Friday, March 11, 2022

TikTok, Facebook and YouTube project provides people worldwide with a view of the 'Real Appalachia'

A TikTok video posted Thursday
honors Appalachian women in music.

Pop culture is rife with Appalachian stereotypes, and too many people don't seem to understand what Appalachia is really like. Melody West and Shane Simmons decided to do something about it. They launched a multi-platform social-media project called Real Appalachia, meant to introduce people all over the world to towns in the region, Shannon Smith reports for WBIR-TV in Knoxville.

It started six or seven years ago as The Appalachian Project, a Facebook page where Simmons documented the history of Appalachian towns. That page is still active, with more than 67,000 followers, but the project really started getting popular after Simmons launched a companion YouTube channel in 2020, Smith reports. They recently expanded to TikTok and now have almost 150,000 social media followers and subscribers who tune in for videos with town tours, interviews, stories, and interesting tidbits of history.

"We have viewers from all over the world," West told Smith. "And they don't know anything, really, but stereotypes. So we're showing real Appalachia and there's just interest in that, of the beauty and the history here that has just escaped so many people. And there's so many old towns that we go into that a few years later, the buildings are gone. And we want to document things as they are and how people remember them."

Apply by March 31 for $20,000 investigative reporting fellowship for community-based projects in news deserts

The Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Pittsburgh is now accepting applications for its $20,000 Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship. Click here for more information or to apply.

The fellowship, now in its third year, is designed for community-based journalists with investigative projects in news deserts. "Community-based journalism is disappearing across the country, and it is critical that we work to reverse that trend," center Director Andrew Conte said in a news release. "At a time when we have more tools than ever to access information, it is becoming increasingly difficult to support news at a local level."

The center will also award a second-place prize of $5,000 and a third-place prize of $2,500. The fellowship and runner-up prizes are possible through a three-year grant from the Allegheny Foundation. Applications are due March 31 and the winners will be announced in April.

Erica Hensley won the fellowship in 2020 for a project on unreported lead exposure in the Mississippi Delta and its impact on residents' health. Then an investigative reporter for Mississippi Today, she now covers health for global nonprofit The Fuller Project.

Sunnie Clahchischiligi, a contributing writer for Searchlight New Mexico, won the fellowship in 2021 for a project that exposed educational failures in Navajo Nation schools that allowed thousands of students to go missing from attendance rolls during the pandemic.

The fellowship is named for pioneering journalist Doris O'Donnell, who worked began her 50-year career at the Cleveland News in World War II, then went on to work for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Greensburg Tribune-Review.

Bipartisan Rural Prosperity Act aims to cut red tape, establish 'one-stop-shop' for federal funding for rural areas

On Thursday, Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y,), and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) "introduced The Rural Prosperity Act, bipartisan legislation that would cut bureaucratic red tape by establishing the Office of Rural Prosperity, a permanent office in the White House tasked with coordinating federal efforts to support and connect America’s rural communities to federal programs and resources in order to improve outcomes for rural families and economies.," Sean Golightly reports for the Arizona Daily Sun. "Currently, there are more than 400 federal programs dedicated to helping rural communities, spread across 13 departments, and over 50 offices and sub-agencies, which can create duplicative and ineffective bureaucracy."

The bill would establish a Rural Prosperity Council with members from the heads of all executive branch departments, agencies and offices with programs that serve rural areas. The council would help resolve interagency disputes and coordinate cross-agency efforts, Golightly reports.

Kelly told Golightly that the proposed office would be a "one-stop-shop" for rural communities to get federal support. A companion House bill will be introduced by Reps. Ange Craig (D-Minn.), Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), Cindy Axne (D-Iowa), Tom O'Halleran (D-Ariz.), and Adrian Smith (R-Neb.).

Matt Hildreth, executive director of Rural Organizing, applauded the bill, saying he liked that the proposed office would try to coordinate rural economic development but not override local authorities. "The last thing we want is the strategies to be developed at the federal government," Hildreth told Golightly. "Local people know how to solve local problems. That’s the point." Hildreth said he believes the new office would make it easier for rural communities to access federal funding.

Quick hits: Ginseng and Appalachia; why your brain likes forests more than cities; did you know about Manure Expo?

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

Registration is open for the North American Manure Expo, which will take place in Chambersburg, Pa., July 13-14. Registrants can enter a t-shirt contest for the Top 10 Rejected Manure Expo Slogans; a recent one suggested that attendees "be part of the movement." We want some of the official swag! Read more here.

On the 150th anniversary of Yellowstone National Park, a fifth of its wolves have been killed by hunters in the last six months. Read more here.

A new book explores the importance of wild ginseng to Appalachia. Read more here.
A newly published study shows why your brain prefers walking in a forest to walking down an urban street. Read more here.

