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The Rural Blog

This Web log of rural issues, trends, events, ideas and journalism from and about rural America 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 Americans, some 62 million people, live in rural areas. Send stories, links and tips to al.cross@u&ky.edu. Use of items from The Rural Blog by news outlets is encouraged and 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.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Hedge-fund managers quit Massey Energy board, blast chief executive

Managers of the Third Point hedge fund quit the board of Massey Energy Co. yesterday, saying other directors had "a misguided insistence on keeping" as the company's chief executive Don Blankenship, left, perhaps the most controversial executive in one of America's more controversial industries. (Photo from The State Journal)

The managers said that cost Massey a chance to merge with another firm and improve shareholder value. They also criticized what they called Blankenship's "confrontational" and "counterproductive" handling of environmental and safety matters. Federal officials are suing Massey "for thousands of alleged violations of the Clean Water Act and, though Massey disputes the figure, by some estimates faces $2.4 billion in fines," The Associated Press reports. "Massey is appealing a federal lawsuit that resulted in a judge voiding permits for four of its surface mines and jeopardizes the longstanding industry practice of using settling ponds to remove sediment from streams at mountaintop-removal mines." (See next item)

Massey, based in Richmond, Va., also faces a record fine of $1.5 million for safety violations the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration "determined contributed to the deaths of two miners in a January 2006 fire," which is also "the target of a federal criminal probe and the subject of a wrongful-death lawsuit, which also names Blankenship as a defendant," AP's Tim Huber reports. (Read more) "These and other correctible deficiencies combine to maintain a 'Blankenship Discount' in the market price for Massey's shares, and do a grave disservice to our shareholders by masking the underlying strength of the company's business, assets and workforce," Third Point CEO Daniel Loeb and analyst Todd Swanson wrote.

Three months before the fire, Blankenship sent managers a memo saying, "If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e.: build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal." Overcasts ensure proper air flow. The Appalachian News-Express of Pikeville, Ky., then a weekly newspaper, revealed the memo.

Massey is the fourth largest coal company in the U.S. and the largest in Central Appalachia, and Blankenship is one of the most politically powerful people in West Virginia. He put $3.5 million into a 2004 campaign that helped unseat a state Supreme Court justice, has targeted another one for next year, and tried unsuccessfully last year to finance a legislative takeover by Republicans. He has given GOP candidates $6 million.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Ag Committee chair says House likely to put caps on subsidy payments

The U.S. House is likely to put a cap on subsidy payments to individual farmers, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee tells the Brownfield agriculture-news service. “I think there is a sense within the Committee that probably something has to be done otherwise we could end up with something on the floor that’s not workable,” said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

“Peterson says the pressure is coming from urban members of Congress who have been hearing questions from constituents about big payments made to a few producers,” reports Brownfield's Bob Meyer. “Peterson says they went through a similar situation in 2002 and some changes were made. . . . If people are realistic, they’re going to realize there’s probably going to have to be some changes made this time as well.”

Members of the Agriculture Committee are discussing ideas for caps with farmers in their states, Meyer reports. “Some have suggested no program payments to anyone with an adjusted gross income exceeding $200,000. ... Peterson says he will mark up the Farm Bill on July 17, with floor action scheduled for July 24.”

Farm Bill should invest more in renewable energy, rural folks say in poll

Rural Americans in a national poll said the top priority for the new Farm Bill "should be more investment in renewable energy, which could expand the ethanol boom that has brought jobs and cash to the countryside," Reuters reports on questions posed on behalf of the Center for Rural Strategies.

"Environmentalists, anti-hunger groups, specialty crop growers, fiscal hawks and small-farm advocates say major changes are needed in the farm program. They want more money for land stewardship and public nutrition programs and stricter limits on subsidies to big farmers," Reuters reports. "More investment in renewable fuels was backed by 37 percent of poll participants, out of seven choices of how "to improve the farm bill. In fourth place, backed by 25 percent, was 'place caps on federal government subsidies to farms worth more than $3 million.' Fifth place went to protecting farms from urban development." (Read more)

New York Times writes about a chronic rural problem: animal control

"Midnight dumping of unwanted dogs is common here on the southern tail of the Appalachian Mountains, where large numbers of poor people are attached to multiple pets but cannot afford to sterilize or vaccinate them, and where impoverished county governments do not maintain animal shelters, require licensing or enforce requirements for rabies shots," Erik Eckholm writes for The New York Times from Selmer, Tenn.

Eckholm and his editors need a geography lesson -- the Cumberland Plateau that forms the western edge of geological Appalachia is more than 100 miles east of Selmer -- and many of the county governments are not impoverished but irresponsible. But the story is the latest evidence that the paper in America's quintessential metropolis does care about the problems of rural America. Eckholm's point of departure is Phillip Swetman and his family, who keep 13 dogs, some pictured at left in photo by John Anderson.

Eckholm writes, "The combination of pets and poverty, veterinary experts say, brings similar results to many rural areas: unhealthy conditions for oversized animal populations, desperate efforts by often-overwhelmed individuals to help and a lurking threat to human health. Dr. Bob Sumrall, a veterinarian in nearby Henderson, in Chester County, estimated that more than 75 percent of the thousands of dogs in the county alone have not had rabies shots." (Chester is the northern neighbor to McNairy County, of which Selmer is the county seat.) For Echkolm's story and a slide show, click here.

California police bully legislators into killing bill to open discipline cases

Here's a scary lede from the Los Angeles Times: "The slow death of a worthy bill being discussed in Sacramento offers powerful evidence of what happens to a state when it comes under the control of its police." The Times editorial lamented the likely death of a bill that would allow local governments to open police disciplinary hearings "in the wake of a badly reasoned state Supreme Court decision last year."

The editorial goes on: "Police unions have fought dirty and disingenuously to defeat it, throwing around their political weight in order to protect their members from legitimate scrutiny. . . . The union thuggery continued this week as representatives testified that Romero's bill would embolden criminals and undermine safety. Nonsense. In a final insult, the Assembly's Public Safety Committee, host to that testimony, turned off the TV camera, preventing the public even from watching a debate over public access." (Read more)

Friday, June 29, 2007

Small-town and rural opposition helped kill immigration bill, Post says

Alarm over burgeoning immigration in rural areas and small towns "helped seal defeat" for the immigration-reform bill in the Senate yesterday, The Washington Post reports, using as its object example the state of Georgia and the city of Gainesville, self-proclaimed "Poultry Capital of the World," where chicken-processing plants have come to depend on Latino immigrants for production-line work. Reporter N.C. Aizenman notes that Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia helped write the bill, then voted against it after being overwhelmed by objections from opponents.

"Analysts say the unprecedented passion over immigration is largely the result of the seismic shift in settlement patterns since the mid-1990s," when "the foreign-born population of 25 states doubled" and the Latino population more than tripled "in six other states with almost no prior experience of Latino immigration."

William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, told the Post,"Before, people outside the seven gateway states didn't care much one way or the other about immigration. Now, you suddenly have all these people across Middle America seeing immigrants in their neighborhoods." (Read more)

Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder writes, "The Post’s notion of a 'small town' is typically myopic. Gainesville is a metropolitan area with over 100,000 people. It’s urban all the way. But Gainesville is smaller than many cities, and we here at the Yonder can see the immigration issue driving the presidential debate in truly small-town Iowa. The pages of the Iowa Independent tell us daily that the biggest applause lines come when candidates talk about defending borders — and defeating the Senate bill." (Read more)

Coal-mine safety agency lax on enforcement, Labor Dept. review says

"Federal mine safety officials overlooked obvious violations, declined to take serious enforcement actions, and wrote regulations that were far too weak at three mines where 19 miners died last year, according to three new internal Labor Department reviews," reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

The review blamed staff cuts, reorganizations and an emphasis on “compliance assistance” to coal operators, a hallmark of the Bush administration's approach for the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Richard Stickler, the assistant labor secretary for MSHA, called the findings “deeply disturbing” and said the administration would create a new MSHA Office of Accountability to correct the problems. (Read more)

Hillary Clinton likes idea of making USDA the Department of Rural Affairs

U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, who is leading in polls for the Democratic nomination for president, all but endorsed changing the name and the mission of the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Rural Affairs, in a live, video linkup with the first National Rural Assembly this week.

“That is a great idea. I really like that idea. You are the first people who have ever asked me that. I wish I had thought of that, Clinton said, replying to the first question delivered by Ali Webb of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which was a major sponsor of the event. “I'm excited by the idea of it and I will get to work on thinking about that right away.”

“Clinton seemed genuinely started and intrigued,” The Daily Yonder reported. “The crowd loved it — because the crowd was not made up of corn, cotton, sugar, rice or wheat producers. Changing the name of the Department of Agriculture is meaningless, of course. It’s just a couple of words. But Sen. Clinton was talking in code. She was saying, yes, the emphasis on the support payments for crops (like corn, wheat and rice) needs to be lessened and more time (and money) should be spent on rural development. . . . This is the key fight in Congress, between those who would put a cap on commodity payments and steer more money to rural development and those who would keep payments as they are.” (Read more)

Clinton didn't speak entirely in code. She said of rural development, “For too long it has been the only part that has gotten all the attention and all of the money.” (Photo from the Daily Yonder)

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Most presidential candidates decline invitations to speak to Rural Assembly

Organizers of the first National Rural Assembly, which concluded yesterday with a visit to a congressional hearing on rural issues, invited all 15 major presidential candidates to address the gathering of almost 300 rural advocates, from state Farm Bureau officials to the Children's Defense Fund's Southern regional office.

None of the candidates appeared live at the gathering in Chantilly, Va., though Democrats John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich sent videotaped messages. The only one with a live, interactive satellite feed was Hillary Clinton. She won applause by saying "I know you’re working hard in Chantilly, developing a much-needed rural strategy.  But when I become president you’ll be doing it in the White House. We need to move rural issues right into decision-making in America."

Howard Berkes of National Public Radio reported, "The crowd loved that, but the respondents to the rural poll released two weeks ago rated Clinton as the candidate they liked least.  She was as unpopular in the poll as illegal immigrants.  It’ll take more than promises of attention to win a significant number of rural votes."

Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which commissioned the poll of rural voters, told Berkes that rural voters aren’t well-organized, perhaps because they’re spread far and wide. "They don’t see themselves as a political constituency, so politicians don’t either," Berkes reported. "Polling indicates they don’t hinge their votes on issues that are unique to rural life." To listen to Berkes' report, click here.

Bill Bishop, co-editor of the Daily Yonder, a new, rural news Web site with a political bent, told Berkes, "The votes that count now are signed at the bottom of a check.  And there just aren’t many checks coming out of rural areas." Bishop and geographer Tim Murphy recently reported that only 5 percent of contributions to presidential candidates came from rural areas. "So if now is the time of the campaign when candidates are raising money," Berkes said, "in a way it makes sense to not show up at a rural event."

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bloomington, Ind., columnist mixes it up with Bill O'Reilly

Mike Leonard of the Herald-Times in Bloomington, Ind., circulation 28,000, said he didn't win any awards at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference last weekend in Philadelphia, “but I can brag that no one at the annual columnists’ conference received more pats on the back, hearty handshakes and 'Way to go!' congratulations. I got slimed by Fox News program host Bill O’Reilly. It was a little like having a skunk tell you that you smell bad. Many of my colleagues expressed envy.”

At issue was a column Leonard had written about an Indiana University study of “The O’Reilly Factor,” which found that O'Reilly “is a propagandist whose techniques are "heavier" and "less nuanced" than the notorious 1930s radio commentator Father Charles Coughlin,” as Leonard put it. The column was included in the program booklet, and O'Reilly told Leonard from the podium, “Sorry, Mike, but you’re a dishonest guy in this column.” Leonard wrote that he shouted, “Right back at you, Bill.” For the latest column, which debunks assertions O'Reilly made in the speech, click here.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Institute founder one of six Rural Heroes at National Rural Assembly

Al Smith walked down Main Street in Russellville, Ky., one Sunday morning in the late 1950s, past the Logan County Courthouse, where the county singing convention was in full sing. He thought for a moment that he belonged there, but kept walking, down the street to the bootlegger -- and, perhaps, to oblivion.

It was a small piece of a life's journey that he recounted for the first National Rural Assembly tonight, as he accepted one of its six Rural Hero awards for his work in journalism -- most recently the establishment of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky.

Smith, now 80, never joined the singers, but he did kick liquor, with the help of the people in Logan County, and his journalism career began looking up. He began writing articles for big-city papers, and "It was soon evident I could go back to the city," he said. But then he realized: "These people took me in when I didn't have a friend . . . and I decided I'd stay with them."

His decision was confirmed by the woman he soon married. Martha Helen Smith told him that living in a rural town was OK "as long as that city-limit sign doesn't obscure your vision of what lies beyond the border." And after he built a small chain of rural newspapers and sold it, that outlook helped inspire the Institute, which helps rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities -- including reporting and commentary on state, regional and national issues that have a local impact on such things as education, health care, the economy and the environment.

The idea was planted by Smith's friend Rudy Abramson, a former Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, and found support in 2001 from Dr. Lee Todd, who had just become president of UK. "Without Todd's acceptance of our vision, it never would have worked," Smith told the National Rural Assembly. The Institute operated on an ad hoc basis until 2004, when grants enabled UK to hire Al Cross as its director. It recently held a National Summit on Journalism in Rural America and presented programs in Iowa and Tennessee, but its work remains grounded in Kentucky and Central Appalachia. It works with policy experts like those at the Rural Assembly to illuminate issues for rural journalists. Smith saluted the work of the advocates for rural America and said, "I'm just happy to be part of the choir."

Other rural heroes recognized at the Assembly in Chantilly, Va., were Bill Bynum of Jackson, Miss., founder of the Enterprise Corp. of the Delta, for leadership in investment and entrepreneurship; Dr. Forrest Calico of Stanford, Ky., former director of the Appalachian Regional Health Corp., for health; Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet Nation in South Dakota, for advocacy; Sharon King of New York City, president of the F.B. Heron Foundation, for philanthropy; and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., for government. Details? Click here.

The National Rural Assembly is designed to "strengthen rural America by giving its leaders a platform to be heard, raising the visibility of rural issues, organizing a national network of rural interests, and developing specific rural policy initiatives," says the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the chief co-convener, with the Ford Foundation. It continues today, then tomorrow with a congressional hearing on rural issues. (Read more)

McCain unaware of disproportionate casualties of rural soldiers in Iraq

Iowa journalist Douglas Burns writes in the Iowa Independent, an online news forum, that Arizona Sen. John McCain was unaware that rural America is bearing a disproportionate burden of the fighting and casualties in Iraq. Most of us in western Iowa, regardless of position on the war or political affiliation, just know this, Burns, a reporter and columnist for the Daily Times Herald in Carroll, Iowa, wrote June 3. We see it in our small towns, anecdotally — and The Associated Press and other reliable sources have documented it. . . . Barack Obama gets this. John McCain doesn’t. I asked them both the same question, and was stunned with the response from McCain, a U.S. senator from Arizona an GOP candidate for the presidency.

