The Rural Blog Archive: May 2006

Issues, trends, events, ideas and journalism from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

W.Va. Public Radio: Coal baron's maid fights for unemployment pay

Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has received great notoriety in West Virginia for his recent roles in political campaigns and public quarrels with Gov. Joe Manchin. Now he is getting a more personal kind of publicity. His former maid, Deborah May, filed a lawsuit for unemployment pay, reports Anna Sale of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

May worked for Blankenship for $8.86 an hour, after one 30-cent raise, for four years. She quit in November because of stress and poor treatment, she says. May described one incident from last July when Blankenship got upset because he couldn't find an empty coat hanger. He tore out part of the closet and had her repair it. May also alleges that he grabbed her twice. Blankenship declined to comment.

May's lawsuit is against Matecreek Security, which provides personal services to Massey employees. Johnny Fullen, Matecreek's human relations representative, said May is not entitled to unemployment because she resigned, but May's lawyer says she is entitled to the benefits if they can determine that she quit after a significant change in work conditions. For a transcript of this story, click here.

Nation's one-room schools survive in small numbers, mainly in West

An ongoing National Public Radio series is examining one-room schools in the U.S.: "They've dwindled from 190,000 in 1919 to fewer than 400 today. The bulk of them are in isolated Western towns. But there are schools sprinkled across the United States," writes Neenah Ellis.

One recent story profiled a school in Croydon, N.H., a small town located 30 miles northwest of Concord. Croydon's school was built in 1780 and unlike the low enrollment closing many of the nation's one-room landmarks, this school might actually close because of unprecedented growth, reports Ellis.

"Croydon's population varied only a little for many years, hovering for a long time between 600 and 700. Now a lack of housing in nearby towns and cities is bringing people here. Two new subdivisions have broken ground. Last spring, there were 18 students at the school, and most agree that's near the upper limit. If more come, the residents of Croydon will have hard choices before them: renovate the old, historic school, build a new school, or send more kids down the road to the next town," writes Ellis. Click here to read more and listen to the report.

For the series main page, click here. To listen to the latest report on a school in Death Valley, click here.

Workload, lack of staff for paperwork lead to closure of Red Cross offices

In the latest example of the American Red Cross' abandonment of small towns, the Waynesboro, Pa., chapter will shut down June 30 because of new regulations issued by the regional headquarters and a lack of finances and volunteers, reports Denise Bonura of The Record Herald in Waynesboro.

"Smaller Red Cross chapters are closing all across the country because they cannot afford to keep up with the fees, the new regulations and the diminishing number of volunteers," writes Bonura. "There are only 825 chapters remaining in the U.S., compared to the 1,763 that existed in the late 1900s." The closings leave 40 million-plus people without the Red Cross' services.

New requirements call for Red Cross workers to write detailed local chapter policies on handling disaster relief, the bird flu threat and a possible attack involving weapons of mass destruction. The Waynesboro chapter includes one full-time and one part-time employee and about 50 volunteers, and new requirements hold every chapter accountable for all reports, regardless of staffing numbers, notes Bonura. (Read more)

Thanks to Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute for alerting us to this story.

Pollution laws shut down charcoal producers, make for cleaner Missouri

Tighter regulations are forcing small-time charcoal producers out of the business in Missouri, "where an estimated 60 percent to 75 percent of the nation's charcoal supply flows from kilns to backyard cookouts and barbecues," writes Todd C. Frankel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

While new rules on smoke have helped make the state's charcoal kilns, which are concrete or metal buildings shaped like small airplane hangars, more environmentally friendly, they have also made it virtually impossible for smaller operators to continue. In the state's Ozarks' hardwood forests, residents depend on using wood waste for charcoal as a way to combat poverty, reports Frankel.

Make no mistake: The demand for charcoal is high, but pollution laws limit how much small companies can produce. That coupled with the expense of removing soot from the kiln's exhaust have reduced the state's number of charcoal kilns to 87, down from 280 in 1998. However, before the new laws, "white smoke poured over the land. At other plants the smoke got so bad it obscured highways and led to thousands of complaints," writes Frankel. (Read more)

Iowa telecom sues USDA over loan program for rural Internet

Mediacom Communications is suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture over a low-interest loan program designed to provide rural areas with high-speed Internet access.

"The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Des Moines federal court, alleges that the loans are unfairly subsidizing competitors to companies such as Mediacom, Iowa's leading cable television provider. The lawsuit seeks to force the Agriculture Department to rewrite its regulations for the program and to block a loan granted last fall to a company in Fairfield. The rival, Local Internet Service Co., was awarded $9.5 million to provide fiber-optic service to Fairfield," reports the Des Moines Register.

At the same time it is being sued for making Internet loans, USDA is considering calls for looser rules on the program. Critics have argued its requirements for applicants are too narrow and automatically eliminate some of the communities most in need of an Internet boost. One rule change being considered would ease a requirement that borrowers have enough cash to cover 20 percent of the requested loan, reports Philip Brasher of the Register's Washington bureau..

The lending program was modeled after the federal program that extended electric service to rural America in the 1930s and 1940s. "The Agriculture Department has approved 57 loans nationwide, including four in Iowa, totaling $872 million," writes Brasher. "A recent report by the Iowa Utilities Board found that 95 percent of Iowa's rural communities had access to high-speed Internet. But the analysts noted that just because there is service in a town doesn't mean that every business or home can get it." (Read more)

Wisconsin governor signs farm co-op bill to boost technology

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle signed economic development legislation Tuesday that will help farm cooperatives raise additional money and pursue large facilities designed to house the latest technology

"By supporting Wisconsin farmers we are growing the rural economy of our state," Doyle said. "Our farming industry is a top priority of my administration. Wisconsin agriculture is on the cutting edge and now is the critical time to move forward with innovation and investment opportunities.

"From new refining facilities for ethanol and biodiesel to innovative cooperative housing developments, this legislation will foster development of cooperative high-tech business ventures in the bio-tech and bio-medical arena," reports the Wisconsin Ag Connection. (Read more)

Rural communities should pool resources to combat poverty, says writer

The inaugural issue of Rural Realities, a publication of the Rural Sociological Society, examines social and economic efforts to provide hope for poor people living in rural America.

"Hurricane Katrina exposed the poverty that lay in our midst, and although the images served to remind the country of its enduring inequality, the picture was one of urban poverty," writes Leif Jensen. "What the images failed to expose is the rural face of poverty, which in the South — and especially in the Delta — is the face of poverty. About one-third of the area hit by Katrina is rural, and the rate of poverty in the rural South stands at nearly 18 percent, the highest of any region in the country. What is too often overlooked is that poverty rates nationwide are consistently higher in rural than in urban areas (as a percentage of the population), and poverty is far more persistent in rural localities."

Limited economic diversity and sparse populations contribute to the problem of poverty in rural areas, and Jensen suggests that communities "pool resources and knowledge and build regional alliances that support innovative economic development activities." Child care and transportation are two areas cited as in need of major improvement. (Read more)

Members of the new publication's editorial board are Walt Armbruster of the Farm Foundation, Frank Boteler of Economic and Community Systems in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Alisha Coleman of Penn State University, Tadlock Cowan of the Congressional Research Service, Al Cross of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, Brian Dabson of the Rural Policy Research Institute, Robert Gibbs of USDA's Economic Research Service, Steve Murdock of the University of Texas- San Antonio, Jim Richardson of the National Rural Funders Collaborative, Louis Swanson of Colorado State University, Rachel Tompkins of the Rural School and Community Trust, and Michelle Worosz of Michigan State University.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Rural areas still lag in broadband use, but aren't as far behind in posting

Rural areas' use of high-speed Internet service is growing virtually as fast as the nation overall -- about 40 percent per year -- but only a fourth of rural adults have broadband at home, according to the latest surbey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. However, rural users account for a larger share of those who post content, illustrating the Internet's utility for overcoming the isolation that defines "rural."

A national survey in the first quarter of 2006 found that 45 percent of adults in cities and suburbs said they had broadband at home, nearly double the 25 percent rate in rural areas. All those figures were about 40 percent higher than in a survey taken in the first quarter of 2005.

There was much less geographic difference among Internet users who say they have posted content online -- shared something they created themselves, including their own Web page or blog. The survey found that 27 percent of rural users had posted content, not far behind the suburbs' 34 percent and cities' 39 percent.

Absence of broadband service from telecommunications companies has been cited as the main reason for the broadband deficit in rural America, but the project's latest report suggests that relatively high prices charged by sole-source providers is also a factor.

