Saturday, April 28, 2018

Encouraging rural entrepreneurs can go hand in hand with revitalizing central business areas of small towns

One of the more visible aspects of rural economic development, revitalization of downtowns, could benefit greatly from an aspect that doesn't always have a high profile: the encouragement of entrepreneurs who can occupy buildings that are vacant or under-utilized. That was one of the key points of a panel discussion at the 31st annual East Kentucky Leadership Conference, held Thursday and Friday at the Hindman Settlement School. It followed an earlier session about lessons learned by Hindman, a county-seat town of 800 people.

Entrepreneurs need space for offices, not always for retail operations, and owners of vacant buildings need buyers, lessor or renters. Lora Smith of the new Appalachian Impact Fund said communities recruiting entrepreneurs need to have appropriate space for them. "We see it as key to promoting that entrepreneurial ecosystem," she said.

Also, filling vacant space can help attract more entrepreneurs, not just in downtowns, she said: "People will drive through a downtown to get a sense of the heart and soul of a community." To attract young entrepreneurs, towns need amenities such as broadband and entertainment venues, said Ray Dafner of the Appalachian Regional Commission. Smith said high-quality day care helps, too.

Those involved in Hindman's revitalization had these lessons: It takes a long time; have a vision; collaboration is a necessity; when something goes wrong, adapt; housing, a persistent obstacle, must be addressed; no one thing gets it done (no silver bullets); deal with cultural resistance to change; use technology and advanced manufacturing; facilitate the transfer and use of property; enhance livability of the community with wi-fi, alcohol, murals, green space, rooftop gardens and live music; celebrate small victories when they happen; and never say "mission accomplished."

Friday, April 27, 2018

Verdict in suit against stinky pig farm worries pork industry

"American pork producers could be in trouble, after a North Carolina test case awarded more than $50 million in damages to the neighbors of a hog farm for the nuisance it causes them," David Meyer reports for Fortune magazine.

The 10 plaintiffs who live near Kinlaw Farm in Bladen County complained that the stink was so bad that they couldn't enjoy outdoor activities, had to keep their windows shut, and had burning and watery eyes and nausea from the smell and flies. Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, owns Kinlaw Farm. Smithfield, owned by China's WH Group, is the world's largest pork producer. The jury ordered Murphy-Brown to pay each plaintiff $75,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.

The company says it will appeal, and "These lawsuits are an outrageous attack on animal agriculture, rural North Carolina and thousands of independent family farmers who own and operate contract farms. These farmers are apparently not safe from attack even if they fully comply with all federal, state and local laws and regulations."

The case was considered a trial balloon that could be used as a precedent in similar lawsuits. The same plaintiffs' lawyers are involved in a case set for trial next month. Other pig-farm nuisance cases are scheduled for later this year, Meyer reports.

Ohio program starts fight against opioids in kindergarten; adoption is entirely up to local schools

In Ohio, a state with the second most drug overdose deaths in 2016, is trying a a new tack in fighting the opioid epidemic. "Ohio’s plan, controversial in a state that prizes local control over schools, features lessons that begin in kindergarten," Sarah Vander Schaaff reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Instead of relying on scare tactics about drug use or campaigns that recite facts about drugs’ toll on the body, teachers are encouraged to discuss real-life situations and ways to deal with them and to build the social and emotional skills that experts say can reduce the risk of substance abuse."

The program was developed by Kevin Lorson, a health and physical education professor at Wright State University in Dayton and a team of educators with a grant from the Ohio Department of Higher Education, fulfilling a law the Ohio legislature passed in 2014 requiring schools to teach the connection between prescription opioid abuse and heroin addiction.

Belpre, a town of 6,500 in southeastern Ohio, began a pilot of the Health and Opioid Prevention Education (HOPE) program this year. Belpre Elementary Principal Joy Edgell said kindergarten safety lessons used to focus on things like "stranger danger," but had shortcomings that illustrated the need for earlier education. Three years ago a first-grader brought a heroin needle to school in her backpack, Edgell said. The child said her father had used the needle, and she brought it to school to keep her younger sibling from stepping on it. Teachers have been seeing signs that drug abuse was hurting children in recent years: "More kindergartners exhibited trouble regulating emotions and outbursts. In some cases, grandparents and other relatives served as primary caregivers, stepping in because a parent was struggling with addiction," Vander Schaaff reports. "And in 2015, Hunter Burkey, a popular senior at Belpre High School, died of a heroin overdose."

The main goal of the HOPE program is to help children understand how to make healthy choices from an early age, and to impress upon them the importance of never taking or touching medicine unless a trusted adult tells them to. "The lessons have helped illuminate complicated home lives," Vander Schaaff reports. "Fourth-graders doing a role-playing exercise to practice standing up for themselves and refusing drugs wanted to make sure the teacher knew a parent 'was still a good person' even if he or she had trouble with addiction."

Other communities may choose to implement the HOPE program, but Ohio prizes local control of education, and is the only state in the nation that prohibits the state Board of Education from establishing statewide health-education standards. Efforts to create statewide standards have faced opposition from conservatives who worry such standards would weaken the state's abstinence-only approach to sex education, Vander Schaaff reports.

