Friday, January 08, 2016

Agricultural exports to China down 13% in Fiscal Year 2015; 17% of all U.S. ag exports go to China

A slowdown in China's economy is having a major impact on U.S. agriculture, with total Fiscal Year 2015 exports to China "down approximately $4 billion or 13 percent from the previous fiscal year and projected to drop even more in FY 2016," Neil Mikulski reports for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "From fiscal year (FY) 2000 to FY 2015, the value of U.S. agricultural and related exports to China rose from $1.7 to $25.9 billion dollars. Currently, nearly 17 percent of all U.S. agricultural exports are destined for the Chinese market."

But China's struggling economy has led the country to decrease its exports from the U.S. in favor of cheaper products in New Zealand and South America. "Collectively, these events have created uncertainty within the global agricultural marketplace and have caused broad speculation on the future of U.S. trade with China," Mikulski writes.

The impact is clear in states like Wisconsin, where imports to China "helped to drive what was called a 'golden era' in Wisconsin agriculture," Dave Delozier reports Delozier for WISC-TV. "To feed one of the world’s largest populations, China purchased dairy, poultry, meat and grains from Wisconsin farmers." Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation spokesman Casey Langan told Delozier, “The impact that China has on global agriculture can never be undersold. Imagine that half of the pigs on the entire planet are consumed in China. Even closer to home in Wisconsin, one out of every four rows of corn in the United States is going to China."

Trump's biggest Republican supporters are in Appalachia, South, industrial North, map shows

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's biggest supporters are in Appalachia, the South and the industrial North, according to analysis provided to The New York Times by Civis Analytics, a Democratic data firm, Nate Cohn reports for the Times. The interactive district-level map shows that Trump has at least 35 percent of support of Republicans in many districts in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Trump is also popular among Republicans in Oklahoma, Nevada, Missouri, South Dakota and most states in the Northeast.

The data, based on interviews with more than 11,000 Republican voters, "shows that Trump has broad support in the GOP spanning all major demographic groups," Cohn writes. "He leads among Republican women and among people in well-educated and affluent areas. He even holds a nominal lead among Republican respondents that Civis estimated are Hispanic, based on their names and where they live."
Nowhere is Trump more popular than in West Virginia, where at least 36 percent of Republican voters in every district support him. Trump's biggest supporters in West Virginia are among "registered Democrats identify themselves as Republican 'leaners'—those likely to vote for GOP candidates," Eric Eyre reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. "Those same states typically vote for Republicans in presidential elections."

State Democratic Party Vice Chairman Chris Regan "said conservative West Virginians have embraced Trump’s message because the GOP establishment offers them nothing," Eyre writes. Regan told him, “Trump’s popularity is a direct reaction to the bill of goods Republican politicians have been selling their voters in West Virginia. Trump shows that conservative voters are wising up to the establishment GOP’s game.”

BLM's inconsistency when dealing with rule breakers being blamed for armed Oregon standoff

Some are blaming the Bureau of Land Management's inconsistency when dealing with law breakers on federal land for the armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, Jonathan Thompson reports for High Country News. One of the reasons Ammon and Ryan Bundy began the standoff was "to protest what they see as an unjust punishment of a father-son pair of local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond," who in October were ordered by a judge to "finish a five year required minimum sentence for lighting fires on public land back in 2001 and 2006." (Washington Post graphic: Malheur National Wildlife Refuge)

High Country News, which examined several similar BLM cases that had varying results, found that the Bundys' father, Cliven, has for years grazed cattle illegally on BLM allotment without paying fees and has never been punished "for his role in inciting supporters to threaten federal agents at gunpoint back in May of 2014," Thompson writes.

In 2014, BLM and then no fewer than three federal judges found that Cliven Bundy "was trespassing and ordered him to remove his cows," Thompson writes. "They also determined that he owes anywhere from $300,000 to $1 million in back grazing fees. After Bundy’s continual refusal to remove his cows or pay the money owed, BLM contractors showed up to confiscate his cattle. But a heavily armed group of supporters converged on the ranch, threatening the federal officers at gunpoint. BLM backed down, returned the cattle and left. Bundy—and those 'defending' him—have yet to be prosecuted. The cattle yet roam free."

Bob Abbey, former director of the BLM, told High Country News, “At the end of the day, most people have a common respect for the law, and with Mr. Bundy, he just believes differently, that he’s above the law. The fact that their trespass hasn’t been dealt with in a timely matter reinforced beliefs.” (Read more)

Bill Gates features visit to Appalachian high school on his blog

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, a champion of improving education in rural and underserved areas, is featuring his November visit to an Eastern Kentucky high school as the main story on his blog, gatesnotes. The blog includes several posts about the visit he made with his wife Melinda to Betsy Layne High School in Floyd County (Wikipedia map).

"Gates wrote that what he found most inspiring about the youth in Eastern Kentucky was their dedication to the region and its future," Jackson Latta reports for the Floyd County Times. During the "learning visit" on Nov. 5, Gates interviewed faculty and students and spoke to the entire student body via the intercom.

"Gates said innovative new classrooms created at Betsy Layne created a stimulating, modern learning environment," Latta writes. Gates Foundation representatives also "interviewed the Young Professional Forum that consisted of college students and former graduates outside the field of education who left the region to attend college and returned here to work" Gates wrote about Floyd native Lakeisha Crum's quest to be the first person in her family to attend college.
In one post, Gates wrote: "During our visit, Melinda and I never spotted a teacher just standing in front of the class lecturing while the students just sat and listened. Instead, students were the ones doing the most work. They were actively engaged, sharing their ideas, solving problems and, as a result, learning. Weeks after my visit, I still remember all the lessons vividly."

In another post he wrote: "Over pepperoni pizza and soda, we talked about what it’s like to grow up in Eastern Kentucky and what their plans are for the future. One of the students we met was Lakeisha Crum. She’s a senior at the high school. A stellar student and volleyball player, Lakeisha will be the first person in her family to go to college."

"Being a teenager is an exciting time in everyone’s life. It can also be quite hard. (I know. I’m the father of three of them and a former teenager myself.)," Gates wrote. "You’re just starting to figure out who you are and what you want to do with your life. For decades in Eastern Kentucky, the coal mines provided young people with answers to those questions. The pay was good. Work was steady. You could stay close to home, raise a family and build a career. But the collapse of the coal industry left behind a giant void. Now, many students are filling it with education. Instead of going to the mines, they are going to college."

