Friday, March 29, 2019

Study and op-ed show the impact of postal service, trade treaties, and broadband access in rural America

Online giants eBay and Amazon want to expand more into rural America, but say they need better resources to do that.

It's no surprise they want to attract more rural customers. "There are 37 million working-age adults in the rural US who account for close to 15 percent of the adult population, but annual revenues of rural businesses represent only 3.7 percent of total gross revenues in the US economy," Ina Steiner reports for eCommerce Bytes, an e-commerce news publication.

eBay's press shop recently republished an op-ed written for The Hill in which an eBay seller discusses what he and other rural residents need to succeed. "We don't need saving. We're not asking for, and we wouldn't accept, a handout," Bill Ingersoll writes. "We're entrepreneurial. All we want is the chance to compete in the modern, global economy."

Ingersoll, who testified before the House Committee on Small Business last week on this topic, writes that rural residents need three things: equal service from the U.S. Postal Service, good broadband access, and careful government attention to global trade policies.

Some proposals to save the foundering USPS would cut off service or dramatically raise prices for rural areas. That would be a "disaster" for Ingersoll's eBay business since 80 percent of his sales ship through the post office. Better broadband access is a no-brainer: "If I can’t quickly post detailed photos and descriptions of the parts I’m selling, I’m not going to find a buyer. If I can’t process a customer’s order because of slow internet, I’m going to lose a sale."

Ingersoll also cautions lawmakers to consider the impact of international trade policies on small businesses such as his, since many of his sales come from foreign countries. "We need trade policies that make it simpler to send low-value shipments overseas," Ingersoll writes. "Otherwise, only big companies will be able to take advantage of the global economy, and companies like mine will be left behind. Red tape in international trade is a guaranteed way to put rural America at a competitive disadvantage."

Amazon made similar recommendations to improve the economic outlook in rural America, including expanding education and training programs, helping rural areas attract tech talent, and increasing affordable, high-speed broadband and wireless access. Amazon commissioned the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to study the topic. "According to the research, southern states are among the ones that would benefit the most from increased adoption of online tools and digital services, with rural businesses in West Virginia (+57.6 percent), Alabama (+32.9 percent), Mississippi (+32.8 percent), and Georgia (+31.5 percent) experiencing some of the largest revenue growths over the next three years," Steiner reports. "Texas, Ohio, and Mississippi would gain the highest number of new jobs, with the Lone Star state adding an average of 23,400 new jobs per year over the next three years."

The study found that increasing adoption of online tools and digital services could add more than 360,000 jobs in the next three years and grow the annual revenue of rural small businesses by 21 percent in the same time frame. Adopting such tools would have the biggest impact on small rural businesses with annual revenue of under $100,000, Steiner reports.

Rural Iowa journalist publishes four weeklies from her home

Melinda Wichmann in her office (Press-Citizen photo by Dick Hakes)
It's not unheard of for a small-town weekly newspaper to be produced by one person, but how about four weeklies? That's what Melinda Wichmann does every week from the spare bedroom in her home in the east-central Iowa community of Homestead, pop. 148.

"From this spot, Wichmann collects, edits and organizes all the local news she can snag from parts of Iowa, Benton and Poweshiek counties. She’s a solo employee, relying on limited-time freelancers and the general public to contribute news and photos," Dick Hakes reports for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, a Gannett Co. daily. Gannett bought the group that included the papers.

Wichmann says the input from the public and freelancers is a key part of her operation. "Those people are the only way I’m managing to keep these papers going," Wichmann told Hakes. "I may be the Lone Ranger out here, but I couldn’t do it without help from freelancers and readers who share their community news with me."

Wichmann wasn't always a lone ranger. She began her career in journalism in 1988 in the 40-person operation at the Pioneer Republican in Marengo and its sister paper the Journal Tribune in Williamsburg. Through layoffs and ownership changes, she hung on and absorbed more and more responsibilities," Hakes reports.

"Last summer and fall, the physical offices were closed in each of the four communities key to the newspapers. Besides Marengo and Williamsburg, that included the Star Press Union in Belle Plaine and the Poweshiek County Chronicle Republican in Grinnell," Hakes reports. So, in February Wichmann "agreed to take on all four newspapers under the title of community content specialist and to try to accomplish it in a normal work week from her home."