In an interview, McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona, told Burns, “I don’t think the numbers bear out that assertion. I think they’re from all over America. They’re not from the wealthiest Americans. I will admit that. I have no statistic that indicates they’re mostly from rural America.” Burns notes, “The premise of the question was not that rural kids are doing "most" of the fighting but rather a "disproportionate" amount of it. McCain should be angry about this gulf in sacrifice, which has some roots in a socio-economic status.”

In contrast, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama showed familiarity with the subject when Burns asked him about it. “One of the things I’ve been distressed about is the way folks in southern Illinois and rural western Iowa, that those are the folks that are disproportionately affected,” Obama told Burns in an interview in Denison, Iowa., left, in photo from the Daily Yonder. Burns interviewed McCain in LeMars. (Read more) For background on the casualty pattern, click here. For the conservative Heritage Foundation's take on the issue, courtesy of the Daily Yonder, click here.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Rural giving to presidential candidates scarce, but mostly Democratic

Only five percent of the contributions to presidential candidates in the first quarter of the year came from people who listed addresses in counties outside metropolitan areas, but "surprisingly, most of those donations have gone to Democrats," reports the Daily Yonder, a new rural news site with a political bent.

In the first quarter, 17 candidates raised $114.3 million. "Of this sum, only $6 million came from people living in rural communities," write geographer Tim Murphy and Daily Yonder co-editor Bill Bishop. "Democratic candidates took in 55 percent of the $6 million raised from rural residents in the first quarter of 2007; 45 percent of the total went to Republicans. The Democrats' lead in rural fundraising is the mirror opposite of the presidential vote outcomes of 2000 and in 2004; in both elections, Republican George W. Bush won nearly 60 percent of the rural vote, support that was crucial to his victory."

The leading rural money-raisers were former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, followed by former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Democrats. "Romney, who headed the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah, raised just over $214,000 in the first reporting period of 2007 from Summit County, where many of the athletic events took place," the Daily Yonder reports. Romney's total rural cash in the quarter was just under $1.15 million, 5.47 percent of his $20.98 million total.

Edwards' figure was $1.07 million, 7.61 percent of his total. Richardson's $895,699 was 14.3 percent of his $6.246 million total. Richardson got "hefty contributions in the southeastern counties of his home state. Members of the oil and gas business have been active in raising money for Richardson in the area around Hobbs, Roswell and Carlsbad, according to New Mexico press reports." Richardson recently resigned from the board of Valero Energy, the nation's leading refiner.

The Daily Yonder says it will report the states and rural counties that gave the most to presidential candidates later this week. Fund-raising reports for the second quarter are due in mid-July, though most campaigns will give their total fund-raising numbers on or soon after July 1. (Read more)

Obama's shift on issue undercuts push for coal-to-liquid subsidies

"After co-sponsoring legislation earlier this year for billions of dollars in subsidies for liquefied coal," which would help his home state of Illinois but could cause trouble for his presidential campaign, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama "began qualifying his support in ways that have left both environmentalists and coal industry officials unsure where he stands," The Washington Post reports. "His shift has helped shape this month's Senate debate over how to reduce both dependence on foreign oil and carbon dioxide emissions; on Tuesday, he voted against one proposal to boost liquefied coal and for a more narrowly worded one. Both failed." (Associated Press photo from 2004, via Post, shows Obama touring a pilot plant in Illinois.)

Post reporters Alec McGillis and Steven Mufson observe: "Obama's contortions on coal point to the limits of the role he likes to assume, that of a unifier who can appeal across traditional lines and employ a "new kind of politics" to solve problems. In reaching out to the coal industry, some observers say, he may have been trying to show that he is a different sort of Democrat, but the gesture had the look of old-style politicking and put him in a corner, where he wound up alienating some on both sides of the issue."

Obama's change of position, first reported June 13 by the Los Angeles Times and mentioned in The Rural Blog on June 15, calls for new coal field to "emit at least 20 percent less life-cycle carbon than conventional fuels," he said in a statement. "The statement dismayed those pushing coal-to-liquid, who noted this would require technological leaps even beyond perfecting carbon storage," Mufson and McGillis report. They trace what they call "Obama's winding path on coal," starting in his days as a state legislator. (Read more)

Black lung not only persists in coal mines, in places it's getting worse

"Efforts to end black-lung disease stretch back decades. But in Eastern Kentucky, the disease persists — and is far worse than federal health officials anticipated it would be by now," reports The Courier-Journal, in the latest example of the Louisville newspaper's continuing commitment to covering an issue important to a region that the paper has mostly abandoned. It offers a six-story package by R.G. Dunlop, former chief of the paper's now-closed Hazard bureau, and medical reporter Laura Ungar, who has written about rural health issues in Kentucky and elsewhere.

The black-lung pattern extends into southern West Virginia and southwest Virginia, where Dunlop began the package's main story with the story of Mark McCowan of Pounding Mill, Va. At a relatively young age, McCowan (in C-J photo by Matt Stone) has black lung, though he began mining in 1984, 15 years a federal law imposed limits on the coal dust that causes the disease. "He never should have been exposed to dust levels sufficient to scar his lungs, end his career and perhaps consign him to a premature death," Dunlop writes. "Now 43 and with two grown sons, McCowan is plagued by shortness of breath and fatigue."

Dunlop offers possible reasons that black-lung rates remain high in the region: "A federal advisory committee's key recommendations on how to stamp out the disease still haven't been implemented almost a decade after they were issued — partly because of a change in focus when President Bush took office, some say. Also, some researchers say the operators of small mines common in Eastern Kentucky may not have the resources or the will to bring dust down to levels that won't sicken workers." To read this valuable package, click here.

Farmers, enviros testing idea of converting farmlands into wetlands

Peter Slevin and Kari Lydersen of The Washington Post write from Hennepin, Ill.: "As steam rises from flat fingers of water reflecting an iron-gray sky, Donald Hey climbs to the top of an observation tower to watch a flock of American white pelicans huddled among the reeds. These reclaimed wetlands along the Illinois River, a man-made vista of corn and soybeans a few years ago, are now home to marsh grass, rare butterflies and 70,000 waterfowl. But Hey and his green-minded colleagues have a greater hope for their 2,600-acre pilot project. They aim to prove the existence of a market lucrative enough to inspire landowners to surrender their fields for payments from agencies and companies that are required to comply with clean-water rules. The untested theory, endorsed by a coterie of environmental groups and supporters, holds that restoring wetlands in the Midwest would be a cost-effective way to filter harmful nitrogen and phosphorous that damage ecosystems all the way down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. If it works as intended, the system will also expand habitats for animals and waterfowl by returning farmland to its wilder roots, benefiting nature lovers and hunters. The organizers, led by the Chicago-based Wetlands Initiative, call it nutrient farming." (Photo by Gary Sullivan of the Wetlands Initiative, via Post, shows an endangered yellow-headed blackbird at a waterfowl refuge.) (Read more)

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Rural vote decisive in last four presidential elections, expert says

The rural vote "has been decisive in the last four presidential elections," according to Seth McKee, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, who "has studied the rural vote in presidential elections more than any other academic," reports the Daily Yonder.

In an article titled "Rural Voters and the Polarization of American Presidential Elections," McKee uses data since 1952 to show that "the split between rural and urban voters has widened even as the older divide between Northern and Southern rural voters has narrowed," reports Bill Bishop, co-editor (with wife Julie Ardery) of the Daily Yonder, a new rural-news site with a political bent. Bishop is a former weekly newspaper reporter, editor and publisher who most recently worked for the Austin American-Statesman.

"Bill Clinton was able to win the presidency in part because he neutralized the rural vote, winning 47 percent and 43 percent, respectively, in these contests," Bishop writes. "By contrast, in the 2000 and 2004 elections, Republican George W. Bush would not have won the presidency if not for the support he received among rural voters—53 percent and 64 percent, respectively, for these contests. Despite the decline in the rural percentage of the American electorate, the rural vote has become more important because it is so decidedly Republican. Never before has the gap in the presidential vote choice of rural and urban voters been so wide."

W.Va. regulators reject controversial wind-energy project; others pending

The Public Service Commission of West Virginia yesterday rejected a controversial proposal for a wind-power plant atop Jack Mountain, a ridge in the southwestwern part of the state's scenic Eastern Panhandle.

"The panel said the application by Liberty Gap Wind Force LLC to locate turbines on a seven-mile stretch near Franklin failed to provide enough information," reports Joe Morris of The Charleston Gazette. "The application’s map was especially lacking, the commission’s final order says. In violation of PSC siting rules, it neglected to designate existing land uses, recreational areas or historic and archaeological sites, the commission said." It also said the application didn't examine enough angles of the "viewshed," the area where the huge windmill turbines would be visible, and "didn’t resolve concerns about the turbines’ noise and the possibility of their killing bats." The plant would be near Harper in southwest Pendleton County. For the company's initial case filing, which includes a map of the location, click here.

West Virginia has one operating wind-power project, in Tucker County, where the northern part of the Eastern Panhandle joins the rest of the state. Morris reports: "Three other projects are planned in the state, including another by U.S. WindForce" for Grant County, which lies mostly east of Tucker County. "So far, those plans haven’t drawn any legal challenges." Another Grant County project, planned by Dutch-owned Shell Windenergy and London-based NedPower, has been approved by the PSC but faces a lawsuit. The same is true for a plant Chicago-based Invenergy wants to build in Greenbrier County. That's southwest of Pendleton County. "A nearby landowner and an advocacy group, Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy, sued over the PSC approval," the Gazette reports. (Read more)

Friday, June 22, 2007

Subcommittee rejects Farm Bill reform ideas, but much work remains

Prospects for a different kind of Farm Bill got nowhere in the commodity subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee this week. The panel rejected proposals “that gave cotton and rice growers an almost allergic reaction: new restrictions that would have tracked farm program payments to individuals,” reports Agri-Pulse, a farm-policy newsletter. “Also eliminated: reductions in the percentage of base acres used to calculate direct payments and upward adjustments in support prices. Both provisions had been included in a chairman’s discussion draft that was circulated last Thursday but attracted so much opposition that provisions were changed several times before being dropped prior to Tuesday’s session.”

Only one member of the subcommittee voted for a Bush administration plan that “would have emphasized guaranteed payments to farmers, as opposed to those contingent on market prices," wrote Andrew Martin in The New York Times. “By opening such a wide chasm between themselves and the advocates of change, the members of the panel appear to have increased the chances that the Farm Bill will stir a fierce debate.”

Despite the 18-0 vote, the bill does not seem to be on a fast track. “What happened today was a placeholder,” ranking Republican Bob Goodlatte of Virginia said soon after the committee adjourned. “We’re going to have to revisit all of these issues again in full committee.”

Sara Wyant of Agri-Pulse reports, “Reform-minded interest groups were none too pleased with the outcome. For example, Bread for the World said the panel "ignored calls from thousands of constituents and a broad coalition of groups saying that it is time for broad reform." American Farmland Trust President Ralph Grossi said, “The committee shouldn't try to design the future of U.S. agriculture policy by looking in the rearview mirror. Agriculture has changed and it’s time for forward looking policies.”

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin told Wyant likewise in an interview. “We need to get agriculture looking ahead, not looking back,” he said, but Wyant reported, “Many veteran farm policy observers believe that he’ll have a tough time getting any major changes out of his own committee.”

The House committee's Farm Bill web site provides a section-by-section summary of the legislation. For more background and commentary on the bill, see the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. For a blistering editorial from The Washington Post on the subcommittee action, click here.

Poor counties get a lot more in farm subsidies than development grants

A new study shows that the contrast of heavy farm subsidies and relatively few rural-development grants to poor counties is a national pattern, not just in the Delta of northwest Mississippi, where The Washington Post reported a story this week. The pattern has been established by the Southern Rural Development Initiative, a nonprofit that says it "provides practical tools for rural community leaders, organizations, and related national sectors to create just and economically sustainable communities across the rural South."

In 2001-03, "For every rural development grant dollar sent to the 364 poorest rural counties in America, $15.65 went in agricultural commodity direct payment subsidies – most of it to a small number of very large farm operations," the study report says. "Over this three-year period, these 364 poor rural counties received $5 billion through nutrition programs, primarily to children and their families. This is a per capita allocation of $730, compared to the national nutrition program per capita allocation of $305 and $366 for nonmetro counties. This reflects the extreme poverty conditions found in these counties."

The reports says the Department of Agriculture "perpetuates the legacy of the Deep South’s anachronistic, inequitable economy through its agricultural subsidy programs. The commodity crops grown in this region that account for the bulk of the subsidy payments (rice, cotton, and sugar) are crops that anchored the old plantation system. Sharecropping and Jim Crow are gone, but those communities and states that have not invested in building broad-based community assets through education, civic capacity, and basic economic infrastructure remain dependent on an anachronistic economy via supports from the federal government."

The release of the study and the Post story were more than coincidental. SRDI Policy and Research Director Jason Gray told The Rural Blog that he told one of the Post reporters that the study was in the works.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Montana Journalism Review: The Challenges of Rural Journalism

Much of latest issue of the Montana Journalism Review, including the title above, is devoted to rural journalism, and we're happy to highlight it here because the state has innovators in the field, three of whom attended our National Summit on Journalism in Rural America this spring -- Keith Graham of the University of Montana, Courtney Lowery of the online news source New West and John Q. Murray of the Clark Fork Chronicle, in photo at right. They and their ideas are among the featured articles in the review.

Graham and Lowery started Rural News Network in 2006 when they saw a need for a rural news connection and got it funded by the New Voices program of J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism. The network began in Lowery's hometown of Dutton, Mont., which lost its newspaper several years ago. "Lowery and Graham hope the RNN Web site will allow people in Dutton to publish their own news," Eleena Fikhman reports. For her interview with Graham and Lowery, click here.

