Saturday, August 22, 2015

Ky. high court: Gas firms can't deduct severance tax from royalties; has implications for other states

Natural-gas producers in Kentucky can't deduct severance taxes from landowners' royalties unless the lease between the parties allows them to do so, the state's highest court ruled Thursday.

"Gas industry supporters argued that applying all the severance tax to producers would hurt small producers," Bruce Schriener reports for The Associated Press. A majority of the Kentucky Supreme Court rejected that argument, alluding to past legal and political battles involving the coal industry, mainly in Eastern Kentucky. "This time-worn tactic has been used by mineral producers for over a century to plague this embattled region of our commonwealth," Justice Bill Cunningham of Western Kentucky wrote for the five-member majority.

The dissenting opinion by Justice Lisabeth Hughes Abramson of Louisville, joined by Chief Justice John Minton of Bowling Green, "said natural-gas processors should be able to deduct the portion of the tax attributable to post-production costs when calculating royalties, but they may not deduct the portion of the tax attributable to extracting the gas," Schreiner reports.

The case arose when EQT Production Co. deducted the tax from its standard 1/8 royalty and Appalachian Land Co. sued. "At issue was the fact that natural gas is not sold at the wellhead," Joe Fisher writes for NGI's Shale Daily. "The deduction of post-production costs from royalty calculations has been an issue in Pennsylvania, where landowners have lobbied lawmakers for more protections on royalties."

Friday, August 21, 2015

As another school year begins, rural schools continue struggling to fill teacher vacancies

Rural schools are once again struggling to fill teacher positions. In Nebraska during the 2014-15 school year, 3,220 positions were listed as available, according to the Nebraska Department of Education 2014-15 Teacher Vacancy Survey, Lauren Sedam reports for The Grand Island Independent. "Of those, 166 were unfilled, meaning the position was filled by someone other than a fully qualified teacher or was left vacant." (Independent photo by Barrett Stinson: Elba Public School first-year math teacher Sydne Endorf watches as MacKenzie McKoski works on a problem during an eighth-grade math class)

"The results also showed that 12.5 positions were left vacant," Sedam writes. "Of the unfilled positions, 63 were in districts or systems with less than 500 students, and 77 were in districts or systems with more than 2,500 students."

The Tuba City Unified School District governing board, located in the Navajo Nation in Arizona, has had to compensate for teacher shortages by increasing the number of classes given to some teachers, Corina Vanek reports for the Arizona Daily Sun. Instructors, who normally teach three 90 minute classes, will now teach four classes. The board also reduced the number of required English classes students need to graduate.

William Longreed, president of the board, told Vanek, "We have had this problem for a while now. Teachers in the past have broken contracts to leave. When I was a teacher, it was always the same way. Teachers, especially young teachers, don’t stay very long.”

In North Dakota, where school starts in less than two weeks, 72 elementary school positions and 102 middle or high school positions remained open, as of last week, Kathleen Leinen reports for The Daily News-Monitor. "Superintendent Kirsten Baesler’s teacher shortage task force proposed giving struggling school districts the authority to request a hardship waiver to help fill their open teacher positions. Baesler said in a press release the step is necessary because many of North Dakota’s 179 public school districts are still scrambling to find teachers for the 2015-16 school year."

"The waiver would allow a community expert to become a classroom teacher in the subject of their expertise," Leinen writes. "For example, a school district could hire an experienced farmer who lacks a college degree in education to be licensed to teach vocational agriculture."

Charles County Public Schools
in Maryland began teacher orientation on Monday, with the first day of school Aug. 31. The county, which is located outside Washington, D.C., "began the summer with 215 openings, due to resignations, appointments, promotions and leaves of absence" and still has 50 open positions, Jamie Anfenson-Comeau reports for Southern Maryland Newspapers Online. Pamela Murphy, the district's executive director of human resources, "said Maryland trains fewer teachers than it needs, and so its school systems typically recruit from out of state. In addition, many teaching programs were cut during the recent recession."

Duke Energy testing feasibility of using drones to inspect power lines, solar farms

Duke Energy, which in June received an exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones, could soon be using unmanned aerial vehicles to inspect power lines and solar farms if test runs prove successful, Clayton Hanson reports for The Charlotte Observer.

Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless told Hanson, “What we’re really doing is testing the technology to see what kind of application it would have for Duke Energy. Right now we’re finding that surveying transmission lines and looking at the panels on a solar farm can make repairs cheaper and faster. A drone would be able to look and tally up how many poles we need and what kind of wire we need. That way we could make repairs quicker, rather than have someone go there by foot or in a helicopter.”

Duke is working with a contractor, AeroVironment, which has a blanket permit from FAA to fly drones up to 200 feet, Hanson writes. "The fixed-wing aircraft ranges from 13 to 15.5 pounds and takes off from an incline ramp. At a demonstration Wednesday, the drone’s engine emitted a high-pitched sound that could be heard several hundred feet away. Aleksander Vukojevic of Duke, told Hanson, “We’re looking at three things: how safely the flights are compared to what we do today, what is the operational efficiency and is there a business case." (Read more)

Feds sending rural Americans motivational text messages to quit using smokeless tobacco

The federal government is reaching out to rural Americans through motivational text messages in an effort to curb smokeless tobacco use. The smokeless rate among rural Americans is 11 percent "and has not decreased significantly in the past decade," mostly because of limited access to intervention, says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the projection description. The three-year study will deliver "scheduled gradual reduction interventions via short message service text messaging is an innovative way to increase reach of smokeless tobacco cessation interventions in rural populations."

So far, the study has cost taxpayers $477,000, Elizabeth Harrington reports for The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news source. Study leader Devon Noonan, an assistant professor at Duke University, told Harrington, “Part of our study involves developing the message library and piloting it with smokeless tobacco users—so all I can say now is that counseling messages will be based on constructs of the Health Belief Model (perceived benefits, susceptibility, barriers, motivation and self-efficacy). Messages will ask questions for the participants to think about or suggest that they think about specific topics.” (American Lung Association graphic)

Politicians need to put aside animosity toward Obama, support Power + Plan, editorial states

As more coal counties and towns continue to show support for President Obama’s coalfield economic Power + Plan to spend $1 billion over five years in an effort to help areas hurt by a sharp downturn in coal jobs, state political leaders who have opposed Obama and his administration's efforts to replace coal with renewable energies should heed the word of the people and support the plan, states an editorial in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

That means influential leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has declared Obama's Clean Power plan a "war on coal," and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who represents Eastern Kentucky and chairs the House Appropriations Committee, "should set aside their partisan animosity toward Obama and put their weight behind getting the money owed to coal communities into the budget," states the editorial.

