The Rural Blog Archive, January 2007

This Web log of rural issues, trends and events is regular reading for hundreds of journalists who cover rural issues and need story ideas, sources, comparisons and inspiration. Rural journalism is important because 21 percent of America, some 62 million people, live in rural areas. Let us know what items are helpful, and send stories, links and suggestions, to al.cross@uky.edu.


Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2007

Massey, biggest coal producer in Appalachia, stakes a claim in Illinois Basin

In the coming months, Massey Energy Co., a sometimes controversial coal firm that tops production in the Appalachian Basin, will open a new mine in the Illinois Basin -- in Western Kentucky's McLean and Daviess counties, southwest of Owensboro on the Green River.

“This agreement is good for McLean and Daviess Counties as a result of the severance tax that will be generated from mining,” Delaware manager Pigman told Amie Powers of the McLean County News.“This mine, once constructed, will also result in the creation of a significant number of new jobs.”

“This high sulfur reserve is an ideal fit for barge served utility customers with existing or planned scrubber units,” Massey said in a press release. Illinois Basin coal is generally high in sulfur, but utilities are increasingly installing scrubbers to capture sulfur dioxide in power-plant smokestacks.

“This acquisition will allow us to participate in the anticipated market growth of the Illinois Basin, and will also allow us to expand our customer base,” Massey Chairman and CEO Don L. Blankenship said. Massey, headquartered in Richmond, Va., has mines in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia. The revenue it earns from coal it mines is the fourth largest among coal companies in the United States. (Read more)

Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007

Coal interests support coal-to-liquid fuel as an alternative to ethanol

After going unmentioned in President Bush’s State of the Union address, supporters of coal-to-liquid fuel are seeking clearer official support for their alternative-energy schemes, putting them at odds with environmentalists and ethanol, reports John Fialka of the Wall Street Journal.

“The president's proposal ... would require blenders of gasoline to include 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels by 2017,” writes Fialka. “The 2005 energy law includes incentives for renewable fuels, such as ethanol, but not for alternatives, such as coal-based fuel. While administration officials have assured coal-industry lobbyists that coal-to-liquid fuels are embraced in the president's proposal, Bush has kept the focus on more environmentally popular options, such as corn-based ethanol and ethanol produced from farm wastes, including corn stalks.” The latter processes have not been commercialized.

Coal companies argue that those and other challenges wiith ethanol make coal-based fuels more competitive. “They see an annual production ceiling on corn-based ethanol of about 15 billion gallons annually; above that point, food experts say, demand for corn will raise food and meat prices to unacceptable levels,” Fialka writes.

“Vic Svec, a senior vice president for Peabody Energy Corp., the nation's largest coal producer, says the company already is scouting for sites to build a coal-to-liquid plants,” writes Fialka. Svec says that lawmakers in 16 Southern states support incentives for coal-based liquid fuel. “Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, which represents ethanol manufacturers, says his group will fight to keep such alternative fuels out of any new federal mandate for renewable fuels.” (Read more)

Kansas towns offer free land via Internet, trying to boost populations

Harkening back to homestead days, towns in rural Kansas and neighboring states are giving their land away, this time using the Internet to do it. In more than 20 communities in Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota, land is now free. “Towns have to do something, leaders said, because for many years communities across the Great Plains have been suffering. They've watched family farms die out and once-loyal natives move away to more prosperous areas,” writes Laura Bauer of the Kansas City Star.

On KansasFreeLand.com, one town sells itself, saying, “Imagine a 720 square mile county with buffalo, farm animals and wildlife scattered across picturesque hillsides.” Another offers, “stroll or bike around town and you can count on being greeted by friendly citizens on every street. ... We offer a friendly, small town atmosphere and an excellent education for your children in a safe school system, with small classes ...”

“We're all struggling for the same thing -- it's people. Give us more people and we can do some things. Without people, you don't have the taxes. Without taxes, you don't have the money,” Jeff Benbrook, city administrator of Peabody, Kan., population 1,384, told Bauer.

“For some, this free land program has worked,” writes Bauer. “Several Kansas towns tell success stories of new families, more kids in classrooms and, for the first time in years, a faith in the future. Last year alone, KansasFreeLand.com tallied more than 2 million hits.” (Read more) For a story about unusual neighbors attracted by cheap land in Kansas, see a blog item from Friday, Jan. 26.

Gray wolf comes off the endangered species list in western Great Lakes

Monday’s announcement that the gray wolf will be removed from the federal endangered species list in the western Great Lakes region made farmers, ranchers and hunters celebrate and conservationists growl. In Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, states will now manage wolf populaitons, creating the possibility of dealing with what some see as a danger or a nuisance or targeting the animal to the point or eradication.

“Eric Koens of the Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association says the animals are not only killing and injuring livestock and other domestic animals at an alarming rate, but the very presence of wolves on livestock farms result in a variety of negative impacts to livestock production and to the farm family, both economically and socially Last year, there were about 2,700 head of cattle killed by predators like wolves and coyotes,” reports Wisconsin Ag Connection. Groups of hunters and ranchers in the state have been running an ad campaign titled “Little Red Riding Hood warned us about wolf,” citing statistics on livestock attacks and depicting a wolf stalking children on a playground. (Read more)

Some are concerned that prejudice against the animal will lead to its demise. “Idaho’s governor has publicly announced he wants to kill more than 80 percent of the state’s wolves, and the state has already begun planning large-scale wolf eradication efforts through hunting and aerial gunning. Wyoming’s plan would allow 16 out of the existing 23 packs of the wolves in the state to be killed on sight. To accomplish this goal, the state would authorize poisoning, trapping and shooting on 90 percent of the wolf’s current home range outside the national parks,” Defenders of Wildlife president Rodger Schlickeisen said in a statement, reports Cory Hatch of the Jackson Hole News and Guide in Wyoming. (Read more)

Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2007

Cheap gasoline and expensive corn may end or slow the ethanol boom

Even as President Bush called for increases in ethanol production, lower gas prices and higher corn prices threatened a backslide in the boom. “U.S. producers mainly use corn to make ethanol, but competition for food and animal feed pushed prices to 10-year highs of $4.20-1/2 a bushel on Jan. 17 after harvest estimates were revised lower. Prices for natural gas, used to fuel ethanol plants and to produce corn fertilizer, also rose as oil and refined products prices fell, reducing the profitability of producing ethanol,” writes Matthew Robinson of Reuters. “Continued high levels of corn prices and low margins would make it more profitable for an integrated producer to actually sell the corn into the corn market rather than to turn it into ethanol at a lower profit,” Goldman Sachs said in a report. (Read more)

Crude oil is predicted to dip below $50 a barrel. “As oil's price falls, alternative energy sources become less attractive because they usually are more expensive,” write Gregory Zuckerman and Ann Davis of the Wall Street Journal, in a story illustrated by this graphic. "In fact, the price at which ethanol producers can sell their fuel has plummeted even faster than the price of crude. Ethanol is off 55.8 percent since its peak price on June 20.” (Read more)

Ethanol also might disappoint as a cure-all for Farm Belt economies

Ethanol plants may have less direct benefit to rural communities than they once did. The plants have been seen as a way to keep rural profits local, but as the size of the plants increase, fewer are farmer-owned. Between 1995 and 2005, 70 percent of ethanol plants being built belonged to farmers; in 2006, only 10 percent were farmer-owned, report Nancy Novack and Jason Henderson of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. in The Main Street Economist. Growers of other crops have been tempted to switch to corn, likely to cause over-production in the future. The cost of animal feed has risen and livestock industries could be drawn out of other regions to the Corn Belt for easy access to the dried distillers grain s that are by-products of ethanol and make excellent livestock feed.

“Ethanol production may offer some bright opportunities for rural America,” write Novack and Henderson. “In reality, though, ethanol profits in the future will be highly variable, given the volatility of prices for corn, ethanol and other energy products. At the same time, its opportunities could quickly fade with changing markets, environmental policies, and technological advances.” (Read more)

Monday, Jan. 29, 2007

Ethnic veggies may open a new market with higher profits for farmers

“The explosion of immigrant populations is fueling the growth of ethnic vegetables like cilantro and bok choy, giving farmers new, and potentially more profitable, revenue streams to add to their American staples of corn, sweet peppers and tomatoes. They'll have less competition for this narrow niche, crops that an ethnic population would have consumed in their home country, now growing in small quantities in the U.S,” writes Janet Frankston Lorin of The Associated Press.

“Today's niche market is the future mainstream market,” Bill Sciarappa, a Rutgers University agricultural extension agent, part of a team helping farmers produce and market ethnic produce, told AP. “That's what gave me the idea 20 years ago when I saw farmers switch over to cilantro from parsley. It was the same growth pattern, same planting culture, same harvest procedures, but you got twice the money then. We see the cycle repeated over and over again,” he said, adding that ethnic veggies can be more profitable than regular ones, depending on market conditions. For example, eggplant averages $10 a box, but ethnic versions can go for $30.

“Farmers are getting help from agricultural experts at Rutgers, using a market-driven approach determined by census data, economic forecasting and bilingual surveys of consumers,” writes Lorin. “The plan is to create a blueprint that would develop a market along the East Coast -- including Connecticut, New Jersey, Florida and Georgia -- to link growers with ethnic markets. Farmers would produce potentially more profitable vegetables like bok choy, tomatillos and bitter gourd that can be successfully grown in their own local markets.” (Read more)

Corn farmers in Mexico, elsewhere cashing in on U.S. ethanol demand

The price of tortillas is rising in the corn crunch created by U.S. ethanol demand, but farmers south of the border are ready to get in on the action, reports Marla Dickerson of the Los Angeles Times.

“Most nations can't compete with government-subsidized U.S. corn, which countries such as Mexico have come to rely on to fatten their hogs, chickens and cattle,” writes Dickerson. But with 110 ethanol plants in the United States snapping up hundreds of millions of bushels and an additional 63 refineries slated to come on line in the next 18 months, some foreign farmers are betting that America will soon have less of the grain available to export. Agricultural economists say Argentina, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico are among the nations planting more corn to pick up the slack in their own domestic markets and perhaps score some export sales as well.”

“In addition, Mexico is gearing up to supply its own ethanol industry,” writes Dickerson. “Lawmakers are contemplating legislation that would require the state-owned oil company Pemex to oxygenate its gasoline with corn-based ethanol. Two plants are under construction in the rural state of Sinaloa, where officials are looking to create employment and provide farmers with a reliable outlet for their harvests.” Carlos Quevedo, director of agriculture for Sinaloa, told the Times, “We have to take advantage of any opportunity that represents a betterment of the countryside. We're hoping that now abundance has arrived.” (Read more) For another story on ethanol demand’s effect on Mexico, see the Jan. 22 blog.

Small rural schools on border schools may enroll paying Mexican students

In Arizona, border schools with low enrollment are considering accepting Mexican students who pay tuition. In this way, a Mexican student could attend a U.S. school without using any of the money from American taxpayers. Such programs are already in place in Nogales, Ajo and Yuma, reports Brady McCombs of the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

The border township of Sasabe, Ariz., has a population of about 30 people, reports McCombs. Currently its students are taught in a one-room adobe schoolhouse built in the 1920s. Through funding programs it will be getting a school that can hold 57 students. The fact that only 18 students have enrolled has made school officials look down the street to the 2,500 people living in Sasabe, Sonora, Mexico. Melissa Owen, the president of the board for the school district, which includes only one school, said, “It's good for all of us on the border to have children who have had a good education. It will benefit Sasabe, Arizona, to have well-educated kids with good skills whether they are in Sasabe, Arizona or in Sasabe, Sonora.”

However, the plan may not conform to U.S. immigartion law. “As a public elementary school, San Fernando School would not be eligible to accept foreign students, said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Marie Sebrechts,” writes McCombs. “Under those guidelines, attendance would be limited to children living in Mexico who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.” (Read more)

State press association begins handing out awards for papers' Web sites

With newspapers putting more resources and attention into their Web sites, state press associations are beginning to include the sites in their awards programs. Last week, the Kentucky Press Association handed out its first awards for sites, as judged by the Illinois Press Association.

The winners among weeklies were: Multi-weekly, The Pioneer News of Shepherdsville; large-circulation weekly, The Oldham Era; and medium circulation, The Springfield Sun, all published by Landmark Community Newspapers. No small-circulation papers entered. Among dailies, the winners were the The Kentucky Enquirer, The Advocate-Messenger of Danville; and the Times-Tribune of Corbin. The associate-member winner was the Fort Campbell Courier, published by the Kentucky New Era.

The judging was based on the Web sites' content (quality and quantity), consistency, currency, ease of navigation, use of links, and visual design. Judges were required to access each entered site at least three times during the first full week of November. KPA Executive Director David Thompson said only a few state press associatins give awards for Web sites.

Sunday, Jan. 28, 2007

Reductions in train accident rate level off; is federal agency up to its job?

The accident rate for trains has improved greatly since 1980, "but progress has leveled off over the past 10 years" and the effect of improvement efforts by the Federal Railroad Administration are unclear, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a recent report. The performance of the FRA is important to many rural areas, and GAO suggests that the rail agency is not quite up to its assigned tasks.

"FRA is focusing its efforts on the highest priority risks related to train accidents through initiatives aimed at addressing their main causes--human behaviors and defective track--as well as through improvements in its inspection planning approach," GAO reports. "Its initiatives to address the most common causes of accidents are promising, although the success of many of them will depend on voluntary actions by the railroads."

The report also raises questions about the effect of inspecitons. "FRA is able to inspect only about 0.2 percent of railroads' operations each year and its inspections do not examine how railroads are managing safety risks throughout their systems that could lead to accidents," the report says.

That approach is used in Canada and on U.S. commuter railroads, but GAO does not yet advise its adoption, saying FRA's efforts haven't had time to be evaluated. But it says FRA's "ability to make informed decisions about these programs is limited because it lacks measures of their direct results, such as the correction of identified safety problems. Furthermore, FRA has not evaluated the effectiveness of its enforcement program." To read the full report, click here.

We learned about this report from Government Policy Newslinks, which offers a daily digest of press releases, statements, reports and other informational material from Congress, the White House and federal agencies. GPN offers a free, 60-day trial subscription to readers of The Rural Blog; to sign up, click here.

Extra pay helps make N.C. top state in top teachers, but rural districts lag

Thanks to salary incentives offered in few other states, "North Carolina leads the nation with teachers who hold a national credential, considered the gold standard of the profession," but that accomplishment has not extended to many of the state's rural schools, reports the Raleigh News & Observer.

"North Carolina pays teachers with national certification an extra 12 percent on top of their annual salary, regardless of where they teach. That can mean upwards of $5,000 a year in additional pay," write Todd Silberman and David Raynor. But certified teachers "tend to be working in more affluent schools in the state's more affluent districts. A wealthy district such as Chapel Hill-Carrboro has among the highest ratios of nationally certified teachers to students in the state -- 17 of the teachers for every 1,000 students. By contrast, most of the five poor, rural districts that challenged the state in a long-running court case over school funding have fewer than five credentialed teachers per 1,000 students."

Barnett Berry, president of the Center for Teaching Quality, told the News & Observer, "The national certification is a tough, rigorous process demanding 300 hours over nine months. If you're working in a high-needs school where children need you in ways that teachers in schools with lesser needs do not, it's hard to find the time and energy to sit for the national boards" that issue certifications.

"Other states steer extra money to nationally certified teachers working in high-needs schools," Silberman and Raynor write. "California, Georgia and New York use pay incentives to help strengthen faculties in schools where students are most likely to be lagging academically." (Read more)

Experts said lake should be lowered more than Corps plans; data secret

"An outside group of engineers recommended a much more drastic lowering of Lake Cumberland than the 10-foot drop the Army Corps of Engineers began last week. Those experts backed lowering the lake level an additional 30 to 70 feet to take pressure off the leaky Wolf Creek Dam as a safety precaution, according to a senior Corps official," reveals James Bruggers of The Courier-Journal. (Photo by C-J's Michael Clevenger; click here for more)

The manager of a Corps project to fix the Southern Kentucky dam told Bruggers that lowering the water level an additional 10 feet, to 43 feet below summer pool, would still protect the public -- and that was the Corps' main concern. But he also cited many other reasons: Water intakes would be left high and dry, power generation would be reduced, and some species of fish in the lake could almost die out. Also, recreational boating by millions of visitors, important to the local economy, would be further limited. Click here to read the story; coverage includes a video, much of it on the Cumberland River town of Burkesville.

