoming out." She admitted herself into a treatment program 12 years after her struggle began, and now, 18 years later, she's gained wisdom from her experience: "You can make your life what you want it to be. You are worthy just because you’re a human being." (Read more)

Home births increase, mostly in rural areas

Home birth is making a resurgence in the U.S., reports Shari Roan of the Los Angeles Times. It used to be commonplace in rural areas where doctors were few and transportation wasn't easy. As those factors faded, mothers chose hospitals over bedrooms, and the rate of home birth fell to less than 1 percent of all births by 1969. It's still not as common, but the rate has risen 29 percent from 2004 to 2009, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The trend is strongest in northwestern states, including Oregon at 2 percent and Montana at 2.6 percent, probably because of "sheer lack of transportation in rural areas," Roan reports. Cost may also be a factor because home births are about one-third the cost of hospital births. About 62 percent of home births in 2009 were attended by midwives, and the trend is increasing most among white women. (Read more)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Official calls reporters 'criminal' for coming to school to cover illness outbreak blamed on chemicals

A mysterious illness resembling Tourette's Syndrome has swept through the high school in LeRoy, N.Y. (Wikipedia map), about 20 miles southwest of Rochester. Fifteen cases of a neurological disorder have been reported, and environmentalists, led by activists Lois Gibbs of nearby Love Canal and Erin Brockovich of movie fame, say the illness could have been caused by chemicals spilled in a 1970 train derailment or by hydraulic fracturing of five natural gas wells circling the school that are owned by LeRoy Central School District. The district has tested for environmental contamination, and ruled it out as cause of the symptoms, but Brockovich's team says testing wasn't thorough enough. Local reporters from the Batavia Daily News and The Batavian, an online publication, have followed this story long before it gained national attention.

Howard Owens of The Batavian reports Brockovich sent environmental Robert Bowcock, investigator with California-based Integrated Resource Management, to conduct tests. Bowcock told Owens the report released by the district "wasn't even close to science" and he came to LeRoy at the request of affected students' parents, who said government officials hadn't been transparent with them at a Jan. 11 meeting. Bowcock's team wanted to collect water and soil samples from various sites suggested to them by residents. One site was of the 1970 train wreck, which the Environmental Protection Agency is charge of cleaning up. Bowcock said he was "shocked" by the site's condition, which included leaking barrels of contaminated water and soil. (Batavian photo)

Bowcock and others tried to walk onto school property last weekend, but were stopped by local police and told they didn't have proper permits to gather soil samples. Superintendent Kim Cox said the district has worked "very closely" with professionals to keep the community "involved and up-to-date," but she should have been notified ahead of time about the team's arrival. She said any samples collected by Bowcock would be invalid because "they would have been collected in an unprofessional manner." District lawyer Bill Albert labeled the presence of Bowcock and reporters at the school as "criminal activity." (Read more) The Batavia Daily News has dedicated an entire page on its website to the LeRoy mystery illnesses here.

Falling natural-gas prices make solar and wind developers seek more federal help; unlikely

Wind and solar companies' costs have fallen, but they say they need more subsidies because the cost of natural gas has fallen sharply. But support for wind and solar is dropping because of concerns about the federal deficit and the failure of Solyndra, a solar-module maker than got almost half a billion dollars in federal loan guarantees. Industry leaders say they will have to cut production and employment without subsidies, reports Diane Cardwell of The New York Times. (NYT photo: Turbine inspection)

Wind companies like turbine producer Iberdrola depend on the production tax credit, which has been in place since 1992. It allows a credit of 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour of generated for the first 10 years of a project's operation. That's enough to eliminate the price difference between wind and fossil fuels, industry representative say. The Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimated the credit would cost $6.8 billion from 2011 to 2015. It's set to expire at the end of this year. A tax break popular with solar companies that allowed them to recoup 30 percent of the cost of new projects when construction ended expired last year.

Wind projects account for more than a third of all new energy production in recent years. More solar projects were installed in the last third of 2011 than in all of 2009. The wind industry will support 78,000 jobs this year, but that will decrease to 41,000 in 2013 if tax credits aren't extended. Solar will add 37,000 jobs this year if tax credits are extended for a year. Lobbyist are trying to include extensions in the bill to extend payroll tax cuts. (Read more)

Photo diary reveals faces of fight to save Arkansas' rural post offices

Arkansas could lose 179, or 35 percent, of its post offices if the U.S. Postal Service is allowed to follow through on a plan to close 3,653 mostly rural offices across the country. Arkansans are fighting to save what many consider the center of their community, and Jared Soares of Equal Voice traveled to some of those places to meet the people who will be affected and produced a photo diary.

Soares reports families have lived in these Arkansas communities for generations and because they've lost much of what sustained their communities in the past, including schools, banks and stores, most consider the post office concrete evidence that their community exists. "Although they might just be a building and a ZIP Code to decision-makers in far-away cities, to rural communities, their post offices are a matter of their very identity, and evidence that their community counts," he writes. To read his account and see his pictures, click here.

Conservative, business-backed group behind climate-teaching bill, others surfacing in states

The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month that "anti-science bills" that would mandate teaching of climate change denial as a credible "theoretical alternative" to human-caused climate change have popped up in several state legislatures over the past several years. Steve Horn reports for Truthout, a liberal news service, that all the bills came from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which holds meetings for state legislators and lobbyists.

Along with explanation of this trend, Horn provides a round-up of what happened in seven mostly rural states where bills were introduced. He reports the Center for Media and Democracy found more than 800 "model" bills and resolutions that came from ALEC. The center found that corporations, which fund almost all of ALEC's operations, sit on all of the group's task forces and craft legislation that legislators can introduce it as their own ideas.

The climate bill is known as the "Environmental Literacy Improvement Act," Horn reports. It proposes, among other things, that climate-change information should be: "presented in language appropriate for education rather than for propagandizing, not be designed to change student behavior, attitudes or values, and not include instruction in political action skills nor encourage political action activities."

The bill, or "crucial language found within it," has been passed in three states: Louisiana, Texas and South Dakota. Horn reports sponsors and co-sponsors from six states where the ALEC bill was proposed received a total of $44,409 in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry, which wrote the bill, Horn reports. (Read more)

Education Dept. records rural teachers' stories

It's not often that teachers get invited to the White House, but some of the most recent nationally certified teachers, including several from rural communities, were honored at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for earning the profession's highest credential. U.S. Department of Education rural spokesman John White interviewed those from rural places about challenges they face, including lack of funding and technology, and preparing students for "a 21st century economy."

Jenny Lovering, history teacher at Columbia Falls High School near the Canadian boarder in Montana, told White she hopes to prepare students for college and careers so they can return and rebuild their community. "I want to be able to help them to get to the places where they want to go, so they can come back," she said. "I want them to be able to bring in new industries and new ideas to revitalize this area that they love."

While in the nation's capital, teachers attended a forum that recognized the importance of teaching, and shared how the administration could support teachers to help every child receive "high-quality instruction." Senior officials at the Education Department sat in roundtable discussions with them to hear input about how to develop teachers' leadership skills in the classroom.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Entries in international editorial contest for weekly newspapers must be postmarked by Wed., Feb. 1

If you work at a weekly newspaper and wrote at least one really good editorial last year, we encourage you to enter the Golden Quill contest of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. Entries must be postmarked by Feb. 1, and must be from members, but you can join at the same time and the dues are only $50 -- and worth it, for ISWNE's publications and list-serve. There is also a $20 entry fee per person (two entries are allowed per person). For more information, click here.  To join or renew membership, go here.