Friday, October 26, 2012

Eastern Kentucky University gets $25,000 to work on mobile application for rural newspapers

AT&T has given Eastern Kentucky University $25,000 to explore the application of mobile technology for rural newspapers and develop a working model "that improves both audience reach and content richness," a university news release said.

The year-long project will start with a survey of current best practices and an effort to reduce the environmental impact of mobile technology while seeking "improved sustainability of capital and human resources," the release said. Researchers will work with the staff of The Eastern Progress, the campus weekly, to apply the model. The third phase will be a workshop for editors in the university's 22-county service region to present guidelines for applying the model.

Other partners in the effort are the Kentucky Press Association and the university's Department of Communication, including journalism and public-relations faculty. The department is headed by Dr. Elizabeth Hansen, who chairs the steering committee of academic partners of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which is based at the University of Kentucky and publishes The Rural Blog. (Read more)

Rural states with declining immunization rates also show high incidence of whooping cough cases

In the state that once had the highest immunization rate, Vermont's medical community is not so proud of anymore. Fewer people are vaccinating their children in the nation’s most rural state, reports Dr. Wendy Mahoney, a private practioner in the state. But Vermont isn't alone. Stories about declining immunization have come in from across rural America, Mahoney writes in the Daily Yonder, and they "come in the midst of a pertussis outbreak the likes of which Vermont has not seen in years, if ever." Pertussis is whooping cough.

Mahoney says she can find one reason for the recent outbreak: a new law in her state, like some in other rural states, that allows parents to exempt their children from required vaccinations "because of a personal, moral, or other belief." Mahoney says many rural residents use the exemption, which she finds hard to fathom in the face of scientific advances that prove that vaccination has ended smallpox, wiped out polio in most of the world, and controlled measles, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, influenza type b and other infectious diseases.

The top map shows the estimated percentage of children enrolled in kindergarten who have been exempted from receiving one or more vaccines in the 2011–12 school year. Comparison with the other map shows that states with large numbers of exemptions are those where whooping cough is making a comeback. (Centers for Disease Control maps)

A comparison between states with low vaccination coverage rates and those reporting higher numbers of whooping cough cases shows some, though not consistent, overlap. (Read more)

Romney counting on heavy turnout in rural areas

Romney in Van Meter, Iowa. (Getty Images)
In order to offset the urban electoral advantage of President Obama, Republican challenger Mitt Romney will need heavy voter turnout in the small towns and rural areas of Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University in Ames, told Bloomberg Businessweek. A poll of rural voters last week by the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Ky., has Romney ahead by 22 percentage points in non-metro areas of nine states where the race is close. The new rural numbers go far in explaining why the presidential race is in a virtual tie now.

In the Rural Strategies poll, Romney outscored Obama by a large margin, 62-32, on the question of who would better improving the economy. The governor also led on topics including values, the economy, Medicare and Social Security, the who’s best for the middle class and the federal deficit. Obama drew very close on women’s issues and health care, where Romney held small two- and three-point leads. Nationwide, rural residents represent 16 to 20 percent of the population, dependign on how "rural" is defined. (Read more)

What Obama could have said in coal country: what he and Byrd did for miners with black lung

Coal industry's Kentucky license plate
This week Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette asked several people what the president should have talked about in Appalachian coal country. And they gave the president some ammunition that sounded surprisingly potent. (Read more)

Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder found this piece most effective: "The most important law passed during the last four years for coal miners ... may be one of the most unpopular in rural West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky. It’s the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) and within that law are benefits coal miners have been seeking for the past 30 years."

Before he died in 2010, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia inserted a provision into the health-reform law saying that if a person had worked in an underground mine for at least 15 years and suffered from the effects of black lung (coal workers' pneumoconosis) , coal dust was the presumed cause of the problem and the miner was due benefits. In the past, explains Bishop, "X-rays would be taken of ailing lungs and doctors would try to discern if coal dust were the cause. Because coal companies would appeal judgments and it is hard to tell from an x-ray if damage has been done by smoking or coal dust, ... only about 15 percent of the miners who applied for  benefits received them."