As aging ranchers retire, their lands become targets for investors, and they seek help for transfer

Les Dunmire (NPR photo by Cooper McKim)
Rural ranch and farm lands have a greater chance of being snapped up by developers or other investors as aging ranchers prepare to retire without a succession plan. It's an increasing problem: "In 2012, the average age of farmers and ranchers hit 58 years old, higher than the past two centuries — it's also up about eight years from three decades ago," Cooper McKim reports for NPR. "According to a National Young Farmers Coalition report, 63 percent of farmland will need a new farmer in the next 25 years as older farmers retire."

Passing on a ranch or farm isn't as easy as just writing a will, so interested organizations are trying to help aging ranchers and farmers make solid plans for transferring their land. The Western Landowners Alliance and the University of Wyoming Extension Service offer estate planning workshops for ranchers to help guide them through the process.

For example, rancher Les Dunmire, 66, has been planning his retirement for 26 years. In order to pass on his 106,000-acre Dunmire Ranch in southeast Wyoming, he divided his ranch into six legal entities and hired accountants and lawyers to make sure his adult children won't be forced to sell the land. "That's my goal, is to be able to pass these ranches on in the best possible way I can to not only my kids, but my grandkids," Dunmire told McKim.

Photography project examines rural sexual assault in Iowa

Photo by Jacob Fiscus
Rebecca McKinsey, a reporter at the Daily Times Herald and Jacob Fiscus, owner of the Photography by Fiscus studio in Carroll, Iowa, (pop. 10,103), have teamed up to produce a heart-wrenching photo project about rural sexual assault survivors.

The project is called Every 98 Seconds because someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds, on average. It features interviews and photos of 13 western Iowa residents who have been sexually assaulted or are parents of children who were assaulted, ranging from a 13-year-old girl and 17-year-old boy to a 53-year-old woman. The photos are expressive and personal without revealing the subjects' identities. The project was released in April to coincide with Sexual Assault Awareness Month and aims to remind viewers that sexual assault can happen to anyone, even friends, family and neighbors.

McKinsey and Fiscus previously collaborated on two other photo projects: People of the Library, which featured locals who use the Carroll Library and helped ensure the success of a library modernization referendum, and Hindsight, which captured the memories, insights and wisecracks of Carroll residents age 90 and over. All three projects can be seen at The Faces of Iowa.

Former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell takes helm at Appalachian Regional Commission

Tim Thomas attended the East Kentucky Leadership
Conference in Hindman Thursday. Former Gov. Paul
Patton of Pikeville is at right. (Photo by Al Cross)
The Appalachian Regional Commission, long a target of Republican presidents, has a new chief executive with strong ties to the most powerful Republican in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has helped secure its funding.

Tim Thomas, a former McConnell field office director, was confirmed recently as federal co-chair of the commission, which comprises the governors of the 13 Appalachian states. This week he made his first trip to the region as co-chair and gave an interview to Becca Schimmel of Ohio Valley ReSource, which covers Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

Thomas "said he can see a day when the [ARC] is no longer needed," Schimmel reports. "But that’s not something he expects to come any time soon." Thomas told her, “It will not happen on my watch, it will probably not happen on the watch of my successor, but I can see that day on the horizon. My vision for ARC is to see the day that this agency can shutter its doors because its goals and objectives have been reached in large measure.”

Thomas, a native of Lyon County in West Kentucky, "wants to focus on diversifying the economy by helping small business and entrepreneurs in the region as well as helping to deal with the opioid crisis," Schimmel reports. "Those familiar with the ARC say Thomas will need political savvy to make that happen."

“One of the advantages I think Tim Thomas has is his connection with McConnell and that leadership and his ability to go to these other federal agencies and get their attention,” Ron Eller, Appalachian author and historian who recently retired from the University of Kentucky, told Schimmel.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Lake Michigan states help each other maintain fish populations by shipping each other fish and eggs

Some fish travel from one Great Lake to another the natural way (through connecting rivers and streams) but these days some are traveling to Lake Michigan in unexpected ways: by road, air and even mail.

"States around Lake Michigan trade fish eggs and stock on an ongoing basis, part of a long-term effort to maintain population levels and to regulate the balance of predator and prey species in the lake," Kate Elizabeth Queram reports for Route Fifty. Biologists and natural resource managers in Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois maintain an informal network wherein they send each other fish or eggs when there's an area shortage, at no cost. The network, which has no governing or regulatory body, has been going strong for at least a century.

"Over the years, as we’ve seen the fish populations make these tremendous swings in different directions, we all realize that if we don’t work together we don’t stand a chance of managing the fisheries in the Great Lakes,” said Ed Eisch, fish production program manager for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. "There has to be a cooperative spirit or it just flat-out won’t work. Everybody has a stake in seeing it be successful—for our constituents, for our recreational opportunities and for the economic benefit each state sees as a result of a healthy ecosystem. If we don’t work together, we can’t get anything done."

The Lake Michigan group is one illustration of how hard fisheries experts work to maintain the fish populations in the Great Lakes, and how devastating an invasion of Asian carp could be.

