Saturday, March 23, 2013

Kacey Musgraves tries to take country music beyond small-town stereotypes, straitlaced inhibitions

Since Clear Channel Communications and other large companies gained dominance of local radio after federal deregulation in 1996, country-music radio "has been dominated by the format-homogenizing influence and right-wing politics of Clear Channel, which does its best to please a traditional base of older female listeners interested exclusively in country music . . . a core audience happy to leave the radio on one station all day and listen to whatever the programmers choose to play," Carlo Rotella writes in The New York Times Magazine as he traces the talents and challenges of singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves and her label, Arista Records.

"Many of those programmers still look askance at a song featuring same-sex kissing and joint-rolling," which Musgraves does with "Follow Your Arrow," or the casual hookup tune "It Is What It Is," which her grandmother calls "the slut song," Rotella writes. "As Richard Lloyd, a sociologist at Vanderbilt [University] who studies the Nashville music scene, pointed out ... it’s quietly startling to hear a female mainstream country artist sing about no-strings-attached sex and not be disciplined in the end by either marriage or the sorrowful wages of sin."

"Musgraves likes to point out that in real small towns people do in fact get pierced, curse, surf Internet porn and indulge in a wide variety of stimulants and sexual relations their pastors might not approve of," Rotella reports. "The country-music establishment knows this, of course, but it has invested heavily in the notion that its loyal listeners would rather spend time in a richly idealized alternate universe where such things are referenced only obliquely, if at all, and many of the cultural battles of the 1960s and after have been magically unfought. But some in the business see change coming, driven by a fresh cohort of listeners. Mike Dungan, head of Musgraves’s record label, said, “We have been watching an influx of younger, hipper people to our music, people who don’t necessarily listen to country exclusively.” (Read more)

Rural fire suppression, rental assistance are cut

The big losers in the continuing resolution that keeps the federal government going through September include the rural poor, wildland fire suppression and the environment, according to Ezra Klein's Wonkblog, a publication of The Washington Post.

The resolution "did bolster funds for a wide swath of popular programs — ranging from Head Start and local firefighters to cancer research and clean water projects in rural communities — to ease some of the sting of the across-the-board sequester cuts that are still in place," Suzy Khimm writes. "But it helped those initiatives at the expense of other programs because Congress is still required to comply with the overall caps to spending under the Budget Control Act passed in 2011 to resolve the debt-ceiling standoff."

The cuts include $570 million in wildland fire management; $106 million at the Environmental Protection Agency, including Superfund site cleanup and tribal assistance; and $20 million in rental assistance for the rural poor. (Read more)

Questions remain about Saturday mail delivery

As Congress passed a continuing resolution to keep the government running through September, with language designed to guarantee full delivery of mail six days a week, "There were much different conclusions in the halls of Capitol Hill on what it meant for the effort by the U.S. Postal Service to end Saturday delivery of first-class mail," Jamie Dupree writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Beyond that simple summary, it gets more complicated, and many news stories about the issue fudged or omitted details. Supporters of full six-day mail say the arcane language in the resolution requires USPS to maintain current delivery levels, but those who support its plan say as long as it delivers packages on Saturdays, it will meet the requirement. That may be settled in court, in an appropriations bill or by postal reform legislation; USPS officials said they would consult with the Postal Service Board of Governors about how to proceed with their plan to cut Saturday delivery in early August.

"It isn't clear how this will be resolved, as the Postal Service seems intent on making the Saturday mail change," Dupree writes.

The arcane language in the continuing resolution refers to a line in the 2012 appropriations bill for the Postal Service: "Six-day delivery and rural delivery of mail shall continue at not less than the 1983 level." The Government Accountability Office, the auditing and legal arm of Congress, said in a letter issued Thursday that the resolution continued the requirement, because continuing resolutions are designed to maintain the status quo until an appropriations bill is passed.

USPS had argued to the GAO that the legislation didn't apply to it because the measure didn't allocate money to the Postal Service for mail that it is required to carry free or at reduced rates. The GAO disagreed, but said it had not considered whether the plan to deliver only packages on Saturday would meet the letter of the law. The next step could be a request to GAO for its opinion on that question. A PDF of the letter is here.

In the end, Congress will make the decision, and newspapers lobbied hard in Washington this month for Saturday mail. Kent Warneke of the Norfolk Daily News in northeast Nebraska did a story about it.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Records snag bill to widen gun background checks

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid formally moved a package of gun-related bills onto the legislative calendar Thursday night, setting up the most serious debate on gun control in Congress in more than a decade, reports Paul Kane of The Washington Post.

"The proposal include provisions for a universal background check system, stricter federal criminal laws for gun trafficking and provisions to improve school safety," writes Kane. "Background checks have been the biggest stumbling block in the debate for new laws. A bipartisan collection of senators have been trying to reach an agreement on the checks, but have hit a stumbling block on how to maintain records for private gun sales."

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn have been negotiating for weeks over a bill to require background checks for all gun purchases. "But so far, the lawmakers haven't been able to agree on how to enforce the background checks," writes Kristina Peterson of The Wall Street Journal. "Coburn has objected to a requirement for private sellers to keep a paper record of a sale. Republicans worry the records could be used to build a registry and track gun owners."

We wrote about background checks and how Democratic senators in some states are wary how their stance on the issue will affect their re-election.

Novelist, gun owner Stephen King sees middle ground in gun debate; so does nonfiction author

Stephen King is one of the most read novelists in the world, and is also a gun owner. King recently wrote an essay as a Kindle Single entitled Guns, in which he expressed his opinions about gun violence and gun control.

Stephen King
"What I asked for in that piece, what I almost begged for, was that we Americans find some middle ground on the subject of heavy-duty firearms," King writes in the Bangor Daily News. "Just a small median strip of rationality between the honking freeway lanes jammed with those on the political right and the political left. According to polls, the majority of Americans would really like a place like that, where a rational discussion could be held without raised voices."

