Friday, February 03, 2017

Bipartisan group of senators from 20 states urge FCC chair to make rural broadband a priority

A bipartisan group of 30 senators from 20 states sent a letter on Thursday to new Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai "asking him to prioritize mobile broadband deployment in rural and under-served areas," Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said in a press release. "Specifically, the senators are calling on the agency to move forward with Phase II of the Universal Service Fund’s Mobility Fund, which is aimed at providing broadband service to these areas."

Wicker, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, said in a statement: “We need to continue moving the needle on broadband deployment in hard-to-reach areas, such as rural Mississippi. Providing this access promotes business innovation and job creation. This is especially important for small businesses, which support tens of thousands of Mississippi families.”

Senators signing the letter are from Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Pai, in a post Thursday on Medium, wrote of the Mobility Fund: "Right now, the federal government spends about $25 million of taxpayer money each month to subsidize wireless carriers in areas where private capital has been spent building out networks. This is perhaps a textbook definition of waste: public funds being spent to do what the private sector has already done. Three weeks from now, we will vote on redirecting that spending to something far more useful: bringing 4G LTE service to rural Americans who don’t have it today. I am proposing to couple our detailed coverage data with a robust challenge process to identify the areas most in need of service. And I propose using a competitive 'reverse auction' to allocate this support to preserve and extend 4G LTE coverage throughout our nation."

He wrote: "The commission will also vote to finalize the rules for allocating nearly $2 billion from the Connect America Fund, which aims to advance broadband service across the country. Here again, we will direct financial support to deploy fixed broadband in unserved rural areas using a competitive reverse auction. My aim is to get the best deal for the American people with the universal service dollars we have available."

Congress blocks Stream Protection Rule for surface mines; Trump expected to sign bill

During President Obama's final week in office, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which spent nearly the entire eight years of his presidency working on the Stream Protection Rule, on Dec. 19 issued a final version with new limits on coal mining near waterways.

On Thursday, the Republican-controlled Senate voted 54-45 to kill the rule, Devin Henry reports for The Hill. The House on Wednesday passed its bill 229-194. Republicans say President Trump supports the legislation, meaning the rule will come off the books as soon as he signs it into law.

"The coal industry and its congressional allies have looked for ways to kill the rule since Obama regulators began crafting it early in his term," Henry writes. "They argued the regulation would be such a financial hindrance for the coal industry that it would kill jobs in economically distressed areas of Appalachia already struggling due to the sector’s market-driven downturn."

When the rule was announced in December the U.S. Department of the Interior "said that it would protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests, preventing coal mining debris from being dumped into nearby waters," Kevin Freking and Matthew Daly report for The Associated Press. The Senate and House votes are "the first in a series of actions Republicans are expected to take in coming weeks to reverse years of what they call excessive regulation during Obama’s tenure."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who hails from the nation's No. 4 coal-producing state, called the stream rule "an attack against coal miners and their families," and that it threatened coal jobs and would cause major damage to coal-reliant communities. He told reporters, "The legislation we passed today will help stop this disastrous rule and bring relief to coal miners and their families."

N.C. farm experimenting with ways to raise antibiotic-free hogs and decrease farm runoff

Straw is used to soak up urine and feces
(North Carolina Health News photo by Gave Rivin)
Researchers at an experimental farm in Goldsboro, N.C., hope to "show how hogs can be raised without antibiotics in a way that grants them enough space to roam—and that keeps their waste out of open-air lagoons," Gabe Rivin reports for North Carolina Health News. The 142-animal operation is part-research facility, part-demonstration for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, and a research center run by North Carolina State University, North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University and the state's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

North Carolina, second only to Iowa in pork production, has 8.8 million pigs, mostly in the eastern part of the state, Rivin writes. "To raise such a large number of pigs, many farms rely on concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. These facilities raise animals efficiently and economically. Yet with such large numbers of animals, they can also produce an abundant amount of feces and urine. Many large-scale farms store this waste in open-air lagoons or in pits and then spray the treated waste on nearby fields. But this practice has raised researchers’ and residents’ concerns."

One way researchers have cut down on waste is through straw beds, Rivin writes. "The straw is used to soak up the pigs’ urine and feces. It’s how the farmers manage the animals’ waste, and it serves as an alternative to a lagoon system. Eventually, it can also be used as a fertilizer for crops." One drawback to the farm is that raising antibiotic, cage-free animals requires paying closer attention to the animals, which means increased time and labor for workers.

Webinar Feb. 22 on youth safety to focus on grain bins; Grain Bin Safety Week Feb. 19-25

The National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety will hold a webinar on Feb. 22 at 4 p.m. ET on grain-bin safety. Entrapment in grain bins can cause death or injury, and small farms account for a third of grain-bin deaths and two-thirds of entrapments.

The webinar, which incorporates a Grain Handling Safety Coalition video with survivors of a fatal grain accident, coincides with Nationwide Insurance’s Grain Bin Safety Week, from Feb 19-25.

“We will explain how the video, along with a discussion sheet, can be used as a training tool, both for high school agricultural teachers and for community training,” said webinar host Marsha Salzwedel, a youth agricultural safety specialist with the National Children’s Center. “These video materials complement the coalition’s Stand TALL curriculum, which can be used to expand on the concepts and safety strategies introduced in the video.”

The webinar is free but registration is required. To register click here.

Don't let the Super Bowl turn sour; avoid foodborne illnesses through safe food handling practices

The Super Bowl, which is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, is one of the most watched events in the U.S., with an estimated 100 million television viewers. The Super Bowl also is a prime time for foodborne illnesses, with viewers expected to eat approximately 1.3 billion chicken wings, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each year 48 million Americans get sick from foodborne illnesses, largely because of unsafe food handling practices.

