Friday, November 16, 2018

New books detail the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, growing up poor in Kansas

Bored this weekend? Check out these two new books that examine rural issues:

In American Overdose: The Opioid Tragedy in Three Acts, veteran British reporter Chris McGreal of The Guardian, an award-winning writer stationed in the U.S., takes a deep dive into the opioid epidemic in a narrative anchored in Williamson, W.Va. He provides not just an overarching treatment of the epidemic's roots but also heart-wrenching anecdotes and discussion of how classist prejudice against poor Appalachians slowed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's response. McGreal doesn't hesitate to paint drug companies as the villains, especially OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma. "This urgent, readable chronicle, which names names and pulls no punches, clearly and compassionately illuminates the evolution of America’s mass addiction problem," Zoe Pagnamenta writes for Publisher's Weekly.

Fifth-generation Kansan Sarah Smarsh explores the common struggles of the working poor through a memoir of her childhood in Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. "Smarsh shows us through the fate of her own family how the working class became the working poor. She takes us through the welfare cuts of the Reagan administration that stigmatized her working mother and through the modern housing crisis that ruined her father’s construction business," Elizabeth Catte writes for The Washington Post. "Heartland is her map of home, drawn with loving hands and tender words. This is the nation’s class divide brought into sharp relief through personal history . . . a welcome interruption in the national silence that hangs over the lives of the poor and a repudiation of the culture of shame that swamps people who deserve better."

Extension Service study identifies six characteristics of communities that help rural youth succeed

Rural youth who aspire to earn more than their parents did can find that goal hard to reach, but some rural communities are seeing much more success on that front than others. Researchers led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, in collaboration with the National 4-H Council and the Cooperative Extension Service of the nation's land-grant universities, conducted more than 200 in-person interviews in some of those communities to find out what they're doing right.

The communities were in the Texas Panhandle, Minnesota, North Dakota and Nebraska. The study, published today, outlines six common factors those communities all have that support upward mobility for youth:
  • A high expectation that youth will 'opt in' and work hard to acquire the skills to build a better future; a low tolerance for opting out.
  • Strong, informal support systems, with neighbors helping neighbors.
  • An early focus on career pathways.
  • A wealth of opportunities for youth to build life skills, regardless of the community's size
  • Many potential challenges to accessing opportunities, but creative solutions for overcoming them.

Feds might let Medicaid pay for housing and food

The federal-state Medicaid program may soon allow hospitals and health systems to pay directly for housing, healthy food and other solutions that help patients get healthy, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Wednesday.

In a speech, Azar noted that HHS spends more than $1 trillion a year on health care for seniors and the poor through Medicaid and Medicare. Helping patients find more stable housing or nutritious food would not only benefit them but could lower soaring federal spending, he said.

"We believe we could spend less money on health care—and, most important, help Americans live healthier lives—if we did a better job of aligning federal health investments with our investments in non-healthcare needs," Azar said. He didn't give further details or say when the program would be launched, Paul Barr and Virgil Dickson report for Modern Healthcare.

Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson told Modern Healthcare that he didn't know enough details on the plan, but speculated it could come in the form of a public-private partnership. "There's a balancing act that we all have to think about because somebody has to pay for it," Tyson said.

Azar's idea isn't totally new, Barr and Dickson report: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has experimented by allowing California, Illinois, Minnesota and New York use state funds to help Medicaid recipients find housing, fix up their homes, and learn more about tenant rights. And CMS has paid rent for Medicare recipients through a small grant-funded program that transitions people from institutions back to the community. But federal law prohibits CMS from paying rent outright.

Tech firms' decision to put big facilities on East Coast show another kind of increasing rural-urban divide: economic

Decisions by and Google "to add tens of thousands of jobs to New York and the Washington area reflect a growing divide in the U.S.," Shayndi Raice and Janet Adamy report for The Wall Street Journal. "Smaller cities are also pulling in educated workers, but are having trouble competing for the nation’s most prized jobs and biggest projects, while rural areas are falling behind."

In the last 10 years, cities have seen their employment grow 7 percent and the number of businesses establishments go up 11 percent, "while employment has contracted in non-metro areas and the number of businesses there has barely changed, according to Labor Department data," the Journal reports. "Big shifts in how people work and live over the past generation are behind the change. As global competition dried up manufacturing jobs in small towns, the U.S. became more dependent on the growth of knowledge and service jobs that tend to proliferate in dense places."

The hope of many rural economic developers was that the internet would allow people to work from anywhere, and experts thought "tech workers would scatter across the country as firms sought cheap office space," the Journal notes. "Instead, places like Silicon Valley and Seattle proved that clusters of highly skilled workers fueled innovation at a faster pace." Also, the lack of high-speed broadband in many places has limited the ability of some small towns to capitalize on the internet economy. But the Journal story is mainly about how medium-metro cities like Indianapolis, Nashville and Pittsburgh couldn't compete with New York and Washington.