The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund is funded by a federal tax on domestically produced and sold coal. At the end of last year that tax was cut by more than half, and the fund is running out of money. Democratic lawmakers have proposed legislation to extend the tax at its original rate through 2031, but the bill has stalled out, leaving the program's future uncertain. Read more here.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

New England's town meetings are 'an exercise in community-building' in contentious times

Allan Dooley holds his voting card in the air as he voices his opposition to eliminating three of the town’s elected positions at a recent meeting in Lyme, N.H. (Photo by Alex Driehaus of the Valley News and Report for America)

Local government meetings have been heating up as voters duke it out on contentious national wedge issues. At a time when Americans feel more fractured than ever, New England's unique town meetings might serve as an inspiration, Alex Hanson reports for the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H., and White River Junction, Vt.

Town meetings were once a banner social event, where friends and neighbors would meet up after a long winter and decide basic local issues, Hanson reports. But with social media, the pandemic, and fewer farmers, the meetings' character changed, making them less popular as a social event, said Paul Doton, meeting moderator in Barnard, N.H., for the past 30 years.

Still, "The appeal of the meeting endures, in part because democracy elsewhere feels more fragile, and because there’s nothing else quite like it," Hanson reports. Kelly Green, who has moderated meetings in Randolph since 2011, told him: "It has not changed, but it has become, I think, I sense, more important, because people are feeling like democracy is fraying."

But Green said she loves town meetings because they encourage better communication. "A fundamental feature of Town Meeting that makes it such an excellent exercise is that it requires people attending to practice speaking and practice listening," she told Hanson.

Former New Hampshire agriculture commissioner and journalist Steve Taylor told The Rural Blog, "Our love for the town meeting is often regarded by observers 'from away' as yet another "cranky Yankee' manifestation, akin to quirky regional things like overuse of the word 'wicked,' the soft drink Moxie and Saturday baked bean suppers. We don't claim it should be the norm everywhere, we just say it's the best way for us. We can hear careful explanations and differing opinions and then make our decisions right there, rather than relying on roadside signs and the vitriol of broadcast ads and social media. And our community officials are easily called to account when it's face-to-face right there in the meeting hall."

Town meetings are often much like the old days, with engaged local citizens participating in civil discussion to decide important matters. Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon writes that he saw evidence of that at the Town Meeting in Lyme, N.H. About 125 residents — around 10% of the local electorate — gathered in the school gym to vote on hot-button issues.

The meeting remained civil, and showcased why attending such meetings in person matters, Kenyon writes: "Along with an opportunity to speak their minds, residents can listen to neighbors and elected officials — often one and the same — explain their stances."

How should reporters at meetings of public agencies deal with misinformation from speakers? Here's some advice

School-board meetings have become increasingly contentious as parents bring up political wedge issues such as masking, coronavirus vaccination, critical race theory, transgender student athletes, and more. Opinions on many of these issues are predicated on misinformation and conspiracy theories. Reporters covering such meetings must figure out how to report on misinformation without spreading it themselves, Julia Métraux and Sophie Hurwitz report for Poynter.

The dangers of repeating misinformation without context are clear. For instance, last summer at least two video clips went viral that showed doctors making false claims about coronavirus vaccines at school board meetings. Thousands shared the clips on social media as proof that doctors didn't trust coronavirus vaccinations. But both clips were full of misinformation, and both doctors had iffy qualifications at best: one of the doctors appeared not to be board-certified, and the other had a PhD in education, not medicine.

"For reporters covering school board meetings, deciding how to contextualize decisions and conversations in coverage can be complex," Métraux and Hurwitz report. "Not mentioning the perpetuation of misinformation and disinformation about critical race theory, transgender students and Covid-19 at these meetings is also not a solution — this misinformation still harms people in their community."

They have some suggestions gleaned from various experts:
  • Reporters could choose not to quote factually incorrect claims. To do so for shock value could do more harm than good, especially when such claims don't represent a significant portion of local sentiment.
  • Different issues may require different handling. Critical race theory, for example, has become a catch-all bugaboo, so defining it as originally intended may not be context enough.
  • Don't repeat racist, anti-transgender, or antisemitic language (for example), since that could help normalize such language, which can make students feel unsafe. 
  • Include at least one outside perspective or fact that wasn't raised in a meeting to make articles more useful to readers. One expert said, as an example, that reporters writing about a conversation about why pandemic safety protocols matter might include a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study about how children are at a higher risk of developing diabetes after being infected with the coronavirus. 