In Murray's piece, which we recommend you read, he analyzes the challenges facing newspapers in rural areas that have seen "traditional natural resource industries decline and families move away in search of work." He is assembling a Corporation for Public Community Newspapers, "an independent non-profit organization with a dues-paying membership. Members attend regular meetings to: (1) review the progress of the local community newspaper toward its agreed-upon goals; (2) identify special reporting projects that the newspaper should undertake; and (3) vote to provide funding for specific special projects. . . .The supplemental funding provided by the nonprofit means the newspaper can increase its news hole to provide that coverage, regardless of the amount of advertising sold that week. The nonprofit is its own distinct organization, completely separate from the for-profit newspaper, but the two enter into a binding contract that gives the nonprofit full budget authority over the special projects. The members of the nonprofit vote on the special projects and provide the funding. The newspaper is free to turn down the project and the funding. In that case, the nonprofit can seek to contract with freelancers or other citizen journalists to produce the special projects. Conversely, the newspaper can choose to implement all special projects recommended by the non-profit, even if they are not fully funded." (Read more)

Gwen Florio, left, who came to Montana to cover the West for The Philadelphia Inquirer and is now state-capital reporter for the Great Falls Tribune, writes of her introduction to new territory: "Rural reporting was going to require a whole new set of skills. It would also prove to be the most rewarding work I’ve ever done, before or since." Some of her tips: "Wear good shoes. By which I mean sturdy. Lest you think this is frivolous advice, try walking through gumbo in loafers. Or savor the nice warm feeling of a cowflop squishing into open-toed sandals. And on your way to change your footgear, go fill your gas tank." (Read more)

KCGM (that stands for Kids, Cattle, Grain, Minerals), is "the voice of the prairies, your good-neighbor station" in Scobey, Mont. Mike Stebleton writes that the FM station "can attribute its 35 of continued survival to just one thing: unconditional support from the Daniels County community and surrounding area." In an unusual twist, the effort to establish the station was led by Larry Bowler, editor-publisher of the weekly Daniels County Leader. "We were being considered colonies of neighboring, larger populated areas, and I wanted us to develop a certain amount of political clout so that some of our feelings could get to higher levels," Bowler explained in a 1995 interview. (Read more)

The Review also has a story about rural news coverage in Kyrgyzstan, by Kubanychbek Taabaldiev, who has run the former Soviet Central Asian republic's national news agency since 1998. "He is a 2007 Fulbright Scholar researching rural Montana's press to learn how Kyrgyzstan might transition to independent media from state-controlled news," the Review reports. "Kyrgyzstan is the only country of the five Central Asian states with comparatively free media." Click here to read his report.

Finally, just for fun is "I've Read Every Sheet," a song about rural newspapers by Dennis Swibold, sung to the tune of "I've Been Everywhere," a tune penned by Geoff Mack and made familiar by Lucky Starr, Hank Snow and Johnny Cash. Mack's version is dominated by place names, Swibold's by newspaper names.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Post sees contrast in largess for big farms, little for small towns in Delta

Gilbert Gaul and Dan Morgan of The Washington Post plow a new furrow in a familiar field today, taking their examination of farm subsidies to the Mississippi Delta, where the Department of Agriculture spent $1.18 billion on such subsidies from 2001 to 2005, and only $54.8 million on rural development projects.

"Most residents (Post photo) are black, but less than 5 percent of the money went to black farmers. They own relatively little land, and so they generally do not qualify for the payments," the writers report, calling that "one of the contradictions of federal farm policy, which favors big agriculture over small farms and poor rural towns. In the Delta, it has helped to preserve a two-tiered economy and a widening economic chasm between the races, according to local residents, government officials and researchers." For a Post graphic illustrating the gaps, click here.

"The policy choice that Congress has made is so stark," Charles Fluharty, director emeritus of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri at Columbia, told the Post. "You see the effects in lots of poor rural communities. But the tragedy is exacerbated in the minority communities." (Read more)

Judge questions why drug-firm execs in OxyContin case aren't going to jail

"A federal judge is raising questions about a plea agreement that calls for $634.5 million in fines -- but no jail time -- for the illegal marketing of OxyContin," a painkiller that became a street drug and a scourge in Central Appalachia, reports Laurance Hammack of The Roanoke Times. "Before sentencing three Purdue Pharma executives next month, U.S. District Judge James Jones will consider responses to 16 questions he recently submitted to federal prosecutors and company officials. One of the questions: Why should the executives not be sent to jail?"

Prosecutors replied, "While it certainly is appropriate for the corporate officials to be held accountable for the actions of the company, a sentence of incarceration ... would be unusual." The case itself is unusual, and "It's unusual for a judge to have so many questions about a plea agreement," Hammack notes. If Jones rejects the plea agreements, the three executives could withdraw their guilty pleas.

"The misdemeanor charges to which the executives pleaded guilty carry up to one year in jail; the company pleaded guilty to a felony charge," Hammack reports. "Such charges are rarely used in the misbranding of pharmaceuticals, the government stated, and the negotiated plea agreements will "serve as a strong warning" to other drug companies."

Prosecutors said the fine "accounts for about 90 percent of the company's profits from the time the drug went on the market in 1996 until 2001," Hammack writes. "The fine is the country's third largest to be assessed against a pharmaceutical company." (Read more)

TV station in eastern N.C. presses open-court case on principle and wins

When the judge in a school-funding lawsuit between the school board and commissioners of Pitt County, N.C., slapped a gag order on the elected officials and refused to hear a TV station's appeal, he probably thought he had given the station the old stiff-arm. But even after the trial, WNCT-TV pressed the case in an effort to make sure it didn't happen again. Yesterday, the state Court of Appeals said the judge was wrong.

We learned about this from Al's Morning Meeting, the daily online column by Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute. He writes, "Over the last several years, many journalism executives, print and broadcast, have told me how difficult it is these days to get corporate backing to take on a legal fight like this, especially when the decision has more to do with principle and precedent than anything else. I wish journalism organizations would pick more legal fights on behalf of the public." This case set a statewide precedent.

Tompkins interviewed WNCT News Director Melissa Preas, right, by e-mail. "We really felt this was wrong on every level. particularly when dealing with two public entities fighting over public money," she said. "If we didn't pursue this appeal, then in our opinion that just left the door wide open for it to continue to happen." She said Media General, the station's owner, was very supportive. To read the interview, click here.

Schurz exec creates internships to replace those axed by Gannett paper

When the Montgomery Advertiser "was forced to make quick and drastic budget cuts last week," three interns were suddenly left without summer jobs" at the paper in Alabama's capital, reports Richard Prince in his online Journal-isms column. "Similar cuts could be coming at other Gannett properties."

The students " were instantly picked up by Schurz Communications, a South Bend, Ind., media company that owns 15 dailies and five weeklies," Prince reports. "Charles V. Pittman (right), the company's senior vice president-newspapers, had just addressed the interns Friday at the Freedom Forum's Diversity Institute in Nashville, and said he could not let 'these young people have their internship pulled out from under them.' The three students will be going to the Herald Times in Bloomington, Ind. Schurz is taking a total of 13 interns, all of them trained in a joint multimedia program of Black College Wire and the Diversity Institute."

Advertiser Publisher Scott Brown referred questions about the move to Wanda Lloyd, the paper's editor, who said she might have had to cut a full-time staff member to keep the intern slots. Gannett spokeswoman Tara Connell told Prince that the company's publishers have been told to control spending "when there's pressure on revenue," and Prince noted that the company's revenue dropped 6 percent last month. (Read more)

Heartland Publications cuts staff at N.C. papers; two publishers quit

The publishers of The Mount Airy News and The Tribune of Elkin and Jonesville, N.C., resigned Monday in the wake of job cuts made by the papers' new owners, Heartland Publications LLC of Old Saybrook, Conn. The papers were among 16 Heartland bought this month from Mid-South Management Co. of Spartanburg, S.C., a family-owned company.

“The managing editors of the Elkin and Mount Airy publications were part of about a dozen positions eliminated in a bid to consolidate operations,” reports Andy Matthews, editor of the Yadkin Valley Times News, an online publication in East Bend, N.C. It said “roughly a dozen” jobs at the newspapers were eliminated.

“There were deep cultural differences between the way The Tribune had been operated in my 37 years there and the way that Heartland chooses to operate its newspapers,” Good told Richard Craver of the Winston-Salem Journal (from which the photograph above is taken). Good indicated that he might start his own newspaper. “The situation is very fluid at the moment, and we are keeping all our options open.”

Good had been publisher of the 6,000-circulation weekly for 29 years. He also was publisher of The Yadkin Ripple, a weekly in Yadkinville, and On The Vine, “the only publication dedicated to covering the North Carolina wine industry,” Craver reports. Mount Airy Publisher Michael Milligan had held that job at the 9,200-circulation daily for eight years. He also was publisher of The Weekly Independent in Rural Hall, The Stokes News in King, The Pilot in Pilot Mountain and The Carroll News in adjoining Virginia.

Heartland CEO Michael Bush told Craver, “We plan on identifying the best publishers we can and getting them in there as soon as possible.” (Read more) The Times News paraphrased him as saying “the company remains committed to community journalism.” (Read more) Heartland's purchase of Mid-South, noted in The Rural Blog on June 7, made it the largest chain in North Carolina, with 18 papers, including five dailies.

UPDATE: The Mount Airy News reported Wednesday that nine other employees, from the news, composing and advertising departments, joind Milligan in resigning.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Southern Baptist Convention rejects call for restraint in political matters

Is there a Baptist church in your community? Probably, because Baptists are the largest segment of Protestantism in the United States. Is that church a part of the Southern Baptist Convention? Probably; the SBC is the largest Protestant demonimation, and Baptists predominate in every state that had a star in the Confederate battle flag (see map below, from the Glenmary Research Center). But the church you're thinking about might be a former member of the convention, or an alienated one, because quite a few Baptists dislike the denomination's relatively new activism in politics.

So reports Eric Gorski of The Associated Press in a report that provide a starting point for background to inform local stories about local churches. Gorski was in San Antonio for the SBC's annual meeting, at which messengers (delegates) rejected a resolution urging their leaders "to exercise great restraint when speaking on behalf of Southern Baptists so as not to intermingle their personal political persuasions with their chief responsibility to represent Jesus Christ and this convention." The issue was not mentioned in the Baptist Press wrap-up of proceedings, including a speech by President Bush, via video. (Photo from Baptist Press)

The resolution was pushed by "A small but vocal number of pastors [who] believe the denomination is too cozy with Republicans and too political in general," AP reports. "By flirting with the line separating good citizenship and a grab for power, they say, a denomination already experiencing flat membership risks alienating more people. [See next paragraph.] Others contend such talk might inspire Southern Baptists to retreat from the public square and cede ground on urgent social issues such as abortion. If anything, the debate is likely to become even more magnified in coming months because no one Republican candidate has captured the conservative evangelical imagination — and all of them are trying." (Read more)

For centuries, Baptists led efforts to separate church and state, but the SBC reversed that after court decisions on school prayer and abortion, and has become a leading element of the Religious Right during debates on same-sex marriage and gay rights. Hundreds of churches have left the group and joined the new Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which says, "We believe in freedom of religion, freedom for religion, and freedom from religion. We support the separation of church and state."

Saturday, June 16, 2007

EPA starts nine-state study of air pollution from animal-feeding operations

We know manure stinks, and our personal opinion is that hog manure stinks worst, but the Environmental Protection Agency says it needs a stronger scientific basis to charge animal-feeding operations with violating the Clean Air Act, so EPA and eight universities have begun a two-year study of the operations' air emissions. Voluntary monitoring will be conducted at 24 sites in nine states -- California, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin, "representing a cross section of the country's animal feeding operations," reports Brownfield, a farm news service.

"EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson says the study is a collaborative effort between the EPA and the livestock industry that will provide the agency with the information they need to ensure that livestock operations are being good environmental neighbors," Brownfield's Jason Vance writes. The study is being funded by operators of 14,000 "swine, dairy, egg-laying and broiler chicken (meat-bird) farms" as part of a January 2005 agreement with EPA, the agency said in a release.

Notice they named swine first. No offense to hog farmers; your blogger speaks from personal experience, having raised hogs as a 4-H member. Click here for the detailed EPA Web site for the program. Purdue University of Indiana is the lead research agency. Its partners are University of California-Davis; Cornell University of New York; Iowa State University; University of Minnesota; North Carolina State University; Texas A&M University; and Washington State University.

First comprehensive ranking of state health sytems is released

Wonder how your state ranks in key measurements of health, such as quality, access and equity, and what sort of overall rating those factors produce? The first comprehensive study of health-system performance in all 50 states was issued this week, and is available in various forms, including this interactive map, which has links to all the details. In addition to the three criteria above, the study also evaluated states on the basis of potentially avoidable hospitalizations and costs, and the health status of each state's population.

The worst region was the Southeast, and states with large rural populations appeared more likely to rank low. The worst states, from 50th to 40th, were Oklahoma, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Nevada, Louisiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. The study was done for The Commonwealth Fund Commission on a High Performance Health System.

Young adults' meth use double that of previous study for overlapping year

A new study says almost 3 percent of young adults in the U.S. used crystal methamphetamine in 2001-02, a rate double that of a previous study for an overlapping period. The new research found 2.8 percent of Americans aged 18-26 during 2001-02 reported use of the drug in the previous 12 months. A study by the National Institute of Drug Abuse in 2002 found a rate of 1.4 percent among those aged 19-28.

The new study was funded by NIDA and the National Institutes of Health and published in the July issue of the journal Addiction. The age group is most prone to meth use, an NIH release said. "The study found that young adult users are disproportionately white and male and live in the West, and that Native Americans were 4.2 times as likely as whites to use crystal methamphetamine," the release said. "Users also tend to have lower social economic status, use other substances, such as alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine, and the male users are more likely to have had incarcerated fathers." Crystal meth is purer and has greater potential for abuse than the powdered form.

Friday, June 15, 2007

A warmer climate for biofuels, but coal is more controversial; ask Obama

A Democratic energy bill stalled in the Senate yesterday, partly over Republican opposition to a mandate for more use of wind power, but opposition to a mandate for ethanol and other biofuels "has all but evaporated in Congress, a situation that would have been almost unthinkable just a few years ago," reports Steven Mufson of The Washington Post. "And though environmental, industry and farming groups can point to numerous unresolved concerns about biofuels' effects and feasibility, the ethanol lobby has never been stronger."

That's mainly because of increased concerns that imported oil is compromising national security, but also because the ethanol industry has spread beyond the Upper Midwest, Mufson writes. He also notes that former opponents of the federal ethanol subsidy, Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are campaigning hard in Iowa, the first presidential-voting state and long an ethanol hotbed. (Read more)

But presidential politics appears to have cost another key energy player, the coal industry, the support of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama for an amendment that would "promote the use of coal as an alternative fuel to power motor vehicles," reports the Los Angeles Times. In what reporter Peter Wallsten called a "dryly worded and technical-sounding e-mail," Obama's office said he "supports research into all technologies to help solve our climate change and energy dependence problems, including shifting our energy use to renewable fuels and investing in technology that could make coal a clean-burning source of energy. However, unless and until this technology is perfected, Senator Obama will not support the development of any coal-to-liquid fuels unless they emit at least 20 percent less life-cycle carbon than conventional fuels."