"The stiffest resistance will likely come from lawmakers from western coal states," the editorial states. "Their states have no more abandoned coal-mine cleanup needs but still collect millions of dollars from the coal-tax fund."

One thing people are missing is that the $1 billion is not a handout but is owed and past due, states the editorial. "The money is sitting in a $2.5 billion fund derived from a tax that Congress first levied on the coal industry in 1977, specifically to clean up safety and health hazards left behind by earlier mining. The money would put idled miners, engineers and coal companies back to work at something they know how to do and that needs to be done."

That would be huge for Kentucky, which "has $461 million worth of unfunded repair needs related to abandoned mine lands," states the editorial. "Every heavy rain reveals more dangers as abandoned mines blow out; slide into homes, streets and roads; or pollute drinking water sources. Yet less than $20 million came to Kentucky last year from the $2.5 billion fund to repair such hazards." (Read more)

Appalachian residents say unsightly wind turbines would hurt tourism in coal country

Residents in southwestern Virginia say tourism, not renewable energy, is the answer to rebuilding the economy in Appalachian regions hurt by the loss of coal jobs, Jenna Portnoy reports for The Washington Post. That's why residents in Tazewell County say it's a terrible idea to mar the beauty of the East River Mountain with as many as 40 Dominion Virginia Power wind turbines that reach as high as 400 feet. (Post photo by Norm Shafer: Bluefield, Va., residents say wind turbines will mar the beauty of East Ridge Mountain)

Advocates for wind farms say it is a perfect spot for the state’s first commercial wind farm "and a perfect project to help one of the poorest corners of the nation rebuild an economy destroyed by the decline of coal," Portnoy writes. Critics, like attorney Charles Stacy, told Portnoy “We’re losing our foothold in the coal industry, and now they’re proposing . . . ‘Oh, by the way, we’re going to take your beautiful land for renewable energy?’ It is insulting, really.” In response to protests from local citizens, "the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance banning 'tall structures'—of which a wind turbine is one."

"The region has been trying to retool its economy for years, but with limited success," Portnoy writes. "In the shadow of East River Mountain, Tazewell County spent $13.5 million to prepare a 680-acre business and technology park called Bluestone. A wide boulevard lined with lamp posts still waits for the high-paying jobs to appear."

"Many locals also question the economic benefit of a wind farm, noting that federal subsidies for developing renewable energy are a motivating force for Dominion—but not necessarily one that will translate into longterm jobs or prosperity for the region," Portnoy writes. "An independent report said the project could generate $10 million in economic development dollars over 20 years."

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Community newspaper report gives readers an in-depth guide to understanding local tax rates

Wikipedia map/Hemphill County
The Canadian Record, located in North Texas oil country, has created an in-depth look at how Hemphill County's tax rates for 2015-16 are being created and how they could affect various aspects of the county. It's a great example of local reporting on a subject that might be confusing to many readers but is an important issue to all members of the community.

The Record's report, "It's Your Money," includes the school district's plans "to expand classroom space and its debate whether to proceed with a more ambitious and far-reaching construction project, in light of flagging oil prices and the resulting downturn in the oil and gas industry, which has fueled the Hemphill County economy for so many years," reports the Record.

The report also provides information about each of the five taxing entities fiscal plans, "boiling down the essential numbers that taxpayers need to understand and offering a snapshot of each entity’s budget priorities for the coming year," reports the Record.

Public meetings that begin next week will give residents the opportunity to comment on proposed tax rates, reports the Record. "These hearings are the culmination of a process that began when elected representatives of each taxing unit began reviewing their budgets and considering the expenditures that will need to be made in the next year."

"After receiving notices of certified property values from the Hemphill County Appraisal District office earlier this summer, each entity took the first step toward adopting a tax rate, by calculating and publishing its effective and rollback tax rates and setting dates for public hearings," reports the Record. "The effective tax rate (ETR) is a calculated rate that would provide the taxing unit with about the same amount of revenue it received the year before. When property values rise, the ETR falls, and vice versa."

"Each entity also established its rollback rate—a calculated maximum rate they are allowed by law to set, without voter approval," reports the Record. "The rollback rate provides the taxing unit with approximately the same amount of tax revenue it spent the previous year for day-to-day operations, plus an extra 8 percent increase to maintain those operations and to pay any debt. If an entity adopts a tax rate higher than the rollback rate, voters in the taxing unit can circulate a petition calling for an election to limit the size of the tax increase." (Read more)

Oklahoma breaks state record for the most yearly earthquakes; linked to oil and gas operations

With more than four months remaining in 2015, Oklahoma has already broken the state record for most earthquakes in a year, recording its 586th earthquake of magnitude 3.0 or higher on Monday, Mike Soraghan reports for EnergyWire. In 2014, Oklahoma led the lower 48 states in earthquakes with 585 of magnitude 3 or higher, more than the state had in the previous 35 years combined. Scientists have linked the rise in earthquakes to disposal wells used in oil and gas operations. (Earthquake Track map: In Oklahoma 10 earthquakes have been recorded in the past two days, five of them magnitude 3.0 or higher)
"The state has averaged 2.5 quakes a day in 2015," Soraghan writes. "If that rate continues, Oklahoma would have more than 912 quakes this year." The rate is also six times higher than California, which this year has had 90 earthquakes magnitude 3.0 or higher. Oklahoma averaged about two earthquakes per year from 1975 to 2008. Once the oil and gas boom hit the state, the number grew in 2009 to 20, then to more than 100 in 2012.