States consider protections for threatened local election officials; if they quit, partisan officials could fill the vacuum

Election officials across the country "have faced violent threats and harassment since the 2020 presidential election, as [Donald] Trump and his allies continue to perpetuate repeatedly disproven myths about voter fraud," Matt Vasilogambros reports for Stateline. "This pressure, meant to exhaust and scare local officials into resigning, could usher in new election personnel who seek to skew results, election experts say."

Tina Peters is an example of what that kind of local interference could look like. The rural Colorado county clerk made headlines last year for embracing debunked conspiracies. She was recently indicted, making her "the first elections official to face criminal charges related to conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 election, experts said," Emma Brown reports for The Washington Post. "She is accused not of fixing the election but of breaking the law as she sought to investigate whether someone else did." Specifically, she's accused of sneaking someone into the Mesa County elections offices to copy the hard drives of Dominion Voting Systems machines. 

"Peters’s alleged actions, along with efforts by other election deniers to seek public office, are contributing to concern among experts about possible escalating risk to the nation’s voting systems," Brown reports. "State or federal investigators have probed multiple alleged security breaches of election systems and equipment since Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential race, including some thought to be aided by elections-office insiders or right-wing conspiracy theorists."

"Trump-aligned activists and lawmakers have worked to alter the traditional democratic process at many levels of government, from gutting local boards that certify election results to granting state legislatures unprecedented election powers that could ultimately let them change results. Partisan investigations in other states are sowing further doubt in the election system," Vasilogambros reports. "Seeing this crisis unfolding, lawmakers in at least 10, mostly Democratic-run states are considering legislation that would increase criminal penalties for those who threaten election officials. Some measures also would add new digital privacy protections for election officials."

New rural coronavirus infections down nearly 50% last week

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Feb. 27-March 5
Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

New coronavirus infections in rural counties fell by nearly 50% during the week of Feb. 27-March 5, to a level not seen in four months. Rural counties reported about 65,000 new cases last week, down from 120,000 the week before. "Since the peak of the Omicron surge in mid-January, rural infections have dropped by 90%," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder.

Rural counties reported about 1,750 deaths last week, nearly one-third lower than the 2,600 reported the week before. Metropolitan counties reported 238,598 deaths last week, a little more than one-third less than the 369,026 deaths the week before, Marema reports.

The last few weeks have also seen a dramatic drop in the share of rural counties in the red zone, defined as counties with 100 or more new infections per 100,000 residents in a week. Three weeks ago, nearly all rural counties were in the red zone, but last week only about one-third of them were, Marema reports.

Click here for more charts, regional analysis, and county-level interactive maps from the Yonder.

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

States and schools across nation drop mask mandates, but concern remains about low vaccination rates among kids

States and school districts all over the country are dropping mask mandates in the wake of the Omicron surge.

"Parents, teachers and principals face a complicated balancing act in navigating the new rules. Some families are thrilled that their children no longer have to wear masks, while others say they’re still tentative and urging their kids to keep wearing face coverings for now. Teachers and principals are caught in the middle," Philip Marcelo and Dave Collins report for The Associated Press.

Deciding whether to mask or not can hinge on complicated factors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently advised that most Americans can safely stop wearing masks, but should keep them on where infection rates are still high. Also, "Those hesitant about ending school mask mandates often point to low childhood vaccination rates among American children," Marcelo and Collins report. "Only about a quarter of children ages 5 to 11 have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and about 58% of children ages 12 to 17 are inoculated, the CDC says."

Research shows that masks make a dent in infection rates. A recently published study of Arkansas schools showed that those with required masking had 23% fewer coronavirus cases than those where masks were optional.

In Kentucky, where infection rates remain high in many counties, the state legislature may pass a bill allowing K-12 students to opt out of any masking, testing or coronavirus vaccination mandates, and ban such mandates at public colleges and universities. When asked for his masking advice to the general public, Gov. Andy Beshear said: "The No. 1 piece of advice I can give is, don't feel pressure." He said people should consider their daily activities and the infection level in their county, and those with pre-existing conditions should wear one because "There is still a lot of Omicron out there."

Biden gets postal-reform bill that ensures six-day delivery and offers a lifeline to newspapers that depend on the mail

On Tuesday the Senate sent President Biden a $107 billion postal-reform bill that serves rural newspapers and their readers, and could save the Postal Service an estimated $50 billion over the next decade. Biden is expected to sign it, Gillian Brassil reports for McClatchy Newspapers. The bill received strong bipartisan support, with many Republicans joining Democrats to pass it, 79 to 19.

One feature of the long-debated bill would allow newspapers to mail sample copies to non-subscribers in their home counties at the same rate they pay for delivery to subscribers. The current limit is 10 percent of annual home-county circulation, enacted more than a century ago. The bill would make it 50%, which would only enable more sample-copy subscription appeals but provide total market coverage for advertisers that don't normally advertise in newspapers.