Obama and Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., had "promoted the idea as a way to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil. But environmentalists charged that coal would produce a dirty fuel and exacerbate global warming, putting Obama in the awkward position of balancing the desires of an industry with a strong presence in his home state against those of a key voting bloc in the Democratic presidential primaries." (Read more) For Mufson's report on a Democratic measure that would provide loans for technology to keep carbon dioxide from coal-to-liquid plants from escaping into the atmosphere and adding to global warming, click here. For a story on the main energy bill being stalled, by Edmund Andrews of The New York Times, click here.

Hedge-fund managers quit Massey Energy board, blast chief executive

Managers of the Third Point hedge fund quit the board of Massey Energy Co. yesterday, saying other directors had "a misguided insistence on keeping" as the company's chief executive Don Blankenship, left, perhaps the most controversial executive in one of America's more controversial industries. (Photo from The State Journal)

The managers said that cost Massey a chance to merge with another firm and improve shareholder value. They also criticized what they called Blankenship's "confrontational" and "counterproductive" handling of environmental and safety matters. Federal officials are suing Massey "for thousands of alleged violations of the Clean Water Act and, though Massey disputes the figure, by some estimates faces $2.4 billion in fines," The Associated Press reports. "Massey is appealing a federal lawsuit that resulted in a judge voiding permits for four of its surface mines and jeopardizes the longstanding industry practice of using settling ponds to remove sediment from streams at mountaintop-removal mines." (See next item)

Massey, based in Richmond, Va., also faces a record fine of $1.5 million for safety violations the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration "determined contributed to the deaths of two miners in a January 2006 fire," which is also "the target of a federal criminal probe and the subject of a wrongful-death lawsuit, which also names Blankenship as a defendant," AP's Tim Huber reports. (Read more) "These and other correctible deficiencies combine to maintain a 'Blankenship Discount' in the market price for Massey's shares, and do a grave disservice to our shareholders by masking the underlying strength of the company's business, assets and workforce," Third Point CEO Daniel Loeb and analyst Todd Swanson wrote.

Three months before the fire, Blankenship sent managers a memo saying, "If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e.: build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal." Overcasts ensure proper air flow. The Appalachian News-Express of Pikeville, Ky., then a weekly newspaper, revealed the memo.

Massey is the fourth largest coal company in the U.S. and the largest in Central Appalachia, and Blankenship is one of the most politically powerful people in West Virginia. He put $3.5 million into a 2004 campaign that helped unseat a state Supreme Court justice, has targeted another one for next year, and tried unsuccessfully last year to finance a legislative takeover by Republicans. He has given GOP candidates $6 million.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Judge outlaws sediment ponds in streams below mountaintop coal mines

A federal judge in West Virginia has "essentially outlawed the common coal industry practice" of building sediment-retention ponds in streams below valley fills of mountaintop-removal coal mines, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

District Judge Robert Chambers ruled Wednesday that the practice violates the Clean Water Act and should not be allowed by the Army Corps of Engineers, which issues permits for stream discharges. "The judge also said the law protects small segments of streams between those ponds and the bottom of valley fills," Ward writes. West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney told Ward that the industry would appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “It’s absolutely astounding to me,” Raney said. “Here’s a judge outlawing a practice that has been in place for almost four decades.”

Ward's story has simple, clear explanations of the issue and mountaintop removal. To read it, click here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Report on rural America: Problems, solutions and civic leadership

"Rural America is undergoing sweeping demographic, economic, and environmental changes. Whether
they are harnessed effectively will depend on federal and state policies and community actions over the next decade." So begins Rural America in the 21st Century: Perspectives from the Field, a report prepared by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire for a national meeting of rural advocates this month.

It concludes, "Rural America in the 21st Century must develop new relationships and new ways of doing things to ensure an economically prosperous, socially just, and environmentally healthy future. Tapping into the resourcefulness and creativity of rural people will be essential in addressing this challenge. However, they cannot do it alone. Rural communities need critical infrastructure, investment, capital, and services."

The report identifies "three rural Americas, sometimes distinct and sometimes overlapping:
• Amenity-rich areas, which are growing as Baby Boomers retire, as more people buy second homes, and as “footloose professionals” choose to settle in small towns with rich natural amenities or proximity to large cities." These areas "must work to ensure the successful integration of newcomers and long-time residents, avoid a two-tier system of wealthy residents and those who serve them, and protect the natural environment that attracted the amenity migrants," the report says.
• "Declining resource-dependent areas, which can no longer rely on agriculture, timber, mining, or related
manufacturing industries to support a solid blue-collar middle class." Such areas "must develop programs to ameliorate the impact of economic decline and innovate to stem future population and job loss."
• "Chronically poor communities, where decades of resource extraction and under-investment have left a legacy
of poverty, low education, and broken civic institutions." They "must expand their human and social capital to break the chain of persistent poverty," the report says.

The report says it is based largely on "a series of interviews and policy roundtables in March and April 2007 with more than 80 Ford Foundation rural program grantees and other stakeholders." The foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation are the primary organizers of the first National Rural Assembly, an invitation-only event to be held in the Washington, D.C., area June 25-27. Here are a few more excerpts from the report:

The big problems: "The decline of the rural manufacturing industries and the continuing consolidation of agriculture mean fewer good jobs available for young adults, forcing them to seek employment elsewhere. The more remote rural places are seeing the greatest population loss, leaving some communities to “die a slow death.” Many rural communities have far fewer young families today, changing the feel and culture of the community and making it difficult to maintain quality schools and other institutions."

Entrepreneurship and environment: "Rural practitioners, however, also see opportunities, especially in entrepreneurship. Many rural development leaders argue that a growing proportion of workers will be self-employed. Jobs in the knowledge and creative economy are also likely to be an increasingly important part of rural America’s future. Rural leaders are looking to integrated development approaches, linking economic development to long-term resource management, social, and environmental goals. In addition, medical and financial services hold strong potential. On a deeper level, the core assets of rural areas — land, forests, water, renewable energy resources, and clean air — will continue to underpin the nation’s economy and hold strong potential for economic opportunities in rural communities. . . . Expanded broadband telecommunication is essential if rural areas are to be competitive in a global economy."

Civic leadership: "The rapid rate of change, declining effectiveness of traditional economic strategies, increasing environmental challenges, and demographic transitions require leadership to guide the community in new ways of thinking and doing. . . . Some respondents described their communities as conservative and risk-averse, places where calling for change and action is not part of the civic culture. The old leadership cadre is often resistant to change, accustomed to traditional ways of doing things that worked well for them in the 'old economy.' New approaches of sharing power and bringing in younger and more diverse voices are threatening to them. Many describe county officials as remote from community affairs, more overtly political, and often dominated by big business. Democracy in some rural communities is weak, with a politics of 'who you know,' rather than one based on issues. Some local communities have lost trust in local and larger government, and public participation has diminished. In more remote areas and in the smallest communities, county and state governments have come to play a larger role, yet these public entities are rarely accountable to local residents." Accountability? Sounds like those places could use a good newspaper or broadcast station!

Senators rap FCC for waiting on phone firms to agree on rural wireless fix

Senators criticized the Federal Communications Commission yesterday "for not moving quickly enough to overhaul a fund that guarantees telephone service to rural areas," Congressional Quarterly reports When Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate said at a committee hearing that the FCC wants phone companies to agree on legislation, Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., "expressed concern that the FCC is allowing telephone companies to dictate the future of the Universal Service Fund (USF), which pays for infrastructure required to install phone lines in isolated communities," Kathryn Wolfe writes.

UPDATE: Republicans joined in the criticism, noted David Hatch of National Journal's Insider Update. "Someone is putting their head in the ground. This is an ostrich approach as far as I'm concerned," said Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the ranking Republican on the Commerce Committee. (Read more)

Stevens and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, opposed an advisory panel's recommendation to cap "the amount of money that wireless phone companies could receive from the fund over an interim six-month period," Wolfe reports. "The cap would temporarily address one key USF problem: More and more rural phone companies are tapping the fund to build infrastructure, particularly towers for mobile phone service. Many wireless companies strongly oppose the recommendation, arguing that it is discriminatory because no such cap will exist on their landline competition. Other competitors, such as AT&T Inc., which has both a wireless and landline division, support the proposal. Others, including some on the Senate panel, are concerned that the six-month cap would harm the continuing expansion of wireless service to underserved and primarily rural areas."

Snowe said half of 911 calls are wireless, so “Rural parts of my state . . . are going to be denied the very technology that can make the difference between life and death.” Wolfe adds, “The funding squeeze now facing the USF, which takes in money through a surcharge on long-distance bills, is caused in part by callers abandoning traditional landline phones for wireless services, which contribute less to the fund.” (Read more) For an editorial from the Bangor Daily News in Snowe's state, click here.

Ethanol promoters call for PR campaign to counter meat-industry gripes

Promoters of ethanol say the biofuels industry needs a public-relations effort "to counter growing criticism of the federal government's support of renewable fuel," reports Bill Hord of the Omaha World-Herald.

"We are getting hammered," Douglas Durante, executive director of the Clean Fuels Development Coalition, a Washington lobbying group, told the Nebraska Ethanol Board.

Board Chairman Jim Jenkins, a cattle rancher and restaurant owner, "said cattle feeders who complain about high corn prices forget their operations were subsidized for years by cheap corn. The cost of foreign oil has a bigger impact than corn on the prices of many items, he said." (Read more)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Environmental Working Group posts expanded farm-subsidy database

As the new five-year Farm Bill is being debated and much more than usual attention is focused on government programs for agriculture, a major critic of such programs, the Environmental Working Group, has posted an expanded database that it says "provides nearly full disclosure of federal farm subsidy beneficiaries for the first time."

Reporters who used the database to do stories about the top beneficiaries in their counties, regions or states need to check it again, because "just about every one of those rankings has changed, particularly in rice and cotton country," EWG President Ken Cook says. Click here for the new rankings.

The database "includes 350,000 new individuals who have never had a specific dollar amount attributed to them -- until now," Cook says. "For the first time, using new USDA data, we identify individuals whose subsidy benefits 'pass through' one or more plantation-scale farm business that produces vast quantities or subsidized rice, cotton, or other crops." People listed in the system for the first time "received $9.8 billion in crop subsidy benefits alone between 2003 and 2005," EWG says on its MulchBlog.

Cook says the data confirm what EWG calls "the inequitable distribution of farm program payments, in which the top 10 percent of beneficiaries get 66 percent of the payments in Title 1 of the Farm Bill, while the bottom 80 percent got only 16 percent of such payments, averaging $4,508 over years. "EWG’s database shows that family farmers are getting peanuts from today’s subsidy system, while corporate agriculture is living high on the hog," Taxpayers for Common Sense, a spending-watchdog group, said in a press release.

"The original EWG database, released more than five years ago, had a significant impact on the 2002 farm bill debate," reports Brownfield's Peter Shinn. "It provided documentary evidence that the bulk of commodity payments went to a relatively small minority of ag producers, and helped Senate supporters of payment limits successfully attach a more stringent payment limits provision in their version of the 2002 Farm Bill. Lawmakers ultimately stripped that provision in conference. But the expanded version of the EWG database is expected to have a similarly bracing effect on efforts to tighten payment limits in the 2007 Farm Bill." (Read more)

Las Vegas seeks faraway rural water to slake thirst of explosive growth

Howard Berkes of National Public Radio reports from Callao, Utah, "50 dusty miles from a paved road, 90 miles from a gas station or grocery store, and about 300 miles from Las Vegas," that people there are worried "distant and urban Las Vegas threatens the springs and wells that make ranching possible in Callao, and in thousands of square miles of high desert valleys between Callao and Las Vegas." (Berkes photo shows alfalfa being harvested in Callao)

Las Vegas water officials have "lusted after groundwater beneath rural valleys to the north for more than 15 years," Berkes reports. "It may be the easiest to access, given significant political and technological problems with other plans. So, they've applied for water rights in seven sparsely-populated valleys." The Southern Nevada Water Authority ultimately has its tongue out for 65 billion gallons of water each year, to be delivered by a pipeline costing over $2 billion. The agency "is not seeking access to water already used by ranchers and farmers, except in the case of five ranches it has purchased outright for their water rights," Berkes reports. "But, there's deep concern in the rural valleys that any drilling and pumping of water for Las Vegas will stem or stop the flow to existing wells and springs used by wildlife, livestock and crops."

The state engineer "has awarded southern Nevada about one-fifth of the water it sought," Berkes reports, "but only conditionally. The underground water system must be studied first, and then pumped and monitored closely for 10 years. If other wells and springs begin to lose water, pumping for Las Vegas could be curtailed." Berkes' report is the first of a two-day package. To read or hear it, click here.

Berkes dredged up a 1991 NPR interview with the authority's water czar, Patricia Mulroy, in which she said, "Ninety per cent of Nevada's water goes to agriculture and generates 6,000 jobs, which is less than the Mirage Hotel generates. The West was settled by the federal government as an agrarian economy (but) it isn't that anymore. . . . The West is becoming an urban area." For counterpoint, Berkes has rancher Cecil Garland: "What Las Vegas has got to learn is that there are limits to its growth. . . . Gluttony, glitter, girls and gambling are what [Las Vegas] is all about. What it's all about here [in Callao] is children, cattle, country and church." Then Garland raises a fundamental question. "Would it be crops or craps that we use our water for?"

House panel schedules hearing for Thursday on federal shield-law bill

The bill that would establish a reporter's privilege in federal law is scheduled to for a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee Thursday at 10 a.m., so it's once again an opportune time to report, columnize, editorialize or even lobby on the issue with members of the House and Senate. For an example, see this column by Christine Tatum, president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Every state but Wyoming has a statute or case law that gives journalists and their sources a privilege resembling those enjoyed by clergy, lawyers and therapists, but state laws do not apply in federal court. Federal prosecutors have become more aggressive about seeking testimony from reporters, and federal judges have become less sympathetic to arguments that reporters have a First Amendment privilege.

The bill (HR 2102, titled the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007) would keep federal officials from compelling a person covered by the shield to provide testimony or produce documents without first showing the need to do so by a preponderance of the evidence. Journalists could be compelled to reveal sources when a judge finds it necessary to prevent "imminent and actual harm to national security" or "imminent death or significant bodily harm." Journalists could also be forced to identify someone who has disclosed "trade secrets, health information or nonpublic personal information of any consumer in violation of current law."