"Rural areas are the places with the highest incidence of having one high-speed service available to them," the report says. "Among rural respondents, 35 percent said they did not have more than one high-speed provider available to them, versus 24 percent of non-rural respondents who said this." Those with more than one provider available "said they paid $36 monthly for service. Those who said they did not have more than one provider reported a monthly bill of $38." Satellite broadband service is even more expensive, generally starting at around $50 a month for a relatively slow link. Click here to read the report.

Democracy of Web being threatened by tiered-pricing idea, writer says

"The World Wide Web is the most democratic mass medium there has ever been. Freedom of the press, as the saying goes, belongs only to those who own one. Radio and television are controlled by those rich enough to buy a broadcast license. But anyone with an Internet-connected computer can reach out to a potential audience of billions," opines Adam Cohen for The New York Times.

"Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who invented the Web in 1989, envisioned a platform on which everyone in the world could communicate on an equal basis. But his vision is being threatened by telecommunications and cable companies, and other Internet service providers, that want to impose a new system of fees that could create a hierarchy of Web sites. Major corporate sites would be able to pay the new fees, while little-guy sites could be shut out," continues Cohen.

"Sir Tim, who keeps a low profile, has begun speaking out in favor of 'net neutrality,' rules requiring that all Web sites remain equal on the Web. Corporations that stand to make billions if they can push tiered pricing through have put together a slick lobbying and marketing campaign. But Sir Tim and other supporters of net neutrality are inspiring growing support from Internet users across the political spectrum who are demanding that Congress preserve the Web in its current form."

Cohen concludes, "The companies fighting net neutrality have been waging a misleading campaign, with the slogan 'hands off the Internet,' that tries to look like a grass-roots effort to protect the Internet in its current form. What they actually favor is stopping the government from protecting the Internet, so they can get their own hands on it. But the other side of the debate has some large corporate backers, too, like Google and Microsoft, which could be hit by access fees since they depend on the Internet service providers to put their sites on the Web." (Read more)

Victims' families may be barred from inquiry into Ky. mining disaster

"Kentucky investigators have subpoenaed about two dozen witnesses to appear for interviews, beginning Wednesday, on the May 20 explosion in Harlan County that killed five underground coal miners. But representatives of the miners’ relatives will not be allowed to attend the interviews unless Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s administration intervenes," writes R.G. Dunlop of The Courier-Journal.

The families have no legal right to attend the interviews, but they put in their requests shortly after the explosion at Kentucky Darby Mine No. 1. At least once in the past year, the state permitted a family to participate in interviews after a mining fatality, reports Dunlop.

Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration officials will also not be present for the interviews, which suggests some division between the typically close federal and state investigators. "MSHA investigators last week refused to enter the mine, saying it would not be safe until the operator repaired walled-off areas that hold back potentially dangerous gases. But state investigators did explore the mine at length last week, writes Dunlop. (Read more)

Laws on coal-mine safety again being written with the blood of miners

It's an old, sad story: Coal miners die en masse, and mine-safety laws are strengthened. Now, again.

Bill Estep and Linda Blackford of the Lexington Herald-Leader note the old saying, "Safety laws are written with the blood of miners." Although deaths declined in recent years, this year's national toll sits at 33, the worst in decades. A January disaster at the Sago mine in West Virginia sparked this year's first round of mine-safety debate, which is an issue that has now reached U.S. House and Senate chambers.

"There is a familiar ring, however, to some of the changes adopted and issues being discussed, such as increased air supplies to help trapped underground miners survive until help arrives, quicker mine-rescue response, and the use of certain materials to seal off unused parts of mines. . . . The United Mine Workers of America and others have long pushed for improvements in emergency oxygen supplies available to miners," report Estep and Blackford.

The big question is what will actually be accomplished by the current ongoing safety talks. A previous call for caches of oxygen in mines and other measures got killed by the Bush administration in September 2001, because of budget restraints and changing priorities, note Estep and Blackford. After the Sago explosion, though, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Adminstration issued emergency rules requiring that miners have access to two hours of air, plus extra supplies. The U.S. Senate has approved a bill mandating additional oxygen supplies, but that measure is currently stalled in the House. (Read more)

Kentucky promises closer records check of mine-license applicants

Kentucky officials did not check their records or others to find that a part owner of Kentucky mine where a deadly accident occurred April 20 had a long record of safety violations and federal fines.

"Charles Robert Stump's involvement with Tri Star Coal LLC in Pike County came to light only after a massive slab of rock broke free from the mine roof and crushed 28-year-old David Chad Bolen. State inspectors have concluded that several illegal mining practices caused the fatality at Tri Star, where Stump was a 50 percent owner and identified himself in federal records as being 'in charge of health and safety,'" write R.G. Dunlop and James R. Carroll of The Courier-Journal.

Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet officials are now pledging to review matters more closely when granting mine licenses. New regulations are being drafted that will take into account a licensed company's or operator's "compliance history" with the state. Noncompliance could be punished with revocation or suspension of a mine license, reports The C-J. (Read more)

Big utility wants clean-coal plants; big coal company disagrees

"Coal, the nation's favorite fuel in much of the 19th century and early 20th century, could become so again in the 21st. The United States has enough to last at least two centuries at current use rates — reserves far greater than those of oil or natural gas. And for all the public interest in alternatives like wind and solar power, or ethanol from the heartland, coal will play a far bigger role," reports The New York Times.

That means dealing with the fact that burning coal is one of the largest man-made sources of carbon dioxide and gases responsible for global warming. Coal executives are at odds over how to satisfy energy needs and protect the environment at the same time. Michael G. Morris, who runs American Electric Power, the nation's largest coal burner, embraces technology that heat traps carbon dioxide emissions, but such plants cost 15 to 20 percent more to build. Others are not sold on the technology or cost structure, and "no more than a dozen of the 140 new coal-fired power plants planned in the United States expect to use the new approach," writes Simon Romero.

Morris remains unaffected by such doubts and said, "Leave the science alone for a minute. The politics around climate issues are very real. That's why we need to move on this now." Most industry officials "are not making that bet," writes Romero. (Read more)

Philip Morris entices burley tobacco growers to increase production

When Congress repealed production and price controls on tobacco in 2004, and set aside $10.1 billion to compensate growers for loss of their quotas, tobacco production was expected to decline, and has. But now the leading cigarette manufacturer, Philip Morris USA, is offering incentives to farmers to increase production of burley tobacco, prevalent mainly in Kentucky and Tennessee.

"Agricultural forecasters in March projected burley acreage would drop to 58,000 acres, but that was before [Philip Morris] came out with price incentives to entice its contract leaf growers to boost burley production. The pricing strategy seems to have changed some minds and some predict the incentives have spurred some production," reports Bruce Schreiner of The Associated Press.

Philip Morris' incentives include 3 cents a pound for signing contracts by mid-April and an additional 6 cents once growers deliver the products they promised. Farmers who increase production by 25 percent over last year's contracted pounds will get an additional 30 cents a pound on the additional leaf, but the incentives stop once a farmer reaches 125 percent of last year's contracted pounds. (Read more)

Crackdown on illegal immigrants could hurt rural firefighters' numbers

Immigrants comprise almost half of the roughly 5,000 private firefighters contracted by state and federal governments to fight fires in the largely rural Pacific Northwest, and many may be working illegally.

"A recent report by the inspector general for the U.S. Forest Service said illegal immigrants had been fighting fires for several years. The Forest Service said in response that it would work with immigration and customs enforcement officers and the Social Security Administration to improve the process of identifying violators," writes Kirk Johnson of The New York Times. Oregon now requires that crew leaders have a working command of English.

Some Hispanic contractors say state and federal changes could deter many immigrants, even those working legally, from vying for such jobs. Some forestry workers claim firefighter jobs are vital, and that cracking down on illegals would make it hard to fill positions, reports Johnson. Some fire company owners estimate that illegals account for 10 percent of the firefighting crews. (Read more)

Merrill Lynch says newspapers taking a 'deep, depressing dive'

A new report from Merrill Lynch's Lauren Rich Fine, titled "Deep, Depressing Dive," shows that the newspaper industry's decline may be moving faster than anyone suspected. The two main culprits are the changing media consumption and the migration of classified ads to the web.

Merrill Lynch analyzed classifieds with an estimate of a five-year impact from the shift of the category from print to online. The study states that many ads are moving from print to newspaper Web sites, but it also wonders how many have drifted to competitor sites, writes Jennifer Saba of Editor & Publisher.