EPA scientists criticize agency report that says fracking poses no widespread damage to water

The Environmental Protection Agency's Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) on Thursday released a peer review criticizing the agency's June report that said no evidence exists showing that hydraulic fracturing causes widespread damage to drinking water supplies, Susan Phillips and Jon Hurdle report for StateImpact. "The advisory board raised concerns about 'clarity and adequacy of support for several major findings.'"

The review said EPA science advisor Thomas A. Burke's remarks that “based upon available scientific information, we found that hydraulic fracturing activities in the United States are carried out in a way that has not led to widespread systemic impacts on drinking water sources" are "ambiguous and inconsistent with 'the uncertainties and data limitations' detailed within the EPA’s fracking report," Phillips and Hurdle write. SAB recommends EPA "rewrite the report to include explanations of those limitations."

SAB "points out that local impacts can be 'severe' and the agency should do a better job explaining to the general public gaps in the data as well as the status of the investigations in high profile places like Dimock, as well as Pavilion, Wyoming and Parker County, Texas," Phillips writes. EPA press secretary Melissa Harrison told reporters: ”We will use the comments from the SAB, along with the comments from members of the public, to evaluate how to augment and revise the draft assessment." A final report is expected sometime this year. (Read more)

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 released; includes contradictions, reporters say

The U.S Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services today released the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, described by publishers as "an essential resource for health professionals and policymakers as they design and implement food and nutrition programs that feed the American people, such as USDA’s National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, which feed more than 30 million children each school day."

The most notable change is that the guidelines have dropped the "warning about avoiding cholesterol in the diet," Peter Whoriskey and Ariana Eunjung Cha report for The Washington Post. "Instituted in 1977, that caution helped sink egg sales across the country, but scientists now say the warning is unnecessary." New guidelines also ease "up slightly on warnings about salty foods and omits a previous suggestion that Americans eat breakfast in order to stay fit. The old version of Dietary Guidelines informed readers that 'not eating breakfast has been associated with excess body weight,' but the new version is silent on the topic."

"In what may be its most controversial move, the new version of the Dietary Guidelines continues its longstanding warning about foods rich in saturated fats—that is, those fats characteristic of meat and dairy products," Whoriskey and Cha write. "By doing so, the new guidelines will draw criticism, but any advice on saturated fats likely would have stirred opposition." (Post graphic)
Guidelines also say that drinking three to five eight ounce cups of coffee per day can be part of a healthy diet, even though "some research suggests that coffee may be harmful for some people," Whoriskey and Cha write. Warnings about salt also are softened. "Under the old rules, most adults were advised to consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium daily, while the limit for the others was 2,300 milligrams per day. Under the new guidelines, most adults are advised to limit themselves to 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day or roughly the amount of sodium in a teaspoon of salt."

The guidelines, which have been controversial and criticized regarding whether the recommendations are based on sound science, "appear inconsistent and constrained by past recommendations," Whoriskey and Cha write. For example, the new guidelines call for people to limit their cholesterol intake to 300 milligrams per day—based on recommendations by its own expert committee—"but elsewhere in the report, the guidelines cite a 16-year-old report from the Institute of Medicine and advise people to 'eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible while consuming a healthy eating pattern.'"

"Similarly, the report calls for people to limit the amount of saturated fat in their diet to 10 percent of their calories and accordingly advises people to choose milk and other dairy products that are no-fat or low-fat," Whoriskey and Cha write. "But newer research, also cited by the guidelines, shows that merely reducing consumption of saturated fats may offer no benefit if people merely replace those saturated fats with carbohydrates, as they often do."

Free police-scanner apps are must-have tools for rural and community journalists

Gone are the days of keeping an ear tuned to the police scanner, yelling for newsroom silence because it sounds like a major news story might be breaking, or hearing secondhand news that something important may have happened and calling the police station or sheriff's office only to find out that it was nothing at all. The rise of technology has led to a series of free apps that can keep every journalist tuned in to what's happening at the local, state and even national level. (iTunes photo of 5-0 Radio Police Scanner)

Josh Park of the Ohio Newspaper Association suggests three free apps available to download that offer a variety of sources for journalists.

Police Scanner + Free
This app for the iPhone allows you to browse police, fire, EMS, weather, railroad and radio stations by location or by most popular. You can search scanners in 79 Ohio counties, in other states and even other countries. One helpful feature of the app allows users to record the station and email the soundbite as an mp3 file. Reporters can use this feature to send recordings to editors or use the dispatch calls as quotes in articles.

5-0 Radio Police Scanner
Another iPhone app, “5-0 Radio Police Scanner,” broadcasts live police, fire, aircraft, railroad, marine, emergency and ham radio stations. The app also features a map that locates the scanner feed. For reporters who aren’t familiar with police codes, the app includes a table of frequently used codes.

Scanner Radio 
“Scanner Radio” for Android phones works similarly to the previous two apps when locating radio stations through GPS. The app features channels such as amateur radio, aviation, disaster event, marine, other, public safety, rail and special event. With this app, users can set up notifications to their phone whenever there are a certain number of listeners on one station. This can be a great tool for breaking news, as more people will be tuned in to the station.

County-level model map shows location of CAFOs in Michigan; other states can be mapped by request

The Center for Food Safety has created a model county-level map of Michigan that includes information about concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs, also known as factory farms) in the state. The interactive map also includes tabs that reveal locations of schools, hospitals, watersheds, sub watersheds, lakes, rivers. Similar maps of other states can be created by contacting the website, states the Center for Food Safety. (Center for Food Safety map of Michigan: Orange circles are factory farms; black marks are schools.)

Almost all of the 75 factory farms in Michigan are located near waterways, Amanda Proscia reports for the Great Lakes Echo, a project of the journalism department at Michigan State University. "A 2013 Alma College study that found factory farms increase water pollution downriver of the operations. The nutrients found in high levels downriver of these large farms are the same nutrients linked to the harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie."

"The map includes the location and size of the factory farms and allows users to select layers such as: environmental violations, federal subsidies and nearby waterways," Proscia writes.