It's a lot of work, and staying organized is critical, but Wichmann says it's worth it. "I take pride in the fact that these four papers are still being published," she told Hakes. "I think I am kind of here by accident, but I think I’m where I’m supposed to be."

What's killing so many young apple trees?

High-density, trellised apple trees
(Photo by Melissa Dobernigg)
Apples are one of the most valuable fruit crops in North America, worth about $4 billion in the U.S. last year alone. That's why scientists and growers are working so hard to figure out why alarming numbers of young apple trees across the U.S. and Canada are rapidly dying off, Erik Stokstad reports for Science.

The phenomenon is widespread -- about 80 percent of North Carolina orchards show suspicious symptoms, for example. Penn State plant pathologist Kari Peter started hearing about it about six years ago, and told Stokstad it happens with startling speed: "Rows of trees collapse for what seems like no reason."

Weather-related stress from drought and/or severe cold could be one cause, especially since the eastern U.S. is seeing more early freezes, but pests, diseases, and the increasing use of high-density, trellised orchards could also be factors, Stokstad reports.

Evidence supporting the severe-cold hypothesis: "One common symptom in trees struck by rapid decline is dead tissue at the graft union, the part of the trunk where the fruit-bearing budwood of an apple variety is joined to hardy rootstock to create new trees," Stokstad reports. "The union is vulnerable to late-season freezes because the tissue is the last to go dormant." However, British Columbia has experienced the problem too, and that region has had several unusually mild winters. And since its orchards are irrigated, drought wasn't likely a factor.

Another theory: certain rootstocks or herbicide exposure might make trees more susceptible. Decline seems more common with trees from a popular rootstock that can be slower to go dormant in the fall. And one scientist noticed that decline seems more common in orchards with fewer weeds, which could point to herbicides, Stokstad reports.

Pests could be a problem too: "In hard-hit North Carolina, researchers have found ambrosia beetles infesting the graft union of dying trees. These stubby insects burrow into weakened trees and cultivate fungus for their larvae to eat. Those fungi or stowaway fungi might harm the trees," Stokstad reports. Researchers will begin testing that theory in June, and will also try to figure out if they can improve trees' immune systems.

Growing apple trees in dense, trellised rows could also be part of the problem. Farmers plant trees like that to get a higher yield per acre, but it results in trees with shallower roots that are more vulnerable to drought, Stokstad reports.

FEMA denies half the money California requested to repair partially failed dam; may be a signal to other states

Thousands of dams in the U.S. are deemed at risk of catastrophic failure (Federal Emergency Management Agency map)
After the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied about half the money California requested to repair a dam, "state and local governments can no longer assume the federal government will cover the costs of disasters it deems caused by deferred maintenance," Dave Nyczepir reports for Route Fifty.

Sperling's Best Places map
Heavy rains damaged the spillway on the Oroville Dam, triggering a flood that forced more than 180,000 residents to evacuate in February 2017. The state requested $639 million for repairs, but last week FEMA notified the state Department of Water Resources that it would only provide $333 million. FEMA said the state should have addressed preexisting structural problems to the dam, Nyczepir reports. A 2018 report found that the dam had problems not just with maintenance, but with design and construction.

"The state agency plans to appeal the decision to FEMA for itself and 29 local water contractors, wholesalers that supply treated water," Nyczepir reports. "But FEMA has made clear state and local governments should expedite repair or replacement of aging infrastructure before it fails."

FEMA's decision could be a warning to other states, all of which have dams considered at high risk of catastrophic failure. 

Op-ed: New York Times columns illustrate the ways people tend to think about rural America

Two recent columns in The New York Times illustrate the two different ways people tend to think about America. "On one side of the coin, we see it as a post-apocalyptic wasteland of dysfunction, intolerance, and economic ruin," Tim Marema writes for The Daily Yonder. "On the other, we see a pastoral cornucopia of small-town charm, neighbor helping neighbor, and home-grown tomatoes. In other words, it’s all bad or all good."

David Brooks wrote about the positive aspects of rural life he'd seen while visiting Nebraska: "I keep going to places with more moral coherence and social commitment than we have in booming urban areas."