Fine sees a $9 billion gap in what the industry brought in from print classified revenue over a 10-year period, and she used the Newspaper Association of America's estimate that newspapers picked up $2 billion in online advertising revenue, reports Saba. She concluded the remaining $7 billion in unaccounted revenue "must then represent loss of share to competitors." Merrill Lynch suggests that maybe newspapers charge too much for online classified ads. (Read more)

Fine says newspapers are "a stinker of an industry, but [we] believe management skill and cash flow reinvestment will prove the distinguishing qualities."

Friday, May 26, 2006

Mine-safety bill stalls in House over attempts to make it stronger

"As Kentucky investigators began to map the site of a fatal blast in a Harlan County mine, the U.S. House failed yesterday to follow the Senate by quickly passing a mine-safety bill. Negotiations broke down over the details of the legislation, including the amount of oxygen supplies for miners and the speed of deployment of communications gear underground," reports James R. Carroll of The Courier-Journal.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., tried to strengthen the bill by requiring two days' oxygen supply instead of two hours and "put communication and tracking devices in mines within 15 months, instead of no later than three years," but Republicans objected, Carroll reports. Miller was "putting politics ahead of the safety of our miners," claimed Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, R-Ky., whose district includes the mine where five miners died Saturday. Miller said his measures "are all easily done if people have the will to do them."

Miller's amendment also would have required the Mine Safety and Health Administration to inspect breathing devices used by miners, the reliability of which were questioned in the explosion that killed 12 miners in West Virginia in January. The United Mine Workers threatened yesterday to sue to force such inspections, but said it opposed Miller's amendment because the House had "a rare opportunity" to pass a major mine-safety bill quickly, without going through the committee process. (Read more)

A New York Times editorial, apparently written before the House failed to act, said, "Mandates for such obvious necessities as extra oxygen supplies for trapped miners languished after an initial burst of concern over the disaster in January that killed 12 miners in Sago, W.Va. . . . The sad truth is that safety equipment and rescue procedures have been scandalously neglected for years under company-friendly regulations that have been laxly enforced by government agencies stocked with political appointees who have come from the coal industry. . . . The Senate bill only begins to repair the problem. But it is preferable to pro-industry proposals in the House to require drug testing for miners — as if the victims, not government and industry, were to blame for miners' highest death rate in 20 years." (Read more)

Chill out: Electric utilities worry coal supply short for cooling customers

Summertime is coming soon, if not already here, and electric utilities are dealing with whether there will be enough coal on hand to handle high power use -- putting more pressure on coal mines to produce.

"With at least a few utilities unable to get enough coal shipped by rail, some are resorting to extreme measures -- even importing it. . . . It's more than a little ironic: Even though the U.S. guzzles imported oil by the tanker load, it is often called the 'Saudi Arabia of coal,' with enough domestic reserves to last centuries. But getting America's abundant coal to where it is most needed is a growing challenge for power companies -- and the railroads that supply them," reports The Christian Science Monitor.

Not only have rising natural-gas prices caused companies to burn cheaper coal faster than expected, but derailments and other railroad problems have created small coal stockpiles throughout the Midwest and South, writes Mark Clayton. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will discuss such concerns at a hearing Thursday. (Read more)

Digital cell phones leave rural folks with poorer reception

The Federal Communications Commission gave cell-phone companies a December 2005 deadline to switch 95 percent of their customers to digital phones to help emergency dispatchers locate callers, but rural Montanans are failing to see the improvement because of poor reception and a lack of 9-1-1 dispatch centers with the right equipment.

"In Great Falls and other cities there are enough digital towers to blanket most areas. But rural Montana's reception is still far behind that in metropolitan areas, where market forces are driving the digital conversion independent of the FCC's mandate," writes Karen Ogden of the Great Falls Tribune. In the analog days, reliable service stretched up to 30 to 45 miles from a cell phone tower, which is now reduced to 12 to 14 miles with digital phones. Cell phone companies shy away from building new towers at a price of $250,000 because of the lack of rural customers.

In metro locations, the switch from analog to digital phones is clearly beneficial to residents, Ogden reports. In cities with several cell phone towers, a digital phone connects with just a few towers, whereas analog phones connected with many and used valuable network space. Digital phones also support wireless Internet that analog phones did not. This story may be purchased in the newspaper's archives section by clicking here.

Survey says: States should prohibit cell phone use among drivers

Rural America is increasingly populated by commuters, many of which brandish cell phones, and a new survey indicates most people would support states banning people from talking while driving.

"Two-thirds of the respondents (65 percent) said state governments should pass laws banning driving and cell phone use, and 29 percent said they did not want such a law. In addition, 88 percent said that a police officer should write on an incident report if a driver used a cell phone when an accident occurred," reports Newswise, a research-reporting service.

The findings, released this month by the University of Michigan, are in a report that examined public attitudes toward cell phones and other information technology tools in the U.S. The survey was funded by a grant from the Constance F. and Arnold C. Pohs Endowment at Michigan. (Read more)

Texas drivers to hit 80 mph in 10 rural counties; highest limit in U.S.

"Yeehaw! Texans who brag they do things bigger and better are about to go faster too. State transportation officials on Thursday boosted speed limits on two stretches of rural highway from 75 mph to 80, leaving wandering armadillos and feral hogs a split-second less time to avoid becoming roadkill. It will be the highest posted speed limit in the country," reports The Associated Press.

Safety and energy conservation advocates are concerned about the new speed limit causing more traffic fatalities and draining drivers' wallets during an age of high gas prices. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that gas mileage decreases quickly after 60 mph, and its estimates that every 5 mph over 60 costs drivers an extra 20 cents per gallon, reports AP.

The new speed will affect 10 mostly rural counties in West Texas: a 432-mile stretch of Interstate 10 between El Paso and Kerrville, and 89 miles of Interstate 20 between Monahans and the I-10 interchange near the Jeff Davis Mountains. Congress set a national 55 mph speed limit in the 1970s but later abolished it in 1995. Thirteen states currently have roads with speed limits of 75 or higher, notes AP. (Read more)

Auto-racing deaths continue in small towns where regulations lacking

Car racing officials are knee deep in efforts to improve the sport's safety, but deaths continue to occur in small towns where tracks do not require drivers to wear life-saving head-and-neck restraints.

"That safety effort hasn't trickled down in all racing organizations to protect the thousands of drivers and fans at racing's lower levels. The racing industry is broken up into dozens of governing bodies besides NASCAR, as well as track owners who operate independently," write David Scott and Gary Schwab of the Charlotte Observer. "In most of the weekly racing divisions that run weekend nights in small towns across the country, safety standards are left to individual track owners. Major changes sometimes happen only after a fatal accident."

Last year, 21 people died at race tracks including 16 drivers, two spectators, a navigator in a car, a crew member and a flagman, which comes in under the average of 23 deaths a year since 1990. When 40 deaths occurred in 2001, an Observer investigation showed fatalities are not isolated or rare as the industry believed. This year, five people have died at race tracks, up from two at this time a year ago, report Scott and Schwab. (Read more)

No state meeting 'highly qualified' teacher rule of No Child Left Behind

No state is expected to meet the original deadline for putting a “highly qualified” teacher in every core-subject classroom, federal officials announced last week.

"Nine states, along with Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, face losing federal money because of foot-dragging, the officials said. But those jurisdictions could also get off with agreeing to changes in the way they have been defining or tallying teachers’ status under the No Child Left Behind Act. The states are Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Washington," writes Bess Keller of Education Week. Many rural states struggle to attract teachers with the same qualifications as those in urban areas, because they lack the money to make salaries competitive.

The federal education law set the 100 percent goal for the end of this school year, but states are now being asked to plan to reach that goal by the end of the 2006-2007 school year. Thus far, 29 states have made adequate progress complying with the law’s procedures and do not face penalties, the federal officials said. The remaining 12 states are still being assessed, reports Keller.

Federal officials wants states to have "at least as many effective teachers in schools serving poor and minority students as in wealthier schools, which tend to draw better-prepared and more-experienced teachers," writes Keller. (Read more)

Rural North Carolina county asks farmers to preserve land for 10 years

A rural county southeast of Asheville, N.C., is a prime example of a how a local farm economy is trying to co-exist with a wave of tourism-induced residential growth.

In Polk County, a rich agriculture history is colliding with the pressures created by residential growth. "Each year the area is a little less rural and a little more suburban, and owners of farmland are faced with the choice of hanging on to their land or selling for a potentially large sum to a developer," writes Chris Dailey of the Tyron Daily Bulletin -- "The world's smallest daily," printed on 8.5-by-11-inch paper.