The coastal cities "are also becoming wealthier, more liberal and more ethnically diverse—shifting the economic, political and cultural landscape of the nation," Raice and Adamy write. "College-educated workers are increasingly moving to the Democratic Party." That “could exacerbate the urban-rural divide; there’s no question,” Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told the Journal.

EPA's inspector general says processed sewage sludge used as fertilizer might not be safe

The treated sewage sludge that many farmers use as fertilizer might not be safe because not enough is known about hundreds of pollutants found in the stuff, according to a newly published report by the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general.

"The treated sewage known as biosolids is chock full of nutrients, which is what makes it so good at enriching soil. But it also can be chock full of pollutants, from heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic to pharmaceutical compounds, flame retardants and disease-carrying organisms," Jennifer Dlouhy reports for Bloomberg Quint.

The biosolids are the residue left over after wastewater goes through treatment plants. About half the sludge created annually is incinerated or sent to landfills. The other half is used as fertilizer after undergoing extra treatment to remove more pollutants and make it less appetizing to pests. Fertilizer sludge is tested for pathogens, pollutants that may need to be regulated, and nine heavy metals, including arsenic and mercury. "Although the EPA has consistently monitored biosolids for those nine regulated substances, the agency lacks the data or tools needed to determine the safety of hundreds of other pollutants found in the material, the inspector general found. And while the EPA is reviewing additional pollutants, the agency hasn’t always completed those assessments in a timely manner, the watchdog said," Dlouhy reports.

At least 352 pollutants found in biosolids haven't been fully vetted for safety by the EPA, though at least 61 of them have already been declared hazardous by another federal authority, Dlouhy reports. EPA officials responded to the report with a reminder that the pollutants are not necessarily a threat to public health or the environment.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

W. Va. gas drillers 'whittle away' landowners' royalties

Thousands of West Virginians have agreed to let drillers extract natural gas from under their land in exchange for monthly royalty payments, but a review of court records shows that drillers have been "whittling away" those payments with a variety of sketchy tactics. "Sometimes, the companies deduct a variety of 'post-production' costs from gas proceeds" such as the cost of transporting and processing the gas, the Charleston Gazette-Mail's Ken Ward Jr. reports for ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. "Other times, they’ve avoided paying full royalties by creating shell companies that, at least on paper, buy the gas at reduced prices. These practices have gone on for decades."

The state legislature and courts have tried to keep pace with drillers' practices and close loopholes, but drillers keep shifting tactics. A 2013 class-action lawusit on behalf of more than 10,000 people and companies that own gas will go to trial in two weeks; it alleges that the state's second-largest driller, EQT Corp., is making improper deductions from royalties. EQT, meanwhile, is suing to overturn a 1982 law that banned low-payout leases, Ward reports.

"West Virginia’s natural gas industry has flourished, with production roughly tripling in the past five years. State leaders portray the industry as the heart of a strong future economy, perhaps to replace the declining coal business," Ward reports. "But there are growing indications that natural gas is taking West Virginia down the same path as coal, including a long and continuing battle over how the profits are divvied up among residents and out-of-state companies that are extracting natural resources from the land."

Roy Clark, who was better than 'Hee Haw,' dies at 85

Roy Clark, who played many instruments, is pictured two years ago at the age of 83. (Photo via
Roy Clark, a superb musician and entertainer who was best known as co-host with Buck Owens of "Hee Haw," died today of complications from pneumonia at home in Tulsa. He was 85.

"Roy Clark’s decade-defying success could be summed up in one word — sincerity," Jeremy Westby writes for 2911 Media, a Nashville public-relations firm. "Sure, he was one of the world’s finest multi-instrumentalists, and one of the first crossover artists to land singles on both the pop and country charts. He was the pioneer who turned Branson, Mo., into the live music capital of the world . . . and his talents turned 'Hee Haw' into the longest-running syndicated show in television history. But the bottom line for Roy Clark was the honest warmth he gave to his audiences. Bob Hope summed it up when he told Roy, 'Your face is like a fireplace.'"

Kristin Hall reports for The Associated Press, "Clark played the guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, harmonica and other instruments. His skills brought him gigs as guest performer with many top orchestras, including the Boston Pops." He grew up in Meherrin, Virginia, Juli Thanki notes for The Tennessean. "The oldest of five children, he grew up in a musical family."

UPDATE, Nov. 18: The celebration of Clark's life will be held at 11 a.m. Nov. 21 at Rhema Bible Church at 1025 W Kenosha St Broken Arrow, OK 74012, near Tulsa.

