Friday, March 22, 2024

Nominations sought for the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism by April 15

Tom and Pat Gish, about 20 years ago
Each year the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, presents the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, named for the couple who exemplified those qualities as publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for 52 years.

Nominations for the Gish Award may be made at any time, but the deadline for new nominations to be considered for this year's award is April 15. To make a nomination, send a detailed letter with some documentation explaining how the nominee shows the kind of courage, tenacity and integrity that Tom and Pat Gish demonstrated at their weekly newspaper in the Central Appalachian coalfield. They withstood advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks, and even the burning of their office to give their readers the kind of journalism often lacking in rural areas, and were the first winners of the award named for them. Tom died in 2008 and Pat in 2014; their son Ben is editor and publisher of the Eagle and serves on the award selection committee.

Additional documentation may be submitted after the nomination, and may be requested or required. Send your nominating letter, initial documentation and any questions to Institute Director Benjy Hamm at

The Institute seeks nominations that measure up, at least in major respects, to the records of the Gishes and other previous winners. Other winners have been the Ezzell family of The Canadian Record in the Texas panhandle; Jim Prince and Stanley Dearman, current and late publishers of The Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler of The Oregonian for her work at The Times-Tribune in Corbin, Ky., and Jacksonville Daily Progress in Texas; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, La.; Jonathan and Susan Austin of the Yancey County News in North Carolina; the late Landon Wills of the McLean County News in Kentucky; the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in northern New Mexico; Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in northwestern Missouri; the Cullen family of the Storm Lake Times-Pilot in northwest Iowa; and Les Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon. In 2019, the award went to three reporters whose outstanding careers revealed much about the coal industry in Central Appalachia: Howard Berkes, retired from NPR; Ken Ward Jr., then with the Charleston Gazette-Mail; and his mentor at the Gazette, the late Paul Nyden. In 2020 the award went to the late Tim Crews of the Sacramento Valley Mirror; in 2021 to the Thompson-High Family of The News Reporter and the Border Belt Independent in Whiteville, N.C.; in 2022 to Ellen Kreth and the Madison County Record of Huntsville, Ark.; and in 2023 to Craig Garnett of the Uvalde Leader-News in Texas.

California prosecutors charge fentanyl suppliers with murder. The legally unsettled approach is catching on.

Prosecutors in California are forging a path to make fentanyl dealers accountable for their part in overdose deaths by filing homicide charges against them. In Riverside County, California, county district attorney Mike Hestrin "has charged 34 suspected fentanyl suppliers with murder and is said to be the first prosecutor in California to achieve a guilty verdict from a jury in a fentanyl-related homicide trial," reports Michael Corkery of The New York Times. Some critics fault the prosecution of street dealers "as a misguided return to the aggressive approaches of the 1990s, which failed to curb drug use and swelled state prison populations."

But even in boldly liberal parts of the state, murder investigations of fentanyl overdoses are being used to discourage fentanyl sales and provide some level of justice for families. Corkery writes, "Some other counties — like San Diego and Placer, near Sacramento — that have also brought murder charges against fentanyl suppliers have sizable numbers of conservative-minded voters who tend to favor more punitive approaches to crime." Even in San Francisco, the district attorney's office is planning to prosecute fentanyl dealers for overdose deaths.

While prosecutors pursue murder charges against fentanyl dealers, their cases are on murky legal ground. "Prosecutors have been working around the fact that California does not have a law that specifically allows fentanyl deaths to be charged as murders," Corkery explains. 

Defense attorneys have responded to the prosecutions as "overbroad and unconstitutional," Corkery reports. But their complaints are being drowned out. "Parents whose children died from fentanyl are a driving force behind new laws and stepped-up prosecutions just as the parents of drunken-driving victims swayed the nation to crack down on alcohol-fueled traffic deaths decades ago."