Since farmland is typically sold to developers, Polk County officials are taking steps to preserve the remaining farmland with a new farmland preservation ordinance. Farmers have to sign up to preserve their farms for a minimum of 10 years. Proponents of the ordinance argue that farmland boosts the economy by demanding many agriculture services, such as fertilizer and fencing, and it requires little government services. Some county officials say more precautionary measures may be needed, though, because the constant influx of new residents represents a threat that will not disappear, reports Dailey.

Gerald Harbinson, who works closely with area farmers as the district conservationist for the state Division of Soil and Water Conservation, described what attracts people to the county: “Most people come here because it’s rural and pretty and has low taxes. But the problem is that the more people who come here the more impact it has on the land and the more property taxes are going to go up.”

Some residents oppose creating zoning requirements to preserve the county's rural landscape. Polk County High School agriculture teacher Chauncey Barber, who has spearheaded the creation of an educational farm at the school, says "it’s better to have conservation easements on land than to rely on agriculture zoning districts. He says he’s seen how in some metropolitan areas the agriculture zoning district is quickly scrapped as soon as a developer shows up with big plans," writes Dailey. (Read more)

Residents petition to block ethanol plant in rural South Dakota

Many ethanol plants are being built with bundles of small investments from farmers and others in small, ural communities, but now a grassroots effort is taking shape in rural Aberdeen, S.D., to fight the construction of a proposed ethanol plant.

Glacial Lakes Energy, based in Watertown, S.D., wants to build a $140 million plant, but neighbors are collecting signatures to appeal a planning commission's decision to recommend that land be rezoned from agricultural to heavy industrial. The Brown County Commission will have to make a final decision on whether to grant the change, writes Jackie Burke of American News in Aberdeen.

The neighbors in the city 100 miles southeast of Bismarck, N.D., plan to submit the application of appeal to the commission on Tuesday, and organizers say they would like a vote held on the matter, reports Burke. (Read more)

Students use John Deere's colors as their class colors in rural N.D.

High school graduates in Rocklake, N.D., took their love of John Deere products to a new level by voting to use the company's green and yellow as its class colors.

"This is farming country. We went full-fledged on the farming theme. Pretty much everyone voted for it," senior class president Casie Martin told The Associated Press, adding six of the 10 graduates are girls. "Most of the girls are big John Deere fans. . . . Four of the six girls had class pictures taken with a John Deere tractor."

Some seniors created graduation announcements with the phrase "Got-R-Done," a play on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour co-founder Larry the Cable Guy's catch phrase "Get-R-Done," notes AP. (Read more)

FCC to investigate video press releases masquerading as news

"Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin ordered a probe of dozens of television stations after a report found they aired advertisements as if they were news reports, people familiar with the inquiry said," Neil Roland of Bloomberg News reports. Martin, a Republican, responded to a request from Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein in the wake of recent research.

The Center for Media and Democracy, based in Madison, Wis., said in April that it found "at least 77 stations, including seven each owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. and Tribune Co., ignored an FCC warning to disclose sponsors," Roland writes. Each violation carries a maximum fine of $32,500, up to a maximum of $325,000 if violations occur for 10 or more days. Sinclair, which has many rural viewers, said its policy is to disclose sources of such promotional material; Tribune declined immediate comment.

"The FCC warned TV stations in April 2005 they may be fined for airing news stories provided by the government and companies without disclosing who made them. The agency had received complaints about the use of videos provided by the Bush administration about topics including military success in Iraq," Roland reports. "Since then, 69 stations have aired video news releases and eight showed satellite media tours, which involve a scripted interview with an author or expert promoting a product such as a book."

Diane Farsetta, a researcher for the Center, said TV stations are using video news releases because they are under pressure to keep up with cable-TV networks but lack the staff to do their own stories. "Station managers have said they are turning to provided media because they can't afford to do all the news on their own," Farsetta told Bloomberg News. (Read more)

Newspaper companies confront the future with Web sites, niche pubs

As the newspaper industry wades through murky waters, some companies are seeing Web sites and niche publications as keys to overcoming circulation woes. However, not all are ready to embrace that future.

"For years, newspapers have treated innovation like a trip to the dentist — a torture to be endured, not encouraged. True, newspapers finally got around to adding color. They shrank stories, hoping that pithier, flashier fare would help attract young people who don't like to read. They spruced up the front page by sprinkling uplifting, maudlin or otherwise titillating features amid the news. But bold new thinking about the newspaper and a world of opportunities beyond it? Please. Tell the dentist to add a veneer and leave the rotting core alone," writes Rachel Smolkin of American Journalism Review.

"Now that's all changing, of necessity. Circulation is falling; newsprint costs are rising; retail, auto and movie advertising is slumping; classified advertising is available free on craigslist and other online venues. . . . An emerging weltanschauung sees newspapers as the engine driving a myriad of products — from Web sites to free commuter tabloids to Spanish-language publications — that can lure additional audience (those folks we used to call readers) and reinvigorate listless advertising," continues Smolkin. Last September, the American Press Institute started a yearlong initiative called Newspaper Next, which aims to offer industry leaders guidance. (Read more)

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Mine safety expert sees dark pattern; Senate responds to disasters

Last Saturday's Kentucky mine disaster is just one step in an "ominous" pattern that must be stopped before it gets larger, said a former mine safety chief who is also leading the inquiry into the Sago disaster.

"You've had three explosions in three separate mines," said J. Davitt McAteer, who ran the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration for seven years during the Clinton administration and is now a vice president at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. "One explosion does not make a pattern, but three does. This is not an academic exercise -- you're talking about real people." The Jan. 2 explosion at Sago killed 12 men, the Jan. 19 fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine in Melville, W.Va., killed two miners, and Saturday's blast in Harlan County, Kentucky, killed five, write Linda Blackford and Lee Mueller of the Lexington Herald-Leader. (Read more)

The string of fatalaties seems to be prompting action by Congress. The Senate voted yesterday to toughen mine-safety laws. "The bill gives Labor Secretary Elaine Chao the power to: Shut down mines that ignore safety orders; boost penalties for safety violations to a maximum of $250,000; and require additional oxygen supplies for miners underground," writes James R. Carroll of The Courier-Journal's Washington bureau, who is following the issue closely. (Read more)

The Harlan Daily Enterprise took a local angle with this investigation story by writing about and picturing Ronnie Hampton, supervisor of the Harlan division of the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing. His rescue team worked to recover the five men killed in the Darby Mine No. 1 explosion, writes Jennifer McDaniels, who also took this photo of Hampton for the Enterprise. (Read more)

Virginians hold anti-mountaintop removal meetings, call for abolition

After years of scattered protests, followed by a year or so of national publicity, Appalachian residents and activists are gathering to devise strategies on how to fight "mountaintop removal and steep-slope mining" in cities and counties throughout the Virginia coalfields, reports The Coalfield Progress of Norton, Va.

One meeting in Stephens, Va., included such complaints as the Glamorgan Coal Resources’ Unity surface mine, preparation plant and loadout is saturating the community with mud, dust and noise. Bill McCabe, a Tennessee-based organizer for the Sierra Club, told the concerned residents that surface mining practices “simply not acceptable. They are not the way to treat the earth. We need to come together to protect the families and protect the homes of Appalachia.”

Coal is found in a small areaof Virginia, along the borders with Kentucky and southern West Virginia, Residents from all areas of the Old Dominion are being urged to send Gov. Tim Kaine’s office pre-printed yellow postcards that include three demands: Change surface mine laws to prohibit blasting within at least 1,500 feet of any structure, instead of the current 300 feet; prohibit strip mining or coal traffic between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.; and abolish mountaintop removal and all other forms of steep-slope strip mining, writes Jeff Lester of the Progress. (Read more)

Kentucky fifth-graders plant chestnuts on land hurt by surface mining

One-hundred fifth-graders from Johns Creek Elementary School recently traveled to the top of Bent Mountain in Pikeville, Ky., to reclaim land leveled by surface mining and to plant 300 American chestnut trees, according to a press release from the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

Blight all but erased the tree from the mountains in the early 1900s, but research and breeding led to a blight-resistant variety. “There was a saying that the chestnut was so much a part of the Appalachian culture that they used it from the cradle to the grave,” said Rex Mann, president of the Kentucky Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation. “When we lost that tree we lost a part of our culture. Now we have the knowledge and the science to restore that tree and that’s a great thing for eastern Kentucky.”

Don Graves, a professor in the UK forestry department, said he hopes that the fifth-graders learned that they played an important part in reclaiming Kentucky’s strip mines. “Surface mines furnish 50 percent of all of the power in the United States and about 80 or 90 percent in the state of Kentucky. This is their lights. This is their computers. This is everything that they deal with on a daily basis and it’s not necessarily bad to do. We can put it back in a way that will be suitable for all of the people living there from now on.”

