Friday, August 28, 2015

Rural residents more likely to die from drowning; few states require youth to learn water safety

Rural residents are three times as likely to die from drowning as their urban counterparts, according to a Canadian study published in 2013 in the International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education, reports Health Day. Researchers from St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto concluded that rural residents are more likely to be around open water and less likely to have taken swimming lessons. (Advocate Messenger photo by Clay Jackson: Swim instructor Emily Anderson helps four-year-old Addison Carr float at the Bunny Davis Recreational Complex in Danville, Ky.)

Despite those numbers—and equally alarming ones that say that drowning is the second leading cause of death for children under 5 and the second leading cause of accident by injury for those under 15—"public health advocates and researchers complain that state and local governments aren’t doing enough to prevent drowning deaths," Michael Ollove reports for Stateline. While the Minnesota Legislature "is studying a proposal that would require that all public school students be given access to free swim lessons," few states have considered similar proposals.

"Critics say most states don’t have sufficient laws or don’t enforce laws that could lessen the chances of drowning, such as requirements for fencing around private pools and the presence of trained lifeguards," Ollove writes. "And, they say, too little is being done to make sure that children have swim lessons and water safety skills."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports "that 3,391 people died by accidental drowning in the U.S. in 2013, about the norm in the years since 2000," Ollove writes. "Of the 2013 drownings, 625 were children under 15 . . . Injury and swimming experts such as the Red Cross say the best way to reduce the risk of drowning is by making sure that people know how to swim, although exactly how that can be accomplished for all is elusive."

One state that has taken the initiative to educate youngsters about safety is Washington, where most drownings occur in lakes, rivers and the ocean, not swimming pools, Ollove writes. The state "requires that all children under 13 wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life preserver in any boat that isn’t anchored and is less than 19 feet in length. The law also requires that all water skiers wear life jackets." According to the Red Cross, 80 percent of the nation's 418 reported boat-related drownings involved victims not wearing life preservers.

"Washington state also launched the nation’s first life preserver loaner program in the early 1990s, making life preservers available for borrowing at 180 sites," Ollove write. "The idea has taken off, and, according to the Sea Tow Foundation for Boating Safety and Education, by 2013, at least 44 state agencies or boating safety organizations had life jacket loan programs at nearly 2,000 lakes, rivers and beaches across the U.S." (Read more)

Immigration stances of Republican presidential candidates could hurt agricultural industry

Proposed immigration plans by Republican presidential candidates could damage the agricultural business, which employs many of the 11 million illegal immigrants, reports Agri-Pulse. "Donald Trump’s immigration agenda is pushing the Republican debate well to the right and raising concerns in the agribusiness sector. Other candidates immediately started one-upping him. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who is running second in recent Iowa polls, said he’d consider military drone strikes on the border. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum suggested suspending authorization for Mexican border crossings." At the same time, the most immigration-friendly candidates—Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio—"are struggling to gain any traction."

"Much of the debate since Trump’s campaign posted his proposals has focused on his calls to end birthright citizenship and to force Mexico to pay for completing a border wall, while his proposal to make E-Verify mandatory nationwide has been portrayed in the media and among Republican pundits as a no-brainer, a requirement that could be imposed relatively painlessly," reports Agri-Pulse. "But mandatory E-Verify has potentially far-reaching implications for agriculture because of its heavy reliance on workers who would likely be flagged as ineligible to work."

"So far, farm group lobbyists have been able to keep mandatory E-Verify legislation bottled up in the House," reports Agri-Pulse. "An E-Verify bill (HR 1147) hasn’t gone anywhere since it emerged from the Judiciary Committee in March. But fending off such bills will be a lot harder if a Republican wins the White House running on a platform that includes mandatory E-Verify."

Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, "estimates that making E-Verify checks mandatory would cost agriculture as much as half of its workforce," reports Agri-Pulse. " It’s an open secret that the documentation that many workers supply to employers is false. It might be sufficient for filing an employment documentation form called an I-9, but it’s presumed that using E-Verify would expose the documentation as false."

Gasperini said that "For an industry where labor shortages can reach 20 percent, the losses from E-Verify 'would be disastrous.'" reports Agri-Pulse. "Some farmers could presumably make up some of the losses by using the H-2A visa program to import temporary workers legally—there is no cap on the number of visas—but that wouldn’t help dairy producers and others who need year-round labor, Gasperini says. And while there are proposals to expand visa programs for low-skill workers, it would take years for the government to ramp them up, he said." Agri-Pulse is subscription-only but offers a four-week free trial.

Rural Missouri finds success in getting connected to high-speed Internet through rural co-ops

While some rural areas are still sitting around waiting for high-speed Internet that is continually promised but never delivered, Missouri has found a successful way to connect rural areas through rural electric co-ops, Richard Oswald reports for the Daily Yonder. "Our abundant underground supply of coal made us a natural for coal-fired electricity generation. Power plants were built conveniently on top of coal beds." (Co-Mo Electric Cooperative photo: Workers roll out fiber-optic cable) 

"Those co-op jobs were good for rural Missourians, a lot of whom were farmers who gained electricity in the bargain," Oswald writes. "The whole thing was turned on its head when someone figured out our high-sulfur coal was bad for the planet. Now we generate about 83 percent of our electricity needs from coal hauled in by rail from Wyoming. But co-ops are still at the seat of power in Missouri because they hire local people to keep up electrical grids across the state. They have a reputation for service as they preserve cooperative principles and leave the door open for the next big thing in rural America . . . fiber optics capable of moving rural Internet connections at the speed of light."

"That's what's happening at one Missouri electrical co-op where they've turned part of central Missouri into its own hotspot," Oswald writes. "CO-MO Connect, a holding company of CO-MO REC headquartered in Tipton, Mo., provides Internet and cable TV service to 42 Zip codes and over 38,000 people in central Missouri."

"That's not an easy task in any rural community, but Central Missouri has an advantage over other rural areas; they're also recreational hotspot," Oswald writes. "Thanks to the man-made Lake of the Ozarks, there's a raft of second-home part-timers around the lake who pay taxes and buy their power from CO-MO. Because of that, there are also a huge number of entrepreneurial businesses who offer goods and services to vacationers, boaters, fishermen and property owners in the area. Super-fast Internet connections help businesses connect with consumers in a brisk retail environment that peaks from Memorial Day to Labor Day." (Read more)

McDonald's, Tyson Foods drop Tennessee poultry farm accused of abuse by animal rights group

McDonald's and Tyson Foods "severed ties with a Tennessee poultry farm after an animal-rights group on Thursday released video footage from the facility that showed chickens being stabbed, clubbed and crushed to death," Jacob Bunge reports for The Wall Street Journal. McDonald's serves 27 million customers daily, while Tyson Foods, the nation's largest chicken producer, raises about two billion birds annually—or 21 percent of the U.S. market.