Paul Krugman was more concerned with the rural economy. He wrote: "There are powerful forces behind the … economic decline of rural America – and the truth is that nobody knows how to reverse those forces."

"With just a few words, the economist (Krugman) and the moralist (Brooks) trigger our customary response to rural America," Marema writes. "It’s so busted it can’t be fixed, or it’s so naturally good we must tread lightly lest we corrupt it. Either way, if you buy those stories, there’s not much American society can do collectively to help improve conditions in rural America. If it’s economically hopeless, why bother? If it’s morally superior, just let them figure it out on their own."

Marema notes that both columnists raise important questions and represent parts of the story accurately and without malice, but writes that framing rural America that way misses an important point: "The future of rural America isn’t separate from the future of urban America. This isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s possible for rural and urban areas to succeed simultaneously, and by doing so, each part of the country helps the other part build a better future. Rural and urban areas depend on each other. That is why they both matter – not because one is more economically productive or the other is morally superior."

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Interior secretary nominee blocked pesticide-study release

David Bernhardt
(AP photo by David Zalubowski)
David Bernhardt, President Trump's nominee to lead the Interior Department, blocked a Fish and Wildlife Service study in late 2017 that could have led to tighter restrictions on two widely used pesticides.

Of the three pesticides studied, the FWS analysis "found that two of the pesticides, malathion and chlorpyrifos, were so toxic that they 'jeopardize the continued existence' of more than 1,200 endangered birds, fish and other animals and plants, a conclusion that could lead to tighter restrictions on use of the chemicals," Eric Lipton reports for The New York Times.

Just before the report's planned release in November 2017, Bernhardt led a team that blocked it and launched a new process that required the pesticides to meet a much narrower standard in order to be considered dangerous. The approach was one that pesticide makers and users had lobbied "intensively" to promote, Lipton reports. Bernhardt is a former lobbyist and petroleum-industry lawyer who frequently worked on endangered-species issues.

Dow AgroSciences (recently renamed Corteva) manufactures chlorpyrifos. It donated $1 million to Trump's inauguration committee. "EPA and Interior Department records show that top pesticide industry executives had regular access to senior agency officials, pressing them to reconsider the way the federal government evaluates the threat pesticides cause to endangered species," Lipton reports.

The Times and the Center for Biological Diversity unearthed Bernhardt's move after obtaining more than 84,000 pages of documents from Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency through a Freedom of Information Act request. "The documents provide a case study of how the Trump administration has been using its power to second-guess or push aside conclusions reached by career professionals, particularly in the area of public health and the environment," Lipton reports.

Purdue Pharma pays Oklahoma $270 million in opioid settlement, avoids a televised trial

Purdue Pharma has agreed to pay the state of Oklahoma a $270 million settlement, resolving the first of more than 1,600 pending lawsuits against the controversial manufacturer of painkillers.

"Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter filed suit two years ago alleging Purdue helped ignite the opioid crisis with aggressive marketing of the blockbuster drug OxyContin and deceptive claims that downplayed the dangers of addiction," Martha Bebinger reports for NPR. Two other firms were sued.

The settlement, far less than the $20 billion Hunter originally asked for, will fund addiction research and treatment and pay for legal fees. It comes "one day after the Oklahoma Supreme Court denied Purdue's appeal for a delay of the trial," which the judge ruled can be televised, Bebinger reports. The trial is "expected to begin on May 28, with the remaining defendants, including Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceuticals."

A larger case in Ohio consolidates thousands of lawsuits brought by counties, communities, hospitals and others against nearly two dozen defendants in the pharmaceutical industry, Bebinger reports

Federal judge rejects Medicaid work or 'community engagement' requirements for Arkansas and Kentucky

"Medicaid work requirements in Arkansas and Kentucky approved last year by the Trump administration were blocked by a federal judge on Wednesday," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty. "It was the second time in less than a year the same District of Columbia district court judge, James Boasberg, rejected Kentucky’s plan."

Republican lawmakers in recent years have increasingly supported work requirements for "able bodied" Medicaid beneficiaries as a more politically palatable way of thinning them out than rolling back the Medicaid expansion under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Eight of the 36 states that expanded Medicaid to people with income up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level have received approval from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for a waiver that clears the way for work requirements.