Since 1969, when the first federal black-lung benefits were authorized, 70,000 coal miners have died from black lung. (Read more)

Rural Media Group buys firm to reach the big cities

The Rural Media Group bought another cable network this week to expand its programming into more markets. The Omaha, Neb.-based company said it had purchased FamilyNet from Interactive Television and Gaming Networks. The deal expands Rural Media's distribution by almost 15 million homes, into more than 61 million in all 50 states. Rural Media, which produces RFD-TV and Rural TV, now has access to major markets including New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles. (Read more)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Europe briefly banned imports of U.S. horsemeat; likely to be more difficult after July 2013

The sale of U.S. horsemeat to Europe via Canada and Mexico was halted by the European Union, then lifted, but tighter regulation is in the works. The International Equine Business Association's Sue Wallis, a horse-slaughter advocate, told Julie Harker of Brownfield Agriculture News that the suspension could have had "troubling consequences" had it not been ended. (Photo by Kelly Kruszewski)

Earlier this month, the EU notified Mexican and Canadian horsemeat plants they couldn't export to Europe unless the horses had been in the country where they were slaughtered for a minimum of 90 days. "Within three months, we would have had some 48,000 head of horses with nowhere to go," Wallis told Harker.

Cheryl Hanna of reported the suspension was announced one day after the release of a European Commission Directorate General for Health and Consumers report saying "Veterinary records for horses are 'insufficient' to guarantee health standards relating to the European Union's concerns about U.S. horses' medication histories." The EU will require lifetime medication records for slaughtered horses by July 31, 2013, she reports.

Survey of rural bankers shows improvement of economic conditions in Central U.S.

After a three-month slump, the Rural Mainstreet Index of economic conditions in a 10-state area of the Central U.S. has started to climb. The Creighton University survey of bank CEOs shows the rural economy above "growth neutral" for the first time since June. Lead researchers Ernie Goss said in the October RMI report, "Negative impacts of the drought are being more than offset by the positives of very strong incomes from high agriculture and energy prices."

Farmland prices and farm equipment sales surged, notes Julie Harker of Brownfield Agriculture News. Only18 percent of bankers surveyed said 2012 crop yields in their areas are higher than last year, and almost 70 percent are lower. Hiring increased, but "at a snail's pace," Goss reported, and the index of bankers' confidence in the economy for the next six months was up from September, but is still weak.

The RMI ranges between 0 and 100, with 50 being growth neutral. October's survey places the index at 56.6, notes the Hamburg Reporter, in Iowa's southwestern corner. The farmland-price index reached 71.7, its highest mark since March. October is the 33rd consecutive month that it has risen. "Loan demand unexpectedly plummeted for the month," the Reporter notes. It dropped to 44.2 from September's mark of 70.2. Goss wrote in the report that the drought "failed to increase the demand for loans from farming and nonfarming organizations in the region." The Reporter lists the RMI for individual states: Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, the Dakotas and Wyoming.

Farmland values keep rising; crop insurance shored up farmers during drought, and they love to buy land

Despite this summer's oppressive drought, farmland values are still soaring. Purdue University Extension agricultural economist Craig Dobbins told Agri-Pulse that at least two factors are at play: the drought is seen as a one-year event, with next year expected to be better, and crop insurance helped mitigate many farmers' losses.

Land values are increasing by double digits in some areas mostly because farm income is high and farmers love to buy land. The average farmland value increase ranged from a 26.7 percent increase in the Northern Plains to a 4.1 decline in the Southeast, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Corn Belt has the highest values, with land selling at about $5,560 an acre.

The continued increase in land value could be "a double-edged sword," Dobbins told Agri-Pulse, because it could prevent non-farmers from entering the industry. "For someone who is not in the farming business, it is going to be more difficult to get in and you are going to have to do it in some way that has not traditionally been done," Dobbins said. "You are going to need to be a clever entrepreneur, or very rich. It's not going to be impossible, but it is going to be extremely difficult."