To read more on how California prosecutors are using the Watson murder rule to prosecute fentanyl suppliers, click here

Drug Enforcement Administration statistics draw a startling picture of fentanyl's lethal power: It is the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 45, and it's responsible for nearly 70 percent of the United States' 107,000+ drug overdose deaths in the past year. A educational warning video is shared below.

Finally Friday musings: When only big sky and great open spaces feel like home, visiting can be a bittersweet journey

View of the Snake Range inside Great Basin National Park, Nevada. (Photo by Claire Carlson, The Daily Yonder)

A Love Letter to Nevada’s Wide Open Spaces

One of my favorite places in the world is a small town called Baker west of the Nevada-Utah border where weird sculptures made of rusting car parts border the road and a joint general store-motel offers anything you might need, including obscure books on the American West and artisan beer and coffee, depending on the time of day and your mood.

Perhaps best known as the gateway to Great Basin National Park (one of the country’s least crowded national parks and my personal favorite), Baker is also at the beginning – or the end, depending on which way you’re driving – of the “Loneliest Road in America,” i.e. the section of Highway 50 that stretches from Baker to Dayton, Nevada.

But this road is far from lonely: small towns like Ely and Austin provide excellent stops for the intrepid road tripper looking to see an abandoned silver mining-era castle or eat at a retro diner that’s retro because it’s been in business since the 1950s, not retro because they decorated it that way. For me, the sagebrush and red-tailed hawks offer more than enough company for the six-hour drive across the state. 

Rural Nevada is a place unlike anywhere else I’ve been. The seventh biggest-by-land state in the country, Nevada boasts an enormous amount of open space once you get outside the metro-areas of Reno or Las Vegas, and it’s one of the only places I’ve been where you could get pulled over for driving under 80 miles per hour. And with the way I like to drive through the state, getting pulled over for being too slow is a real risk, but I can’t help it: rural Nevada is a place I want to linger.

I was born and raised in Nevada, first in Carson City and then Reno. I moved away from home five years ago now, and at best I return once a year to visit. I know I will visit less often as the people I know there move away for their own big adventures. 

The last time I was in Reno, the most noticeable change was the sprawl. The cookie cutter houses and roads spewing all directions felt unbearably suburban. The new Starbucks and Cracker Barrel and In-N-Out burned big on the landscape. It felt unoriginal, overdone, and a little bit lonely. All I could think about was how desperately I wanted to drive east until I made it to the Loneliest Road in America, where maybe, finally, I could recognize the state I so love. 

Suburban sprawl is a dilemma in many cities, not just Reno. I also know that romanticizing small towns, like I am wont to do in Nevada, can detract from the real issues facing rural America. But in Nevada, the difference between urban and rural is stark, and more and more, the places that feel most like home in Nevada aren’t the cities but the wide open spaces outside of them. 

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

As the U.S. faces an ongoing mental health crisis, 988 call centers look to add geolocation services

In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention verified 45,979 suicides; in 2021, the numbers increased to 48,183. Added together, the number of people lost to suicides could fill the Rose Bowl Stadium. When the CDC's provisional suicide counts from 2022 and 2023 are tacked on, the death toll reaches 172,520. 

With those tragic numbers in mind, in 2022 the Biden administration transitioned the country's 10-digit suicide hotline to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which provides an easy-to-remember three-digit number for 24/7 crisis care. But the 988 program has a gaping problem: It lacks geolocation service, reports Kery Murakami of Route 50, which "means callers are being sent to call centers thousands of miles away from where they actually are. . . People dialing into the hotline are sent to a call center based on their area code, not on where they are physically calling from."

The lack of geolocation means 988 counselors lack the capacity to connect a caller with services and follow-up support in another state. Murakami explains, "The issue, according to Rob MacDougall, director of emergency services for Johnson County, Kansas, is that a call center in Kansas isn't equipped, for instance, to connect someone in Florida to the services and help they need." The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Federal Communications Commission are working with cellphone carriers to "test routing calls based on where a person in crisis is generally located." To ensure a level of privacy, call centers don't receive a caller's exact location.