Coal industry seeks stay of rule to reduce miners' exposure to dust that causes black lung disease

The coal industry is looking to halt standards scheduled to go into effect Feb. 1 that would reduce miners' exposure to breathable dust that can cause black lung disease, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The National Mining Association, Murray Energy and other coal companies filed a motion this week seeking a stay of the rule, which would "require miners to wear continuous personal monitors to check their exposure to dust, and companies would have to do more frequent sampling to check for compliance with dust limits." Improved safety led to a record low of 28 mining deaths—11 in coal mines—in 2015, Estep writes in a separate story. But the number of mining deaths has long paled in comparison to deaths from black lung deaths. (NPR graphic)

"Industry groups argue that the requirement for personal dust monitors and more frequent sampling is at odds with a separate rule on the use of rock dust," Estep writes. "Coal operators are required to apply non-explosive dust, such as ground-up limestone, to surfaces in underground mines to keep coal dust from exploding. The new personal dust monitors pick up rock dust and coal dust," which could lead to "the potential for violations of dust limits under the new rule not because of miners’ exposure to the toxic substance the standard covers—coal dust—but because of exposure to rock dust, industry groups said in their motion." The industry motion stated: “Simply put, the two rules are in direct conflict with each other, meaning operators will be doomed to violate the one or the other.”

Critics say the Mine Safety and Health Administration "overstepped its authority in adopting the rule and relied on flawed data," Estep writes. They say "without the stay, coal companies face considerable expense to comply with standards they probably can’t meet and that could be struck down," Estep writes.

Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, said "a stay would give the industry, regulators and researchers time to come up with a sampling system 'that restores confidence and recognizes all the tools available to protect miners—tools that we advocated during the rulemaking but which MSHA rejected," Estep writes. Another phase that would lower the legal limit on miners’ exposure to dust is scheduled to go into effect Aug. 1.

Burns Paiute Indian tribe to armed protesters who want land given back to locals: 'We were here first'

While armed protesters in Oregon say they want the federal government to hand ownership of land over to ranchers and local governments—who they say the land rightfully belongs to—the Burns Paiute Indian said if anyone should get the property back, it should be them, Kirk Johnson reports for The New York Times. The tribe says protesters are ignorant of the land's history and that "their ancestors were roaming the still wild and empty reaches of what is now called the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge perhaps as long as 15,000 years ago." (Native American Tribes of Oregon map: Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is located in southeastern Oregon)

Tribal chairwoman Charlotte Rodrique told reporters, “Don’t tell me any of these ranchers came across the Bering Strait. We were here first. We’d like the public to acknowledge that.” Other tribe members called the protesters a public menace and an insult to the local people. Tribal council member Jarvis Kennedy told reporters, “We as Harney County residents don’t need some clown coming in here to stand up for us. We survived without them before."

In response to the tribe, protest leader Ammon Bundy told reporters that "he believed the Paiutes were probably still oppressed by the federal government as much as anybody else," Johnson writes. Bundy said, “They have rights as well. I would like to see them be freed from the federal government as well." (Read more)

EPA study says pesticides pose risk to honeybees; critics call study flawed

Neonicotinoids, a widely used pesticide used on crops that attract pollinators, poses a risk to honeybees, said a study released Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency. "The preliminary risk assessment identified a residue level for imidacloprid of 25 ppb, which sets a threshold above which effects on pollinator hives are likely to be seen—and at that level and below which effects are unlikely. These effects include decreases in pollinators as well as less honey produced." EPA in 2015 proposed banning pesticides, including neonicotinoids, that are harmful to bees, which are responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year. (Bee Informed graphic)

The study, the first of four to be conducted by EPA, "focused primarily on the best known and most economically important species, the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera), and said more study was needed to fully evaluate the effects of imidacloprid on all pollinators," Stephen Davies reports for Agri-Pulse. "Preliminary assessments for clothianidin, thiamethoxam and dinotefuran are scheduled to be released for public comment in December 2016. A preliminary risk assessment of all ecological effects for imidacloprid, including a revised pollinator assessment and impacts on other species such as aquatic and terrestrial animals and plants, will also be released in December 2016, EPA said."

The EPA study has already been criticized, with the The Center for Biological Diversity—which has sued EPA to force it to conduct assessments of pesticide risks—saying the analysis was flawed in numerous ways, Davies writes. Also, Bayer CropScience, a major manufacturer and registrant of imidacloprid, said in a statement: “We will review the EPA document, but at first glance it appears to overestimate the potential for harmful exposures in certain crops, such as citrus and cotton, while ignoring the important benefits, these products provide and management practices to protect bees. We hope the final risk assessment is based on the best available science as well as a proper understanding of modern pest management practices.” (Read more)

Ethanol lobby goes after Cruz, who might be first to win Iowa while opposing fuels standard

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's lead in polling for the Feb. 1 Iowa Republican presidential caucuses "represents an existential crisis," writes Reid Epstein of The Wall Street Journal: "If he proves a presidential candidate can win Iowa without the approval of the ethanol lobby—represented here by a group called America’s Renewable Future—the fear is no candidate will ever back their agenda again."

Epstein begins his story by noting, "Presidential candidates for decades have sought to curry favor with Iowa farmers by pledging allegiance to a local agriculture lobby that reaps the benefits of favorable federal laws." Cruz says the Renewable Fuels Standard, which "requires refineries to blend an increasing amount of biofuels, including the corn-based ethanol produced here, into the U.S. gasoline supply each year," should be phased out by 2022. In 2013 he sponsored a bill to end it immediately.

Anti-Cruz ad at a restaurant in Guthrie Center, Iowa, where
Cruz made a stop on Monday (N.Y. Times photo by Eric Thayer)
The ethanol lobby has mounted "a multi-million-dollar campaign to stop Mr. Cruz from becoming the first presidential candidate in either party to win the state while opposing the standard since it was enacted," Epstein notes. "America’s Renewable Future, which is now solely dedicated to attacking Mr. Cruz, is papering GOP caucus-goers’ homes with mail accusing the Texas senator of being beholden to his home-state oil industry, and it is airing countless television and radio ads urging Iowans to vote for anyone else."