The bill "gives community newspapers a new ability to regain subscribers lost by the past few years of slow mail delivery," National Newspaper Association Chair Brett Wesner said in a press release. "It also offers USPS a new lease on life by relieving debt to the federal government. Now we look forward to a revision of postage rates by both USPS and the Postal Regulatory Commission, which have attempted to retire some of this debt with dramatically higher postage rates."

The bill also keeps a mandate for six-day delivery, important in rural areas, and "drops a mandate that the U.S. Postal Service prepay its retired employees’ health care benefits and requires future retirees to enroll in Medicare," Brassil reports. "It allows the agency to partner with state, local and tribal governments to provide services that are not related to mail, including to offer hunting, fishing and driver's licenses." It takes effect in January 2025.

The co-sponsors of the House bill were Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and James Comer, R-Ky., chair and ranking minority member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The Kentucky Press Association lauded Comer in a news release, in which 2021 KPA President Sharon Burton said, “He faced backlash from his own party to get this done and it is a rare bipartisan effort. Imailt is very important for rural communities and has language specifically requested by our industry. He deserves a big thanks.”

Trucker shortage and Canadian blockade threaten newsprint supply, especially for smaller, rural newspapers

Newsprint rolls (Photo by David Kasnic, The Washington Post)

"A shortage of truckers and blockade bottlenecks have put a crimp on newsprint deliveries to the nation’s newspapers," Buck Ryan, associate professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky, reports for The Rural Blog.

“The newsprint situation is severe,” Brett Wesner, chair of the National Newspaper Association and publisher of 15 titles in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, told Ryan.

The crunch appears to come from a backlog caused by the blockade by Canadian truckers to protest pandemic restrictions.

“There are too few trucks and truck drivers in the market, so deliveries to newspaper printers are often delayed or unpredictable,” Tony Smithson, a regional director of printing operations for Adams Publishing Group, a major community newspaper company, said on his NNA blog in December.

This week, Smithson told Ryan, “One supplier recently told us that they had lined up only 76 trucks and drivers for the 872 loads they had planned to ship. That illustrates the scope of the challenge.”

Most U.S. newsprint comes from Canada, so the backlog was worsened by Canadian truckers' blockage to protest pandemic restrictions, said Kentucky Press Association Executive Director David Thompson, North America's longest-tenured newspaper-association executive: “The Canadian truck convoy was part of the problem for a while, but there is just a shortage of truckers right now.”

Southeastern Kentucky publisher Jay Nolan worried this week that he wouldn't have newsprint for the 14 papers, eight of them his own, that print at his London plant. “Just got word our paper truck is now scheduled to arrive March 14. That’s three days before disaster of having zero paper in stock,” he wrote Tuesday. “Worst supply situation I’ve seen in my 40 years in the industry.”

Nolan said small, rural papers are more threatened by the shortage because most of their printers are independently owned "or have newsprint agreements with only one or two mills," not the cooperative. "Some have limited storage capacity. As the paper market gets tighter, trucking delays make just-in-time delivery more problematic." He listed several contributing factors for the shortage, including:

  • A decline in demand for newsprint caused mills to close or convert their machines to other types of paper. The pandemic further crushed demand as newspapers closed.
  • With fewer mills making newsprint, producers are running near capacity.
  • As the pandemic rose, Covid-19 diminished the ability of providers to fully staff remaining producing plants: “Classic supply/demand/production bottleneck.”
  • Increased regulations have dramatically raised requirements and training for someone to get a Class A commercial driver's license, causing a national shortage of truck drivers. Gasoline price increases have hurt the trucking industry even further.
  • Delays in getting produced paper picked up for shipment has filled mill warehouses and shipping docks to a saturation point.

Nolan is not optimistic the situation will improve soon. “Recently, I was told lack of storage capacity is now hampering production,” he said. “Also, mills are running at such high capacity level, maintenance is curtailed. Now, any breakdown of machinery pushed too hard stops production.”

For Ryan's full story, click here.

Farming group coalition sends Federal Trade Commission a mammoth right-to-repair complaint about John Deere

"A broad coalition of agriculture interests has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against John Deere, demanding the right to repair their own equipment, Jesse Hirsch reports for The Counter. The 43-page complaint was filed for the National Farmers Union, other advocacy organizations and state farmers unions in Iowa, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

"Currently, when a piece of John Deere equipment breaks down on the job, its owner is expressly forbidden from making their own fixes—only authorized, company-employed technicians have those permissions," Hirsch reports. "And even if you attempted to conduct your own repairs, you’d find it next-to-impossible, particularly on newer, computer-driven models. Deere locks down its proprietary knowledge tightly, and without company-provided diagnostic software and equipment, even getting a sense of what’s broken is virtually out of reach."