Farmers can't profitably sell record soybean harvest due to trade war; prices depressed, and storage is iffy

The Department of Agriculture says this year's U.S. soybean harvest will be the largest ever, 4.6 billion bushels, but farmers may have a hard time selling their beans because of the trade war with China. "Selling soybeans to China has nearly halted with the tariff dispute resulting in a growing stockpile and the lowest prices for farmers in more than a decade," The Associated Press reports.

Many farmers, hoping for an early end to the trade war, are not selling, but storing their beans in bins, silos, shipping containers, or even piles on the ground covered by tarpaulins to keep them dry.

"The hope is that over the next few months, trade tensions will ease, and China, the top market for the oilseed, will start buying from American farmers again, lifting depressed prices in the process. A bushel of soybeans fetched just $8.87 on Friday. Eight months ago, before trade tensions led to tariffs, it was about $2 more," Shruti Singh, Isis Almeida, and Mario Parker report for Bloomberg News. "The risks are great. While futures trading indicates higher prices next year, that could change depending on trade negotiations and rising supplies. Moreover, the crop could go bad on them. Soybeans are not corn. They don't store nearly as well. If not kept super dry, they can take on moisture fast. Rot quickly follows, making them worthless — and gross."

But many farmers don't have much choice but storage. With sales to the U.S.'s largest soy customer, China, down 90 percent from last year, there aren't enough buyers domestically or abroad to buy the American harvest, Bloomberg reports.

Gene-edited foods are headed to grocery stores; customer perception and international trade rules are still uncertain

The ability to edit the genes of plants and animals has been hailed as a breakthrough that will help feed a sharply increasing human population in a world wracked by climate change. But governments disagree or are uncertain about how to regulate the technology, and the biggest question of all remains unanswered: When gene-edited foods hit grocery stores, will customers buy them?

"By early next year, the first foods from plants or animals that had their DNA 'edited' are expected to begin selling. It's a different technology than today's controversial 'genetically modified' foods, more like faster breeding that promises to boost nutrition, spur crop growth, and make farm animals hardier and fruits and vegetables last longer," Lauran Neergaard reports for The Associated Press.

Scientists hope consumers will see the value in the changes they're pursuing: "Wheat with triple the usual fiber, or that's low in gluten. Mushrooms that don't brown, and better-producing tomatoes. Drought-tolerant corn, and rice that no longer absorbs soil pollution as it grows. Dairy cows that don't need to undergo painful de-horning, and pigs immune to a dangerous virus that can sweep through herds," Neergaard reports.

The federal government is split on how or whether to regulate gene-edited organisms: the Agriculture Department says no extra rules are needed for gene-edited plants that could have been developed through traditional breeding, but in 2017 the Food and Drug Administration proposed tighter restrictions on gene-edited animals. International rules, important for trade considerations, are likewise up in the air. "Europe's highest court ruled last summer that existing European curbs on the sale of transgenic GMOs should apply to gene-edited foods, too," Neergaard reports. "But at the World Trade Organization this month, the U.S. joined 12 nations including Australia, Canada, Argentina and Brazil in urging other countries to adopt internationally consistent, science-based rules for gene-edited agriculture."

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Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. closes its statehouse bureaus in Texas and Kentucky, citing 'market conditions'

"Market conditions" mean that the readers of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. papers no longer have news coverage from a CNHI correspondent in the state capitals of Austin and Frankfort, the chain's senior vice president for news, William Ketter, told The Rural Blog.

The most recent closing was in Frankfort, where correspondent Ronnie Ellis retired this week. "Challenging market conditions prevent us from replacing Ronnie as a fulltime statehouse reporter at this time, and that’s also the reason we no longer operate a bureau in Austin," Ketter said via email.

"It is important to note we continue with full-time statehouse reporters in Massachusetts, New York, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Indiana and West Virginia," Ketter said. "Our largest dailies, along with a smattering of smaller ones, are located in these states."

Ronnie Ellis accepts College Heights
Herald Award, for contributions to
journalism, at his alma mater, Western
Kentucky University
, last month.
Ketter added, "Ronnie Ellis had a distinguished career as our Frankfort bureau chief before his retirement, and we are delighted he plans to continue to share his remarkable knowledge of Kentucky politics through a regular column." In an email to Kentucky editors and publishers, Ketter called Ellis "one of Kentucky’s best-known and accomplished political reporters. He has toiled in Frankfort and across the Kentucky political landscape for your newspapers for the past 14 years, appearing frequently as a guest on the statewide public television program, 'Comment on Kentucky.' Before his assignment to the statehouse beat, Ronnie worked for the Glasgow Daily Times for several years." Ellis is a native of Glasgow.