Nebraska's ban on local broadband criticized by study, paper, candidate

Local governments were recently barred from offering broadband Internet service in Nebraska, but a new study says the state should lift the ban to help residents saddled with slow, dial-up connections

"The report from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University law school said the Legislature should allow local governments and public utilities to offer broadband service. The 2006 Legislature enacted a measure, signed by Governor Dave Heineman, that bars all cities, towns, public utilities, and other public entities in Nebraska from providing retail telecommunications services of any kind, including broadband Internet access," reports the Nebraska StatePaper.com. (Read more)

The Lincoln Journal Star recently championed broadband in an editorial: "The quickest way to make that vital service available to businesses and consumers in rural areas of the state is to allow publicly owned utilities and locally owned governments to provide it. . . . The phone company’s main argument — that government should not compete with the private sector — has undeniable appeal. The trouble with their argument is that strict reliance on the private sector means Nebraska businesses and consumers are on the outside looking in, condemned to slow, dial-up Internet access. The private sector is not providing broadband. Because government and publicly owned utilities have been blocked by legislation, that means that that no one is providing the service." (Read more)

Democratic candidate for governor David Hahn wants the ban lifted, reports Southwest Nebraska News. "The widespread provision of Internet technology is vital to support our education and health care systems, and that we need to obtain significant, prosperous, and wide-spread growth in the years ahead," he said. "We should develop a broadband information infrastructure that will support Nebraska's urban and rural economy and that we will be proud to hand off to future generations." (Read more)

To read additional coverage of the new report by Nancy Hicks of the Lincoln Journal Star, click here.

Rural states finish last in new report on broadband penetration

A recently-released report confirms a long-standing and often-reported problem: rural states are lagging behind in the race for broadband Internet access.

According to Broadband Across the US, a recent report from the Leichtman Research Group, the bottom five states in residential broadband penetration were Mississippi, South Dakota, North Dakota, Kentucky and Montana. The top five were Connecticut, New Jersey, Hawaii, Massachusetts and California. The full report may be posted at this Web site.

Rural residents can no longer get some 'local' TV via satellite, says court

"A federal appeals court late Tuesday dealt a setback to EchoStar Communications in its fight with network-affiliated stations over whose signals the second-largest U.S. satellite-television provider can carry. The court ordered EchoStar to stop providing signals from distant network affiliate stations to customers who can receive over-the-air broadcasts from nearby sister affiliates," reports TVWeek.com.

This ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta has implications for rural areas near the borders of the officially defined TV markets. For example, Leslie and Letcher counties in the Eastern Kentucky mountains are officially in the Tri-Cities market but lots of satellite viewers there would like to get (and may be getting from EchoStar) Lexington stations.

"In a series of lawsuits over the past several years, the broadcasters have alleged that EchoStar was violating a copyright law that bars satellite TV companies from providing distant affiliates' signals that would compete with local affiliates' over-the-air transmissions. The affiliates claimed that EchoStar had been delivering distant network signals to hundreds of thousands of ineligible homes," writes Doug Halonen. (Read more) For The Associated Press story, click here.

Switchgrass shines as potential alternative for ethanol production

"Centuries ago the prairies of the USA were covered with native grasses such as bluestem, buffalograss, Indiangrass and switchgrass. With the advent of intensive agriculture virtually all of these native grasses became very scarce. They revived in the late 1980s with the introduction of the Conservation Reserve Program which took millions of acres of marginal farmland and converted it back into a more natural setting," opines Jack Schultz in his Boomtown USA blog.

"Recently switchgrass has been discussed as a potential alternative for the production of ethanol. The biomass created from the very tall grass is viewed as being more similar to the production of alcohol, made from sugarcane, which has allowed Brazil to become self sufficient in energy production," continues Schultz. "[A recent] test produced almost 20 million kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to run 1,850 average homes for a year. It also set a world record for electricity production from switchgrass."

"You’re going to be hearing a lot more about switchgrass in the future. One recent study showed that SD had enough biomass potential to produce 1/3 of the energy that is produced in Saudi Arabia," concludes Schultz, a consultant to small-town economic developers.

Whether you call ’em morel ’shrooms or ‘dry land fish,’ hunters want ’em

Mushroom hunters are moving fast to snatch up morels, which many rural folks call "dry land fish" -- probably because morels are often breaded and fried just like fish.

In his latest Morning Meeting column for the Poynter Institute, Western Kentucky native Al Tompkins describes this craze: "I have heard of people who hunted for mushrooms -- but now I hear that those folks are actually eating (not smoking) the things. Last week, during the Reporting for Public Radio seminar I led here at Poynter, I listed to a wonderful story about whole groups of people who spend the weekends looking for mushrooms."

Beth Gauper of the St. Paul Pioneer Press has perhaps provided the most descriptive narrative about this hunting phenomenon: "Deep down, every morel hunter believes in divine providence. There's nothing so providential as baskets overflowing with morels, and the taste is so divine hunters dream about it all winter. In spring, they offer a fervent prayer to the mushroom gods: May the fungus be among us. Morels do taste heavenly. But it's the hunt that's so addictive, not the mushroom itself. For one thing, it's fun to find something for free that's so expensive in stores and restaurants, and it's fun to beat the odds by finding something so notoriously elusive." (Read more)

Click here for a story on this obsession for some by National Public Radio. Also, for all the information you ever wanted on this subject, visit the National Morel Mushroom Hunters Association.

New livestock regulations would ignore call for organic management

A proposal for new federal organic livestock regulations does not close loopholes that allow some factory-scale dairy farms in western states to bring into their milk herd new animals raised with antibiotics, hormones, and genetically engineered feed produced with toxic pesticides, according to an eMedia Wire report used by the New Hampshire Agriculture Department in its Weekly Market Bulletin.

The proposal ignores recommendations endorsed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's own expert advisory panel, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). That board passed recommendations in 2002 and 2003 that all animals being brought into such farms had to be under organic management at least for the last three months of pregnancy. The industry’s dominant milk marketer, Dean Foods, and the Organic Trade Association, an industry lobby group, have tried to delay the implementation of such recommendations, reports eMedia Wire. To contact the Weekly Market Bulletin, click here.

Small-town orchestra of lawyers, teachers creates musical mecca in Mo.

A musical mecca is shining in the rural community of Marshall, Mo., with nearby doctors, lawyers, teachers, housewives, retirees or third-shift workers flocking to the city of 12,000 residents to be part of the Marshall Philharmonic Orchestra.

The philharmonic just finished its 43rd year, such outfits actually date back to 1871, and residents have paid a one-tenth of a cent "band tax" to support community music for the last 72 years, reports Alan Scher Zagier of the Columbia, Mo., bureau of The Associated Press. Performances once took place in participants' living rooms before moving to a middle-school stage.

"A half-dozen times each year, the symphony entertains locals with selections by Bach, Mozart and the like, or in the case of its late April finale, a pops program featuring the works of Jerome Kern, Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein and other American composers," writes Zagier. (Read more)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Statewide and local weeklies in West Virginia agree to share news

The State Journal, a statewide weekly based in Charleston, W. Va., will share news with two local weeklies, the Parsons Advocate in Tucker County and the Moorefield Examiner in Hardy County.

In an e-mail interview, Parsons Advocate Editor Chris Stadelman explained the agreement: "Essentially, we have permission to use any stories or columns from The State Journal, and they have the same right with any of our stories. Theirs are available from their Web site, and they let me know if they see anything they would like to pick up, and I e-mail it to them. I also e-mail them stories I think they might be interested in."

Dan Page, the editor and publisher of The State Journal, is a long-time acquaintance of Stadelman and approached him with the idea for a non-exclusive agreement, meaning the Parsons Advocate can still share information and run stories from other newspapers. The news-sharing agreement benefits the Parsons Advocate in a big way. "From our perspective, they're able to do reporting that we just don't have the time and staff to do," wrote Stadelman, a former employee of The Associated Press and former managing editor of the Charleston Daily Mail.

Mine survivor told investigators breathing device worked, sources say

Contrary to earlier reports, the sole survivor of Saturday's mine disaster in Eastern Kentucky has told investigators that his self-rescue device gave him oxygen "throughout his ordeal," James R. Carroll of The (Louisville) Courier-Journal reports this morning, citing unnamed "sources close to the investigation."