Agri-Pulse is a weekly, Washington-based newsletter available by subscription; a free, four-week trial can be accessed here.

Native peoples losing aspects of nature-linked culture because of chemical contamination

"For decades, indigenous people in the United States and Canada have been burdened with health problems linked to environmental pollutants," Brian Bienkowski of Environmental Health News reports. "But that isn’t their only sacrifice: Pollution is crippling some tribes’ culture, too." Native foods, water, medicines, language, ceremonies, traditional hunting and fishing techniques have all been jeopardized by pollutants and development. When native people lose those vital aspects of their lives, Bienkowski writes, "their identity is lost, too." (EHN photo by Elizabeth Hoover: Mohawk girls attend garden ceremony. Soil contamination is discouraging gardening, EHN reports.)

The Anishinaabe Tribe lives on the Aamjiwnaang reservation east of Michigan's "thumb" across the St. Clair River near Sarnia, Ontario. The area is known as Chemical Valley because it's home to 62 industrial facilities, about 40 percent of Canada's chemical industry. Benzene, cadmium, formaldehyde and lead "permeate the reservation," Bienkowski writes. The tribe considers the cedar tree sacred. They use it medicine, teas and in ceremonies. But when a private lab found elevated levels of cadmium in reservation cedars in 2006, the tribe stopped using them to evoke their cultural traditions.

The St. Lawrence River runs through the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne, also in southern Ontario, on its way to the Atlantic Ocean, and has provided the tribe with water, food and identity for centuries, Bienkowski reports. In the early 1980s, the river was polluted with polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs, from upstream aluminum foundries, contaminating the water, fish and people. "But there's an impact that blood tests can't measure," Bienkowski writes. "The relationships and experiences that took place on the river are now endangered as the community avoids it out of fear."

The Tewa Pueblo in New Mexico are dealing with contamination from uranium mining. "Animals have died off or left, the water is no good. This is not the world that we know and rely on," tribe member Kathy Sanchez told Bienkowski. "It's contaminated our culture."

The Yu'pik on Alaska's St. Lawrence Island have blood levels of PCB about four times higher than the U.S. average, through marine mammals that are essential to their diet and culture. (PCBs accumulate up the food chain.) "It's not an option to change our diet," Vi Waghiyi, tribe member and director of Alaska Community Action on Toxins. "But the joy of a successful hunt and sharing the food has been replaced with people wondering, will this harm my family?" (Read more)

Minnie Pearl's hometown paper marks 100th anniversary of her birth, touts statue funding

Last week, with an item about a newcomers' feature in the Hickman County Times of Centerville, Tenn., we ran a photo of the model of a statue of Minnie Pearl, to be placed at the old courthouse in her native county. Today would have been the rural comedian's 100th birthday, and the Times noted it in this week's paper, with a story about how Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon became Minnie Pearl of Grinders Switch, and a photo of her with Roy Acuff at the Grand Ole Opry.

The paper also promoted two auctions being held in conjunction with the anniversary, to raise money for the statue (which would replace one removed by a dissatisfied donor) and make the courthouse a cultural arts center. A radio auction on KIX-96 FM runs until 8 p.m. CDT. To get a list of items and make a bid, call 931-729-2900. Also ending tonight is The Pearl On-Line Art Auction, with 160 items created by local artists. For details, go to

Ethanol makers might go to more productive butanol

Some ethanol refiners in the Corn Belt are considering switching to butyl alcohol. Butanol is more attractive to refiners because it has some advantages over ethyl alcohol: It produces more energy, is easier to handle, and more of it can be blended into a gallon of gasoline. But producing it will take costly retrofits at ethanol plants. (Photo: Butanol production)

Several companies, including Butamax Advanced Biofuels, ajoint venture of  BP and DuPont, have developed ways to make butanol the same way as ethanol, through yeast fermentation and distillation. Butamax CEO Paul Beckwith told Henry Fountain of The New York Times that making butanol that way should be attractive to ethanol producers because they won't have to adopt a new production method. He also said new butanol-specific plants could be built, including some that use switchgrass or other nonfood raw materials similar to cellulosic ethanol plants.