King says he is against repealing the Second Amendment, but "I also pointed out that a deer hunter who feels it necessary to go into the woods armed with a 30-round AR-15 must either have poor aim or is afraid the deer are going to fight back."

In the essay, he writes, "I argued for three things: universal background checks, a ban on the retail sale of semi-auto assault rifles geared to fire large magazines of ammunition and a ban on mags holding more than 10 rounds. Everyone else keeps their deer rifles, shotguns, revolvers and automatic pistols. All I want is to make it a little more difficult for (people) to kill unarmed civilians and innocent children. Why in the name of God should that be controversial?" (Read more)

Craig R. Whitney
King is in much the same place as Craig R. Whitney, the former New York Times editor who recently published Living with Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment. He will discuss his ideas and his book in a free lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 28 at the University of Kentucky. Whitney believes those on the left must accept that a gun-free America is not possible and that they should not demonize those who want to exercise their constitutional right to carry guns; and those on the right must recognize that not every gun-control measure is an effort to repeal the Second Amendment and that gun ownership must be exercised with an eye to public safety, according to a press release.

Small-town editor feels encouraged about weeklies

While some people have begun to mourn the death of newspapers in the U.S., community newspapers are doing better than their metropolitan cousins, and one community editor writes that small-town papers, especially weeklies, are an irreplaceable commodity, and are thriving in environments where people crave local news.

Debra DeAngelo
"Not every small newspaper is dying a slow, choking death, " writes Debra DeAngelo, editor of the weekly Winters Express in Winters, Calif. "Many are surviving just as they are, despite years of economic stagnation and the explosion of online technology. But how? We should be dead. Why aren’t we?"

She answers her own question: "We’ve had to be creative and cut all sorts of corners, but we’re holding our own. Moreover, people still want their newspapers. The Express still matters to them. It all comes down to personal, local focus. People still want to see their “future subscribers” on the front page, and their deceased loved ones on A-2, the smiling faces of the Little League champs, and fraying old wedding photos in 50th anniversary stories. They still lovingly cut these out and save them until they’re crinkled and yellow, because printing out a story from online just doesn’t feel the same. It just doesn’t. It has no soul. People still want to read the city council stories on paper rather than watch them on cable. And they love guessing who the mystery “Who is this?” person is each week and looking for their friends and neighbors in the weekly police report."

She concludes, "I’ve been predicting that I’ll see newspapers disappear within my lifetime, along with typewriters and cassette tapes. Yes, I’ve been feeling just this pessimistic about our industry’s future, or lack thereof. But suddenly, I’m feeling encouraged. Together, us little guys might find ways to strengthen our readership and rejuvenate our enthusiasm, maybe even get off life support and actually thrive. I hope so. And so should you. Because trust me, you’ll miss us when we’re gone." (Read more)

Budget cuts already hurting Indian reservations

Budget cuts from the federal sequester are already having a damaging impact on one small community in Montana. The Fort Peck Indian Reservation is struggling to find funds for even the most basic of services, reports Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post. (Post photo by Erik Petersen: teaching at Fort Peck)

The school "superintendent can’t hire a reading teacher in an elementary school where more than half the students do not read or write at grade level," Layton writes. "Summer school, which feeds children and offers them an alternative to hanging around the reservation’s trash-strewn yards, may be trimmed or canceled. And in a school system where five children recently committed suicide in a single year — and 20 more made the attempt — plans to hire a second guidance counselor at the high school have been scrapped, leaving one person to advise some 200 students."

"Few schools in America depend more heavily on the federal government than those on Indian reservations, which have no private landowners to tax," writes Layton. "Washington pays about 10 percent of the budget for a typical U.S. public school district; on federal lands, it contributes as much as 60 percent." (Read more)

Georgia lawmakers OK bill to help rein in pill mills

Georgia is trying to combat its "pill mill" problem with a law that would place stiffer regulations on doctors who operate pain management clinics, which are often easy sources of painkillers.The state has become a magnet for people seeking the pills because other states in the Southeast cracked down, reports Kate Brumback of The Associated Press

The bill on Gov. Nathan Deal's desk would license and regulate pain management clinics, and require the owner to be a doctor. Brumback notes the law would stop short of requiring doctors or pharmacists to use a state registry so that authorities can track how much of a painkiller a person is receiving

According to estimates from the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, there were fewer than 10 pill mills in the state in 2010, but the number has exploded since then, fluctuating between 90 and 140 over the last year, Brumback writes. (Read more)

Post-election run on guns boosts state wildlife funds

Increased sales of guns and ammunition after President Obama's re-election are boosting wildlife programs in many states, reports Jim Malewitz of Stateline. "A run on guns in 2012 has pumped millions of dollars into state wildlife programs, boosting protections for a range of animals, including ducks, pheasants and antelopes," he writes.

"U.S. states and territories this year will receive $522.5 million from the Wildlife Restoration Fund, a 75-year-old program fueled by the collection of excise taxes on guns and ammunition. That’s up from $371 million allocated in 2012."

Texas will receive more than any other state, $24 million. Alaska is close behind at $22 million, followed by Pennsylvania, $19 million; California and Michigan, $17 million; Wisconsin and Minnesota, $16 million; and New York, Missouri and Montana at $14 million. (Read more)

Some small towns make big comeback, CNN says

Paducah, Ky. (CNN photo)
A story by CNN reporter Jordan Rane examines eight "small" historic American towns that he says are making a comeback: New Iberia, La.; Frederick, Md.; Ely, Nev.; DeLand, Fla.; Libertyville, Ill.; El Dorado, Ark.; Paducah, Ky., and Coronado, Calif., across San Diego Bay from that city. Ely is the smallest with a population of 4,000, the rest are all 18,000 to 30,000, except Frederick, with a population of 66,000.