CNHI merged in 2017 with Raycom Media, which has agreed to be purchased by Gray Television, which plans to sell the chain and/or its individual newspapers.

Japan may remove import restrictions on U.S. beef that were imposed because of mad-cow disease

Japan's food safety commission has recommended removing import restrictions on U.S. beef meant to stave off mad-cow disease. Current restrictions only allow U.S. cattle aged 30 months or younger to be imported.

U.S. trade representatives have lobbied for the change in bilateral trade talks with Japan, in hopes of remaining competitive with Australia after the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact that includes the two countries takes effect Dec. 30, The Associated Press reports. President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the TPP as one of his first official acts; he considered rejoining it in April when the trade war with China began heating up, but ultimately chose to pursue bilateral treaties instead.

A Japanese research panel will report its findings to the nation's health minister after a one-month period of public comment. "The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry also plans to hold talks with the United States on the details, such as how meat should be processed, before officially deciding to remove the import restrictions," AP reports.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Electrical lines may have sparked Camp Fire

Overgrown vegetation near power lines may have sparked the deadly Camp Fire in Northern California, which has killed at least 48 people and nearly obliterated the town of Paradise.

A landowner near where the Camp Fire started says Pacific Gas & Electric Co. contacted her last week and said it needed to do work on power equipment on or near her property. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has been investigating whether power equipment could have caused the Camp Fire, Michael Grass reports for Route Fifty.

The role of electrical utilities in wildfires has been increasingly under debate as insurance claims rack up. State investigators found PG&E responsible for four fires in northern Sacramento last year; in three of those cases the power company hadn't trimmed trees back far enough from electrical equipment.

National Rural Health Day is tomorrow; join a Twitter chat

As part of National Rural Health Day on Thursday, the Rural Health Information Hub will host a Twitter chat about access to health care in rural areas. The chat will begin at noon Eastern Time and will last about an hour. Find and participate in the chat with the hashtag #RuralHealthChat.

Many rural residents face barriers to care, such as distance, expense, health insurance status, provider shortages, health literacy and more. The chat will discuss specific barriers to access and possible solutions as well as recognize rural communities that have addressed these barriers. The National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health (@NOSORH) will co-host the chat, which will feature the following special guests:
  • Donna Newchurch, executive director, Louisiana Rural Ambulance Alliance (@LAAmbulance)
  • Allen J. Smart, principal at PhilanthropywoRx and project director at Campbell University (@allensmart6)
  • John Supplitt, senior direction at American Hospital Association, Section for Small or Rural Hospitals (@jsupplitt)
  • Julie K. Wood, senior vice president of health at the American Academy of Family Physicians (@JulieKWoodMD)
  • A representative of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (@BreatheBetter)
  • A representative of the National Rural Health Association (@NRHA_Advocacy)
  • A representative of the NORC Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis (@WalshCenter),  a survey research center at the University of Chicago.
Find out more about National Rural Health Day here.

West Virginia leverages new Fallout game, which is set in the state, with a tourism campaign and research

Fallout 76 players explore Camden Park, a real-life amusement park near Huntington, W.Va.
The newest video game in the popular Fallout series is set in West Virginia, and the state is ready to capitalize on it. Fallout 76, which goes on sale today, features open world play with more than 50 real locations in the Mountain State such as Camden Park (pictured above), the New River Gorge Bridge, and the state Capitol, as well as nods to local folklore like Mothman and the Flatwoods Monster, Matt Combs reports for the Register-Herald in Beckley.

It's not West Virginia as most people would recognize it, though: the Fallout games, created by Bethesda Softworks, are set in a post-apocalyptic future. Fallout 76 takes place in 2102, about 25 years after a nuclear war; players in the online multiplayer game are tasked with rebuilding America while dodging mutant monsters, Combs reports.

Three West Virginia University researchers are planning a study to see how the game's setting affects players' perceptions of the state. Jaime Banks, Christine Rittenour and Nick Bowman, all associate professors in the Department of Communications Studies, will conduct the study as a three-part survey. "It presents a unique opportunity to look at how people experience the state and whether/how its culture is represented," Banks said in a news release. "We’ve studied avatars and gender identity and racial identity in games. But we don’t know very much about regional identities."

The game is worth studying because it resists lazy stereotypes about West Virginians, the researchers said. "But Fallout 76 seems to flip that script. They built this fallout shelter and survived. Now they’re the saviors of humanity," Banks told Combs.

The West Virginia Tourism Office hopes the game will spark new interest in the state, and has partnered with Bethesda Softworks on a promotional campaign to showcase the state and the game, Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty. It's not so far-fetched: though the game is set in a nuclear apocalypse, it's one that's returned mostly to nature, and features breathtaking views of West Virginia's natural scenery.