Cruz's response? “The lobbyists are trying the best they can to snooker the people of Iowa and convince the people of Iowa that a government mandate is the only way for ethanol to survive,” he told Epstein. “I don’t think Iowa farmers want to be dependent on Washington.” In an op-ed for The Des Moines Register, Cruz criticized EPA's resistance to higher-ethanol blends and said he would reverse that policy, which would not require action by Congress, boosting the ethanol market.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul also opposes the ethanol law and like Cruz gets a bad rating on the America's Renewable Future "report card" but is not considered to have much chance of winning Iowa. "Cruz has plainly become the candidate to beat in the caucuses," report Jonathan Martin and Matt Flegenheimer of The New York Times. "He is even displaying a touch of swagger. He warns Iowans at every stop to expect tens of millions of dollars in ads attacking him to reach their TVs and mailboxes any day now."

ARF mailed the card to "hundreds of thousands of would-be Iowa caucus-goers," Epstein reports. "It is an unprecedented effort to persuade Iowans to back candidates who support the fuel standard, which never before has been opposed by a leading candidate." Meanwhile, a super PAC headed by the son of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, is attacking Cruz in broadcast advertising.

Epstein writes, "The fact that it is necessary for ethanol backers to spend millions to persuade Iowans to vote for candidates who back their interests signals the weakness of agriculture’s political standing in the state. Voters interviewed at a series of political events across Iowa this week indicated they are far more likely to back a candidate based on their economic and foreign-policy positions than what they have to say about farming issues." (Read more)

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Having post offices offer banking services could help USPS and low-income residents, advocates say

If the U.S. Postal Service began offering services such as paycheck cashing, bill payment and free ATMs, it would help revive the Postal Service's dire outlook while also helping low-income residents who rely on high interest lenders, says consumer advocates, financial reform groups, postal labor unions and some leading liberals, such as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Jim Puzzanghera reports for the Los Angeles Times. (Getty images by Joe Raedle)

Sanders said on an appearance in October on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live, "We have millions and millions of low-income people who have to go to these payday lenders and pay outrageous interest rates. They're getting ripped off right and left. We can have our Postal Service provide modest banking to low-income people where they can cash their checks and they can do banking. I think it will help the post office and it will help millions of low-income people."

Puzzanghera writes, "The Postal Service's inspector general's office agrees. It estimates that expanding financial services beyond the current limited offerings, which include money orders and international funds transfers, could pump $8.9 billion a year into the financially struggling agency." The American Postal Workers Union is also on board, forming a coalition, the Campaign for Postal Banking, which garnered 150,000 signatures for a December petition urging USPS to expand its financial offerings. (Times graphic)
About 9.6 million U.S. households in 2013 did not have anyone with a bank account, according to a Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Puzzanghera writes. "An additional 24.8 million households had accounts but also used alternative financial services, such as payday loans." USPS, which hasn't ruled out the idea of expanded banking services, said in a statement, "While we currently provide our customers with certain financial services, including money orders, electronic funds transfers and cashing of U.S. Treasury checks, our core function is not banking."

Having post offices serve as banks isn't a far-fetched idea, Puzzanghera writes. Post offices in Britain, France, China and Japan, also serve as banks, and from 1911 to 1967 the United States Postal Savings System "offered accounts with annual interest capped at 2 percent, to reduce competition with commercial banks." (Read more)

Armed protesters: Occupation about who controls the land in the West

Armed protesters at Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge say government interference is the reason why the area's rural economies have struggled in recent years, Kirk Johnson and Jack Healy report for The New York Times. They say the federal government should hand control of the land over to ranchers and local governments, much like it was 100 years ago when the West was taking shape. (Wikipedia map: Harney County, Oregon)

Ammon Bundy, the leader of the occupation group said at a news conference Tuesday, “It is our goal to get the logger back to logging, to get the rancher back to ranching, to get the miner back to mining, the farmer back to farming—and to jump-start this economy in Harney County."

But not everyone involved in the protest seems to be on the same page, Johnson and Healy write. "The participants surrounding Mr. Bundy appear to have in common a reverence for the United States Constitution, which many quote from at length or brandish in paper form from a pocket to cite. But after that, their paths diverge into a tangle of other causes, beliefs and motivations, with some more focused on personal liberty, others wanting to talk about economic harm to the agricultural heritage or tradition of the West—which they say comes from government overreach in control of natural resources like the grass that grows on public lands."

"Last year, a yearslong dispute between Mr. Bundy’s father Cliven and federal officials over his illegal grazing on public lands erupted into a tense, armed confrontation," Johnson and Healy write. "And Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan and his followers—who are now in their fourth day of protest at the federally owned sanctuary—echo the terms and tenets of that conflict: who controls the land in the West." (Read more)

Central Appalachian coal miner turned columnist details firsthand life in the coal mines

Tired of the way coal miners are portrayed in the media, Gary Bentley (right) an underground Eastern Kentucky coal miner from 2001 to 2013, has decided to share his own thoughts about the profession in a series for the Daily Yonder called, "In the Black."

"Bentley said he would like readers to learn more about miners and get beyond the two mining stereotypes he sees most often," Tim Marema reports for Yonder. "First, there’s the 'Evil King Coal' story. In this frame, coal strips 'the land and people of everything they love,' leaving only destruction and poverty in its wake, Bentley says. Then there’s the romantic view of the miner—most easily conjured while looking at Depression era black-and-white photos of men posing with pick and shovel in hand." While Bentley said each of these stories gets some of it right, they also get some of it wrong. He told Marema, “These men and women are straight-laced, hard-working, God-fearing Appalachian people who work so hard for so little."

In his first column, "First Day Jitters," Bentley details his first day on the job. Here is an excerpt from the column:
"Nervously I tried to lace up my new matterhorns, get my cap light adjusted and look like I knew what I was doing, failing miserably. My knee pads were still in the plastic. My belt was so stiff it would have served more purpose as a walking stick. All I could do was push back the fear and walk back into the mine office.

"I walked a fast pace out to the rail car, 20 burly men lying side to side somewhat spooning, just like my girlfriend and I would do at night. I was intimidated and scared. I wasn’t scared just because we were riding a rail car seven miles back into the mountain to work in a 36 inch seam of coal. I was scared because these were 'real' men, fathers of the kids I went to school with, men who had enough strength to bend a one inch steel bar with their bare hands. I was just a skinny teenage boy with glasses, bad skin and not enough ass to pick up a loaded number four coal shovel.

"So I just laid down in the first opening I saw, turned on my headlamp and closed my eyes as the wheels of the car barked against the rails and the diesel engine roared into my ears.

"A few minutes after we entered the mine, a voice cut through the noise like nothing I had ever heard before.

"'WHOA! Stop g–damn you!'