While adding geolocation information will help 988 be more effective, some areas are still working to implement basic 988 services. "Many states are still working out technical kinks or struggling with staffing, which can lead to wait times or not reaching a counselor at all," Murakami reports. "In Florida, a distraught caller may have to sit on hold for 32 seconds, according to SAMHSA data

Despite struggles, the lifeline is making progress. "Before 988 was implemented, it might take several minutes to reach someone. Now the average response time has decreased from 2 minutes and 39 seconds to 41 seconds, according to SAMHSA," reports Christina Caron of The New York Times

Quick hits: Calamity-predicting maps; rural areas grow; check out this freezer; are there ghosts in your kitchen?

First Street aims to predict natural calamities.
(First Street aerial photo)
As home insurance rates continue to spike upward, many insurers, home buyers and owners want more accurate, detailed information on how likely a climate catastrophe is in their region. The climate and tech non-profit First Street is "building up-to-date flood maps to estimate what could happen to homes and businesses in an era of rising sea levels and more frequent, stronger storms," reports Leslie Kaufman of Bloomberg News. The company uses advanced climate science and engineering to identify the risk for every property in the country.

As some Americans choose to leave urban hubs, rural America is growing. "In 2020–21 and 2021–22, rural areas experienced an increase in population because more people moved from urban to rural areas than in the opposite direction, a reversal of domestic migration trends from the previous decade," reports the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. "Net domestic migration in rural areas jumped from near zero in 2019–20 to more than 0.35 percent in the last two years."

Wilkinson's book celebrates the magical connection
between food and family. (Courtesy photo via UKN)
Family food traditions and recipes are often seen and shared as treasures. Crystal Wilkinson, a Kentucky author and poet, sees her cooking as a path to channeling with her Black Appalachian ancestors, report Lindsey Piercy and Kody Kiser for the University of Kentucky News. "Raised by her grandparents in the hollers of Indian Creek, Kentucky, Wilkinson vividly remembers the dishes that were commonplace in her childhood." Wilkinson calls on cooking memories as a way to reconnect with those she has lost. Her new book is Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts.

A farm's value can be based primarily on the land, but what happens to land values when the property is used for solar? In his commentary for Farm Progress, Michael Lauher reviews two land sales for a look at the outcomes. "Professional farm managers have fielded questions about how a solar lease might affect farmland values — or even the option to lease. . . Two sales do not make a trend. But we can make interesting observations from them." Read his thoughts and advice here.

In 2023, Oreo cookie lovers accused its maker of putting less creamy filling in their beloved cookies. The snack maker denied the allegations. Scripps News reports a new cookie conflict: Chips Ahoy! is boldly changing its cookie recipes. Foodmaker Mondel─ôz International said different chocolate chips will be in the mix along with a higher-concentrate Madagascar vanilla extract. "An official for Chips Ahoy! said developers spent more than 5,000 hours in the kitchen and tested more than 60 recipes before getting the desired result."

A food pantry in rural Nebraska has a new hunger-fighting kitchen appliance -- a freezer that can hold an entire truckload of meat. "Simon House, a Columbus-based thrift store and food pantry, installed a walk-in freezer, with a capacity to store a truckload of frozen meat," reports Tim Trudell of the Columbus Telegram. It's the "first such freezer in rural America . . . . thousands of people can enjoy protein as part of their meals, said Lucy Lutjelusche, Simon House store manager and director."

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Team of former Wall Street Journal employees help to support smaller news organizations in U.S.

Photo by Scott Graham, Unsplash
A team of former Wall Street Journal employees is helping “small legacy and start-up news organizations around the country whose news teams have been depleted by shrinking revenue and cutbacks,” reports Jeff Rowe in the Connecting newsletter, which is distributed to many former and current Associated Press employees, and other journalists.