Ethanol producers are wary, though, saying they prefer to talk with gasoline companies before making the switch. Highwater Ethanol CEO Brian Kletscher told Fountain that the company sees potential in butanol production, but he wants to talk to gas refiners before making a final decision. Butamax estimates that converting a small ethanol plant to butanol could cost $10 to $15 million. (Read more)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Google mapping roadless places; some see risks

Google Street View has mapped more than 3,000 cities all over the world, as well as many rural areas. But now the Internet giant is tackling America's natural spaces. The company plans to map wild places across the country, and eventually the world, with Google Trekker, a 40 pound backpack-like contraption that contains much of the equipment found in Google's Street View cars. Google hopes to map everything from the Appalachian Trail to Antarctica, and maybe Mount Everest. (NPR photo: Google's Craig Robinson with Google Trekker)

Google Trekker's inaugural journey was into the Grand Canyon. It snapped pictures and collected Global Positioning System data with its 15 specially designed lenses and two GPS receivers. Google plans to map places its cars can't go, and Street View director Luc Vincent said they came to the Grand Canyon first because it is "iconic," Steve Henn of NPR reports. Each image collected will be tagged with precise location data and the angle at which the photo was taken. Vincent said data has to be precise because Trekker is going to places where GPS is sometimes not reliable.

"The end result will be a smooth, continuous eye-level view of the trial," Henn reports. "It will allow anyone who is online -- at home or with a smart phone -- to virtually peer down the Bright Angle trail and see the sun stream over the rim of the canyon walls." Grand Canyon National Park public affairs director Maureen Oltrogge told Hunn she worries Google backcountry maps could give hikers a false impression of trials because Google only maps on sunny, good-weather days. She said it's possible hikers would not be prepared, which could put them in danger. (Read more)

Is the Extension Service still useful in the digital age? It seems so, but adjustments may be needed

It's been 100 years since extension services came to rural areas across the country, and in an age of much more advanced technology, with information a few clicks away, some people wonder if it is time to rethink the usefulness of the Cooperative Extension Service, Jonathan Knutson of Agweek reports. North Dakota State University Extension Service director Chris Boerboom says extension skeptics are wrong because extension is vital.  "There's a lot of information available and a lot of places to get is," Boerboom told Knutson. "But [extension is] still the place to go when you want reliable, unbiased information."

But the service's value isn't always an easy sell, Knutson wrote, especially when government budgets are dwindling. South Dakota State University's extension director Barry Dunn told Knutson budget issues forced a restructuring of the service in many states. "We have to prove ourselves every day, that we really are the safe, trusted, unbiased, scientific place to go for information," Dunn said. North Dakota, Minnesota and Montana's services say they don't plan to restructure. Extension officials in at least four states say they are offering more online services for farmers.

Extension services in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Montana all say they will lose millions in funding if federal sequestration happens at the end of the year. They're also facing staff shortages as baby boomers  begin to retire, with the trend being more pronounced in North Dakota where 32 county positions were filled within two years. (Read more)

Some want to strip food stamps from Farm Bill, but that would make it hard to pass

Republican critics of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, have become more vocal, with many calling for severing the long-connected ties between it and farm programs in the Farm Bill, Agri-Pulse reports. The move would make it harder to maintain farm subsidies, so it seems unlikely to go anywhere. But at a time when all federal programs and the control of Congress and teh White House are up for grabs, Agri-Pulse asks an important question: Would it be possible, in a House  "dominated by urban dwellers, to find 218 votes for passing a bill devoted only to helping farmers?"