Republican Gov. Mary Fallin said state efforts to decrease earthquakes could take more than a year to take effect, Soraghan writes. "Oil and gas regulators at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission have focused on ensuring that disposal wells in quake-prone areas are not drilled so deep that they penetrate granite bedrock. Scientists say injecting into such 'basement rock' raises the risk of quakes. But recently the commission also ordered well operators in an area north of Oklahoma City to cut the volume they inject by 38 percent, back to 2012 levels." (Read more)

Obamacare hurting Walmart's pharmacies; more insured Americans spells bad news for corporation

Walmart officials are blaming an increase in the number of Americans who gained insurance under federal health reform for its pharmacies taking a financial hit, Carolyn Johnson reports for The Washington Post. "It's one of the dirty secrets of the pharmacy industry that uninsured people frequently pay more for drugs than those with insurance," said Adam Fein, president of Pembroke Consulting.

"That's because the prescription drug plans can use their clout and scale to negotiate lower reimbursement rates with the pharmacies, while uninsured people pay more," Johnson writes. "In addition, Fein said Walmart, which runs the third largest pharmacy business in the U.S. bringing in an estimated $18.8 billion in revenue, has made strategic decisions that may have made it more vulnerable to this shift."

Walmart's move in 2006 to begin offering hundreds of generic drugs for $4 "was novel because retail pharmacies haven't traditionally competed on the price of prescription drugs, which are largely hidden from consumers and attracted people who were paying full price for drugs, without insurance," Johnson writes.

Now that more Americans are using insurance to pay for medication, "the company is seeing lower reimbursement rates from drug insurance plans and a decline in high-margin cash transactions," said Greg Foran, president and chief executive of Walmart. He told reporters during a conference call that it reflects "a marketplace shift in which more customers are now benefiting from greater drug insurance coverage." Walmart reported "that its health and wellness business was growing, including an increase in prescriptions filled but that the profit margins are lower than expected."

Drug industry making it more difficult for FDA to track antibiotic use in animals

The drug industry isn't doing much to help the U.S. Food and Drug Administration track antibiotics used in animals, Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse. "Drugmakers now only report total sales for individual drugs. Breaking the sales data down by cattle, hogs, chickens and turkeys would help the government track how the drugs are being used and more easily target its actions to curb the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the FDA says."

"In comments filed with FDA, industry groups say the data would be difficult to produce, misleading and would likely be used unfairly to target segments of the industry," Brasher writes. "They also objected to an agency proposal to allow the use of estimates when firm data is not available." Drug industry representatives said it's difficult to know how the drugs are used once they are sold, and even if they did know, releasing the information could make producers and veterinarians targets. Critics of antibiotic use say "more information would help scientists understand how antibiotic resistance develops."

The FDA proposal to reduce antibiotic used in animals "is part of a broader Obama administration strategy to combat antibiotic resistance," Brasher writes. "The agency said that more actions will be proposed. While the species-specific data would provide a 'fuller picture' of antibiotic use in livestock and poultry, 'more detailed information is needed about on-farm use practices to adequately understand links between usage patterns and trends in resistance.'" (Read more)

States battle rural flight with income tax breaks and student loan repayment

Rural states with decreasing populations are trying to retain people with tax incentives, while localities are searching for ways to share services or cut back. Population loss has been a trend for a long time in many areas of rural America, and it's increased since 2010, according to a Stateline analysis. "Although 759 rural counties in 42 states lost population between 1994 and 2010, more than 1,300 rural counties in 46 states have lost population since 2010," Tim Henderson writes for Stateline.

Stateline map
"Counties are regionalizing and sharing resources in the face of this rural flight, which is the long-term impact when the younger generation just leaves after college because there's no job opportunities that make it fiscally viable for you to return back home," said Arthur Scott, who works on rural issues for the National Association of Counties.

In Colorado, some schools have switched to online, and North Dakota and Michigan have switched to gravel roads. Nebraska is accepting applications for enterprise zones, which are designed to promote new businesses in areas with population decline and high poverty and unemployment rates. In 2011, Kansas began offering incentives—such as state income tax breaks and student loan partial repayment—for those who moved to rural counties with population losses, Henderson writes.

Some people are skeptical about Kansas's strategy. The program "may help a few families here and there, which is of course very important for those people and can give positive examples to some communities," said Laszlo Kulcsar, a demographer at Kansas State University. "But we have to remember that it was designed to counter long-term depopulation, in which is it terribly ineffective." (Read more)

Survey finds that 98% of Utah residents favor being self-sufficient and growing more food in state

Earlier this summer a study released by the University of California, Merced said that most areas of the U.S. could feed between 80 to 100 percent of the local population with food grown or raised within 50 miles. Self-sufficiency is something most Utah residents favor, with 98 percent of the 50,000 respondents to the "Your Utah, Your Future" survey saying they’d like more food grown in state, Judy Fahys reports for KUER 90.1 at the University of Utah. (A farmers market in Utah)

Respondents also said that "as Utah’s population doubles in the next few decades, they want to stop the trend of seeing buildings sprout up where furrows and orchards used to be," Fahys writes. "People responding to the survey don’t want water taken from agriculture or land. The survey also found that Utahns are willing to water their lawns less to ensure there’s enough water for farms."

Ari Bruening, COO of Envision Utah, the organization that conducted the survey, told Fahys, “When Utahns weighed in on agriculture, I think they were saying we would like to grow more food that we can eat here. So maybe that’s shifting some crops in some places. Maybe that’s adding more cropland. And maybe that’s protecting some of our best cropland that we have.” (Read more)

Rural publisher awarded West Virginia Press Association's highest individual honor

Andy Kniceley, publisher of the weekly Preston County News & Journal and daily Exponent Telegram, recently earned the Adam R. Kelly Premier Journalist Award, the top individual honor awarded by the West Virginia Press Association, reports the News & Journal. Both papers are part of the Clarksburg Publishing Company’s media group. Knicely, whose father worked for 43 years for Charleston Newspapers on the production side, is a 30-year veteran of the newspaper business. (West Virginia Press Association photo by Dalton Walker: Andy Knicely with the Adam R. Kelly Premier Journalist Award)

"In honoring Kniceley, press association President Don Smith pointed out that there have been few members so well liked and respected as Kniceley, who he said is always willing to help other newspapers and the association grow audience," reports the News & Journal. "Smith also pointed out that Kniceley is recognized as an industry leader for his innovative marketing ideas and for his involvement in the communities in which he has worked."