"Sometimes the best against all odds tales are real ones, taking place in unsung towns, led by regular citizens energized to resuscitate once thriving destinations just as they appeared flat on the mat," writes Rane. "Even big, star-studded cities face struggles and off decades, but what's kept Main Street, USA alive amid interstates, mega-malls, national chains and closed stagecoach routes? The heart and hard work of historic rebound towns like the eight highlighted in this story." (Read more)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

New study of coal mining and health sparks debate

Molly Burchett of Kentucky Health News writes, "A heated debate centers on new research" showing that residents in one coal-mining county in the state report more health problems than those in two nearby communities without such mines. "The study, published in the online Journal of Rural Health, is the latest by Dr. Michael Hendryx of West Virginia University to suggest that residents of mining areas have poorer health conditions and experience more serious illness." It is available by clicking here.

Unlike some of his West Virginia research, Hendryx does not say there is a correlation between mining and poorer health outcomes in Eastern Kentucky. He does suggest the possibility of a connection by showing residents' self-reported health problems like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and hypertension are more common in mining areas. And he says he believes there is a connection.

A golf course built on a reclaimed mine in Floyd
County, one where the research was conducted.
The study and its critics highlight the challenges and pitfalls of discussing and reporting such research. The study's underlying motives and methodology are contested.

The president of the Kentucky Coal Association, Bill Bissett, said Hendryx has reached a conclusion and is seeking evidence to support it.

"Bissett's accusation is completely false," Hendryx replied. "On the contrary, he is obviously the one with the biased perspective and has a strong financial motivation to try to discredit this work."

Bissett questions the study's use of self-reported health measures that did not consider medical history. Hendryx replied, "We used undergraduate students from Christian colleges who were trained to be fair and objective in the survey procedures, and to use the same procedures in both the mining and non-mining communities."

The volunteers interviewed 544 residents of Floyd County and 351 in Rowan and Elliot counties, where coal is not mined. It used standard statistical devices to control for factors that might influence health status: age, sex, education, marital status, work as a coal miner, weight and tobacco habits. However, there was no consideration of health behaviors such as drug and alcohol use, wellness measures, exercise or other healthy lifestyle habits that could have positive influences.

"The survey had to be brief with the time and resources we had," said Hendryx. "We did measure overweight and obesity, which is a reflection of diet and exercise. We measured tobacco use. We did not measure alcohol use in this survey but in other studies we have found that heavy alcohol use is not common and is not an explanation for the findings."

Hendryx defended his research controls and the process of relying on self-reported medical histories. He said the health problems may be caused by tiny particles of dust from coal mining, which have been linked to health problems, can penetrate the lungs to cause health impacts, reported James Bruggers of The Courier-Journal. He said he can’t prove that mountaintop mining is causing people to get sick, but he believes it is. What is needed, he told Bruggers, is a more thorough and expensive “gold standard” study of air and water quality near residences, and samples of blood, hair and toenails that can reveal exposure to pollutants. (Read more)

Nuclear reactors could be alternative to coal as power and job source in E. Ky., state official says

If Eastern Kentucky continues to see a decline in coal, the official overseeing energy and environmental issues for the state thinks the region could turn to a different source of power: nuclear reactors, reports Ryan Alessi for cn|2, a news service of the Insight cable company, now owned by Time Warner.

Len Peters, a veteran engineer who is secretary of the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, told Alessi: “There are counties in Eastern Kentucky where there are really primarily two industries: coal and the school system. So when coal goes away, it is a primary employer. We look very, very carefully at what alternatives there are for electricity generation. If we are not going to permit a coal burning power plant, I think we’re going to begin to restrict our options … If we start narrowing those down, as a nation that’s not good, as a state that’s not good." (Read more)

But for that to happen, Kentucky legislators would have to repeal the state law banning nuclear plants in the state, which is the nation's third-leading coal producer.

Rural Georgia hospital closing, blames Medicare

A small-town hospital in rural Georgia is closing its doors. Stewart-Webster Hospital in Richland, population 1,400, about 30 miles west of Americus, will suspend operations tomorrow.

The 25-bed hospital, named for the two rural counties it serves but owned by Accord Health Care Corp., says it is closing partly because high unemployment in the area means the hospital is seeing more people who are not paying for services. Also, "Medicaid and Medicare are not paying what they used to," and the hospital simply ran out of money, report Sydney Cameron and Liz Buckthorpe of WRBL of Columbus. And, in changing top electronic health records, "The hospital had to pay for the costs up front and because of a mix-up with Medicare they have not received $1 million in incentive money for the changeover."

Stewart-Webster is the largest employer in Richland at nearly 80 employees. The hospital sees around 10 patients a day and performs about five surgeries a week, the station reports.

Big banks use House Ag Committee to alter rules on derivatives, instruments that began in farming

(Photo of Morgan Chairman Jamie Dimon
by J. Scott Applewhite of AP; corn
photo by smereka via Shutterstock)
The JPMorgan Chase satellite office in London lost $6.2 billion in a matter of weeks, and the company was accused of a series of misdeeds, but the House Agriculture Committee could pass a bill designed to "gut derivatives regulations" and make all the improper and illegal actions legal, or allowed to foster outside of regulatory oversight, Dave Dayen writes in an opinion piece for Salon, headlined "Is JP Morgan a farmer?"  