When Arkansas implemented its work requirements last year, more than 18,000 people lost Medicaid coverage. "Arkansas’ requirements called for most able-bodied adults between 19 and 49 years old to complete 80 hours of work or other approved activities each month," Lucia reports. "These people had to report that they were complying each month mostly using an online portal—a provision that was widely criticized as recipients said they weren’t computer savvy or lacked reliable internet access." Rural residents are less likely to have reliable internet access.

Kentucky's work or "community engagement" requirements were similar, mandating that certain Medicaid enrollees spend at least 80 hours a month on a job, community service, substance abuse treatment, or job training. The plan was to take effect last July 1, but Boasberg blocked it just days before on grounds that, like the Arkansas program, federal approval of it was "arbitrary and capricious" because the Department for Health and Human Services hadn't considered the state's forecast that the Kentucky Medicaid rolls would have 95,000 fewer people in five years under the new plan than without it, in large measure for noncompliance with the work and reporting rules.

Kentucky slightly revised its plan, but Boasberg said it was mostly the same. Rather than follow Boasberg's direction to create a plan that doesn't take coverage away from so many people, "the Secretary doubled down on his consideration of other aims of the Medicaid Act," Boasberg wrote. "Given a second failure to adequately consider one of Medicaid’s central objectives, the Court has some question about HHS’s ability to cure the defects in the approval."

Adam Meier, the secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services in Kentucky, said in a press release that Boasberg was "illogical" in presuming Medicaid "is all about paying for health care for as many people as possible without regard to whether this coverage actually makes people healthier. . . . We want more than to simply give someone a Medicaid card they can put in their wallet. We want a program that focuses on actually improving health outcomes. . . . Kentucky HEALTH is precisely in line with the objectives of the Medicaid program."

Blight is a problem for rural towns, too; some fight back

A home in Marianna slated for demolition. (Observer-Reporter photo by Holly Tonini)
Blight is a well-known term, conjuring images of crumbling urban buildings and roads, but many rural areas suffer from it too, especially those with economies that depend on declining industries.

That's the case in Washington County, in rural southwestern Pennsylvania: it and neighboring counties were once prosperous from coal, depending on jobs form the Marianna Mine. But these days many towns in those counties are "dealing with dozens of abandoned and neglected properties, absentee landlords, crime and safety concerns, a diminished tax base and a heap of filth," Rick Shrum reports for the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa.

Marianna, a borough of 475 just south of Pittsburgh, is working hard to fight back blight. Washington County recently awarded the borough $100,000 to address blight. The borough is clearing 21 blighted properties and has already completed work on, Shrum reports.

It's an important task for several reasons, Marianna leaders told Shrum. It clears the way for properties to get back on the tax rolls, beautifies the community and makes it safer; Councilman Wes Silva recalled an incident a few years ago in which falling bricks from a dilapidated building almost hit a young child. He said about six homeowners living adjacent to the blighted buildings have expressed interest in buying the cleared lots to expand their property.

Op-ed: Funding certain research universities could help revitalize rural America

Noah Smith
Rural areas are losing population: fewer people are born there and more people move away from there when they grow up. And as recent Bureau of Labor Statistics noted, nine in 10 jobs in the past decade have gone to the biggest cities. Many have brainstormed about how to rejuvenate rural America. Noah Smith, a columnist for Bloomberg and former assistant professor of finance at New York's Stony Brook University, writes that more government subsidies and private investment in second-tier research universities would be a big help.

"Big cities aren’t the only places to benefit from knowledge industries; college towns also thrive in the new economy," Smith writes. "Economists have found that cities where the U.S. government began setting aside land-grant money for public universities in the 19th century tend to be richer and more productive in the modern day. In a review of local economic policies, economists David Neumark and Helen Simpson cite several papers showing real positive effects of government efforts to create university-centered clusters."