Brian Jarvis, president of The Exponent Telegram, which is also owned by Clarksburg Publishing, said, “The Adams R. Kelly Award honors commitment to community journalism. It symbolizes the success that Andy has earned with hard work, leadership and passion. We are proud to have him as part of The Exponent Telegram team and look forward to what the future holds." (Read more)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

At least seven Appalachian towns and counties on board with Obama's $1B economic aid for coalfields

Local governments in Appalachian Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee are warming up to President Obama’s coalfield economic plan "to spend $1 billion over five years in an effort to help areas hurt by a sharp downturn in coal jobs," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The money would be used to repair damage to land and water from abandoned mines, with the goal of tying the reclamation work to projects that would provide a longer-term economic boost," including agriculture, tourism and forestry. (Herald-Leader photo by Charles Bertram: The plan would repair damage from abandoned coal mines)

The Eastern Kentucky city of Whitesburg was believed to the first to endorse the Power + Plan but has since been joined by Benham, Ky.; Norton, Va.; Letcher and Harlan counties in Kentucky; Campbell County, Tennessee; and Wise County, Virginia.

"There are several pieces to the proposal from the Obama administration, including money for job training and help for entrepreneurs, grants and loans for infrastructure in hard-hit coal communities, and money to shore up the pension funds of tens of thousands of retired coal workers," Estep writes.

"Money would come from the abandoned mine land, or AML, fund," Estep writes. "Coal companies pay a fee into the fund on each ton of coal mined. The program is designed to fix problems such as landslides and water pollution from mining that took place before 1977, when Congress approved new surface mining and reclamation standards. There is about $2.5 billion in the fund, according to the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Most of the land that remains unreclaimed from historic mining is in Appalachia."

House Appropriations Committee Chair Hal Rogers, who represents the East Kentucky coalfield, "has supported pieces of the Power+ proposal, but not all of it," Estep notes. Rogers' panel "has approved funding to federal agencies for programs under the proposal such as job training for laid-off miners, said Danielle Smoot, a spokeswoman for Rogers' office. However, the proposal on AML spending would require significant changes to the federal surface-mining act and action by another committee, and the Obama administration did not submit legislative language early enough for consideration during the budget process in the House, Smoot said."(Read more)

Struggling rural hospitals aligning with one another and a major urban one to survive

Some struggling rural hospitals have found a way to remain open: by aligning with other rural hospitals and a major urban one, Michael Ollove reports for Stateline. For example, the Southern Arizona Hospital Alliance consists of four southern Arizona rural hospitals and the Tuscon Medical Center. The alliance "is negotiating better prices on supplies and services. And the Tucson hospital has promised to help its rural partners with medical training, information technology and doctor recruitment."

The alliance, "which is similar to ones in Kansas, Mississippi, Washington state and Wisconsin, hopes that by joining they will avoid the fate of 56 rural hospitals that have closed since 2010," Ollove writes. "Another 283 rural hospitals are in danger of closing, according to the National Rural Health Association (NRHA)."

The Southern Arizona Hospital Alliance "offers the rural members multiple advantages," Ollove writes. "One of the most important is in purchasing. Their combined size will enable them to get discounts that are beyond them now. For example, instead of being a lone, 49-bed hospital with limited bargaining leverage, alliance member Mount Graham Regional Medical Center in Safford, is suddenly part of a purchasing entity with more than 700 beds." Keith Bryce, Mount Graham’s chief financial officer, said "he expects the added purchasing power alone will save Mount Graham 'in the six figures' every year."

The hospitals expect the combined size "will result in lower costs for employee benefits, workers’ compensation and medical malpractice insurance," Ollove writes. "Tucson Medical Center has pledged to use its own recruiting muscle to help its rural partners find providers who are willing to live in rural areas or at least regularly see patients there. As an incentive, Tucson will offer interested doctors help in managing the business aspects of their practices." (Read more)

Bee-killing pesticides found in 63% of streams tested by U.S. Geological Survey

At least one form of neonicotinoids blamed for killing bee populations was found in 63 percent of 48 streams studied by researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey for a study published in Environmental Chemistry. Overall, neonicotinoids were found in 53 percent of collected samples. The study, from 2011-2014, included samples from 24 states and Puerto Rico.

"Researchers found that the pesticides were present throughout the year in urban streams, while the chemicals typically were seen at higher levels in agricultural streams in 'pulses' during crop planting season," Sam Pearson reports for Environment & Energy Publishing. "Researchers said they detected six neonicotinoids at varying levels, including the pesticide imidacloprid in 37 percent of samples, clothianidin in 24 percent, thiamethoxam in 21 percent, dinotefuran in 13 percent and acetamiprid in 3 percent. None of the concentrations exceeded Environmental Protection Agency aquatic life criteria or are likely to be carcinogenic to humans, the study said."

Michele Colopy, program director at the Pollinator Stewardship Council," told Pearson, "One of the issues we all forget with pesticide exposure and bees is that bees drink water. We think that they just go and get all their liquids from the nectar in the plants, and they do not." She said the pesticides "may be a sign that they affect other insects whose health has not seen the same public attention currently given to pollinators." (Read more)

EPA proposes emissions cuts for oil and gas industry

The Obama administration on Tuesday released proposed requirements to reduce "the emissions of heat-trapping methane from the nation’s booming oil and gas industry by 40 percent to 45 percent over the next decade," Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The Environmental Protection Agency proposal is actually a combination of four rules, guidelines and plans. (Associated Press photo: Oil and gas wells are a major source of the greenhouse gas methane) 

EPA "said methane, the key constituent of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas with a global-warming potential more than 25 times greater than that of carbon dioxide," Ward writes. "Methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the U.S. from human activities, and nearly 30 percent of those emissions come from oil production and the production, transmission and distribution of natural gas, the EPA said."

EPA said its "new proposals would complement rules issued in 2012 and would extend emissions-reduction requirements further 'downstream,' to cover other equipment in the natural gas transmission segment of the industry," Ward writes. "Among other things, the EPA wants gas companies to find and repair leaks, limit emissions from new and modified pneumatic pumps used throughout the industry and limit emissions from several types of equipment used at gas-transmission compressor stations and storage facilities."