Dayen notes that agriculture committees have held jurisdiction over derivatives since the mid-19th century, when farmers used derivatives to achieve stability over future prices. Traders still use derivatives for corn and other commodities, but the world of derivatives has grown far more sophisticated over the decades. "One advantage the finance lobby gains by working deregulation through the Ag Committee is that they can work in relative anonymity," he writes. "The ag committees simply garner less attention from the press and the public at large, making it easier for Big Finance to operate." He notes that five days before the committee acted, a senator "delivered a critical report and held an explosive hearing" on the $6.2 billion loss. (Read more)

Without access to up-to-date technology, rural schools and students may keep falling behind

A new national curriculum, called the Common Core, is pushing school districts in many states into the digital age. That's a problem for some rural areas where students lack the resources to fully use the technology, reports Ida Lieszkovsky for Stateimpact Ohio.

Lieszkovsky writes that students in one Appalachian school district are learning to how to use PowerPoint – on Microsoft Office 2003. It’s not just the software that’s outdated. Just down the hall from the computer lab is a middle-school classroom with several-decade-old big-box computers. The average family income in the district is less than $40,000. The district had to cut 17 percent out of its $12 million budget over the last few years and most of the computers they do have were donated. (Photo by Lieskovsky)

In Appalachian Ohio, one third of homes with children don't have broadband; that translates to 125,000 homes without high-speed Internet. Studies by the Federal Communication Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate that across America 26 million people don’t have access to high-speed Internet. More than 70 percent are in rural areas.

Rural schools aren't getting much sympathy from state officials, who acknowledge students in rural, poorer districts may not have as many opportunities to use computers, “but if you’re going to try to tell me that students don’t work on computers, they don’t have cell phones, they don’t have devices, I’m not going to really buy that,” John Charlton, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education, told Lieskovsky. (Read more)

EPA's long-awaited report on drilling-related quakes remains incomplete, with no timetable

The Environmental Protection Agency has still not completed its study on earthquakes linked to oil and gas production, and there is no timetable for when the study will it be finished. The report was originally expected to be complete by the end of 2011.

EPA officials told state regulators they were seeking to develop recommendations for states to consider for "managing or minimizing" earthquakes triggered by deep injection, reports Mike Soraghan ofEnvironment & Energy News. They also stressed that the work group was not seeking to make new policies or regulations.

The Safe Drinking Water Act empowers EPA to regulate underground injection, but injection wells for oil and gas waste do not have to be tested to ensure they won't cause earthquakes, writes Soraghan.

Annual county health rankings released

Example: Missouri counties
How healthy is your county? The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at the University of Wisconsin on Wednesday released its annual county health rankings. They provide a broad snapshot of your county's health and how it relates to your neighboring counties.

The rankings are based 30 percent on health behaviors (tobacco and alcohol use, diet and exercise, sexual activity), 20 percent on clinical care (access to care and quality of care), 40 percent on socioeconomic factors (education, employment, income, family and social support, community safety), and 10 percent on physical environment (environmental quality and built environment).

Complete results can be found here.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Rural air-traffic towers to close; meatpackers win relief from USDA inspector furloughs

Many rural airports will lose their air-traffic controllers under the "sequester" budget cuts. An effort by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, to prevent the move as part of the continuing resolution to keep the government operating appears to have backfired.

Moran (Associated Press photo) spent Monday "pretty much objecting to everything unless he was promised a vote on his amendment to protect funding for air traffic controllers at rural airports in states like his own," David Rogers reported for Politico. In his latest story, Rogers reports that Moran, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee,  voted against bringing the bill to a vote, "even whipping up Republican opposition," and was "left out in the cold" by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "His tactics plainly irritated Reid and the rural air-traffic controller cuts will now go ahead unless the Federal Aviation Administration alters its order," which would take effect April 7 at 173 small airports with little scheduled air service.

"Reid has the bipartisan backing of members on the Senate Appropriations Committee," Rogers reports. "And he was careful to give the powerful meat lobby a crack at its top amendment: language that would shift funds to the Food Safety Inspection Service to try to avoid major furloughs in the wake of sequestration. Indeed, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a chief sponsor of the meatpackers’ proposal and member of the Appropriations panel, had been careful to vote with Reid on cloture Monday night — even before agreement was reached on the meat amendment." (Read more)

The Senate approved by voice vote an amendment moving $55 million from building maintenance and school equipment grants in the Department of Agriculture to avoid inspector furloughs and temporary plant closures. The bill is expected to pass the House and be signed by President Obama.

Supreme Court upholds EPA policy of not requiring permits for logging roads in Northwest

The Supreme Court ruled today that the Environmental Protection Agency has the correct policy for regulating stormwater runoff on logging roads in the Pacific Northwest: "Logging roads are not industrial point-source pollution and consequently don't require Clean Water Act permits," Jeremy Jacobs of Greenwire reports.

"Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, arguing that the court is giving EPA too much deference, particularly since the agency revised the rule in the days leading up to the case's arguments to make it clearer," Jacobs writes. Justice Stephen Breyer recused himself because his brother was a member of the appeals-court panel that previously ruled on the case. The decision can be read here.

Hikers want to be first (at least recorded) to trek 1,800-mile Great Eastern Trail from Ala. to N.Y.

Pine Mountain Trail (Bart Houck)
The practice of "through-hiking" the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail is well known, but no one has been  documented hiking the 1,800-mile Great Eastern Trail, a lesser known and somewhat incomplete route that runs roughly parallel to the AT. A pair of West Virginia hikers are trying to be the first recorded trip on the GET from Alabama to New York, Morgan Simmons of the Knoxville News Sentinel reported March 8.

Joanna Swanson and Bart Houck began their journey Jan. 10 at the GET's southern terminus on Flagg Mountain in Alabama, the southernmost Appalachian peak above 1,000 feet, writes Simmons.

"Right now, hiking the Great Eastern Trail is like hiking the Appalachian Trail 50 years ago," Swanson told Simmons. "The Great Eastern Trail isn't all connected, but it's hikeable, and that's what we're out to prove."