Citing concerns about terrorism, Corps officials refused to tell the Louisville newspaper what experts had recommended a lower lake level or release a copy of an assessment the experts reviewed, which said the dam was among the six riskiest in the nation. The Corps also refused to release "copies of the reports of major inspections that are supposed to occur every five years, the dam's emergency action plan, and maps that show how communities would be flooded should the dam break under the worst conditions," Bruggers reports. "A Corps spokesman . . . said his office was trying to obtain some of the information the newspaper requested, but security officials at corps headquarters 'are pretty tough.'" (Read more)

The dam is leaking through channels in the limestone under its earthen section. Around 1940, when the Corps moved the dam site several miles downstream, from its original location near Wolf Creek, local residents "tried to tell the 'educated' engineers that the location would never work. There were underlying springs, and the ground was not suitable," C-J reader Diana Dalton of Rineyville, Ky., wrote in a letter published today. For coverage from The Times Journal of Russell County, site of the dam, click here. There are six stories; the front-page headline over the main one reads "DAM SERIOUS."

Friday, Jan. 26, 2007

Cheap land, lack of zoning can attract unusual residents to rural towns

In Kansas and elsewhere, rural properties bought up by city dwellers and urban interests may create some unusual and unexpected neighbors for small-town residents. The downtown of Rexford, Kan., population 157, was purchased and turned into a religious conference center. St John, Kan., pop. 1,318, became the site of a national bounty hunting school. “That's the gamble small towns make when they offer what they have in abundance: cheap, attractive real estate. What they can get in return is city dwellers trying to escape crowds, crime and high prices -- city dwellers with different ideas and a different outlook on life,” writes Beccy Tanner of the Wichita Eagle.

“If you don't think real estate in small towns is a desirable investment, visit eBay,” writes Tanner. “These buildings pop up when you search for properties in Kansas: • A wooded homesite in Neosho Rapids, pop. 274, with a high bid of $152. • A restaurant that seats 60 in downtown LaCrosse, pop. 1,376, with a high bid of $30,000. • A 23,500-square-foot brick school building and 3.85 acres of land in Sylvan Grove, pop. 324, advertised for $188,000.”

“Often rural communities can't afford economic development directors," Tanner writes. "They may have little or no zoning regulation, and they usually have dwindling populations. That makes them extremely vulnerable, said Caleb Asher, director of communications and marketing for the Kansas Department of Commerce.

Kirk Schweitzer, director of the chamber of commerce of Hill City, Kan., pop. 1,604, told Tanner his job sometimes involves rejecting potential business. “Out here, even if I do an industrial park and give away the land for free, there is still no reason for them to be here when they can go down the road and for $500 an acre buy farmland with no zoning and put up an oil-field pipe business,” he told the Eagle. (Read more)

More gays coming out in the traditionally conservative rural Midwest

“The majority of U.S. gays are urban dwellers, but recent census data shows more gays are coming out in rural areas, with Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and other heartland states reporting the largest percentage increases in their tally of gay residents from 2000 to 2005,” writes Joshua Lynsen of the Washington Blade, a publication catering to the gay community.

This isn’t to say that gay people are moving to middle America, said Gary Gates, a researcher at the Williams Institute, a group studying sexual orientation and public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Instead, he said the increased heartland tally comes from gays there who are showing a new willingness to be counted,” writes Lynsen. “‘It shows where gay people are coming out,’ he said. ‘It’s fascinating that it tends to be in these more socially conservative areas.’ Mark Shields, director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Coming Out Project, said the heartland numbers show that gays are ‘finding they can live openly’ within their home community.”

“It remains unclear, though, whether gays in urban or rural areas are safer,” writes Lynsen. “Rebecca Stotzer, a Williams Institute researcher who handles hate-crimes data, said there is no conclusive answer. ‘It’s only now being examined as to which is riskier — to be the only out gay person in your community of 100 people, or to be one of many like in West Hollywood,’ she said. ‘At this point, we don’t know.’ Federal data shows the majority of hate crimes against gays occur in metro areas, but Stotzer said that data is incomplete because many jurisdictions neither track nor report hate crimes statistics.” (Read more)

Snow stopping collections for small rural churches; pastors go hungry

With winter storms preventing residents from attending church, an empty collection plate means some rural pastors do not even have money to feed themselves, reports Brianna Bailey of the Norman Transcript in Oklahoma. “Most people don’t realize that most rural churches have less than a hundred members. And about 50 or 60 percent of their operating budget is coming from what comes in the collection plate. These pastors are living on the edge,” Dan Price, a volunteer for PastorCare, a national, non-denominational support group, told the Transcript.

PastorCare volunteers have driven across snow-bound regions of rural America, searching out small churches facing hardship because of the icy weather, reports Bailey. They offer pastors checks to buy groceries, encouragement and prayer. However, there is still a great need to help pastors snow-bound in Native American mission churches, said a regional director in Oklahoma. (Read more)

Rural Oregon children, especially Latinos, behind in health coverage

As many as 1 in 4 children in rural Oregon do not have health insurance, well behind the state’s urban average. Race also factors into the equation. Overall, 12 percent of children in the state have no insurance, but 23 percent of Latinos and Native Americans are not covered, reports Bill Graves of The Oregonian.

“Rural counties in Oregon are also more economically disadvantaged than urban areas, with more unemployment, lower salaries, and higher rates of abuse, infant mortality, dental decay and other problems affecting the health and well-being of children, according to a report on the status of children released by Children First for Oregon,” writes Graves. (Read more)

According to 2005 data from the National Survey of Children's Health, 90.3 percent of children in small rural and isolated areas had health insurance, only slightly lower than the 91.2 percent average of children nationwide. The study found that in rural areas 4.9 percent of white children, 5.2 percent of black children, 23.8 percent of Hispanic children, 6.1 percent of multiracial children and 15.2 percent of Native American children lacked health coverage. (Read more)

Five named to Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame; induction in April

Five journalists have been named to the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications announced today. The five will be inducted April 10, in conjunction with the school's annual Joe Creason Lecture, which this year will be given by photojournalist Molly Bingham. The five are:

Ron Boone, who died in 2004 after a distinguished 31-year career as news director of radio stations in Elizabethtown; Glen Kleine, founder of the journalism program at Eastern Kentucky University; Kenneth Kurtz, retired news director of WKYT-TV in Lexington, who remains active in the Society of Professional Journalists and other journalism groups; Nancy Green, a Lexington native who is vice president of circulation for Lee Enterprises and publisher of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls (Iowa) Courier and former adviser to college newspapers, including The Kentucky Kernel, UK's independent paper; and

Ron Jenkins, who recently retired after 33 years as editor of The Gleaner in Henderson, one of the most consistently good daily newspapers in Kentucky. He recently saw the newspaper through two changes in ownership, and research by Community Journalism students at UK showed that the paper’s commitment to local news remained strong, and that The Gleaner is one of the few community newspapers in Kentucky that endorse in local elections. Jenkins also held together a veteran staff, which has helped keep The Gleaner in touch with its community and give readers good journalism.

Kentucky publisher, papers honored for community service, journalism

At the Kentucky Press Association convention in Louisville Friday, Hancock Clarion Publisher Donn Wimmer received the Lewis Owens Community Service Award, named after a highly regarded publisher of the Lexington Herald-Leader. We were happy to see Donn win, because we agree with the nominator that he is "the very epitome of a Kentucky publisher" -- and anywhere, not just our home state.

Donn bought the Clarion in 1956, when he was 21. He was the founding director of a local industrial-development group that brought major industries to rural Hancock County, on the Ohio River upstream from Owensboro. A pilot with a commercial rating, he headed the lcoal airport board and published many aerial photographs in the Clarion, circulation 3,600. He was president of the local Chamber of Commerce, which named him Citizen of the Year, and helped organize a Jaycee chapter and a Little League.

KPA's Better Newspaper Contest produced these winners for general excellence in weekly newspapers, based on their awards in a host of categories: Small weekly, the Todd County Standard; mid-size weekly, the Spencer Magnet; large weekly, The Oldham Era; multi-weekly, The Kentucky Standard of Bardstown. The last three are published by Landmark Community Newspapers. In the daily classes, the winners were The (Madisonville) Messenger, The (Henderson) Gleaner and the Herald-Leader.

We like to spotlight papers that show editorial leadership. The winners for weekly editorial pages were: Small, the Todd County Standard (double kudos to Ryan Craig); mid-size, the Henry County Local; large, the Grant County News; and mutli-weekly, the Kentucky Standard. The last three are Landmark papers. The winners among dailies were the Richmond Register, The Gleaner and The Kentucky Enquirer.

Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007

Small, very light jets may improve dwindling air service in rural areas

The solution to sparse rural airline service may be a new model of tiny, affordable jet planes. The U.S. Department of Transportation is examining the use of “very light jets” which may help to counter the cut-backs of large carriers in smaller airports, reports Doug Cameron of Financial Times.

Andrew Steinberg, assistant secretary for aviation and transportation affairs, said that “reduced rural services had been one of the largest negative consequences of industry deregulation, with the DOT forced to boost subsidies and examine alternatives to operation by the large network carriers,” writes Cameron. Concerns arose after reviewing US Airways’ hostile takeover bid for Delta. Wednesday, senators discussed the “potential impact on air fares and consumer choice, and expressed widespread concern that deals between the largest carriers would lead to further service cuts.”

“New Mexico-based Eclipse Aviation, whose backers include Microsoft founder Bill Gates, has already secured more than 2,500 orders for its six-seat Eclipse 500 very light jet,” writes Cameron. “It delivered its first aircraft earlier this month, and a number of air-taxi and charter operators have placed orders for the Eclipse and rival VLJs targeted mainly at business flyers… The Eclipse 500 is the first of an array of very light jets, which utilize new engines, avionics and lean manufacturing techniques to produce small jets at a fraction of the cost of existing executive aircraft. Proponents of the emerging VLJ sector believe the low entry and operating costs will create a vast new market of personal and business users currently deterred by high prices.” (Read more)

Community colleges, a rural mainstay, try to raise student success rate

Community colleges serve nearly half the country’s undergraduates and are important to many rural areas, but more than half their students fall short of educational goals, reports The Christian Science Monitor. “They are becoming more aware of their shortcomings, experts say, in areas such as student advising, teaching methods, and the process of transferring academic credits,” writes Stacy Teicher. “To address the latter, two-year and four-year institutions are collaborating on academic standards to ensure that key courses are transferable and are graded in a similar way.”

Community colleges are especially important for “low-income students, first-generation college students, adults who have children, and people who start with low academic skills,” Teicher writes. She cites a partnership in southeastern Massachusetts that “brings together leaders and faculty from three community colleges, a state college, and a state university to better serve the students they often share.” The system helps students become confident that they are prepared to move on to a four-year college or university. “The next step is to reach out to area high schools.” (Read more)

Government Policy Newslinks offers easy access to federal policy news

If you're interested in congressional legislation or the policies of any federal agency, or the debates around them, Government Policy Newslinks offers a daily digest of press releases, statements, reports and other informational material from Congress, the White House and federal agencies, plus indexes to the previous day's Federal Register and Congressional Record.

The Rural Blog has been using Government Policy Newslinks for some time, and it has been our initial source for many items, such as a recent one about the rapid expansion of wind power to generate electricity, another about water shortages and expansion of the ethanol industry, and reports from Washington-based watchdog groups such as the Center for Public Integrity and FactCheck. Often, there are dueling press releases on the same issue! The journalists at GPN monitor press-release activity on more than 2,300 governmental, congressional and policy-oriented Web sites.

As part of a new, cooperative relationship between GPN and The Rural Blog, GPN is offering a free, 60-day trial subscription to blog readers, and we will make note when GPN is the original source for one of our items. To sign up for a trial subscription, click here.

Virginia legislator wants to criminalize visits to homes of tragedy victims

Virginia state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli's Senate Bill 1120 would make "Anyone who visits the home of someone who has suffered any kind of loss or injury, physical, mental or emotional trauma during the previous week" subject to charges of misdemeanor trespass — "even if the visitor had been granted permission to visit by the property owner," the Staunton News Leader writes in an editorial.

"Just imagine the ramifications of this proposed law: You're a church pastor and one of your flock has just lost a family member. You stop by to offer your condolences and offer some prayers. Even if you're invited inside for a cup of coffee, once you hit the threshold, bang! You're a criminal!" (Read more)

Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher recalls, "The first time an editor sent me out to knock on the door of a woman whose husband, an FBI agent, had just been murdered by a drug thug, I could barely bring myself to do the job. . . . But I was 22 and the boss sent me out and I couldn't think of a good reason to refuse the job. I accepted my editor's assurance that this was an important and good thing to do, that the benefit of telling the agent's story far outweighed any emotional trauma that might result from my visit.

"I knocked. The reality was vastly worse than my expectation, because it turned out I was the first human being the new widow saw after getting the call about her husband's death. To my amazement, she did not turn me away, but asked me to come in. She wanted to tell me everything about her husband. She wanted to talk. She wanted the world to know what a wonderful man he'd been, what had driven him to become an FBI agent, what he intended for himself and for her.

"I thought I might get a few telling details, borrow a family photo and get out of there in 10 minutes. I stayed three hours. Sure, I had an ulterior motive, a business purpose. But I also served the function of listener, fellow human being, witness. Several times, I offered to leave. Each time, the woman begged me to stay."

We have had similar experiences. As Fisher writes, "No one should have to deal with pompous TV reporters barging into their houses, lights shining and hairspray hanging in the air. But most reporters get to be pretty good at finding a balance between families' needs for privacy and our professional quest for the story that will communicate to a broader audience the wrongs that have been committed." (Read more).

Rural areas receive most economic benefits from Minnesota casinos

A new study released by the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association shows that in 2005 rural Minnesota received the greatest portion of the statewide $429 million in economic benefit coming from employment in tribal casinos, reports Carissa Wyant of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal.

“The study said rural Minnesota derived $285 million in direct economic benefit from tribal casino jobs in 2005, including $211 million in payroll, $65 million in employment taxes, $48 million in health care benefits, $10 million in retirement savings, and $4 million in other employee benefits such as child care accounts, education and tuition assistance,” writes Wyant. “The study shows that the 9,100 rural casino employees are more likely than other leisure and hospitality workers to have health care and retirement benefits, paid time off, life or disability insurance, and other benefits such as flexible savings accounts and tuition assistance. Tribal casino workers are also more likely to be full-time employees and have higher starting wages than other leisure and hospitality workers.”

Minnesota's 12,900 casino jobs generated $335 million in payroll, $90 million in employment taxes, $66 million worth of medical and dental benefits, $15 million in retirement savings and more than $7 million in “other benefits such as life and disability insurance, flexible childcare savings accounts and tuition assistance,” writes Wyant. (Read more)


Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2007

Newborn cattle struggle for life in the harsh, snow-covered Plains

Ranchers have been hit hard by severe winter weather across the Midwest and many stories have arisen from their struggle to save their animals, especially newborn calves. An exemplary story appears in The New York Times, documenting the effort to save a calf on a snow-covered ranch in Colorado.

“The temperature outside was 10 degrees and falling as calf No. 207, just one hour old, lay on the floor of the warming shed, wheezing and fighting for life,” writes Kirk Johnson. “Born underweight and premature to a cow stressed by successive blizzards and brutal cold over the last month here in southeast Colorado, the baby Black Angus might yet live if it could clear its lungs of fluid and get to its feet by morning. If not, No. 207 would take its place in the dead pile, the grim place in the barn on the Butler ranch where many of the 25 or so calves already lost this winter lay frozen and twisted.”

Johnson gives the big story: “Calving season on the High Plains will be harder and more costly than any year in at least a decade, ranchers and agricultural officials say. More than 3,000 adult animals have been confirmed dead so far in Colorado alone, and ranchers say many more remain uncounted, buried under drifts four feet to six feet deep. Thousands of other farm and ranch animals across the state remain unaccounted for.” Below, a rancher feeds hay to young calves. Photo by Kevin Moloney (Read more)

Minerals Management director failed to act on billion-dollar errors

The director of the federal Minerals Management Service should have acted "when she first heard of billion-dollar errors with oil and gas drilling leases, but career staffers deserve most of the blame for the problems," the Interior Department's inspector general said Tuesday," reports the Casper Star-Tribune.