Critics say the proposal, which "could cost the industry between $320 million and $420 million in 2025 and have health-related and other benefits of about $460 million to $550 million," is unnecessary because methane emissions are already falling, even as production skyrockets, Ward writes. Critics also say the new requirements could cost jobs and threaten the development of natural gas in states already struggling economically.

A recent study from Colorado State University researchers published in Environmental Science & Technology said that "methane emissions from natural gas 'gathering' facilities, which collect gas from multiple wells, are 'substantially higher' than they previously were believed to be," Ward writes.

Climate activist plans to turn bankrupt Patriot Coal mines in Appalachia into tree projects

Tom Clarke
"Tom Clarke, a Virginia hospital executive and climate activist, is crafting a first-of-its-kind deal in which investors concerned about climate change take over mines along with hundreds of millions of dollars in liabilities," Mark Drajem reports for Bloomberg. Clarke, who has been grabbing bankrupt Patriot Coal mines in Appalachia for the low price of $0, "plans to sell the coal bundled with carbon credits accrued from planting trees, something he thinks will appeal to utilities trying to meet new power-plant regulations."

This isn't Clarke's first foray into the coal industry. After being outwardly critical of Southern Coal, he eventually worked as an unpaid consultant for owner Jim Justice to help the company fix problems that led to more than 300 violations.

Clarke’s group, the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, "plans to acquire 153 mining permits and equipment from Patriot," Drajem writes. "Instead of paying Patriot for the assets, it’s pledging to operate one mine, assume $176 million in liabilities to clean-up the company’s old mining operations and commit $109 million for pension and Black Lung obligations. Ownership of the new entity will be divvied up among the nonprofit conservation fund, miners, retirees, management and unsecured creditors. The new company plans to sell 4 million tons of coal a year from the Federal Mine in West Virginia. In addition, workers from two other Patriot mines would be put to work on reclamation projects."

"The new twist is that the deal is predicated on the idea that coal states will turn to this combination of coal with massive tree planting as a way to offset emissions and comply with new rules from the Environmental Protection Agency," Drajem writes. "The conservation fund joined with GreenTrees, which replants trees to generate carbon credits. The new company plans to join the coal from the mine with reforestation credits and so effectively sell a lower-carbon alternative to coal."

"However, it’s not clear that kind of program would qualify under the EPA rules, a risk Clarke acknowledged," Drajem writes. "Clarke said he’s talking with coal-dependent states about including this option in their plans to the federal agency, and one is committed to doing so."

Environmentalists and coal miners are not sure what to think of the plan, Drajem writes. Bruce Nilles, the head of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, told Drajem, “We are still reviewing the details of this proposal and so are not ready to conclude good or bad.” Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, told Drajem, “The good news is that the potential exists for jobs to remain here. But we don’t know enough yet about the organization itself.” (Read more)

Tennessee forms Rural Development Task Force to boost economic development in rural areas

Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam announced on Monday the creation of the 20-member Rural Development Task Force "to develop a three- to four-year strategic plan to help identify and correct gaps and challenges in rural counties of Tennessee," reports the Times Free Press in Chattanooga. "Randy Boyd, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, said the state needs a holistic solution to helping rural counties often shaded from the Sunbelt growth or urban and suburban counties across Tennessee."

Unemployment is at or below the national average in the state's biggest urban counties, but jobless rates are double the national average in several rural counties, reports the Press. "Boyd said the rural counties need to be able to boost educational attainment, support rural entrepreneurship, create and promote tourism, and expand agri-business. He said extending broadband service to rural areas also is critical for their economic competitiveness." (Read more)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

At least 22 states, mostly in South, have had Confederate flag rallies since Charleston shootings

Since June 17 when nine African Americans were killed in a historic Charleston, S.C., church and a white suspect with ties to hate crimes was arrested for the murders, many lawmakers—including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley—have called for the removal of Confederate flags from government buildings. While many flags have been taken down, not everyone sees the flag as a symbol of hatred and racism, as evidenced by the 173 reported rallies and protests in support of the flag—mostly in the South—that have taken place since the shootings, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post.

Those 173 rallies and protests—in just 62 days since the shootings—were attended by about 23,000 people, according to data from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Ingraham writes. About 5,000 people attended a July rally in Ocala, Fla., where there were reports of gunfire, and another 4,000 attended a North Carolina rally. Also, 2,000 went to a KKK rally in Charleston.

Overall, 22 states have had rallies, led by Virginia with 23. Texas is second at 19, Alabama has had 17 and Georgia and Florida have had 16 each, Ingraham writes. "A common refrain of Confederate flag supporters is that the flag is about heritage, not hate. But historians of the South, as well as political scientists who study the motivations of people who wave the flag, generally dispute this claim. And a number of rallies tracked by the SPLC include the involvement of known hate groups, like the Klan, the Aryan Nations and the League of the South." (Post map)

Methodology used for county-level maps of most desirable locations for amenities criticized

UPDATED, Aug. 20: The index has come into question in many counties known for their natural beauties, especially because of the methodology, which penalized counties for having cold, wintry winters and lacking bodies of water and topography variation. Many people from Minnesota, known for its outdoor beauties, were upset that some the state's counties were ranked at or near the bottom. Louisiana counties, also known for beauty, were ranked low, for high humidity and lack of mountains. Most of the Great Lakes and Midwest were ranked fairly low and most of those residents would probably argue that the region's natural beauty can stack up against most any other region. Was your county unfairly ranked low? (Post map)
Where are the most desirable counties to live? Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post has taken a federal government measure, the "natural amenities index," to create a county-level interactive map that reveals the most desirable counties to live in based on scenery and climate. "The index combines 'six measures of climate, topography and water area that reflect environmental qualities most people prefer,'" Ingraham writes. "Those qualities, according to the USDA, include mild, sunny winters, temperate summers, low humidity, topographic variation and access to a body of water."  

The top 10 ranked counties are all in California, Ingraham writes. "By contrast the Great Lakes region fares poorly, with most of the lowest rankings clustered around the Minnesota/North Dakota border region," with Red Lake County, Minnesota, ranking dead last, mostly because it's the only landlocked county in the country surrounded by just two neighboring counties. Hawaii and Alaska were not considered for the rankings.