Last week the pair hiked Kentucky's Pine Mountain Trail, which spans 42 miles in Kentucky and connects Cumberland Gap National Historic Park with Breaks Interstate Park on the Virginia border, reports Mary Meadows of the Medical Leader newspaper of Pikeville, Ky., published by the local hospital. To follow Swanson and Houck's journey, visit their website. Here's a map of the trail and others in the Eastern U.S. (Click on image for larger version.)

Ohio legislature OKs higher rural speeds, including 60 mph on two-lane state roads outside towns

Drivers in Ohio would be able to legally drive 70 m.p.h. on rural stretches of interstates under a compromise approved Tuesday by state legislators. The speed limit also would be increased to 60 on two-lane state-numbered roads outside city and town limits, as part of a House-Senate conference committee’s version of a sweeping transportation bill, which is expected to win approval today in the Senate and Thursday in the House, reports Darrel Rowland of The Columbus Dispatch.

We wrote about this issue last week after the bill passed the Senate. The section of House Bill 51 dealing with two-lane roads is 4511.21(B)(9), available here. Here's an updated Dispatch map:

Documentary project in W.Va. involves residents in hopes of helping McDowell County turn itself around

A documentary project focused on the McDowell County in southern West Virginia is asking residents to use various forms of technology to discuss the many stereotypes associated with the Appalachian coalfield community, including population loss and its potential for the future.

Then-Sens. John F. Kennedy
and Jennings Randolph with
coal miners. (State archives photo)
Hollow, An Interactive Documentary, combines personal documentary video portraits, user-generated content, photography, soundscapes, interactive data and grassroots mapping on an HTML5 website and will consist of 20 to 50 community-made short documentaries in efforts to build engagement and social trust and empower the community to work together for a better future, according to the filmmakers' website.

McDowell County (Wikipedia map) has experienced a boom-and-bust economy, but its experience is similar to many rural towns, reports Brittany D. McClure of the Valdosta Daily Times. Over the past 25 years, more than 700 rural counties, from the Plains to the Texas Panhandle to Appalachia, lost 10 percent or more of their population, she writes, adding that population loss has negative effects not just on the economy, but on the overall quality of life for those residents who remain.

“There’s a lot of places across the country that have sort of been hollowed out,” Valdosta State University assistant professor Jason Brown, who contributed to the project, told McClure. “This project is really about trying to talk about how to continue these communities.” (Read more)

Congress debates fate of two programs that provide money to forested areas

Congress is debating the fate of two programs that have sent billions of federal dollars to forested parts of rural America since the 1970s and helped impoverished communities build schools, roads and provide other essential services, reports Raju Chebium of the Gannett Co. Washington Bureau.

Chebium writes that lawmakers are deciding whether to extend the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act and Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTS) programs, under which heavily forested rural jurisdictions in every state got a total of $684 million last year - $291 million for schools and $393 million to make up for lost tax revenues. The programs affect 729 counties, mainly in the West.

"Democrats urged Congress to temporarily renew the two programs" at a Senate committee hearing yesterday, Chebium writes, "but Republicans said Congress may need to hand over the forests to state and local officials and lift federal regulations that critics claim have devastated small towns and villages across the U.S."

Secure Rural Schools ensures that counties can count on funding for schools and roads, make additional investments in projects that enhance forest ecosystems, and improve cooperative relationships, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

PILOTs are considered a means to partially offset property-tax revenue forgone because the nonprofit’s property is tax-exempt, or are thought of as contributions to cover the nonprofit’s share of the cost of public services provided by municipalities that are normally funded with property taxes, according to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Journeying in search of Montana's vanished towns

Frank Hartman gazes at an old 
schoolyard. (Jeremy Lurgio photo)

When the official Montana state highway map was released in 2001, nine communities were removed, according to the website Lost and Found Montana. The main criteria for inclusion on the map was a population of at least one year-round resident.

In a story and pictorial for High Country News, freelance journalist Jeremy Lurgio details how he went in search of the nine towns. Along the way he met people who shared their thoughts about living in Montana's vanished settlements.

"Their stories, past and present, offered an unusual perspective on the fragility of place in the rural West," writes Lugio. These towns were the smallest of the small -- one family, one year-round resident, one schoolhouse or one grain elevator. Ironically, I discovered that some towns that had vanished from the map more than a decade ago had as much life in them as some that remained." (Read more)

More retirees adopt farming as a second career

The idea of farming as a second or third career, close to retirement age, may sound surprising, but many people in their 50s are taking it up. According to the President's Council of Economic Advisers' annual report, one-third of beginning farmers are over age 55, indicating that many farmers move into agriculture only after leaving another line of work. The number of farmers 55 and older rose 2.6 percent from 2010 to 2012.

Farmers tend to be older. Those 55 and older account for more than half of the total value of production and own more than half the nation's farmland, and the average age of farmers keeps rising. The average farmer is 57, reports the Stone Barns Center for Food and Alcohol.

Half of all farmers are likely to retire in the next decade, the number of entry-level farmers has fallen by 30 percent since 1987, and new farmers make up only 10 percent of farmers and ranchers, according to the Center for Rural Affairs.

The 2007 Census of Agriculture, the most recent available, reported there were 291,329 farms and ranches with a principal operator who had begun working on the operation since the previous census in 2002. An additional 361,491 principal operators had started operating their present farm within the last 10 years.

Genetically modified foods leave sour taste in one writer's mouth; Whole Foods to label all such items

Last Friday, Whole Foods Market announced its intent to label all genetically modified foods in its stores by 2018, reports Norbert O'Hare of 

Whole Foods is the first major U.S. company to make such a move, reports Casey Farrar of The Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire. Study and debate over whether eating genetically modified organisms could be harmful to people has been underway for years, with little conclusive evidence in either direction, writes Farrar. More than 60 countries have required labeling of GMO foods, but for U.S. consumers who want to know whether they’re eating foods whose genes have been manipulated, the only indication currently available is that foods labeled “USDA organic” cannot undergo genetic engineering.