"Sparks flew up past my face, and the wheels of the car screamed as the operator brought us to an abrupt halt.

“'All right now, it’s Sunday night after pay day. Everybody chip in so we can get this night started right. Don’t any of you sons-a-bitches hold out neither.'

"All the men were bearded, haggard, eyes sunken back into their skulls. The darkness and glow of the head lamps made everyone look like death. Pulling plastic bags, pill bottles and emptied Skoal cans out of their pockets and dinner buckets, they dumped the contents onto the top of the rail car. Lortab, Xanax, Valium and whatever other prescription drugs they had.

"'New kid, you got any medicine or candy to put in on this?'

"I simply shook my head right to left, right to left, right to left. When I could finally stop, I watched the men use their mining certification cards to cut lines of a multi-colored rainbow assortment of powders they had crushed from the pills. It disappeared as quick as we did when we entered the drift mouth. So did my romanticism about miners."

Some of the nation's most conservative states rely the most on federal assistance, report says

While red states have traditionally called for less government, some of the nation's most conservative states rely the most on federal aid, says a report published Wednesday by the Tax Foundation, which advocates for policies that lower taxes and broaden the tax base, Niraj Chokshi reports for The Washington Post. Mississippi and Louisiana, the nation's two most conservative states, according to a Gallup poll, receive the most federal assistance, with 42.9 and 41.9 percent of their overall revenues in 2013 coming from federal aid. Five of the top 10 reliant states are in the South. North Dakota is the least reliant state.

Overall, five states—Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Montana—are among the top 10 most reliant on federal funds and Gallup's top 10 most conservative states, Chokshi writes. At the same time, four states—Hawaii, California, Connecticut, New Jersey—are listed among the 10 least reliant on federal funds and the top 10 most liberal.

"The Tax Foundation's analysis is based on a crude calculation of Census revenue data: divide each state's intergovernmental revenue (i.e. revenue from other governments) by its general revenues, a category that includes most—though not all—state revenues," Chokshi writes. "That federally sourced revenue comes in many forms, including Medicaid payments, education funding assistance and infrastructure financing." (Tax Foundation map)

Va. senator sues state for neglect in son's death; rural mental health officials failed to provide a bed

Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Va.), whose mentally ill son in 2013 stabbed him several times before killing himself, has filed a $6 million lawsuit against the state for neglect in his son's death, Laurence Hammack and Luanne Rife report for The Roanoke Times. The night before his death, Gus Deeds was released by rural Bath County authorities after six hours in emergency custody when mental health workers failed to find an available psychiatric bed in the region. Investigators later determined that beds were available.

"The tragedy prompted Deeds’ colleagues in the General Assembly to confront the way Virginia treats people with mental illnesses, especially those in a crisis," Hammack and Rife write. "They created a statewide bed registry so that mental health care workers can more easily find a private placement, and if they cannot, state hospitals must take the patients."

"Deeds’ lawsuit, filed in Bath County Circuit Court, blames the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and the local mental health agency that handled the case, the Rockbridge Area Community Services Board. Michael Gentry, a mental health worker for the community services board, is also named as a defendant," Hammack and Rife write. "The lawsuit alleges Gentry failed to take proper steps to have Gus Deeds committed after his father had him detained temporarily on an emergency custody order the morning of Nov. 18, 2013. Deeds was released later that day after Gentry said he could not find a placement—even though it later became clear that at least five facilities in the area had room that day to admit him."

The Recorder, a weekly newspaper serving Virginia's Bath and Highland counties, has stayed on top of the story since the beginning and is a good source to keep checking for further developments.

Free webinar Thursday for journalists to focus on covering community housing stories

The Poynter Institute is hosting a free webinar for journalists at 2 p.m. (EST) on Thursday entitled, "How to Cover Housing Stories in Your Community." The webinar will focus on ways to "tell engaging stories about income inequality and housing affordability." The webinar, which will be led by Nicholas Nehamas, a business reporter at the Miami Herald, will cover the following topics: how to find and use crucial housing data from public and private entities; where to track down and develop good sources, from people scraping together their monthly rent to high-flying developers; how to identify promising story angles; and ways to craft narrative out of the daily grind. For more information or to register, click here.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Obama takes executive action to increase background checks, ramp up enforcement

President Obama is taking executive action to increase background checks for firearms and reduce gun violence, says a White House news release. As part of the plan, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) "is finalizing a rule to require background checks for people trying to buy some of the most dangerous weapons and other items through a trust, corporation or other legal entity."

Obama's proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 would fund 200 more ATF agents to help enforce gun laws. "ATF has established an Internet Investigation Center to track illegal online firearms trafficking and is dedicating $4 million and additional personnel to enhance the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network," the release says, adding that the agency is "finalizing a rule to ensure that dealers who ship firearms notify law enforcement if their guns are lost or stolen in transit."

Meanwhile, the FBI "is overhauling the background check system to make it more effective and efficient" by hiring 230 employees to process background checks 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, while also "improving notification of local authorities when certain prohibited persons unlawfully attempt to buy a gun."

The administration is also proposing $500 million to increase access to mental health care. "The Department of Health and Human Services is finalizing a rule to remove unnecessary legal barriers preventing States from reporting relevant information about people prohibited from possessing a gun for specific mental health reasons," the release says.

Even before the announcement, "Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail blasted the actions, and some gun-rights advocates threatened to challenge them in court," David Nakamura and Juliet Eilperin report for The Washington Post. "House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) issued a statement Monday saying that even without knowing the plan’s details, he thinks 'the president is at minimum subverting the legislative branch and potentially overturning its will. . . . This is a dangerous level of executive overreach, and the country will not stand for it.'”

Obama, in a Twitter message Monday evening referring to the National Rifle Association, wrote: “The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage, but they can’t hold America hostage." He used the same line in his announcement; for an annotation/analysis of his remarks, from Chris Cillizza of the Post, click here.

Wildlife refuge with armed protesters was one of the nation’s first; U.S. has 563 such sanctuaries

The U.S. has 563 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts, states the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The refuges "provide habitat for more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species and more than 1,000 species of fish. More than 380 threatened or endangered plants or animals are protected on wildlife refuges," and millions of migrating birds stop at the refuges during annual trips to their summer and winter homes. (Washington Post graphic: Malheur National Wildlife Refuge)

Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has become center stage after armed protesters on Saturday seized the main building to protest "the arson convictions of two local ranchers, Dwight Hammond and his son Steven Hammond, who set fires that burned federal lands," Lisa Rein reports for The Washington Post. "The ranchers said they were fighting wildfires and invasive vegetation, but federal officials said they were covering up poaching on federal land."