USDA offers some tips for your Super Bowl party, including keeping foods out of the "danger zone," which is the temperature range between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees. In the danger zone "bacteria can multiply rapidly, causing a single bacterium to multiply to 17 million in 12 hours. Avoid serving Super Bowl favorites, such as pizza and chicken wings, at room temperature for the entire game."

When serving food or ordering takeout food, USDA suggests:
  • If warm takeout foods are to be served immediately, keep them at 140 degrees or above by placing in chafing dishes, preheated warming trays or slow cookers. 
  • If take-out foods will not be served immediately, either keep them warm in a preheated oven, or divide the food into smaller portions or pieces, place in shallow containers, and refrigerate. At serving time, reheat to 165 degrees. 
  • Cold foods that are served should be kept at 40 degrees or below, which can be done by nesting serving dishes in bowls of ice. Avoid storing food outside, where the sun can quickly warm foods in plastic storage containers and animals can get into. 
  • Start a game-day tradition by using a food thermometer to ensure foods being served to guests are not in the "Danger Zone." 
To ensure home-prepared chicken wings are safe, follow these tips:
  • Do not wash raw chicken wings. Sixty-seven percent of respondents in a 2016 FDA food safety survey indicated they washed raw chicken parts; however, washing will not destroy pathogens and may increase the risk of contaminating other foods and surfaces. 
  • Ensure chicken wings are safe to eat by verifying they have reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Take the temperature of multiple wings in the thickest part of the wing, being careful to avoid the bone.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Trump's travel ban could lead to increased doctor shortages in rural areas, says study and AMA

President Trump's temporary travel ban and promised "extreme vetting" of immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, and perhaps other majority-Muslim nations, could hurt medical education in the U.S., leading to increased doctor shortages in rural areas and inner cities, says a study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Data from 2015 by the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG) shows that 24 percent of all practicing physicians in the U.S. are from other countries. The 2016 Main Residency Match found that 7,460 international medical graduates—21 percent—were not U.S. citizens.

While there are no published numbers available on the country of origin of U.S. doctors, a 2014 report by ECFMG and the National Resident Matching Program found that in 2013, "753 applicants whose country of citizenship at birth was Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, or Syria; 299 of these (40 percent) were matched into a U.S.-based residency program." (Map: Health professional shortage areas)
"If the ordered ban expands to include other countries with a Muslim majority population, the number of potentially affected applicants will increase significantly," researchers said. "In 2013, there were 2,101 applicants from 11 different countries with Muslim majority, of which 40 percent were matched into a U.S.-based residency program."

International medical graduates "who train on a J-1 visa (a non-immigrant visa sponsored through the ECFMG Exchange Visitor Sponsorship Program) are required to return to their home country for two years or obtain a J-1 waiver clinical job in order to stay in the U.S.," the study says. J-1 waivers are usually granted through a program that "can extend a physician's stay in the U.S. if they commit to serving in rural areas and inner-cities. "In 2014–2015 there were 9,206 sponsored J-1 physicians from 130 countries, and 6 of the top 10 countries of origin—accounting for a total of 1,879 J-1 physicians—have Muslim majority populations."

Parija Kavilanz reports for CNN, "The American Medical Association, which represents medical doctors across the country, sent a letter Wednesday to the Department of Homeland Security asking for clarity on the visa ban." The letter said: "While we understand the importance of a reliable system for vetting people from entering the United States, it is vitally important that this process not impact patient access to timely medical treatment or restrict physicians and international medical graduates (IMGs) who have been granted visas to train, practice in the United States."

The AMA said the ban would worsen access to health care in rural areas, noting that foreign medical graduates are more likely to serve in poor, under-served communities, Kavilanz writes.

Matthew Shick, director of government relations and regulatory counsel with the American Association of Medical Colleges, told Kavilanz, "There could very well be a patient in a rural area who had an appointment with their doctor this week and the doctor was not allowed back into the country . . . at a time when the United States is facing a serious shortage of physicians, international medical students are helping to fill an essential need."

Media downplayed disdain for Clinton in heartland to avoid appearing sexist, says NBC's Chuck Todd

Chuck Todd's podcast is named for
the year "Meet The Press" began
Mainstream media downplayed how unpopular Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was in the heartland to avoid appearing sexist, NBC's Chuck Todd told former President George W. Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer on Todd's 1947 podcast, Ken Shepherd reports for The Washington Times.

Todd said: “Where I think political correctness got in the way of what we all knew as reporters and didn’t fully deliver was how hated the Clintons were in the heartland. And I think it was a fear of, ‘Oh, is it going to look like it’s sexist, anti-woman if we say that?’ I think we underplayed it a little bit out of political-correctness fears. No member of the press corps wants to look like they’re singling out a group and making a group feel bad, right, whatever that (group) is."

"If we sort of were straight-up honest and blunt about, 'Hey, do we understand the level of hatred that’s out there?' and you know, all the 'Hillary for Prison' signs that are out there, we certainly would have at least made the viewer know, hey, you know, she’s not well-liked in some places in this country in ways that’s times 10 when it comes to Trump,” he said.

Soccer players who regularly head the ball are 3 times more likely to suffer a concussion, says study

Players who regularly head the ball in soccer, a growing sport in urban and rural areas, are three times more likely than players who rarely head the ball to suffer a concussion, says a study published in the American Academy of Neurology. "Players whose heads were hit in a collision two or more times in a two-week period were six times more likely to have concussion symptoms than players who did not have any unintentional head trauma, such as a ball hitting the back of the head or a head colliding with another player’s knee."