Ky. jury awards $67.5 million to miners whose defective dust masks (and smoking) caused black lung

A jury in Knott County, Ky., awarded $67.5 million to two former coal miners who alleged that defective dust masks led to their debilitating black-lung disease, one of the largest judgments ever in an Eastern Kentucky civil suit, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald Leader.

3M Company, which made the masks, was hit with $62.5 million of that total in punitive damages. The rest is for past and future pain and suffering for the defendents, brothers Leslie and Michael Cox.

During the three-week trial, the jury ruled that the respirators were so defective that an ordinarily prudent company wouldn't have put them on the market for use, and that 3M acted with reckless disregard from the Cox brothers' safety. No liability was assigned to the more than one dozen mine employers where the brothers had worked.

But the jury ruled that the brothers' heavy smoking habits contributed to their black lung disease, and that 3M was only responsible for 40 percent of Leslie Cox's lung injury and 30 percent for Michael Cox. "That means 3M would be liable for that percentage of the jury's award for compensatroy damages, which was $3.75 million for Leslie Cox and $1.25 million for Michael Cox," Estep reports. "However, 3M would be liable for all the punitive-damage amount if the judgment stands."

New young farmers aiming to sell local produce at farmers markets; McConnell's push for hemp bill could help too

American small farms are in dire straights right now: more than 12,000 went out of business in 2017, net farm incomes have dropped 52 percent in the past five years, and bankruptcies are up 33 percent in the past two years. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway said last week at the Farm Bill markup that "two key universities informed us that two-thirds of the representative farms they use to model the economic conditions of agriculture are currently in marginal or poor financial condition," Doug McKelway and Kellieanne Jones report for Fox News.

But some farmers are finding hope in consumers' increasing desire to buy locally grown meat and produce. Thousands of young hopefuls, many who aren't from farming families, are going into farming with an emphasis in the kind of local, often organic product that people demand--coupled with modern social media savvy to market their products directly through farmer's markets or community supported agriculture programs.

"Congress is also intent on expanding opportunities for new young farmers," McKelway and Jones report. "One bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, The Hemp Farming Act of 2018, would remove industrial hemp, the non-psychoactive cousin of marijuana, from the Controlled Substances Act. With its soil replenishing qualities and uses in fabric, food, lotions, and anti-seizure oils, many farmers are convinced it's a potential replacement for a mostly bygone cash crop, tobacco."

New farmers are sorely needed in an industry where the average farmer is 58 years old and will retire soon. But the cost of land could deter aspiring farmers. Nearly 100 million acres of farmland is expected to change ownership over the next five years, so advocacy group The New Young Farmers Coalition say they hope Congress will do more to help young farmers afford land, McKelway and Jones report.

Suffering dairy farmers pin hopes on new NAFTA agreement

American dairy farmers, especially small family operations, have been in increasingly dire straights over the past few years, and they're hoping a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement could help them out.

Part of the problem is that Canada exports skim milk powder on the world market at below the cost of production, and U.S. farmers can't compete with it. Another problem is that Canada has imposed tariffs of 200-300 percent on U.S. dairy exports for years. A bipartisan group of 68 members of Congress recently wrote a letter to U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer urging him to negotiate an end to the Canadian Class VII pricing program, implemented 14 months ago, that distorts the price of milk powder and ultrafiltered milk, which is used to make cheese, yogurt and ice cream. Things are so bad for U.S. dairy farmers that some in Michigan and the Northeast had to dump some of their milk to combat extremely low prices last fall, Jeff Daniels reports for CNBC.

Added to industry-wide woes, some small dairy farmers are suffering because they're too small for a big company to bother with: In March, Dean Foods notified 140 small family dairy farms in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio that it will no longer send trucks to pick up their milk after May 31. "Walmart, the largest buyer of Dean’s milk in the region, has vertically integrated and will now be processing their own milk," Whitney Belprez reports for But not from those farms. Those farms are too small for Walmart to waste their time with. And now, Dean has no avenue to sell those farms’ milk. After years of low prices, it is, likely, the final nail in the coffin for those farms."

Low pay for mental health professionals in rural areas contributes to opioid epidemic, Ball State study finds

Though the opioid epidemic hits both rural and urban areas, low pay for mental health professionals exacerbates the problem in rural areas. Agencies and governmental programs don't or can't pay rural mental health professionals the competitive wages usually offered in larger communities, or offer professional development opportunities. That results in a severe shortage in rural areas, according to a report from Ball State University presented at the Annual Society for Public Health Education Conference this month.

Some background info: The researchers interviewed 100 practicing mental health professionals in rural Indiana in late 2017. Indiana has one of the lowest ratios in the nation of mental health care providers to total population (one full time provider for every 750 citizens), serving less than 25 percent of the nearly quarter of a million individuals living with a serious mental illness in the state. The state also has a consistently higher than the national average percentage of people reporting living with mental illness.

So mental health professionals in rural Indiana are stretched thin: 95 percent surveyed said they can't meet mental health needs in their communities, and 90 percent said it was difficult to hire and keep qualified professionals. Most of the respondents also said that mental health issues in their rural communities aren't well researched, that the number of mentally ill people in their area hasn't been accurately assessed, and that local health departments aren't adequately involved in providing mental health care services. The average mental health professional sees nine clients per day and most of them pay with Medicaid; many of the patients have to travel more than 25 miles to access mental health care. And many mental health professionals reported that drug abuse is a high need area, with more than one-third saying it's the biggest concern in their community.