The campaign will include targeted advertising, promotions, official travel itineraries echoing in-game missions, and tour opportunities for game fans who want to see its settings in real life. Some identifiable places in the game are already starting to see increased traffic because of the game, Ruby told Queram.

Insurer participation in ACA marketplaces up in 2019 though rural areas still have fewer; map shows county-level data

Orange counties have one insurer in 2019; light blue counties have two, and dark blue counties have more.
(Kaiser Family Foundation map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version)
In 2019, more health insurers are participating in insurance marketplace exchanges established under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, according to a new analysis of insurers from 2014 to 2019.

A number of insurers have entered the market or expanded services for 2019. The average state will have four insurers in 2019, ranging from five states with one insurer (Alaska, Delaware, Mississippi, Nebraska and Wyoming) to three states with more than 10 insurers (California, New York, and Wisconsin). Rural areas tend to have fewer than metro areas: "On average, metro-area counties have 2.3 insurers participating in 2019, compared to 1.8 insurers in non-metro counties. In 2018, 87 percent of enrollees lived in metro counties," Rachel Fehr, Cynthia Cox and Larry Levitt report for Kaiser Family Foundation.

An average of four insurers is lower than when the ACA marketplaces debuted in 2014, but up from last year. In 2014 an average of five insurers participated in each state's marketplace. The average rose to six insurers per state in 2015 and dipped slightly to 5.6 in 2016. In 2017 several high-profile insurers exited the market, leading to an average of 4.3 insurers per state. In 2018 the average dropped further to 3.5, most likely because of insurers' uncertainty about the future of the ACA, KFF reports.

Enrollment for an ACA health care plan ends Dec. 15. 

Rural journalists, apply for this major ethics award!

The Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is accepting applications for the Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics until Jan. 15, 2019. 

"Now in its ninth year, the Shadid Award recognizes ethical decisions in reporting stories in any medium, including print, broadcast and digital, by journalists working for established news organizations or publishing individually," the center says. "The award focuses on current journalism and does not include books, documentaries and other long-term projects. Entries should involve reporting done for stories that were published or broadcast in 2018. Individuals or news organizations may nominate themselves or others."

It's different than other journalism awards because it focuses on the difficult decisions journalists often must make when pursuing important stories to fulfill their ethical obligations to sources, ordinary people caught up in news events, and the story's audience. Recognizing such ethical rigor is more important than ever, with declining public trust in journalism.

The winner will receive a $1,000 prize and travel expenses to accept the award and discuss the winning entry at an awards ceremony in the spring of 2019. 

"For once I’d like to see a rural journalist win this award, or at least get nominated for it, because it is generally more difficult – and can be a lot more difficult – to do hard-nosed, ethical journalism in rural areas and small towns than in metropolitan areas," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. There should be no shortage of qualified rural candidates for the award, he wrote, since rural journalists often face ethical challenges.

Click here for more information or to apply for the award.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Rural counties' health-insurance rates lag, but not in Medicaid-expansion states; interactive map has county data

Change in percentage of uninsured under age 65 from 2013-2006
(U.S. Census Bureau map; click on the image to enlarge or click here for the interactive version) 
Though more Americans under 65 across the nation had health insurance from 2013 to 2016, rural areas still had higher rates of uninsured people, according to an illustrated survey of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, complete with an interactive map with county-by-county data.

Standing out on the map are states with large rural populations that expanded Medicaid in 2014 under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, such as West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, New Mexico, Colorado and Montana.

The census compared residents in mostly urban counties, mostly rural counties, and completely rural counties (in which all the census tracts are classified as rural). Among the findings:
  • About 12 percent of people in completely rural counties were uninsured, compared with 11 percent in mostly rural counties and 9.8 percent in mostly urban counties.
  • Completely rural counties in states that expanded Medicaid had an 8.8 percent uninsured rate, compared with a 14.3 percent rate for completely rural counties in states that didn't expand Medicaid.
  • In almost every county in the U.S., the percentage of people without insurance declined from 2013 to 2016; most counties that saw an increase in uninsured residents had a significant population of Native Americans living on reservations.

Biggest coal-fired plant in Western U.S. to close, hurting job prospects for Navajo and Hopi employees

The Navajo Generating Station, the largest coal-fired power plant in the Western U.S., will close in December 2019 unless a buyer can be found. Salt River Project, the utility that owns the 2,250-megawatt plant, said the closure was because producing electricity from natural gas is cleaner and cheaper.