The study of 222 adult amateur soccer players who played at least six months of the year on leagues or clubs in the New York city area, found that "of those with head impacts, 20 percent had moderate to severe symptoms. Seven people had very severe symptoms. Of those, six people had two or more unintentional head impacts during the two weeks; four were in the group that headed the ball the most and three were in the group with the second-most headers."

The risk of concussions and injuries is even greater for youth players. A 2016 study by researchers from the Center for Injury Research and Policy of The Research, found that youth soccer emergency room cases rose 78 percent from 1990 to 2014 and concussions went up almost 1,600 percent. Reports have found that youth are more at risk of head injuries. In 2015 a rural Kentucky paper ran a series looking at concussions on high school athletes. University of Kentucky researchers in 2014 looked at the impact of concussions on youth.

Twice-weekly paper in Texas runs in-depth series on events surrounding local murder case

George Malone (above)
and Deborah Malone Wilson (left)
on the day of the attack in 2009
The Hood County Times, a twice-weekly in Granbury, Texas, has been running an in-depth series on a local murder case, in which an adult brother and sister were sentenced to 99 years in prison for killing their father, who had been accused of being a lifelong sexual and physical abuser, raising the possibility that the children may have been acting in self-defense.

But a case that appeared bungled, and state laws preventing certain types of testimony, have left many wondering who was the true victim.

During Deborah Malone Wilson's 2010 murder trial of her 82-year-old father George Malone, any time a witness veered toward talking about abuse "the state objected and that was the end of that," Kathy Cruz writes. "At that time—September 2010—Section 38.371 had not been added to the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. The statute is intended to give juries context that might help explain a single event, since single events often don’t tell the full story in family violence cases."

Every effort was made to avoid victim-blaming of George, who "was portrayed as 'a poor old man' who had been viciously attacked by two of his ungrateful adult children," said Paul Hyde, a juror on Deborah's trial, and also of her brother David, in a separate case, Cruz writes. Hyde said he "believes that, had more testimony been allowed about Malone, the jury might have reached a different verdict."

Kelsey McKay, a former prosecutor in Travis County, home to Austin, said Section 38.371, "which can be used by both the state and the defense, might have helped Wilson had it been in effect at the time she was taken to trial," Cruz writes. "For instance, the judge might have allowed the defense to put on the stand a woman who had filed a harassment claim against Malone two years before the incident." Wilson claims that the woman, who was allowing George to pick up her daughter from school, took the action after she warned her that Malone was a pedophile. "Wilson said that her father’s behavior toward her escalated after that, and that she feels the protective order he sought against her shortly before his death was retaliation."

Granbury, Texas (Best Places map)
Other stories in the series:

A specialist says there were obvious signs of self-defense by the convicted murderers, yet no experts were called to the stand. No experts in the fields of domestic and sexual violence were called to the stand. A look at how the county fails to help victims of abuse. A look at events the day of the attack. What neighbors thought of George Malone. An interview with the district attorney, who believes the children were willing participants in the murder. Also, Deborah Malone Wilson's pleas to have her lawyer replaced went unheeded and Danny Malone, brother of the convicted murderers, said he was abused by his father and "it could have been me that killed him."

Minnesota, North Dakota lawmakers aim to end 'blue laws' that limit business activity on Sundays

Pioneer Press photo by Scott Takushi
The North Dakota House voted this week to allow all businesses to open before noon on Sunday, and business interests think the Senate will agree. Meanwhile, legislators in adjoining Minnesota are pushing to allow Sunday liquor sales.

"North Dakota became the last state to allow Sunday shopping in 1991, and last session lawmakers permitted restaurants to start selling alcohol at 11 a.m. instead of noon," John Hagerman reports for the Grand Forks Herald. The current Sunday closing law "makes it a Class B misdemeanor to operate a business that’s open to the public before noon Sunday, although exceptions exist for restaurants, hotels, hospitals and other businesses."

The House voted 48-46 Tuesday to repeal the law, one day after rejecting a repeal, Hagerman writes. Opponents of the decision cite religious beliefs and the need for time off with families. Business owners argue that they should be able to set their own hours. "Andy Peterson, president and CEO of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, said he was 'cautiously optimistic' the Senate would support the repeal. In committee testimony last week, he called it a matter of 'economic freedom.'”

Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt has promised that the House this year will pass a law ending the ban on Sunday liquor sales, Rachel Stassen-Berger reports for the Pioneer Press in St. Paul. "The Republican-controlled House started to make good on that promise Tuesday," with a committee voting 15-4 to repeal the ban.

"Blue laws" banning Sunday liquor sales still exist in 12 states—Alabama, Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia, according to Indiana is the only state that bans beer, wine and liquor on Sundays.

Polls show most residents support ending the Minnesota ban, Stassen-Berger writes. Backers say allowing sales "would reflect the busy shopping day that Sunday has become." Opponents say "lifting the ban could harm municipal liquor stores, which provide funds to local communities, and small businesses, which would feel competitive pressure to operate seven days a week, like the bigger stores do or face closure."

Dix Communications sells 5 dailies and 18 weeklies in Ohio to growing GateHouse Media

Dix Communications, which owned five daily newspapers and 18 weeklies in northeast and east-central Ohio, has sold all its newspapers and related websites to the burgeoning chain GateHouse Media, Gatehouse announced today. "In addition to the print publications, the acquisition includes a number of niche publications, websites and a commercial printing operation. Jim Hopson, who recently served as the interim publisher in Columbus, Ohio, has been appointed interim group publisher of GateHouse North-Central Ohio and will oversee the new division."