Respondents said they wanted more funding for public mental health systems and outreach, statewide reform for private and government-sponsored mental health care, and better recruitment, retention and training practices.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Liberal Democratic group targets 72 rural counties

A newly organized group of rural actvists from around the country is planning an ambitious outreach effort for 72 rural counties in 10 states this summer, seeking to build relationships with people who they believe voted for President Trump because they've been neglected by both parties.

People's Action is targeting counties in Alabama, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin. "Notably, their list includes 28 so-called 'pivot' counties that supported former President Barack Obama twice before flipping to Trump," David Catanese reports for U.S. News & World Report. "The initiative will begin with 10,000 'deep conversations' this summer conducted by local activists in these rural enclaves, a sort of battery of listening posts to serve as an ice-breaker in places not used to hearing, let alone supporting, progressive ideas."

George Goehl, director of People's Action, said they want to "contest the narratives" told about and to rural people. Rural America is only 14 percent less diverse than the rest of the country, belying the popular image of rural America as mostly white, he said: "We will provide an alternative to the racist and divisive worldview and instead point people toward the true causes of their pain. And we will tell the story of rural people, not as victims, not as Trump voters, but as people who are protagonists in the fight to go against corporate tyranny and racism in this country. We will not concede the rural vote to the right, or to centrists for that matter."

One problem for Democrats is that they haven't expended the time and energy to consistently communicate with rural areas that have been increasingly hostile to progressives. Dee Davis, founder of the Center for Rural Strategies, told Catanese that Democrats won't be successful unless they're willing to "buy somebody a cup of coffee, put your hand on their shoulder, listen and change."

Jobs in rural America up, but gap with metro jobs widens

Daily Yonder chart; click the image to enlarge it
"New annual job numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that the effects of the Great Recession went deeper and have lasted longer in rural America than they did in the rest of the nation," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder.

Though rural employment increased 0.4 percent from 2016 to 2017 (and rural areas near metropolitan areas did a little better), jobs in the largest metro areas increased 2 percent in the same time period. That's consistent with job trends since the 2008 Great Recession.

The data reveals that the employment gap between the largest metro areas and rural areas is widening: While metro areas have seen steady job growth since 2008, job growth in rural areas (especially very rural areas) has been anemic. The largest metro areas, with populations over 1 million, regained their pre-recession job levels by 2012, and now have 10 percent more jobs than they did in 2008. But rural areas still had 3.5 percent fewer jobs in 2017 than they did in 2008.

"The 2017 employment pattern also roughly matches trends revealed in the most recent county population figures from the U.S. Census," Marema reports. "Rural counties closer to metro areas had more U.S. residents move there than leave. But rural counties not adjacent to metro areas had a net loss in population due to domestic migration."

Mother and daughter take to treehouses to fight pipeline

A Virginia mother and daughter have been trying to block a natural-gas pipeline on their family's land for nearly a month by staying in neighboring treehouses in the path of the pipeline, Gregory Schneider reports for The Washington Post. The Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile, $3.5 billion project to transport gas through West Virginia and Virginia, has been a target for protesters since before it was approved, with one Giles County resident writing his opposition into his obituary.

The protest waged by Theresa "Red" Terry, 61, and her 30-year-old daughter, Theresa Minor Terry, has drawn national attention. The platforms are on a 1,500-acre tract southwest of Roanoke which they say the British king grants to the elder Theresa's husband's family. The Terrys have fought the pipeline since learning about it four years ago, attending hearings and rallies and supporting anti-pipeline candidates in local elections. Though they had been glad to allow power lines to cross their property because they help locals, they don't think the pipeline meets that standard, Schneider reports.

The pipeline builders, EQT Corp. and NextEra Energy Inc., claimed the land by eminent domain and offered to compensate the Terrys, but the family turned down the money. When a federal judge ruled against them last month, Red's husband and other activists began building the treehouses in the middle of the pipeline's planned route where workers were about to start clearing trees, copying the actions of other treesitters blocking the pipeline's advance in West Virginia.

Emergency medical technicians check on the women every afternoon and local restaurants donate food. Last week police charged the women with trespassing, obstruction of justice and interfering with property rights, and are waiting around the clock to arrest them when they come down. In mid-April they decreed that family and friends could no longer bring them food and water, and locals protested that the police were treating the women inhumanely. But when the women recently said they needed food a few days ago, Roanoke County police sent up pizza and bologna sandwiches, Laurence Hammack reports for The Roanoke Times.

Both women say they intend to stay up as long as they can. Red told Schneider it would probably end "poorly for me and many of my neighbors," but said the community remains undaunted. The pipeline builders "might've broken their hearts but they sure as hell didn't break their spirits . . . I'm hoping maybe we can change a few things."

FDA cracks down on sales of e-cigarettes to youths

"The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday announced a nationwide undercover 'blitz' to crack down on the sale of e-cigarettes — particularly the hugely popular Juul products — to children and teenagers by regular and online retailers," Laurie McGinley reports for The Washington Post.