Though government subsidies to college towns helps inject money into local economies, "economists Jaison Abel and Richard Deitz have found that the biggest impact probably comes from university research," Smith writes. "By attracting smart people to the region and drawing in private investment, research universities harness the forces of knowledge-industry clustering to increase the wealth of an entire region." Read more here.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Pew poll shows little worry about news-media finances; compares 99 media markets on journalism performance

Despite years of news stories about the troubles of newspapers, and recent research showing that 1,800 (almost all of them weeklies) closed from 2004 to 2015, a strong majority of Americans think that “their local news outlets are doing very or somewhat well financially,” according to polling by the Pew Research Center. Amy Mitchell, Pew’s executive editor of journalism research, in a briefing last week that the industry attempt to educate consumers “seems to largely have gone unheard,” Laura Hazard Owen reports for Nieman Lab at Harvard University. But most people say they get their news from television, and there has been little news about TV finances. Pew says, "A third of those who prefer print think their local news media are not doing well financially."

Pew also found that only 14 percent of American adults "have paid for or given money to local news of any kind — print, digital, public-radio pledge drive, anything — in the past year," Owen reports. "Inside the news industry and Nieman Lab World, the fate of local news stands out as a particularly scary problem. Outside our bubble, however, people aren’t all that worried about it."

The poll surveyed about 35,000 people, which allowed Pew to create an interactive tool "that lets users delve into the local news environments in 99 regions across the U.S.," Owen reports. These are "core-based statistical areas," which omit some exurban counties that are in metro areas, but still include counties with rural populations, and market-to-market comparisons can be interesting. The Rural Blog found some in the two markets with which we're most familiar: Lexington and Louisville.

Metro areas for which Pew media polling data are available
In the Louisville metro area, which lies partly in Indiana, the six most important news topics for daily life are the weather (66 percent), crime (39%), prices (37%), traffic and transportation (36%), government and politics (25%) and schools (16%). When those who said a topic was important or merely interesting were asked how easy it is to stay informed about it, the "very easy" percentages were: weather 82, sports 54, traffic and transport 47, crime 43, schools 35, jobs and unemployment 25, prices 22, community activities 22, arts and culture 22, restaurants, clubs and bars 21, and government and politics 20. In the nearby Lexington market, that last figure was 44 percent, ranking fifth, just as it did among the importance of topics (in Lexington and nationally). Those disparities suggest that there is more appetite for news of government and politics than many news media in Louisville think. In both markets, TV is the leading news provider, but there's a big difference in pathways; 53 percent in Louisville say they get their news from TV, 20 percent from a news site or app, and 10 percent each from print and social media. In Lexington, social media edge out TV, 29 to 27, and the other pathways are tied at 17 percent.

The poll also asked whether local journalists are in touch with the community, whether local news media have a lot of influence, and if the respondent had spoken with a local journalist. Comparisons of these numbers across markets should be interesting. Questions about news-media performance included accuracy, thoroughness, fairness, transparency about reporting and "keeping an eye on local political leaders." Then the poll asked how well local news media do at keeping them informed of the important stories of the day.  Here are the grades for Louisville and Lexington:

Private wells, Superfund sites at risk from Midwest flooding

Major flooding in the Midwest could put more than 1 million private wells in mostly rural areas at risk of contamination, The Associated Press warns.

"The high water and swift current carries raw sewage from overburdened treatment plants, animal waste and pesticides from farm fields, and spilled fuel," AP's Jim Salter reports. "Contaminated water can carry bacteria such as E. coli that can cause gastrointestinal illness, reproductive problems and neurological disorders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infants, young children, pregnant women, elderly people, and people with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable."

According the National Ground Water Association, the 1.1 million private wells at risk span 300 counties in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and South Dakota. The National Weather Service warned that the threat could persist well into spring because of upcoming snowmelt in northern states.

The flooding could also cause some Superfund sites to leach contaminants that could get into local water supplies. The Environmental Protection Agency is assessing two such sites for groundwater contamination: the Nebraska Ordnance Plant in Mead, and the Conservation Chemical Corp. in Kansas City, Mo. "The Mead site operated as a munitions plant from 1942 to 1956 and its disposal of radioactive waste and other chemicals led to groundwater contamination. The EPA says it has not found evidence that any hazardous contaminants were released by the flooding" but will "evaluate the sites further as floodwaters recede," AP reports.

Bad indicator: Minn. farm income hit 23-year low in 2018

University of Minnesota graphic
Median farm income in Minnesota hit a 23-year low in 2018, according to research by Minnesota State University and the University of Minnesota. It's a trend that could be echoed in other states and reflects low crop prices, bad weather and trade issues.