Dix Communications, founded in 1893, has been owned by five generations of Dix family members, reports Editor & Publisher. "Dix operations include a printing facility in Wooster and more than 30 daily and weekly newspapers, online-only publications and specialty publications. The largest newspapers are the Record-Courier in Kent, The Daily Record in Wooster, The Ashland Times-Gazette, The Alliance Review and The Daily Jeffersonian in Cambridge." Last year the family sold its only Kentucky paper, The State Journal in Frankfort, to Boone Newspapers.

G. Charles Dix II, who served as president and CEO of Dix Communications, told reporters, “We feel GateHouse has the regional and national scale necessary to advance the publishing industry and care for our communities with local news and advertising."

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Coal production down sharply in 2016; Wyoming still No. 1; Kentucky drops from 3rd to 4th

The national decline in coal production and employment continues, but with differing effects among the states. Wyoming was still the biggest coal producer in 2016, and West Virginia remained No. 2, but Illinois supplanted Kentucky at No. 3.

Like other leading states, Wyoming faced incredible lows in 2016. Coal production in the Powder River Basin in 2016 reached its lowest levels in 20 years, reports The Associated Press. Production from the basin, which lies mainly in Wyoming, was 283 million tons, almost all the state's production of 293 million tons, Heather Richards reports for the Casper Star Tribune.
Encyclopaedia Britannica map of coal regions, with principal state names added
This marked the first time since 1998 the region failed to surpass 300 million tons, AP reports. Last year's total was down 78.1 million tons from 2015, the largest single-year drop ever.

"Since 2013, competition with natural gas, the retirement of coal-fired power plants and environmental regulations have led to slowing production of coal, leading to 30-year price lows and the mass Wyoming layoffs of last spring," Richards reports. "Production generally averages around 100 million tons per quarter in Wyoming, but that figure dipped to 86 million tons in the second quarter of 2015 before the bankruptcy run.. . . Forecasts for the future of the coal industry have been varied, but most show an eventual decline as natural gas competition and utility demand changes the landscape for U.S. electricity generation."

Despite the reduced levels, Wyoming remained the biggest coal producer, followed by West Virginia, then Illinois. Kentucky, which had been No. 3 since 1994, was fourth.

"Kentucky led the national coal production from 1971-1978," Bill Estep writes for the Lexington Herald Leader. But according to a report published Tuesday by the state Energy and Environment Cabinet, "Kentucky’s mines turned out 42.5 million tons of coal in 2016, a drop of 30.7 percent from 2015," Estep writes.

"Jobs were equally anemic" in the Kentucky coalfields, Estep writes. As of Dec. 31, Kentucky's estimated employment in the coal industry, "was 6,371, down 24.2 percent compared to the last quarter of 2015." The losses were mainly in the eastern coalfield, which is part of the Appalachian Basin; the western coalfield is in the Illinois Basin. For the latest coal-production data from the Energy Information Administration, click here.

Forest-based rural subsidy expires; timber states' Forest Service payments to be cut up to 91%

Secure Rural Schools, a U.S. Forest Service program "that pumped millions of dollars into rural communities has expired," meaning "sharply reduced revenue sharing timber-harvest payments for more than 700 counties and 4,000 school districts," Bartholomew Sullivan reports for the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore. In Oregon, payments would be cut by 91.9 percent from $86.4 million in 2015 to $7 million. (Daily Yonder graphic: Secure Rural Schools funding in 2013. For an interactive version click here)
Secure Rural Schools, enacted in 2000, "was aimed at shoring up the financial wherewithal of communities and school districts in 41 states where timber harvests were in decline," Sullivan writes. "Historically, those communities had relied on an early 20th century law guaranteeing 25 percent of timber revenues dedicated to local governments. But as federal environmental policies dramatically reduced logging in the 1990s, those local budgets were strained."

Funds "went to rural schools, roads and emergency response programs in 720 forested counties and also permitted improvements within Forest Service lands," Sullivan writes. "Counties could be reimbursed for search and rescue costs on federal lands and funds could be used to establish wildfire plans. The law had provided gradually reduced payments since 2012 and was authorized a final time at $285 million in April 2015 and expired six months later. Payments to counties at the previous 25 percent level will start to be sent out in February, said Babete R. Anderson, the national press officer for the Forest Service." (Secure Rural Schools funding in Lane County, Oregon: KVAL graphic)
Anderson said in a prepared statement: “Without congressional re-authorization of the Secure Rural Schools Act, the Forest Service must revert to making payments to states under the 1908 act, commonly called ‘the 25 percent payments,’ for the 2017 payment year. We are working through the steps required to process the 25 percent fund payments expeditiously and anticipate making those payments by the middle of February.”

Native American youth finding hope in fight against Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines

Proposed Keystone XL Pipeline (Canadian Press graphic)
Native American youth have found a calling in the fight against the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, Saul Elbein reports for The New York Times. Like many Native American reservations, among the 1,300 Lakota people of the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, there are high rates of youth suicide, drug and alcohol abuse and violence.

Lakota youth formed a group called One Mind Youth Movement – which was originally created to suppress the suicide wave – and joined the fight against the proposed pipelines, which have the support of President Trump, Elbein writes. They campaigned against the Keystone XL pipeline, "whose route would cut under the Cheyenne River just upstream from the reservation that bears its name. After the Obama State Department denied the Keystone XL permission to cross the U.S.-Canadian border in November 2015, they moved their focus to the neighboring Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, to join the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline," which would "move half a million barrels of oil a day beneath the Missouri River, the main source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux, which is one of the cousin bands to Cheyenne River."

"The youth came to believe that the Dakota pipeline was not only a threat to their drinking water but also a harbinger of the larger environmental crisis their generation was set to inherit," Elbein writes. The youth group leaders say, "as important as the idea of the safe space was the idea that activism would teach children the skills to survive more immediate threats, like bullying and drug abuse. They hoped to pass on skills at the camp that they themselves had been taught by Keystone activists in their community."

