Friday, March 15, 2024

Interior Dept. proposes restrictions on mining, energy work, grazing in 'sagebrush sea' to protect greater sage-grouse

Bureau of Land Management map; for a larger version, click on it. For more maps and the whole plan, click here.
The bird's mating dance (Photo by Bob Wick, BLM)
The Bureau of Land Management proposed Thursday to save the greater sage-grouse "by limiting oil and gas drilling, mining, livestock grazing and other activities across much of the American West," reports Maxine Joselow of The Washington Post. That "sets up a fierce clash with the fossil-fuel industry, which has long seen the bird as a barrier to extracting some of the richest oil and gas reserves in the region."

The BLM's draft plan "outlines several alternatives for managing nearly 67 million acres of the birds’ habitat across 10 Western states," the Post reports. "The 'preferred alternative' would restore some restrictions on drilling and other activities that the Obama administration imposed in 2015, although it would maintain some elements of the Trump administration’s 2019 strategy." Those plans weren't fully implemented because of court action.

The greater sage-grouse — known for its mating dance — numbers as many as 200,000 and is not listed as threatened or endangered but there were once a million. In 2015, the Fish and Wildlife Service, another arm of the Interior Department, said that was unnecessary because the Obama-era plan would protect it enough. "Since then, congressional Republicans have inserted provisions into must-pass spending bills to prevent a future listing," the Post reports. "Much of the birds’ habitat, known as the 'sagebrush sea,' has been destroyed by huge wildfires and an invasive plant called cheatgrass. Climate change has hastened the habitat loss, since fires have spread more easily through a warmer, drier landscape parched by a two-decade megadrought.”

Publicly at least, energy groups took a wait-and-see attitude, noting variations among areas, while "Conservation groups offered a mixed reaction to the draft plan," the Post reports. "Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, called it the 'last best hope' to save the sage grouse. But Vera Smith, senior federal lands policy analyst at Defenders of Wildlife, said the proposal does not go far enough. . . . . Although sage grouse regulations have rankled the oil and gas industry, they could also curtail clean-energy projects essential to the nation’s transition away from fossil fuels. Such projects include wind farms, solar installations, and mines for minerals used in electric vehicles and other green technologies. That poses a conundrum for the Biden administration, which has set a goal of permitting 25,000 megawatts of renewable energy on federal lands by 2025 — a key pillar of its climate agenda."

In a 'win for American farmers, ranchers and consumers,' the USDA finalizes rules regarding 'Product of U.S.A.' labels

The final rule will help consumers know where their food
comes from. (USDA photo via Michigan Farm News)

Finding meat and poultry produced solely on U.S. farms in today's grocery store is tricky, if not impossible, because of loopholes in the Department of Agriculture's labeling rules. But those rules are set for a long-awaited change, reports Claire Carlson of The Daily Yonder. "Starting in 2026, 'Product of U.S.A.' labels will be allowed only on meat and poultry products made from animals that were 'born, raised, and slaughtered within the United States.' Experts say it will significantly help U.S.-based producers' bottom line."

For years, the biggest meat producers, such as Cargill, J.B.S., Tyson and National Beef, have used labels that could lead consumers to think American farmers produced the meat. Carlson explains, "These corporations produced cheaper products by outsourcing to countries with fewer health and safety regulations for their workers and animals, then labeled the meat as 'Product of U.S.A.,' because they package it within the United States, they said. American producers were unable to compete with these cheap prices or distinguish their American-made products from the outsourced meat products, according to advocacy groups."

Marty Irby, board director for the non-profit research group Organization for Competitive Markets, told Carlson, "[Product of U.S.A. loopholes] enabled [the meat packers] to be able to sell cheap beef to consumers and make people think that they were actually buying an American made product." Carson adds, "Small farmers and ranchers in rural America especially felt the brunt of this. The number of U.S. farmers and ranchers has been in decline in recent years as big corporations merge producers in the meat, poultry, and egg markets . . . . From 2022 to 2023, farm incomes dropped by $41.8 billion, according to USDA data." Joe Maxwell, co-founder of the advocacy group Farm Action and a long-time farmer, told Carlson, "[The regulation] is a huge win for America’s farmers, ranchers, and consumers."