The history of the refuge dates back to the late 1880s, when "the land captured the attention of two photographers who became alarmed that plume hunters had decimated many North American bird species in pursuit of feathers for the hat industry," Rein writes. "They approached the Oregon Audubon Society and pressed for a reservation to protect the remaining birds and other wildlife."

President Teddy Roosevelt, who created 51 refuges, "agreed to set aside what at the time were unclaimed government lands in the area 'as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds,” marking it as one of the nation's first refuges, Rein writes. "Gradually the area under federal control expanded. The government bought a 65,000-acre parcel under private ownership in 1935. The Civilian Conservation Corps built many of the 13 historic buildings in the 1930s and early 1940s, including the one occupied by the protesters. Another 14,000 acres was sold in 1942 by a livestock company, adding to the refuge’s shorebird habitat and waterfowl nesting areas."

"Today the refuge is more than 187,700 acres of wildlife habitat, including 120,000 acres of wetlands that provide a crucial stop for waterfowl along the Pacific Flyway," Rein writes. "Colonial waterbirds, sandhill cranes, redband trout are represented." Last year the refuge had 23,967 visitors, including birders, hunters and outdoor recreationists. (Read more)

Little known pipeline ships 540,000 barrels of oil and natural gas per day beneath Great Lakes

Few people seem to be aware that 540,000 barrels of light crude oil and natural gas liquids are transported every day through a pipeline underneath the Straits of Mackinac, which connect Michigan to Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, Steve Friess reports for The Washington Post. Oil and natural gas are being transported from Alberta in Western Canada to refineries in Detroit and Sarnia, Ontario. (Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Preserve map)

While the pipeline has never had a spill or even a repair, according to its owner, the fact that it was built in 1953 has some concerned about its durability, Friess writes. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a conservative seen as a GOP front-runner for governor in 2018, seemed to condemn the line in a July report, saying, “You wouldn’t site, and you wouldn’t build and construct pipelines underneath the Straits today. And so, if you wouldn’t do it today, how many more tomorrows will the pipelines be operational?”

Friess writes, "Still, Enbridge has received a reprieve because Schuette has declined to order an immediate shutdown, as he could under the terms of the state’s agreement with Enbridge regarding the easement. Instead, he established a Pipeline Safety Advisory Board to study all of the state’s spaghetti tangle of pipelines and make recommendations as to what to do. That committee, which has met twice, is ordering up a comprehensive report on how Enbridge would transport the oil and gas in Line 5 to refineries if it could no longer pump it through the Straits."

"The company itself already has an answer: It would be expensive, dirty and, ultimately, riskier to the environment than continuing to use, monitor and maintain Line 5," Friess writes. "They’d need to send the petroleum via truck, train and perhaps tanker ship across the Great Lakes, all modes of transport that have much bleaker safety records than pipelines, Enbridge publicist Jason Manshum said." Meanwhile, the pipeline continues to be operated with little awareness or concern from the general public. (Read more)

Being a small farmer doesn't always pay big in profits, but does in job satisfaction, farmer writes

Jaclyn Moyer
With the average age of farmers continuing to increase, there has been a national push to interest younger Americans in taking up farming. That has led to a new crop of first-generation college-educated farmers who are leaving urban life to give farming a try. While the work is rewarding, the pay often is not, and many farmers struggle to make a living and often turn to other means of employment to pay the bills, first-generation California farmer Jaclyn Moyer writes in an essay for Salon.

"Whenever a customer asked how things were going, I replied, 'Great,'" Moyer writes. "I thought about the sinking ship, and never said, 'Well, we’re making ends meet, but we work 12 hour days, 6 days a week, and pay ourselves only what we need to cover food and household expenses: $100 per week.' I didn’t tell anyone how, over the course of the last three years since Ryan and I had started our farm, I’d drained most of my savings. I didn’t admit that the only thing keeping the farm afloat was income Ryan and I earned through other means—Ryan working as a carpenter and I as a baker. I didn’t say that despite the improvements we made to the land—the hundreds of yards of compost we spread, the thousand dollars we spent annually on cover crop seed to increase soil fertility, every weed pulled—we gained no equity because we didn’t own the land. I didn’t say I felt like I was trying to fill a bathtub when the drain was open."

Intermediate farms that gross between $10,000 to $250,000 get only 10 percent of their household income from the farm, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data from 2012, Moyer writes. "Smaller farms actually lost money farming and earned 109 percent of their household income from off-farm sources. Only the largest farms, which represent just 10 percent of farming households in the country and most of which received large government subsidies, earned the majority of their income from farm sources. So, 90 percent of farmers in this country rely on an outside job or a spouse’s outside job or some independent form of wealth for their primary income."

So why run a small farm? After giving a presentation to a local high school, in which none of the students expressed interest in careers in agriculture, Moyer writes: "Would it have hurt if I’d mentioned the evening the great white egret landed just a yard away from me in the field? How the bird’s body stood taller than mine as I crouched between rows of collard greens, how its neck moved like a snake, slithering upward so it could peer down at me. And when the egret unfolded two white wings and lifted into the sky, a breath of wind pushed against my cheek."

"Or I could’ve described the joy of pausing in the field during a summer morning harvest to slice open a watermelon, how the fruit’s pink flesh remains slightly cool inside its thick rind despite the heat of the day, how I hollow out the melon with a spoon from my pocket and eat an entire half," Moyer writes. "Of course the lifestyle of a farmer had its perks, but it didn’t seem this was the point. Surely there were plenty of professions that offered moments of joy and satisfaction, surely the doctor, the wildlife biologist, the chef, or mechanic, at times enjoys her work. But no one expected these people to take this satisfaction as pay." (Read more)

Illinois reauthorizes EPA program to provide $15M annually to assist rural water drinking systems

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) last week announced a new law that "reauthorizes $15 million each year through 2020 for the Environmental Protection Agency’s technical assistance program for small, public water systems and requires EPA to target the training and technical assistance funds appropriated by Congress to programs most beneficial to small and rural communities," states a release from Shimkus.