Dakota Access Pipeline
(InsideClimate News graphic)
One Mind also organized a 500-mile relay run "from the Sacred Stone Camp to President Omaha to deliver a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, asking it to deny the Dakota Access Pipeline permission to cross the Missouri River," Elbein writes. Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) "began a social-media campaign announcing the run and organized a blitz of calls and letters from tribal members on various reservations."

IEN also paid for One Mind members to be trained as organizers, exposing the teenagers and young adults "to ideas and training that linked the pipeline fight to larger struggles in their society," Elbein writes. "Every direct-action training against the Keystone XL, for example, referenced the prophecy of the black snake, a figure out of Lakota myth that in recent times has been identified with pipelines. But it has a more general meaning." IEN organizer Dallas Goldtooth told Elbein, "It symbolizes a darkness, a sickness, whose only intention is to sow dysfunction and loss of life in our communities," Elbein writes, "The message was clear: The struggle against the pipeline was part of the same struggle against alcoholism, suicide and abuse."

Seasonal firefighters exempt from federal civilian hiring freeze, says Trump administration statement

Missoulian photo by Perry Backus
Seasonal firefighters are among the exemptions to President Trump's 90-day hiring freeze of civilian federal workers, Zach Urness reports for the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore. The Office of Management and Budget released a statement Tuesday that said exemptions include "seasonal employees and short-term temporary employees necessary to meet traditionally recurring seasonal workloads." A second exemption "said the head of any agency can exempt any position deemed necessary to 'meet public safety responsibilities, including essential activities to the extent that they protect life and property.'"

Melissa Baumann, council president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said the Forest Service "hired 11,000 seasonal workers in 2015, many of them to fight the Western wildfires that break out between June and September," Rob Chaney reports for The Missoulian. "At least 6,200 of those were firefighters or had firefighting-related duties. But many were for positions such as logging sale analysts, trail maintenance workers and forest rangers."

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Election results lead colleges to put more focus on reaching 'hard-to-get-to' rural students

John Dunn of Rose Hill, N.C., is the first in his family to
finish high school. He is a freshman at North Carolina
State University. (New York Times photo: Jeremy Lange)
The strong rural showing during the November election has not been lost on colleges and universities, Laura Pappano reports for The New York Times. "Given election results that turned up the volume on the concerns of rural Americans, who voted their discontent over lost jobs and economic disparities, higher-education leaders are now talking about how to reach the hard-to-get-to." Rural public schools educate about 18 percent of the nation's student population.

"While students in rural high schools graduate at rates second only to suburban students (80 percent, compared with 81 percent), and perform at or above other students on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, they enroll in four-year degree programs and pursue advanced degrees at lower rates," Pappano reports. "Just 29 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in rural areas are enrolled in college, compared with 47 percent of their urban peers. Research also shows that they 'under-match,' attending less competitive colleges than their school performance suggests, often favoring community colleges."

Pappano writes, "To college administrators, rural students, many of them the first in their families to attend college, have become the new underrepresented minority. In their aim to shape leaders and provide access to the disadvantaged, higher-education experts have been recognizing that these students bring valuable experiences and viewpoints to campuses that don’t typically attract agriculture majors."

Rural students often face greater challenges than urban students, Pappano reports. That includes limited access to Advanced Placement courses, transportation issues such as long distances from home to school or school to after-school activities, higher poverty rates, a lack of internet access and fewer opportunities for school visits from college recruiters. A Kentucky working group on rural access to higher education tackled some of those challenges by "extending the internet to isolated areas and offering Advanced Placement and college courses in high schools so that students realize they are capable of doing college work," Pappano writes.

Robert L. King, president of the state's Council on Postsecondary Education, told Pappano: “People who have grown up in our state, if they have grown up on a farm or a family connected to the coal mining industry, many of them believe erroneously that college may not be all that important . . . The natural concern that you may not be able to be competitive with kids who have grown up in suburban or larger communities.”

Pappano writes, "The belief that college is for other people, not country folk, is hard to break, said Sahar Mohammadzadeh, a high school junior and a leader of the Student Voice Team of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Kentucky education-advocacy group. Team members recently interviewed high school students around the state, including rural students who, she said, are 'being pushed down career pathways' even when they express academic interests."

Rather than enrolling them in college-prep math classes, Mohammadzadeh said, “They are putting kids who want to be accountants into welding classes. It is really powerful and heartbreaking to go around this state and see all this potential being thrown away.” Pappano has a sidebar with six stories of rural college students.

Maps show where immigrants from temporarily banned nations live; many are in rural areas

Immigrants from the seven countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen—targeted by President Trump's travel ban make up about 2 percent of the foreign-born population in the U.S., reports The New York Times, which did seven maps of where all the immigrants live. Most are naturalized citizens who are not directly affected by the temporary ban, but their relatives might be. (Times map: Where the 83,843 immigrants from Somalia live)
Immigrants from the seven nations who have "green cards" may still face uncertainty. "The status of tens of thousands of those with permanent-resident status is not as clear, as administration officials have said they may be subject to greater scrutiny if they travel abroad," the Times reports. "And visa holders may not be able to return to the U.S. if they go out of the country." (Map: 84,035 Syrian immigrants are located in many rural areas)
Of the more than 856,000 immigrants, visa holders and green-card holders originally from the countries affected by the ban, only three are known to have been involved in terrorist attacks against the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001, reports the Times. Two involved driving a vehicle into a crowd, in North Carolina and Ohio, and the third stabbed 10 people outside a mall in Minnesota. (Map: 199,380 immigrants are from Iraq)

Heartland farmers becoming climate-change realists who avoid saying 'climate change'

Kansas wheat farmer is environmentally conscious,
but strays away from saying "climate change."
(NYT photo by Christopher Smith)
Farmers in the heartland—where climate change naysayer Donald Trump was largely popular—have become climate-change realists who shy away from using the term "climate change," Hiroko Tabuchi reports for The New York Times.