Oil leases for deep water, "signed in 1998 and 1999 during the Clinton administration, omitted a clause triggering royalty payments if energy prices rose over a certain amount. Officials say they raised the matter with Burton in early 2004, although she does not remember being told until late 2005 or early 2006, the inspector general found," writes Noelle Straub of the paper's Washington bureau.

The director is Johnnie Burton, of interest to Wyoming readers because she once ran the state revenue department and was a state legislator. Her agency handles mineral leasing on federal land. (Read more)

W. Virginia flood victims’ claims against coal, timber companies dismissed

In southern West Virginia, the claims of 400 residents that coal, timber and land companies had a hand in causing flooding in 2001 were dismissed. The decision may snuff similar battles being fought between 800 other riverside residents and various industries in the state. Judge Arthur M. Recht dismissed the claim on the grounds that the Coal River residents’ lawyers had not provided enough specific information as to who they were suing and for what actions, reports Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette.

“Thousands of residents in seven counties sued land companies, coal operators and timber firms,” writes Ward. “They blame strip mining and logging for damage to homes and property from the 2001 floods. Most of the cases were consolidated and are being heard by the three-judge panel appointed by the state Supreme Court. In those lawsuits, flood victims allege that mining and logging‘caused natural surface waters resulting from the rainfall ... to be diverted and delivered in an unnatural way and in incomprehensible amounts down the mountains, hills and valleys ... destroying the lives and property’ of residents. Industry lawyers responded that the flooding was caused by heavy rainfall, and ‘clearly, the rainfall ... was an act of God, as that term is used in the law.’”

“Plaintiffs’ lawyer Stuart Calwell had hoped to argue that the companies were ‘strictly liable’ for any flood damages,” writes Ward. “Under this theory, anyone who engages in an ‘abnormally dangerous’ activity assumes the blame for any resulting damages to others. If this theory applied, residents would not have to prove that the companies were ‘negligent’ in the way they operated mines or timber jobs. Industry lawyers argued that such a ruling would ‘make every individual, every family, and every business liable for any natural disaster that might occur following any alteration they make to the surface of the land.’ In December 2004, the state Supreme Court, in a ruling by Chief Justice Elliott Maynard, concluded residents could not use strict-liability arguments in the flood cases.” (Read more)

Rural Tennessee must get broadband to survive, say local politicians

Tennessee must expand its rural broadband before it gets left behind in the information age, say Rep. Mark Maddox and Sen. Roy Herron of Dresden, Tenn., in an article in The Tennessean. “This world is becoming divided into the wired and the fired: those with broadband lines and those in unemployment lines.” They say their hometown, population 2,855, has “lost more jobs than people living here, literally. The largest private employer now is the supermarket.”

“Citizens without broadband are falling further and further behind: underinformed, undereducated and, too often, unemployed,” write Maddox and Herron. “You can say that the schools have access to broadband — but if children leave school and cannot get their homework off the Internet at night, how will they keep up with the other children in the cities and in other countries? Some say the U.S. ranks behind 11 countries in broadband subscribers per capita. The FCC says that when other factors are considered, we rank behind 20 countries. We are the greatest nation on earth — but 21st in the most important infrastructure since the interstate system. In the war for jobs, 20 countries are ahead of us.”

“Broadband expansion is to the 21st century what rural electrification was to the 20th century … High-speed Internet access … is critically important to Tennessee's future, especially in jobs, education and health care,” reported the Tennessee Broadband Task Force. “Rural electrification brought a higher quality of life in the 1930s and roads in the '70s and '80s,” write Maddox and Herron. “Broadband is the essential infrastructure for economic development in this century and, like our predecessors, we must answer the alarm.” (Read more)

Wind energy quickly growing and becoming mainstream, says industry

“Wind power generating capacity increased by 27 percent in 2006 and is expected to increase an additional 26% in 2007, proving wind is now a mainstream option for new power generation. Wind’s exponential growth reflects the nation’s increasing demand for clean, safe and domestic energy, and continues to attract both private and public sources of capital,” says the American Wind Energy Association.

“The U.S. wind energy industry installed 2,454 megawatts (MW) of new generating capacity in 2006, an investment of approximately $4 billion, billing wind as one of the largest sources of new power generation in the country – second only to natural gas – for the second year in a row,” a release said. The top five states for new wind farms are Texas, Washington, California, New York and Minnesota. For a story about wind farms in Virginia, see an item from yesterday.

Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2007

Iowa paper calls summit on immigration after packing-plant raids

When Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents detained more than 1,000 workers at meat packing plants in the Midwest in December, including nearly 100 at Swift & Co.'s plant in Marshalltown, Iowa, the local Times-Republican called for an "immigration summit . . . to spark a national dialogue on the issue, and give elected officials a chance to understand what the issues are at the grassroots level in order to formulate policy in Washington that better addresses the needs and concerns of the country."

The summit will be held Monday, Feb. 26, at the Dejardin Hall on the campus of Marshalltown Community College. Registration will open at 8 a.m. and the program will start at 9 a.m. It is "expected to draw figures from across the nation to Central Iowa for a grassroots look at what some of the issues are," writes the T-R's Ken Black. "Iowa Rep. Tom Latham’s office has played a key role in helping to set an agenda and securing speakers, which are still not entirely set yet."

The T-R, a 10,500-circulation daily that has a Spanish supplement, says the summit will include sessions on "personal rights and responsibilities, employers’ rights and responsibilities, immigration and law enforcement and immigration policy. Several mini-sessions are also planned to get into specifics with experts on the field and experts in the community who see, first hand, what the issues are." (Read more)

Virginia's first wind-energy farm is moving toward state approval

The staff of a state regulatory agency in Virginia has recommended approval of the state's first industrial wind-energy farm, "provided the developers can resolve concerns about birds, bats and other environmental issues," writes John Cramer of The Roanoke Times. "The project is part of the wind energy industry's expansion from the West to the Appalachian Mountains, where hundreds of turbines have been constructed in recent years and hundreds more are proposed."

A State Corporation Commission hearing examiner may decide by early March whether to issue a permit for the facility in Highland County, 19 wind turbines on a ridgeline near the West Virginia border, Cramer reports. "We remain optimistic they'll grant the permit, although we remain concerned" about state and federal agencies' requests for additional environmental research, Frank Maisano, a consultant for the project's developer, Highland New Wind Development LLC, told the Times. (Read more)

However, the project faces "legal challenges that both sides expect to reach the Virginia Supreme Court, which would take up the issue for the first time," Cramer writes. "Opponents say the 400-foot-tall turbines would kill birds and bats, harm tourism and cause other environmental and economic damage while generating a negligible amount of subsidized power. . . . State and federal agencies want the developer to conduct more research before construction begins," plus "three years of post-construction research."

The climate angle: Tom Rowley of the Rural Policy Research Institute says "Rural areas can benefit greatly from development and commercialization of climate-friendly energy supplies like bio-fuels and wind and carbon-capture schemes" designed to limit carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that causes global warming. Rowley writes in his latest column that rural areas are particularly vulnerable to climate change. "For starters, agriculture is the most climate sensitive of all economic sectors. Radical long-term changes in weather patterns will wreak havoc on farming. On top of that, rural areas have fewer resources with which to handle the effects of climate change and less political clout with which to garner outside assistance. Finally, rural folks have precious few transportation options to the car or truck. Again, it isn’t just about minimizing costs; it’s also about innovating and creating new economic opportunities." (Read more)

Monday, Jan. 22, 2007

Corn and the world: The ethanol boom has far-reaching ramifications

The ethanol boom is changing the dynamic of corn across the world, driving up prices and creating opportunities and problems. The crop may soon help to reduce our dependency on fossil fuel, but many people are quickly becoming acutely aware of their dependency on corn. Some recent examples:

From feed to fuel: Ethanol drives price; pork, chicken and catfish will cost more

The price of corn, which averaged $2.40 over the last decade, jumped to $3.965 a bushel at the Chicago Board of Trade last week. The price would have been higher if not for the cap set by the exchange that limits fluctuations to 20 cent a day, reports Robert Manor of the Chicago Tribune. (Read more)

Iowa State University economist Dermot Hayes predicts that in the future the price of corn will be set by its use as fuel rather than its use as livestock feed. He calculated that ethanol plants would be able to pay $4.05 a bushel for corn. “If corn is worth $4.05/bu. to make ethanol, then ethanol production will continue to expand until it drives the price of corn to that level. It's just a matter of how long it will take to reach that level. Further, those who produce ethanol will force everyone else to pay $4.05/bu. for corn if they want to use it,” writes Steve Meyer of Paragon Economics Inc. in National Hog Farmer.

Meyer says that the price of corn and the price of fuel are now linked, citing simultaneous fluctuations earlier this month. “Several sources report that the annual usage rate for the ethanol industry will be roughly 4 billion bushels a year by Jan. 1, 2008. That would be about twice the current annual usage rate and would mean that ethanol would consume about a third of even a very good 2007 corn crop.” He predicts that pork producers will not be hit too hard this year, as long as the corn crop is good. (Read more)

Hog and chicken farmers are not the only producers who will pay more for feed because of higher corn prices. Corn is one of the primary ingredients in food for farm-raised catfish. Further problems arise for catfish growers because economists predict that farmers will choose to plant corn instead of soybeans, another part of the catfish diet, reports Robert Wells of the Delta Farm Press. (Read more)

Off the plate and into the tank: Corn prices pinch aid for poor, raise tortilla costs

“America's appetite for fuel ethanol could take food away from some of the world's poorest people.” In one year the price of corn has doubled in Africa. “Catholic Relief Services, one of several organizations that distribute U.S.-donated food in Africa and Latin America, expects to deliver 161,000 tons this year, down from 200,000 tons last year,” writes Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register. “In the long run, it means that we are fueling our cars with food that people might have eaten. There are important trade-offs,” Lisa Kuennen-Asfaw, director of public resources for the group, told Brasher.

“Americans, and especially American farmers, take pride in feeding the world's hungry, but the truth is that the government's food-aid programs historically have at least as much to do with helping U.S. agribusiness interests as helping the poor,” writes Brasher. “The last time there was a similar surge in commodity prices -- in the mid-1990s -- government food purchases fell sharply but rebounded when global commodity prices collapsed a few years later.” “If food prices are 20 percent higher, that means you get 20 percent less food,” Gawain Kripke of Oxfam America told Brasher, who reports from Washington.

“It's very clear that we need to work on environmental and conservation issues and other kinds of concerns that affect the American public,” Kuennen-Asfaw told Brasher. “But we also have to think about the direction we're going in for poor people around the world.” (Read more)

In Mexico, international demand for corn has driven up the price of tortillas, an important staple. “Tortilla prices have jumped nearly 14 percent this past year, a move Mexico's Central Bank Gov. Guillermo Ortiz called ‘unjustifiable’ in a country where inflation ran about 4 percent. He blamed companies monopolizing the market and blocking competition. ‘We clearly have a problem of speculation,’ he said. The government and economists also blame increased U.S. production of ethanol from corn as an alternative to oil,” writes Peter Orsi of The Associated Press.

About half of Mexico's 107 million citizens live in poverty. Tortillas are especially important as a source of food for those with low incomes. “The government . . . authorized duty-free imports of 650,000 metric tons of corn to drive down tortilla prices,” writes Orsi. “Efrain Garcia, president of the National Confederation of Agricultural Corn Producers, said growers would not oppose the increased imports, saying ‘it's very clear to us, the producers, that (Mexico) needs a cheap tortilla.’”

“Nationwide in the United States, supplies of corn are expected to fall to 752 million bushels, a drop from last month's forecast of 935 million bushels and a steep decline from last year's supply of 1.967 billion bushels,” writes Orsi. “Mexican lawmakers are demanding the government impose price controls, but the federal consumer protection agency instead has launched an inspection campaign to ensure tortilla sellers post their prices and do not gouge customers.” (Read more)

Ethanol and high crop yields boost the rural economy of the Upper Midwest

“Good yields, high grain prices and the ever-growing demand for ethanol are helping rural economies thrive,” so much that “job growth for most rural portions of the states is increasing around twice as fast as the historical average,” reports The Associated Press, citing a survey of Upper Midwest rural bankers.

Creighton University economist Ernie Goss told AP, “Bank presidents and CEOs in the region reported very strong economic conditions for January, with the overall index rising to 61.2 from December's 58.5, which is significantly above growth-neutral 50.0. . . . We have all underestimated the impact of the construction and operations of ethanol plants.”

Bill McQuillan, CEO of City National Bank in Greeley, Neb., created the survey, which polls bank presidents and chief executive officers in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Federal appeals court rules horse slaughter for meat in Texas illegal

As Congress prepares for another debate on legislation to prohibit killing of horses to provide meat for humans, “The 5th U.S. Circuit Court in New Orleans Friday ruled that slaughtering horses for human consumption is illegal in Texas. That’s where two of the nation’s three remaining horse slaughter plants are located,” reports Tom Steever of Brownfield Network. The plants in Kaufman and Fort Worth, and in DeKalb, Ill., are foreign-owned, The Associated Press notes.

“The decision overturns a lower court ruling on a 1949 Texas law banning the slaughter of horses for human consumption,” Steever reports. “The lower court said the Texas law had been effectively repealed by the passage of another law. They also cited its preemption by the federal law. The 5th Circuit panel disagreed and at least some of that decision came down to what is seen on the big screen.” One judge on the three-judge panel wrote, “The lone cowboy riding his horse on a Texas trail is a cinematic icon. Not once in memory did the cowboy eat his horse.”

Former congressman Charles Stenholm of Texas, a spokesman for the plants and others trying to keep them in business, said the ruling may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. “Those who want these plants to shut down should be careful what they wish for,” Stenholm said in a news release issued by the Common Horse Sense coalition. “If these plants shuts down tomorrow, the nation's patchwork of horse rescue facilities would be overwhelmed. They can barely manage to care for the approximately 6,000 horses already in the system.”

Sunday, Jan. 21, 2007

What’s in that rail car? The answer could be deadly, and few know

"The greatest danger every community in America faces is from the catastrophic release of hazardous materials, whether it's the highway or the railroad," Louisville emergency-management director Doug Hamilton told Linda Blackford of the Lexington Herald-Leader, who noted, "One study found that a ruptured car carrying chlorine could kill thousands of people in a city within minutes." (Read more)

A CSX Transportation train derailed and exploded south of Louisville last week, sending toxic smoke over a wide area. The day before, four cars came loose from a CSX train in Kentucky and rolled 20 miles before a locomotive stopped them. In both cases, first responders had no idea what chemicals they were dealing with. "That's because the federal government largely prevents state and local governments from regulating railroads in order to keep rules uniform across the country," reports The Courier-Journal.

But some localities are moving toward "adopting their own railroad safety rules, which would challenge federal control and seek to limit or ban shipments of the most hazardous materials through their urban centers," writes Jim Bruggers, environmental writer for the Louisville newspaper. "The U.S. Conference of Mayors has asked the federal Department of Homeland Security to require railroads to tell cities when highly toxic shipments are coming their way, or to at least require better communication about the types of chemicals being shipped through communities." The request was made in 2005. That year, railroads agreed to give local officials lists of the top 25 chemicals, by volume, they haul through communities that ask for such lists, the Association of American Railroads told Bruggers.

Emergency officials in Louisville-area counties said they didn't know such lists were available, and they would ask for them -- but one said "he does not expect the list to be very helpful because it would be incomplete," Bruggers reports. "The railroad industry has argued that full advance disclosure of chemicals and other toxic materials in shipments could be an aid to terrorists in planning an attack. They also point out that the information is on manifests in locomotives, on placards on the rail cars and available from the companies in an emergency." (Read more) The Herald-Leader notes, "The Department of Homeland Security sought to remove symbols signaling what chemical rail cars were carrying. A coalition of first responders successfully fought the move."

Here's a question enterprising journalists could ask: Could or would Homeland Security could set up a secure Web site for railroads to list what they're hauling on each train, so local officials with passwords could immediately get the information in an emergency? If you ask it, tell us what answers you get. Click here for a list (courtesy of the Herald-Leader) of the 150 most dangerous materials hauled by rail.