The decision by Whole Foods comes on the heels of the U.S. Department of Justice's closure of its three-year antitrust investigation into Monsanto, the biotech giant whose genetic traits are embedded in over 90 percent of America’s soybean crop and more than 80 percent of corn, reports Lina Kahn of Salon.

Originally a chemical company that produced plastics and pesticides, Monsanto turned to biotech in the 1980s by developing genetic traits and licensing them to companies, big and small, that conducted the actual breeding of seeds and handled sales to farmers, writes Kahn. In the mid-1990s, Monsanto adopted a new strategy and began acquiring many of the independent seed businesses that had been the prime customers for its traits. Over the next decade Monsanto spent more than $12 billion to buy at least 30 such businesses.

Kahn opines that the public will suffer the costs of Monsanto’s capture of almost total control over much of the U.S. seed business. Since 2001 the company has more than doubled the price of soybean and corn seeds, whose crops are used in foods ranging from cereal and pizza to chocolate and soda. In 2008 Monsanto officials said farmers should expect seed prices to keep rising.

We wrote about Monsanto in February when the company was involved in a Supreme Court dispute with an Indiana farmer over a claimed violation of a planting agreement between the company and farmers.

Arizona Senate passes bill allowing some staff in certain rural schools to carry handguns

Employees in rural Arizona schools could soon be armed. The Republican-heavy Arizona Senate on Monday passed a bill allowing designated employees in certain rural schools to carry handguns.

The bill, if passed by the House and signed by the governor, would allow school boards to authorize any employee to carry a concealed gun on campus if the school has fewer than 600 students, is more than 30 minutes and 20 miles away from the closest law-enforcement facility, and does not have its own school resource officer, reports Alia Beard Rau of the Arizona Republic.

The bill would allow boards to authorize any staff member who is also a retired law-enforcement officer to carry a concealed weapon on school grounds, she writes. Schools would have to provide secure gun lockers, and the bill restricts staff to carrying a concealed handgun, pistol or revolver.

Phoenix Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Democrat, said that even if the bill becomes law, rural schools likely won’t be able to pay the astronomical fee required to insure schools with gun-carrying teachers. “And if they can afford that amount of money, they can definitely afford school resource officers,” he said. 

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Rich Crandall, has said his bill is a measured response to school safety issues and is designed to provide some protection to rural schools that are far from law enforcement centers, reports Bob Christie of the Associated Press.

Earlier this month South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a bill enabling state school boards to supervise the arming of school employees or hire security personnel, Sara Gates notes on the Huffington Post. South Dakota is believed to be the first U.S. state to sign such legislation into law, writes Gates.

M. Alex Johnson reports that a study conducted in January by NBC found that more than one third of states already allow teachers and other adults to carry guns to school. In most cases, all you need is the equivalent of a note from the principal.

Monday, March 18, 2013

American Legion tries to stay relevant, small-town posts try to stay solvent amid membership decline

In Elgin, Ill., old commanders' pictures
are posted. (NYT photo by Sally Ryan)
American Legion membership nationwide is down 11 percent since 2000, to less than 2.4 million members in 2012, and "Money and members are in short supply at legion halls in many rural communities," reports Karen Ann Cullotta of The New York Times. The legion has also seen a decline in the number of operating posts, dropping from 14,700 posts in 2000 to just under 13,800 this year.

As membership continues to decline, some small-town American Legion posts fight to stay relevant and financially solvent, Cullotta reports, citing the example of Post 57 in Elgin, Ill., which has 750 members, down from 1,200 in the 1980s. Declining membership is nothing new for the American Legion, "where the enemies these days are old age, apathy and budget deficits," she writes.

“The younger veterans are so busy with work and raising their families, they don’t think they have the time to get involved with the legion,” Norman Bellows, 76, a Korean War veteran and retired truck driver, told Cullotta.

According to Joe March, a spokesman at Legion headquarters in Indianapolis, officials are confident that the membership decline can be reversed, and they have recently begun a campaign to bring the legion’s ranks back up to three million members by its 100th anniversary in 2019. (Read more)

50 years after right established, not all defendants get lawyer, and they're scanter in rural areas

Fifty years ago today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, as part of Gideon vs. Wainwright, that everyone accused of a serious crime has a constitutional right to a lawyer, whether they can afford it or not. In honor of the anniversary of the landmark decision, many news organizations looked into how the judicial system is living up to the principle, and found that many defendants are standing trial without the services of a lawyer.

Guilty pleas account for about 95 percent of all criminal convictions, writes Stephen B. Bright and Sia Sanneh of the Los Angeles Times. In many courts, poor people are processed through the courts without lawyers or moments after speaking for a few minutes with lawyers they just met and will never see again.

Most states have little incentive to provide competent lawyers to represent the people they are trying to convict, fine, imprison or execute, the Times reports. Many focus on minimizing costs, awarding the defense of poor people to the lowest bidder, compensating lawyers at meager rates and underfunding public defender programs. This facilitates pleas, speeds up cases and heightens the chances of conviction for anyone accused of a crime.

The Legal Services Corporation, the federally financed organization that provides lawyers to the poor in civil matters, says there are more than 60 million Americans — 35 percent more than in 2005 — who qualify for its services, writes Ethan Bronner of the New York Times. But it calculates that 80 percent of the legal needs of the poor go unmet. In state after state, according to a survey of trial judges, more people are now representing themselves in court and they are failing to present necessary evidence, committing procedural errors and poorly examining witnesses, all while new lawyers remain unemployed.

Georgia offers a case study on the mismatch between lawyers and clients at a time when each needs the other, Bronner notes. According to the Legal Services Corp., 70 percent of the state’s lawyers are in the Atlanta area, while 70 percent of the poor live outside it. There are six counties without a lawyer and dozens with only two or three.