For example, fourth-generation Kansas wheat farmer Doug Palen "has embraced an environmentally conscious way of farming that guards against soil erosion and conserves precious water. He can talk for hours about carbon sequestration—the trapping of global-warming-causing gases in plant life and in the soil—or the science of the beneficial microbes that enrich his land." Palen, who didn't say who he voted for, only that it wasn't Hillary Clinton, told Tabuchi, “If politicians want to exhaust themselves debating the climate, that’s their choice. I have a farm to run.”

Tabuchi writes, "Here in north-central Kansas, America’s breadbasket and conservative heartland, the economic realities of agriculture make climate change a critical business issue. At the same time, politics and social pressure make frank discussion complicated. This is wheat country, and Donald J. Trump country, and though the weather is acting up, the conservative orthodoxy maintains that the science isn’t settled. So while climate change is part of daily conversation, it gets disguised as something else."

"Many people here in particular resent how, in the polarized political landscape of recent years, conservative Americans have been painted as hostile to the environment," Tabuchi writes, "The Trump campaign successfully seized on that schism, painting Democrats as overzealous environmentalists with little sympathy for the economic realities or social mores of rural America."

Trump told, “Many of our federal environmental laws are being used to oppress farmers instead of actually helping the environment. Farmers care more for the environment than the radical environmentalists.”

Miriam Horn, author of a recent book on conservative Americans and the environment, Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, told Tabuchi, “It would be a huge mistake to think people voting for Trump were voting against the environment,” and if Trump aggressively follows an anti-environment agenda, “There will be a big backlash in the heartland.”

Trump names former coal lobbyist to lead division that oversees environmental crimes

Jeffery H. Wood
President Trump last week named former coal lobbyist Jeffery H. Wood acting assistant attorney general in charge of the Department of Justice division that oversees environmental crimes, Lee Fang reports for The Intercept, an online publication launched by First Look Media. Wood, who was a lobbyist for Southern Co.—which generates 33 percent of its power from coal—was named a Trump adviser on energy policy in September, reports Politico. He also was a former aide for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump's nominee for attorney general.

"Trump has yet to nominate anyone to hold the assistant attorney general job on a permanent basis, but for the time being Wood will be overseeing the division that enforces civil and criminal environmental laws to reduce pollutants discharged into the air, water and land, and brings cases to enable the clean-up of contaminated waste sites," Fang writes. "The division has previously prosecuted coal firms and utilities, including a 2015 case against Duke Energy, which pled guilty for spilling coal ash into the Dan River in North Carolina. The division also led a major initiative against companies for illegally operating coal-fire power plants, winning settlements that have forced firms to install pollution controls to reduce emissions."

"Lobbying disclosures show that Wood, formerly a partner with the Alabama law and lobbying firm Balch & Bingham, worked to influence the licensing of nuclear power plants, the Clean Air Act and climate change issues on behalf of Southern Co.," Fang writes. "His de-registration forms were filed on Jan. 17, three days before taking the Justice Department position potentially overseeing his former client."

West Virginia official fears decline in coal will lead to permanent closure of Appalachian rail lines

Associated Press photo
One Appalachian official fears a continued decline in coal could lead to a permanent loss of rail lines to the region, Phil Kabler reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The U.S. Energy Information Administration said coal production in 2016 declined to its lowest level since 1978, 739 million tons, down by 158 million tons from the prior year.

West Virginia Transportation Secretary Tom Smith, newly appointed, "said the concern is that the decline in coal traffic could lead railroads to downgrade or abandon rail lines in Appalachia," Kabler writes. He told Kabler, “I don’t need to tell you all if you lose these lines, they’re gone forever. The good news is there have not been a lot of loss of routes yet.”

Kabler writes, "Last February, Norfolk Southern suspended operations between Columbus, Ohio, and Point Pleasant, W.Va., because of a downturn in rail traffic. While the portion of the line that runs through West Virginia, including through Charleston, remained open, the lack of accessibility to Columbus caused traffic to plummet. In July, short-line operator Watco Cos. took over operations of 309 miles of rail line from Columbus into Wyoming County, West Virginia, operating as the Kanawha River Railroad."

Weeklies like Deer Creek Pilot thrive in Miss. by focusing on community, sticking to their guns

Weekly newspapers are booming in Mississippi, fueled by editors and writers who focus on the community and stick to their guns, Billy Watkins reports for The Clarion-Ledger, the state's largest daily, in Jackson. The state has 82 counties and 89 weeklies. Emma Crisler, editor and publisher of the Port Gibson Reveille in the southwestern part of the state, told Watkins, "We want people to know what’s going on and how it’s going to affect their lives. People will come by the paper and ask, ‘What’s happened this week?’ They’re still excited about what’s coming out in the paper.”

One paper getting it right is The Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork, (Best Places map), Watkins writes. Ray Mosby, editor and publisher, has been at the paper 23 years. The newspaper has a circulation of 1,450 across Sharkey and Issaquena counties, "which have a combined population of approximately 6,400 and rank among the poorest counties in the state."

Mosby told Watkins, “But guess what? ESPN isn’t going to tell my readers the score of the high school girls basketball game. CNN is not going to tell them what happened at the board of supervisors meeting. To me, the smaller the community, the more vital the community newspaper is.”