Moderate Baptists, black and white, trying to form a new coalition

"Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are leading an effort to forge dozens of small and medium-size, black and white Baptist organizations into a robust coalition that would serve as a counterweight to the conservative Southern Baptist Convention," The Washington Post reports.

"The giant SBC, with more than 16 million members, has long dominated the political, theological and social landscape among Baptists, often spawning resentment among smaller Baptist groups," reporter Alan Cooperman notes. "It has also been closely aligned with the Republican Party. . . .The Rev. Richard Land, head of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission . . . scoffed at the idea that the new coalition would be nonpartisan."

Cooperman writes that Carter and other organizers, such as Mercer University President William Underwood, say "the alliance is not directly political" but say it could "recast the role of religion in the public square." Carter told the Post, "We hope . . . to emphasize the common commitments that bind us together rather than to concentrate on the divisive issues that separate us. There's too much of an image in the Baptist world, and among non-Christians, that the main, permeating characteristic of Christian groups is animosity toward one another and an absence of ability to cooperate in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood." Clinton declined to be interviewed, telling the Post he is only a "cheerleader" for the coalition.

Organizers say they want "a new covenant," not a new denomination. The coalition would include the moderate, mainly white American Baptist Churches USA and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, an SBC breakaway group, and the historically black churches National Baptist Convention USA and the smaller Progressive National Baptist Convention. "Together, they have more than 20 million members, outnumbering the SBC." (Read more)

Farm Bill should follow the strategy of rural Indiana, says editorial

In crafting the Farm Bill, Congress should follow the example of the Rural Indiana Strategy for Excellence, also know as RISE 2020, says Thomas Rowley of the Rural Policy Research Institute. “In a nutshell, RISE 2020 consists of a foundation and seven pillars. The foundation comprises all who care about rural Indiana, united in common cause not divided by parochial interests. A rural constituency. A rural voice. Including—importantly—urbanites and suburbanites who recognize the value of rural.”

The seven pillars are- encouraging the entire region to work together rather than acting separately by city or county, civic leadership and engagement, identifying community assets and making good use of them, innovation and entrepreneurship, including and making all welcome in the community, youth engagement and wealth creation and retention, said Rowley.

Sam Cordes, co-director Purdue University’s Center for Regional Development says RISE 2020 is effective in that it has a broad constituency that includes more than just rural residents, is not dependent solely on the government and it creates a more realistic and inclusive approach to rural issues rather than focusing solely on health care, education and economic development, said Rowley. (Read more)

Changes in tobacco market make a burley harvesting machine viable

The end of federal quotas and price supports has turned burley tobacco from a mainstay of small farmers to a plantation-type crop for large farmers. That, and a shortage of immigrant labor to harvest the crop, means that the time may have come for a tobacco harvesting machine developed by engineers at the University of Kentucky and the manufacturer, GCH International of Louisville.

"This is really the industrial revolution for burley tobacco," GCH President Jeff Androla told Greg Hall of The Courier-Journal. "Androla said he doesn't see how farmers can continue to find the labor needed to cut tobacco in the traditional way. The U.S. Agriculture Department said some Kentucky burley growers couldn't harvest their crop in time last year because they couldn't get enough workers.

The machines sell for $379,000. "Androla said about five growers are seriously considering ordering the harvester. Producing one machine would take up to four months, but making them in multiples could shorten that time, he said." (Read more) To watch a video of the harvester at work, click here.

Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007

Study says rural areas would benefit from minimum-wage increase

As the Senate prepares to pass the first increase in the minimum wage in a decade, the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire says the raise "would benefit rural, low-wage workers every bit as much, if not more, than workers in big cities," contrary to some policymakers' beliefs.

The House voted by a wide margin Jan. 11 to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25. The debate in the House "showed U.S. policy-makers tend to think of the minimum wage as applying mainly to unskilled young people who work in the fast-food industry in impoverished urban neighborhoods," but the Carsey Institute will release a study Friday morning that it says shows otherwise, it said in a news release.

Institute Director Mil Duncan and Senior Fellow William O'Hare will discuss the study in a teleconference Friday from 10:30 to 11 a.m. Eastern time. The number is 1-866-704-7500 and the passcode is 800585.

"Nearly 2 million low-wage workers in rural America would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage and more than half of them have children under age 18 in the household," O'Hare said in a the release. Duncan said, "Members of Congress need to understand the important impact an increase in the minimum wage will have on all of their constituents, including those in rural areas. The minimum wage is not just a big city issue. A higher percentage of rural workers will benefit from the proposed $7.25 minimum wage."

As furniture plants shut, N.C. and locals offer tax breaks to lure Google

The rural Piedmont of North Carolina and Virginia has been hit hard by a steep decline in the area's three traditional industries -- furniture, tobacco and textiles. Now, as a Virginia company closes its last furniture plant, big tax breaks are proposed to bring a $600 million Google server hub to Lenoir, N.C.,on the site in this photo by Travis Long from the Raleigh News & Observer, which took a close look at the proposal this week. In the background is the last furniture plant in the city, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.

“State and local governments could hand Google more than $100 million in tax breaks over the next 30 years,” Jonathan Cox of the News and Observer. “In exchange, the company that runs the world's largest search engine would build a hub in this foothills community for its massive international computer network and hire 210 people.” The company’s investment would equal about half the tax base of Lenoir.

Cox reports that many residents are unsure about just what Google and a "server farm" are, who would work for it, and whether the tax breaks are appropriate. “People are expectant but hesitant,” Dinell Clark, owner of a new home-furnishings store in Lenoir, told Cox. “What do we get for that 30-year generosity?” City and county governments have agreed to exempt Google from all business-property taxes and 80 percent of real-estate taxes for 30 years if Google locates in Caldwell County, formerly a furniture hub, which has 3,400 people on the unemployment rolls. State tax incentives would total about $96 million.

In another Blue Ridge foothills city, Martinsville, Va., “Hooker Furniture gave up its last holdout against imports Wednesday, announcing its one remaining wood furniture plant will close in March,” report Ray Reed, Christina Rogers and Mason Adams of The Roanoke Times.“ The company will now only market the imported furniture that wiped out demand for the products its factories once made.”

Paul Toms Jr., chairman, CEO and president of Hooker, told Ginny Wray of the Martinsville Bulletin, “Unfortunately for our domestic employees, products (made) here were not as well received as imported products.” Toms “attributed that to the desire for value — hand carving and painting, for instance, on imported pieces.” He told Wray, “It’s not better quality; it’s more detail for the money.” (Read more)

But Henry County Supervisor Jim McMillan told the Times, “It is strange that Hooker has to do its business in China and IKEA, a Swedish furniture company, is building a plant in Danville,” Va., which will employ 700. The state House delegate from Martinsville, Ward Armstrong, told the Roanoke paper, “The Hooker plant closing does underscore the absolute need for the new college and for us to press on with our efforts to increase the education of our folks.”

A note on the Roanoke Times, one of our favorites: Mike Riley, its editor since 1998, will leave Feb. 16 to become editor and senior vice president of Congressional Quarterly in Washington. Times reporter Ray Reed writes that Riley has a background in "political journalism, including stints as correspondent and bureau chief at Time magazine, and executive producer of Time's political Web site." (Read more)

Tax-wary rural legislators may hinder Idaho community-college growth

In Idaho, opposition to increased taxes from rural conservatives may hinder building new community colleges. In the fast-growing state with more than 1.3 million people, there are only two such institutions and no new community college has been built in 40 years. To create a taxing district for a community college, two-thirds of voters must approve. Gov. C.L. "Butch” Otter has proposed to lower the requirement to 60 percent, reports The Associated Press.

“The bill . . . would first require at least 10 votes in the tax-wary, 18-member Revenue and Taxation Committee, where virtually all tax-related legislation starts,” reports AP. The panel includes many representatives known for their resistance to taxes. “It should be a higher standard,” said Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis. “He's only the governor. I represent a constituency that's rural.”

There are three universities and one state college in Idaho, but community colleges cost as little as half as attending those schools, and the Boise region is one of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas without its own community college, AP reports, adding: “‘Idaho has an impressive high-school graduation rate, but the percentage of Idaho high school graduates who go on to college is among the nation's lowest,’ Otter said last week during his State of the State speech. Just 45 percent of Idaho high schoolers go directly to a college -- the fourth-lowest rate in the nation.” (Read more)

Mulch, a new blog about farm policy, spreads good material around

The Environmental Working Group, best known to rural journalists as proprietor of the Farm Subsidy Database, has begun Mulch, a Web log about food and agriculture policy, politics, science and culture. Written primarily by EWG President Ken Cook, Mulch will offer general agriculture news and musings as well as frequent updates about the 2007 Farm Bill.

Full disclosure: Mulch had an item this week promoting The Rural Blog. EWG's realease about its blog, which was started Dec. 22, arrived today. A Jan. 16 Mulch item promoted Keith Good's Farm Policy News, "a daily rundown of important news stories, new studies, and USDA and Hill developments related to farm policy," Cook wrote. "I recommend it highly. And it's free." Sign up by clicking here.

Mulch has had a series of items about "Farm Bill losers," such as fruit and vegetable growers, sod farmers and nursery and greenhouse operators. The Rural Blog first reported those interests' plan to lobby for subsidies on Dec. 4, citing a story by Alexei Barrioneuvo of The New York Times. On Jan. 13, The Times-News of Hendersonville, N.C., a New York Times Co. daily, had a story about such interests in that area. "Our farmers are starting to organize," new U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler told reporter Jennie Jones Giles. "I'm setting up a committee in the 11th District to talk to our farmers." (Read more)

Sunshine Week, March 11-17, gets some high-profile honorary chairs

Ben Bradlee, Tom Brokaw and Judy Woodruff are the honorary chairs of Sunshine Week 2007, an effort to empower and educate people about their right to know what government is doing, and why.

Bradlee is former executive editor and now vice president at large of The Washington Post. Brokaw is former anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News and now a contributing reporter and producer for NBC News documentaries. Woodruff is special correspondent for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and anchor of Conversations with Judy Woodruff on Bloomberg Television.

As honorary chairs, Bradlee, Brokaw and Woodruff will serve as spokespeople for Sunshine Week. Bradlee said in a news release, ""People may not think about sunshine laws every day, but when you need them, you need them. When you're trying to get information, you know that with these laws you're on the side of right. Sunshine Week is a good opportunity for journalists, the public and government officials to reinforce the importance of these laws and the foundations they're built on."

For "Bright Ideas for Sunshine Week 2007," a collection of examples from last year's observance, click here. For a list of regional coordinators, click here. Sunshine Week is led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Afternoon paper in Bowling Green, Ky., starts a morning video Webcast

The Daily News of Bowling Green, Ky., is now using a morning video webcast to alert readers to stories that will appear in the paper that afternoon. "It's like a sneak peek of what the paper will contain," General Manager Mark Van Patten told the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association Bulletin. "A link to the webcast will appear on the front page of the online edition each weekday morning."

Today's video, with Chris Houchens as the talking head, was very much like watching a radio announcer give a top-of-the-hour newscast. It ran almost three minutes, ending with a brief weather forecast. No graphics were used. The Web site says it was posted at 8:03 a.m. (Click here to view)

The Daily News, circulation 22,000, is owned by the Gaines family of Bowling Green and is one of two independently owned daily newspapers in Kentucky. The other is the Kentucky New Era of Hopkinsville, circulation 11,000, owned by the Hayes family of that city.

Durham paper's editor defends coverage of Duke lacrosse rape case

"Although a variety of recent developments . . . have prompted some to claim early media coverage unfairly portrayed the suspects in a negative light, Editor Bob Ashley of the Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C., where Duke is located, defended his paper's coverage" of allegations of rape against members of the Duke University lacrosse team," Joe Strupp writes for Editor & Publisher.

"I think, locally, we have tried to report the facts as they've been produced, the facts as they have been publicly available," Ashley told E&P. "And when the defense attorneys have produced evidence available to their clients, we have reported that." Ashley said all 10 of his news reporters have worked on the story, but acknowledged that "He would have liked to have broken some of the recent information, such as the revelations about DNA evidence, earlier," Strupp writes. "But he says his reporters followed the case as closely as possible and reported with a presumption of innocence."

"The paper's careful stance is reflected in its editorials," Strupp writes. "One piece published on Sunday offered a mixed comment on the decision by embattled District Attorney Mike Nifong to step down from the case and turn it over to the [state] attorney general," Strupp writes. It said the decision was "inevitable" but Strupp writes that it made the decision "appear as if it was a courageous move by Nifong rather than a forced removal prompted by his own poor actions" and "stopped short of openly criticizing Nifong."

Ashley said he is not involved in writing editorials for the 50,000-circulation paper, the largest in Paxton Media Group. Paraphrasing Ashley, Strupp writes that "The paper is in an unusual situation, given that it has to maintain its relationships in the city and continue to report after larger media outlets leave. But he contends that has given the paper a better insight to the local community." Ashley told Strupp, "We've tried to keep some sense of perspective. When all of this is over, the national media will de-camp and go on to the next one. We have kept that in mind, the issues that have been raised by many." (Read more)

Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2007

Bill for slavery apology in Va. stirs controversial remarks, hurt feelings

A Virginia state legislator’s suggestion that the state’s African Americans should “get over” slavery, and asking whether Jews should apologize for the Crucifixion, “drew angry and emotional rebukes Tuesday on the floor of the House,” reports Bob Gibson of the Charlottesville Daily Progress, who wrote up the initial remarks. “The comments by Republican Delegate Frank Hargrove lit the first spark in what figures to be an emotional debate in coming weeks,” writes Michael Sluss in The Roanoke Times. (Read more)

“I personally think that our black citizens should get over it,” Hargrove, 79, said when the Progress asked his view of a bill to have the state apologize for slavery, on the 400th anniversary of Virginia's settlement. The first slaves in the American colonies arrived in Virginia in 1619. Hargrove wondered how far back apologies should go and asked, “Are we going to force the Jews to apologize for killing Christ?”

Yesterday, two African American delegates and one Jewish delegate rebuked Hargrove, who has represented the Richmond suburb of Glen Allen since 1982. Gibson writes for the Progress, “Stunned delegates gasped as Hargrove responded with two comments about "thin skin" to his seatmate, Del. David L. Englin, D-Alexandria, who had spoken moments earlier about his family having been "driven from their homes by people who believed that as Jews, we killed Christ."” (Read more) Associated Press photo from the Daily Progress shows Englin crying as Hargrove looks on.

One of the more outspoken advocates of an apology to mark the state's 400th anniversary is Ken Woodley, editor of The Farmville Herald, a 17,800-circulation weekly published 25 miles west of Appomattox, where the Civil War ended. One of the paper's editorials this week was an excerpt from the 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Click here to read the editorials. In Appomattox, the weekly Times-Virginian is running a voluntary reader "poll" on the slavery-apology issue. At midday, the proposal was disfavored by a margin of about 5 to 3.

Ethanol boom good for corn growers, maybe not for livestock producers

While the future looks bright for ethanol, livestock growers are worried that new demand and a 51-cent-a-gallon tax credit will help drive up the price of feed corn. “Enough plants are under construction or being expanded to more than double the nation's ethanol production, from around 5 billion gallons now to 11 billion gallons, according to industry estimates. The ethanol boom has been good news for grain farmers and rural communities, where new plants are opening at a breakneck pace. But it has put the squeeze on those who produce beef, chicken and pork,” writes Libby Quaid of The Associated Press.

“Eventually, sustained high corn prices will probably lead to higher grocery bills. If corn prices rise by $1 a bushel, within a couple of years, grocery shoppers should see the price of pork rise 3 percent to 3.5 percent,” writes Quaid. “The demand for ethanol, however, doesn't mean there is less corn for people to eat -- field corn for livestock and fuel is different from sweet corn, the source of fresh corn on the cob and canned or frozen corn. But food companies say the impact still goes beyond meat and milk. High prices prompt farmers to plant corn in place of other crops, such as wheat, driving up the price of things like wheat flour, said Cal Dooley, who heads the Food Products Association.” (Read more)

In low cotton: Economists predict cotton acreage may be down as much as 20 percent in the Mid-South this year, mainly because farmers are switching to corn, reports Jane Roberts of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Corn costs $100 less per acre to plant, but in a normal year cotton is more profitable than corn for a Southern producer. Farmers in that region are also taking a greater risk with corn because of hot, dry summers unlike those in the Corn Belt. “Ultimately, the whole price scenario hinges on the price of fuel. If oil continues to trade around $60 a barrel, ‘there will be substantial growth in the amount of grain that will go to ethanol,’ said Don Frahm, senior vice president at Informa Economics Inc. “If it's $40 a barrel, then it's a different story.’” (Read more)

Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2007

Rural America is more prepared for disaster, but also more vulnerable

How prepared is your community for a disaster? Some background, measurements and ideas can be gleaned from a University of Illinois study of differences between urban and rural response to disaster. It suggests that “Although rural residents may be more directly involved in responding to crisis, their location also makes them more vulnerable,” said a university press release.