The shield law would cover people "engaged in journalism," defined as "the gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting or publishing of news and information for dissemination to the public." SPJ says, "The bill does not explicitly protect bloggers, but to the extent a court determines they are engaged in the practice of journalism, they are likely to be shielded." For more from SPJ, click here.

Tennessee town gets award for subsidizing subscriptions to local paper

The town of Jonesborough, Tenn., the state's oldest, received an Achievement Award for Excellence in Communications from the Tennessee Municipal League today, for buying a subscription to the weekly Herald and Tribune for each of the 1,800-plus households in the town of 4,200. Officials waived editorial rights, and Publisher Lynn Richardson has reported no problems.

"After numerous attempts to keep residents informed about town meetings, activities and other items of interest, Jonesborough Mayor Tobie Bledsoe and Town Administrator Bob Browning initiated the family literacy and communications project," the municipal league said in a press release. "Serving as an informational tool for Jonesborough residents, the project also furthers national literacy efforts by placing reading materials into certain homes that might not place an emphasis on reading. Through initiative and daring, Jonesborough has taken municipal communications to the next level."

The weekly paper, owned by Sandusky Newspapers Inc., has a paid circulation of about 4,200. It is located in the county seat of Washington County. Sandusky also owns the Johnson City Press, a daily in the county's largest city, the larger Kingsport Times-News in adjoining Sullivan County and other weeklies.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Poll shows Iraq war could deliver rural vote to Democrat for president

"A new national poll indicates rural Americans are no longer reliably Republican and the Bush administration’s conduct of the war in Iraq seems mainly to blame," reports Howard Berkes of National Public Radio. "President Bush’s dominance in rural counties is credited with giving him his winning margins in both 2000 and 2004, but the new survey of 804 likely voters living beyond cities and suburbs indicates that the Republican formula for winning presidential elections is losing a key component."

Asked how they would vote if the presidential election were held today, 42 percent said they'd vote for the Democratic candidate, and 4 percent said they leaned in that direction; 37 percent said the Republican candidate, and 4 percent said they leaned that way. Seven percent remained undecided, and 2 percent said they would vote for some other candidate. The error margin was plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.

The overall Democratic advantage of 46-43 was a huge turnaround from the 2004 election, in which found that 59 percent of rural voters said they voted for Bush and only 40 percent for Democrat John Kerry. "But rural voters remain more conservative than the nation as a whole, creating an opportunity for Republicans to make up their losses," noted the Center for Rural Strategies, which commissioned the poll.

The poll was the latest by a bipartisan polling team working for the center, a non-partisan group trying to focus attention on rural issues. Pollsters Anna Greenberg and Bill Greener said in their memo about the poll, "Given the current national climate, Republicans must win rural areas to see success in 2008, while Democrats in turn have a historic opportunity to strike deep into the Republican base. For these reasons, rural America may emerge as one of the most heavily contested parts of the country."

The poll was taken May 31 through June 5 in counties outside metropolitan areas, so it includes people living in small urban areas and does not include rural residents of metro areas. For other results, click here.

Sen. Jim Webb: Trying to remake American politics through populism

Jim Webb, left, the Democrat elected U.S. senator from Virginia in a big upset last year, is "trying to remake the American electoral landscape from the ground up," beginning in Appalachia, Rolling Stone says in its June 14 edition, introducing a good profile of Webb by Jeff Sharlet, who sets the scene with Webb's visit with coal miners and families in Lebanon, Va., after touring the Laurel Mountain Mine (photo from Webb's Web site).

"After 9/11, the old labels don't apply," Webb told Sharlet. "The country is just a different place. And now we can remake the party system in the United States if we can get Reagan Democrats -- or whatever you want to call 'em." Politics tends to be defined by presidents; Tom Wolfe, a friend and fellow author, "insists Webb will be president one day" and sees him "as a revolutionary -- a conservative who could succeed where the left failed," Sharlet reports.

Webb, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who was Navy secretary under Ronald Reagan, "loves war so much he can't stand to see one bungled as badly as Bush has the one in Iraq," Sharlet writes. "There's only the cause driving this stupidity into the sand, not the needs of a nation. It's the work of the elites Webb has always hated." He quotes Webb: "America's top tier . . . are literally living in a different country. Few among them send their children to public schools. Fewer still send their loved ones to war."

The elites of his ire were once liberals; now they are conservatives and businesses that profit from war. Webb was once a Republican; now he is a Democrat who models himself after Andrew Jackson, "another man of war who went to Washington on a populist crusade." (Read more) Webb wrote about Jackson in Born Fighting, a history of the Scots-Irish in America, which begins with Webb's roots in southwest Virginia.

Politics with a laugh: Ky. columnist begs to be saved from New Yorkers

Larry Webster is a lawyer in Pikeville, Ky. To call him a maverick Republican would be understatement, and such does not become him. You will not find understatement in his "Red Dog" newspaper column, named for acid drainage from coal mines. He's often over the top, and sometimes bewildering, but his latest take on the presidential race has some vintage paragraphs. Here are three:

"If we all stick together and get us a smooth actor who talks the talk to be elected president, just maybe Keith Whitley's little widder woman [country singer Lorrie Morgan] will be the first lady. Fred Thompson, in a gesture of self-sacrifice, will give up being Paul Harvey's successor in radio riches and give up pretending to be someone else on television in order to save this country from the ruin of having to pick between two New Yorkers.

"One is the Hall Monitor Girl who slept once with Bill Clinton. You remember the hall monitor girl with the fluorescent crosses swathing her bosom holding up her little sign and ordering you around. She had no principles, but, to remain hall monitor girl, fought her way right to the middle of the pile, no matter what it was a pile of. If there is a God, He will spare us eight years of having to stay off television to keep from seeing her every night at suppertime. That would be torture.

"Upon which the other New Yorker would approve given that he believes in torture as a technique in international relations. She is the Hall Monitor Girl and he is the Call Monitor Boy. He goes by "Rudy," so as not to be confused with the red-nosed Rudolph, who at least knows how to lead. We do not want him to play in our reindeer games. Rudy will lead us forward on our current path to a security state ruled by a single person who claims two things, one, that while we are at war nobody has any rights, and two, that we are in a permanent war." (Column not available online)

Workshop gives both macro and micro looks at mountaintop removal

Protests against removing Central Appalachian mountaintops to mine coal "have taken many forms, including flyovers organized by environmental groups, statements prepared by well-known authors and videos making the rounds of college campuses," writes Andy Mead of the Lexington Herald-Leader. (Photos by Charles Bertram, H-L)

Ben Begley, director of environmental education at southeastern Kentucky's Pine Mountain Settlement School, "has taken a different tack, trying to turn people against the controversial mining practice by showing them the best of the region's ecology." That means a look at the Cumberland Plateau from High Rock in Letcher County, and some close-up views of plants like the rose pogonia, or snakemouth orchid, which show that the forests of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee are North America's most diverse -- a legacy of the last ice age, which forced species south.

That fact was first determined by Lucy Braun, a University of Cincinnati ecologist, in the 1930s. Twice each summer, Begley conducts a workshop called "In the Footsteps of Lucy Braun," which takes visitors to "some of the best-preserved places in Eastern Kentucky, then shown them both old strip mines and fresh mountaintop removal sites where the landscape looks like the rocky surface of Mars," Mead writes. "Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, says the program is presenting a false comparison. It is not fair, he said, to take people to old-growth woods such as Blanton Forest in Harlan County, then contrast that to an active mountaintop removal job." Caylor told Mead, "What these advocates don't want to face is the fact that we do excellent reclamation, that we can do wonderful things with the land that has been surface-mined," he said. (Read more) Most strip-mine sites are planted in grass, which does not promote ecological diversity, but recent research has show how the sites can be successfully replanted with trees (see item in The Rural Blog on June 6).

Webcams in coastal town in North Carolina upset former editor

Web cameras in Oriental, N.C., "have sparked a 1960s-style protest from a former newspaper editor who believes the voyeuristic devices invade people's privacy" in the coastal town, The Associated Press reports.

"You go to the most tranquil place in town . . . and you're forced to be on their crass reality TV show," Tony Tharp said, referring to the local couple who own the cameras. "We're losing our privacy, losing our rights." AP identified Tharp as "a former newspaper editor who now designs Web pages and does odd jobs."

"Two cameras stream pictures of the docks and a waterfront park," AP reports. "Viewers can see weather conditions and other happenings around town, which bills itself as the sailing capital of North Carolina. . . . Tharp wants the town board to post signs telling visitors the cameras are watching. . . . The cameras' keepers -- Keith Smith and his wife, Melinda Penkava -- respect Tharp's right to protest but believe he is misguided."

"It's not a hidden camera," Smith told a reporter. "It's a public place." The couple's Web site gets about 2,500 hits a day, more during storms. The cameras have been operating for about five years. (Read more)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Wheeling-area voters let track have casino; Eastern Panhandle says no

Casino gambling gained a foothold in Northern Appalachia yesterday as county referenda in West Virginia allowed a casino in Wheeling but rejected one in Charles Town, in the state's Eastern Panhandle near Washington, D.C.

The 2-1 vote in Ohio County will allow Wheeling Island Racetrack and Gaming Center, which like the state's other three racetracks already has slot machines, to add poker, blackjack and other table games. In photo, track president Robert Marshall thanks voters. (Photo by Scott McCloskey, Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register)

The state legislature allowed the move to help tracks compete with legalization of slot machines in Pennsylvania. Votes are scheduled June 30 in Hancock County for the Mountaineer Racetrack and Gaming Resort at Chester, north of Wheeling, and Aug. 11 for Tri-State Racetrack & Gaming in Nitro, in Kanawha County, which includes Charleston, the state's capital and largest city.

"Ohio County voters . . . placed their bets on table gambling with hopes of future winnings in the job market," writes Joselyn King of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register. "The track has promised to add facilities and hire as many as 500 new employees to accommodate table gambling." (Read more)

In Jefferson County, "concerns over too little local tax revenue and too much traffic doomed a similar proposal," defeated 56-44 percent, reports The Associated Press. "The defeat means Pennsylvania-based Penn National Gaming Inc. must wait two years before putting the issue before voters again." Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper told AP that Jefferson County "is unique in West Virginia. They are almost facing overpopulation. So they turned it down." Nearby Maryland is considering slot machines to compete with Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, West Virginia will become the 12th state with a full-scale casino.

Friday, June 8, 2007

War at home: A weekly's editorial makes local and global connections

One of the most important things rural news media can do for their readers, viewers and listeners is connect them to the world at large and help them understand the local impact of faraway events. Brad Martin of the Hickman County Times in Centerville, Tenn., did that this week with an editorial titled "War at home."

“As June arrives and you prepare for another ballgame with your kids, here’s a thought worth remembering: Soldiers are still preparing to go to the war zone known as Iraq. Soldiers from Hickman County,” Martin began, following that with the latest list of seven names, all volunteers for the assignment. Such reminders are important in a nation where no broad sacrifice has been required for the Iraq War, which has a low profile.

Martin addressed the war's controversial nature: “Go ahead, argue politics -- that Bush is whacked and Congress has no guts and things aren’t getting better. Or maybe they are and the media just isn’t telling us, and terrorism will soon be eradicated from the Earth, so help me God. Don’t do it on the soldiers’ nickel, though.”

The key to the 5,800-circulation weekly's editorial is John M. Wilson, family-assistance specialist for the Army National Guard's 771st Maintenance Company, based in Centerville. Referring to the seven men's volunteering to go to Iraq, most for return trips, he told Martin, “They’d rather do that than try to find a job here. It’s difficult to find a job here.” From there, Martin made another connection, to the economic needs of the 22,500 people in Hickman County and the responsibility of local officials to address them.

He noted that a manufacturing plant, “a 33-year cornerstone of this county’s economy — will let all of their 68 employees go home, starting in July, and most of them still need to work. Where do they go in a county where 60 percent leave for elsewhere every morning?” Centerville, population 3,800, is 60 miles southwest of downtown Nashville. The Times is not online, but the editorial is posted on our site. To read it, click here.

Rural communities realize, address need for broadband Internet access

"Leaders in rural communities are coming to believe that access to high-speed Internet is tied to their towns' future survival," Richard Mertens writes for The Christian Science Monitor, in one of the more readable and comprehensive stories we've seen on the subject. "They're becoming less patient with telecommunications companies, which they say have lagged in providing the service their residents need at a price they can afford."

Mertens writes from Sullivan, Ill., a town of 4,300 that is tired of waiting for the telecoms. "Sullivan plans to start its own high-speed Internet network this summer, using a combination of fiber-optic cable, wireless transmitters mounted on water towers, and Internet signals sent over power lines," at an estimated cost of $500,000. "Other communities are reaching the same conclusion," Mertens writes. "More than 300, from cities to small towns, are considering launching their own high-speed Internet services, most of them using wireless technologies, says James Baller, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who has represented many of the towns. Hundreds of them have already done so, he says."

"There is a growing consensus that everything that we do in the future is going to be based on broadband platform," Baller said. "If you don't have access in the reasonably foreseeable future, you cannot participate as full citizens in the emerging knowledge-based information economy. Nobody wants to be left out." Mertens says one of the best known local systems is in Scottsburg, Ind., population 6,000, which started a county wireless network that became so popular that the city expanded it to eight other counties. About 15 states banned or strictly limited government broadband, but telecom lobbyists have lost most recent battles.

Mertens notes data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, showing that last year only 29 percent of rural Americans had home broadband, compared to 48 percent of urban and suburban residents. "Most small towns enjoy some form of broadband service, though lack of competition means it is often slower and more expensive than residents would like," he writes. "Broadband services offered by cable or telephone companies seldom reach beyond town boundaries. Wireless companies serve wide expanses of countryside, but coverage can be spotty, and trees, hills, and even bad weather can disrupt the signals." (Read more)

New report provides deeper understanding of rural broadband issues

The latest issue of Rural Realities, the quarterly journal of the Rural Sociological Society, has a detailed report on rural broadband that should be useful to policymakers, journalists and other citizens in rural areas.

The report boils down the rural broadband situation to four big bullet points:
• Not all broadband services are created equal. Residential services currently available in rural areas are not adequate for businesses that need to compete in a global economy.
• Rural areas will continue to lose population, jobs, and income unless policy changes are made to ensure that rural communities have the same access to business class broadband services as their urban counterparts.
• Helping rural areas achieve telecommunications parity with their urban counterparts is as important as past efforts by the federal government to accelerate the electrification of rural America in the 1930s or to extend the interstate highway system to these areas in the 1950s.
• Low population densities increase the cost of private sector broadband expansion into rural areas. For this reason, rural broadband deployment will require innovative strategies.

It promotes the idea of "open access" systems, in which the network infrastructure is "operated independently from entities that provide services," which pay a fee for access to the network and collect fees from users. It says such systems eliminate duplicative infrastructure and can be used for government communications.