More Americans are opting out of Covid-19 vaccinations; survey shows the choice can be based on political views

Pew Research Center graph
It has been four years since the U.S. rolled out lockdowns and mask mandates to slow the spread of Covid-19. Many Americans, both Republican and Democrat, received the country's first Covid-19 vaccine in fairly equal numbers. However, after that initial jump-off point, Covid-19 vaccines have become more partisan, and many Americans seem less concerned about the virus despite its continuing presence in the population.

"A new Pew Research Center survey finds that just 20% of Americans view the coronavirus as a major threat to the health of the U.S. population today, and only 10% are very concerned that they will get it and require hospitalization," report Alec Tyson and Giancarlo Pasquini for the Pew Research Center. "This data represents a low ebb of public concern about the virus that reached its height in the summer and fall of 2020, when as many as two-thirds of Americans viewed Covid-19 as a major threat to public health."

While it's hard to explain why so many U.S. citizens seem indifferent to the disease, vaccination numbers speak to an overall lack of public interest. "Just 28% of U.S. adults say they have received the updated Covid-19 vaccine, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended last fall to protect against serious illness," Pew reports. "This stands in stark contrast to the spring and summer of 2021, when long lines and limited availability characterized the initial rollout of the first Covid-19 vaccines. A majority of U.S. adults (69%) had been fully vaccinated by August 2021."

Historically, political affiliation hasn't been a factor in vaccination status. A Pew survey from 2023 reported: "Robust public confidence in the value of childhood vaccines for MMR, with no decline in the large majority who say the benefits outweigh the risks compared with surveys conducted before the coronavirus outbreak." The Covid-19 vaccination does not have that kind of unilateral support, but instead vaccine choices fall along party lines. Tyson and Pasquini write, "Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents remain more likely than Republicans and GOP leaners to say they've received an updated Covid-19 vaccine (42% vs. 15%). This 27-point gap in recent vaccination is about the same as in January 2022."

The gap is even more distinctly party-affiliated among Americans 65 and older, who are ironically more at risk of dying from the disease. Pew reports, "In the current survey, 66% of Democrats ages 65 and older say they have received the updated Covid-19 vaccine, compared with 24% of Republicans ages 65 and older. This 42-point partisan gap is much wider now than at other points since the start of the outbreak."

Tyson and Pasquini add, "Still, the virus continues to circulate widely in the United States, with wastewater data suggesting that cases in the early part of 2024 were among the highest they have been since the first omicron wave in 2022."

Many retirees are moving to southern Appalachia, and local governments are struggling to cope with their needs

The Appalachian Mountains in Georgia.
(Photo by Jairph, Unsplash)

Once known for its rustic beauty, moonshine stills and impoverished residents, southern Appalachia's population is expanding as baby boomers from around the country relocate from more expensive regions. "The boomer migration to North Georgia, East Tennessee, the Carolinas and western Virginia is reshaping housing prices, traffic patterns, restaurant options and how local governments cope with something they haven't had to handle before: explosive growth," reports Cameron McWhirter of The Wall Street Journal. "Each year since 2020, an average of 328,000 people from other parts of the U.S. moved to the five-state region, according to Hamilton Lombard, a demographer at the University of Virginia.

Dawson County, Georgia, is the region's leader in population growth, which "saw a 12.5% increase from 2020 to 2022, reaching just over 30,000, according to estimates by the Census Bureau. . . . In Dawson, the population aged 65 or older reached 21% of the county in 2022, up from 14.1% in 2010. Many moving to the region are wealthier," McWhirter writes. "Dawson's home prices rose 46% compared with 39% nationally, according to Lombard's analysis of Zillow housing prices. Other Appalachian areas like Dawson saw similar spikes, the analysis showed."

In Dawson County, not everyone agrees on how to manage regional growing pains. McWhirter reports, "When Billy Thurmond was a boy, most roads here were made of dirt. Now 64, Thurmond, chairman of the Dawson County Board of Commissioners, said he is regularly stopped at the local Walmart and asked about development and traffic issues. There's a twist: Many of those complaining are people who moved to the county in recent years."