"Navajo leaders are scrambling to find a new owner," Laurel Morales reports for Arizona State University's Cronkite News. "Officials with the Hopi Tribe have asked the federal government to buy electricity from the plant to avoid a shutdown. The Hopi Nation lies within the vast Navajo Nation, and both tribes have relied heavily on the coal industry for the past 40 years."

The plant's closure will strike a deep blow to the tribes: its 500 jobs pay better than any other nearby, and revenue, taxes and royalties from coal make up most of the Hopi budget and a third of the Navajo operating budget, Morales reports. About half the Navajos on the reservation are unemployed.

About a third of the plant's employees have taken jobs in Phoenix with the Salt River Project. Jerry Williams, who has worked at the plant for 38 years, told Morales that some people turned their job offers down: "A couple of them I know are close to retirement. And some of them, they have families, they have kids here in the school system and some of them have property they bought here."

Fire now deadliest in California history; what's to blame?

The Camp Fire in northern California has been named the state's deadliest ever, with at least 42 dead, 228 missing, and more than 7,100 homes and other buildings consumed since last week, Sharon Bernstein and Noel Randewich report for Reuters.

The entire town of Paradise was an early casualty of the fire, and was mostly destroyed by Friday. Some remains are so burned that university anthropologists are trying to identify the remains, Daniel Trotta reports for Reuters.

President Trump tweeted that California's repeated problems with wildfire are because of poor forest management, but "the truth is more complicated," Kendra Pierre-Louis reports for The New York Times. The fires aren't from forests, to begin with. "Rather, the Camp and Woolsey fires, which are ripping through Northern and Southern California, began in areas known as the wildland-urban interface: places where communities are close to undeveloped areas, making it easier for fire to move from forests or grasslands into neighborhoods."

Another problem with blaming the fires on poor forest management by the state is that the federal government owns and manages 57 percent of California's 33 million acres of forests, while only 3 percent are owned and managed by state and local agencies. And because the U.S. Forest Service has been forced to spend so much money fighting wildfires in recent years, it has lacked the money to mitigate future fires with controlled burns and other preventive practices, Pierre-Louis reports.

In a USA Today opinion piece, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blamed the state's wildfires on environmentalists who oppose logging. But dead trees are too big to easily catch fire, and logging leaves behind the brush and twigs that do. "In fact, the wooded land that abuts Paradise, Calif., the community so badly damaged by the Camp Fire, underwent the kind of post-fire logging that Mr. Trump’s tweet and Mr. Zinke’s article suggested," Pierre-Louis reports.

Public university board in Ill. broke meetings law by going beyond legal limits in closed session, recording reveals

Trustees of Western Illinois University in Macomb repeatedly violated the state Open Meetings Act, according to a recording of a closed meeting obtained by TriStates Public Radio.

Map shows coverage areas of TriStates Public Radio stations
TSPR's work pulls back the curtain on a phenomenon that is probably widespread but is difficult to expose: public agencies violating laws that limit what can be discussed in closed meetings. Only a few states require a verbatim record of such meetings, as Illinois does.

Acting on a complaint from a WIU faculty representative, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's staff listened to the recording of the closed meeting, and she ordered it released.

Cathy Early, then the board chair, said in the meeting that the open meeting to come would be scripted. That's illegal, TSPR says: Illinois law says the public's business must be discussed in public. "In the recording, it sounds as though this is business as usual for closed-door sessions, as board members and administrators talk about issues that are supposed to be discussed in public," Rich Egger reports, adding that the board seemed to make plans to violate the law again in future sessions.

The closed meeting's stated purpose was to discuss personnel, collective bargaining, litigation and real estate, all of which are valid topics under the law. The board went into open session immediately afterward and authorized more than two dozen layoffs, then went back into closed session to discuss specific employees' performance. "But in this 51-minute recording, the board talks again and again about groups of workers, the school’s budget, programs, and other matters that are supposed to be discussed in public," Egger reports.

TSPR says it listened to the recording in an effort to learn why WIU completely cut funding to the university radio station, part of TSPR. "They make it sound like a done deal, though TSPR was not officially notified of the funding cut until mid-August," Rich Egger reports. And though TSPR requested documentation about the decision in a Freedom of Information Act request, the university still hasn't provided much, TSPR says.

"We were sent hundreds of emails that shed a bit of light on the issue but there are no budget spreadsheets, no meeting minutes, no metrics, or any other data demonstrating who made the decision, when it was made, or why TSPR was cut instead of other university offerings," Egger reports. "TSPR was even told that the public radio station was not mentioned in any closed session meeting of the BoT – a conclusion you might come to if you simply looked at the paragraph-long meeting minutes from the June 28 closed session. But in reality, TSPR was brought up multiple times in that morning’s closed meeting."