The report was written by Theodore Alter, Jeffrey Bridger, Sheila Sager, Kai Schafft and William Shuffstall of the Rural Telecommunications Working Group at The Pennsylvania State University.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Study, politics make some states de-emphasize abstinence in sex education

Eighth-graders in Clackamas County, Oregon, “are learning the correct way to put on condoms,” writes Pauline Vu of Stateline.org, “while some of their counterparts in New Hanover, N.C., are using books that say, ‘There is not a lot of proof that condoms really work. Would you trust your life to one?’”

But such argumentative, medically dubious assertions are likely to become less prevalent, because of Democratic gains in last year's elections and a federal “study showing that kids who took abstinence-only classes were just as likely to have premarital sex as those who weren’t in the classes,” Vu writes. “States are asking: Should we entrust our students to abstinence-only programs? For a rising number of states, the answer is no. While a majority still requires that abstinence be stressed in sex education, lately there has been a movement toward comprehensive education that teaches about contraception along with abstinence.”

Newly Democratic legislatures in Colorado, Iowa and Washington have passed laws requiring sex education to be “medically accurate” or “science-based.” The Kansas school board now favors comprehensive sex education, and a bill pending in New York state would fund comprehensive sex-education programs.

Nevertheless, only six states have a strong definition of “medical accuracy” in their sex-education laws, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, which opposes abstinence-only programs,” Vu reports. “The states are California, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Missouri and Washington.” But in Missouri, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt is expected to sign a bill that would let local school districts decide what kind of sex education to provide. (Read more)

Heartland Publications buys 'Mayberry' paper, others of Mid-South Mgt. Co.

Mid-South Management Co. Inc., publisher of 16 rural newspapers in the Southeast, is selling them to Heartland Publications LLC of Old Saybrook, Conn. Mid-South has four dailies; the largest, which claims a circulation of about 10,000, is the Mount Airy News of North Carolina, published in the home town of actor Andy Griffith, who used the town (in photo, with the Blue Ridge) as the model for Mayberry in his eponymous television show in the 1960s. After years of downplaying that identity, Mayberry has embraced it (www.VisitMayberry.com) for tourism revenue as Surry County's three main industries — furniture, tobacco and textiles — have sharply declined. For more on that, click here for The Rural Blog Archive for March 2006 and go to March 15.

The other dailies in the Mid-South group are the LaGrange Daily News of Georgia, circulation 9,960; the Laurinburg Exchange of North Carolina, 6,000; and the Union Daily Times of South Carolina, 6,500. The sale also includes three tri-weeklies, two semi-weeklies, seven weeklies, a wine magazine and several shoppers and niche publications in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia. "The transaction makes Heartland the largest group owner of newspapers in North Carolina, with 18 publications, including five dailies," according to the North Carolina Press Association. (Read more)

Mid-South is based in Spartanburg, S.C. It was started in 1953 by Phil Buchheit, whose daughter, Phyllis Delapp, is now chairman. "Heartland, which was formed in 2004, has rapidly grown to 32 newspapers, mostly in the Southeast and Midwest," reports the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association Bulletin. "Heartland is owned by The Wicks Group of Companies and Wachovia Capital Partners. Wicks is a New York-based private equity firm focused on selected segments of the communications, information and media industries. Wachovia ..., based in Charlotte, N.C., is the principal investing arm of Wachovia Corp."

Coal company withdraws application to mine under Ky. town's water supply

Black Mountain Resources has "decided to postpone" its plans for an underground coal mine beneath the water reservoir of a southeastern Kentucky town, pending a study, reports the Harlan Daily Enterprise.

"Some residents and city leaders in Lynch contend that mining coal beneath their decades-old reservoir could compromise their only water supply, some of the purest available," Deanna Lee-Sherman reports. "During a public permit conference in Cumberland on May 23, officials with the state Department for Natural Resources assured residents and city leaders alike that a permit would not be issued to Black Mountain Resources until a water protection and replacement plan were in place." (Read more)

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Scores up since No Child Left Behind Act passed, but credit uncertain

Students are scoring better on reading and math tests since Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, and states that have narrowed achievement gaps between black and white students outnumber those where gaps are increasing, according to the most comprehensive study yet of state achievement tests.

"The study's authors warned that it is difficult to say whether or how much the No Child Left Behind law is driving the achievement gains," writes Amit R. Paley of The Washington Post. "But Republican and Democratic supporters of the law said the findings indicate that it has been a success. Some said the findings bolster the odds that Congress will renew the controversial law this year." (Read more)

The study was conducted by the Center for Education Policy, an independent, public-education advocacy group that Paley said "has issued several reports that have found fault with aspects of the law's implementation," such as its effects on rural schools. The study is the first to use verified data from all states. To read the study and the center's press release, click here.

Critics of the law said test scores can't really measures "how much students know and what they can do," and can be driven by teaching that is tailored to the tests, writes David Hoff of Education Week. Monty Neill, co-director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, noted that scores on the federally sponsored National Assessment of Education Progress "are basically unchanged," Hoff reports. (Read more)

Public Citizen issues annual ranking of medical boards' doctor discipline

Public Citizen, a group founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, today released its annual ranking of state medical boards' effectiveness at disciplining doctors, with Mississippi ranked worst and Alaska best. Because the ratings are based on the number of disciplinary actions per 1,000 physicians in a state, they may also reflect patterns of disciplinary problems. For example, Kentucky ranked second "best," but the state has also been plagued by prescription-drug abuse abetted by doctors.

Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's health research group, preemptively defended the rankings in a press release: “There is no reason to believe that physicians deserving of discipline are much more common in one state than another, [so] these large differences in rates are likely due to the boards’ practices themselves. There is considerable evidence that most boards are under-disciplining physicians.”

The rankings are based on data from the Federation of State Medical Boards on disciplinary actions taken against doctors in 2006, 2005 and 2004 and 2005. "Public Citizen calculated the rate of serious disciplinary actions (revocations, surrenders, suspensions and probation/restrictions) per 1,000 doctors in each state for each year and compiled a national ranking of state boards by the average rate of serious disciplinary actions for 2004-2006 and for earlier three-year intervals," the group said in its release. "In previous years, rankings were derived from American Medical Association data on non-federal M.D.s, but the AMA now provides information only on the total number of licensed physicians without a breakdown by federal/non-federal status. Public Citizen used the data for the total number of M.D.s in each state and recalculated previous three-year rankings to ensure that rankings from all years are as comparable as possible."

The three-year rates ranged from Mississippi's 1.41 serious actions per 1,000 physicians to Alaska's 7.30 per 1,000. The states with the lowest rates were Mississippi; South Carolina (1.45); Minnesota (1.45); South Dakota (1.52); Nevada (1.68); Wisconsin (1.78); Washington (2.06); Delaware (2.22); Maryland (2.25); and Connecticut (2.34). The highest rates were in Alaska; Kentucky (7.10); Wyoming (6.37); Ohio (6.01); Oklahoma (5.54); Missouri (5.43); Iowa (5.32); Colorado (5.24); Arizona (5.12); and Nebraska (4.91).

Edwards calls for ban on new coal-fired power plants; writing off W.Va.?

Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards "called for a ban on new coal-fired power plants when asked about plans by a South Carolina state-run utility to build a new plant in Florence County," where he campaigned today with actor Danny Glover, reports Jim Davenport of The Associated Press. "Critics have said the facility's carbon dioxide emissions will further add to global warming."

"Until and if we have true carbon-capture technology available, then we should ban the building of any more of these coal-fired plants," the former North Carolina senator said. Addressing energy issues as part of his rural agenda, "Edwards said the nation's need to wean itself off foreign oil could create 1 million jobs and help rural economies with the development of alternative power such as biofuels and wind turbines," Davenport reports. "Other help for people in rural areas could come from the government lowering the cost of college by making direct loans to families, and from improving health care by widening broadband access so that doctors and patients could better communicate with major medical centers." (Read more)

Giuliani, McCain will skip Iowa straw poll but compete in state's caucuses

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain will skip the Republican straw poll in Ames, Iowa, on Aug. 11, but still compete in the state's caucuses, reports Thomas Beaumont of The Des Moines Register. The Register called it "a gamble" to abandon Ames, but "Given the heavy concentration of conservatives there, is anyone surprised?" asked The Hotline, the daily political digest.

Giuliani made the first announcement, to the Register this morning. McCain followed suit a few hours later, with campaign manager Terry Nelson saying, "In light of today's news, it is clear that the Ames Straw Poll will not be a meaningful test of the leading candidates' organizational abilities." A spokesman for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, leading Iowa polls after a major advertising buy, said, "Campaigns that have decided to abandon Ames are likely doing so out of a recognition that their organizations are outmatched and their message falls flat with Republican voters in Iowa." NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd writes that the former governors of Wisconsin and Arkansas "could end up being the real losers here: Both [Mike] Huckabee and Tommy Thompson were hoping to turn a surprising straw poll finish into a jump start."

The moves are "a first for Iowa," Beaumont wrote. "No candidate in the straw poll's nearly 30 year history has bypassed the event and won the caucuses. . . . Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson has said he plans to take steps toward seeking the GOP nomination, although it was unclear whether he will participate in the straw poll. . . . Although most national polls show Giuliani ahead of his GOP rivals, recent Iowa surveys of likely GOP caucus-goers show he has slipped from the top spot in Iowa. . . . Giuliani's liberal positions on some key social issues, such as abortion and gay rights have prompted questions about how heavily he would compete in Iowa." (Read more) Giuliani suffered an embarrassment in the state last month, canceling an event at a farm after his campaign learned the owners weren't rich enough to be subject to the federal estate tax.

Foe of mountaintop removal advocates federal ban, reforestation project

One of the most prominent opponents of mountaintop-removal strip mining for coal in Kentucky, West Virginia, southwest Virginia and Tennessee is Erik Reece, right, an English instructor at the University of Kentucky. In The New York Times, and today in The Courier-Journal, he advocates "a New Deal for Appalachia," which would ban mountaintop removal and encourage the reforestation of strip-mined sites, which recent research and field experiments have proved practical.

Most reclaimed mine sites are now planted in grass. "To replace the forest with a grassland monoculture does not reclaim what has been lost," Reece writes. "A forest sequesters 20 times more carbon than a grassland, prevents flooding and erosion, purifies streams, turns waste into food and insures species survival. Reforesting wasted mine sites would replace failed industrial methods with a system that mimics nature." He cites the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, a coalition that is supported by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Reece says Congress should expand the initiative, "or create a similar program, to finally return some of the region's lost wealth in the form of jobs and trees, rebuilt topsoil and resuscitated communities. Financing should come from a carbon tax on Appalachian coal bought and burned by utility companies across the country -- a tax that would also discourage the wasteful emissions of greenhouse gases. Such a project would educate and employ an entire generation of foresters and forest managers, who would be followed by locally owned wood-product industries and craftsmen . . . "

But Congress should also ban mountaintop removal, Reece writes: "The people of central and southern Appalachia have relinquished much of their natural wealth to the rest of the country and have received next to nothing in return. To right these wrongs, first we need federal legislation that will halt the decapitation of mountains and bring accountability to an industry that is out of control." (Read more) The Courier-Journal, of Louisville, has created a Web page with news and commentary about the issue. To see it, click here.

Museum of Appalachia becomes an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution

The Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tenn., just north of Knoxville, has been named an official affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. That "opens doors to partnerships with the Smithsonian's outreach units, including study tours, workshops, lectures and curriculum development with local schools," says The Associated Press. (AP photo of museum grounds by Wade Payne)

"Founded in 1969 by John Rice Irwin, the Museum of Appalachia has grown from a single log building to an extensive village-farm complex encompassing more than 35 historic log structures, several exhibition buildings and some 250,000 artifacts," AP reports. "Irwin won a MacArthur Fellowship award, sometimes referred to as a 'genius grant,' for his cultural preservation work."

"I don't know if any of us can truly comprehend what it takes to create a museum from scratch, especially one with the breadth of the Museum of Appalachia," Harold Closter, director of the Smithsonian's affiliates program, told AP. "Few people have this gift, and John is a pioneer in the preservation community."

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Federal government gets relatively puny share of income from its oil and gas

The federal government gets "one of the lowest government takes in the world" from the oil and gas produced from federal lands and waters, the Government Accountability Office says in a new study that compared royalties, taxes and other fees in other nations and American states with the federal system.

"A lower royalty rate can encourage oil companies to pursue oil exploration and production and thereby provide an economic stimulus to oil producing regions," Mark E. Gaffigan, GAO's acting director for natural resources, wrote in a May 1 letter to key members of Congress. "Such development, however, should not mean that the American people forgo a competitive and fair rate of return for the extraction and sale of these natural resources, especially in light of the current and long-range fiscal challenges facing our nation."

We were alerted to this study by Government Policy Newslinks, which offers a daily digest of press releases, statements, reports and other information 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.

Tenn. overhauls school formula, raises cig tax, bans workplace smoking

Tennessee lawmakers have passed Gov. Phil Bredesen's education and tobacco plans, banning smoking in workplaces with some exceptions and raising the state cigarette tax to help finance a $500 million education plan that overhauls the state formula for financing local school districts. "At-risk students and English-language learners will be the biggest beneficiaries of the increase, netting about $120 million," The Tennessean reports. No significant tobacco-growing state has a statewide ban on workplace smoking. (Read more)

"Changes deal largely with how the BEP assesses local governments' ability to pay their share of the state and locally funded education formula," reports Andy Sher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Some rural House members "said they had not seen what they consider accurate figures comparing how much money their districts would get" under the new formula, compared to the old one, but it passed 84-11. (Read more)

The final piece of the package was a 42-cent-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax, which had stalled in the House, where many members were unwilling to go beyond a 40-cent hike. The extra two cents will go to fund hospital trauma centers. "It is only the third cigarette tax increase in the state’s history," writes Richard Locker of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. "It remained at 13 cents a pack from 1969 through 2002, when it was raised to 20 cents." (Read more) For a Locker story listing exceptions to the smoking ban, click here.

The most comprehensive story in today's newspapers on the final episode of the legislative battle is by veteran Capitol reporter Tom Humphrey of the Knoxville News-Sentinel. To read it, click here.

Smokies county may impose special rules for mountainside development

Prompted by outcries from residents like Abe Whaley about developments like Legacy Mountain Resort, both in photo at right, officials in Sevier County, Tennessee, today start a three-month procedure that could end with stricter regulations of development on hillsides and ridges -- a process that is "long overdue" in the county that is the main gateway to the very popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park, County Planning Director Jeff Ownby told Tom Benning of the Knoxville News-Sentinel. (N-S photo by Michael Patrick)

Whaley, whose family roots go deep in the county, is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Tennessee. "They are cutting my heart out. The whole ridge is completely put to waste," he told Benning. The development was an issue in November's election for county mayor, in which J.T. Braswell ran "on a campaign with photos of Legacy Mountain and the slogan 'Together we can stop this madness'," Benning writes. Braswell lost, but "the backlash continues against the Legacy Mountain development."