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials said likewise on Monday, but yesterday "would not comment on Ledford's account," Carroll writes. (Read more) Miner Paul Ledford's brother had told reporters over the weekend that his brother's self-rescuer "had failed after approximately five minutes. The units are designed to supply oxygen for one hour," writes Brandon Goins in the Harlan Daily Enterprise. (Read more) Reports of the brother's account raised concerns among miners and their families.

Also yesterday, Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher said the primary explosion that led to the deaths of five miners appeared to have been caused by methane, not coal dust. "Some have speculated that coal dust was the problem because of the explosion's force, which traveled out to the mine's entry," note Linda Blackford and Bill Estep in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"But a methane explosion puts more suspicion on alternative seals used to block off unused parts of mines to prevent gases like methane from moving into active areas," the Herald-Leader reports. "Fletcher, who arrived in Evarts yesterday afternoon to meet with the miners' families, said three of these foam seals were blown out in Kentucky Darby No. 1 mine." (Read more)

Anniston Star tells human story of demise of Alabama textile industry

Metropolitan daily newspapers give regular coverage to the human effects of shriveling industries, but such stories can be well told in rural and community newspapers, as a feature story in the Anniston (Ala.) Star, circulation 25,000, shows.

Alabama, the heart of cotton country, is losing its textile industry. A recent announcement that Avondale Mills will close July 25 means about 2,000 of Alabama’s remaining textile workers must find new work. This comes 11 years after the Standard Coosa Thatcher mill closed in Piedmont and took with it 700 jobs from a once-flourishing textile industry in the state, reports Crystal Jarvis of the Star.

"Textile industries once were emblematic as a way of life for the South. They were a boon for rural towns that had few job opportunities, which gave the mills the chance to orchestrate their employees’ lives. The factories provided homes to rent in mill villages, activities including church and baseball, and company stores where employees could buy groceries," writes Jarvis.

When such plants close, rural residents are left with few options for work, reports Jarvis. “Over the past 10 years (Alabama) lost close to 60,000 jobs and Georgia lost 100,000 jobs,” said Ahmad Ijaz, economist for The Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama. “That’s one problem — the plants are located in rural areas and they don’t have that many job opportunities available.” Access to this newspaper's site is limited, but you can get a free trial by clicking here.

Programs for agriculture conservation and value-added grants face cuts

U.S. House appropriators approved $104 million in agricultural funding cuts last week for fiscal year 2007, and the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee plans to act on the issue after Memorial Day.

Agriculture programs facing cuts include the Conservation Security Program, which will receive $280 million, a reduction of $92 million from the amount in the 2002 Farm Bill; and the Value-Added Producer Grants program, which will get $28 million, a cut of $12 million. The two cuts were cited in an e-mail aler from the Center for Rural Affairs, an advocacy group asking people to contact their legislators.

The Conservation Security Program provides financial and technical assistance to help farmers and ranchers implement conservation systems and practices to improve soil, water, and ecosystem health. The Value Added Producer Grant program provides money to groups of farmers and ranchers for farm and food-related businesses that will bolster incomes, create jobs, and increase rural economic opportunity.

Bay Area exurb exerts a 'Herculean' effort to keep out a Wal-Mart

The Supreme Court said last year that governments could condemn private property for private use, raising hackles across the ideological spectrum. Now, the Hercules, Calif., City Council is using eminent domain to block a Wal-Mart development in the community 25 miles northeast of San Francisco.

"Tuesday's council action raises the specter that a small-town government, bolstered by a grass-roots residents' campaign, could run the world's largest retailer out of town. That potential spectacle galvanized first regional, then national media organizations in the days preceding Tuesday's meeting," writes Tom Lochner of the Contra Costa Times.

Wal-Mart announced on April 1 a proposal for a 99,000-square-foot store with a grocery located within the 171/4-acre future Bayside Marketplace. That conflicts with a 2003 development agreement with previous owner, the Lewis Group, for a neighborhood shopping center with a maximum store size of 64,000 square feet, reports Lochner.

A Wal-Mart attorney told the council it would be "wrong" to use "government's most awesome power." Lochner writes, "A possible takeover of Wal-Mart's property by Hercules throws the traditional eminent-domain dynamic on its head. The popular view of eminent domain, accurate or not, is one of a city dispossessing small homeowners, often on behalf of a large corporation. But in Hercules, it would be small-town residents and their council dispossessing the corporation." (Read more)

Another Ky. high school ordered not to sponsor prayer at graduation

No formal prayer will occur during the graduation ceremony at Shelby County High School in Kentucky, following the second student complaint filed in one week over such practices in the state.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky wrote a letter on behalf of a Muslim student demanding the prayer not take place because it would violate the constitutional ban on state-sponsored religion, and the school has also agreed not to hold traditional prayers at a banquet and an awards ceremony, reports Peter Smith of The Courier-Journal. The Supreme Court has ruled that student-led prayers at football games and clergy-led prayers at graduations are unconstitutional. (Read more)

"But whether that decision means there will be no prayer is another question. Last Friday at Russell County High School, after a court ordered a student who had been designated to pray not to do so, students rose on their own and recited the Lord's Prayer during the principal's remarks. And the student who'd been designated to lead the prayer included religious messages in her remarks," writes Smith.

CBS to sell 30-plus small-market radio stations, one-fifth of its portfolio

CBS is planning to sell 32 to 35 radio stations in smaller markets, representing about 20 percent of its 179-station portfolio, and says it does not plan to purchase new media properties. Instead, CBS will give money from the sales to its investors, which means purchasing open-market shares of CBS to bolster outstanding shares of the company, reports Wayne Friedman of MediaDailyNews.

The report did not specify the markets where stations would be sold. Also, contrary to industry rumors, CBS said it will not try to purchase the growing Spanish-language broadcaster Univision. (Read more)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Texas weekly gives voice to residents' cry for high-speed Internet

Residents of Wilson County, Texas, want high-speed Internet, but they must rely on Verizon, a telephone company that does not wish to invest in such equipment just 30 miles southeast of San Antonio. And the weekly Wilson County News is writing about it, in a kind of story usually found in metro dailies but of increasing interest in rural areas.

Many residents in Wilson County opt for satellite Internet providers, which are more expensive than Verizon's service. What troubles many residents is that rural communities near big cities sometimes get left in the cold by big companies. "While many residents in the area may feel like they are between a rock and a hard place, others who have plans to move to the area are a bit wary," writes Holly Mutz.

In addition to no high-speed Internet, residents tell Mutz that Verizon's phone service is also lacking. "The problem is not just with Verizon not providing DSL service to the county," Eagle Creek resident Jeff Quillin. "We were having problems with our home phone and the Verizon technician that came out said the existing lines in the Eagle Creek area were overloaded and causing some problems." (Read more)

Ethanol demand creates profit for corn farmers, but risky stock market

Ethanol, a byproduct of corn, is being lauded as a key alternative fuel, which is benefiting farmers and encouraging investors to play the risky game of stocks.

Shares of Pacific Ethanol Inc., a California-based company, rose from $10 in January to $40 per share by May. Shares of Ohio-based Andersons Inc., jumped from $40 to $120 during the same period. However, potential shareholders should take note, because both companies' stocks have fallen in recent weeks. "U.S. ethanol production is heavily subsidized, which exposes undiversified firms to huge risk if the subsidies are removed, analysts say. These are relatively small, almost one-product companies that carry a lot of risk for investors," writes Will Deener of The Dallas Morning News. (Read more)

At the same time, farm companies are flourishing because of the big demand for ethanol. John Deere Co. stocks are up 40 percent to 50 percent based on the fact that the rising demand for ethanol will push corn prices higher. Farmers will benefit because 2.2 billion bushels will be used this year to make ethanol, up 34 percent from 2005. Also, the price of corn per bushel is $2.50, up from a $1.95 last year, reports Deener.

‘Synfuel’ plants shut down due to rising diesel costs, lay off workers

Rising oil and diesel-fuel prices are shutting down many of the nation’s coal “synfuel” plants that took a low-tech advantage of a tax break designed for a higher-tech industry. As a result, hundreds of workers are without jobs in rural Alabama, Kentucky and West Virginia. Meanwhile, Congress debates whether to continue the tax credits that have "put billions of dollars ... in the hands of a few companies," writes Paul Nyden of The Charleston Gazette.

The 1980 credits were designed to encourage gasification and liquefaction of coal, and development of expensive energy sources such as oil shale. Those getting the credit must make “chemical changes” to an original source of energy, but all most synfuel plants do is spray coal with diesel fuel or pine-tar emulsion, Nyden notes. The tax credits decline as oil prices rise. "In recently filed reports to investors and reports filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the three companies cited rising diesel fuel costs as the reason for suspending operation of their once-profitable synfuel plants," Nyden reports.