"What we've learned so far is that in rural communities there is a tradition of being more self-reliant. They're off the grid, so that makes them check on each other more, but they are also uniquely situated, closer in some ways to the physical environment and more isolated, making them uniquely vulnerable," said Courtney Flint, a rural sociologist at the school. “Perhaps it's that vulnerability that makes rural communities more self-reliant. Flint said that people in farm communities say, ‘We're on our own. We know we're not going to get the same first response in an emergency as the cities.’ While people in urban communities ask questions about liability, rural dwellers say, ‘We can't wait around for funding. If we need bandages, we'll just start ripping up old bed sheets.’”

The study is finding that Community Emergency Response Teams in rural areas plan for being the first response to a disaster, a role that police and fire departments have in cities and suburbs. Flint said CERT's tend to be more reactive than proactive. “Before disaster strikes, CERTs can do a lot in a community to be proactive by building awareness, educating and training. In rural communities, they may do work such as stabilizing stream banks that may overflow -- that sort of thing.” Flint hopes that that the study will show that urban and rural needs are different and help shape emergency policies. (Read more)

Videos of education-coverage workshop posted for viewing on Web

Video recordings of sessions at "Beyond the Board Meeting: Improving Your Education Coverage," a one-day workshop on covering schools, especially in Kentucky, are now posted on the World Wide Web. The conference was for Kentucky reporters and editors, but presenters discussed various education-coverage principles, ideas and issues that could be useful to education reporters in any state.

The workshop was presented Nov. 14 in Frankfort by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, in cooperation with the Kentucky Press Association and the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. Click here for a list of the presentations and video files.

Philanthropy necessary to grow the South, balance inequity, study says

The key to more equitable growth in the South, the nation's most rural region, is philanthropy that bridges inequalities, says a new report. The South must improve opportunities for its poorest citizens, including those living in rural areas, according to The State of the South 2007: Philanthropy as the South's “Passing Gear”, sponsored by MDC Inc., a research firm based in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Although the South has experienced higher growth than the national average, it is “the land of the working poor and working near-poor,” says the report. The income gap has widened and poverty rates have risen in nearly every state. “‘Poverty remains a characteristic blot upon the face of the South, a region with large swaths of rural destitution,’” the report says. Nearly one in five children in the region, for example, lives in a household below the poverty level,” writes Todd Cohen of Philanthropy Journal. “Much of the South's poverty is ‘legacy poverty,’ stemming from the region's ‘history of racial segregation and destitution amid a small-scale farm and factory economy,’ the report says.”

The South is home to 74.1 million people, one-fourth of the U.S. population. Among the nation’s major regions, the South has the highest share of rural residents. In 2000, 34 percent of its population lived outside metro areas, far above the national figure of 20 percent.

Although the southerners donate more than the national average, the distribution of those funds is uneven, tending to miss those most in need, reports Cohen. The report recommends that, instead of passing out charity, philanthropy should do things such as build the infrastructure of the South, work with the private market and civic leaders, provide intellectual leadership, and try to shape policy. (Read more)

Tenn. law professor says mandatory gun ownership can deter crime

To deter crime may, don't outlaw gun ownership, but require it, says Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee and the author of the blog Instapundit. According to Reynolds, citizens may act as a militia in times of crisis, the same as they did in Colonial times. The founding fathers “drew no real distinction between resisting burglars, foreign invaders or domestic tyrants: All were wrongdoers that good citizens had the right, and the duty, to oppose with force,” he says.

“Last month, Greenleaf, Idaho, population 862, adopted Ordinance 208, calling for its citizens to own guns and keep them ready in their homes in case of emergency,” writes Reynolds. “It’s not a response to high crime rates. As The Associated Press reported, ‘Greenleaf doesn’t really have crime ... the most violent offense reported in the past two years was a fist fight.’ Rather, it’s a statement about preparedness in the event of an emergency, and an effort to promote a culture of self-reliance. Greenleaf is following in the footsteps of Kennesaw, Ga., which in 1982 passed a mandatory gun ownership law in response to a handgun ban passed in Morton Grove, Ill.”

“Kennesaw’s crime dropped sharply, while Morton Grove’s did not. Experts don’t think the Kennesaw ordinance, which has never actually been enforced, did much to change gun ownership rates among Kennesaw residents,” writes Reynolds. “And, given that Greenleaf’s mayor has estimated that 80 percent of the town’s residents already own guns, the new ordinance can’t make all that much of a difference. But criminals are likely to suspect that towns with laws like these on the books will be unsympathetic to malefactors in general, and to conclude that they will do better elsewhere.” (Read more)

Editor who afflicted the comfortable, including his bosses, dies in N.Y.

Mike Levine, editor of the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., died of a heart attack Sunday morning at his home. He was 54. Under his editorship, The Associated Press named the 80,000-circulation paper New York's Newspaper of Distinction three times. For the AP obituary, click here.

Reporter Steve Israel, a friend of ours, wrote of Levine, "In a business increasingly ruled by the bottom line of dollars, Mike was guided by a different God: that heart. He made sure the Record lived up to the words he often told young reporters: 'Comfort the afflicted. Afflict the comfortable.' Mike did just that. He journeyed to New York City to stand up to Dow Jones, the company that owns this newspaper. He told its bosses that we — the folks who read and produce this newspaper — needed people to tell the stories that mattered more than they needed profits. These were the stories that Mike the columnist wrote better than anyone — 'with more heart than anyone I ever knew,' said Jim Ottaway Jr.," former chairman of Ottaway Newspapers, the Dow Jones subsidiary that owns the paper.

"Mike's were stories of real people, of a neighbor making soup for his elderly and disabled neighbor, of a waitress working until 2 a.m. so her family could have Christmas presents beneath their tree, of a stranger who returned a signed blank check to its owner," Israel wrote. "They were also stories that exposed the corrupt politicians who hurt these people." (Read more) Middletown is in Orange County, just off Interstate 84, halfway between the Hudson and the junction of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Monday, Jan. 15, 2007

Feds propose limit on Medicaid payments to rural health providers

Rural hospitals and nursing homes, especially those owned by governments, would get less federal money under a proposal to cut $4 billion in spending from the federal-state Medicaid program for the poor and disabled,The Associated Press reports. "We expect this rule to have a significant economic impact on a substantial number of small entities, specifically health care providers that are operated by units of government," said the federal Center for Medicaid and State Operations.

The center pays 50 to 76 percent of Medicaid, depending on poverty in a state. In Kentucky, the feds pay 71 percent. "In many states, financing arrangements between health care providers and the state result in the federal government paying more than the law says it should," AP's Kevin Freking writes.

The proposed change would keep Medicaid payments to health care providers operated by local governments from exceeding actual costs. "According to federal data, there are 1,153 hospitals operated by local governments or hospital districts; 822 nursing homes with such ownership; and 113 intermediate care centers for the mentally retarded," AP reports. (Read more)

World nears a milestone: Next year, most humans will live in cities

"Fifty years ago, most people lived in rural areas. But the world has changed. By some point next year, more than half of all people will live in cities, for the first time in history. So says the most recent estimate from the United Nations." So reports the Voice of America.

"City life is not always a bad thing, but many experts worry about this process of urbanization. A new report from the Worldwatch Institute says it is having a huge effect on human health and the quality of the environment. The environmental research group in Washington released its 2007 State of the World report last week." (Read more)

As more miners die, paper reveals record of inspector at a deadly mine

Yesterday, as The Charleston Gazette and other West Virginia newspapers were reporting the latest multiple fatality in the coal industry (click here for today's coverage), The Courier-Journal raised some interesting questions: How does a man who falsified safety records at two coal mines, including one that had of the biggest disasters in modern times, get a job as a state mine-safety inspector in Kentucky? And how does he keep his job as inspector at a mine where five miners died in a disaster last year, when he writes one violation for every seven federal inspectors write?

The newspaper was implicit, not explicit, in asking those questions about Charles Kirk, inspector at the Kentucky Darby No. 1 Mine in Harlan County. But the facts spoke for themselves, as they often do in stories written by R.G. Dunlop, a fine investigator who once staffed the newspaper's now-closed Eastern Kentucky Bureau and still keeps one eye on the coal industry for the Louisville paper.

"Kirk did not respond to a dozen attempts to reach him, including e-mails sent to the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing in Harlan where he works, and telephone messages left at his office, his Bell County home and on his cell phone and pager," Dunlop wrote. "State officials defended Kirk," but said they were unaware of his background until Dunlop told them about it.

Kirk was in charge of safety at the Scotia Coal Co. in adjoining Letcher County in 1976, when explosions killed 23 miners and three inspectors in "the nation's third-worst coal-mining disaster since 1970." In 1981, Jericol Mining Co. in Harlan County "was awarded the nation's most prestigious honor for underground mine safety after Kirk -- its safety director -- falsely asserted in a letter [that a mine had] no lost workdays that year as a result of miners' injuries."

Also yesterday, The New York Times started a new column called "This Land" by Dan Barry, whose first dispatch was on from the coal-mining town of Logan, W.Va. Logan "has changed a lot, its people say, but coal is still the Big Daddy," says a Times teaser. The column is part of the Times Select subscriber-only service; the paper's original teaser used the headline, "A Way of Life, Seen Through Coal-Tinted Glasses," and said the column is about "on surviving the coal dust of West Virginia with miners like Chuck Gunnoe." Click here to see it, with a free 14-day trial. (Warning: If you don't cancel in 14 days, you'll be billed!)

Writer: What if Blue Ridge or Berkshire mountaintops were removed?

"One of the nation's most serious and underreported environmental calamities" is happening in the mountains of Appalachia, University of Hartford English professor William Major writes in the Hartford Courant, calling the mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal "Quick. Cheap. And immoral."

Major writes than when 12 miners were killed at the Sago Mine in West Virginia last January, "Every major media outlet provided round-the-clock coverage, as well they should have. But the ongoing environmental and cultural tragedy surrounding certain aspects of coal mining almost never makes the papers or the evening news. . . . You might think that the sight of towering mountains reduced to a virtual desert for a mess of pottage would inspire some kind of passion outside of the small numbers of people engaged in the struggle. Sadly, however, this doesn't seem to be the case."

Major concludes, "The moonscapes of Appalachia symbolize our nation's remarkable ability not to see what is most apparent, and most troubling. The poor of New Orleans know this quite well. I would like to see mountaintop removal in the Blue Ridge Mountains where Washingtonians view the fall foliage, for instance, or in the Berkshires where New Yorkers go to play. Perhaps only then would we see some rage over an environmental and human disaster that cannot be squared with any ethical or moral system that I am aware of." Click here to read the entire article.

State energy maps, tables show major resources, facilities, potential

The U.S. Energy Information Administration has produced energy tables and maps for every state, which could make good graphics for illustrating stories on various energy issues.

Rather than reproduce the map legend here, here's an explanation: The half-shaded boxes are coal mines producing at least 4 million tons per year (shading upper left indicates a surface mine, otherwise an underground mine); triangles are major power plants, black for coal-fired and orange for gas-fired; the gold lines are major electric lines; the orange shaded line shows the flow of natural gas through the state, via various pipelines; the purple box shows a petroleum refinery; and the shaded area indicates the region in which prevailing winds are strong enough to make electricity-generating wind turbines economically viable. White lines are county lines. Maps for other states show other types of power plants, oil ports, solar and geothermal potential.

Each map is accompanied by a set of "quick facts," which can tell more than the map. For example, Eastern Kentucky has no coal mines producing more than 4 million tons a year, but text with the state map says the Kentucky is "third in the nation in coal production. It accounts for about one-tenth of U.S. coal production and approximately one-fourth of U.S. production east of the Mississippi River. Nearly one-third of all the coal mines in the nation are found in Kentucky. Coal-fired plants generate nearly 95 percent of Kentucky’s electricity. Kentucky is one of the top hydroelectricity-generating states east of the Rocky Mountains."

Each state map is accompanied by tables that compare the state's energy resources, prices, production, consumption, taxes and certain energy-related environmental programs with the rest of the nation. For example, in 2005 the average price for 1,000 cubic feet of of natural gas at a wellhead in Kentucky was $6.84, well under the national average of $7.33. And in West Virginia, residential heating oil sold for $2.16 a gallon in October, under the national average of $2.295.

Dog catches car: Southwest Va. says 'Return to Roots' for high-tech jobs

After decades of longing for skilled and technical jobs that could keep its young people from leaving home Southwest Virginia has them. But now it's short of people to fill them. "We feel like the dog who's caught the car," Smyth County Administrator Ed Whitmore told Paul Dellinger of The Roanoke Times.

"The region had about 1,700 job vacancies last year, including some 700 information technology jobs, based on figures from the Virginia Department of Business Assistance," Dellinger writes. "Whitmore came up with the idea of trying to fill some by recruiting former residents who might want to come back. The result was 'Return to Roots,' a name suggested by one of the Virginia Tech students with whom Whitmore discussed the concept. He and others formed a committee to give it a try."

They got a $135,000 grant, which allowed them to start the project in the state's seven westernmost counties and and the independent cities of Norton and Bristol. A business developer in Blacksburg is seeking a larger grant to expand the service area. (Read more)

Saturday, Jan. 13, 2007

Spring-like weather in the East a blessing to all but the ski industry

The recent warm spell across the East has been bad for the ski industry, a significant employer in some rural areas. “While many western U.S. ski resorts are thriving with packed powder measuring in feet, not inches, resorts back East are hoping to turn a terrible season around,” reports the Roanoke Times. “Dozens of resorts remain closed from Iowa to Alabama and on up to Maine. Where snowmaking has occurred, slopes were clogged with frozen, granular snow -- stuff not conducive to fun skiing -- or sat unused as officials look skyward for help and turned to ingenuity, layoffs and discounts to entice skiers.”

The Roanoke paper, as it often does, goes well beyond its home area to give details: “In ski-crazy Vermont, four resorts and 17 cross-country ski centers were temporarily closed Thursday, and none of the 19 open resorts had more than half their trails open. Mad River Glen in Waitsfield, Vt., closed Monday and laid off dozens of workers. After 2 to 4 inches of snow fell Tuesday night, the resort vowed to reopen for the holiday weekend. At Seven Springs, Pa., more than 530 truckloads of snow were recently moved to high-traffic areas and officials postponed the debut of an 18-foot-high half pipe at the resort's snowboard park.

Many skiers have pushed back their reservations, holding out for colder weather, reports the Times. Winterplace Ski Resort in Ghent, W.Va., has extended its early-season rates, and lodging prices are discounted at Canaan Valley in Davis, W.Va. An Aspen, Colo., promoter is offering a $50 discount on vacation packages for people with a season pass to a resort running under half-capacity. (Read more)

Maine governor urges mass consolidation of school districts, many rural

Maine Gov. John E. Baldacci wants to "eliminate hundreds of locally elected school boards and scores of superintendents and replace them with 26 regional boards and schools chiefs," reports Education Week. "Maine has 195,000 students and 290 school districts, each with an elected school board. Many are in rural parts of the state and enroll a small number of students. In many cases, such districts have formed a “union” with neighboring districts to share a superintendent and central-office administration."

State Education Commissioner Susan Gendron told Education Week reporter Lesli Maxwell, “By having only 26 districts rather than 290, we could meet on a monthly basis with all the superintendents and with all the curriculum coordinators to talk about our standards and best practices, and to get agreement on what our academic outcomes need to be.”

The regional boards would have between five and 15 elected members. " The regions would follow the same boundaries used now to govern Maine’s vocational education program. The regional districts would vary in size from 1,800 students to nearly 20,000," Maxwell writes. Kim Bryant Bedard, president of the Maine School Boards Association, told Education Week, “These regions don’t make any sense. Some of us could be driving an hour just to be able to see the superintendent.”