"In 2018, the reported median net income was $26,055, down 8 percent from the previous year. Farmers in the lowest 20 percent reported losing nearly $72,000," Allison Sandve reports for U of M. "The analysis examined data from 2,209 participants in farm business management programs, as well as 101 members of the Southwest Minnesota Farm Business Management Association."

Participating farmers make up about 10 percent of the state's commercial farmers. The number of participating dairy farms decreased by 15 percent in 2018, mostly because so many dairies sold their herds, Sandve reports.

Dale Nordquist of the Center for Farm Financial Management at U of M said that the five years before 2018 weren't much better, which means farmers have been struggling for a while. Also, the median producer of all four of the state's top agricultural products earned a net farm income of less than $31,000. "It’s important to understand that these are small businesses that don’t pay themselves a salary, so that net farm income reflects what they made from the farm to feed their families," he told Sandve.

"On a more positive note, farm balance sheets did not deteriorate substantially from previous years. The average farm’s debt-to-asset ratio increased slightly to 36 percent, still a relatively strong financial position largely supported by farmland that has maintained its value," Sandve reports. "When non-farm earnings are added to the picture, the average farm family’s net worth increased by almost $30,000. However, "the Minneapolis Fed says farm bankruptcies continue ticking upward in the region — and outpacing rates across the rest of the country," Politico reports.

The Department of Agriculture recently predicted somewhat higher farm profits this year, but Nordquist said there are "too many variables" to make a confident guess. 

EPA says Missouri plan to regulate coal-ash ponds too weak

The Environmental Protection Agency has been criticized for lax regulation under the Trump administration, but it recently told the Missouri Department of Natural Resources that the state's plan for disposing of toxic waste from coal-ash ponds isn't strong enough to protect the environment or the health of residents. Coal ash includes hazardous substances that could leach into groundwater or streams if not contained and disposed of correctly. Missouri is home to two major coal companies, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal.

EPA noted that several parts of the plan are weaker than the 2015 federal coal-ash rule. Some allow the state "to waive requirements for utility companies to clean up groundwater contamination or even monitor groundwater for toxic chemicals if they can show that it doesn’t affect drinking-water supplies or harm the environment," Eli Chen reports for NPR. "The state agency also could suspend requirements to monitor groundwater if the utility can demonstrate that the disposal site doesn’t pose a risk to human health or the environment."

Trey Davis, president of the Missouri Energy Development Association, argued that the state's proposed rule protects health and the environment as well as the federal rule, and said state regulations didn't have to match their federal counterparts, Chen reports.

"Researchers from the Washington University Interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic recently found excessive levels of arsenic, boron and other harmful chemicals near all ponds that are receiving coal ash waste," Chen reports. "The MDNR is taking feedback on its plan until March 28 and expects that the state regulations will be effective by the end of September."

Supreme Court says moose hunter can use hovercraft on rivers flowing through federal preserves, but only in Alaska

Map by University of Alaska-Fairbanks
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the National Park Service can't prevent someone from using a hovercraft on a river that flows through federal land in Alaska.

The ruling stemmed from a 2007 incident in which Park Service rangers told moose hunter John Sturgeon that he could not operate his hovercraft on the Nation River, which flows through the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, Laura Maggi reports for Route Fifty. The Park Service bans hovercraft, saying they can make it easier for people to access remote locations that could be spoiled by motorized equipment. However, the state of Alaska does not ban hovercraft.

Sturgeon sued the Park Service in 2011, arguing that Alaskans get special access to federal lands as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.  "The state of Alaska supported the lawsuit, saying in a brief this summer that it doesn’t make sense to ban hovercraft in a place where people need access to wilderness areas, often using rivers to get to distant communities," Maggi reports. For its part, the Park Service said it had the power to regulate what happens on navigable waters in national parks, even if the land is owned by the state.

The Supreme Court unanimously sided with Sturgeon. "Justice Elena Kagan agreed with Sturgeon that the federal law that set aside 104 million acres of land in Alaska for preservation constrained the authority of the Park Service on land or waters not owned by the federal government," Maggi reports. "In part, that's because when national preserves were set up, they included millions of acres of state, native and private land that aren't completely regulated by the federal agency. The Nation River is included in that exemption."