Mercy for Animals said it documented animal abuse and inhumane conditions at T&S Farms, located in Dukedom, Tenn., "which the group said supplied chickens to a nearby Tyson processing plant that produced chicken McNuggets and other chicken products for McDonald’s," Bunge writes. "The video is the latest in a series of exposés by animal-rights groups that seek to spotlight alleged brutality and poor living conditions for commercially raised poultry and livestock. Such groups push for better treatment of animals and stricter policing of operations by top meat-buying restaurants and food companies." (Read more)

Appalachian communities ask Republican leaders to support Obama's $1B economic aid for coalfields

A greater number of struggling Appalachian coal communities are asking Congressional Republicans who normally oppose Obama administration legislation to get behind the president's Power + Plan to spend $1 billion over five years in an effort to help areas hurt by a sharp downturn in coal jobs, Valerie Volcovici reports for Reuters. "Nearly a dozen Appalachian coal mining communities have passed resolutions over the past few weeks supporting" the plan. Local officials "have called on their Washington representatives to back the proposal that would provide public funds for new economic activities around reclaimed coal mines in the Appalachian Mountains." (Appalachian Coalfields map)

Eric Dixon, policy coordinator for the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center in Whitesburg, Ky., told Volcovici, "This isn't a partisan issue here. We have Republicans and Democrats in the mountains who support this plan."

The problem is that Washington Republican lawmakers—such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents Eastern Kentucky—have been reluctant to support any coal-related plan initiated by Obama, Volcovici writes. "They contend that the administration's energy policies, including regulations forcing power plants to reduce carbon emissions tied to burning coal, have caused a contraction in the industry that has seen some of the country's biggest coal companies go into bankruptcy."

"Funding for the Power + plan would come from the government's Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program, which has nearly $2.5 billion in unused funds from fees on coal companies," Volcovici writes. "AML funds are allocated to states to clean up mines. The Obama administration wants to tap $1 billion of that money for states to use for economic redevelopment projects at old mine sites. The money is currently intended to be distributed after 2021."

"The prospect of getting an injection of cash that can be used for programs ranging from agriculture to tourism resonates on the ground in Appalachia, where another half-dozen coal communities plan to vote in the coming weeks on similar resolutions demanding that Congress agree to Power +," Volcovici writes.

Winter Institute promotes racial reconciliation; started in Mississippi, now in other states

President Barack Obama sang "Amazing Grace" in his address to Charleston's Emanuel A.M.E. Church nine days after nine Bible study attendees were killed there. He also said of state Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney, one of the deceased, that she "knew that the path of grace involves an open mind," says an op-ed piece from the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. "But more importantly, an open heart."

The Winter Institute, formed in 1999 by former Mississippi Gov. William Winter at the University of Mississippi, worked only in that state for 11 years, but then heard from people in Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown was killed by a local policeman. Now people are working in South Carolina to create a racial reconciliation institute like the Winter Institute.

The Institute says it created Welcome Table New Orleans when the city requested it. The Welcome Table helped community people "build bridges of trust to hold the weight of the truths they must tell one another," the piece says. The program currently works with 18 communities, and now demand exceeds what the institute can provide.

"Momentum is growing toward change, which begins locally, person-to-person, in communities where trust has frayed as separation has grown," the piece says. The institute's "Welcome Table is being recognized as a useful tool in helping communities beyond Mississippi heal and pursue equity."

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Waters of U.S. rule blocked by N.D. federal judge; ruling applies in only 13 states

UPDATE: "A federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction stopping the Obama administration's Clean Water Rule from going into effect on Friday, a sizable victory for agricultural interests who brought lawsuits to halt the rule," Spencer Chase reports for Agri-Pulse. This one was brought by several states. "EPA said after the ruling that it would not implement the new rules in those 13 states — Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming," The Associated Press reports, heading an overall look at the issue. The American Farm Bureau Federation argues that the ruling applies nationwide.

The Obama administration's much maligned Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rules under the Clean Water Act could become law on Friday, "barring an injunction from one of the lawsuits currently seeking to halt the rule," reports Agri-Pulse. "The lawsuits include challenges from more than two dozen states and 12 organizations in five separate cases filed across the country." One of the main concerns is that rules will expand Environmental Protection Agency's jurisdiction over water rights, claims EPA denies.

"Sources close to one of the lawsuits told Agri-Pulse that EPA has requested a consolidation of all the lawsuits filed in District Courts into one case to be heard by the District Court in Washington, D.C., something opposed by both states and industry groups," reports Agri-Pulse. "At the appellate level, the cases have all been consolidated to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee."

Don Parrish, senior director of regulatory relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation, and Scott Yeager, the environmental counsel for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, some of the most vocal critics of the rules, "agreed that the EPA probably won’t immediately resort to the $37,500 fine per discharge per day authorized in the rule but rather will gradually implement the regulations," reports Agri-Pulse.

Yeager told Agri-Pulse, “This rule is just going to be coming into effect, so I don’t think you’re going to see EPA marching out there on day one and taking enforcement actions against farmers and ranchers. What’s more likely is implementation is going to ease in. I mean, they haven’t even issued guidance yet and they have yet to publish that Q & A article that kind of tells you how it’s going to work, so I think it’s a bit premature for people to change everything they’re doing.”

Parrish "said the rule will be more of 'a creep' than a sudden onslaught of new regulations—he expects the EPA to wait to fully implement the rule until the subject is off Congress’ radar," reports Agri-Pulse. "But given the likelihood that a court case could drag on for several years, Parrish said AFBF is still hoping for congressional action defanging the rule in the short term, be it through an appropriations rider or a clean repeal bill. He told Agri-Pulse, “(EPA) not only screwed up the process, but they proposed a rule that’s unworkable, and we want Congress to step in.” Agri-Pulse is subscription-only but offers a four-week free trial.

Clinton vows help for farms, rural businesses and health, and treating Internet access like electricity

Seeking rural votes in Iowa on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton "proposed banking and tax changes Wednesday that she said would encourage investment in agriculture and rural businesses, along with expanded federal assistance for farmers and ranchers," reports Anne Gearan of The Washington Post.

"Clinton presented a network of initiatives that would build on existing support programs for agriculture, rural development and education," Gearan writes. "Some elements of Clinton’s rural program, such as her proposals to make public college education more affordable, have been released previously. The Democratic front-runner’s rural aid package contains an endorsement for ethanol, the corn-based fuel additive." Iowa leads the nation in ethanol production; Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, endorsed her earlier this week.

Clinton called for "doubling federal loan guarantees for bio processing plants and technologies, long a boon to rural Iowa’s farming industry," Sam Frizell of Time reports. "She would also double federal funding for a program that educates beginning farmers, and build on Clinton’s 'Farm-to-Fork' initiative as New York senator by doubling funding for farmers markets and direct food sales."

On health, "The plan also calls for improving healthcare in rural areas by expanding telehealth and remote patient monitoring. It also called for better prevention and treatment of substance abuse, noting that drug-associated deaths have grown fastest in rural areas, Frizell writes.

Clinton also "wants to increase access to fresh food as part of a rural agenda," Catherine Lucey of The Associated Press reports. "Clinton also spoke about the importance of expanding rural broadband Internet." She said, "We have to do for Internet access what we did years ago for electricity." For a rundown of the plan and Clinton's remarks, click here.