Until the 1960s, farm bills were mostly devoted to the commodity title. But when Congress became increasingly urban and suburban, farm-state representatives folded food stamps into farm policy to win majorities, Agri-Pulse reports. "Ever since inception of food program, there's always been a linkage between farm products and food assistance," said Roger Szemraj, agriculture and nutrition expert at OFW Law, a Washington firm.

Because there are fewer farmers and fewer congressional districts in rural areas, he said, the food-stamp portion of the Farm Bill gives urban representatives a reason to support the legislation. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., told Agri-Pulse this summer that it would be hard to pass a bill only about farming without SNAP attached to it because it wouldn't get enough votes.

Agri-Pulse is available by subscription only, but a free trial can be found here.

County rates of rural uninsured vary greatly

The rate of uninsured aged 18 to 65 in rural counties has grown faster than in exurban and urban counties since 2005, but varied greatly from county to county, according to Census Bureau data analyzed by Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder. (Yonder map: Red counties, more than 25 percent uninsured; green, less than 12 percent)
In 2005, the rate of rural uninsured wasn't much different than the rate of uninsured in cities or exurban counties, which are part of metropolitan regions, but where most residents live in rural settings, but in 2010 most rural counties exceeded the national average of 17.7 percent. The overall rural rate is 18.4 percent.

"You don't have to look too hard at the map to see where the counties are in rural America that have the smallest percentages of people with health insurance," Bishop writes. "Thirty-two of the 50 rural and exurban counties with the largest percentages of uninsured are in Texas." The top 10 counties with the lowest rates of uninsured are in Massachusetts, New Mexico, New Jersey, Iowa and South Dakota, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Seven of those 10 are exurban. (Read more)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

People outside the newspaper industry should object to Postal Service's deal with junk mailer, writer says

The U.S. Postal Service's deal with a junk-mail company is a scandal, Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane opines in his latest column.

The advertisements "already reach consumers via newspaper inserts," Lane writes. "What the deal would do is alter the national flow of advertising, to the financial detriment of newspapers like the one you may be holding. Struggling print media need this like a hole in the head." Noting that newspaper interests have sued to block the deal, Lane noted, "This gives me a conflict of interest, of course. Still, even people who don’t draw a newspaper paycheck should be able to appreciate what’s wrong here."

Lane argues that the old Post Office "was envisioned as a utility, providing a delivery network to all companies and individuals on more or less equal terms. Now, in its technological obsolescence and financial decrepitude, and with the encouragement of both Congress and its regulator, the postal service has been reduced to helping one private-sector entity out-compete another. . . . Our far-flung postal system used to epitomize American democratic efficacy. Today, however, Congress’s failure to deal with mail’s inevitable decline is a case study in democratic dysfunction." (Read more)

Community foundations can boost rural education, community development, other causes

Leaders in four Kentucky counties are lauding the creation of private endowments for their counties through the help of a regional community foundation. The judge-executives of Boyle, Garrard, Lincoln and Mercer counties said the endowments "will help meet the requests from non-profit agencies, for scholarships or funding for the arts, education, or health and human services," Greg Kocher of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

Rural communities often have difficulty attracting philanthropy, but community foundations like the Wilderness Trace Community Foundation, which is helping the four counties, and the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky give local people and expatriates a trusted place to donate money, often by bequests. As the baby-boom generation begins to pass, billions in wealth will be transferred to succeeding generations -- or to a philanthropic interest. For example, Boyle County expects $400 million to be transferred within 10 years, and it hopes to capture 5 percent of that, resulting in $20 million, with a $1 annual million payout. In Mercer County, the endowment has reached $83,000. When it reaches $100,000, an advisory group of eight citizens will determine how the earnings will be used. (Read more)

Small-scale study: Lack of chemical fertilizers, herbicides doesn't hurt crop yields or profits

A new study concludes that commercial agriculture can shed much or all of its chemical consumption in favor of more natural and organic processes without losing any crop yield or profit. In fact, the nine-year Iowa State University study shows that more organic processes produced more corn and soybeans.