According to Rowe’s report: “Dubbed Pro News Coaches (PNC), the WSJ alums currently are at work in eight small news organizations scattered around the nation. The Journal alums typically help young reporters and their editors plan stories, conceive and manage projects, and edit. Journal alums are coaching in, among other places, Olney, Texas, Excelsior Springs, Missouri, and Signal Hill, California.”

“PNC offers its initial coaching services free but intends to segue into collecting modest fees,” Rowe reports. “PNC is based in New York but has no connection with The Wall Street Journal or its parent News Corp. Most of the coaching is done via Zoom, phone calls or email . . . .”

The support comes at a time when the number of journalists in U.S. newsrooms is in sharp decline. According to the 2023 State of Local News Report by the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University, “Newspapers are continuing to vanish at an average rate of more than two a week. Since 2005, the country has lost almost 2,900 newspapers, including more than 130 confirmed closings or mergers over the past year. All but about 100 were weeklies, which are often the sole provider of local news in small and mid-sized communities.”

The U.S. has 100,000 fewer polling locations, which can change who votes and who wins elections.

Lack of oversight and pandemic changes have reduced
on-site voting options. (Photo by Ernie Journeys, Unsplash)
A lack of places for Americans to cast their votes adds a new wrinkle to an already challenging U.S. election year. "During the 2022 midterms, voters cast their ballots at just under 95,000 polling places across the country — half the number of locations available four years prior," reports Chris Teale of Route 50. The downward trend began after the Supreme Court's 2013 ruling against the Voting Rights Act. "In particular, justices struck down Section 5 of the 1965 law, which required certain state and local governments to obtain federal pre-clearance before making any changes to their voting laws or practices."

Once some states were no longer required to obtain permission, local offices were able to close polling places, change voting hours and create other restrictions without oversight. Teale writes, "Fewer places to cast a ballot can be a barrier to voting for many people, especially low-income individuals who may lack transportation or time off to vote." The voting rights program at the nonprofit Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights "identified 868 polling places that were closed in jurisdictions that previously were subject to Section 5."

The 2013 ruling isn't the only reason polling places closed. The pandemic fundamentally changed American voting habits. "Amid stay-at-home orders, states were forced to rethink their voting procedures," Teale reports. "Some embraced vote-by-mail and absentee options that remain in place today. As a result, some states have less of a need for physical polling places and have consolidated them."

Regardless of why there are fewer voting locations, the lack of them can profoundly change who will vote. A 2020 study by Enrico Catoni in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics "found that an increase of one mile in the distance someone must travel to a polling location reduces turnout from majority-minority districts by 19%, compared to a 5% reduction for majority-white districts," Teale adds. "What’s more, fewer polling places can mean longer lines at those still open, which can discourage people from voting."

Despite a rural veterinary shortage, many vets 'swooped in' to help treat animals hurt in the Texas fires

The extreme losses in western Texas 'can translate into
trauma.' (Texas A & M photo via Ambrook Research)
The wildfires that decimated western Texas in late February created thousands of miles of scarred earth and dead cattle. Adding to the disaster: There weren't enough veterinarians to treat the thousands of burned and wounded livestock and farm animals.

"The overwhelming number of injuries contrasted dramatically with the number of veterinarians who could respond quickly across a vast swath of charred Panhandle ground," reports Stephanie Stephens of Ambrook Research. "With an acknowledged shortage of rural veterinarians nationally, animal specialists from outside the area swooped in to collaborate with local vets whose plates were quite full. They made the difference, in so many cases, between animal life and death."

A cattle death toll of more than 7,000 doesn't tell the story of the profound loss ranching families feel for their animals. Andy Holloway, a county extension agent for Texas A&M AgriLife in Canadian, Texas, pop., 2,500, told the story of meeting a rancher who had lost all but one of his cows. Holloway told Stephens, "He collapsed into my arms, sobbing. He lost hundreds of mother cows … only one survived."