"The USDA's original report on the natural amenities index found that these measures 'drive rural population change,'" Ingraham writes. "The USDA found that rural areas with a lot of natural amenities saw the greatest population change between 1970 and 1996." The report states: "The relationship is quite strong. Counties with extremely low scores on the scale tended to lose population over the 1970-96 period, while counties with extremely high scores tended to double their populations over the period."

Locals split over economic impact of a proposed federal prison in Appalachian coal country

Controversy is brewing in a coal-depressed Eastern Kentucky community over a proposed federal prison that could bring 300 much-needed jobs to the area but raises concerns among others that having such a facility in the area would hurt economic development, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The prison proposed for Letcher County (Family Search map) "would house an estimated 1,200 men—most in a high-security facility behind walls and a lethal electrified fence but some at a minimum-security camp."

"More than 2,000 people submitted comments or signed petitions in support of building the prison, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons," Estep writes. "Some, however, are uneasy about tying the local economy to what they see as misguided national policies that have resulted in bulging federal prisons and disproportionate numbers of minority inmates. They see a chance to open a new front against incarceration rates through challenges based on environmental rules."

One commenter, Richard Smith, wrote, "Any jobs or opportunities the prison brings to this county are desperately needed," Estep writes. Others say the issue goes deeper than jobs and the economy. Panagioti Tsolkas, who heads the Prison Ecology Project for the Human Rights Defense Center, told Estep, "We are proposing that Letcher County, the only new federal prison proposed for construction, become ground zero for that fight" against mass incarceration. The Bureau of Prisons said the new facility was needed to relieve overcrowding at other sites.

A Penn State study found that prisons built from 1985 to 1995 showed "the economic impacts of the prison development boom on persistently poor rural places, and rural places in general, appear to have been rather limited," Estep writes. But others fear that "a large prison would hinder other types of development, such as tourism, and they think it would benefit the county more in the long run to invest more in other approaches, such as support for small businesses and improvements in quality of life to attract entrepreneurs."

Tyson Foods to close Iowa beef plant that employs 400; cites diminishing cattle herds as reason

Tyson Foods, the largest meat company by sales, announced on Friday that diminishing cattle herds will force it to permanently close its Denison, Iowa, (Best Places map) processing plant that employs 400 workers, Jacob Bunge reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Years of dry conditions in the southern U.S. Plains states forced farmers to reduce their beef herds, leaving meatpackers with fewer animals to process."

Steve Stouffer, president of Tyson’s fresh meats division, said in a statement: “The cattle supply is tight, and there’s an excess of beef production capacity in the region. We believe the move to cease beef operations at Denison will put the rest of our beef business in a better position for future success.”

Grocery store prices for beef remain high "after soaring to historic highs in recent years, which has benefited sales of other meats such as pork and chicken," Bunge writes. "Retail prices for beef products have risen about 10 percent over the past year through June, to $6.11 a pound, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture." (Read more)

N.C. economic development bill causing rural vs. urban feud over distribution of sales taxes

The North Carolina Senate on Monday approved an economic development bill that has caused a rural vs. urban battle over how sales taxes are distributed, Colin Campbell reports for The Charlotte Observer. "The bill softens the impact of earlier proposals on the sales tax revenue plan, which had prompted outcry from some urban and tourism counties that would lose substantial money. The effort in the Senate is aimed at pumping more state money into areas of the state, generally smaller and more rural, that have not seen the same prosperity as in larger counties."

Republican Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown "had earlier called for distributing 80 percent of revenues based on population and only 20 percent based on the sale location," Campbell writes. "The Senate’s new proposal would split revenues, with half staying in the county where the sale took place and half then distributed based on county population. The change would take effect in 2016."

"Rural lawmakers said the change is crucial to help funding as jobs and retail shift toward urban areas," Campbell writes. Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican from rural Mitchell County, told Campbell, “We have areas of this state that aren’t growing, that are declining in population. We have to make sure that our rural areas are sustainable. We’re trying to change a system so that we can become one North Carolina.”

But Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, an urban Democrat from the state's second most populated county, "questioned how much the sales tax change will help rural counties, some of which would get a boost of several hundred thousand dollars—hardly enough to build new schools," Campbell writes. Blue told him, “It’s still not going to provide the services that these counties deserve."

An Observer editorial on Monday called the bill a "ham-handed attempt to help struggling rural counties." While a 50-50 split might sound fair, "the Senate’s plan fails to account for the fact that the 75-25 split was the result of a 2007 compromise in which the state took the responsibility of Medicaid funding from the counties."

"Rural counties, whose biggest budget expense was Medicare and Medicaid, benefited the most," the editorial states. "So leaders agreed to give urban counties a heftier sales tax slice to help with their biggest expense—schools."

While the bill is expected to be defeated in the House, "that shouldn’t be the end of the discussion about offering economic uplift to our neediest regions," states the editorial board. "Lawmakers should immediately propose new legislation setting up a grant program to build schools, retrain workers and seed economic development efforts in the poorest rural counties. It’s not as if we can’t afford it. Despite tax cuts that helped top earners and squeezed the working class, we have a $400 million-plus budget surplus. Why not just ease the cuts a bit and aim that money at struggling areas? It would be a much more sensible response to the very real needs in rural counties." (Read more)

Harmful algae in southern Minnesota tourist town has officials on edge

Officials in southern Minnesota are at odds about how to fund clean-up and where to place the blame for harmful algae in Fountain Lake, a popular tourist destination in Albert Lea, Minn., a town dubbed "The Land Between the Lakes," Tony Kennedy reports for the Star Tribune. Millions of dollars of taxpayer money has already been spent to clean the lake with copper sulfate, "a chemical that carried surface scum to the lake bottom, out of sight from summer tourists." (Tribune photo by Brian Peterson: sampling for pollutants)

"But a true revitalization of the civic gem and other waters in this heavily farmed region is likely to require more than cosmetic chemicals," Kennedy writes. "Southern Minnesota’s abysmal water pollution won’t go away, state officials say, unless farmers reduce the heavy use of phosphorus, nitrogen and other chemicals that seep off their fields into local rivers and lakes."

"The job of protecting Fountain Lake belongs to the Shell Rock River Watershed District, a special body with its own tax base, millions of dollars in state funding and a full-time staff," Kennedy writes. "Brett Behnke, its administrator, concedes that the volume of agriculture drainage coursing into local waterways continues to increase but vows to restore the district’s lakes and the Shell Rock River itself with a combination of new and ongoing projects."