Northern Georgia isn't alone in facing conflicts stemming from exponential growth. McWhirter explains, "From April 2020 to July 2022, the population in counties in southern Appalachia designated retirement or recreational areas grew by 3.8% — more than six times the national average, according to Lombard." Expanding towns face constant change as their governments, medical and emergency services, and recreational and retail offerings work to accommodate newcomers. "The influx of wealthier, older Americans has created challenges for governments working to expand services, including broadband, water and wastewater services, roads, health services and housing."

To explore the southern Appalachian population growth graphed by the numbers or to learn why these baby boomers are known as "halfbacks," click here.

Rural residents with diabetes are more likely to suffer from disease complications -- lack of access to care could be why

Diabetes requires continuous care.
(Photo by T. Barbhuiya, Unsplash)
Past studies have shown that rural Americans are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, and they experienced more struggles trying to manage the disease than their more urban counterparts. In a new study, researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine took a closer look at rural residents experiencing diabetes complications such as heart and kidney problems. Their research, which was published in the journal Diabetes Care, showed that these rural populations are at significantly higher risk of suffering from end-stage kidney disease, heart failure and heart attacks, all of which could caused by a lack of access to medical care.

The study's corresponding author, Rozalina McCoy, told UM news: "Those who live in rural areas have a greater risk of experiencing eight out of the eleven complications that we measured compared with those living in cities. . . .They were 15 percent more likely to have dangerously low blood sugar levels, which clearly indicates that their diabetes is not being managed properly."

The study's co-author, Elsa Davis, added, "While our study didn't address why these differences exist, we do know that people living outside of city areas are less likely to receive care from diabetes specialists, to receive diabetes self-management education, and to be monitored for diabetes complications."

While the study encompassed varying degrees of rural populations, it "relied on insurance information to identify diabetes complications," UM reports. "If people could not access medical care, that complication would not be captured. Dr. McCoy noted that this finding further underscored the barriers to care in remote areas: patients are likely having high blood sugar emergencies and heart failure but cannot get to the emergency department or hospital to have them diagnosed and treated." Study authors added that further research should investigate reasons why these disparities exist.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

In East Palestine, Ohio, residents and officials now know the 'controlled burn' was not neccesary

Vinyl chloride is used to make
PVC piping. (Wikipedia photo)
More than a year has passed since the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, which left the community of 5,000 facing the aftermath of a chemical explosion followed by a "controlled chemical burn" of vinyl chloride that at the time was presented as the "least bad" of two options. However, area residents and Congress discovered last week that Ohio decision-makers didn't have all the facts needed to avoid the burn.

"The decision to blow open five tank cars and burn the toxic chemical inside them after a freight train derailed in Eastern Ohio last year wasn't justified, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board told Congress," reports Josh Funk of The Associated Press. "But she said the key decision-makers who feared those tank cars were going to explode three days after the crash never had the information they needed."

The East Palestine train derailment.
(Wikipedia photo)
The company Oxy Vinyl made the vinyl chloride inside the five cars, and its experts told "contractors hired by Norfolk Southern railroad that they believed that no dangerous chemical reaction was happening, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said. But Oxy Vinyls was left out of the command center," Funk explains. While vinyl chloride is a flammable gas, it needs a specific combination of heat, air, light, and a contact catalyst to start a fire or explode. Homendy testified that the Oxy Vinyl's experts did not believe this combination or "polymerization" was occurring. "However, that information was never relayed to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and the first responders in charge, she said."

DeWine's spokesperson, Dan Tierney, said a lack of information made the burn seem like the only safe option. He told Funk: "The only two scenarios that were ever brought up were a catastrophic explosion occurring, where shrapnel would be thrust in all directions to a one-mile radius, or averting that through a controlled vent and burn. Nobody ever brought up a scenario where if you just did nothing, it wouldn't explode."

East Palestine is in Columbiana
County, Ohio. (Wikipedia)
Area residents now face the heartbreak of knowing the burn was not needed, and some suspect Norfolk Southern pushed for the burn versus waiting for the cars to cool so that more costly delays could be avoided. Funk reports, "Misti Allison, who lives with her family about a mile away from the derailment site, said the findings reaffirm what she believed to be true all along: that the vent and burn did not need to happen." She told Funk, "Norfolk Southern was putting profits over people to get the train tracks up and running as fast as possible and to destroy whatever evidence was left."