Marc Garrett, chief financial officer of Alabama-based Legacy Homes LLC, told Benning that many of the photos of the development were during the construction stage and now there is "not as big of a visual impact" because of tree growth. "Garrett said his company tries to leave as many trees as possible and that recently, Legacy Homes gave away 200 acres of land to the Foothills Land Conservancy," which preserves land in that part of Tennessee near the national park. (Read more)

Hillary Clinton emphasizing her Midwestern roots, especially in Iowa

U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton grew up in suburban Chicago, a fact that is not widely known by voters but one that could be especially useful to her in Iowa, where caucuses in January will begin the voting for president. Just 140 miles east of her hometown of Park Ridge, Ill., is Iowa -- Clinton, Iowa, in fact.

"Fliers campaign workers distribute at events in Iowa encourage Hawkeye State voters to connect with a candidate with 'strong Midwestern roots' and 'the sense of community we Midwesterners hold dear'," Anne Kornblut and Perry Bacon Jr. report in The Washington Post. They write that Clinton "eschews the large gymnasiums and big rallies that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) often favors, holding events in small venues and leaving time after each event to shake hands and sign autographs (an Iowa-specific move urged on her by former Democratic governor Tom Vilsack, who recommended avoiding the larger sites)."

Clinton surrogates "portray her as a salt-of-the-earth Midwesterner at every opportunity," Kornblut and Bacon write. The ex-governor's wife, Christie Vilsack, told the Post, "She's a Midwesterner, she relaxes, she just dives into it. She doesn't have to change. That's going back to who she was as a little girl." Republicans aren't buying it. "Nobody believes in reinvention more than the Clintons," said Roger Stone, a Republican strategist. The Post wrestled with how much reinvention there is: Its original headline read "Clinton Makeover Accents Her Midwestern Roots." The final version eliminated "Makeover." (Read more)

Clinton's attempt to make a deeper connection could be aimed at driving turnout of a key voting bloc. She "runs well with blue collar women but many of them are not big caucus-attenders," Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen notes. "Look for Clinton to continue to position herself as the champion of 'invisible Americans' as she tries to inspire these voters to show up for her on caucus night." (Read more)

The N'West Iowa Review, a regional weekly, covered Clinton in Sioux Center, a Republican stronghold. "Clinton said she is used to it," Bekah Porter wrote. "While New York City might be known for its Democratic tendencies, upper New York -- mostly farming and rural communities -- leans more Republican."

"I said then I want to be senator for everybody because I don’t think there are necessarily Democratic or Republican answers," Clinton said. "So when we started out in Iowa, we sure weren’t going to bypass northwest Iowa. I was going to come and see if we can’t find a few more Democrats, and frankly, some Republicans and independents who are ready for a change."

"She met more than expected," Porter wrote. "About 460 community members packed the library. Only a few dozen got seats. The rest stood in the aisles, between the rows of books, huddled around the entrance and some even stood on ladders for a better look at the blonde in the blue jacket. A few daring souls climbed atop bookshelves and sat cross-legged." The Review is not online, but click here for the full story and sidebar.

Barns no longer housing tobacco are salvaged for use in new homes

"Barn raisings, those traditional rural events when neighboring farmers got together to build new barns, have shifted into reverse gear all across Kentucky. Nowadays, barns are a lot more likely to be taken down than raised up," reports Jim Warren of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "But some are being saved to serve new purposes. Look inside some of the fanciest new homes being built in Lexington today and you can find remnants of Central Kentucky's great old barns in the floors, in the walls, in the ceilings." (Herald-Leader photo of a salvage crew by David Stephenson)

The demand is national, Warren was told by George Gatewood (at left in photo), whose Longwood Antique Woods of Lexington has recycled almost 300 barns into wood for new construction. "The demand for this kind of material is tremendous all over the country," Gatewood told the reporter. "I've got a guy in Seattle calling me right now who's looking for 4,000 feet of 8-inch barn siding to make flooring." Lexington builder Craig Rushing said, "Old wood has a richness and character to it that you just can't get from newer wood, and a lot of people like having that kind of history in their new homes." (Read more)

Barns are declining as farms consolidate, vanish amid development or abandon the growing and housing of tobacco. With the end of federal quotas and price-supports, tobacco production is moving to the western part of the state, where land is cheaper than in the Bluegrass Region but large tracts can be assembled.

Sen. Thomas of Wyoming dies; 'rural America had no greater defender'

U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming died Monday night of leukemia. He was 74. "Wyoming had no greater advocate, taxpayers had no greater watchdog, and rural America had no greater defender than Craig Thomas," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said.

"Thomas was a low-key lawmaker who reliably represented the interests of his conservative state, often becoming involved in public land issues. He worked in behind-the-scenes posts to oversee national parks, including Yellowstone in Wyoming," reported Mary Clare Jalonick of The Associated Press.

"Thomas was born in Cody, Wyo., and was raised on a ranch. He graduated from the University of Wyoming with a degree in agriculture, then served four years in the U.S. Marines. He also was vice president of the Wyoming Farm Bureau and general manager of the Wyoming Rural Electric Association. (Read more)

Under rules set by the Constitution and Wyoming law, Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal will appoint a senator to fill Thomas' term through 2008, from a list of three names provided by the state Republican Party.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Calif. Senate bucks threat from police, passes bill to open discipline cases

The California Senate voted 21-10 today to reverse the state Supreme Court’s decision allowing local and state agencies to decide for themselves “whether to allow public access to hearings and records associated with peace officer discipline,” reports the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

The Senate approved  SB 1019 after peace-officer lobbies had threatened to oppose legislation easing term limits on state legislators of the bill was passed. Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, the bill's sponsor, said the threat by Professional Peace Officers Association and the Southern California Association of Law Enforcement was “essentially a ‘quid pro quo,’ threatening duly elected members of the legislature who may have an interest in changing term limits that they will be punished if they vote affirmatively on this bill.”

Biofuel plants pose environmental issues; in Iowa, mainly water pollution

"Iowa's ramped-up ethanol and biodiesel fuel production led to 394 instances over the past six years in which the plants fouled the air, water or land or violated regulations meant to protect the health of Iowans and their environment," reports Perry Beeman of The Des Moines Register, which maps the plants at left. "In addition, many biologists consider the industry's most prevalent environmental issue the water pollution and soil erosion that will accompany the increased corn production needed to meet ethanol's soaring demand."

Ethanol burns more cleanly than gasoline, but the environmental impact of its increased production in Iowa "isn't yet known," Beeman writes. "It is the breadth of the offenses, rather than the number, that surprises" the supervisor of the state's environmental inspectors. The Register analysis concluded that 276 of the violations were for water pollution, often from high levels of iron in water drawn from wells. One biodiesel plant, which processes soybeans, was cited for a fish kill. Iowa has 28 ethanol and 10 biodiesel plants.

"Industry leaders say plants have improved their environmental controls," Beeman reports, quoting Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association: "If you look at the effect on the environment overall, we have a very good record. We take it seriously. ... We want to be friendly to the environment." Beeman adds: "However, the Register's analysis shows 13 of the 21 officers and board members of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, whose job is to promote the industry, are associated with plants that have been cited for environmental offenses" by the state. (Read more)

Illinois reporter knows how to tell story of broadband access, or lack of it

Jeremy Pelzer of the State Capitol Bureau of the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill., circulation 55,000, knows how to sharply illustrate the lack of broadband in rural areas. Check out this lede: "When Guy Sternberg wants to open an e-mail attachment from friends, it helps if he's hungry."

Sternberg, of Menard County, explains in terms of kilobytes: "If we try to send things back and forth that are attached documents and so forth that are over three or four hundred K or five hundred K at most, I just can't even open them, I'll hit 'Open,' I'll go eat lunch and to come back before I get it done."

Pelzer also cites a very illustrative nugget of data, or forecast data: "Dial-up service has become increasingly inadequate as Web sites and Internet applications, particularly video, require unprecedented amounts of bandwidth. By 2010, the Web traffic generated by only 20 homes will be equal to the information transmitted over the entire Internet in 1995, according to Cisco Systems."

And no story on broadband access is complete without touching on these subjects: "Many rural Illinois advocates worry that areas of the country that don't have affordable high-speed Internet will lose jobs and people to cities that do. . . . Satellite Internet service offers faster speeds, but the needed satellite dish and equipment usually cost hundreds of dollars, and monthly subscriptions often cost twice as much as ground-based broadband. Those prices are often too steep, said Rex Duncan, executive director of ConnectSI, an initiative seeking to help Internet providers extend broadband access throughout Southern Illinois." And an online commenter on the story noted, "Satellite Internet also has limitations on bandwidth usage." Weather can also be a problem. Click here for the story, and here for a sidebar on state efforts to extend access.

Southern Growth Policies Board calls for enterprise economy in region

The 2007 Report on the Future of the South, issued by the Southern Growth Policies Board, a regional public-policy think tank, calls for Southern states and communities to engage in a cultural shift towards an enterprise economy, characterized by a knowledgeable, entrepreneurial and innovative workforce.

The report, titled EnterpriseSouth.biz, outlines a three-pronged strategy. It suggests that leaders convene a series of conversations that include not only the business, government, non-profit and education communities but also parents, students and the public at large. These meetings should be designed to help put the public back in public education, and to connect the various elements of public and private education to maximize effectiveness. The process is designed to encourage all parties to commit to a non-partisan contract to build a southern workforce that is both enterprising and globally competitive.

The board has launched a Web site to provide what it calls "a dynamic space for Southern states to track their progress in implementing the convene, connect and commit strategy." The site includes state workforce data, profiles of the reports recommendations and is designed to "foster an ongoing dialogue on building the next workforce among the Southern states." The release about the report says "Southern per capita income in 2005 was no closer to the national average than it was in 1995, and little better than it was in 1975. The South has also not made any sustained gains in closing the educational achievement gap."

Copies of EnterpriseSouth.biz are available to the media by contacting lwilder@southern.org.

True horsepower making a small comeback in some agricultural circles

Allen West of Bedford County, Va., "guides the plow through tufts of grass, the machinery clanking and squeaking, in what could easily be a scene from days long gone if it weren't for the occasional ringing of the cell phone in his pocket," writes Christina Rogers of The Roanoke Times. (Times photo by Erin Brady)

Use of horses in agriculture "is gaining some momentum in certain agricultural circles as an offshoot of the organic foods movement and in response to rising fuel prices that are tipping over $3 a gallon," Rogers writes. "Lifestyle changes -- such as city folks moving to the countryside -- have also contributed to a renewed interest in horse farming, said Lynn Telleen, editor of the Waverly, Iowa-based trade publication, The Draft Horse Journal. Many of the journal's new subscribers, he said, are coming from a demographic of younger couples who hail from an urban background but relocate to a small plot of rural land on which they intend to farm." (Read more)

NASCAR getting back to rural roots this week on a dirt track in Ohio

Stock-car racing got its start on short, dirt tracks in or near small towns in the South and Midwest, and acclaimed driver Tony Stewart got his start at the Eldora Speedway just north of Rossburg, Ohio, right off US 127. Three years ago, he bought the speedway, and Wednesday night he will bring more than a dozen of NASCAR's biggest names to join him for a 15-mile race there, for charity.

"The 30-lap sprint offers some of the sport's biggest names a chance to race for the sheer thrill of it, in dirt-track modifieds that they don't have to worry about tearing up, in front of a crowd about one-tenth the size of a major NASCAR race," writes Liz Clarke of The Washington Post. "Eldora's grandstands seat about 16,000, and a few thousand more can squeeze on the hillside." HBO will offer a live pay-per-view telecast.

Jerry Bonkowski of Yahoo! Sports says Nextel Cup drivers expected to compete include Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Bobby Labonte, Elliott Sadler, Matt Kenseth, Mike Wallace, Jamie McMurray, Robby Gordon, Carl Edwards, J.J. Yeley, Kyle Petty, Kevin Harvick, Dave Blaney, Ken Schrader, Denny Hamlin and Kenny Wallace. (Read more)

Sunshine efforts earn former weekly editor Virginia SPJ's top award

Lawrence K. “Lou” Emerson, former co-owner and editor of two weekly newspapers in Northern Virginia, will receive the George Mason Award, the highest honor presented by the Virginia Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, at the chapter's annual banquet Thursday, June 7. The award is presented for significant, lasting contribution to Virginia journalism.

Emerson, who founded The Fauquier Citizen in Warrenton in 1989 and The Culpeper Citizen 14 years later, is a longtime advocate of open government. He "spearheaded a successful legal challenge against the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors over an illegal closed meeting. The court case went all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court, which issued a landmark ruling last year concerning reasons for, and content of, closed meetings," reports the Virginia Press Association, in which he remains active.

Awards are old hat for Emerson, who sold his papers to Times Community Newspapers in January 2006. The Fauquier Citizen consistently won top honors from VPA, and in 2005 the Inland Press Foundation named it the best weekly of its size in the U.S. Last year, he received the D. Lathan Mims Award, VPA’s highest individual honor for an editor. In March, he won the association's First Amendment Award. He and his wife, Ellen, operate Emerson2, a newspaper consulting business in Warrenton.

The awards banquet will be held at the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Hanover Production Facility in Mechanicsville. For more information about the banquet, click here.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Most American adults want to change or repeal No Child Left Behind Act

"Nearly two-thirds of American adults want Congress to re-write or outright abolish the landmark No Child Left Behind Act that mandates nationwide testing of elementary students to determine if public schools are performing adequately," says Scripps Howard News Service, reporting on a national poll of 1,010 adults conducted May 6-27 by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University.

"Opposition is especially high among people most familiar with the law," write Thomas Hargrove of the news service and Guido H. Stempel III, director of the research center, which did the poll with a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation. Overall, "Only about a third said they think the law has had a positive influence on public education while slightly less than half said it has had a negative impact and a fifth were undecided."

Many rural school districts have found it difficult to comply with the requirements that every classroom have a teacher qualified to teach the subjects and students in the room, and that tutoring services be available to students in schools not meeting goals for annual progress. But more criticism focuses on testing. "Critics say the law forces teachers to teach to a particular test," the survey told respondents, asking, "From everything you've heard, do you think the No Child Left Behind Act has been good for public schools or not good?"