"But state officials and some local citizens note that the watershed district, which is chaired by a major local corn grower, is spending thousands of dollars on restoration projects without addressing the region’s core problem—agricultural runoff," Kennedy writes.

"In a letter dated June 3, the agency objected to the district’s decision to make re-dredging of Fountain Lake a top priority," Kennedy writes. "The agency says it’s unclear whether removing the phosphorus-laden sediment will work in the long run if farm runoff isn’t stopped upstream. Behnke said the district is drafting a response, but Gary Pestorious, the district’s chairman, said the authority has completed the right amount of upstream work and that farming is not the problem."

Pestorious told Kennedy, “We are at a phosphorus level right now that’s less than half of what it was 15 years ago. It’s down to a point in southern Minnesota where you can barely raise a crop. If there’s someone who thinks these farmers are farming incorrectly, they’re wrong.” (Read more)

Monday, August 17, 2015

Trump, Clinton create chaos at Iowa State Fair, but avoid Des Moines Register Soapbox

The top two presidential candidates—Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton—created chaos at the Iowa State Fair this weekend, mingling with the locals as they vied for all-important rural votes in a swing state, Philip Rucker and Jenna Johnson report for The Washington Post: "The road to the White House leads from the life-size cow carved from 600 pounds of butter here at the Iowa State Fair to the stand selling $7 grilled pork chops on a stick." (Associated Press photo by Charlie Neibergall: Clinton buying a pork chop at the fair)

Trump "stepped out of his helicopter like a Palm Beach mogul, sporting a navy blazer and breezy cream slacks, a red cap with his 'Make America Great Again' slogan, French cuffs and buffed white dress shoes, which would be challenged moments later when the Trump entourage walked through a pile of horse dung," Rucker and Johnson write. "A political Willy Wonka, Trump offered rides in his helicopter, which landed at a nearby baseball field, to randomly selected handfuls of Iowa children. Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, acknowledged, “You know we don’t do subtle."

Rucker and Johnson note that Clinton "stood at the fence of a dirty paddock to meet a shorthorn cow named Maggie. (She paid no attention to the shiny black Rolls-Royce parked a few yards away.) She expressed amazement at a Monopoly-themed butter statue. She bit into a greasy pork chop and sipped from a jumbo cup of fresh-squeezed lemonade. Walking through the Agriculture Building—past showcases of the thickest carrots, roundest beets and biggest heads of iceberg lettuce—Clinton made her way to the famed butter cow. She smiled and waved, waved and smiled."

"Both Trump and Clinton opted out of appearing at the Des Moines Register Soapbox, a state fair rite of passage for presidential aspirants, who each get 20 minutes to address fairgoers—and often get mercilessly heckled," Rucker and Johnson write. "Trump said he skipped the soapbox because of his feud with the Register. The newspaper, he said Saturday, was 'not relevant.'" 

Not to be outdone by his own performance, Trump made more news this weekend, "calling for mass deportation of illegal immigrants and nationwide use of the E-Verify system to check the legal status of workers," Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse."Both policies, were they to be attempted, could have far-reaching implications for agriculture, which relies heavily on immigrant labor in fruit, vegetable, meat and dairy production."

"Trump, who also called for tripling the number of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officers, posted a broad outline of his immigration policy on his web site this weekend," Brasher writes. "He told the host of NBC's Meet the Press, Chuck Todd, that the mass deportation of immigrants, including entire families, was essential." (Read more)

Appalachian coal town first in nation to support Obama's plan for economic aid for coalfields

The Eastern Kentucky city of Whitesburg (Best Places map) "has become the first to go on record supporting President Obama’s coalfield economic plan, and others may follow soon," Erica Peterson reports for WFPL 89.3 in Louisville. The “Power+ Plan," which is currently before Congress, "was introduced in February, along with Obama’s proposed budget. It would set aside $25 million for the nation’s coal communities that have become casualties of the industry’s decline. Among other things, the plan sets aside money for retraining laid-off coal miners, economic development in the region and to remediate abandoned coal mines and power plants. There’s also money for carbon capture technology."

"But the measure has been stalled since it was proposed in February," Peterson writes. "Now, coalfields municipalities are beginning to ask why. "Whitesburg Mayor James Wiley Craft, who said the county is suffering from the loss of coal jobs, "believes the plan would create jobs for the struggling area." He told Peterson, “Even if they are minimum wage jobs, it’s something that people can earn money from and maintain some sense of their pride. Because a lot of people are getting desperate right now.”

Whitesburg’s resolution specifically calls on Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who represents the county, "to shepherd the plan through," Peterson reports.

Growing agri-tourism industry posing safety and liability risks for landowners

While the agri-tourism industry led to a 42 percent increase in income for U.S. farms from 2007 to 2012, the growing business is also putting a greater number of landowners at risk of liabilities that can be prevented by obtaining the proper insurance and educating visitors of hazards, Lisa Rathke reports for The Associated Press. "As more farms open themselves up to visitors for apple picking, hayrides and some extra income, experts are advising owners to take steps to prevent accidents—be they minor or serious." (Rathke photo: Beatrice LeVesque of Montreal feeds a horse while visiting an apple orchard at Allenholm Farm in South Hero, Vt)
Farming, one of the nation's most dangerous businesses, becomes even more dangerous when adding inexperienced urban visitors "who might not be familiar with hazards such as irrigation ponds or farm equipment that could pique a child’s interest," Rathke writes. "So, experts say farmers have to purchase the proper insurance, know where the hazards are and keep tourists away from those areas. Doing so can prevent injuries, lawsuits and notoriety."

Marsha Salzwedel, an agritourism safety specialist with the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety in Marshfield, Wis., said there are no official records of the number of agri-tourism injuries and deaths, Rathke writes. But Salzwedel told her, “The majority of these incidents, if not all of them, are pretty much preventable.”