The month-long push, which will continue to the end of April, has found dozens of violations of the laws, and 40 warning letters have been issued related to Juul sales. Juul (branded JUUL) is a highly popular vaping device that packs a powerful nicotine punch, with dozens of flavors like mango and creme brulee that attract teenagers. Because the device is small and looks like a USB drive, teens find it easy to hide them from parents and teachers. Other vaping devices like myblu and KandyPens are similar.

Because teen smoking rates have dropped dramatically in the past 20 years, vaping makes up the lion's share of adolescent nicotine use. And although many consider vaping safer than smoking traditional cigarettes, the vapor contains other dangerous chemicals. Adults have become alarmed at the meteoric rise in popularity of Juul and other e-cigarettes.

"The announcement about the crackdown came a week after health organizations and lawmakers urged the FDA to be more aggressive in discouraging e-cigarette use among minors. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Truth Initiative, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Heart Association and American Lung Association sent a letter to [FDA Commissioner Scott] Gottlieb warning that progress against smoking is 'at serious risk of being reversed' because of the agency's failure to take action against products that appeal to youth," McGinley reports.

Juul Labs said in a statement that selling its products to minors was "unacceptable" and it already has programs in place to prevent and act on violators, but promised to announce extra measures soon.

Free, two-day workshop in Columbus will help journalists cover local jails, criminal justice system

We reported yesterday that rural jail populations have increased in the last five years, largely through longer incarceration on inmates awaiting trial. The are many issues to explore with local jails and the criminal-justice system, and The Poynter Institute will host a free, intensive workshop in Columbus, Ohio, June 21-22 to help journalists better understand the causes of local incarceration and its consequences, and how some communities are addressing these issues. Al Tompkins, Poynter's senior faculty for broadcast and online, will lead the workshop; some seminars will be led by representatives from the Vera Institute of Justice, which has done extensive research on local jails, and The Marshall Project. The deadline to apply is May 7. From the workshop website:

"Local jails are the gateway to the U.S. justice system. They are overloaded, overused and, while they were intended to house people who were deemed to be a societal danger or a flight risk before trial, they have become warehouses, often for people who have not been convicted of a crime but cannot afford to bail themselves out. In some cities, jails are filled with people who suffer from addictions and mental illness."

Thanks to a grant from the MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge, tuition, hotel costs and most meals will be covered for those whose applications are accepted. Attendees are responsible for flights or transportation, though Poynter has some limited flight funding for hardship cases. Seats will be saved for local journalists at the workshop. And if you can't go to the one in Columbus, the workshop will be held again in Oklahoma City from Aug. 1-2 (the deadline to apply for that workshop is June 8). Previous workshops have been held in New York and Salt Lake City.

Click here to apply or for more information about the Columbus workshop.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Rural police have fewer resources to help mentally ill or addicted citizens avoid arrest, lengthy pretrial wait in jail

In the past five years, jail populations have risen sharply in rural areas and declined in cities and suburbs. Most inmates are defendants awaiting trial; prosecutors encourage lengthy waits in jail since it helps them extract guilty pleas from people who just want to go home. "On April 17, Louisiana sheriffs revealed some 2,181 defendants, about 15 percent of the parish jail population, have been locked up for at least a year awaiting trial, with 674 of them having been there at least two years," Marc Levin writes in an opinion piece for The Hill. Levin is the vice president of criminal justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan research institute it says is guided by the principles of liberty, personal responsibility and free enterprise, and its conservative national campaign organization Right on Crime.

A small fraction of pretrial defendants are dangerous enough to require detention, but Levin argues that the practice harms other defendants, increasing their risk of being re-arrested in the future. "Studies suggest that this is because, as time goes by, defendants lose their jobs and homes, and become disconnected from potential sources of support such as family and community organizations like churches," Levin writes. "Indeed, academic research has found that pretrial detention reduces future employment earnings by 25 percent."

Some states and communities are using new technology to cut down on the ballooning pretrial population, such as text-message reminders of court hearings; those result in a 26 percent increase in hearing attendance, which means fewer defendents being jailed for contempt. Levin also applauds solutions that keep police from arresting people in the first place, such as more training on how to interact with the mentally ill, or having police take someone suffering a drug overdose to a hospital or detox center instead of jail. That can be harder in rural areas. "With their smaller police forces, more limited treatment capacity, and dispersed populations, implementing police diversion in rural areas requires extensive planning and collaboration," Levin writes.

But citizens' ability to access justice shouldn't depend on whether one lives in a rural or urban area, he writes, and hopes rural areas don't get left behind in criminal justice reform measures.

North Georgia community works to keep hellbender salamander off threatened or endangered species lists

The eastern hellbender (USFWS photo by Gary Peeples)
In a rural Georgia community in the southern Appalachian mountains, private landowners along Betty's Creek are pitching in to restore the stream and the at-risk salamander that calls it home, Dan Chapman reports for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The FWS is considering adding the hellbender to its threatened or endangered species list later this year, which landowners would like to avoid since such an action would tighten rules about how they can use their land, increasing costs.