"Today, there are 55 synfuel facilities around the nation," Nyden writes. "Most large synfuel operations are owned by electric utilities, including Progress Energy, DTE Energy Co. and TECO Energy Inc. Other companies, including Marriott International, have also benefited from the tax credits related to synthetic fuel production." Progress Energy, based in Raleigh, N.C., has stopped synfuel production at five plants, which will affect 120 to 130 employees in the West Virginia cities of Cyrus, Ceredo and Quincy and along the Big Sandy River in Eastern Kentucky. Last week, DTE Energy, based in Detroit, announced it was closing nine synfuel plants in West Virginia, Kentucky and Alabama. Those plants employed 150 workers, Nyden reports. "Synfuel Solutions Operating LLC, which operates three synfuel plants, shut down its facility near the Warrior Mine Complex in Hopkins County, Ky. on April 23. SSO might also close coal synfuel plants near Virginia Electric and Power Company’s Mount Storm power plant in Garrett County, Md., and its facility near the Gibson County Coal Complex in Gibson County, Ind., according to a recent SEC filing." (Read more)

Coal company listens to Ky. residents, decides against 390-acre fill

When residents of Letcher County, Kentucky, spoke out against a proposed 390-acre fill area for a mountaintop-removal coal mine, the local newspaper took notice, the citizens' voices were heard, and the coal company changed its plans.

Last night, Thurman Holcomb, general manager of Cumberland River Coal Co., said his company will file a revised permit request that no longer calls for the fill. The announcement came before a packed house during a special meeting of the Fiscal Court, the county legislative body, reports William Farley of The Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg, Ky.

Holcomb told the court his company wants to be a good neighbor, and will haul mined rock and dirt from to another hollowfill approximately 8,000 feet away. The new mining plan will also put off mining near the Franks Creek site for about two years, reports Farley. Judge/Executive Carroll Smith said the meeting was a "good exercise in democracy." (This article is not available online.)

Urban sprawl gets bad rap because of water, traffic myths, says writer

"With the explosion of growth dramatically reshaping Northern Colorado, residents often are mistaken about how it actually affects them. Often, people have the impression that the urban areas eat up all the resources, cause the traffic jams and bring about general community ills. But that is not always the case," writes Alicia Beard of The Daily Reporter in Loveland.

Beard proceeds to debunk three myths: apartment complexes, or high-density housing, create more traffic jams than single-family residences; residential developments are the biggest drains on the state's water supply; and high-density housing and commercial developments lower property values. For the first myth, Beard writes, "Actually, neighborhoods with houses cause more traffic on a unit-to-unit basis than apartments or condos do." A 2003 Institute of Transportation Engineers report stated houses produce 1.05 traffic trips during the weekday drive home, but an apartment creates only 0.62 trips.

As for water supplies, Beard reports that irrigated cropland actually uses more water than urban sprawl. Also, any drain on property values will more than likely come from aesthetic appearances rather than the presence of apartments or businesses. (Read more)

Forum Communications CEO nabs North Dakota's 'Rough Rider' award

Forum Communications President and CEO Bill Marcil is the latest recipient of North Dakota's highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award.

Marcil, publisher of the Fargo Forum (circ. 51,000), is the 35th recipient of the Rough Rider Award. Past recipients include big band conductor Lawrence Welk and famed baseball player Roger Maris. Marcil, who became the Forum's publisher in 1969, transformed the family-owned chain into a strong regional chain that owns newspapers, radio and television stations, commercial printing plants, and online ventures in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, notes Editor & Publisher. (Read more)

Calif. editor resigns after ethics investigation; third exit in three years

Managing Editor Richard Luna has left the Ventura County Star less than two years after arriving, and just days after parent company E.W. Scripps Co. concluded an investigation into his violation of the company's ethics code.

Publisher Tim Gallagher said the investigation by Mary E. Minser, Scripps' director of employee relations, "found no further violations of Scripps ethical policy." Star officials said Luna had been disciplined for pressuring a sports reporter for credentials to attend the NCAA championship basketball game in Indianapolis in April. "Luna did not cover the game, and, according to the paper, sought credentials for other games that, in the end, he did not attend," writes Mark Fitzgerald of Editor & Publisher.

This is the third time Luna has left a newspaper abruptly, following a departure from the metro editor position at the Detroit News in 2004, and an exit from the managing editor position at the Indianapolis Star the previous year, reports Fitzgerald. (Read more) The Rural Blog last reported on this investigation May 2. Click here for the archived item.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Disaster raises questions about oxygen, coal dust, pressure to produce

"Three of the five Harlan County miners killed in an explosion early Saturday probably survived the blast but died later of carbon monoxide poisoning, preliminary autopsy reports showed yesterday. Angry relatives of the dead men called for miners' oxygen supplies to be improved," reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Last week, a U.S. Senate committee approved legislation to "require mining companies to increase oxygen supplies inside mines, improve tracking systems and rewrite rescue rules," the Post noted. The Kentucky legislature passed such a bill this year, but it does not take effect until July 12. Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher, shown conferring with other officials at the site on Saturday, said the new law might have helped. (Photo by Brandon Goins, Harlan Daily Enterprise)

"Early evidence suggests that coal dust contributed to the blast that killed five miners on Saturday in Harlan County, some safety experts said," reported James R. Carroll and R.G. Dunlop of The Courier-Journal. "Federal regulators had cited the mine's operator, Kentucky Darby LLC, three times this month for not cleaning up coal dust and other combustible materials, according to federal records. Also yesterday, a Kentucky legislator called for statewide hearings on what's wrong in coal mines." (Read more)

"The accident occurred at a time of heightened sensitivity to the dangers of coal mining -- prompted by the deaths in January of a dozen miners in an explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia," wrote Amy Goldstein of The Washington Post. "Yesterday, it was the residents of the small community of mountainous Harlan County -- the scene of famous, violent labor unrest over mining conditions during the 1930s -- who were devastated. ... Nationally, the 31 coal mining deaths this year are the most in any year since 2001, when 42 coal miners were killed," according to federal figures.

Mine Safety and Health Administration Administrator Ray McKinney told the Post that coal prices, the highest in about 20 years, is leading to mine fatalities."People want to produce more," he said. Also, companies are struggling to find experienced miners "because a generation of miners has retired and not been replaced by as many younger ones," Goldstein wrote, citing McKinney.

The blast's only survivor, Paul Ledford, "began to lead the other two miners toward the mine entrance by finding an electrical supply line and following it out, but the two other miners couldn't breathe through the smoke and turned back," reported Brandon Goins of the Harlan Daily Enterprise. (Read more) Ledford gave details through his brother, mainly to Lee Mueller of the Herald-Leader. (Read more)

Novelist, mayor tell stories of W. Va. losing people, cultural identity

"Ranked behind South Dakota as having the second smallest population growth of any state, according to 2005 Census Bureau estimates, West Virginia has struggled to hold on to residents since the early 1950's, when layoffs in the coal industry sent people elsewhere looking for work," reports The New York Times.

Ian Urbina's story documents the economic pressures that force many Appalachians to leave home, and virtually everything he writes about is also true of Eastern Kentucky. What makes this story unique is a multimedia show featuring novelist Denise Giardina talking about the depopulation of rural areas and Richwood Mayor Bob Henry Baber, who's been back only five years, talking about small towns.

"The mines closed down. Back then people didn't own their own houses, so basically people had to leave and they tore down the houses," said Giardina, describing such areas in Southern West Virginia as war zones with big buildings being shells "like somebody dropped a bomb on them." Giardina tried returning to her hometown of Bluefield, W.Va., but she left after a year.

Baber decided to take a lead role in Richwood's future about two years ago, when he became mayor. "Richwood is a struggling Appalachian town in a struggling state," he said. "There are 40 Richwoods in West Virginia, all of whom have lost enormous amounts of their population over the years." He attributes those loses to the decline in coal-mining employment brought about by mechanization. Click here for more.

Students trump federal judge, principal with prayer at graduation

A federal judge's order did not prevent students from praying or a graduating senior from delivering a religious message during commencement Friday night at Russell County High School in Kentucky.