Brian Schilling of Rutgers’ Cooperative Extension in New Brunswick, N.J., said, "The first key is assessing the risks," Rathke writes. He told her, “If you’ve grown up on a farm, you’re sort of blind to a lot of these things.” He advises owners "to have an extension agent, emergency official or insurance agent walk the farm to identify hazards. The extension also has a safety checklist that reminds farmers to, among other things, designate areas that are closed to the public, train employees to operate farm machinery properly, secure and restrict areas that contain chemicals, provide hand-washing or hand-sanitizing stations and have employees assist with parking." (Read more)

Hospitalized rural Medicare patients less likely to receive follow-up care, more likely to end up in ER

Rural Medicare patients are less likely than urban patients to receive follow-up care after leaving the hospital and more likely to end up in an emergency room or be re-hospitalized, says a study by researchers at RTI International and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill published in the September issue of the journal Medical Care. Researchers found that "patients living in isolated areas were 19 percent less likely to receive follow-up care within 30 days after leaving the hospital than those in urban areas."

Researchers used the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey to look at 12,000 Medicare-eligible patients with hospital admissions between 2000 and 2010. They looked at the number of patients who had follow-up health care visits, emergency department visits and unplanned hospital re-admissions during the first 30 days after hospitalization.

The study found that rural patients are more likely than urban ones to visit an emergency room, with the risk of visiting an emergency room 52 percent higher for rural patients in a larger setting and 44 percent higher for rural patients in a smaller setting.

While the overall re-admission rate was similar for rural and urban residents, the "difference became significant when patients were classified by the location of the hospital where they were treated, rather than where they lived. Thirty-day readmission risk was 32 percent higher for patients discharged from hospitals in large rural settings and 42 percent higher for hospitals in small rural settings, compared to urban settings." The study did not give a reason why more rural residents fail to receive follow-up care, though other studies have said transportation is one of the main issues. (Read more)

Country-folk duo use words and music to fight proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline

The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would run from West Virginia to North Carolina, is drawing plenty of criticism in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, most notably from a country-folk duo made famous by the “Prairie Home Companion” radio show, Frances Stead Sellers reports for The Washington Post. Musicians Robin and Linda Williams object to the pipeline that is designed to "carry up to 1.5 billion cubic feet per day of methane for more than 500 miles through the Shenandoah Valley, across the Blue Ridge Mountains and over the Piedmont and then the Tidewater to North Carolina, burrowing its way through both public and private lands." (News & Advance map)

A spokesman for energy giant Dominion Recources "explains that if everything stays on schedule, the company could get approval for the project next summer, start construction later that year and go into operation before the end of 2018," Sellers writes. "About 300 landowners have objected, he says; 52 changed their minds after getting a follow-up call; and the pipeline company has so far filed 58 lawsuits. There is a state law about surveying private property, the spokesman says, and 'as long as we follow the statute, by law we don’t have to ask for permission.' He’s also aware of at least two lawsuits that landowners have filed, alleging that the state statute violates the U.S. Constitution."

And then there's the music of Robin and Linda Williams, who wrote the protest song, "We Don't Want Your Pipeline." The song goes:
We don’t want your pipeline, we don’t want your pipeline
We’ll take the sunshine, the water and wind!
We’re gonna put a stop sign on Dominion’s pipeline.
Go tell your neighbors! Go tell your friends!

They’ll bring cough and corruption like we’ve never seen,
Gouging our Forest, our mountains and our streams.
Five hundred miles long and fifty yards wide,
Blasting through our homes with their pipeline

Now sinkholes, explosions and gas-line leaks,
You hear it on the news almost every week.
Dominion says ‘Don’t worry,’ but it ain’t wise,
To be flirting with disaster with their pipeline

These Richmond operators don’t care ’bout you and me.
They just want to make a killing when they got more than they need.
And you can bet they’re safe in their houses so fine,
Far, far away from the pipeline.

Now these Big Boys say, ‘It’s a done deal.’
But nothing’s done as long as we’ll,
Stand together for our rights and our property,
And keep pushing back against their pipeline

Ohio secretary of state tells counties they can't put anti-fracking measures on November ballots

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted told the election boards in Athens, Fulton and Medina counties that only the state has the authority to regulate oil and gas activity, putting an end to attempts by the counties "to have questions on their ballots this November asking residents whether to amend their county charters to ban fracking inside their borders," Laura Arenschield reports for The Columbus Dispatch. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in February that localities can't block hydraulic fracturing.

Husted's decision didn't sit well with anti-fracking activists, Arenschield writes. Tish O’Dell, a Broadview Heights resident and organizer with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, told Arenschield, “If one secretary of state, who is obviously representing the best interests of the oil and gas industry, can keep the people’s attempt to alter and reform their government off the ballot, then exactly how are people ever supposed to alter their government?”

Charter amendments "have become a tool for groups worried about fracking’s environmental or health repercussions to keep oil and gas activity out of their localities," Arenschield writes. "Two oil and gas companies sued Broadview Heights over the bill of rights that passed there in 2012, and in March, a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge ruled that only the state Department of Natural Resources can say where oil and gas wells can go." (Read more)

Repeat ginseng poacher sentenced to six months for illegal possession of roots highly prized in Asia

A repeat ginseng poacher in rural North Carolina was sentenced on Thursday to six months in prison "for the illegal possession or harvesting of the plant," Sabian Warren reports for The Citizen-Times in Asheville. Billy Joe Hurley was convicted on Wednesday "for illegally possessing more than 500 ginseng roots he dug in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park." It was the fifth time Hurley has been convicted of the crime. He was previously sentenced in August 2014 to five months and 15 days for the same crime.

"Hurley was charged on June 28 in Swain County with possessing more than 500 ginseng roots he had illegally dug," Warren writes. "Court records show that Hurley had filled a backpack with the roots and attempted to hide it behind a guardrail beside a hiking trail. National park staff replanted the recovered viable roots but estimated that at best, 50 percent of the replanted roots are likely to survive," said Jill Westmoreland Rose, acting U.S. attorney for western North Carolina.

"The wild roots of American ginseng are a highly-prized tonic, particularly in Asian markets," Warren writes. "According to the park service, the American ginseng species is under severe pressure from poachers in the Smokies and may not be sustainable if it continues to be harvested illegally. Fresh ginseng can bring up to $200 per pound on the black market. Ginseng was recently placed on the North Carolina watch list for plants in peril because of exploitation. Each year law enforcement rangers seize between 500 and 1,000 illegally poached ginseng roots, according to authorities." (Read more)