African American students in South punished at much higher rates than other students, study says

African American students in grades K-12 in the South are punished at much higher rates than other students, says a report released this week by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. The study, which looked at 3,022 school districts in 13 states— Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia—found that African American students were suspended or expelled at rates well above their representation in the student population. The study includes results from every district.

While African American students made up 24 percent of the population in the study area, they represented 48 percent of students suspended and 49 percent of students expelled. In Mississippi, 74 percent of suspensions involved African Americans students, and in Mississippi and Louisiana, 72 percent of expelled students were African American.

In 132 districts, African Americans were suspended at a rate five times higher than their representation in the student population, and in 77 districts African Americans were expelled at a rate five times higher than their representation in the student population.

In the South, African American boys represented 47 percent of suspensions, compared to 35 percent nationally, and 44 percent of expulsions, compared to 34 percent nationally. African Americans girls represented 56 percent of suspensions in the South, compared to 45 percent nationally, and 45 percent of expulsions, compared to 42 percent nationally. 

Downturn in Chinese economy causing concern for U.S. agricultural industry

The U.S. agricultural industry is anxiously waiting to see how a downturn in the Chinese economy affects business, Josie Musico reports for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. "Because China purchases so many imported agricultural goods when its economy is healthy, a not-so-healthy Chinese economy is bad news for the global market," said Texas Tech University agricultural economist Darren Hudson. (Musico photo)

People shouldn't panic yet, Hudson said, because "much about the future of China’s economy remains in speculation," Musico writes. Hudson told Musico, "The market adjustment that is occurring is doing that as a result of the uncertainty that exists around Chinese economic growth and related things like exchange rates and energy (costs).”

When it comes to cotton, the global industry "has already been worried the past few years by China’s stockpiling policy," Musico writes. "While millions of cotton bales are stored in Chinese warehouses, growers and industry representatives nervously wonder how their eventual release will hinder the global export market. Supply and demand principles suggest that surplus could cause prices to plummet."

Other concerns are grain crops and the fluctuating demand for sorghum in China, Musico writes. Hudson said "the Chinese anticipate a record domestic harvest of corn, a crop with many of the same uses as sorghum. The country uses imported sorghum mainly to produce alcoholic beverages, pork and duck. All three of those goods are somewhat elastic, meaning they are purchased less frequently during economic hard times." (Read more)

Des Moines Water Works CEO compares corn to tobacco as part of his farm runoff argument

Bill Stowe, CEO of Des Moines Water Works, which in March filed a lawsuit against northwestern Iowa counties of Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista to make farmers comply with federal clean-water standards that apply to factories and commercial users, has gone so far as to compare corn to tobacco as part of his battle against the agricultural industry, reports Agri-Pulse. "Stowe says he’s determined to see the government start regulating underground runoff from Iowa farm fields, even if that means a serious cut to a multibillion dollar industry."

Stowe favors "forcing farmers to cut back on corn production to reduce the amount of nitrates that get into the state’s rivers," reports Agri-Pulse. He told Agri-Pulse, “We’ve heard the same arguments about coal and tobacco. At some point there is a public health consequence to running a model into the ground. The current model is being run into the ground at the detriment of our consumers. Public health consequences from continued nitrate pollution in our rivers is creating a public health consequence here similar to coal, similar to tobacco.”

Agri-Pulse reports, "Comparing corn to tobacco is an exaggeration, to say the least. Des Moines Water Works is required by the EPA to keep nitrates and other pollutants below safety limits, and in fact, it puts the nitrates back into the river after they are removed from the drinking water supply. It’s the expense of denitrifying the water that the utility cited in deciding to sue three upstream counties in Iowa."

"The lawsuit, which could have implications far beyond Iowa but could take years to resolve, aims to force the federal government to start regulating tile drains as point sources of pollution under the Clean Water Act," reports Agri-Pulse. "The Environment Protection Agency considers the agricultural runoff from tile drains as an exempt, non-point source. Several other states, including Illinois and Indiana, also have extensive tile drainage."

"By mid-August, the utility’s denitrification plant had already been in operation for a record 148 days this year," reports Agri-Pulse. "Iowa’s voluntary nutrient reduction plan, which is designed to cut the amount of nutrients flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, calls for reducing the nitrates in Iowa rivers by more than 40 percent. But Stowe scoffs at the idea that it will be successful in reducing nitrate loads sufficiently."

"Reaching the state’s nitrate-reduction goal would take enormous changes in cropping practices and even how much corn the state can produce, according to Iowa State University agronomists," reports Agri-Pulse. "Under one scenario, farmers would have to plant cover crops on 25 percent of the corn and soybean acreage and convert a fourth of the state’s cropland to extended, four- to five-year rotations. At least two of those years the land would have to be turned over to alfalfa rather than corn or soybeans. And even the cover crops—which can be difficult to establish in more northern counties—along with rotations wouldn’t be enough. Farmers would still have to reduce their nitrogen usage and also install wetlands and drainage projects to capture some of the nitrates before they reach the streams and rivers."

"One option for the state is to simply pay for Des Moines Water Works to replace its outdated denitrification system," reports Agri-Pulse. "That would cost $100 million or more, but that’s a fraction of the value of Iowa’s corn crop, which was worth about $9 billion last year even after a drop in market price. In any event, the case isn’t likely to be decided for years. The lawsuit doesn’t even go to trial until August 2016." Agri-Pulse is subscription-only but offers a four-week free trial.

Oklahoma State University receives grant to train more doctors for rural and underserved areas

Oklahoma State University officials on Wednesday announced the school has been awarded a six-year, $3.8 million Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust grant to launch six medical residency programs to address a shortage of physicians in rural and underserved areas, Barbara Hoberock reports for the Tulsa World. Of the state's 77 counties, 64 are experiencing doctor shortages. "The program is expected to produce 36 new doctors a year beginning in 2021, when it is fully implemented. The total project is $9.4 million, which includes federal matching dollars of $5.6 million."

Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, who said the state is consistently ranked near the bottom in national health rankings, said many state doctors are nearing retirement age, with 20 percent of the primary care physicians in rural Oklahoma older than 65 and more than half older than 53, Hoberock writes.  Fallin told Hoberock, "One of the top hurdles for improving our health is access to care and not having enough doctors in the state of Oklahoma.” (Read more)

In the battle of pancakes vs. waffles it all depends on where someone resides

Are people in your neck of the woods chowing down on pancakes or waffles? Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post decided to find out which areas of the country prefer which foods, creating a map to chart the locations of Waffle House and International House of Pancakes restaurants. While IHOP is commonly found spread throughout the U.S., Wafffle House is largely concentrated in the South, with a few other areas thrown in for good measure, such as parts of Ohio and Indiana.

"Waffle House's distinctly Southern roots are a point of pride in the region," Ingraham writes. "The chain took root in the suburbs of Georgia in 1955. Every Waffle House restaurant is open 24/7, and the company takes great pride in only closing a location in the most dire of circumstances. This has led the Federal Emergency Management Administration to develop an informal 'Waffle House Index' to measure the severity of natural disasters in the South.