The complaint details how difficult John Deere has made it for farmers to repair their own equipment. The same themes keep coming up: "lengthy waits to get a Deere-authorized technician to service machinery; further waits for the actual repairs; crops and profits lost in the meantime; and overall frustration that a company making $6 billion annually can keep such a stranglehold on their own ability to do business," Hirsch reports. And, farmers complain, the company failed to follow through on a 2018 promise to make repair tools, software guides and diagnostic equipment available for farmers starting Jan. 1, 2021.

The Biden administration issued an executive order last year supporting right-to-repair laws and ordering the FTC to limit farm-equipment manufacturers from preventing such repairs, Hirsch reports. The FTC voted unanimously to adopt the order and has promised to crack down on companies like John Deer "with vigor." Complementary right-to-repair bills were introduced in the House and Senate in February, but haven't passed yet, Alex Gray reports for Successful Farming.

Huge but harmless spider species, a relative of garden spiders, is expected to spread up and down the East Coast

A female Jorō spider in Hoschton, Ga.
(Photo by Jeremy Howell)
A huge—but harmless—invasive spider species has spread across Georgia and other parts of the Southeast, and scientists say it will likely make its home up and down the East Coast, Jordan Mendoza reports for USA Today.

It's called a Jorō spider, an orb-weaver a little bigger than your palm. It looks a lot like a common garden spider, but can be distinguished by its flashy red butt. It's native to East Asia, but likely hitched a ride to the U.S. in a shipping container about a decade ago. Jorōs were first spotted in Georgia in 2013, and have expanded their territory rapidly since then, Mendoza reports.

The spiders will probably spread up and down the East Cost in the coming years, according to a newly published study in Physiological Entomology. University of Georgia scientists wanted to figure out the potential range of the Jorōs, so they compared the species to its close cousin, the golden silk spider, Mendoza reports. Golden silk spiders—also called banana spiders—spread throughout the Southeastern U.S. over 100 years ago but have spread no further because they can't tolerate cold weather.

"The scientists collected the two species and measured numerous physical traits as well as how they adapted to different environmental conditions, including brief periods of temperatures below freezing," Mendoza reports. "The results showed Jorō spiders, compared to their relative, had a metabolism twice as high, a 77% higher heart rate in low temperatures and they survived 74% of the time in the temperatures below freezing, while the golden silk spider survival rate was only 50%. Scientists also noticed the species does well in Japan, with some regions that have climates similar to the Northeast."

So you may see a Jorō spider in your yard in the next few years, but scientists say you shouldn't worry. They love to gobble up obnoxious pests like mosquitos and stink bugs. And, like other orb weavers, they're not aggressive, and their fangs can't penetrate human skin anyway, Mendoza reports.

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

Iowa publisher says '60 Minutes' brush was too broad: 'Many local community newspapers are flourishing'

"60 Minutes" correspondent Jon Wertheim said on the CBS program nine days ago, “A dramatic drop in readership, loss of ad revenue and the emergence of other forms of media have posed major challenges for many legacy print media publications.”

Peter Wagner, publisher
That's true "in almost all major markets and in some smaller communities," but "The story did not, however, fairly reflect the state of many locally owned newspaper alive and well in many of America’s smaller communities," Publisher Peter Wagner writes in his N'West Iowa Review.

"Even for the best and most committed of us, some circulation numbers have dropped and selling print advertising has become more difficult. But the same can be said of the big three traditional television networks, although they never find reason to report it on their news-magazine programs."

Wagner gives a basic barometer that many don't know: "For years, the mark of a good newspaper was how many homes it reached compared to the census figure of the community in which it was published. If the circulation was equal to at least half the population number the paper was healthy and doing its job as a community watch dog and cheerleader."

Sheldon, in O'Brien County, Iowa (Wikipedia map)
He says his paper still reaches more than half of the 5,000 people living in his Iowa Information headquarters town of Sheldon and 25 percent of the homes in its four-county region, and "Many local community newspapers are flourishing. The reason is there is still a passion on the part of many for local, community news. Most smaller hometown newspapers are still publishing a good amount of fresh, local information."

Wagner says he wrote the column "to make sure our readers – and more importantly our advertising customers – understand that our Iowa Information papers should not be judged by what is happening to papers owned by the hedge-fund groups. . . . We, as the Wagner family, pledge ourselves to strive to make The N’West Iowa REVIEW the finest regional paper possible. Our family believes in the future of N’West Iowa and the need for good papers in all communities. Don’t let general comments from television commentators, on the internet or local gossips misdirect your ideas of the value of the local newspaper."