To treat every cow that survived the fire, including helping farmers decide which ones to cull, the Texas A&M Veterinary Emergency Team team "deployed to Canadian for 10 days as part of a seasoned group of university professionals who helped triage emergency care through five counties," Stephen reports. Some cattle were burned so badly they were euthanized. "Others were burned and could be cared for. Still others with hooves damaged by heat, and burns to lower legs and feet, sometimes showed dire injuries after four to seven days." Cows that cannot stand have to be euthanized. Some surviving cattle face smoke-induced respiratory problems.

Still, the people of western Texas are finding ways to help one another. Those who have grazable land are offering to share it. Others are donating fencing for animals and pets that survived. But for many ranchers, there are hard days ahead. Tara Haskins, a nurse practitioner focused on mental health programming, told Stephens: "The destruction of animals can translate into trauma. This is brought on by the massive depopulation, the conditions of those still suffering, the triaging of animals, removal of carcasses, and the burnout — producers manage all these moving parts, which can include financial devastation.”

"The need remains extraordinary as difficult assessments and treatment continue," Stephens writes. "For ranchers who need to find help or explore disaster relief options, or readers who want to donate money or supplies, a comprehensive list of vetted options is available at AgriSafe, Texas Farm Bureau, and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension . . . . General needs include hay and hay-hauling equipment, fencing supplies, salt blocks, and cattle cubes comprised of at least 20% protein."

U.S. beef herd hits a dramatic low as ranchers face repeated droughts and extreme weather

Graph by John McCracken, Investigate Midwest,
from USDA data

More prolonged periods of drought paired with extreme weather swings have reduced U.S. beef cattle herds to their lowest numbers since 1963. "Droughts starting in 2020 are a contributing factor in the nation's historically low beef inventory, according to Department of Agriculture research," reports John McCracken of Investigate Midwest. "Nebraska and Missouri — two of the top 10 beef-producing states — experienced the largest decline in the quality of June pastureland since 2020 compared to the other top states, according to an Investigate Midwest analysis of USDA data."

Since 1975, the decrease in U.S. beef herd numbers were attributed to "increased global beef production and cattle imports," McCracken explains. However, more recent shifts in livestock numbers have been partly caused by beef producers' response to a lack of water and grazable pasture. During droughts, livestock ranchers are more likely to wean calves off milk earlier than usual, "a common practice in dry years, but one that can also put young cattle at higher risk of dying." Ranchers also cull more cattle and spend more money on feed.

Higher costs to raise a beef herd end in fewer cattle on the market and higher beef prices. "Currently, cattle market experts report that the price paid by meatpackers to beef cattle ranchers is expected to be an all-time high," McCracken reports. "Food industry experts told various media outlets in late 2023 that this price increase would translate into sticker shock for consumers. . . . At the end of last year, the price of beef per pound peaked at $5.35, a 40-year high."

Midwestern agriculture depends on rain and groundwater. Dennis Todey, climatologist and director of the USDA's Midwest Climate Hub, noted how much "climate change has complicated the region's drought realities," McCracken reports. "Livestock producers now deal with weather whiplash — the result of climate change — of severely wet years, followed by intense, dry seasons." This past winter's snowfall across the Midwest is "expected to bring relief from the recent run of drought years," McCracken reports. "Despite forecasts of reduced drought levels for 2024, ranchers will continue to recover from previous drought years."

Some rural hospitals face a difficult choice of closing in-patient beds to focus instead on 24/7 emergency care

Hospitals with the special designation won't offer
inpatient care. (Photo by G. Rosenke, Unsplash)
Rural hospitals that are struggling financially have an option to receive more federal funding if they focus on emergency services instead of inpatient care. But less than 20 hospitals have made that switch since it became available in January 2023, reports Devna Rose for The Associated Press

She writes: "Rural emergency hospitals receive more than $3 million in federal funding a year and higher Medicare reimbursements in exchange for closing all inpatient beds and providing 24/7 emergency care."

There are downsides to the changes, both for rural residents and the hospitals. Rose writes, "People might have to travel further for treatments for illnesses that require inpatient stays, like pneumonia or Covid-19. In some of the communities where hospitals have converted to the new designation, residents are confused about what kind of care they can receive."