"IHOPs, on the other hand, are pretty much everywhere," Ingraham writes. "There are plenty in the South, too, but they're completely overwhelmed by the number of Waffle Houses in the region. Despite their broader geographic distribution, there are roughly similar numbers of both IHOPs and Waffle Houses in this country. The data I got from poi-finder shows 1,783 Waffle House locations and about 1,400 IHOPs." (Read more)

Illegal logging killing monarch butterflies in Mexico; states creating waystations to save species

Monarch butterfly populations, which have been getting wiped out in the U.S. by pesticides, are now suffering a decrease in population in Mexico because of illegal logging in designated habitats, Daryl Fears reports for The Washington Post. Monarch numbers are estimated to have fallen by 90 percent in recent years after reaching 1 billion in 1996, prompting the Obama administration to detail a plan to attempt to save the species.

Mexican scientists and American conservationists said this week that a 2014-15 survey of a monarch sanctuary "showed that 49 acres were degraded by logging and another three acres by a wicked cocktail of 'drought, pests, lightning and landslides,'" Fears writes. The area is a haven for the butterflies to hibernate over the winter. (Read more)

Efforts to save the species have been ongoing in North America, in places such as Kentucky, where more than a dozen state parks "are working on projects to help Monarch butterflies by preserving habitat and planting milkweed plants the butterflies need for survival," Kentucky Department of Parks said in a news release. Five state parks are currently certified waystations, and 10 other parks are in the process of getting certified or have planted milkweed plants," which provide food and a place for Monarchs to lay their eggs.

Sasqua Wildflower Preserve in Fairfield County, Connecticut, earlier this month became an official monarch butterfly waystation, reports Aspetuck Land Trust, a local non-profit land conservation organization founded in 1966 to preserve open space in the towns of Westport, Weston, Fairfield and Easton.

School children in Oregon earlier this summer planted milkweed and lavender plants in Salish Ponds Wetland Park in Fairview in an effort to increase the amount of habitat available for local pollinators, Rachel Crowell reports for The Oregonian. The group hopes "to plant 800 to 1,200 milkweed and lavender plants in 2016—double or even triple this year's amount."

Our neighbors in the North are also helping the species, which often travel from Mexico to the U.S. to Canada. The Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg on Wednesday released tagged monarch butterflies that will be tracked by researchers as they fly to Mexico for the winter, Lara Schroeder reports for Global News. This is the fifth year of the tagging program.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Rural company creates website to help skilled laborers find work nationally

A website created by rural residents to help skilled laborers find work in their region will be featured on a Discovery Channel show called "Innovations," Christy Hoots reports for The Ledger Independent in Maysville, Ky. The show, hosted by actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr., "is dedicated to bringing viewers the most up-to-date, cutting edge information across a vast array of industries. From health and wellness to global business, renewable energy and more," according to the show's website. The episode is expected to air in October. (A screen shot of a search on the website)

While the website, Craftforce, was created locally in Northern Kentucky, it can be used nationally to find jobs, said president and CEO Dustin Grutza, Hoots writes. Grutza said "employers pay a monthly fee and post as many jobs as they want. Those who are looking for a job can search through the ones posted and apply for the position." He told Hoots, "The site is always free for the talent. There is also a map interface, kind of like Google maps, where you can search for a job and see all available postings on the map. It really helps that people can go to one place and see all the available jobs."

Grutza told Hoots, "We're working with schools and companies to bring jobs to everyone in the country. We have about 25 to 30 companies online right now. There are a lot more jobs coming back into the U.S. right now, and there is a big push for live, eat and buy locally. That means there are more skilled trades jobs becoming available, and we want to help people find those jobs."

Finding shelter and care opportunities for rural homeless in Appalachia key to recovery

One of the most frequent causes of homelessness in rural areas is "love eviction," when friends or families evict a loved one because of drug abuse, said Dani Caudill, a resident manager at Corner Haven Crisis Center (CHCC), a social-service agency in Eastern Kentucky "that serves a rural clientele with emergency housing, food and other services," Claire Boyd reports for the Daily Yonder. The problem, officials say, is that in rural areas, the homeless have limited options of where to find interim housing.

That's where places like CHCC, which originally opened in 1977 as a food pantry, come into play, Boyd writes. Though the shelters in the region might be few and far between, they provide help for those that need it. CHCC "can hold 12 clients for emergency housing of up to 30 days. It has room for 12 more clients to stay in transitional housing for up to two years. CHCC also supports three income-based housing complexes for the community—where rent does not exceed 30 percent of a tenant’s income. (National Alliance to End Homelessness graphic)
"These housing options are normally set aside for families and often have long waiting lists, some extending up to two years," Boyd writes. "CHCC also helps clients with the transition to permanent housing through grant applications and referrals. And it helps its clients apply for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) vouchers that can defray rent for some."

Caudill said the main concern is that awareness of such facilities is not widely known, Boyd writes. Getting the word out that there is help available could be key in helping those in need. Caudill told Boyd, “I’ve lived here all my life and didn’t even know it was here before I started applying for jobs." She "said she assumed that everyone had a place to go or family to rely on if they needed to. But that’s not always the case." Caudill said, “Most of the people that come to us come because they can no longer live with a friend or a family member." (Read more)

Virginia reporter, photographer killed by gunman identified as former co-worker; suspect shoots self

Two WDBJ7 journalists, reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward (CNN image), were killed this morning and a third person injured after a shooting at Smith Mountain Lake in Roanoke, Va., Tiffany Stevens reports for The Roanoke Times. "Part of the incident was caught on video during WDBJ's morning broadcast. The station was interviewing Vicki Gardner, head of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce." Gardner was injured in the attack and died at 1:26 p.m., almost seven hours after the shooting, The Washington Post reports.

UPDATE, 12:16 p.m.: "The man suspected of killing two WDBJ7 employees Wednesday morning shot himself on I-66 in Faquier County, according to state police. The suspected shooter has been identified as Vester Lee Flanigan, also known as Bryce Williams. He is still alive and is in critical condition. Previously, state police said Flanigan was dead."
UPDATE, 11:43 a.m.: "A former WDBJ employee has been identified as the person authorities are seeking in the slayings of two journalists from the station, and his Twitter account has a video of the attack from the shooter's perspective," reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "Twitter suspended Vester Lee Flanagan's account about 11:20 a.m., approximately 20 minutes after the video was posted. In addition to the videos, he tweeted seven times, initially directing people to his Facebook page to see the video. His Facebook page has also been shut down."

The T-D also reports, "His Twitter account is listed under Bryce Williams, a name he used professionally, including at WDBJ, which let him go in February 2013. In May 2014, Flanagan filed suit against the station in Roanoke General District Court, seeking money he felt he was owed and additional damages. His suit alleged discrimination by the station and named most of the WDBJ staff in his complaint, but in July 2014, the case was dismissed by a judge. Court records also show that he sued a television station where he formerly worked in Florida.

Franklin County Sheriff's Office deputies are searching for a suspect who is believed to be a disgruntled former employee. The suspect was being pursued by police and an arrest is "imminent," said Gov. Terry McAuliffe, CBS reports. WDBJ is a CBS affiliate. Both victims were from the Roanoke area, reports WDBJ. Parker, 24, grew up in Martinsville and attended Patrick Henry Community College and James Madison University. Ward, 27, graduated from Salem High School and Virginia Tech. CNN has a dual profile.