Kagan noted that the case was Alaska-specific, and Sturgeon could not have won in any other state. The narrow scope of the case could raise questions about the Park Service's authority to protect federal park lands and rivers in Alaska, but in a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor recommended that Congress amend ANILCA to clarify it if there were any concerns, Maggi reports.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Rural residents are having a harder time affording rent; analysis has data for every county

Change in percentage of county residents with severe cost burden for housing in 2010-17
(Stateline map; click on the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version)
It's getting harder to find affordable housing in rural America. "Nearly one-fourth of the nation’s most rural counties have seen a sizeable increase this decade in the number of households spending at least half their income on housing, a category the federal government calls 'severely cost-burdened,'" Tim Henderson reports for Stateline. "Those counties, none with towns of more than 10,000 residents, have experienced housing cost increases significant enough to force families to scrimp on other necessities."

The problem is job-related: residents struggle to afford rent in rural areas that have lost high-paying jobs, like coal-dependent counties in Central Appalachia. And in areas with an improving economy, the influx of new workers drives rents up, making them unaffordable for the poorer, Henderson reports. The second scenario is seen in areas riding the boom in hydraulic fracturing or wind farms.

Another reason for the rural rental-housing crisis: "federal incentives to include affordable units have all but disappeared, and those remaining are quietly expiring, allowing landlords to freely charge more when demand rises, according to a 2018 study by the Housing Assistance Council, Henderson reports. "More than 2,000 rental properties left the federal program, mostly in the Midwest, between 2006 and 2016, according to the study, as landlords paid off the loans."

Loss of environment beat at Ky.'s largest paper an example of decline in reporting in rural areas by metro news media

Rural areas around the nation get much less attention from metropolitan newspapers these days because the papers' staffs have shriveled and their focus is largely on their metro area. One example of that is the demise of the environmental beat at the Louisville Courier Journal, Charles Bethea reports for The New Yorker magazine.

James Bruggers, environmental reporter at the CJ since 1999, left in 2018 to write for InsideClimate News, and wasn't replaced. His reporting not only brought attention to questionable environmental practices in rural Kentucky, especially its eastern coalfield, but helped change them, Bethea writes. And that goes beyond the environment, to issues of safety and health in underground coal mines.

“The C-J’s absence on the coal beat has showed lately,” Bethea was told by Al Cross, former CJ political writer who left in 2004 to run the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. One example Cross cited was the work of Howard Berkes of NPR on the resurgence of lung disease among coal miners in Eastern Kentucky, where the CJ closed its Hazard news bureau in 2005. These are "some of the poorest places in America, with a long history of being exploited by coal companies who exported their wealth," said another former CJ reporter, who spoke anonymously. "They are still, and will always be, dealing with the environmental aftermath of mining, and there are fewer local reporters there paying attention."

Tom FitzGerald, director of nonprofit environmental advocacy group the Kentucky Resources Council, told Bethea the attrition of environmental reporters means the public is missing out on important local coverage in the state, such as the study of the health impacts of large-scale surface mining that the Trump administration cancelled and "massive contamination" issues with a former uranium-enrichment facility in Paducah, where the CJ news bureau also closed in 2005.

Bruggers still lives in Louisville and reports on issues that affect Kentucky, but doesn't have the same impact, said Judy Petersen, the former executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance: “When you get a story above the fold in a major newspaper like the Courier Journal, it typically has a big result. It gets picked up by other media outlets; governors notice it; ORSANCO commissioners notice it. People start asking questions. People turn out for public hearings.”

Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader "is the closest thing Kentucky has to an environment beat reporter," Bethea reports. "The 34-year newsroom veteran covers southern and eastern parts of the state, and though he's written about environmental issues related to coal, oil and gas extraction, he says he only spends about 10 percent of his time writing those," from Somerset, just outside the eastern coalfield.

Lack of rural reporting is a downward spiral. When readers from "way out in the state" called with a concern, Bruggers told Bethea, "We had the bandwidth to look into those. Then the staff got smaller and smaller, the bandwidth shrinks, and, eventually, the people stop calling, because you can’t help them. You didn’t help them the last time."