Beginning in 2003, researchers planted three plots: one replicating the conventional method of planting corn one year and soybeans the next, adding a routine mix of fertilizing chemicals; another using a three-year cycle that included planting oats; and one using a four-year cycle and planting alfalfa, along with integration of raising livestock, manure from which was used as fertilizer.

Not only did the longer rotations produce better crops, they also "reduced the need for nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides by up to 88 percent, reduced the amount of toxins in groundwater 200-fold and didn't reduce profits by a single cent," Mark Bittman of The New York Times writes. "In short, there was only upside -- and no downside at all -- associated with the longer rotations," he continues. There was an increase in labor costs, but Bittman counters that profits remained stable.

Bittman does not address the question of scalability, whether these methods could be adopted on mass scale, and where the labor would come from. He hints at those questions by writing, "Perhaps most difficult to quantify is that this kind of farming — more thoughtful and less reflexive — requires more walking of the fields, more observations, more applications of fertilizer and chemicals if, when and where they’re needed, rather than on an all-inclusive schedule." (Read more)

Nonprofit project begins mapping rural arts and culture from residents' point of view

An arts and culture map of rural America has been completed and is now available. The Rural Arts and Culture Map is the creation of The Art of the Rural, a nonprofit organization that gathers perspectives about the state of rural arts and culture, in collaboration with Appalshop, Australia's Feral Arts and the Denver-based M12 Art Collective. The map is an attempt to quantify the dynamic and complex arts and cultures of rural areas across the country. (Map shows location of shared resident stories)
Art of the Rural contributing editor Rachel Reynolds Luster said last January on the Daily Yonder that such a map was needed because culture maps often miss what is most important to rural communities. An accurate cultural atlas for the country "involves layers, so you could compare things such as settlement patterns, language, music, native populations, native plants and domesticated crops," she wrote. The map would allow people to find out where most people in an area go to church, how many residents have broadband, where the nearest hospital is located, or what people do for work and recreation.

The organization will use the map to "present new perspectives from rural America, with a focus on rural youth, rural-urban exchange, and a sustaining interest in the changing face of rural America; the next generation, and their membership in diverse ethnic and cultural communities," according to the Rural Arts and Culture Map website. The project is driven by the people in rural communities, who have opportunities to share pictures, video, audio, and text to help "create new rural narratives." To read more about the project and view the interactive map, click here.

Monday, October 22, 2012

South Dakota journalists praise McGovern, who was shaped by his rural roots and returned to them

George McGovern, who died as he marked his 40th anniversary as the Democratic nominee for president, was shaped by his rural roots, but unlike many politicians who climbed the national pinnacle, he returned to them, notes political reporter Chuck Raasch of USA Today, who got to know McGovern long ago in their native South Dakota. (USAT photo)

"Rarely was a politician so shaped by the geography of his upbringing," Raasch writes. "It is why, I think, after he left public office that he took a largely untrodden path back to South Dakota to live part-time. A lot of politicians never come home once they’ve left public office. The allure of Mitchell was never something he was ashamed of, even when other politicians or the pressies covering him would crack jokes about the Corn Palace," Mitchell's other claim to fame. "It was there, growing up in the dust and the suffering of the Great Depression, that this son of a Methodist minister was grounded in the knowledge that there are many things bigger than you in this great big world, but that knowledge is never an excuse for not trying to make that world better." (Read more)

Seth Tupper, editor of The Daily Republic in Mitchell, writes that McGovern's "popular image . . . is that of a hopeless liberal, too radical to win even his home state in the 1972 presidential election.
That image, while lasting, is only a caricature. His was a life of puzzling contradictions that made him, like most legendary politicians, nearly impossible to define. . . . He was born and raised in what many Americans consider the middle of nowhere. Yet, in rapid succession, he rose to become a debate champion, pilot, war hero, college graduate, doctor of history, college professor, director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, congressman, director of Food for Peace, senator, Democratic presidential nominee, ambassador, Medal of Freedom recipient and author. Among South Dakotans, few if any can be called more accomplished." (Read more)