WDBJ General Manager Jeff Marks and his staff won kudos from CNN media reporter Brian Stelter for their handling of the incident.

The Post quotes state Sen. William Stanley (R-Franklin): “We don’t have violent crime in our area. We have some property crimes, but even that is few and far between. It’s as close to Mayberry as you can get.”

UPDATE: The Roanoke Times has been all over the story, its aftermath and its background. Here's its Friday front page:

School nutrition lobby wants more funding for school-lunch rules as well as rollback of some

Federally mandated healthier school lunch rules are proving costly for the majority of schools, says a survey released on Tuesday by the School Nutrition Association. SNA, which supports new school lunch rules, in April requested that Congress increase federal reimbursement for each lunch and breakfast served in the program, asking for an increase of 35 cents for each meal served—the current amount is just over $3 per meal—and they also requested more flexibility on a few of the new rules. SNA repeated its need for more funding in the report. (SNA graphic)

The survey, which was conducted in June and July, included 1,100 responses from district-level employees. "Nearly seven of every ten respondents say that the standards have been harmful to their program’s financial health since inception of the standards in 2012," the report states. "Fewer than 3 percent report a benefit to their program’s financial heath from the standards, with the balance reporting either no impact or are unsure."

The SNA report states: "Looking forward two years shows a nearly identical pattern: a majority (61.3 percent) expect the federal standards will continue to harm their program’s overall financial health; fewer than 4 percent feel there will be a benefit to their program’s financial health. This response pattern remains consistent across most segments."

Jean Ronnei, SNA president, said in a news release "that to keep school nutrition programs 'financially sustainable for the children they serve,' Congress needs to 'provide more funding and reasonable flexibility under the most stringent rules,'" Spencer Chase reports for Agri-Pulse. Ronne wrote: “School nutrition standards have resulted in many positive changes, but we cannot ignore the repercussions, the financial impact of these rules threatens school meal programs and their efforts to better serve students."

SNA said "Districts are responding to the financial strain by reducing staff, limiting menu variety, holding off on equipment purchases and even dipping into reserves," Chase writes. "The group cited U.S. Department of Agriculture data that estimates states and school districts will have to absorb $1.22 billion in new food, labor and administrative costs in FY 2015."

The group says that "Despite any financial struggles associated with meeting the new standards, almost 99 percent of school districts have implemented the plan or plan to implement 'at least one of seven listed initiatives to promote healthier choices to students,'" Chase writes. "However, 58 percent of survey respondents indicated that participation in school lunch programs is down, and 93 percent of those respondents cited 'decreased student acceptance of meals' as a contributing factor for the decline." (Read more)

Farm income to decline in 2015, USDA projects; Iowa land values on the rise

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has projected that net farm incomes in 2015 will be down 36 percent from last year, the sharpest drop since 1983, Chris Clayton reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. USDA projections say net farm income "would come in at about $58.3 billion in 2015, down from $91.1 billion in 2014."

In 2015, farmers "will earn 53 percent less than in 2013 when net farm income hit a record high of $123.7 billion. That would be the lowest net farm income earned since 2006," Clayton writes. "Crop receipts for 2015 are expected to be $12.9 billion less than 2014, with corn receipts down $7.1 billion, soybean down $3.4 billion and wheat down $1.6 billion." USDA "expects growers to accelerate sales of 2015 crops this year to help generate more cash, in effect moving what would have been 2016 income ahead." Livestock is also expected to decline, down $19.4 billion, 9.1 percent below 2014.

"While farmers are seeing livestock and crop receipts fall, expenses aren't declining as rapidly. Production expenses are estimated to be down $1.5 billion this year, just 0.5 percent," Clayton writes. "Until now, production expenses had increased 8 percent annually from 2010 to 2014 and compressed grower margins. All of this leads to a projected decline in farm asset values of 3.5 percent compared to 2014 while farm debt is expected to increase 5.8 percent. The primary driver for the decline in assets is lower real-estate value, which is down $49 billion from 2014, or about 2.1 percent. At the same time, debts for both real estate and non-real estate assets are up."

Despite those concerns, land values in some Midwestern states, such as Iowa, are on the rise, Marcia Zarley Taylor reports for DTN. "Actual Iowa land sales in four dozen counties tracked by the Peak Soil Index show good quality farmland surging about $500/acre since May and bouncing past year-ago levels. The index pegs Iowa farmland with a Corn Suitability Rating of 60 worth $8,284/acre, based on a 30-day moving average of actual sales recorded in county court houses," Taylor writes. "That's up from a low of $7,690 at the end of April. A year ago, the same index found Iowa farmland worth $8,043/acre." (Peak Soil graphic)

"Last week the Chicago Federal Reserve reported good quality Iowa farmland values had tumbled 7 percent below July 2014 levels, based on its own opinion survey of lenders, farm realtors and appraisers," Taylor writes. "The Fed blamed lower values on the fact that corn prices were averaging $3.65/bu. in the second quarter of 2015, 21 percent below a year ago and 48 percent below two years ago. Soybean prices at $9.63 were down 33 percent and 35 percent respectively. Pork and other livestock profits may have offset some of those grain losses, however."

"A Farm Credit Services of America benchmark study of farmland trends in its five-state area reported Iowa land values down more than 10 percent on July 1, compared to values a year earlier," Taylor writes. "It includes 'benchmark' farms with FCS America appraisers adjusting values based on its opinion of local conditions. (Read more)

Rural community mourns the loss of its town dog; county newspapers give tributes to beloved animal

In an example of the type of story that usually only happens in small towns and only gets covered by community newspapers, about 200 of the 1,300 residents of Benton, Ky., showed up Monday for a memorial service to honor Benton Dog, the town dog, who was killed on Thursday when he was struck by a vehicle. (Marshall County Tribune-Courier photo by Rachel Keller: Children mourn Benton Dog on Monday)

Marshall County Animal Shelter assistant director Kip Hutchinson said in a speech honoring Benton Dog that he "belonged to all of us" and "offered a glimpse of what it's like to live here in our community," Rachel Keller reports for the Marshall County Tribune-Courier in Benton. Hutchinson said, "Every creature on earth is born with a purpose. Perhaps Benton Dog's was to show us how united we are, how unique and special. He is gone from our streets but never from our hearts." (Best Places map)

Gloria Hollifield, of The Lake News in Calvert City, Ky.—located in Marshall County—wrote a touching tribute to Benton Dog in a story entitled, "Goodbye Old Friend." Here is an excerpt from her story:
"Mystery. He had no proper name, no proper home that provided warmth from the cold, no family that he eagerly spent time with playing catch and watching out the window for them to get home from work.

"Purpose. In his life he traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles, each one with confidence and with a purpose in his sure footed steps and soft dark eyes.

"The mystery and the purpose of the gray muzzled dog known as Benton Dog can only be imagined by residents in the community. Benton dog died last Thursday after being hit by a car. No sooner had the news spread then messages began to pour in on The Lake News Facebook page about the town legend.