The Florida Supreme Court is considering a limit to its caseload, writes Rick Hampson of USA Today. Last year, the Missouri Supreme Court authorized public defenders with unmanageable caseloads to decline new cases, and the American Bar Association urged states and counties not to fire public defenders who do. The problem is money. An explosion in the number of criminal cases has overwhelmed the indigent defense system, which represents about 80 percent of all accused.

Mississippi, tops in obesity, OKs 'anti-Bloomberg' bill

Mississippi may appear to be pushing to keep its spot as the most obese state in the U.S. The state Legislature passed a bill which says that any law that might restrict what Mississippians eat or drink has to go through them — barring federal regulations, writes Kim Severson of the New York Times.

The bill prohibits local governments from enacting rules limiting soda size, salt content, shortening in cookies, toys in fast-food meals, how a menu is written or just about any other aspect of the daily dining experience in Mississippi, writes Severson.

The bill, which is expected to be signed by Gov. Phil Byrant, is informally called the "anti-Bloomberg bill," in response to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal on food restrictions, which a judge struck down but is on appeal.

“I can’t defend what the statistics show about obesity,” said Sen. Tony Smith, who introduced the bill “But this is about personal responsibility. When I go out to eat with my three daughters they get waters. I don’t need the government to tell me to do that.”

The bill made the "Bizarre-O-Meter" of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, which opined, "The state faces dire education and health care problems. The economy’s a mess. So what’s one of the first new laws set to hit the books? A law protecting the sanctity of the Big Gulp, the Big Mac and the Twinkie."

Among Mississippians 18 and over, 68 percent are overweight and 34 percent are obese, according to a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control. The study also found that 18.3 percent of Mississippi adolescents are obese.

Obama leaning toward delay, possible change in greenhouse-gas rules for new power plants

The Obama administration is leaning toward revising its landmark proposal to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from new power plants, according to several individuals briefed on the matter, a move that would significantly delay tougher restrictions, anger many environmentalists and please the coal industry.

Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post reports that rewriting the proposal could allow the Environmental Protection Agency to set a separate standard for coal-fired power plants, which are roughly twice as polluting as those fueled by natural gas.

The move would be a blow to environmental groups and their supporters, Eilperin writes. EPA's current proposal would require any new plant to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity produced. The agency is supposed to finalize the rule by April 13 but is likely to miss that deadline, and officials are discussing with the White House how they might modify the proposal in order to ensure it can survive a legal challenge.

Hunters, anglers voice concern about impact of climate change on wildlife

Anglers in Montana. (Riverside Anglers photo)
Ten groups representing millions of anglers, hunters, scientists and conservationists sent a letter to President Obama on Monday asking that the administration “develop and implement climate-change adaptation strategies that support the resiliency of fish and wildlife populations,” reports the Environment News Service.

The hunting and angling economy is worth roughly $120 billion a year, writes ENS. The groups are asking Obama to follow through on his promises to act against warming temperatures, given in his inaugural address in January and in his State of the Union speech in February.

"This past year alone, we saw iconic rivers such as the Yampa in Colorado and Madison in Montana closed to fishing due to high water temperatures," the groups said. "Likewise, we saw droughts in the Midwest dry up duck marshes, and wildfires of uncommon intensity burn more than 9 million acres of game habitat."

Underground water levels in high plains shrinking

Threatened by another summer of crop-shriveling drought, Kansans have agreed to across-the-board cuts in water use. In the 100 square-mile “high priority” (meaning particularly parched) zone of Northwest Kansas, Groundwater District 4 reached a consensus to reduce groundwater pumping by 20 percent over the next five years, writes Jim Malewitz of Stateline.

He writes that Kansans are gambling on short-term wants for a longer-term need — to preserve the aquifer their lives depend upon. The plan is just one of many major efforts to fend off a slow-moving disaster with national implications: The High Plains Aquifer, which feeds some of the world’s most productive croplands, is running dry.

The aquifer, also called the Ogallala, is one of the world’s largest underground sources of freshwater, he writes. It stretches 174,000 square miles through the middle of the country from South Dakota to northwest Texas, touching six states, watering more than one-quarter of all irrigated acreage in the U.S. and some of world’s largest grain cattle feedlots. The Ogallala also provides drinking water to four of every five people living above it.

Since Americans first began to seriously irrigate the Great Plains, beginning in the 1940s, water levels across most of the Ogallala have fallen at least five feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Almost one-fifth of the area has dropped at least 25 feet, while 11 percent has lost 50 feet or more. In some of the worst-off areas of Kansas and Texas, the water table has declined as much as 200 feet. The most recent drought has compounded the problem, drying up riverbeds and forcing farmers to rely even more heavily on groundwater.

Technology spreads bad news, rumors at rapid pace

Advances in technology have made it easier to spread information faster, even if that information is sensitive or untrue.

The long-standing practice of waiting until kin has been notified of a death by officials before releasing information is being trampled by text messages and Twitter tweets that are often incomplete, inaccurate or false, reports Stephanie Collins of the Advocate-Messenger in Danville, Ky. Collins writes that when a local teenager died in a recent car crash, her younger sister, who was home alone, learned of the death through a text message before officials could notify the family.

Coroner Daryl Hodge of adjoining Garrard County told Collins: “I think the hardest thing is that people don’t take into consideration that the person might not know yet. And the other thing is they need to wait until they have the facts. So many things are said on Facebook and Twitter and they just aren’t true. And that frustrates me.”

Technology has also made it easier to spread false information, writes Todd Leopold of CNN. "There's never been such pressure to speak before one knows," science writer Jamie Gleick told Leopold. There's always been a desire to gather and disseminate news, he points out, "but never until now has it been global and instantaneous."