Map shows where biodiversity is most at risk; extinctions can make a big difference in fishing, farming and more

Darker red areas on the left map show concentrations of imperiled biodiversity; green areas on the right map show areas permanently protected for biodiversity. (NatureServe maps combined by The Rural Blog; click the image to enlarge)
A new map, the most detailed of its kind, shows areas of the contiguous U.S. where plant and animal species are at the highest risk of global extinction, including wide swaths of Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and the West. Little of that land is protected.

Nonprofit conservation research group NatureServe partnered with the Nature Conservancy, a network of state partners, and geographic mapping platform ESRI to gather the research, recently published in the journal Ecological Applications. Notably, they included groups that underpin food chains but are often left out of such analyses, including species of bees, butterflies, fish, mussels, crayfish, and flowers, report Catrin Einhorn and Nadja Popovich of The New York Times. As the struggle to contain the invasive Asian carp has shown, shifts in biodiversity can have a big impact.

"Maps like these offer a valuable tool to officials and conservationists who are scrambling to protect biodiversity," Einhorn and Popovich report. " That work is critical, because scientists say humans are speeding extinction at a disastrous pace."

About 13 percent of the U.S. is permanently protected for biodiversity, but the analysis found that hundreds of endangered species' habitats are in unprotected areas. "Even when species are protected under federal or state laws, they are typically more vulnerable outside of lands that are managed to protect biodiversity," Einhorn and Popovich report. "Officials may not know where they are. Private landowners may be reluctant to report them or allow surveys for fear of the restrictions that could follow if they are found."

28 percent of nation's big farmers have poor or no internet

Among the nation's larger farmers, two out of seven can't effectively access the internet, according to Purdue University's most recent Ag Economy Barometer. "The gap in access exists at the same time the sector is embracing precision agriculture technology such as GPS guidance of tractors and combines," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

The Ag Barometer is a survey of farmers and ranchers with at least $500,000 in production per year. In its February survey, 12 percent said they had no internet access at all, 16% reported a poor-quality connection, 41% reported a moderate-quality connection, and 30% reported a high-quality connection. "Some 82% of farms across the country had internet access in 2021, up from 75% in 2019," Abbott reports. "Half of farms had a broadband connection and 70% used a cellular data plan for access. Two thirds of farms had a desktop or laptop computer and 77% had a smartphone."

Though the rural digital divide has narrowed since 2016, rural adults are still less likely than their suburban or urban peers to have home home broadband or to own a smartphone or computer, the Pew Research Center found. That matters when farms increasingly rely on broadband. According to a 2021 Agriculture Department report, "Half of the farmers in the biggest corn, soybean and wheat states and a quarter of farmers nationwide have embraced precision agriculture," Abbott writes. That includes tech using drones to monitor fields and livestock.

The recently signed infrastructure bill has $65 billion to improve internet services for rural and other underserved areas; most will be distributed to states in grants. "The White House says the USDA will issue a funding opportunity notice this year for nearly $2 billion through its ReConnect program for deployment of rural high-speed internet," Abbott reports.

Rural America faces challenges in adopting electric vehicles

Electric vehicles are increasingly popular, but it may be a while before they're feasible in rural America. It depends a great deal on whether rural areas are able to snag federal money for charging stations. 

"How rural communities will fare in the battle for electric vehicles funds comes down to a sort of chicken and egg scenario, officials said," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. "Without acceptance of electric vehicles in rural areas, federal funding for charging stations will go elsewhere. But without the charging stations, fewer rural residents will buy electric vehicles."

The Transportation Department recently released a toolkit aimed at helping rural communities leverage infrastructure funding for charging stations. Widely available stations are the key to widespread adoption of EVs, the toolkit says.

"In rural parts of the country—home to 20% of Americans and almost 70% of America’s road miles—EVs can be an especially attractive alternative to conventional vehicles," the toolkit says. "Rural residents drive more than their urban counterparts, spend more on vehicle fuel and maintenance, and often have fewer alternatives to driving to meet their transportation needs. Over the long run, EVs will help residents of rural areas reduce those costs and minimize the environmental impact of transportation in their communities."

Carey notes that increasing adoption of EVs is making governments reconsider how they fund roads, since their taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel are the main source of such funds.

Pandemic roundup: Long Covid explained; some Christians with weak immune systems worry about attending church

Here's a roundup of recent news stories about the pandemic and vaccination efforts:

Federal pandemic assistance will soon end, and some experts worry rural health care could suffer as a result. White House policymakers say they're taking that into account. Read more here.

As states, counties and municipalities increasingly lift pandemic restrictions, Americans with weakened immune systems say they feel left behind. Attending church during the pandemic has been a source of anxiety for many immuno-suppressed Christians, The Washington Post reports.