"The worldview that George McGovern brought to more than half a century of public life was shaped by witnessing privation on the farm during the Great Depression and hunger in Italy during his service as a decorated bomber pilot in World War II," writes Jim Webster in Agri-Pulse. Webster was on the staff of McGovern's 1968 Senate and 1972 presidential campaigns, where he was head of Rural Americans for McGovern-Shriver. Webster says McGovern's "Real legacy is his contribution to food and nutrition policy, especially overseas food aid and agricultural development." Agri-Pulse is available by subscription only, but a free trial can be found here

AP takes a long look at 'the war on coal,' the facts and the future beyond the election-season slogan

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator
Lisa Jackson, Sen. Joe Manchin, President Obama
and United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts
are targets of Senate challenger John Raese. (AP)
According to Central Appalachian coal operators, and many of the miners who work for them, there's a war on in America, and electing a new president will end it, writes Vicki Smith, West Virginia reporter for The Associated Press, in a 2,500-word story that compares the political rhetoric to the facts and looks to the future.

"The war on coal is a sound bite and headline, perpetuated by pundits, power companies and public relations consultants who have crafted a neat label for a complex set of realities, one that compels people to choose sides," Smith writes. "It’s easier to call the geologic, market and environmental forces reshaping coal — cheap natural gas, harder-to-mine coal seams, slowing economies — some kind of political or cultural 'war' than to acknowledge the world is changing, and leaving some people behind."

Noting that there was a real war over coal in West Virginia almost 100 years ago, when federal troops put down rebellious miners, Smith writes, "To hear the industry tell it, those who remain are an endangered species in the cross-hairs of overzealous environmental regulators directly responsible for wiping out thousands of jobs. But in war, casualties are often inflated. The numbers are eye-catching, but the details are lost." Smith notes that many miners find jobs at other mines, and U.S. Department of Labor data show that coal jobs have grown in Central Appalachia since 2008, with consistent gains in West Virginia and southwest Virginia, and ups and downs in Kentucky.

But the prospect of a second term for President Obama, whose administration has tried to be tougher on coal, has set off alarm bells in the region. Coal executives appear to have convinced miners they are fighting for their way of life, and "war sells because fear sells," Smith writes. Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen told Smith that wars on anything -- coal, women, drugs -- are emotionally charged metaphors that take over political discourse. For politicians, war is about "destroying the opposition so they can get the power back. For media, it's about grabbing the attention of an easily distracted public. The more polarizing the voices, the more entertaining the story." But she says such language contributes nothing to real understanding, and "has a corrosive effect on the human spirit."

The election aside, the language has been somewhat softer. Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett brought with him from West Virginia the "Friends of Coal" campaign, which is promoted by more than 55,000 license plates in a state that also lies in the Illinois Basin coalfield. "Instead of seeing the industry as faceless men in suits, they see the pickups next to them at the supermarket parking lot, the tags instantly identifying the like-minded," Smith reports.

Meanwhile, Mason Adams of The Roanoke Times reported a similar story. Southwest Virginia's coal economy is declining because of "numerous challenges: a less expensive competitor in natural gas; a worldwide slump in coal used in making steel; and rising costs from federal clean air and water regulations." But, Adams writes, in the region's perception, coal has but one enemy: the federal government.

Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette writes, "The Obama administration's moves to more strictly police the mining and burning of coal have been more modest -- and in some ways far less successful -- than they are portrayed by the industry's public relations barrage and by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, according to regulatory experts who have closely followed the issues." (Read more)

Coal companies sell cheaply to foreign markets, with help from low-cost federal leases in West

"Asian economies, hungry for coal, stand to gain from a U.S. program meant to keep domestic power cheap and abundant," reports Patrick Rucker of Reuters. Mining companies pay the U.S. government to mine federally owned land in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. "Selling that coal cheap at a time of increasing exports across the Pacific could amount to a U.S. taxpayer subsidy for industrial rivals like China," Rucker writes.