Vinyl chloride does not occur naturally and is a category 1A carcinogen. The National Cancer Institute notes that "vinyl chloride exposure is associated with an increased risk of a rare form of liver cancer (hepatic angiosarcoma), as well as primary liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma), brain and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia." 

Music archive of more than 90 million physical tracks needs a new home, but moving will cost $10 million

At one time, most music lived somewhere tangible -- on a record, 8-track, cassette or CD, and while Spotify and Apple Music may make that storage seem like history, lots of music still needs a place to live. "The ARChive Of Contemporary Music is looking for a new, permanent home. The not-for-profit music library holds over 90 million physical tracks, making it the world's largest physical archive of contemporary music," reports Rachel Roberts for Music Tech. "ARC is in need of financial support to find a new home for its recordings." The property ARC is currently occupying is no longer zoned for commercial offices.

Founded in 1985 by B. George and David Wheeler (1957-1997), ARC "preserves copies of each version of every recording, in all known formats, and has electronically cataloged more than 700,000 sound recordings and digitized 400,000," Roberts writes. "ARC also houses more than three million pieces of attendant support material including photographs, videos, DVDs, books, magazines, press kits, sheet music, ephemera and memorabilia."

ARC's current home in Duchess County, N.Y. is "on land that hotelier Andre Balazs donated," reports Melissa Newman of Billboard. B. George told Newman, "We could be forced to move at any time. Without a new home, more than three million recordings and millions of historic materials spanning all cultures and races could disappear forever."

"Over the decades, ARC, whose board members have included the late David Bowie, Nile Rodgers, Martin Scorsese and Q-Tip, has proved an invaluable resource," Newman adds. "It provided research and music for such films as Goodfellas, That Thing You Do, Philadelphia and Ken Burns' Baseball documentary, as well as supplying publishing information to BMI and the Harry Fox Agency. In recent years, ARC has focused on digitizing its collection."

With all that history, moving ARC will be a costly undertaking. "George estimates it needs $10 million to relocate, and he would like to stay in the area as 'access is important,'" Roberts reports. "It has already received an anonymous donation of $1 million to fund the move."

Opinion: Why prescription drugs have little to do with the current illicit drug epidemic in the United States

The 1990s marked a time in U.S. medicine where doctors were taught to give narcotics.
(Graphic via Life and Limb blog, Edwin Leap)

Emergency physician Edwin Leap explains that U.S. doctors in training during the 1990s were instructed to treat pain with pills. He said a medical career taught him how misdirected those practices were. He adds that the nation's current addictions and overdoses aren't centered on prescription drugs anymore; they're all about super cheap, available and deadly fentanyl -- other opioids are almost an afterthought. An excerpted version of his commentary from MedPage Today is included below.

"When I was in my residency training, from 1990 to 1993. . . . We were told, over and over, that we should treat pain aggressively and should not be afraid to give narcotics to patients in pain. Who were we to judge someone's pain, after all? The young man who fell onto his knees at work, with a normal blood pressure and heart rate, looking about the room, might well categorize his pain a '10/10,' and we should honor that, respect it, and treat it."

Pain medicines such as hydrocodone and oxycodone (Oxycontin) were first marketed to doctors as a miracle for patients in pain. Given their addictive nature, it didn't take long for the drugs to take hold. Leap writes, "Much of our work as physicians was a balancing act between trying to show genuine compassion, mandated compassion, and appropriate skepticism about pain scales and the lies concocted in pursuit of drugs."

Given doctors' role as the prescription writers who "started" patients on the path to addiction, physicians are now forced to take additional narcotic treatment training. "I have to take a new 8-hour class on proper prescribing habits and pain management," Lead adds. "[But] nobody really argues with me about pain pills anymore. . . .We're only supposed to give a 3-day supply. We tell people that, and they shrug."

The likely reason a 3-day narcotic supply isn't a problem is the availability of fentanyl. "It's just so easy to get the stuff. It's inexpensive, and it's everywhere. It's in drug houses and gas station parking lots. It's in high schools and college campuses," Leap writes. "It's in prisons and homeless encampments. In fact, according to independent journalist Jonathan Choe, it can sometimes be found for 50 cents per dose in homeless camps."