Millions of Americans have developed long Covid, which is an umbrella term for various long-term complications from the coronavirus infection. That's caused many to become homeless. The Post has a great explainer on long Covid, including current understanding of its risks, symptoms, and recovery.

Social workers are the unsung heroes of the pandemic, but many are feeling burned out and leaving their positions. Read more here.

Coal giant Peabody touts big solar project in Illinois Basin

Peabody Energy is the world's largest private-sector coal producer, but it announced last week it's launching a renewable energy company called R3 Renewables. In the announcement, the company "touted its financial backing and 'extensive' land holdings, and said it would start with development of six sites on or near old coal mines in Indiana and Illinois," the Illinois Basin coalfield, Bryce Gray reports for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The move may be startling, since the St. Louis-based company has long been a staunch defender of the coal industry, but analysts say it makes sense.

"Old coal mines offer the land and available space that’s critical for renewable energy projects. And they’re already wired for heavy electrical use, with built-in access to the wider power grid, which could make it far cheaper to rewire them for solar. And grid access is so important some renewable energy developers value it even over especially sunny or windy sites," Gray notes. "Additionally, repurposing existing mines might provide Peabody with a way to alter reclamation obligations — hefty costs tied to the restoration of land after mines close down. Keeping the land in use, albeit for a different purpose, might change when and how the bills come due."

Peabody and other coal companies have faced increasing financial pressure in the U.S. in recent years as demand for thermal coal shifts toward Asia, and have acted accordingly. In 2016 the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and in 2019 it merged its Powder River Basin operations with rival Arch Resources, then called Arch Coal. Arch made the name change in 2020 when it pivoted toward metallurgical coal. "Amid the switch, Arch’s leaders spoke very clearly about the vanishing future for thermal coal" use to generate electricity, Gray reports.

Peabody remains focused on thermal coal; its website address icon is "BTU" in a blue block. One analyst speculated that major Peabody creditor and investor Riverstone Credit Partners may be behind the company's move. Riverstone not only has experience developing renewable energy projects, but also has the financial wherewithal to shepherd large-scale projects, Gray reports.

And the scale is striking: "Over the next five years, R3 aims to develop more than 3.3 gigawatts of solar power and 1.6 gigawatts of battery storage capacity at the sites in Indiana and Illinois," Gray reports. "That’s about three times the existing solar generation in the two states combined . . . and nine times their storage capacity."

Monday, March 07, 2022

Journalists who chronicled rural America by prop plane will tell the stories of towns transformed through local innovation

Deborah and Jim Fallows
Journalists Jim and Deborah Fallows spent five years writing about small towns and their newspapers for The Atlantic, parlaying their their travels via a small plane into a best-selling 2018 book and an HBO documentary. Last year the husband and wife founded the Our Towns Civic Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to sharing the stories of community innovators who are driving positive change at the local level.

Our Towns is partnering with nonprofit Community Heart & Soul to share stories of renewal in small cities and towns across the nation, and your town could be one of them. CH&S facilitates community growth through training and supporting a network of coaches who help residents identify what they love most about their town, what future they want for it, and how to achieve it.

More than 100 small cities and towns nationwide are using this model, and CH&S is currently offering $10,000 seed grants to qualifying communities (pop. 2,500 to 30,000) that want to start the process too. The grants require a $10,000 cash match from the participating community or a partnering organization. Learn more about the seed grants here.

The Fallowses lauded CH&S in a press release announcing the partnership: "The Community Heart & Soul process is both distinctive and replicable. It guides the way for residents to listen to the stories they tell each other about their towns, to reach common community goals, and to transform those goals into actions for change that can be measured and sustained."

CH&S Executive Director Mark Sherman, in turn, said the organization is "thrilled" with the partnership: "Storytelling is an integral part of the Community Heart & Soul process, and the Fallowses and their Our Towns team are masterful storytellers. I can think of no two people I would rather have help us spread the word about CH&S than Jim and Deb Fallows."

USDA and EPA officials tour Black Belt county to see chronic sewage problems, a disproportionately rural issue

Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small, EPA Administrator Michael Regan and activist Catherine Coleman Flowers toured a mobile home park in Lowndes County, Alabama, with standing pools of raw sewage in the yards. ( photo by Dennis Pillion)

"On the eve of the Selma Jubilee, commemorating the 'Bloody Sunday' march that helped catalyze support for the Voting Rights Act 57 years ago, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency toured Alabama’s Black Belt to witness a different kind of struggle: the battle for clean water and basic sanitation," Dennis Pillion reports for EPA Administrator Michael Regan, Agriculture Undersecretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small and other EPA and USDA officials "went to three different properties in Lowndes County Saturday, seeing homes where malfunctioning septic systems discharged untreated sewage into backyards and in between mobile homes, and where some residents had nowhere to go to address their sewage issues."