One of those landowners is Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, one of the largest college-prep boarding schools in the South. It's more famous for spearheading the 1960s Foxfire project to preserve Appalachian culture, but the hellbender preservation efforts are closer to home. Betty's Creek is an important part of science education for the students: "Students from sixth grade through high school monitor the hellbender’s habitat, test water quality, analyze the food chain and restore streambanks," Chapman reports. "Their labor of love is also reflected in their grades and presented to the public in an end-of-year science fair. They, as much as adjoining farmers, have a significant stake in the hellbender’s health."

The slime-covered "homely hellbender" is the largest amphibian in the U.S. and can reach two feet in length. Its habitat once stretched from upstate New York to northern Georgia, but sightings are rare these days. Betty's Creek and others in northeast Georgia, western North Carolina and East Tennessee are also promising habitats for the hellbender. It needs cold, clear, moving water and big rocks to burrow under, but fertilizer and chemical run-off from farms, and dirt from construction and road sites have muddied up Betty's Creek, filling crevices hellbenders like to hide and breed in, Chapman reports.

The school is doing its part to keep the creek clean: it only allows its cows to cross the stream at one spot, keeping them from kicking up mud, and now gets its drinking water source from the county system instead of a tributary of the creek, adding 200,000 gallons of water to the daily flow.

Seventh grader Claren Spivey told Chapman: "As a school, and a community, we are a very important part of the watershed and we want to keep it safe because it impacts so many other things in society and nature. . . . As private citizens we should really try to preserve what we have instead of ruining it." (Google map)

Beset by tariffs and ICE raids, some Trump-supporting Calif. farmers say they're glad to take one for the team

How California voted in 2016 (L.A. Times map; click to enlarge)
There's no doubt some of President Trump's policies are adverse to American farmers: the trade war with China is leading to stiff tariffs on many export crops, and his clampdown on illegal immigration has triggered farmworker shortages and immigration raids on farmers. But many conservative farmers in California say they still support Trump because his policies are better for America overall, Geoffrey Mohan reports for the Los Angeles Times.

Matt Fisher, a fourth-generation citrus grower in Arvin, told Mohan: "If I’ve gotta take a few bullets getting caught up in the cross-fire, but after four years or eight years — however long he spends in office — we’re on a better trajectory as a country, then it’s all parred up . . . I did my part, so to speak."

California farmers may have more latitude to take one for the team, since the state's wide variety of crops — over 200 — could temper the impact of tariffs. But the tariffs could be devastating in the Midwest, where farmers depend on soybeans and corn. China slapped a 25 percent tariff on American soybean imports and a 15 percent tariff on ethanol imports. California exports $2 billion worth of crops to China each year, its third-biggest customer after Canada and the European Union. California's top four food exports to China have all been hit with new tariffs: pistachios went from 5 percent to 20 percent, almonds went from 10 percent to 25 percent, wine went from 14-20 percent to 29-35 percent, and oranges went from 11 percent to 26 percent.

Conservative California farmers' philosophical attitude toward Trump is likely helped by their horror of socially liberal candidates. "That magnified fear of liberal zealotry — founded or not — explains a lot of what keeps agriculture in Trump’s fold," Mohen reports. "Politics is local, and nothing is more local than planting crops in the ground."

Western Kentucky county rocked by high-school shooting remains skeptical of gun control measures

A deadly school shooting rocked Marshall County High School in Western Kentucky this January, but that hasn't changed local attitudes about gun control very much, Dylan Lovan reports for The Associated Press.

Lovan focuses first on Jeff Dysinger, whose 15-year-old daughter Hannah was shot in the arm and chest. He doesn't agree with calls to curb military-style weapons. A former soldier who uses his AR-15 for sport shooting and hunting, he told Lovan, "I think everybody in rural Kentucky, we're all brought up with guns, I mean we've all been around guns our entire life. . . . Kids in cities like (Parkland, Fla.) don't get that." Hannah Dysinger said she supports more comprehensive background checks and, like her dad, wants to make sure the wrong people don't get their hands on guns.

Marshall County (Wikipedia map)
That stance is reflected by former sheriff Brian Roy, who was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for Congress in 1996, the election after a Republican won the seat for the first time since the Civil War, partly because the one-term Democrat had cast a vote that helped put an "assault weapons" ban in that year's crime bill. "I think everybody here respects guns. We appreciate the opportunity to have them," Roy said. "We respect the Second Amendment. We're not going to be the type to go out and have any dramatic changes, because we've grown up with guns, for hunting."

Marshall County generally reflects the gun views of rural America. Lovan notes, "A Pew Research poll from April 2017 showed 63 percent of Americans in rural areas said it's more important to support gun rights than gun control, compared to only 37 percent in urban areas."

After the shooting, the conversation in Marshall County tended to focus not on gun control, but on improving security and increasing the presence of armed personnel in schools. School Supt. Trent Lovett said his students' familiarity with guns may have helped save lives; when shooter Gabriel Parker was changing magazines on his Ruger, some students saw the moment for what it was and were able to direct students to run.

SPJ offers webinar, Twitter chat for annual Ethics Week

This week is the 15th annual Ethics Week of the Society of Professional Journalists, meant to help the public understand the high ethical standards journalists are supposed to follow. With public trust in the news media at an all time low, and cries of "fake news" becoming pervasive among conservative politicians and pundits, it would seem that Ethics Week is more important than ever.