According to the AP report: “'It’s ironic' that the facilities that might need the most help can’t afford to take the risk, said Carrie Cochran-McClain, chief policy officer at the National Rural Health Association. She pointed to having to give up certain services and benefits, such as a federal discount program for prescription drugs."

Only 19 hospitals have made the change so far, according to the University of North Carolina's Sheps Center for Health Services Research. But "Brock Slabach, the National Rural Health Association’s chief operations officer, told the AP that upwards of 30 facilities are interested in converting to rural emergency hospitals this year."

Natural wonders: Mt. Rainer's glaciers; wacky animals decline; the little bat that could; repurposing waste wool

Mt. Rainer is an active volcano. (Photo by Tiffany Von Arnim
via the National Park Service, CC image)
At 14,410 feet, Mount Rainier is the highest volcanic peak in the contiguous United States. It boasts the largest alpine glacial system outside of Alaska and contains the world's largest volcanic glacier cave system. It is the Mount's unearthly "frozen labyrinth tucked within the majestic volcano's east crater" that scientists are now daring to explore, reports Rebecca Dzombak of National Geographic. "The glaciers atop Mount Rainer, which towers to the southeast of Seattle, Washington, contains clues about the volcano, the inner workings of glaciers, and even icy worlds far from Earth."

In 2002, America's wacky animals -- think the great American llama, ostriches and emus -- flourished in the lower 48 states, Alaska and even Hawaii. Today that is no longer the case. All our "looney" animal populations have collapsed while other farm animals continue to thrive, reports Andrew Van Dam of The Washington Post. "From 2002 to 2022, we lost 83 percent of our ostriches, 79 percent of our llamas, 74 percent of our emus and 63 percent of our elk. Over that period, cattle were down just 8 percent, poultry was up 16 percent, and hogs were up 22 percent." The farms in Alaska and Hawaii no longer exist.

Little brown bat weigh less than 10 grams.
(Photo by Michael Code, Ambrook Research)
Cute as a button and confounding to scientists, Alaska's little brown bats have escaped white-nose syndrome. Can their "niche" in nature save them? "Meet Myotis lucifugus, commonly referred to as the little brown bat," reports Trina Moyles for Hakai magazine. Or, as chiropterologist (bat researcher) Jesika Reimer fondly calls it, 'the flying brown bear.'. . . Scientists know little about where [these bats] live at this far northern margin of the species' range."

Across North America, stands of trees of all different species are struggling to survive climate change. In response, scientists from the Cutfoot Experimental Forest are introducing some southern tree species to more northern regions, reports John H. Tibbetts of Knowable Magazine for Inverse. The survival of a grove of bitternut hickory trees, common to Illinois but transplanted to north-central Minnesota, is an example. "Normally, if a southern-adapted seedling is planted in an unsuitably cold climate like this one, it can risk frost damage, and its survival is threatened. . . . Today [scientists]can see the success of almost all the southern trees they planted."
Not all wool is usable for textiles, but it can make
'sweaters for the soil.' (Photo by Sam Carter, Unsplash)
Sheep farmers have developed a new way to repurpose coarser wool or "waste wool" that would have been thrown away by using a wool pelleting machine, reports Elise Konig for Ambrook Research. "A pelleting machine transforms the fleece’s long strands into cylinders that can more easily be handled. The pellets are then sold as soil amendments, providing water retention, nutrient recycling, and soil aeration."

Are you ready to clean, prune, test your soil, pick the plants and snuggle them in some soil? March is get-ready to garden month, and there's lots to do. "If you’ve been itching to get out and get gardening, we’re on the cusp of the season. This is the time to get organized and get ready because by the time we talk again in April, we will be in it, writes Amanda Blum for Lifehacker. From tidying the garden to splitting bulbs to fertilizing shrubs, Blum has a list of all the jobs to do before planting begins.