Shimkus said: "A major source of financial stress for small and rural drinking water supply systems is compliance with EPA regulations. These communities need access to technical professionals to help find the most cost-effective way to identify repair and replacement options for their systems and to comply with EPA standards.”

Frank Dunmire, executive direct or of the Rural Water Association, which represents more than 800 small communities, water districts and co-ops throughout the state, said: “Almost all of the more than 3,500 community water supplies in Illinois are dependent on on-site technical assistance and training while they struggle with complying with the ever-growing list of EPA regulations. It is through this training and on-site assistance that many communities avoid violations and/or hefty fines.”

EPA states: "More than 97 percent of the nation’s 156,000 public water systems are small systems, meaning they serve 10,000 or fewer people. A public water system (PWS) is a system that provides water for human consumption to at least 25 people or 15 service connections."

Monday, January 04, 2016

High school, college graduation rates on the rise in rural America

More rural Americans are finishing high school and graduating from college, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2015 Rural America at a Glance report. From 2000 to 2014, the number of rural adults with a four-year college degree increased by 4 percent, while the number of rural residents without a high school diploma or GED decreased by 9 percent, Jackie Mader reports for Education Week.

The report found that "educational attainment levels are lower for rural minorities, including black, Hispanic and Native American residents," Mader writes. "In 2014, only 13 percent of white rural residents had less than a high school diploma, compared to 40 percent of rural Hispanic residents and 25 percent of rural black residents. These attainment levels directly correspond to unemployment rates, according to the report. Rural residents with more education are more likely to be employed, due to a demand for more highly-skilled labor in rural areas."

Researchers also found that rural child poverty rates are higher in areas that have lower educational attainment rates, Mader writes. "Overall, rural child poverty rose during the recession and has increased in post-recession years. In 2014, 25.2 percent of rural children lived in poverty compared to about 22 percent in 2007." (USDA graphic)

Rural towns seeking ways to turn shuttered prisons into economic opportunities

Many rural towns that have come to rely on a prison to support the local economy are struggling to stay relevant as more rural prisons are shuttered. New York—where 15 facilities have closed since 2011—is trying to turn closed prisons into new ventures that, if successful, could serve as a model to help other rural communities struggling with losing their biggest cash cow, Henry Gass reports for The Christian Science Monitor. (Gass photo: The former prison in Warwick, N.Y., is now a sports complex.)

"Thirty years ago, attracting a prison seemed like one of the soundest financial decisions that a rural community, in particular, could make," Gass writes. "Thanks to tough-on-crime policies, a prison-building boom was under way. Rural areas could offer large but secluded property in exchange for the kind of large, stable employer that such communities often struggle to attract. The number of state prison facilities rose from 600 in the mid-1970s to more than 1,000 by 2000, according to a 2004 report from the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington. By the 1990s, 25 prisons were being built in rural areas every year, up from four a year during the '70s. As prisons rose up in small communities, they soon became the only game in town, akin to single-industry 'company towns.'

"But then, for a variety of reasons, including concerns about mass incarceration, the tough-on-crime approach began to lose some steam," Gass writes. "America's prison population has started to plateau. Between 1999 and 2013, the state and federal prison population decreased 2.4 percent, according to The Sentencing Project. Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, told Gass, "Prisons have become a major part of the local economies in these small towns. So if [a] state is going to close some institutions, it should be thinking of some transitional support for the towns."

The closing of New York's facilities has led to annual savings of about $162 million, which has been reinvested in an economic development program, Gass writes. While some areas have been successful—Warwick's prison was turned into a sports complex—"other rural areas have proved a tough sell. At least a third of the 15 shuttered facilities—including the four closed in 2014—have yet to be sold." Most of the success has occurred in urban areas, "where demand for the properties is often much higher." (Read more)

Few states run repeated checks on concealed-carry permit holders; Ky. leads nation in checks

How often does the Federal Bureau of Investigation conduct background checks on gun purchases in your state? The FBI conducts nearly twice as many checks in Kentucky than in any other state, Lauren Duncan reports for The Paducah Sun in Western Kentucky. According to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Checks System (NICS), used by states to conduct checks on those who purchase firearms, Kentucky had 2.9 million NICS checks in 2015 through November, "which far surpassed California's 1.5 million and Texas's 1.3 million during that time period." Kentucky had 2.4 million checks in 2014, almost a million more than the next highest state, California, which had 1.47 million. Kentucky has about 4.4 million residents, compared to 38 million in California.

Kentucky firearm vendors are required "to do an NICS background check each time they sell a firearm, unless the buyer has a Kentucky concealed carry permit," Duncan writes. Local gun dealer Dwayne Wurth "said that high number likely is related to the state running monthly background checks on concealed carry holders." He told Duncan, "The state itself runs background checks on people who have concealed carry. They run those every month to make sure they are still law abiding citizens. That's what they're supposed to do to."

While Kentucky businesses that sell firearms do not have to pay for the NICS background checks, other states do charge fees, such as Tennessee, where Wurth said the cost ranges from $10 to $25, Duncan writes. Checks can usually be done online, with responses often coming back within minutes. Kentucky issued 31,504 Carrying Concealed Deadly Weapon permits in 2014, down from 59,530 in 2013. In 2014, 601 licenses were revoked, 739 were suspended and 560 were denied. The Paducah Sun is behind a paywall but can be accessed by clicking here. (FBI map)

Campaigns mounting in rural South to revive Confederate flag

While 2015 saw some areas in the South campaigning—often successfully—to have Confederate flags taken down from government and university buildings and removed from state flags, heritage supporters have been working to lobby legislators and prepare lawsuits "to restore or maintain Confederate monuments," Cameron McWhirter reports for The Wall Street Journal. (AP photo: Confederate flag removed from South Carolina Capitol on July 10, 2015)

"Confederate heritage groups say that membership and donations are up; and Confederate flags unfurled on trucks or waving in front of homes remain a common sight across much of the rural South," McWhirter writes. "Dewey Barber, owner of Confederate flag retailer Dixie Outfitters, in Odum, Ga., said sales have 'overwhelmed' his company last summer and fall. Many flags are out of stock as suppliers rush to fill orders, he said."