Mosby also doesn't shy away from expressing his opinion in columns, telling Watkins, “I never want anyone to finish one of my (editorial) columns and not know where I stand on an issue." He said after one such column a man whose arms "were bigger than my waist" came into the office looking for him. The man told him, “There are a lot of folks out there who think you ain’t nothing but a son of a b----. But can’t a single one of them call you a liar.”

Mosby told Watkins, “I’d never seen him before, and I’ve never seen him since. That was about 1995, a couple of years after me and the bank bought the paper. I had come in here from the Clarksdale Press Register and applied the principles of a daily newspaper to the weekly. Every week I had a ‘real’ front page that consisted of news and a ‘real’ editorial page that offered opinion. Folks around here weren’t used to that and I was wondering if the paper was going to make it. For some reason, that man’s words assured me it would."

Monday, January 30, 2017

Nearly one-fourth of all veterans live in rural areas

While the 2010 census found that only 16 percent of Americans live in rural areas, 24 percent of all veterans do, says a report by the U.S. Census Bureau, using data from 2011-15. An even greater percentage of military members come from rural areas.

Of the veterans who live in rural areas, 45.9 percent live in the South, 26.4 percent in the Midwest, 14.1 percent in the West and 13.7 percent in the Northeast. Slicing the data another way, veterans are most likely to be rural if they live in the Midwest and least likely in the West. (Census graphic: Percentage of veterans by region)
More than 60 percent of veterans in Maine and Vermont, the two most rural states by population, live in rural areas. Following those states with the highest percentage of rural veterans are West Virginia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Montana, South Dakota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Alabama, Kentucky, Iowa, Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Carolina.

Though the disability rate increases with age, compared with urban veterans, rural veterans have higher disability rates across all age ranges. Rural veterans are also slightly older. Their average age was 65 years, compared with 63 years for urban veterans. Among military eras, Vietnam Era veterans were the most rural (27.8 percent), followed by peacetime (25.2), Korean War (23.9), the first Gulf War (21.9), World War II (18.7) and the second Gulf War (17.7).

Many veterans have health problems. While the uninsured rates are comparable for rural and urban veterans 65 and older, the younger the veteran, the less likely he or she is to have health insurance. President Trump's repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act could leave more veterans without health insurance, which means the Department of Veteran Affairs may have to pick up the slack, says a report from NPR.

Among veterans 45 to 64, 8.6 percent of rural vets are uninsured, compared to 7.4 percent for urban veterans, for ages 26 to 44, 13 percent of rural veterans are uninsured, compared to 11 percent of urban veterans, and for ages 18 to 25, 21.6 percent of rural veterans are uninsured, compared to 15.5 percent of urban veterans.

Repealing Obamacare would have biggest impact on rural areas, medical-school professors write

Repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would have the biggest impact on rural areas, which typically have higher rates of chronic illness, obesity, drug overdose, alcoholism, mental illness and suicide, opine Margaret Greenwood-Erickson and Mahshid Abir for Bridge, published by The Center for Michigan. Greenwood-Erickson is national clinician scholar and clinical lecturer, and Abir is a professor, at the University of Michigan medical school.

"Taken as a whole, Medicaid expansion through the ACA has resulted in critical gains toward improving rural population health by expanding insurance coverage and stabilizing rural hospitals," Greenwood-Erickson and Abir write. "The repeal of Medicaid expansion and collapse of the individual insurance market, which could occur as part of repeal of the ACA, could threaten strides the country has made in advancing the health of rural America." (Kaiser Family Foundation map: Medicaid expansion states)
"One option forward would be to encourage states to apply for special waivers, or 1115 waivers, which allow states a more flexible implementation of Medicaid expansion," Greenwood-Erickson and Abir write. "For some states, this allows them to expand coverage under Medicaid in a way that is more attuned to each state’s unique demographics and values. For example, alterations range from healthy behavior incentives that reduce premiums in Iowa to permitting higher cost-sharing than is otherwise allowed under federal rules for non-emergency use of emergency rooms in Indiana."

"We do not yet know how the debate over ACA repeal and replace will play out," Greenwood-Erickson and Abir write. "Yet, we do know that some of the proposed alternatives could result in real harm to rural states, the most obvious being a repeal of Medicaid expansion. Further, block grants have been discussed as a method to control Medicaid costs. These are grant programs from the federal government that give states annual fixed amounts to spend on a specific program, but they can result in neglect of rural populations. As block grants limit the amount of money states have to spend on vulnerable populations, they may overlook national objectives, such as caring for rural and poor communities."

Prosecutor shuts down access to records related to fire in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Wildfire along US 441 near Gatlinburg on Nov. 28
(Knoxville News-Sentinel photo by Jessica Tezak)
Tennessee officials are refusing to honor open-records requests about last year's devastating fire at Gatlinburg, claiming it could harm the case against two juveniles charged with arson, Don Jacobs reports for the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Fourth Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn sent a letter to media outlets Dec. 15 asking them to use that reason "to explain why nothing more would be forthcoming as he investigated the aggravated arson charges filed Dec. 7 against the boys, ages 15 and 17," Jacobs writes.

"Consequently, otherwise public records in any way connected to the investigation of the fires that started in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and five days later swept into Gatlinburg were deemed off limits. When public agencies refused to release information or records, each would cite Dunn's request, which is not a court order," Jacobs reports.

"Dunn apparently has the authority to issue the blanket gag order because of a state Supreme Court decision issued in 2015 in the Vanderbilt University rape case, according to Richard L. Hollow, general counsel for the Tennessee Press Association," Jacobs writes. "Any challenge to a denial of information, Hollow said, would have to go before a judge. Dunn is under no obligation to explain why he doesn't want some records, such as after-action reports on a fire department's performance, kept from public disclosure. Such an explanation, Hollow said, could provide insight into Dunn's strategy for prosecuting the cases."