More women are fishing the Upper Great Lakes

Kristy Taylor takes a steelhead fishing class from the Michigan
Department of Natural Resources
(NPR photo)
Fewer Americans are going fishing, but one place is bucking the trend, and in a surprising way. "In 2016, about 14 percent of Americans fished, and most of them were men. But a recent study on the Upper Great Lakes indicates female participation is on the rise," Morgan Springer reports for NPR. "It found that fishing-license sales increased among female anglers by about 4.5 percent between 2000 and 2015. That's an additional 43,000 female anglers."

Fly fishing is particularly popular among women, who now make up about 31 percent of the 6.5 million Americans who enjoy that sport.

Women's increased interest in fishing is good news for the Great Lakes, which have seen increasing algae blooms in recent years, possibly hurting recreation income. It's also good for conservation programs that depend on hunting and fishing license revenues for funding, Springer reports.

The population of new female anglers skews young: "Young women today are about two times more likely than women born in 1960 to buy a fishing license," said Richelle Winkler, the principal researcher in the Great Lakes fishing study and an associate professor at Michigan Technological University.

Winkler said she doesn't know why more women are fishing, but told Springer she has a hunch: "I think it's part of a broader cultural pattern of the world opening up a bit to women's participation in activities that have traditionally been seen as more masculine."

Monday, November 12, 2018

Federal rule change would let farmers advertise for migrant workers online and abandon ads in local newspapers

Farmers would no longer be required to advertise for farm workers in the local newspaper in order to bring in migrant workers, if a proposal by the U.S. Department of Labor and Department of Homeland Security goes through. Under the proposed rule, farmers could advertise the jobs online instead. The move is an early step in reforms regarding H2-A visas for agricultural workers promised in May in a joint statement from the secretaries of Agriculture, Labor, State and Homeland Security.

It's common to see such newspaper ads in the public-notice or "legal ads" sections of rural and small-city newspapers in the late winter and spring. It allows farmers to say there were no or not enough local applicants for the jobs. The current rule requires "two print advertisements in a newspaper of general circulation serving the area of intended employment," one of them in a Sunday paper unless the jobs are "in a rural area that does not have a newspaper with a Sunday edition," in which case the ad goes "in the regularly published daily edition with the widest circulation in the area of intended employment."

"The problem with the old rule is that they felt compelled to use the largest daily—so the cost really was exorbitant," National Newspaper Association lobbyist Tonda Rush said in an email. She said NNA, the main lobby for rural newspapers, would file formal comments on the proposal. "Federal agencies don’t have much of a vision of the world outside the Beltway, as a rule," she said. "Rural newspapers are going to have to explain how the rest of the country works."

The deadline for comment on the proposed rule is Dec. 10. Richard Karpel, executive director of the Public Notice Resource Center, said in an email that it "plans to file comment opposing this spectacularly misguided proposal. It’s amazing how the Labor Department managed to target the precise class of individuals — lower income people in rural areas — for whom newspaper notice is most vital."

The Federal Register summary says, "The departments are proposing to replace, rather than supplement, the newspaper requirements because they believe that exclusive electronic advertisements posted on a website appropriate for the workers likely to apply for the job opportunity in the area of intended employment would best ensure that U.S. workers learn of job opportunities." They say "a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center indicated that 79 percent of Americans research jobs online, whereas only 32 percent use 'ads in print publications,' and only 4 percent found ads in print publications to be the most useful tool in obtaining their recent employment. This trend is likely to continue as U.S. workers gain increased and more convenient access to the internet via smartphones and other digital devices,[4]and print newspaper circulation continues to decline."

FactCheck Monday: What does 'clean coal' mean?

Our "FactCheck Monday" series was planned only until Election Day, but fact-checking is an integral part of journalism, so we have decided to extend it. We encourage you to subscribe to alerts from and other nonpartisan fact checkers such as PolitiFact and Glenn Kessler's Fact Checker column in The Washington Post.

First up: a hard look at the catchphrase "clean coal." President Trump has used it frequently at rallies and said it can be exported or "loaded up" on railway cars. But the phrase "refers to technologies deployed at power plants that make coal cleaner to burn, not to the fuel itself," Jessica McDonald reports for The term's modern definitions "require cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, and the only way to do that in a substantial way is through carbon capture. Just two coal power plants in the world use the technique, and it makes up less than 0.1 percent of American coal-fired capacity."

The definition of clean coal is "annoyingly nebulous," McDonald notes, and provides a thorough history of efforts to mitigate pollution from coal-fired power plants.