U.S. physicians have little to do with fentanyl's street dominance. Leap writes, "The flood of illegal fentanyl precursors from China, which then become fentanyl and began flowing across the Southern border, continues unabated. . . . It's all rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic until someone gets a handle on the crisis from a geopolitical standpoint. And yes, that means dealing with the border as well. . . . I'm not blaming one political side or another. I'm just saying that if it isn't taken seriously, then the deaths will keep skyrocketing."

This piece was originally published on Leap's blog, Life and Limb.

'On the Front Porch' hosts author Carol Graham to discuss the dramatic impact of hope -- or the lack of it

Why are there pockets in the United States with a striking number of "deaths of despair"? How is despair defined? What are some possible shifts in approach and policy that might taper and prevent the onset of despair?

This Thursday, March 14, at 4 p.m. E.T., Professor Carol Graham of the Brookings Institution will join Tony Pipa from Reimagine Rural and Brent Orrell of the American Enterprise Institute in a deep-dive discussion of her new book The Power of Hope: How the Science of Well-Being Can Save Us from Despair, which incorporates hope as a metric of economic and social well-being.

Register here to participate in person at AEI or online.

On Thursday, April 4 at 10 a.m. E.T., author, speaker and researcher Elizabeth Currid-Halkett will join On the Front Porch for a discussion of her book, The Overlooked Americans, which focuses on surprising successes in American small towns and how that influences the country. Register here to join the conversation.

Quick hits: Are media outlets ready for an 'extinction-level event'? A new National Park; the best rural water

Photo by Yosh Ginsu, Unsplash
Are media outlets ready to rethink and reinvent themselves to survive? That's a big question with so many possible answers. In her commentary for The New Yorker, Clare Malone recounts the rise and fall of U.S. news outlets and asks, "Is the Media Prepared for an Extinction-Level Event?" Malone writes, "Even as outlets have tried to complement news coverage with other offerings, they've faced a fresh dilemma: news subscriptions —the great hope of media — are now directly competing with entertainment ones."

Wikipedia map
America's National Parks are a source of national unity alongside land and historic preservation. The Amache National Historic Site officially opened as the newest national park this year. Amache is in southeastern Colorado, one mile outside of Granada. "It was one of 10 incarceration sites used to detain thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II," reports Lauren Penington of The Denver Post. The park is meant to remind us of past injustices and provide a place of reflection and healing for our country's past mistakes.

With all the twists and turns life can throw at us, sometimes words of wisdom can give us peace and reassurance that this, too, shall pass. Progressive Farmer's "Faith" section reaches out this week with quotes to ponder and embrace, such as this one from Martin Luther King Jr.: "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase."

Kobu photo, Unsplash
Water, water everywhere, and the best sips are in Columbus, Wisconsin. "Many people know Wisconsin for its milk or beer, but did you know that the state is also home to some of America's best-tasting water? Earlier this year, Columbus Utilities in Columbus, a small city northeast of Madison, won the gold medal at the National Rural Water Association's 25th Annual Great American Water Taste Test," reports Claire Reid of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The taste test and awards ceremony took place at the NRWA's annual Rural Water Rally in Washington, D.C."

As younger Americans weigh the costs versus benefits of a college degree, some opt to work for companies that offer great-paying jobs that don't need a degree. "Walmart is giving bigger bonuses and adding stock awards to their annual pay packages, pushing the total compensation for the best ones to more than $400,000 a year," reports Sarah Nassauer of The Wall Street Journal. "The retail giant has thousands of store managers who act as midlevel executives. Each can often oversee a store with 350 workers and $100 million in annual revenue. Many start as clerks and climb the ranks without college degrees."
Case backlogs are a major source of criminal trial delays.
(Tingey Law Firm photo, Unsplash)

The case backlog in U.S. courts increased during the pandemic years, but the shortage of attorneys and judges pre-dates Covid-19. "The pandemic worsened problems that already had caused state and local court delays, legal experts say. The hurdles include insufficient funding, judicial vacancies, lawyer shortages and delays processing digital and physical evidence," reports Amanda Hernández of Stateline. In rural Vermont, "There were over 35,500 pending cases statewide, according to data from the Vermont Judiciary. About 42%, or 15,294 of those pending cases, are criminal cases. That's double the amount of pending criminal cases pre-pandemic."