The poll found that 23 percent want the law renewed in its current form, 14 percent want it abolished, 49 percent want it changed and 14 percent were undecided. "Taken together, 63 percent want the law abolished or amended," the writers note. "About three-quarters of people who said they are 'very familiar' with the law also say they want it altered or abolished, compared to less than half of people who say they are 'not familiar' with the measure. Well-educated people, especially college graduates and those who've attended post-graduate schooling, are especially likely to call for changes to the law. People who have public school children at home are somewhat more likely to want the law altered or abolished." (Read more)

The law is up for reauthorization this year. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings credits it with increases in history and civics test scores, saying the law makes them better readers, but "some advocates for history and civics education questioned the connection," reports Sean Cavanagh of Education Week. (Read more)

Texas maintains guaranteed college entry for top 10 percent of each H.S.

An alliance of rural lawmakers and urban Democrats helped keep the Texas Legislature from repealing the law that says all high school students who finish in the top 10 percent of their class are guaranteed admission at state universities, report Polly Ross Hughes and Matthew Tresaugue of the Houston Chronicle.

"Without the help of 18 Republicans, mostly from small towns stretching from Pampa to Mineola, minority Democrats might have lost their latest battle to preserve the state's top-10-percent law," the writers report from Austin. "Top 10 percent is really important to the people in rural Texas," Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, told them."A lot of times it's the only way we can get into the big universities."

The Legislature passed the law in 1997 "after a court ruling temporarily barred racial preferences in college admissions, but its resistance to change stems from a perception that it has spawned geographic diversity," the Chronicle reports. This year's bill " would have capped the automatic admissions to half of a college freshman class, which affected only The University of Texas at Austin," which lobbied for the bill.

UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. "acknowledged that rural legislators think the top 10 percent law is a benefit for their students but said analysis does not bear that out." He said, "Our rural students have remained at 1 percent to 2 percent of our enrollment for the past 10 years. I think it's been tremendously overstated."

But Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, said in debate, "Ninety-three percent of the kids from my district that got into UT in Austin got in from the top 10 percent rule." The debate reflected "populist sentiments that resonate in rural Texas," the Chronicle said. After some black, urban Democrats spoke, Rep. Jim McReynolds, a Democrat from Lufkin, "spoke last, saying it was time for a 'rural white guy' to weigh in. After the vote, 'I was grinning like a possum eating a sweet potato,' McReynolds said." (Read more)

North Carolina's Shelby Star gets international notice for interactivity

With a circulation of 15,000, The Star of Shelby, N.C., might seem to be an unlikely newspaper to be in the forefront of an old medium's adaptation to the new, multimedia world. But it is helping set the pace, writes Robert Andrews for Journalism.co.uk, a British journalism-news service: The Star is making "some of the industry's most innovative digital waves, with several new developments lined up over the coming months."

The daily in southwestern North Carolina, between Charlotte and the Blue Ridge, "was picked by publisher Freedom Communications to test the use of blogs, moblogs, video and more in a bold integrated newsroom experiment," Andrews writes. It has "further developments to come, including the Star Car, a rebranded version of the WiFi-enabled, fully-kitted-out, mobile Internet reporting vehicle pioneered by NewsGear at the NewsPlex newsroom planning organisation." (We respect British spellings.)

Publisher Skip Foster said the Star is 19th in circulation among Freedom's 24 papers, but the seventh in Web traffic, partly because it is learning from TV: "They do a lot of teasing and 'holding back' on news and content to lure viewers into their newscasts. We're doing the same thing -- dribbling out information, sometimes slower than at the pace we actually collect that information, to encourage users to revisit the site for updates."

One example of the Star's new interactive character is a map of bear sightings in the area, with video of one submitted by a reader. To see the feature, click here. For Andrews' story, click here.

Last horse slaughterhouse in U.S. gets another reprieve, from federal judge

The last horse slaughterhouse in the United States will be allowed to operate for at least a few more weeks, under a court order issued this morning. U.S. District Judge Frederick Kapala issued a temporary restraining order to block state and county officials from enforcing a new state law that prohibits the slaughter of horses for human consumption.

"The law, signed just last week, effectively closed Cavel International in DeKalb," writes Ann Bagel Storck of Meatingplace, a red-meat industry magazine. "However, the plant's owners filed a suit to have the law declared void on constitutional and other grounds. Another hearing in the case is scheduled for June 14. The temporary restraining order is in effect until that date, but it could be extended if necessary." (Read more)

Rural W. Ky. has plenty of numbers available but will get a new area code

Because phone numbers are allocated differently in rural and urban areas, far Western Kentucky will be getting a new area code even though its current 270 code has plenty of numbers. The state Public Service Commission ordered yesterday that the 270 area be split next year, creating a new code for the far western counties, as shown on the map below, from the Lexington Herald-Leader. The number will be chosen by the North American Numbering Plan Administrator, an independent group funded by the telecommunications industry under Federal Communications Commission rules. UPDATE, 6/13: The new code will be 364.

The Herald-Leader's Scott Sloan notes that the FCC's most recent report on phone-number usage, as of Dec. 31, 2005, "shows there are actually more numbers available in the 270 area code than in 859 (Lexington) or 502 (Louisville). The more rural 270 area finds itself in need, though, because phone numbers have historically been allocated in 10,000-number pools, regardless of whether a company needs that many. In more urban areas, numbers are allocated in 1,000-block pools." (Read more) The change was not well received in Henderson County, where officials favored an "overlay" area code and Susie Givens of Givens International Drilling Supplies in Corydon worried that brochures and cards she distributes will be outdated when a potential customer wants to become a real customer. "I sell in 60 different countries," she told The Gleaner's Chuck Stinnett. "I don't know who picks up my brochures." (Read more)

New code could better define a region that often feels left out; here's some history

For Kentuckians, the new area code may change their perceptions and nomenclature for the state's western section. Those who live outside the region usually call it "Western Kentucky," but many of those who live in the area that will get the new code more often say they live in "West Kentucky," subtly making the point that they're really in the west, not just "western." That reflects the usage in adjoining Tennessee (see below) but also subtly makes make the political point that they are more removed from the state's major urban areas and the capital of Frankfort than any other part of the state -- and supports their argument that they often don't get their fair share of state attention and resources. Once "West Kentucky" gets its own area code, its definition as a region is more likely to be adopted beyond its borders. It is already somewhat defined by the Edward T. Breathitt Pennyrile Parkway, which connects the cities of Henderson, Madisonville and Hopkinsville (hometown of Breathitt, governor in 1963-67) near the area's eastern front.

Those of us who like more specificity in our geographic appellations will still say "far Western Kentucky" to refer to the eight counties west of the Tennessee River, which are known all over the state as the Jackson Purchase. It's named for Gen. Andrew Jackson, who with Kentucky Gov. Isaac Shelby in 1818 bought for the United States from the Chickasaw Nation the land west of the river, adding it to Kentucky and Tennessee. Though much more of the Indian land was in Tennessee, and Kentucky's governor was co-negotiator, the Jackson Purchase term is used only in Kentucky -- perhaps because during the area's greatest period of settlement, Shelby was dead and Jackson was a two-term president of the United States.

In his native Tennessee, Jackson is honored with name of the western region's central city, and the area is called West Tennessee -- one of the state's three Grand Divisions, a device that is in the state's flag and constitution, to ensure fair regional representation in one of America's most elongated states. Then-Gov. Ned Ray McWherter, a rotund native of West Tennessee, like to introduce himself as "the big, round governor from a long, skinny state." Kentucky is not so elongated, but like Tennessee stretches from the Mississippi River to the Appalachian Mountains, and unlike Tennessee is largely rural at either end. --Al Cross, director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Information and inspiration: Good Works at RuralJournalism.org

There's a lot of good journalism being done in rural America, and it's preserved on a page of this site. Called Good Works, it has what we consider to be the best work by rural journalists -- work that won awards, might win, or should have won. To go to the page, click here or on the link above. These stories provide both information -- ideas, sources, approaches -- and inspiration to journalists in rural America. We know there are lots of good journalists at rural newspapers and broadcast stations, and that they sometimes need a little help or encouragement to go beyond the usual. We hope The Rural Blog and Good Works do that. If you have suggestions, please let us know. We add to this page as we find other outstanding examples of good rural journalism, and we hope you can help us by letting us know about work that should be shared. Just send an e-mail to Al.Cross@uky.edu.

Rural Calendar

June 18: Deadline to apply for Children and Agriculture seminar in Ky.

"Children and Agriculture: Telling the Story of Risks and Safety," a free workshop for journalists, will be held July 13-14 at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill and other locations in Central Kentucky

This is the latest in a national series of workshops for journalists that focus on the complex and sometimes controversial issues surrounding childhood health and safety in the agricultural environment. The goal of this year’s workshop is to build a cadre of journalists who understand the broad scope – and preventability – of childhood injuries on the farm.This FREE workshop is a story-generating event that gathers farm-health researchers, child-safety advocates, medical professionals, agricultural producers and journalists for field trips and discussions.

Dialogue with expert sources and knowledge gathered firsthand on field trips will enable journalists to:

  • Understand leading causes of childhood farm injuries at work and at play.
  • Describe interventions that are most likely to be effective in preventing childhood farm injuries.
  • Identify the journalist's role in protecting farm children at work and at play.

Discussion and field trips to various sites in Central Kentucky will focus on protecting children from injury and death associated with tractors, other machinery and cattle.

No fee will be charged. Up to 15 journalists, representing print and electronic media, will be selected from applicants. The deadline to apply is June 18. Part-time and freelance journalists will be considered. A stipend will be offered to help defray costs of lodging and travel. Employers are expected to provide salary for the journalists on assignment at the workshop.

TO APPLY, please submit by June 18: (1) A current resume; (2) a brief cover letter explaining your interest in the workshop; (3) several work samples -- preferably, but not necessarily, related to childhood agricultural health and safety. SEND TO: Scott Heiberger, National Farm Medicine Center, 1000 N. Oak Ave., Marshfield, WI 54449 -- or e-mail heiberger.scott@mcrf.mfldclin.edu

June 18: Symposium on energy independence and security, Pikeville, Ky.

For information call 606-432-6247, ext. 394 or e-mail info@AmericasEnergyCapital.com.

June 25-26: National Summit on the Meth Epidemic, Arlington, Va.

The Performance Institute is hosting the 2007 National Summit on the Methamphetamine Epidemic June
25-26, 2007 in Arlington, Va. This conference integrates the concerns of law enforcement and social services in tackling meth. Tuition is $795; group discounts are available. A limited number of rooms have been reserved at the Key Bridge Marriott at the prevailing rate of $172. Please call the hotel directly and reference code PFJ. The hotel has a complimentary shuttle and is three blocks from the Rosslyn Metro station, on the Orange and Blue lines. The institute is a block from the Courthouse stop on the Orange Line.
To register, call the institute at 703-894-0481 or go to www.PerformanceWeb.org/Meth.

July 10: Woodland Owners Short Courses continue in Ky. through summer

Helping Kentucky’s 423,000 private forest owners better manage their property and, in the process, ensure the future of the state’s valuable forest land is the goal of the 2007 Woodland Owners Short Course. Sponsored by the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, the Kentucky Division of Forestry and the Kentucky Woodland Owners Association, the program consists of three regional short courses in several areas of woodland and natural resource management.

Each of the regional short courses will feature three separate field sessions. All sessions will be targeted to the specific region in which they’re held.

Sessions in woodland management practices, featuring such topics as woodland evaluation, tree planting, harvesting and regeneration treatments, will be at Kentucky Ridge State Forest in Bell County July 10.

Sessions in woodland economics, including timber valuation, selling strategies, estate planning and woodland products, will be at Pennyrile State Forest in Christian County June 28, at Pittman Creek Wood Products in Pulaski County July 19 and at the Lee County Cooperative Extension office Aug. 7.

Woodland wildlife and recreation sessions will be at Bandana Hunt Club in Ballard County Aug. 2, Knobs State Forest in Bullitt County Aug. 23 and at Elkhorn Park in Floyd County Sept. 11. Topics covered include hunting leases, trails, tree identification and water resources.

Cost for each day-long workshop is $10. To attend all three sessions in a region, the cost is $25. Lunch is provided, and attendees will receive either a reference CD or binder of information aimed at helping them manage their woodlands. Space is limited, so advance registration is required. Directions to each session will be mailed after registration is received. For more information about any of the Woodland Owners Short Course or to register, call the UK Forestry Department at 859-257-7597 or the Kentucky Division of Forestry at 502-564-4496. More information is also available online at http://www.ukforestry.org, http://www.forestry.ky.gov or http://www.kentuckywoodlandownersassociation.com.

July 27: Application-receipt deadline for Covering Digital Culture seminar

The Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland is offering fellowships to journalists to attend "Covering Digital Culture: Gaming to Government," a seminar to be held Sept. 11-14.

From e-mailing to shopping to reading the news, 70 percent of American adults used the Internet last year, and online shoppers accounted for almost 5 percentof retail sales in 2005. YouTube has become ubiquitous , and text messaging is the new way of communicating, with a language all its own. The seminar will examine ways in which digital technology is transforming how people around the world live, work and play. Seminar speakers will be experts from top research institutions, government, business and the media. Participants will gain valuable sources and engage in thought-provoking discussions with colleagues from around the country.

Topics covered during the seminar may include: Social, political, psychological and physiological impacts of the Internet, division of user groups by age, economics and education; consequences of online truth and untruth, dgital democracy, privacy and present and future trends.

Knight Center fellowships cover all seminar costs, including reference materials, hotel lodging, meals and a travel subsidy. The travel subsidy is a reimbursement of half the cost of travel up to a maximum subsidy of $300. Seminars are held at the University of Maryland, in the metro Washington, D.C. area. Applicants must work for independent news organizations. The Knight Center seeks diversity among participants.

The deadline for receipt of applications is July 27. To apply, send three complete sets of the following material: A resume, including work street address, phone number and e-mail address; a statement of up to 500 words giving the reason for applying; a supervisor's strong nominating letter, including the organization's commitment to cover salary and partial travel cost (freelancers should send a letter of recommendation from an editor you have worked with); and three published articles with publication name and date. Editors may send samples of edited work. Broadcasters send one CD, audiotape or videotape. Articles from electronic archives are accepted. E-mailed or faxed applications will not be accepted.

Send applications to: Carol Horner, Knight Center for Specialized Journalism, University of Maryland, 1117 Cole Field House, College Park MD 20742-1024. Contact the center at 301-405-4817, or by e-mail.

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, 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 University of Kentucky and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

School of Journalism and Telecommunications
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Questions about The Rural Blog, this Web site or the Institute? Contact Al Cross, director, al.cross@uky.edu

Last revised June 17, 2007, 11 p.m. EDT