The South is one of the fastest growing regions in the U.S., McWhirter writes. The 11 states that made up the Confederacy—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia—have increased in population from 84.2 million in 2000 to 102 million in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That's an increase of 21 percent, compared with a 13 percent overall U.S. growth rate. "Southern states’ ethnic and racial composition has evolved significantly, with black, Hispanic and Asian minorities growing." (Read more)

Confidence level of crop and livestock producers reaches all time low, according to DTN survey

The confidence level of crop and livestock producers has reached an all-time low, according to the DTN/The Progressive Farmer Agriculture Confidence Index (ACI), which dates back to 2010, states DTN. Producers' overall confidence was at 92.7, down from 99.4 in August and 103.4 one year ago. Concerns over their current situation dropped to 92.2, from 101.5 in August and 113.3 in December 2014. Farmers' expectations about the future was at 93.1, down from 98 in August. "The value of 100 is considered neutral. Values above 100 indicate optimism, whereas values below signify pessimism."

ACI, which surveyed 500 crop and livestock producers from Nov. 2 to Nov. 25, "measures the sentiments of crop and livestock producers on their overall agriculture sector impressions," states DTN. The survey is conducted three times per year, before planting, before harvest and after harvest. "Producers also rate current and long-term input prices and net farm income to gauge their attitudes toward the present situation and future expectations."

Overall, 53 percent of farmers described input prices as bad, up from 48 percent in August, the fifth consecutive survey in which numbers increased, states DTN. "Eighty-three percent of farmers surveyed believe input prices will stay the same or get worse over the next 12 months . . . 44 percent rated farm income as bad, and 42 percent said income was normal . . . For just the second time in the index's history, both crop and livestock producers have a pessimistic confidence score, with crop producers at 91.0 and livestock producers at 96.4."

"Crop producers' attitudes remain pessimistic on their current situation and future expectations," states DTN. "The index rating on their current situation fell from 92.0 in August to an all-time index low of 86.5, and future expectations also dropped into the pessimistic range from 101.8 before harvest to now 94.1."

"With the combination of low prices and the high concentration of corn and soybean acreage in the Midwest, producers in that region are the most pessimistic about their overall confidence (85.3), current situation (79.8) and future expectations (89.0)," states DTN. "The overall index scores were slightly higher in the Southeast (96.8) and Southwest (98.0). Expectations for the future remain solidly pessimistic for producers in the Southeast (87.2) and Southwest (95.3). Unlike Midwest producers, Southeast and Southwest producers still have optimistic ratings for their current situations at 111.1 and 102.1, respectively." (Read more)

Oklahoma had more earthquakes in 2015 than every state combined, excluding Alaska

Oklahoma—where seismic activity has been linked to the oil and gas industry—had more earthquakes in 2015 than the combined total of every state except Alaska, Brad Sowder reports for KOCO 5 in Oklahoma City. In 2015, Oklahoma had 857 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher, compared to 729 in the other 48 states. Last year's total also easily surpassed the state record of 585 earthquakes from 2014. Prior to the oil and gas boom of 2009, Oklahoma averaged two earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher per year.

"State officials in April 2015 acknowledged that the increased shaking was related to oil and gas operations, ending years of waffling extended at times by interference from the politically powerful oil and gas industry," Mike Soraghan reports for Environment & Energy News. Last summer, Oklahoma Corporation Commission officials "started asking operators of wells in earthquake-prone areas to reduce injection volumes or cease operations. The agency's 'directives' are voluntary but backed by the threat of formal, mandatory action." (KOCO graphic)

Rural newspaper seeks 'reporter who reads'; owner says young reporters often not well-informed

A rural weekly in Idaho is trying a novel approach to hire a journalist who is well-informed about today's news. A job advertisement for the St. Maries Gazette Record stresses that the applicant must be a reader, Chris D'Angelo reports for The Huffington Post. Owner Dan Hammes said he "wants a journalist who is informed and curious—someone who is excited to learn about the world." Hammes told D'Angelo, "I'm old, and I'm grouchy. So many kids you hire these days don't read anything. Not to mention you can't write very well if you don't read." (Wikipedia map: St. Maries, Idaho)

D'Angelo writes, "While some might find Hammes' words harsh or pessimistic, he is anything but. There are talented, hungry reporters out there, he said, and the ad is his way of getting their attention so that he can offer one of them a good job." Hammes told D'Angelo, "I'm not going to hire the wrong person."

The ad states: "We have an opening for a reporter who reads. So . . . let's get the info about the community out of the way. Ours is a successful community newspaper in St. Maries, Idaho. This is a rural area. Think small town, rivers, lakes, mountains. Great outdoors recreation but no shopping centers, no crowds, no stoplights. If this appeals to you, you'll love it here. If you like shopping malls and Starbucks then you might want to move on to the next ad . . . It goes without saying the person we hire will be able to write, spell and edit. What also needs to be said is we prefer to hire reporters who read because we strongly believe that knowledgeable, informed people make superior reporters. We can excuse you if you have not read a book or two in a while, but the person we hire will be a newspaper reader. We are convinced that in order to be a respectable reporter, you must be informed."

Maine's once thriving paper mill industry struggling to stay afloat

Maine's once thriving paper mill industry "continued its downturn in 2015 in the face of closures, digitization, foreign competition and consolidation," Patrick Whittle reports for The Associated Press. "Remaining players in the industry, which has declined from 426 mills nationally in 2005 to 326 today, say adaptation to changing consumer trends is needed for survival."

Maine has less than half as many mills that it had in 1980, and the number of employees has dropped from 13,000 in the early 2000s to about 6,150 today, Whittle writes. "The paper industry is used to economic downturn, but 2015 was especially cruel to Maine papermaking, which was once a vital point of entry to middle-class life in the largely rural state. The bankrupt Lincoln Paper and Tissue mill was purchased after a November auction. Wisconsin-based Expera Specialty Solutions has also announced plans to shutter its Old Town facility. The closures affect Vermont, too, because many of the state's loggers had been selling their products in Maine."

While government regulations "and competition from places like China, Brazil, Germany and Finland, along with competition from iPhones and Androids," are blamed for the downturn, insiders say there "is still room in the marketplace for U.S.-made paper products like to-go coffee cups and the holiday packages used by online shippers," Whittle writes.

And despite the downturn, "American paper is still a huge business—the paper association said the industry's economic output was more than $217 billion in 2014, and it generates more than $50 billion in payroll annually," Whittle writes. "Maine ranked eighth in the nation in 2014 for paper and paperboard capacity." (Read more)