LED lighting advances drive indoor agriculture revolution

A grower inspects kale at 80 Acres Farms. (Washington Post photo by Maddie McGarvey)
Tech advances in light-emitting diode lighting are driving a revolution in indoor agriculture. "In agricultural applications, LED lights are used in ways that seem to border on alchemy, changing how plants grow, when they flower, how they taste and even their levels of vitamins and antioxidants. The lights can also prolong their shelf life," Adrian Higgins reports for The Washington Post. "Compared with other forms of electrical illumination, light-emitting diodes use less energy, give off little heat and can be manipulated to optimize plant growth."

Greenhouses are increasingly using the lights with traditional high-pressure sodium lamps, and will likely continue to shift toward LEDs as technology advances make them cheaper and more efficient. "LED light shipments to growers worldwide are expected to grow at an annual average rate of 32 percent until 2027, according to a market report by analysts with Navigant Research in Boulder, Colo.," Higgins reports. "Shipments of LED lights will overtake those of legacy lights starting next year, says Krystal Maxwell, who wrote the report with Courtney Marshall."

Traditional greenhouse operations aren't the only ones taking advantage of the new LEDs. High-tech indoor grow operations that use LEDs only have been springing up across the U.S. and the world in the past few years, Higgins reports.

One of them is a Cincinnati hydroponic operation, 80 Acres Farms. Its CEO, Mike Zelkind, says crops can be grown more quickly by fine-tuning the amount and quality of light plants receive; spinach, for example, can be grown in a quarter of the time it takes outdoors and half the time it takes in a greenhouse, Higgins reports. The operation, housed in what used to be an abandoned warehouse, produces 200,000 pounds of microgreens, leafy greens, vine crops, and herbs. The company is so named because it would require 80 acres of land to produce what they produce in a 12,000 square foot building.

LED farming “has its critics, however, who see it as an agricultural sideshow unlikely to fulfill promises of feeding a growing urbanized population,” Higgins reports. They point out that indoor grow operations aren't a cure-all, since staples like corn, wheat and rice can't be grown indoors on the scale required. Zelkind acknowledges that, but argues that places like 80 Acres should be part of a wider push to improve farming practices: "He says his stacked shelves of crops are fresh, raised without pesticides and consumed locally within a day or two of harvest. They require a fraction of the land, water and fertilizers of greens raised in conventional agriculture," Higgins reports. "He doesn’t need varieties bred for disease resistance over flavor or plants genetically modified to handle the stresses of the field. And his harvest isn’t shipped across the country in refrigerated trucks from farms vulnerable to the effects of climate change."

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Writers Wendell Berry and Crystal Wilkinson speak up for rural America at Kentucky Arts and Letters Day

Moderator Debbie Baker talked with Wilkinson and Berry at Kentucky Arts and Letters Day. (Photo by Morris Grubbs)
Two great exponents of rural culture, writers Wendell Berry and Crystal Wilkinson, reflected yesterday about their work, rural America and its place in the rest of America.

Berry is an author, poet, farmer and philosopher who speaks for the old verities of agrarian culture and is one of the most widely admired writers of our time. Wilkinson, who teaches at the University of Kentucky, is the author of three widely praised books: The Birds of Opulence (winner of the 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence for rising African-American fiction writers), Water Street and Blackberries, Blackberries, based on her youth in rural Casey County, Kentucky.

Wilkinson and Berry had a conversation that concluded the fourth annual Kentucky Arts and Letters Day at The Berry Center in New Castle, which advocates for for farmers, land-conserving communities, and healthy regional economies, continuing the work of Wendell Berry and his late father and brother, John M. Berry Sr. and Jr.

Berry and Wilkinson said they had both had the experience of having their work discounted as too rural. One of Wilkinson's potential editors wanted "a modern book, not a country book," and another editor wrote a third party, "If she wants to write something more contemporary, let us know."

"I feel like I sort of stuck to my guns because I think that the agrarian story, the rural story, is so important," Wilkinson said. "I almost see it, not overtly so, as a mission -- but certainly in my heart -- and if I never get to New York, I'll be fine, and I'll keep telling stories of our people." That won a big round of applause.

Berry recalled writing, around 1960, an early manuscript of poems that an editor shared with a rising young poet, who said "the experience of the present and the coming world was urban, and this poetry was wrong because of its content," he said. "I don't think either of us decided to write about rural people because they're so interesting. . . . You go with what your inheritance is."

Berry took issue with Paul Krugman's Nov. 8 column in The New York Times, headlined "Real America versus Senate America," about the extra weight that the Senate gives rural voters. Krugman "made an absolute distinction between real America and rural America," Berry said. "People are convinced that the definitive experience, if not the only experience, that's of any account," is urban. "Paul Krugman is an economist. He knows that people have to eat, presumably . . . Well, my next project is to get rural America enrolled in the United Nations."