Rural households spend less than urban ones, but more on animals and recreational vehicles

Rural households spend less overall than urban ones, according to information from 2011, the last year data was available. On average urban households spent $50,348 in 2011, 18 percent more than the $42,540 spent by rural ones, reports Phil Izzo of the Wall Street Journal.

Urban households spend more on housing, but rural consumers spend more on health care and transportation, writes Izzo. Rural residents tend to be older, which explains the health-care costs, and tend to have to drive more, which explains bigger outlays for gasoline and automotive maintenance.

Rural households spent $2,652 on entertainment in 2011, $86 more than those in urban regions. Rural consumers spent more on expenditures such as boats and all-terrain vehicles. They also spent more on pets. Urban households spent an average $484 on pet food; pet purchase, supplies, medicine; pet services; and vet services in 2011, compared to $716 for rural households. Izzo attributes that to horses, which are hard to keep in urban areas.

Grady Clay, a journalist and urbanist who appreciated rural, dies at 96

By Al Cross, director, Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

The Rural Blog might not be expected to note the passing of a "noted urbanist," as one obituary headline put it, but we're also about journalism and the connections between rural and urban areas, and my friend Grady Clay, left, cared a great deal about those things as well as the urban landscape.

Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation Friends told The Courier-Journal of Louisville that Clay alerted professionals to such issues as “sprawl, historic preservation, watershed management and ecological design. These are things we deal with as second nature today, but they were pretty revolutionary stuff” when he took over as editor of Landscape Architecture.after serving as C-J real estate editor. (Read more)

"Clay was an authority on urban design," Gabe Bullard writes for Louisville's WFPL.  He was president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors, a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University; a research associate to the Joint Center for Urban Studies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and a Guggenheim Fellow. He was a graduate of Emory University in Atlanta, where he grew up, and lectured extensively was a visiting professor at universities in U.S. and abroad.

He was married to an architect, Judith McCandless, and was chair of the jury that chose Maya Lin's then-controversial design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and "I’m sure at some level, guided" its final design and execution, "which transformed memorial architecture and the way we commemorate events of historical significance," Alan Brake, executive editor of the Architect’s Newspaper, told Bullard. His books included Real Places: An Unconventional Guide to America's Generic Landscape.

Clay at his Louisville springhouse. (Photo by
Spcsnvsnjmc / Wikimedia Commons)
Grady Clay kept track of how journalists described the landscape, urban and rural. In 1990, when I wrote that a Kentucky bond issue would build roads in "the far reaches of the state," he was taken with the phrase. Our correspondence then is lost in the electronic ether, but we kept in touch, last seeing each other in 2008 when he received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Urban Communication Foundation.

In the 1990s, he recorded a series of timeless, insightful commentaries for WFPL, titled "Crossing the American Grain" and collected in a book by that title. For rural listeners I recommend No. 5, about a summer night on a Michigan beach; No. 7, about a sawmill, a cotton gin and hard work on his grandparents' farm at Walnut Grove, Ga.; No. 8, about building the Alaska Highway; and No. 10, about moving.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

High corn prices, decline in fuel consumption spell trouble for ethanol plants and their communities

Grain bins at closed ethanol plant in
Macon, Mo. (NYT photo by Daniel Acker)
The ethanol bubble has burst, John Eligon and Matthew Wald report for The New York Times from Macon, Mo.: "Five years ago, rural America was giddy for ethanol. Backed by government subsidies and mandates, hundreds of ethanol plants rose among the golden fields of the Corn Belt, bringing jobs and business to small towns, providing farmers with a new market for their crops and generating billions of dollars in revenue for the producers of this corn-based fuel blend. Those days of promise and prosperity are vanishing.

"Nearly 10 percent of the nation’s ethanol plants have stopped production over the past year, in part because the drought that has ravaged much of the nation’s crops pushed commodity prices so high that ethanol has become too expensive to produce. A dip in gasoline consumption has compounded the industry’s problem by reducing the demand for ethanol. The situation has left the fate of dozens of ethanol plants hanging in the balance and has unsettled communities that once prospered from this biofuel." (Read more)

Because most vehicles are supposed to burn fuel with no more than 10 percent ethanol, and few service stations are set up to sell a 15 percent blend, much ethanol remains in storage. The federal Renewable Fuels Standard requires them to blend a certain amount of ethanol, and because they can't do that, they are buying and driving up the price of ethanol credits, which threatens to raise fuel prices, Wald reports: "The ethanol lobby accuses the oil companies of ratcheting up the demand for fuel credits as a way of applying pressure on lawmakers to reduce the alternative fuel mandates." (Read more)

Southerners have misled nation for a century about cause of Civil War; time to set record straight

By Al Cross, director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Friday The Rural Blog picked up an excerpt from Tracy Thompson's new book, The New Mind of the South, about a Clarksdale, Miss., tourist court comprising plantation shacks. Another part of the book is much more important. It explains why more Americans believe the Southern-generated myth that the concept of states' rights was the cause of the Civil War, rather than slavery. "Thompson’s analysis is most incisive and heartfelt" on this point, J. Bryan Lowder writes in Slate.

This is not an arcane, academic argument. It is about facing the fundamental facts about our country, and its fundamental divider, race. And those facts are especially important to confront right now because we have a black president and are going through the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, a term some in the South still refuse to use. "To call it a Civil War was to concede that secession was impossible and/or unconstitutional," Thompson (above), who was raised in Georgia, writes in the book. (Photo by Dayna Smith)

The 3,940-word book excerpt in Salon carries an extreme headline, "The South still lies about the Civil War," but as someone who was born, raised and lived all my life in slave states, I find it a compelling account of how Confederate veterans, their descendants and their allies perpetuated the myth, often with the help of Northerners who thought it would encourage regional reconciliation, and how it invaded textbooks and the public mind. To read it, click here.