Maxwell also notes: "In New Jersey, lawmakers are debating a similar consolidation plan on a pilot basis. Rural Gloucester County, which has 10 districts, is seen as a likely candidate for the program, said state Sen. Bob Smith, a Democrat who is sponsoring the measure." (Read more)

'Banks go wild,' threatening working poor with credit-card debt

In today's New York Times is an op-ed column that every newspaper should consider running. A bankruptcy judge and author trace the recent history of credit-card banking and say the 2005 passage of a bankruptcy-reform law poses a threat to the working poor -- many of whom live in rural areas.

"In signing the 2005 act, President Bush declared that it would make more credit available to poor people," write Judge Joe Lee and noted author Thomas Parrish, both from Kentucky. "Unquestionably so. And 30 percent interest was just what they needed, wasn’t it?" The article is headlined "Banks gone wild."

Parrish and Lee, who is the longest-serving of 467 bankruptcy judges, say the "epidemic" of bankruptcies and defaults that banks cited to win passage of the law was simply a function of the huge expansion of credit allowed by a 1978 Supreme Court decision, which said banks could charge their home-state rates anywhere in the country. South Dakota was the first Mecca for the banks; other states followed.

"From 1980 to 2004, personal bankruptcy filings increased 443.45 percent, which is certainly impressive," Lee and Parrish write. "But over the same time, consumer-credit debt rose a bit more, by 501.29 percent. In 1980, less than one personal bankruptcy case was filed for each $1 million in consumer credit outstanding. The figure was slightly smaller in 2004. Bankruptcies tend to rise as amounts of credit rise. No mystery there, and certainly no epidemic. It all suggests that the bankruptcy code was performing remarkably well. But the banks got what they wanted from Washington."

Lee is author of the Practice Manual on Bankuptcy, since 1981 the standard in the field. Parrish's books include Roosevelt and Marshall, The Grouchy Grammarian, A History of the Submarine, and Shakertown Restored. He is currently writing a book about Averill Harriman and Harry Hopkins.

Southern States closes more than a third of its farm stores in six years

Southern States Cooperative "owned or managed 327 stores across the Southeast at the end of fiscal 2000, but now has only 212 such operations," reports The Associated Press, in a story that could have dug deeper. Maybe some enterprising journalist will pick up the ball.

Company spokesman Jim Erickson told AP that many of the closures were driven by urban sprawl into croplands, but U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows that just a little more than 2 percent of cropland was taken out of production between 1996 and 2005. (The AP story did not use percentages) A 2004 release from the co-op said it made a profit in the 2003-04 fiscal year, after three years of losses, but that is the most recent release about the company's finances on the release page of its Web site.

Southern States has cooperative stores in Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and Alabama. It began as Virginia Seed Service in 1923 and is based in Richmond. AP reports, "While cooperatives are consolidating in the Midwest, the closings are especially prevalent in the Southeast, says Justin Darisse, spokesman for the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives in Washington, D.C."

The AP story, datelined Morgantown, W.Va., was pegged to this week's vote by directors of the co-op in Martinsburg to close -- apparently because of urban sprawl. "Land values skyrocketed as Washington, D.C.-area commuters began moving in, and many farmers have sold out to developers offering more money than their crops and livestock promise," the story reports. (Read more)

Drug testing of miners growing in W.Va., may become mandatory

Coal-industry lobbyists say they will push for mandatory drug testing for all coal miners in West Virginia. Some oppose the move, including United Mine Workers officials, who say it would be a diversion from mine-safety reforms, reports Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette.

Ronald Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, began with testing his agency’s inspectors in November. “All mine safety employees who are authorized to drive state vehicles were tested in early December, and random sampling will start this month, said agency spokeswoman Caryn Gresham,” writes Ward.

“Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion and a UMW coal miner, said the industry plan is meant to distract lawmakers and state inspectors from other mine safety reforms,” writes Ward. “The companies want to push it because it takes the focus away from inspections,” Caputo told the Gazette. “It takes inspectors out of the mines to run drug testing.”

“The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is already considering a rule to mandate drug testing of miners nationwide,” writes Ward. “MSHA has said that a preliminary review of agency data ‘revealed a number of instances in which alcohol or other drugs or drug paraphernalia were found or reported, or in which the post-accident toxicology screen revealed the presence of alcohol or drugs.’ A proposed rule is due out in June.” (Read more)

New resource guide on reporting religion available in print and online

The Religion Newswriters Association has released a new resource guide titled “Reporting on Religion: a Primer on Journalism’s Best Beat.” The guide lists topics such as resources for religious information, advice on whether a reporter should reveal his or her personal faith, guidelines for behavior when entering worship sites and descriptions of how religion relates to other subjects.

For example, in regard to Islam, the guide warns about making generalizations about Sunni and Shiite, because they are not easily characterized. It reminds us of some basics; for example, not all Muslims are Arab and not all Arabs are Muslim. Little things count, too: A guideline for dress when entering mosques advises not to wear clothing with images of faces.

The RNA is a non-profit trade association that seeks to “advance the professional standards of religion reporting in the secular press.” A PDF of the guide is online and free print copies are available upon request. The organization's Web site includes other resources and discussions on covering religion.

Thursday, Jan. 11, 2007

Farm Bureau delegates no longer want to keep Farm Bill the way it is

Delegates to the American Farm Bureau Federation convention "say they’d like the 2007 Farm Bill to be similar to the current one, but they’ve abandoned policy that the measure be extended," reports Tom Steever of Brownfield Network. "AFBF policy had supported extending the 2002 until a new World Trade Organization agreement is reached. Negotiations on a new WTO pact collapsed last July."

The lobbying group's change of position may improve chances that the nation's basic law on farm subsidies and rural development will undergo substantial change this year. Many interest groups and government officials are calling for more limits on subsidies and more help for rural development. The bill deals with a wide range of programs, including conservation and food stamps.

"The farm organization’s policy setting session was remarkable in its brevity and general agreement on what should be contained in the next farm bill," Steever reports. "American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman told reporters following the session that the rapid policy decisions were a sign of solidarity in spite of commodity and geographic differences. . . . Delegates also agreed that farmers should have a safety net, but agreement was more fleeting on the subject of country-of-origin labeling. While many members want policy supporting a mandatory COOL program, the vote was to support voluntary labeling." (Read more)

In tackling the Farm Bill, Congress will be "debating the future of rural America," says the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs. "Rural America is a valuable part of America, but many rural people and communities are not sharing in the nation’s prosperity. The place of rural communities in the nation’s future is at risk. When rural America is a risk, all of America is at risk." (Read more)

Renewable energy reports coming; hog farmers worry about ethanol

The the role of rural areas and agriculture in national energy security is likely to be part of the Farm Bill debate, and Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee held a hearing yesterday to consider those subjects, notes the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank that plans to issue two reports on the subject next week.

The reports are titled “Fueling a New Farm Economy: Creating Incentives for Biofuels in Agriculture and Trade Policy” and “Energizing Rural America: Local Ownership of Renewable Energy Production Is the Key.” The center recommends investment in and increased federal support for biofuels, farmer cooperatives and incentives, opening to new markets and imposing a cap on carbon emissions.

“The timing is right for Congress to seize this opportunity to make the investments needed to jumpstart and sustain a global agricultural economy driven by clean renewable energy, technological innovation, and fair and open markets at home and abroad,” the center said in a press release. (Read more)

At the Senate hearing, the National Pork Producers Council expressed reservations about the rapidly rising demand for ethanol, noting how it is driving up corn prices. To read the press release, click here.

Rural areas could be a vast source of energy, not just from corn and soybeans, reports Allen Rider of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in a story pagged to the current Pennsylvania Farm Show. (Read more)

More Wal-Mart workers have its health coverage, but still fewer than half

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced today that the number of employees in its health-care plan rose almost 8 percent last year, and the number in its "associate plus children plan" rose more than 11 percent. But "even with the increase, less than half of its 1.3 million employees — 47.4 percent — receive health insurance through Wal-Mart," report Michael Barbaro and Reed Abelson of The New York Times.

Wal-Mart, which has most of its stores in rural areas and is the largest employer in the United States, has "come under sharp criticism for not being affordable to many low-income employees," the Times notes. It "responded in 2005 with the introduction of less-expensive policies that allow someone to buy a plan with a premium for as little as $11 a month. . . . About half of the workers who signed up for the Wal-Mart coverage for the first time said they had been uninsured, according to the company survey, and more than a quarter said that they had not enrolled before because they could not afford it." (Click here for the story)

The company said in its press release that "90.4 percent of associates have health coverage, whether through Wal-Mart or another source . . . " The Times described Wal-Mart's situation this way: "About 10 percent of its employees, or 130,000, have no coverage at all." (Click here to read the release)

Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007

Crop-ID gaffe suggests media, non-farmers know little about farming

The Rural Blog emphasizes issues, ideas and sources, but it sits near the intersection of rural life and the news media, and sometimes a story comes along that we think is worth sharing just for what it says about the level of rural awareness among media types and non-rural residents. So here's an item from Everett "Ev" Thomas, vice president of agricultural programs at the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy, N.Y, near Plattsburgh. We got it from New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Steve Taylor's Weekly Market Bulletin, which has a broader scope than markets:

"I was watching ESPN on the tube, where Penn State’s football team was putting a whipping on Michigan State. To fill a bit of dead time one of the cameramen focused on a nice-looking corn field, part of which had already been combined. Peering down the rows of 8-foot tall stalks complete with leaves, tassels, and ears, Pam Wood, one of the two announcers, said: “What we’re looking at is, I believe, a wheat field. “Yes, that’s what it is,” replied Rod Ardmore, the other announcer. Now, Ardmore is from California, which explains a lot, but Ms. Wood is an easterner from Washington, D.C., and graduated from the University of Maryland, so she should know better.

"The point is that even the (supposedly) intelligent, educated portion of the non-farming public knows much less about agriculture than we often assume. My father used to think that a cow started milking upon reaching some magic age of majority, sort of like teenagers being legally able to drive when they reach 16 years of age. When I told him that the sex was in some way involved in the eventual conversion of heifer to cow, he was really surprised. When discussing farming with non-farmers, don’t assume that they know much of anything about the subject. You’ll be right more often than you’ll be wrong."

UPDATE: In an e-mail, Sarah Jimenez, The Fresno Bee's South Valley reporter, takes issue with Thomas: "We don't have as many corn fields in California as other parts of the country, but we do have some. And there is certainly no shortage of farmland dedicated to dairies, fruit orchards and vegetables. There are plenty of Californians, especially in the Central Valley, who likely could identify crops even if they are not in the farming industry. . . . Perhaps I misinterpreted the remarks, but I would hate to think ideas about all Californians being out of touch with farming are being spread. We may be better known for being home to San Francisco and Los Angeles, but there is a large chunk of the state, which makes its livelihood on ag, that many people often overlook."

Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2007

Tool to save a rural community's last grocery: Turn it into a co-op

For a century or more, farmers and rural communities have used cooperatives to start or save important local enterprises, "but experts believe only a dozen or so across the nation have been created to hang onto community groceries," reports Nafessa Syeed of The Associated Press. Most are in the Upper Midwest, Syeed reports: "It's a move some think will spread to other rural areas beset by similar problems, but they caution that such efforts carry risk."

Syeed writes from Anita, Iowa, about three miles off Interstate 80, in the northeast corner of Cass County, halfway between Des Moines and Omaha. "At one time, four groceries met the needs of the large families who lived in the town and surrounding areas," she reports. "Times have changed as Anita's population dwindled and larger competitors arrived, but the final market remained so important that its pending closure spurred residents to buy shares and create a grocery cooperative."

"Invest in Anita" posters are displayed, around town, and the names of residents who buy shares are printed on the front page" of the weekly Anita Tribune, circulation 1,244. The Tribune reported last week, "The Anita Grocery Cooperative is 19 shares short of their goal! If you are thinking of buying a share, get it done so the goal can be met!" The goal is 300 shares at $200 each, and $150,000 is being borrowed. Even when locals own shares, chain stores with cheaper prices attract their neighbors, Jane Kolodinsky, co-director of the Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont, told Syeed.

Despite the risk, Anitans "felt they had no choice," Syeed writes. "Loss of the 90-year-old Main Street Market would mean a virtual end to downtown traffic and trouble for the businesses that remained. And residents wondered what would become of their town without a gathering spot." The town of 1,049 probably would have become more dependent on Atlantic, pop. 7,257, about 14 miles to the west.

Ephraim Leibtag, who studies retail food markets for the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service, told Syeed that intense competition in the grocery trade has been especially hard on small stores.
"Rural towns lose something when fixtures such as a grocery store close," Syeed writes. "A domino effect kicks in and other businesses begin closing, said Kimberley Zeuli, who studies rural cooperatives and is a visiting professor of economics at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va." She told Syeed that after many losses, "At some point, it's no longer a town. It's just a gas station." (Read more) (Anita Tribune photo)

Town close to Charlotte rejects Lowe's store, opting to keep rural feel

Harrisburg. N.C., is part of the Charlotte metropolitan area, just a mile from the Mecklenburg County line and 2.5 miles from Interstate 485. But the council in the Cabarrus County town of 4,500 rejected a Lowe's big-box store yesterday, "siding with residents who would prefer Harrisburg’s small-town feel," reports Sharif Durhams of The Charlotte Observer.

"We’ve got two hardware stores in town that we’re literally going to put out of business,” councilman Phil Cowherd said. He cited "a town-sanctioned survey in which residents said they wanted to keep large retail stores out," Durhams writes. "Council members who support building the Lowe’s said barring the store would discourage developers from bringing other tax-paying businesses to the growing town. That could leave a larger tax burden for residents, they said." Supporters also cited job opportunities.

Lowe's, based in North Wilkesboro, N.C., appears likely to sue. The seven-member council approved the rezoning in November, when one Lowe's foe couldn't attend. "The full council declared the November vote invalid at a December meeting, but lawyers representing Lowe’s said it was too late to take back the decision," Durham writes. (Read more)

Update, Feb. 14: Lowe's has sued, contending that the council cannot rescind a rezoning. (Read more)

Tenn. task force looks at Ky., urges partnership for broadband access

With the Tennessee legislature about to gather in Nashville, "a group of telecommunication industry leaders and lawmakers urged the state to create an agency similar to what Kentucky did six years ago to promote more and better broadband usage" in rural areas, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports.

A task force sponsored by the legislature concluded that "Rural Tennesseans too often are stuck in the slow lane of the information highway, shut off from access to education, employment and health care services available through highspeed Internet service in much of the world," Dave Flessner writes. "State Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, co-chairman of the Tennessee Broadband Task Force, said the information superhighway is as critical to economic development today as the interstate highway was in the 1950s."

"This world is being divided between the wired and the fired," Herron told reporters. "There will be those with high-speed broadband lines and those who are in unemployment lines. I’m really, really scared if we don’t act." The Government Accounting Office ranked Tennessee 37th in the availability of high-speed Internet service last spring. "Kentucky’s relative ranking for Internet access and usage was even lower than Tennessee in 2001 when the Bluegrass State created ConnectKentucky, a technology partnership between the state and private industry groups," Flessner reports. "From 2004 to 2006, the growth rate of new subscribers to high-speed Internet in Kentucky was the highest in the nation, expanding from 24 percent to 46 percent, according to ConnectKentucky President Brian Mefford." (Read more)

Pest reaches Pine Mountain, threatening hemlocks in Kentucky

"Like advance scouts from an invading army, the first ranks of a pest that could devastate the state's hemlocks has entered Kentucky," reports James Bruggers, environmental writer for The Courier-Journal. "Before it's all over, as many as 80 percent of the state's estimated 71 million hemlock trees may be dead from the woolly adelgid, a sap-sucking insect from Asia that's devastated forests from Massachusetts to North Carolina."

The potential impact is much greater than on one tree species, the Louisville paper points out: "Hemlocks, which can grow as tall as a 10-story building, help keep streams cooler in summer and warmer in winter, nurturing temperature-sensitive fish like trout. Eastern hemlocks also drop needles that help keep the soil acidic enough to promote a distinctive plant community, including a flowering groundcover called partridge berry and showy wildflowers like lady-slipper orchids."