The fire burned 17,000 acres, killed 14 people, injured nearly 150 others and destroyed 2,174 structures and affected almost 300 more.

EMS bicycle units on the rise, even in rural areas

Paramedic Ryan Winchell is part of a bike unit
in rural Cody, Wyo. (Associated Press photo)
Emergency medical bicycle units are beginning to crop up in the U.S., Jenni Bergal reports for Stateline. The units, which can "deliver quick emergency care by darting in and out of heavy traffic, maneuvering through large crowds or cutting across park land more nimbly than a crew in an ambulance," are largely in metropolitan areas, but have been increasingly forming in rural places, such as Cody, Wyo., 50 miles from Yellowstone National Park.

Ryan Winchell, a paramedic at West Park Hospital’s EMS department in Cody, said it costs less than $3,000 to set up the department with three bikes, uniforms and saddlebags, compared to as much as $280,000 for buying and equipping an ambulance, Bergal writes. The 16-member bike unit "frequently is called into action at parades and Fourth of July festivities as well as 5K and 10K trail runs."

Winchell "said he and his colleagues have a different mindset cycling to the scene than they do when they’re riding in an ambulance," Bergal writes. He told her, “You don’t have your same comfort zone of having a few minutes to think about where you’re going and what you’re going to do. It’s definitely a different kind of game.”

Water utility can't sue Iowa counties for nitrate runoff; suit to invoke federal law remains alive

Raccoon River watershed, part of Des Moines R. watershed
The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that the Des Moines Water Works can't sue the rural northwest counties of Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista to pay for cleanup costs for nitrate runoff that is blamed for contaminating the Raccoon River, which provides drinking water for 500,000 central Iowa residents served by the utility, Christina Grijalva reports for KCAU-TV in Sioux City, where a related federal case is set for trial June 28. The rural-urban battle has been going on for about two years.

Des Moines Water had "hoped to reverse nearly a century of legal precedent that's given the districts immunity from being sued for damages," Grant Rodgers and Donnelle Eller report for The Des Moines Register. "The utility argues the protection relieves the drainage districts of responsibility to limit farm runoff into streams and rivers. It also wants to force drainage districts to seek permits under the federal Clean Water Act. It's a move that would increase regulation for about 3,000 districts statewide, and indirectly farmers across the state and, possibly, the nation." That demand is in the federal lawsuit.

The state court's decision "was a relief to northern Iowa counties, potentially on the hook for the capital’s water-quality problems, and to Iowa farmers and ag groups, who are encouraged that the utility’s remaining claims could be dismissed," reports the Register. "Paying damages would have been 'an enormous burden that I don’t know we could have financially survived,' said Colin McCullough, a drainage district attorney for Sac County."

Experts and environmentalists say the suit could have national implications over who is responsible for water pollution that originates from cropland that is often hundreds of miles away.

Rural Georgia gets state legislators' attention

Rural residents, who made their voices heard loud and clear during the November elections, have gotten the attention of state lawmakers in Georgia, Maggie Lee reports for The Telegraph in Macon: "There’s a phrase that more and more people are using at the state Capitol, and not everybody says it with a country twang. Rural Georgia. Lawmakers are talking about the problems that plague some of Georgia’s smaller communities. Main Street businesses that have closed. Financially struggling hospitals. Poor internet connections. Schools that don’t offer all the classes that will help students get into the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech. Young people moving to cities and never coming back."

Republican House Speaker David Ralston "is calling it the rural-development initiative," Lee writes. His spokesman, Kaleb McMichen, said it "could take the form of a study group or a working group or a commission. But the speaker wants to put a focus on creating the right environment in rural Georgia for private industry to create jobs."

When the Legislature is in session, dozens of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle attend weekly Rural Caucus meetings, Lee reports. "Some of the folks are more root than trunk when it comes to rural Georgia—they grew up in a rural place but moved to the city, or they watched their home district become a suburb. They hear a different presentation every week about agriculture, rural hospitals or some other topic."

Republican state Rep. Sam Watson, the group's chairman, told Lee, “We’ve got a lot of conversation about rural Georgia and the problems that are in rural Georgia. We’ve just got to get everybody dialed in, I think, and focused. Because I think the momentum’s there, the concern is there. And a lot of (the issues) are linked together. You get the broadband, you get the health care and you’ll get the economic development.”

"The Georgia Chamber of Commerce recently announced its own rural development plans and said it would open an office in Tifton," Lee writes.

Wednesday is deadline to enter editorial writing contest for weekly papers; convention trip offered

The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors is accepting entries for the 57th annual Golden Quill editorial writing contest. Entries must be postmarked by Wednesday, Feb. 1.

Newspapers published fewer than five days per week are eligible for the contest. Entries must have been published in 2016. Each newspaper is allowed up to four entries; two is the maximum per person. The entry fee is $25 per person; checks should be made payable to ISWNE.

To enter, complete the PDF form at (under Contests) and send a tearsheet with the Golden Quill entry clearly marked. Send two copies of each entry to Chad Stebbins, Missouri Southern State University, 3950 E. Newman Road, Joplin MO 64801-1595.

Entries should reflect the purpose of ISWNE: Encouraging the writing of editorials or staff-written opinion pieces that identify local issues that are or should be of concern to the community, offer an opinion, and support a course of action.

The Golden Quill winner will receive a scholarship and travel expenses up to $500 to attend ISWNE's annual conference June 28-July 2 at College Park, Md. Runners-up (called the Golden Dozen) will receive conference scholarships if they have not previously attended an ISWNE conference. Grassroots Editor, ISWNE's quarterly journal, will reprint the Golden Quill and Golden Dozen editorials in the Summer 2017 issue. For questions, email Stebbins.