"By all accounts Benton dog was a stray; he had no name; he was ‘his own dog,’ and his home for at least the past 14 years was the streets of Benton. He didn’t desire human interaction, he preferred to ‘people watch’ from the grass at the corner of Fifth and Main streets. He walked down the sidewalks, taking each step with purpose to his destination. But he was without a doubt loved by the people who could not tame his wanderlust spirit.

The dog that was loved by so many was memorialized Monday. The turnout was so large for him that the service was moved to the steps of the Courthouse, his ashes overlooking the town square, just as he did every day. The community members that came together to remember Benton Dog included business people, city and county workers, dignitaries, school children and more.

Agriculture Secretary endorses Hillary Clinton, says she would be good for rural America

Tom Vilsack
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, saying the Democrat is in touch with the needs of rural Americans, Bradford Richardson reports for The Hill. Vilsack,who also endorsed Clinton in 2008, wrote in an editorial for the The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa: “Too often the discussion of good jobs fails to include the unique challenges faced by rural Americans. Hillary Clinton understands that some of the deepest and most pronounced poverty exists in rural areas of the country.”

"Her strong support for the Renewable Fuel Standard and bio-based manufacturing as important parts of a revitalized rural economy makes clear she will work hard to promote meaningful economic opportunity throughout the country," Vilsack wrote. "Hillary knows the economy of the future depends on a well-educated and trained workforce, and she understands the cost of education—from preschool to college and beyond—increasingly strains family budgets with unprecedented debt. That’s why she’s laid out a specific, workable plan to address these strains and make a good education available to all our children."

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Future of community newspapers is video; online news thriving in areas that lack local TV news

Community newspapers in rural areas underserved by television news are finding a broader audience by launching their own television stations, Corey Hutchins reports for Columbia Journalism Review. Several Calkins Media newspapers, such as The Beaver County Times, located outside Pittsburgh, have added video content through "its channel on the Roku streaming media player, a set-top box that’s a favorite of cord-cutters."

Guy Tasaka, chief digital officer of Calkins Media, told Hutchins, “I think it’s the future of newspapers, and they need to jump on it ASAP. If they do it correctly, if you’re a dominant newspaper in a small market, as the OTT market grows, you can become the TV station for a local media company, cross-platform, in your geography.”

OTT refers to 'over-the-top' content, Hutchins writes. "While the rise of Roku and competitors like Apple TV, Amazon Fire and Google’s ChromeCast has made it easier for viewers to access their favorite shows without a cable subscription, it has also created new opportunities for media producers to reach audiences while bypassing Federal Communications Commission licensing and the expensive equipment of traditional broadcasting stations."

"It’s an opportunity, in other words, for a newspaper to launch its own TV station—which is more or less what The Beaver County Times and its sister publications in Pennsylvania have set out to do," Hutchins writes. Tasaka told Hutchins, “We wanted to create micro-TV stations within our markets. Our CEO’s mantra when he hired me was he wanted to out-TV-station the TV stations in our newspaper markets.”

The Times, which offers a free Roku with a subscription to the paper, has more than 2,000 Roku installs, according to Tasaka, Hutchins writes. "Another Calkins paper, the Courier Times in Bucks County, has about 7,500 active Roku installs. (The video content is also available via Amazon Fire TV.) The OTT video programming is offered, essentially, as part of a subscriber content bundle—or a 'burrito,' as Tasaka calls it, that also includes access to stories on the paper’s website. (The company also licenses its OTT technology.)" (Read more)

Poll respondents in three swing states favor Clean Power plan, citizenship for illegal immigrants

Voters in three swing states—Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida—favor President Obama's Clean Power plan and believe illegal immigrants already in the U.S. should be allowed to stay, according to a Quinnipiac University Poll of 1,100 voters released on Monday. The plan to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions has not been popular in coal states, and 16 largely rural states states have requested that the rules be temporarily suspended while they pursue legal options. Immigration has been a hot topic among presidential candidates. Most of the 11 million illegal immigrants work in agriculture.

When asked if they approve of the plan to require coal-fired power plants to reduce pollution, 69 percent of Florida respondents said they approve—compared to 25 percent who oppose—and 67 percent from Ohio and Pennsylvania said they favor the plan, while 27 percent in Ohio and 28 percent in Pennsylvania say they oppose the plan.

Among Florida respondents, 74 percent said they believe such efforts are needed to clean the air, while 70 percent from Ohio and 72 percent from Pennsylvania agreed. When asked if they they think the plan is too expensive, 45 percent of Florida respondents said yes, compared to 41 percent who answered no. In Ohio, 43 percent said yes, and 41 percent said no. Among Pennsylvania respondents, 44 percent answered yes and 44 percent no.

Participants were asked whether they believe illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S. and eventually apply for U.S. citizenship, be allowed to remain in the U.S. but not be allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship, or be required to leave the U.S. In all three states, more than 50 percent of respondents said they should be allowed to stay and apply for citizenship, with 53 percent from Florida and 52 percent from Ohio and Pennsylvania selecting that option. Thirty-one percent of Florida residents said they should not stay, while 36 percent in Ohio and 37 percent in Pennsylvania chose that option. (Read more)

Judge rules against landowners who denied natural gas surveyors access to their properties

Eight Virginia landowners were dealt a blow Monday when a circuit court judge "found that a controversial state law that allows natural gas companies to survey private property without an owner’s permission is not unconstitutional," Duncan Adams reports for The Roanoke Times. The landowners denied natural gas companies entry on their land to survey sites for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a proposed 300-mile pipe from from Wetzel County, West Virginia, to Pittsylvania County, Virginia. Other states have similar laws allowing natural gas companies to enter private land without needing permission from homeowners. (Times map)

Judge Robert Turk said that Virginia law "allows a natural gas company to enter private property for surveying even if its owner has denied permission as long as the company has followed the statute’s notification requirements," Adams writes. "The judge said temporary access for surveying does not represent an unconstitutional 'taking' of property without compensation." He said,“There’s no transfer of ownership of the property."

Adams writes, "The law in question 'takes away the criminal aspect of trespass, something the Virginia legislature has the right to do," Turk said. And it "provides for minimally invasive surveying because such study yields information for route analyses, Turk said. The judge ruled also that Mountain Valley Pipeline can be considered a public service company under Virginia law, which declares that such companies can include gas, pipeline, electric light, heat, power and water and sewer companies."

"Officials in Franklin and Roanoke counties have expressed concern that confrontations between property owners and surveyors could lead to tragic consequences," Adams writes. "Mountain Valley has said its survey crews will leave if asked to do so, in person, by a property owner. But an email earlier this month to Roanoke County from Shawn Posey, project manager for the pipeline project, reported that surveyors 'would leave the property respectfully if the landowner became physical or belligerent.'” (Read more)

Journalist's Resource offers tips for investigative reporters covering nonprofits and charities

Journalist's Resource offers some tips for investigative reporters on how to tackle corruption in nonprofit organizations and charities. "Nonprofits are some of the nation’s largest, most powerful organizations such as hospitals, foundations, universities and churches. Like any other set of institutions, they are susceptible to corruption, waste and abuse," John Wihbey reports for Journalist's Resource.