(Kentucky Dept. of Parks photo)

The Ketucky adelgids were found in Bell and Harlan counties, along Pine Mountain -- the 120-mile long ridge that marks the eastern edge of the Cumberland Plateau in Kentucky and Tennessee. "Foresters have identified more than a dozen infested sites in the two counties," Bruggers reports. "This time of the year the bug's distinctive white fuzz along the woody stems of hemlock branches is most easily seen." (Read more)

Louis Ingleheart, mentor of journalists in Indiana and elsewhere, dies

Louis E. Ingelhart, director emeritus of student publications at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., died Sunday night. He was 86. Ingleheart "branded a tough, adventurous and memorable persona in the minds of the hundreds of students he affected," reports the Ball State Daily News.

Ingleheart developed the journalism program at Ball State in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He and the program were role models for some other programs, such as the one at Western Kentucky University, which was a few years later in its development. (Read more)

Monday, Jan. 8, 2007

Cole Campbell, advocate of journalism for democracy, dies at 53

Cole Campbell, one of the most visionary editors and journalism educators of his time, died after a single-vehicle accident in Reno, Nev., on Friday. He was 53.

Campbell became dean of the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada-Reno in 2004 after stints as editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and as a teacher at The Poynter Institute. He was a leading advocate of civic or public journalism, in which media outlets actively engage their readers in deliberations about community issues.

“Cole was a towering intellectual among newspaper editors, astonishingly well read, and curious about all ideas,” Poynter vice president and writing coach Roy Peter Clark told David Cay Johnston of The New York Times for a story published today. Jay Rosen of New York University told Johnston, “Cole believed journalism should be not just what is going on in civic life, but what you need to know to be engaged — because if you don’t think you can participate in public life, why would you want to read about it in the newspaper?” (Read more) For a Friday story from the Reno Gazette-Journal, click here.

“He pushed for change so hard that he could overwhelm people he worked with,” writes Rich Harwood of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. “He ended up in a relationship with a direct report at one paper which cost him dearly. It was said sometimes that he was too conceptual, too smart for his own good, too far out in front of colleagues. After Cole left the Post-Dispatch, finding the right job was not easy. And yet each of these experiences made his sense of integrity even more alive and real.”(Read more)

We knew Cole Campbell and will miss him. Our last conversations were during a Journalism and Democracy Workshop held by the Kettering Foundation in Dayton in 2005. A discussion leader, he said media outlets should sponsor public forums as a method of inquiry, aimed not just at letting citizens vent, but to come up with solutions -- to help generate knowledge, not just distribute it. That level of journalistic engagement in public deliberation was controversial, but for us civic journalism is just one way of institutionalizing the interaction that journalists should have with their readers, viewers and listeners, and helping communities address issues in a democratic manner.

That process can be easy and informal in rural communities and smaller cities, but often needs more structure in metropolitan areas. But it can work anywhere, as The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, W.Va., showed in its civic-journalism project on how to reverse the city's declining economy. After it succeeded, people in Huntington asked the paper to do the same for the local educational system, Cole noted at the Kettering workshop. His most inspirational quote for me at that session was this rhyme: "There's no gridlock on the high road; no traffic jams, no backups, no delays. If you choose to drive upon the high road, you can drive without distraction -- for days!" That's good advice for all, urban or rural. --Al Cross, director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Some expect net-neutrality bill to pass, now that AT&T must keep quiet

AT&T's promise not to oppose legislation requiring network neutrality -- equal pricing for creators of Internet content -- "coupled with a Democratic House and Senate, means a Net Neutrality bill ought to pass -- eventually," writes Ross Fadner in today's Online Media Daily.

Jim Puzzanghera of the Los Angeles Times stopped short of such a prediction in a Friday story headlined "Internet toll lanes appear less likely," but he wrote that the promise, which AT&T made to win Federal Communications Commission approval of its purchase of BellSouth Telecommunications, "may rob neutrality opponents of one of their most effective arguments: that the issue is too vague to be precisely defined." (See Jan. 2 blog item for more background.)

"You have a single paragraph that has a rule that a fifth-grader can understand: Treat people the same," Timothy Wu, a Columbia University law professor who has given congressional testimony in favor of network neutrality, told the Times. "This will set a baseline and a standard." But while the promise "improves the outlook for a new law ... it will still be difficult for supporters to pass legislation this year, said Blair Levin, a telecommunications analyst at brokerage Stifel, Nicolaus & Co." (Read more)

Hay runs short, used farm equipment prices run high in some areas

Our friend Al Tompkins at The Poynter Institute has a couple of rural story ideas in today's edition of Al's Morning Meeting. One deals with a hay shortage in places such as Alabama and Oklahoma. You can see if your area is affected by clicking here for the National Drought Monitor from the University of Nebraska. The other story is on rising values of used farm equipment, by Greg Peterson of FACTs Report, an equipment-auction guide, which Al got from one of our favorite sites, Agriculture Online.

When we went to the Ag Online page, we tool special notice of the banner ad from Arctic Cat, which brought to mind our Jan. 3 blog item on all-terrain vehicles replacing horses in cattle country. But we also noticed something strange about the ad. It read, "Wrangling cattle. Bailing hay. We have you covered cowboy." Seems that the ATV manufacturer is not as familiar with baling hay as the company would like you to think -- and Ag Online isn't copyediting its banner ads. To see the page, click here.

Meanwhile, our hay note caught the attention of Ivan "Red" Swift, a friend in North Alabama. He writes that in The Huntsville Times "yesterday there was an ad for hay rolls at $60 a roll," but cautions, "If dry sage grass is in the roll, lots of cows and other livestock won't eat it. . . . If the roll is rolled tight there's a lot more hay in it. So, the $60 rolls for sale may be small, packed loose, and not really edible cured grass, like fescue and orchard grass. I put out three rolls today -- two for my cattle, one for my goats. Put out a roll for my sheep on Saturday. Haven't bought corn for several weeks but heard at the feed store today that is was shooting up in price." Red may be hearing the sounds of the corn-fueled ethanol boom.

Sunday, Jan. 7, 2007

NRA discussing stand on public-land access as Western drilling booms

"The National Rifle Association is being pressured by its membership to distance itself from President Bush's energy policies that have opened more public land for oil and gas drilling and limited access to hunters and anglers," reports Blaine Harden of The Washington Post.

NRA Second Vice President Ronald L. Schmeits told the Post that he and other members of the NRA's board of directors are discussing the issue. "The Bush administration has placed more emphasis on oil and gas than access rights for hunters," Schmeits, a bank president in Raton, N.M., told Harden. "We find that our members are having a harder time finding access to public land," Schmeits said. "Gun rights are still number one, but there will be more time and effort spent on this issue as we move forward."

Harden writes, "During the past six years, an increasing number of the country's 46 million hunters and anglers, including Republican-leaning shooting organizations such as the Boone and Crockett Club, have been grumbling about the Bush's administration fast-tracking of oil and gas drilling leases on public lands. . . . The NRA is increasingly being criticized as out of touch by some members of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. A new gun ownership group [the American Hunters and Shooters Association] is trying to win the support of disaffected hunters. Also, there is some complaining within the gun industry that NRA policies might be bad for business."

Harden quoted a "senior gun-company executive" as saying, "In the same way the Bush administration has overreached on Iraq, the NRA has overreached on gun rights. We are losing our grip on this green environmental thing." A 2003 poll of readers by Field and Stream magazine "found that 41 percent of hunters saw shrinking wildlife habitat as the biggest threat to hunting in America, while 25 percent saw anti-gun legislation as a major threat to hunting," Harden writes. (Read more)

Rural California's doctor shortage is getting worse, L.A. Times reports

"Although the rural-urban doctor gap isn't new, analysts say it is worsening even while the number of doctors and medical students surges," Lee Romney of the Los Angeles Times reports from Crescent City, Calif., north of San Francisco. Romney begins with cases worsened by the local doctor shortage and moves quickly from local data to reasons many rural places don't have enough doctors:

"In 2005 alone Crescent City lost a general surgeon, an orthopedic surgeon and 10 primary-care doctors — six from community and Native American clinics that treat the poor. The exodus cut the county's capacity in half in key fields and exacerbated other shortages. (The number of obstetrician/gynecologists countywide: one.)

"Recruiting and keeping doctors is tough in towns with no cultural attractions, no high-end shopping, limited job opportunities for spouses and limited spousal opportunities for the single. . . . Physicians who set up practice in rural areas are confronted by both a higher proportion of old and poor patients on Medicare and Medi-Cal compared with urban areas, and lower reimbursements. They must treat complex cases without the help of specialists, and they often face brutal schedules with no backup."

Half of rural California hospitals participating in a recent survey said they had cut services, reducing "key specialties such as obstetrics, according to Peggy Broussard Wheeler, vice president of the California Health Association's Rural Healthcare Center. Other rural hospitals, in Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties, have closed over the last five years," partly from indigent-care burdens, Romney reports.

Potential solutions for the shortages include "improved access to telemedicine — which in many areas would require expanding broadband service," and "pressing medical schools to rotate residents through rural areas and expanding a state loan-repayment program." (Read more)

Arizona transition: 'Cowboy Legislature' only has two ranchers left

"Arizona has had so many rancher politicians (more than 120 in all) that, at one point, critics took to calling the state's government the 'Cowboy Legislature.' But like so much of the state's rural roots, that era is coming to an end. Sen. Jake Flake and his lifelong friend Rep. Jack Brown, with a combined 22 years in elected office, are the last active ranchers in the Arizona Legislature," reports The Associated Press.

"Flake, 72, is a Republican. Brown, 78, is a Democrat. But professionally, ideologically and spiritually, Flake and Brown practically share a heart. Both are Arizona natives, born to pioneer ranching families about 30 miles apart on the high desert plateaus of eastern Arizona. Both are members of the Mormon Church. And both are profoundly worried that they might be the last of Arizona's cowboy lawmakers."

The story reports that cowboy legislators have retained power amid Arizona's urban expansion by aligning themselves with real-estate interests and other "powerful lobbying forces." (Read more)

Small places make big heat, get names back on Georgia highway map

When about 500 mostly rural places in Georgia were erased from the state highway map, changes that state officials said would make the map more legible, many residents of the small communities said the state was also erasing their history and heritage. Now the officials are backing down.

Gov. Sonny Perdue has asked state Board of Transportation Chairman Mike Evans "to restore the names after receiving a barrage of complaints from residents of the affected communities. Last month, the DOT said it would reinstate any community with a ZIP code. That list doesn't include many" of those erased, reports Rebecca McCarthy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"State officials have said they hoped to add all the de-listed towns onto the large-print maps, due out this summer," McCarthy writes, adding that the board, "which needs to approve the highway map, is expected to vote on the restoration at an upcoming meeting." (Read more)

In the making of road maps, "A little housecleaning over time is not unusual. But other states said it is almost unheard of to see hundreds of communities given the boot in a single year," writes Greg Bluestein of The Associated Press. (Read more) To see maps online, click here.

Friday, Jan. 5, 2007

Study says merit pay for teachers slightly boosts students' test scores

At schools with performance pay for teachers, students score 1 to 2 percentage points higher on standardized that those at schools without such bonuses, a University of Florida study has found.

“This research provides the first systematic evidence of a relationship between individual teacher performance incentives and student achievement in the United States,” said economics professor David Figlio, who did the study with colleague Lawrence Kenny. “We demonstrate that students learn more when teachers are given financial incentives to do a better job.”

The study also found that merit-pay plans offer the greatest benefits at schools with students from the poorest households, and are more effective if they give bonuses to a limited number of teachers. “Doling out merit pay to most teachers seems to provide them with little incentive to do a better job,” Figlio said. He said the schools with many poor students may have the most to gain from bonus plans.

The study was conducted among 534 schools that were among 1,319 public and private schools in a national study sponsored by the Education Department beginning in 1988. It has been accepted by the Journal of Public Economics. It was reported by Newswise, a research-reporting service.

Newswise said, “About 16 percent of American schools have teacher pay-for-performance programs in place, Figlio said. Such financial incentives were the rule rather than the exception early in the 20th Century, but they gradually became less prevalent starting in the 1960s, probably because of the rising strength of teachers’ unions, he said. (Read more)

Ingredient in underarm deodorant can suppress the odor of manure

"Imagine cleaning up smelly, polluting poultry manure and hog and dairy waste ... with a giant stick of underarm deodorant!" So writes Sandy Miller Hays, director of information for the Agricultural Research Service, the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in her "Everybody's Science" column.

"Before you all write in to tell me that I’ve obviously been standing too close to the hog barn fumes for too long, let me explain. Scientists with the Agricultural Research Service have found that aluminum chloride — a common ingredient in deodorant sticks — can go a long way toward minimizing those “lovely” vapors that tend to concentrate around swine and dairy production facilities, and can even help slash ammonia levels in big chicken houses (the kind with 50,000 birds under one roof)," Hays writes.

"When you add aluminum chloride to liquid manure, you don’t get any smelly gases, and the aluminum chloride performs like a champ at reducing atmospheric ammonia levels in big animal rearing facilities. It even helps with the energy bills at the big barns and chicken houses, because less ventilation is needed!"

Hays reports that the research, by an unnamed "ARS scientist," began in her native Arkansas and first resulted in the use of alum to reduce ammonia in poultry houses and phosphorous runoff from poultry litter spread on fields. Hays was a reporter, editor and columnist at the Arkansas Democrat, now the Democrat & Gazette, and has run the ARS information office since April 1998. (Read more)

Brownfield Report offers wrapup of last year's big stories in agriculture

2006 "was a year of frustration for U.S. cattle producers hoping that beef trade would once again approach normalcy. The frustrations extended to those in agriculture who hoped for some resolution in the Doha Round of global trade negotiations," reports Brownfield Network. "There was growing demand during 2006 for crops that are increasingly used as sources of energy and that show promise for other uses. It's been a year of position squaring ahead of the 2002 Farm Bill expiration date."

To stream audio of Brownfield's 54-minute report, click here. To download it as an mp3 file, click here. Brownfield Report, based in Jefferson City, Mo., is an agricultural news service for radio stations, but does such a good job of tracking agriculture-related news, it's useful to all media. It also has information on rural issues, and commentaries from founder Derry Brownfield. For the commentary page, click here. To read the Brownfield Blog, which tells more about its subscribers and contributors, click here.

Thursday, Jan. 4, 2007

New study details promise and limits of biofuels for the rural economy

Biofuels, mainly ethanol distilled from corn and diesel fuel from soybean oil, have been primarily a Midwestern phenomenon. In the near future, more biofuels are expected to some from a wide range of other plant material and organic feedstocks, expanding the impact of biofuels nationwide, says a new report by Jim Kleinschmit for the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

"Politicians and proponents tout the potential for biofuels to stimulate rural job creation and economic growth and increase energy independence as key reasons for providing public support for the industry," Kleinschmit writes. "But in the rush to grow the sector, the benefits to rural communities may be muted
or lost if federal, state and local policies and programs that help determine the sector’s ownership, scale and structure do not sufficiently support rural development priorities." The study notes that "biofuels will be high on Congress' 2007 agenda, with the rewriting of the Farm Bill."

The study says David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance "presents the most compelling and detailed approach for rural community development through the emerging bio-based sector. Ownership of the refineries by local farmers and community members is seen as the key aspect to sustainable rural
development. Local ownership assures that the facility is based to some extent on local resources and needs, and that much of the money generated remains in the local economy." Click here to read the study.

Warming trend threatens trout populations in Southern Appalachians

"Trout can't stand water temperatures above 76 degrees for very long. They can't stand 72 degrees over the long haul. . . . According to one model, rising temperatures could take 97 percent of the trout habitat in the southern Appalachians by 2100," reports The Roanoke Times.

Reporter Tim Thornton's story was based on a recent study by Patricia Flebbe, a researcher with the U.S. Forest Service's Southern Research Station in Blacksburg, Va. It's a big story in Virginia, which "has about 2,300 miles of wild trout streams, more than all other eastern United States combined, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries," Thornton reports.

The average air temperature in the U.S. has risen 0.6 degrees Celsius in the past 100 years. "Estimates of the increase by 2100 range from 3 degrees to 5.5 degrees Celsius," Thornton notes. "If temperatures increase 4.5 degrees Celsius, wild trout populations will virtually disappear from Virginia, according to Flebbe's study published in the journal Transactions of the American Fisheries Society."