Coal exports have increased since 2009, and could reach record highs this year, as companies including Peabody Energy and Arch Coal Inc. rush to sell surplus coal overseas "in deals that can double or triple their margins," Rucker reports. "If [companies] can find ports to reach Asian markets easily, it could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in additional profits and marginally lower coal prices for countries in those markets." Some Pacific Coast towns are fighting efforts to establish and expand coal ports, Lorna Thackeray of the Billings Gazette reports.

The Bureau of Land Management says the program has generated more than $9 billion revenue over the past 10 years. But at least six former federal officials worry this plan essentially means U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing cheap Asian energy. "A key question is whether the taxpayer is getting a fair return on the use of those lands," said Lynn Snarlett, former deputy to Republican interior secretaries from 2005 to 2009. The Governmental Accountability Office is examining whether coal companies are paying fair market value for coal mined on federal lands. (Read more)

Scientist says drought hurting evergreen trees in Southwest; long-term, could be worst in history

Many scientists have said that this summer's drought may become the norm for the U.S. as climate change contributes to massive droughts. This could have a devastating affect on the nation's crops, as witnessed this summer, and has already started moving corn production north. Extreme drought could also have a huge impact on U.S. forests, as one University of Tennessee researcher concluded in an article published this month in Nature Climate Change.

By analyzing tree ring data from the year 1000 to 2007, researcher Henri Grissino-Mayer, left, and a team of scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Arizona and Columbia University have evaluated how drought affects the productivity and survival of confer trees in the Southwest. Trees grow slowly during drought and will produce smaller rings as a result. During times of plentiful water, they grow fast and will have wider rings.

Grissino-Mayer said the analysis revealed the most recent drought actually began in the late 1990s and has lasted through the following decade, and that it could last even longer, becoming the worst drought in history. "Looking forward to 2050, our climate-forest stress model suggests we will see worse drought and increased tree mortality than we've seen in the past 1,000 years," Grissino-Mayer said. "This drought will be exacerbated by increasing temperatures globally, foreshadowing major changes in the structure and species composition of forests worldwide." (Read more)

Pesticides impair bumblebees' ability to find food

A new study shows that agricultural pesticide use is killing worker bumblebees and impairing their ability to gather food, which means colonies vital for plant pollination are more likely to fail where pesticides are used. The British study was published in Nature this week.

Scientists exposed colonies of bumblebees to the pesticides neonicotinoid and pyrethroid over four weeks at levels similar to what they would experience in the field. "Chronic exposure ... impairs natural foraging behavior and increases worker mortality, leading to significant reductions in brood development and colony success," the University of London study concluded.

The United Nations estimates that a third of all plant-based food depends on bee pollination, Alister Doyle of Reuters notes. A 2011 UN report estimated that bees and other pollinators do work that is worth $200 billion a year, and they have been declining in several countries. The study's findings "underscored the importance of wider testing of pesticides" to make sure they won't harm bees, Doyle reports.

Conference about mountain regions' similarities, differences to begin Thursday at U. of Kentucky

The University of Kentucky's Appalachian Center and Appalachian Studies Program will be hosting their first Global Mountain Regions Conference from Oct. 25 through Oct. 27. The event is a "transnational exploration and conversation of the shared economic, social and historical challenges that mountain regions face within both national and global contexts," a university press release says.

Co-organizer and Appalachian Center director Dr. Ann Kingsolver and co-organizer Sasikumar Balasundaram have pulled together experts in a broad array of topics, and hope discussions can reveal what mountain regions across the world have to offer each other and the global community as a whole. Each session of the conference will pair one expert from Appalachia with one from another region, including Ecuador, Wales, Pakistan and China. Topics will include discussion of the perspective of children, the contribution of bees, disaster recovery, journalism and much more.

The conference begins on Oct. 25 at 8 a.m. and runs through Oct. 27. All events will take place in the University's W.T. Young Library auditorium. For more information, click here.