Ethics Week encourages journalists to explain to the public how they ethically cover stories, and discuss with them how to identify and support ethical journalism.

SPJ will present a free ethics webinar tomorrow, April 25, at noon ET (register here) and a Twitter chat on April 26, also at noon ET (follow with #PressForEthics). Click here for more information about how you can participate in Ethics Week.

Monday, April 23, 2018

How could repeal of net neutrality affect rural America?

The Federal Communication Commission's repeal of net neutrality, instituted under the Obama administration, takes effect today. The change could hurt most in rural areas that already have difficulty gaining access to reliable, affordable broadband.

Many still don't know what net neutrality is, but the upshot is that internet service providers could slow or halt access to certain sites and streaming services unless you pay more for a fast lane, Ali Budner reports for Wyoming Public Radio.

Caroline Fry, advocacy and media manager for Colorado Common Cause, believes net neutrality is important for democracy, and that it protects the free dissemination of information online. Rural people often have fewer options for internet service, and are therefore more at the mercy of telecoms companies imposing rate hikes. That can hurt rural residents who want to run businesses, or access education, health care, and entertainment online. "It's more than just about do I watch Netflix or Hulu," she told Budner. "This is about how do I get the resources I need to be able to participate in our society."

Montana Public Service Commissioner Travis Kavulla disagrees that the repeal of net neutrality will hurt rural areas. He serves on the panel that oversees telecommunications for the state, and said "the internet relies far too much on federal subsidies and content providers like Netflix, Google and Apple are getting a free ride. He’d like to see those companies picking up the tab," Budner reports.

Kavulla says rural internet access could expand more without stifling net neutrality rules. He doesn't mind the idea of fast-lane internet packages, speculating that rural residents would rather have some content at a reliably high speed than all content at an equally slow speed.

The vast majority of people polled support keeping net neutrality rules in place. Montana's governor, Steve Bullock, issued an executive order to keep net neutrality in his state, and Idaho and Colorado are trying to accomplish the same goal via legislation, Budner reports. And some towns are getting around the issue by creating their own locally controlled internet services that guarantee net neutrality.

Federal net neutrality rules die today, but Americans can preserve it on the local level, internet engineer writes

The rollback of federal net neutrality rules takes effect today, leaving Americans with little protection from powerful telecommunications companies. But Americans can regain some control by insisting on internet service provided by local governments, which are more accountable to residents, writes one internet engineer. "As the chief information officer for Concord, Mass., I’ve overseen the creation of a successful municipal broadband system by treating Internet service like what it really is — a public utility, like water and electricity. We’re providing residents with broadband Internet service that is inexpensive and reliable and respects net neutrality and privacy principles," Mark Howell writes for The Washington Post. Concord is a town of about 18,000 near Boston.

Concord leaders established the service in 2013 after realizing that big telecom companies didn't find it profitable to serve their town. The town issued bonds to raise the initial money to build the fiber network, but customer revenue will eventually repay the bonds, and is covering current operating costs. Meanwhile, the service is saving the town tens of thousands of dollars each year and, hopefully, attracting residents who want small-town life with fast internet service, Howell writes.

A local nonprofit company set rules for the phone and internet service, and locally elected leaders and residents volunteer to serve on the governing board. The service is so well-liked that they don't need to advertise, and they stick to a simple flat-rate price structure to keep costs low. In the past four years, they've never raised the price and have raised internet speeds twice. The local approach seems popular with locals: ISPs are frequently on lists of the most-hated companies in the U.S., but 90 percent of Concord's internet service customers say they'd recommend it to a friend, Howell writes.

Hundreds of other cities, towns and counties are providing similar services, which Howell writes is proof that "Washington and the big telecoms are letting us down, but local leaders can protect people’s rights and expand access to quality Internet with municipal broadband."

Penn State Outing Club no longer allowed to go outside

A Pennsylvania State University club for outdoors enthusiasts is no longer allowed to go outside, on the grounds that it's too risky. In the words of columnist Dave Barry, we are not making this up.

"After a two-month review that did not include consultation with student Outing Club leaders, the university’s offices of Student Affairs and Risk Management made the determination that the hiking, canoeing, kayaking, trail building and camping activities the student-led club has long engaged in are too risky," Don Hopey reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "The club is one of the oldest entirely student-run organizations at Penn State."

Penn State spokesperson Lisa Powers said the university evaluated risk at all campus sport and recreation student groups, and said "student safety in any activity is our primary focus." The other two outdoors groups, the caving club and the scuba diving club, were also deemed too risky. The Alpine Ski Racing Club, the Archery Club, the Rifle Club, and the Boxing Club passed.

Outing Club leaders said they have fully complied with more stringent safety standards introduced in the past year, but protested that the risk assessment office did not talk with them about perceived dangers. Timothy Hackett, the club's outgoing treasurer, said he knows of no student injuries on any Outing Club trips within the past four years, Hopey reports. Powers said the risk assessment was proactive, and not based on previous injuries.

The university has a similar program called Outdoor Adventures, which Powers said has better trained and more experienced leaders, but Richard Waltz, the Outing Club's 2017-18 president, said Outdoor Adventures trips cost more. "The two programs offer very different experiences," he told Hopey. "The Outing Club is very accepting and welcoming of students who may be out experiencing nature for the first time in a meaningful way. Participants learn organically and develop more of a mentor-mentee relationship over the years."