Lack of staff, structure at HUD agency slows hurricane aid

Lack of structure and staff at a federal agency and a funding battle in Congress over relief for Puerto Rico are stalling aid to survivors of natural disasters. Many rural areas are having a harder time recovering than their urban counterparts.

"A slow start to the Housing and Urban Development Department’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program has led to virtually none of the funds being disbursed, despite Congress approving the spending more than a year ago," Eric Katz reports for Route Fifty. "HUD’s 'ad hoc' approach to overseeing and monitoring the funds has created lags in four states and territories—Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands—providing relief to individuals affected by the hurricanes, the Government Accountability Office found."

The CDBG program usually helps disaster survivors with housing, infrastructure and economic revitalization not covered through insurance or other programs. But HUD doesn't have permanent authority to issue emergency funds, so it must create a new regulatory framework for each disaster, Katz reports. 

After Congress approved assistance for areas hit by hurricanes in 2017, it took CDBG five months to create that framework, then another six months to make agreements with states and territories about the financing and implementation of those plans. "In the meantime, the auditors noted that HUD’s inspector general has already identified several issues with the states and territories' controls over the money," Katz reports. "GAO also found that HUD does not deploy a uniform assessment of those controls or other key data from the grantees, such as how they estimate their unmet needs. This has led to the current appropriation of $35 billion, most of which will go to Puerto Rico, being insufficient for addressing recovery efforts in the affected areas."

On Capitol Hill, the fight over funding relief for Puerto Rico is slowing passage of a $13.5 billion disaster aid bill that has broad bipartisan support going into the Senate this week. "The White House, however, isn’t pleased with the bill and is particularly opposed to efforts by Democrats to make hurricane relief to Puerto Rico more generous," Andrew Taylor reports for the Associated Press. "Senate Republicans are supporting food aid to the devastated island and are working with top Democrats like Patrick Leahy of Vermont to try to speed passage of the measure by adding additional help for Puerto Rico."

9 in 10 new jobs since recession are in major metros; rural areas haven't recovered the jobs they've lost since 2007

Map by The Daily Yonder using Bureau of Labor Statistics data
Click on the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.
The national unemployment rate is 3.8 percent, suggesting that jobs are plentiful for those who want them. But an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics yearly employment data shows that that almost nine out of 10 new jobs created since 2007 have gone to large metropolitan areas, and that rural America hasn't recovered the jobs lost in the recession that began in 2007.

"The nation’s cities, suburbs and exurbs all had more jobs in 2018 than they did in 2007, before the economic collapse that sent the world economy into depression. The nation’s rural counties, however, had 780,000 fewer jobs in 2018 than they did in 2007," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. "The nation’s metro areas gained 11.4 million jobs since 2007, an increase of more than 9 percent. Rural America in the same time period lost 3.7 percent of its jobs."

A few other interesting trends emerged. Upstate New York lost jobs in rural and urban areas, and four large metro counties on the Great Lakes (those that make up most of Detroit, Cleveland, and Erie and Rochester in New York) had the biggest job losses of any large metro area. Meanwhile, the oil and gas boom in parts of Texas and the Upper Great Plains increased rural employment there.

New England study: land conservation boosts employment, especially in rural areas

A newly published study of New England found that an increase in land conservation--permanently protecting land from development--leads to increases in employment rates, especially in rural areas.

"The study, published today in Conservation Biology, is the first of its kind, estimating the local net impacts of both private and public land conservation over 25 years (1990-2015) across 1500 cities and towns that are home to 99.97% of New England's population," Clarisse Hart writes in a Harvard University press release.

Researchers from Amherst College, Harvard Forest, the Highstead Foundation, and Boston University found that employment increased within five years of implementing land protections, even when controlling for other associated factors, Hart reports.

"The authors say gains in employment following increases in conservation may be driven by new jobs in tourism and recreation--a sector that provides 52 billion dollars a year in direct spending, according to estimates by the Outdoor Industry Association," Hart reports. "The authors also point to the preservation of jobs in areas with commercial timberlands that support timber harvests, non-timber forest products such as maple syrup, and public access and recreational activities."