"Journalists should know that nonprofit groups are subject to government rules that regulate the activities, finances and operations that justify their ongoing receipt of tax-exempt, '501(c)(3)' status—effectively, a government-endorsed subsidy," Wihbey writes. "Further, many nonprofits depend on donations from the public, giving them a special obligation to allocate these collective resources efficiently and effectively and uphold the public’s trust, especially when money is designated to help vulnerable populations."

"So, what’s a good starting point for such an investigation?" Wihbey asks. "Often accountability stories begin with and rely on shoe-leather reporting and interviews with former employees or whistle blowers. But when collecting background material for a story, a key document to review is a 'Form 990,' which nonprofits must file with the IRS every year. This record, which is publicly available, can provide a strong, factual basis for understanding an organization and its operations."

Wihbey offers some places for reporters to being their research:
  • In August 2015, ProPublica updated its Nonprofit Explorer data to include filings through 2013. 
  • The Foundation Center has a good database of 990s.
  • GuideStar has long been a paid tool for many journalists seeking information on nonprofits.
"These public records provide crucial information about finances, assets, investments and expenditures," Wihbey writes. "The 990 form also will list an agency’s board members and the salaries of top employees. From schools to hospitals to religious institutions, it’s always worth checking out the internal details of organizations."

EPA knew of dangers at Colorado mine that spilled 3 millions gallons of toxic water, document says

The Environmental Protection Agency "knew about the risks of a polluted water blowout from its work at Colorado's shuttered Gold King mine, according to documents released by the agency Friday," Manuel Quiñones reports for Greenwire. On Aug. 6 EPA accidentally released 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater from an abandoned mine at Silverton, Colo., into the Animas River, yellowing it all the way to New Mexico. (Durango Herald photo by Steve Lewis: EPA officials on Sunday said contaminated water levels in the Animas are trending toward pre-spill conditions)

In a June 2014 document, EPA contractor Environmental Restoration LLC, which calls itself the largest provider of emergency response services to EPA, "said the mine's workings had been inaccessible since the mid-1990s, when its portal collapsed. The company said water likely built up," Quiñones writes. The document states: "Conditions may exist that could result in a blow-out of the blockages and cause a release of large volumes of contaminated mine waters and sediment from inside the mine, which contain concentrated heavy metals."

"Another document by Environmental Restoration outlines general measures in case of a spill, including alerting communities that rely on potentially affected drinking water," Quiñones writes. That has caused concern among officials, who are unsure whether or not EPA followed the guidelines. Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican, told Quiñones, "The plan indicates there was an understanding of what might happen and what the potential consequences were. We don't know whether they followed the plan. I want to give the EPA the benefit of the doubt here. I really want to do that. It's getting harder." (Read more)

Confederate flag alive and well in Appalachian coal mining town in rural Virginia

Chris Spencer, the only African-American student at Hurley High School in southwestern Virginia, proudly displays the Confederate flag tattoo on his right arm, telling Erik Brady of USA Today, "It doesn’t mean racism to me. I just look at it as a flag. It’s our mascot. It just means our school.” At the Appalachian school of 200 students, the Confederate flag is highly visible, on the front doors, in the main office, on athletic uniforms and even on athletic equipment. (USA Today photo by Michael Shroyer: Chris Spencer and his Confederate flag tattoo)

While in many areas in the South politicians and activists have called for removal of the flags in light of the June murders of nine African Americans and the arrest of a white suspect with ties to hate crime, the Confederate flag is a way of life 453 miles from Charleston in the small town of Hurley. High school principal Pam Tester told Brady, "It means heritage, not hate. You won’t find a single person in Hurley who thinks different. That’s not what it means here. Never. Virginia is for lovers.”

Brady writes, "That’s the party line in Hurley, a tiny coal mining community tucked into the southwest corner of Virginia, south of Kentucky and west of West Virginia, where longtime citizens say they just want to be left alone to rally around a symbol that’s been with them for as long as they can remember."

Hurley, an unincorporated community in Buchanan County, one of Virginia’s poorest, "was founded in 1858, just before the Civil War, and according to the 2010 census had a population of a little more than 24,000, roughly 97 percent white," Brady writes. Locals blame President Obama and Democrats for the loss of coal jobs. Darwin Bailey, who is unemployed, told Brady, “The liberals and the tree huggers want to shut down the mines. And next thing they’ll want to shut down our flag, too.” (Family Search map: Hurley)

The football field is named for the school's first coach, Arthur M. Ratliff, Jr., whose ancestors fought for the South in the Civil War, Brady writes. A 1982 Washington Post piece on Ratliff "describes a man who hated Franklin Roosevelt for eroding initiative, Earl Warren for destroying justice, Elvis for ruining music and government for over-regulation." Ratliff told the Post, “I’m a general on the battlefield of life. Why, hell, God created me to win.”

Ratliff, who died in 2007, left behind a foundation with net assets worth more than $24 million, Brady writes. Sam Varney, who played on the first teams, said "Ratliff thought that flag 'denoted courage, valor and states’ rights.' It was not adopted really for anything connected with slavery or hatred or anything that those who are being vocal about it say. To change it because someone else doesn’t like it goes against the grain of mountain independence.” (Read more)

High school football is back, and so is the battle over prayer before games in one rural town

With high school sports back in action in many parts of the nation, so is the familiar sight of players praying before beginning competition. Also back is the battle between a group that fights for separation of government and religion and a rural southeastern Kentucky high school over organized group prayers before football games, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. (Best Places map: Bell County High School is located in Pineville)

In a letter last week to Bell County High School Superintendent Yvonne Gilliam, the Freedom From Religion Foundation "warned the school board against allowing a prayer before the season opener Friday night (Aug. 21) against Middlesboro," Estep writes. A foundation complainant who was at the game "said there was a student-led Christian prayer, according to Rebecca Markert, an attorney for the organization based in Madison, Wis." Markert said in the letter to the school, "Scheduling prayer at a school-sponsored event is a flagrant violation of the law." Gilliam said the prayer was not school-sponsored and that officials made it clear that "the prayer would have to be initiated and led by students."

Before 2011, Bell County "had a long custom of letting a Christian minister lead a prayer before football games," Estep writes. That custom stopped after the foundation complained. But recently, "the issue came up again at a recent booster club meeting." said Joe Humfleet, who leads the boosters. Humfleet told Estep, "We need to go on with what's right. We're letting the minority dictate what we do. It's not right morally, and it's not right by our American way." (Read more)

Free digital tools training available to journalists

The Society of Professional Journalists announced on Monday that it has partnered with Google News Lab and The Poynter Institute to create free training opportunities for journalists in the use of digital tools. Trainers, who will be available to be booked for sessions, will be knowledgeable in areas such as Google Trends, Google Public Data, Embeddable Maps, Google Earth Pro, Google Search/Advanced Search Tools, Google My Maps, Google Fusion Tables, Street View/UGC panoramas, Google Crisis Map, Google Permissions + Broadcast licenses and Mailing list.