The Outing Club's board said in a statement that they'll keep working with advisers and university staff to find a way to keep going.

In recent Oklahoma protest, lawmakers say rural and urban teachers wanted to increase funding in different ways

A teacher protesting in Oklahoma City on April 4, 2018.
(Agence France-Presse/Getty Images photo by J. Pat Carter)

"Even as they presented unified calls for increased funding, rural and urban educators had starkly different ideas of how to accomplish it, lawmakers said," Janelle Stecklein reports for the Enid News & Eagle in Oklahoma.

During the recent protests for education funding, educators from larger urban districts such as Tulsa and Oklahoma City said new revenue should come through consolidating rural school districts. Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, a retired teacher and vice chair of the Education Committee, said teachers wanted to reduce the number of districts from more than 500 to 70 or 77. Rural teachers wanted to preserve their school districts, which bring a sense of community to their towns.

Many rural teachers told Ginger Tinney, executive director of the Professional Oklahoma Educators Association, that they're often the highest-paid professionals in their towns, Stecklein reports. That pay disparity could make it hard for rural teachers to demand more money, Tinney said.

Rep. Mike Sanders, R-Kingfisher, said rural teachers tended to be more appreciative of the state legislature's attempts to resolve teachers' demands, and said that although teachers support each other, "Sometimes I wonder whether or not those big organizations really speak for my smaller schools."

Oklahoma teachers staged a nine-day walkout after deeming new increases in educational funding insufficient. The state legislature had approved measures to pay teachers about $6,000 a year more and support staff $1,250 more, funding the raises with taxes on oil and gas production, fuel, online sales and tobacco. Teachers asked for a repeal of capital-gains tax exemptions to help finance a $10,000 raise for themselves, a $6,000 raise for support staff and $200 million in additional classroom funding. "After adjusting for inflation, spending per student has declined 28 percent per student in Oklahoma since the recession hit in 2007-08, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities," Bree Burkitt reports for The Arizona Republic. The walkout ended after teachers weren't able to secure the additional funding from the Republican-controlled legislature.

Difficulty of luring vocational instructors hurts rural colleges

Rural colleges are facing a faculty crisis, especially in attracting instructors for vocational programs. "Nurses or electricians can make far more in the private sector than a college can pay them to teach, and being in remote locations with fewer experienced workers to tap as instructors doesn’t help," Matt Krupnick reports for The Hechinger Report, an education newsletter. "That leads to a skilled worker shortage that spells trouble for the schools as well as for local businesses."

The problem doesn't just hurt rural colleges and local economies, but the national economy. A dramatic shortage of skilled blue-collar workers in the U.S., combined with a rising wave of Baby Boomer retirements, is going to hit industry hard over the next few years. There are about 30 million jobs that pay at least $55,000 per year that don’t require bachelor’s degrees, reports  Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. But many require some training at a community college or other technical program; without vocational instructors to teach those courses, the economy in some places could stall," Krupnick reports.

Another factor contributing to the problem is poor reporting.  Many rural colleges fail to report persistent faculty vacancies to the states, and many states fail to adequately push the issue. Without accurate numbers, it's hard to fix the problem, according to Mary Jo Self, an Oklahoma State University associate professors of occupational education studies.

Rural colleges are trying new approaches to attract and keep instructors. In North Dakota, nursing schools are holding more classes at hospitals and clinics so nurses who teach the classes can more easily keep working while they teach. Some colleges are opening satellite sites to help more rural residents gain skills and hopefully stick around afterward. In California, some community colleges are trying to make it easier for instructors with no degree but years of experience to teach in the classroom, Krupnick reports.

Rural Iowa radio's Leonard dubbed 'Trumpland translator' for interviews and essays about what rural Americans think

Leonard (Register photo by Rodney White)
In an age where urban journalism drives the national conversation, a small-town Iowa radio guy has tpbeen dubbed the "Trumpland translator." That's what big-city folks call Bob Leonard, the news director for KNIA and KRLS in Knoxville and Pella in rural Iowa. Following Trump's 2016 win, urban journalists scrambled to understand more about rural America's concerns. Leonard's radio interviews with locals, along with TV appearances and opinion pieces in national platforms like Salon and The New York Times, have provided much-welcomed insights into rural values and motivations. "In his role as Trumpland Translator, Ph.D., he studies rural conservatives in a county where 61 percent of voters chose Trump," Mike Kilen reports for the Des Moines Register.

Leonard, who says he leans liberal and hates Trump, says he found his niche by listening to people and not assuming they're stupid. "He's not writing to change minds, he said, but to explore what they think," Kilen reports. His anthropological approach is no accident; Leonard has a Ph.D. in anthropology and taught it at the University of New Mexico.

Though his interviews with locals help illuminate rural Iowa for urban denizens, they also help open eyes closer to home. Megan Suhr, chairwoman of the Marion County Democratic Party, said Leonard's pieces help her understand neighboring Republicans better. "I don't always agree with his conclusions of rural Iowa," she told Kilen. "But he does make me more patient with others in my community."