The group was led by author and activist Catherine Coleman Flowers, the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, who won a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" in 2020 for bringing attention to the issue in her native county and other rural areas, Pillion reports.

More than 2 million Americans lack access to clean water, according to a 2019 report by clean-water advocacy non-profits DigDeep and the U.S. Water Alliance. It's a problem that disproportionately affects rural residents and those in substandard housing. Because rural Black, Latino and Native American residents are more likely to live in substandard housing, they're more likely to be affected.

A key to the problem is that rural populations are often too spread out to make traditional utility lines cost-effective, and sewers are the most expensive basic utility. Cash-strapped local or tribal governments are increasingly on the hook to pay for water system improvements, according to the DigDeep report. The 2021 infrastructure package earmarked $29.3 billion in grants over five years for counties to upgrade their water systems. But rural counties may miss out on much of that money, since they often lack the manpower and know-how to compete for or spend such grants.

Regan said the situation was "unacceptable" and clean water and safe sewage systems were a "basic right" that every American deserves, Pillion reports. Regan continued: "Straight piping into lagoons, failing septic systems, waste and raw sewage backing up into yards into homes, seeing children have to walk around delicately so that they don’t sink or get bogged down into their own front yards. This is not the America that we all know it should be."

Sunshine Week starts Sunday; time to remind your audience of the importance of openness in government

Sunshine Week starts Sunday, March 13, and runs through Saturday, March 19. The annual observance, coordinated by the News Leaders Association, celebrates the importance of open government and freedom of information, and an opportunity for news media to tout their role in both. Again this year, some federal agencies such as the National Archives and Records Administration are taking part.

Newsrooms can observe the week in a number of ways. The Sunshine Week website has a content toolkit with stories, editorials, columns, cartoons, and graphics that are free for use. You can engage in social media discussions, too (search for or use the hashtag #SunshineWeek to find them). And you can also find Sunshine Week events, or contribute your own event. Several state newspaper associations have websites with articles, editorials, illustrations and other tools, in addition to the NLA site.

Rural Democrats say they feel increasingly isolated

Clearfield County (Wikipedia map)
Many rural Democrats say they feel increasingly isolated as non-metropolitan areas trend ever rightward. One exemplar of that is Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, about 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh; it was once the most evenly divided polity in the nation, but no more, Christopher Cadelago reports for Politico.

"Barrels of ink have been spilled over the past seven years examining Donald Trump’s appeal in rural places like Clearfield County," Cadelago writes. "Blue-collar 'diner stories' about disaffected Democrats and independents who crossed over to support Republicans are so common they’ve become their own media subgenre. And the reasons for that massive defection have become familiar from repetition—the erosion of manufacturing and energy jobs, the withdrawal of private-sector labor unions, an explosion of technology and expanding cultural divisions. What those tales often leave out is the other side of the same coin. In these towns and counties, there remain thousands of Democrats ... who are faithful to their party—and feel that they are paying an increasingly steep price for that loyalty. Nearly 30,000 people in Clearfield County voted for Trump in 2020, roughly three-quarters of the ballots cast. But the other 25 percent who voted for Joe Biden—9,673 people—find themselves in an unusual position: They supported the ultimate winner and yet a relentless and toxic campaign to delegitimize his victory and overturn the election makes them feel somehow as if they’re under siege."

Bird flu now found in 21 domestic flocks in 12 states; first domestic cases in two years

Just as the coronavirus pandemic seems to be waning among humans, the bird flu is picking up.

"Highly pathogenic avian influenza was identified in three more states — Missouri, Maryland, and South Dakota — said the Agriculture Department. Since the first case was confirmed on February 8 on a turkey farm in southern Indiana, HPAI has been found in 21 domestic flocks in 12 states," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network. "Nearly 1.9 million birds, mostly chickens and turkeys, have died, either from the disease or from exterminations intended to prevent the spread of it. Agricultural officials act quickly and ruthlessly because 'high path' bird flu can wipe out a flock swiftly. This year’s outbreaks are the first appearance of HPAI in domestic flocks in two years."

The last time there was a bird flu outbreak, it killed more than 50 million chickens and turkeys between December 2014 through June 2015. The deaths represented 12 percent of egg layers and 8% of meat turkeys in the U.S., Abbott reports.

"Avian influenza is highly contagious and can be spread by migratory waterfowl and their droppings, but also through contact with infected poultry and by contaminated equipment and clothing of farmworkers. Wild birds are seemingly unaffected by HPAI. The virus is not considered a health risk for humans."