Google News Labs and Poynter will also host regular virtual office hours via Google Hangouts On Air, beginning on Friday. Participants can send in comments or questions through the event page, the Google News Lab Twitter channel or email. For more information click here.

Environmental report says sage grouse still in danger from 27,000 oil and gas wells in Wyoming

Despite efforts by the Obama administration to postpone oil and gas activity in the habits of the threatened greater sage grouse, the industry still has more than 27,000 wells in Wyoming that could greatly fragment the breeding grounds of species "and drive it closer to extinction," says a report by WildEarth Guardians, a non-profit environmental organization, Phil Taylor reports for Greenwire. The sage grouse is currently being considered for endangered status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The study "looked at how many oil and gas wells, mines, wind farms and transmission lines have been built within sage grouse core breeding areas in Wyoming over the past six years and how those have impacted grouse," Taylor writes. "Core areas, first designated by Wyoming in 2008, cover about one-fourth of the state and encompass most of its sage grouse. Core areas limit disturbances, both existing and new, to a maximum of an average of 5 percent per square mile, among other restrictions."

The report says that since 2009, the Bureau of Land Management "has approved less than 1 percent of oil and gas wells proposed in projects that partially overlap with sage grouse core areas," Taylor writes. "But BLM has deferred action on several massive projects totaling more than 27,000 wells that intersect core areas while it completes new sage grouse land-use plans to keep the bird from being listed under the Endangered Species Act, the report said. Those land-use plans would essentially codify Wyoming’s core sage grouse policy, which WildEarth argues is too weak."

Speaking about the report, BLM Wyoming spokeswoman Kristen Lenhardt told Taylor, "To cross-check the numbers is going to take some time, but the way the study is written leads to a misunderstanding on the public's behalf. These wells are project proposals from companies, and the final projects that may or may not be approved will likely result in a different well count." (Read more)

Monday, August 24, 2015

Prison bust handcuffing rural areas that borrowed money to have county-owned facilities

The prison boom that created jobs and improved local economies in rural Texas has gone bust, leaving rural areas in a financial hole they can't crawl out of, John MacCormack reports for the San Antonio Express-News. In the 1980s, promoters hit rural Texas, selling the idea that a "detention facility built for federal inmates would create local jobs, a steady cash flow for the county and, once the bonds were paid off, a county-owned prison. And by using a public facilities corporation to borrow the money, taxpayers would be shielded if anything went wrong." (Express photo by Kin Man Hui: La Salle County Detention Center in Encinal is at about half capacity and losing money.)

"It was an easy money pitch often heard in rural Texas during an era that made the state the private prison capital of the country as companies built more than 50 facilities with as many as 60,000 beds," MacCormack writes. "Three decades later, the boom is over. And as the public sector's need for private prison beds has diminished, the tally of failing prisons in Texas is increasing, with some already vacant for years."

"The bust is evident on a rural tour of the state, where more than a dozen once-profitable facilities have failed," MacCormack writes. "At least seven of them, which together borrowed nearly $200 million, are in arrears on bond payments, figures from Municipal Market Analytics, a bond-research firm, show."

"When the nation's prison overcrowding problem was acute, private facilities and county jails in Texas were in high clover, renting beds for inmates from such distant locales as Hawaii, Montana and the District of Columbia, in addition to housing surplus federal, state and local prisoners," MacCormack writes. "But various factors—including shifts in federal immigration policy leading to fewer detentions, changes in criminal justice philosophy away from long sentences and incarceration for minor offenses, and a huge expansion in public prison systems—have dented the need for private beds."

In June, Texas jails had around 94,000 beds and were operating at 70 percent capacity, with 19,870 beds available, compared to 1995, when jails had 64,000 beds, operating at 80 percent capacity, with 7,775 beds available, MacCormack writes. Another factor has been the drop in illegal immigrants apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol. In 2014, fewer than 487,000 people were apprehended, down from 1.67 million in 2000. Another problem has been allegations of mistreatment—including lack of medical care and contaminated food—which has led to lawsuits, riots and escapes. (Read more)

Community-funded scholarship program allowing impoverished rural students to attend college

Baldwin, Mich.—a village of 1,200 in one the state's poorest counties—has significantly increased its number of students who seek higher education through a community-funded program called the Baldwin Promise that provides students with a $5,000 scholarship to attend a state school and gets students thinking about college as early as kindergarten, Alana Semuels reports for The Atlantic. The program could serve as a model for other states—such as Tennessee and Oregon—that are launching similar programs.

Only 12 of the 32 members of the class of 2005 attended college and only two have received a bachelor's degree, Semuels writes. "Now, nearly everybody who graduated from the high school here in June is off to a four-year college, a community college or a technical school. The Baldwin Promise came with a change in the way the community talked about education, something that may have been more valuable than cash. From the day students start kindergarten, they’re coached to excel so they can go to college. In elementary school and middle school and high school, students, their parents and the community think about college and life after Baldwin schools. If nothing else, the Baldwin Promise effectively marketed college to a town that seemed fairly ambivalent about it before."

The Baldwin Promise is the brainchild of Rich Simonson, "a Baldwin native who left the area for his career in politics, during which time he ran Gerald Ford’s campaign in Michigan," Semuels writes. After retiring in Baldwin, Simonson came up with the idea to ask community members to donate $500 to help students attend college. "He convinced school employees to donate and summer residents, too. People who couldn’t give $500 up front could enroll in a payment plan." The group set a goal of $140,000 but ended up raising $160,000.

The effort came about the same time that Simonson helped Baldwin become designated as one of the state's 10 Promise Zone districts, which allowed districts a "unique tax-capture mechanism that enabled the districts to keep revenue that otherwise would have gone to the state and instead give it to students in the form of college scholarships," Semuels writes. Simonson, who passed away in 2012, left an endowment that supports the promise fund.

The success of the program is evident. In 2010, the first year of the program, 14 of 23 graduates attended college, up from eight of 23 the previous year, Semuels writes. Baldwin Senior High also added advanced placement classes and encourages student to dual enroll in area colleges. The school also encourages school and community pride through Decision Day (Semuels photo), in which students publicly declare their college of choice. (Read more)

National TV host Rachel Maddow champions for the importance of community newspapers

While reporting the story of a rural community newspaper in North Dakota that has kept on publishing despite a devastating fire, national television host Rachel Maddow used the opportunity "to point out the value that newspapers in small towns provide and urged her viewers to subscribe to their local paper or gift a subscription to a kid they know," Kris Kerzman reports for the Grand Forks Herald. The offices of the weekly New Rockford Transcript were gutted by fire recently, but that didn't stop the 130-year-old paper from printing its latest edition two days later. (City of New Rockford map)

Maddow said, "Our whole country needs local newspapers. Everything happens somewhere specific. This is just the story of the survival of this one spunky local paper, but it's also, I think, the universe reminding us that we all ought to support our own spunky local papers . . . Even if you hate your local paper, subscribe anyway. If you really hate them you could offer to write for them . . . Support your local paper, subscribe, pay to get behind the paywall at the website. You will be very sorry to see them go." (YouTube video)