More than 80 percent of Virginia's wild trout are native brook trout."Rainbow and brown trout, both transplants to the region, have out-competed the native fish in many streams, establishing themselves as wild populations and relegating brook trout largely to higher elevations." Warmer temperatures would push all three species higher, and "remaining populations would become more isolated" and thus more vulnerable to local extinctions, Thornton writes. (Read more)

What is placeblogging? Using a Web site to report on a community

"One of the more interesting experiments in citizen journalism had its official unveiling this week," Dan Kennedy writes in his Media Nation blog. He's writing about Placeblogger, constructed by Lisa Williams, whose h2otown blog covers Watertown, Mass.

Placeblogger "is an attempt to link to every local blog in the world, and to make some sense of this growing phenomenon, Kennedy writes. "What's a placeblog? It's a term coined by Williams to describe a Web site that covers a community. A leading example would be her own site," which Kennedy profiled form CommonWealth magazine a year ago. To read that story, click here.

Placeblogger is a joint project of the Center for Citizen Media and New York University professor Jay Rosen's PressThink. It offers "a directory of every placeblog Williams can find ... as well as her own efforts to make order out of chaos," Kennedy writes. Williams thinks there may be as many as 1,000. "There are really way more of these than anyone knows," she said at an event sponsored at Harvard last August by the Center for Citizen Media.

"Are placebloggers journalists?" Kennedy asks. "Well, yes and no. And, of course, it depends on the blog. Williams defines a placeblog as being 'about the lived experience of a place.' The blog may 'commit random acts of journalism,' she adds, but it's not a newspaper." (Read more)

A sense of place is important is rural areas, and some have blogs. Examples include Kingston Springs, Tenn., Maysville, Ky., Holabird, S.D., Palin, Colo., Paulding, Ga., and Onslow County, N.C.

Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2007

All-terrain vehicles are gradually replacing horses in cattle country

"It was a December morning fit for John Wayne," writes Paul Hammel of the Omaha World-Herald. "The temperature had plunged below zero. A skiff of snow dusted Johnny Cline's ranch along Goose Creek in the tan Sand Hills, about 36 miles northeast of Thedford. Angus cattle punctuated the grassy hills like black polka dots on a green bedspread. Cline, a lifelong resident of these wet meadows and choppy hills, hitched on his thickest coat as he headed out for chores.

"But instead of saddling up trusty steeds, Cline and his son R.J. climbed onto mechanical critters -- all-terrain vehicles -- to work the family ranch. The Cline ranch hasn't had a horse for 15 years. That's when Johnny Cline's favorite work horse died. The others he had didn't measure up, so he began ranching with four-wheelers. An enduring symbol of the West, the horse is slowly being herded aside on ranches and farms by the putt-putting ATVs. The change has crept up like a coyote stalking a newborn calf."

Farmers told Hammel that ATVs are faster, cheaper and work longer than horses. One differed, saying "I like to work with things that have a brain." But Hammel quotes Jun Villegas of the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, "a California-based, industry-funded group," as saying that four-wheelers are mainly used on farms and ranches, not for hunting and recreation. Billy Gibbons, president of the Tri-State OldTime Cowboys Association of Gordon, Neb., told Hammel, "A lot of ranchers keep horses around just because that's the way it should be." There's a lot more, well written. Click here to read it.

Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2007

Harlan paper tells local, human stories and issues of coal-mine safety

The Rural Blog carries a lot about coal, because it's a big and often controversial industry in many rural regions, especially Appalachia, our initial focus area. Most of the stories we excerpt come from metro newspapers, mainly because they have the staff resources for deep coverage of a topic that can be complicated and players who can be contentious. But when coal takes a human toll, the local papers have human stories to tell and issues to explore. The Harlan Daily Enterprise, circulation 6,900, knows that.

The Harlan Daily, as it is known, is published in a town and county whose name became synonymous with the conflicts of coal seven decades ago. Scores of local residents who died in the county's mines are memorialized in black granite on Harlan's courthouse square. Miners are still dying in Harlan County, Ky., usually one at a time, but last May five died in one accident, reaching the threshold to be called a disaster.

At year's end, the Daily published a two-part story by Deanna Lee-Sherman on legislation spurred by one of coal's deadliest recent years, "what industry officials and safety advocates are anticipating for 2007 and what families are sharing from their losses," as the paper put it. The story began with widow Stella Morris:

"A coal miner's wife, she felt a fear that can only be experienced by the families who send their loved ones into the coal mines each day with the unspoken understanding that one phone call could change life indefinitely. Her husband, Bud, understood, too. . . . David “Bud” Morris Jr., a shuttle car operator with four years of mining experience, was the last coal mining fatality of 2005. He brought the nation's 21 deaths to 22 after he was struck by a loaded coal hauler at the No. 3 mine of H&D Mining Inc. one year ago today. It was just before the closing of a remarkable year for the coal mining industry, and the beginning of a disastrous one to come." Click here for the rest of Part 1. Click here for Part 2.

Coal industry, regulators ignored warnings about threat that hit Sago

The Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 West Virginia miners a year ago today "might not have happened if regulators and the coal industry had heeded the warnings” from an explosion at an Alabama mine almost 10 years ago, Ken Ward Jr. reports today in The Charleston Gazette.

“Federal investigators found that a methane explosion in an area that had been mined-out and sealed had destroyed one foam-block seal and damaged two others,” Ward writes. “They blamed lightning, but said they couldn’t figure out for sure how the charge got into the mine.” That description is eerily similar to what investigators believe happened at Sago, where they blame lightning and faulty foam-block seals.

Five years before the blast at the U.S. Steel Corp. mine near Oak Grove, Ala., the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration had written a rule requiring mine seals to withstand air pressure of 20 pounds per square inch.“"The Oak Grove explosion was a clear indication that MSHA’s regulations on seal strength were not adequate,” Ward writes. “But the agency did nothing about it” until the Sago disaster.

“The Sago disaster might not have happened if regulators and the coal industry had heeded the warnings from Oak Grove, and from a series of other lightning-induced explosions . . . dating back more than 30 years,” Ward notes. "Today, thousands of underground miners across the coalfields work alongside foam-block seals that experts now acknowledge don’t meet the "explosion proof" test required by the 1969 federal mine-safety law. So far, no one has a plan to protect these miners.” (Read more)

Photo from The Charleston Gazette shows West Virginia special investigator Davitt McAteer (center) discussing Omega Block, the material used in the seal at the Sago Mine, during a May public hearing on the disaster. Holding a piece of Omega Block for McAteer are Dan Merideth (right), the son-in-law of Sago miner James Bennett, and Russell Bennett (left), the son of Sago miner Marty Bennett.

Save gun owners some money: Tell them the NRA is about to cry wolf

All across America, particularly in rural areas where gun ownership is common and Second Amendment support is strong, millions of National Rifle Association members may soon get a pamphlet warning that the new Democratic leadership in Congress is part of "a marching axis of adversaries far darker and more dangerous than gun owners have ever known," reports Jeff Birnbaum of The Washington Post.

"The only problem: No one expects gun legislation this year," reports Birnbaum, who covers the D.C. lobbying industry and writes that he got a copy of a draft of the 27-page pamphlet "from a source outside the NRA." He writes, "A few Democrats would love to take a potshot at the NRA. But its $20 million in political firepower has long discouraged any such effort. It helped to snuff out the presidential hopes of Democrat Al Gore in 2000 and to elect dozens, mostly Republicans, to Congress."

Not only have Democrats determined that gun control is a political loser, "One of the NRA's biggest backers is a Democrat, Rep. John D. Dingell (Mich.), who was instrumental in blocking the last major attempt at gun control in 1999 and will reclaim the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee this week," Birnbaum notes. "No matter. The NRA is on high alert, and its latest weapon is a pamphlet designed to send its members into fits of paranoid rage and to inspire them to open their wallets."

The draft pamphlet has "sinister-looking caricatures of supposed anti-gun figures such as filmmaker Michael Moore, comedian Rosie O'Donnell, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R) and CBS News anchor Katie Couric. U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton and billionaire George Soros, "a major backer of Democratic-leaning political organizations, are singled out for extra opprobrium," Birnbaum reports. Soros, the draft says, has been "trying to revoke the Bill of Rights through his checkbook." (Read more)

Topic for new House tomorrow: Will it endorse C-SPAN-run cameras?

C-SPAN has asked House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi to let the network decide what is shown on its coverage of the chamber, and we think all types of media outlets should urge the House to go along, in keeping with Pelosi's pledge to make "the people's House" more open. The cable-backed TV outlet made the same request of Republicans when they took over the chamber in 1994 and was turned down.

"Rules and established practices prevent congressional cameras from taking individual reaction shots or from panning the chamber, leaving viewers with an incomplete picture of what's happening," C-SPAN Chief Executive Brian Lamb explained. That makes the coverage "incomplete and boring, although the latter has never daunted C-SPAN," The Gleaner of Henderson, Ky., says in an editorial today. Letting C-SPAN run its own cameras would replicate "the way the network covers House committee meetings and joint sessions with the Senate, such as the State of the Union address," The Gleaner notes.

The paper also endorsed Lamb's request for immediate access to voting records "instead of waiting for them to be made official, usually well after the House had moved on to something else." That would keep House leaders from "holding votes open long after the count should have been announced in order to twist arms. The Democrats could underscore that it is indeed a new day in the House by granting both C-SPAN requests. It might even reinvigorate the lapsed tradition of vigorous floor debate." (Read more)

As we mentioned Dec. 19, C-SPAN is a key device for Americans to keep up with and understand what's going on in Congress, but its coverage of House and Senate proceedings is not really journalism because it's not independent. Why should TV coverage of Congress be restricted in a way that coverage of state legislatures and city councils is not? Until those who run the chambers relinquish control of the cameras, C-SPAN viewers will always wonder what they're not seeing. Pelosi should realize that making the cameras independent would not only be consistent with her pledge for a more open House, but rebuild some of the trust it has lost with voters. That would be good for Congress, and for our republic. --Al Cross, director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Wal-Mart pushing compact fluorescent bulbs as green maneuver

"The long-lasting, swirl-shaped light bulbs known as compact fluorescent lamps are to the nation’s energy problem what vegetables are to its obesity epidemic: a near perfect answer, if only Americans could be persuaded to swallow them. But now Wal-Mart Stores, the giant discount retailer, is determined to push them into at least 100 million homes," writes Michael Barbaro of The New York Times.

The ambitions of Wal-Mart, which still has most of its stores in rural areas, "extend even further, spurred by a sweeping commitment from its chief executive, H. Lee Scott Jr., to reduce energy use across the country, a move that could also improve Wal-Mart’s appeal to the more affluent consumers the chain must win over to keep growing in the United States," Barbaro reports.

A compact fluorescent bulb has "clear advantages over the widely used incandescent light — it uses 75 percent less electricity, lasts 10 times longer, produces 450 pounds fewer greenhouse gases from power plants and saves consumers $30 over the life of each bulb. But it is eight times as expensive as a traditional bulb, gives off a harsher light and has a peculiar appearance. As a result, the bulbs have languished on store shelves for a quarter century; only 6 percent of households use the bulbs today," Barbaro notes.

"Which is what makes Wal-Mart’s goal so wildly ambitious. If it succeeds in selling 100 million compact fluorescent bulbs a year by 2008, total sales of the bulbs in the United States would increase by 50 percent, saving Americans $3 billion in electricity costs and avoiding the need to build additional power plants for the equivalent of 450,000 new homes." (Read more)

Wal-Mart, which wants to improve its image, used its typical hardball tactics to get light-bulb makers to send it more fluorescents. Then it worked on ways to market them better, and "sales soared," Barbaro reports. "Google and Yahoo are in talks with Wal-Mart about how to use their search engines to promote the bulbs. But Home Depot and Lowe’s balked at the idea of cooperating with their larger rival."

Network neutrality gets boost, as AT&T embraces it to get BellSouth

The idea of network neutrality -- equal pricing for creators of Internet content -- got a boost last week as AT&T agreed to support it as part of its purchase of BellSouth Telecommunications. In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, from which it won approval of the sale on Friday, AT&T promised to "maintain a neutral network and neutral routing in its wireline broadband Internet access service" and not offer "any service that privileges, degrades or prioritizes any packet" on its broadband network based on "source, ownership or destination."

The Los Angeles Times explained in an editorial, "Net neutrality became an issue last year after AT&T and BellSouth executives talked about making online companies cover more of the cost of broadband networks [and] raised the prospect of charging high-traffic companies such as Google an extra fee to improve the picture quality of online movies and TV shows. Such charges could help established companies fend off upstarts by erecting a cost barrier to entry, suffocating the next YouTubes and Flickrs in their cribs. The idea stirred so much opposition in the tech industry that two Democrats on the FCC refused to approve AT&T's purchase of BellSouth unless it agreed to Net neutrality. With only four of the five commissioners voting on the merger — one of the three Republicans recused himself — the Democrats essentially held veto power on the deal, and AT&T finally gave in." (Read more)

"Anybody who violates this policy is going to run into a political buzz-saw," Jonathan Adelstein, one of the two Democrats, told Amy Schatz of The Wall Street Journal, who reported: "Supporters of net-neutrality rules, which require equal treatment of all traffic from the Internet backbone to a consumer's PC, say AT&T's agreement provides a template for future legislation and may at least temporarily hinder hopes of other telecom and cable companies from monetizing their Internet lines . . . " Schatz added, "Despite the arcane subject matter, net neutrality has become an oddly populist cause. At the FCC, it ranks second only to media ownership as the issue prompting the most consumer letters and comments."

AT&T's vow "is only good for two years from the merger closing date, or the effective date of any Congressional legislation addressing Net neutrality--whichever comes sooner," reports Online Media Daily. (Read more) Neutrality advocates hope Democrats' takeover of Congress will boost their cause.

Monday, Jan. 1, 2007

Warmer climate prompts Arbor Day Foundation to alter hardiness zones

America has been getting warmer, and that means more plants can grow in more places. The National Arbor Day Foundation, which promotes tree planting, recently revised its hardiness zones, which are based on average annual low temperatures using 10 degree increments. To see an animated map illustrating how the zones have changed since 1990, click here. The map (click here to see it) is a vivid illustration of global warming, which a consensus of climate scientists agree is underway. The main debate about warming is how much if it is being caused by human activities.

"Significant portions of many states have shifted at least one full hardiness zone. Much of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, for example, have shifted from Zone 5 to a warmer Zone 6. Some areas around the country have even warmed two full zones," the foundation said in a news release. All of Kentucky was in Zone 6, with a couple of spots in Zone 5; now, most of the state is in Zone 7. So is almost all of Tennessee.

Ben Sutherly of the Dayton Daily News detailed the changes in Ohio, where in 1990 "only portions of southwestern, southern and eastern Ohio fell within Zone 6, where average annual lows range between minus 10 and 0 degrees. The rest of Ohio fell within Zone 5, where average annual lows range between minus 20 and minus 10 degrees. In 2006, however, the foundation found virtually all of Ohio and much of lower Michigan fell within Zone 6." Sutherly adds, A recent survey of scientific literature on observed changes in natural phenomena, titled "season creep," found lilacs and honeysuckle bloom six days earlier, while lakes and rivers are freezing six days later and thawing six days earlier. (Read more)

The foundation developed the map from "the most recent 15 years' data available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 5,000 National Climatic Data Center cooperative stations across the United States." For the foundation's news release, click here.

Permission to reprint items from The Rural Blog is hereby granted, on the condition that clear credit is given to the original source of the material. If the blog provides information for a story, please let us know by sending an e-mail to al.cross@uky.edu.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues helps non-metropolitan media define the public agenda in their communities, through strong reporting and commentary on local issues and on broader issues that have local impact. Its initial focus area is Central Appalachia, but as an arm of the University of Kentucky it has a statewide mission, and it has national scope. It has academic collaborators at Appalachian State University, East Tennessee State University, Eastern Kentucky University, Georgia College and State University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Marshall University, Middle Tennessee State University, Ohio University, Southeast Missouri State University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Washington and Lee University, West Virginia University and the Knight Community Journalism Fellows Program at the University of Alabama. It is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the University of Kentucky, with additional financial support from the Ford Foundation. To get notices of Rural Blog postings and other Institute news, click here.

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