"Judge Joseph H. McKinley of the U.S. District Court in Bowling Green had ruled earlier in the day in favor of a lawsuit filed by an anonymous graduating senior who said he was offended by graduation prayers. . . . About 200 seniors responded at the event by standing during the principal's opening remarks and reciting the Lord's Prayer. That prompted a standing ovation from the standing-room-only crowd in the school gymnasium," writes Peter Smith of The Courier-Journal. (Read more)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, which represents the anyonymous student, said the prayer would have violated the constitutional ban on government-sponsored religion. Senior Megan Chapman, elected by her classmates to open the ceremony, "had planned to include a prayer as had been the practice at commencement for decades. Instead, she talked of her faith and God's love," reports Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader. Many of the rural county's residents opposed the order, Estep reported. (Read more)

An ACLU press release noted that the Supreme Court "has struck down the inclusion of clergy-led prayer at public school graduations and student-led prayer at school sporting events," and quoted from a 1992 decision; "The Constitution forbids the state to exact religious conformity from a student as the price of attending her own high school graduation."

Lili S. Lutgens, staff attorney at the ACLU of Kentucky, who is representing the student, said in the release, "This case is not about whether people can or should pray; it's about families and individuals deciding for themselves whether, when, and how to pray. Our founders intended that these religious decisions be made by individuals and families, not the government."

High-tech companies bring jobs to towns in rural Oregon, Washington

"Potato country becoming high-tech country? Quincy, Wash., (population 5,044), 160 miles east of Seattle and 12 miles north of George, Wash.(get it?), is going through a boom as a server center. The relative proximity to Seattle, low-cost real estate, stable weather and geographic activity make it a desired spot for data centers," opines Jack Schultz in his Boomtown USA blog.

"Microsoft has purchased 74 acres of land for six buildings, totaling 1.4 million square feet. Yahoo has an agreement on 50 acres for a similar facility after doing a data center in nearby Wenatchee. Google bought 34 acres with an option on 80 more in The Dalles, Ore. All of these facilities have several similarities. They are all rural, are bricks and mortar in nature and are close to low cost hydroelectric power," he writes.

"The projects promise to transform the rural towns in which they are located, adding high tech jobs and potentially doubling the tax base for the towns. The longer term benefit could be the suppliers that locate in Quincy, Wenatchee and The Dalles and the entrepreneurial companies that are offshoots of this new cluster in high tech. Do you have the potential to become the site for one of these high tech, capital-intensive data centers?" asks Schultz, a consultant to small-town economic developers.

Former VP candidate provides scholarships to 100 high school grads

Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards gave $300,000 in one-year college scholarships to 100 graduates at Greene Central High School in Snow Hill, N.C., as part of his "College for Everyone" program.

The program, which will continue next year, fulfills a promise Edwards made to the seniors during two previous visits, reports Jimmy Ryals of The Daily Reflector in Greenville, N.C. Scholarship candidates pledged to avoid drugs and alcohol, graduate from a college-prep curriculum and commit to 10 weekly hours of work or community service as freshmen in college.

Edwards' program is one of several Greene County initiatives. This year's seniors were the first to take part in the College Access program that preps students for college starting in seventh grade. Seventy percent of this year's graduates will attend college, up from an average of 25 percent, writes Ryals. (Read more)

Internet affects smaller papers less because of local news monopolies

Regional daily newspapers "have taken a big paid circulation hit from the Internet, where news can be had for free," but an analysis by research-and-consulting group Outsell Inc. shows that smaller dailies have been less affected because they enjoy virtual monopolies on local news, reports Online Media Daily.

Outsell analyst Ken Doctor notes that rural areas have less high-speed broadband access. "If they're spending less time online, then print has less competition from the Internet," Doctor told OMD reporter Erik Sass. "Over time, some of these differences between large urban areas and small areas will disappear, and some will diminish," he said but small-town papers may still have monopolies.

"In these areas there isn't much alternative to the local newspaper for local news, and the news aggregators --Yahoo Local or MSN Local, for example -- really need to have a local news partner to have an effective local news offering," Doctor said. He added that such papers are "likely to retain their advertising relationships and their monopoly on classified listings -- one of the key areas where Internet services like Craigslist are eating into the revenue of big regional dailies," Sass writes. (Read more)

Friday, May 19, 2006

Texas writer finds many violations in open-records audit of schools

Many state press associations and other media groups have conducted open-records audits in most states, but it's unusual if not unprecedented for an individual reporter to focus one on a particular type of public agency in a region. Keith Plocek of the alternative Houston Press offers an example to follow.

Ploeck writes, "In February and March, I drove 1,683 miles in Harris and its surrounding seven counties, visiting 63 school districts to test for compliance with the Texas Public Information Act, which is designed not just for reporters like me but for everyone." Houston is in Harris County.

His findings included: "44 percent of districts violated the part of the public information act that prohibits them from inquiring why the information is being requested; 30 percent of districts incorrectly said they had ten business days to fulfill the request. The public information act does mention ten days, but requests should be fulfilled 'promptly'; and 10 percent of districts did not respond at all." As for being asked why he wanted the records, Plocek writes, "Many of these violations were just the product of small-town curiosity." To read an extensive account of his encounters, click here.

Latest federal shield law proposal raises concerns about judges' powers

A bill introduced in the Senate yesterday is the latest attempt to create a federal shield law for journalists.

The "Free Flow of Information Act of 2006" was proposed by a bipartisan group of senators that include Republicans Richard Lugar of Indiana and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, as well as Democrats Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and New York's Charles Schumer. It is similar to a House proposal introduced last year that would have protected reporters from revealing sources. Thirty-two states have such laws, while most others have some form of protection, writes Joe Strupp of Editor & Publisher.

Supporters argue that the Senate proposal could net big support in the wake of several subpoenas issued to reporters in the past year. Concerns over a unique provision in this bill that lets judges demand source details "in cases where the guilt or innocence of a criminal is in question, in cases where a reporter was an eye witness to a crime, and in cases where the information is critical to prevent death or bodily harm," Lugar's office reported. Judges may also override the law in cases involving national security or classified information, reports Strupp. (Read more)

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Strupp the bill needs to be stronger, but her group is supporting it out of “political reality. I think this is probably as much as we are going to get out of this Congress.” Society of Professional Journalists President David Carlson said, “This is important legislation that all Americans should support. It’s not just about journalists or journalism. It’s about checks and balances in a democratic society.” For more from SPJ, click here.

Officials doubt nation is well prepared for terrorist attacks, study says

"A national survey conducted by Western Carolina University’s Institute for the Economy and the Future reveals that America’s state officials remain doubtful about federal security and preparedness in several critical areas in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the response to Hurricane Katrina," reports Newswise, a research-reporting service.

WCU’s Institute for the Economy and the Future found the following: Seven out of 10 officials report that the responsibilities, strategies and mission of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are not clearly defined; two-thirds are not confident or not sure that federal homeland-security directives are effectively implemented and properly supported; and more than 90 percent of the state officials surveyed said public and private schools are not properly prepared for national emergencies.

"Rural role in emergencies apparent: More than 90 percent of state officials say rural areas could be vital to supporting the critical infrastructure needs of urban areas during times of national emergency, but more than half of those officials agree with the current distribution of federal resources primarily to non-rural areas," reports Newswise. (Read more)

The survey was conducted by the Research, Rapid Survey and Polling Center, recently created by the university in the Great Smoky Mountains. For a copy of the report, click here.

Community correspondent, 96, dies two days after final column

Myrtle Shoupe, the community correspondent in Hima, Ky., for the Manchester Enterprise, has died after 52 years of writing -- almost to her death -- and some measure of fame.

Shoupe "had one of the longest-running and quirkiest newspaper columns in the country," writes Andy Mead of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "In her last years, her Hima News was available anywhere in the world with a few taps on a computer keyboard, and her Web site, www.myrtle.org, sometimes drew as many as 3,000 hits a week."

What made Myrtle famous was her (to put it kindly) freewheeling style, spelling and grammar. "What should have been several sentences often were strung together without commas or periods," Mead writes."Her grammar would make an English teacher cry." (Photo from Lexington Herald-Leader)

When editors at the weekly Enterprise started editing and correcting the column in the early 1960s, "Her readers complained loudly. Even the mayor of Manchester joined the outcry," Mead reports. "After that, she was on a plateau few writers ever reach -- her copy was untouched by editors, and carried a disclaimer that it was 'Printed as Written.'"

Shoupe's readers had no trouble understanding her, and she often wrote bluntly -- up to the end. In her final column, headlined "Myrtle says this column could be her last," she wrote, "I will be 97 years old if I live to see my Birthday and everyone is welcome to my last birthday." That would have been July 11. The column appeared in the May 11 Enterprise. Shoupe died May 13.

Missouri lawmakers OK rule that gasoline contain 10 percent ethanol

"In a bid to juice the economy of rural Missouri and boost prices for corn growers, state lawmakers approved a requirement that most gasoline sold in Missouri contain 10 percent ethanol," writes Kit Wagar of The Kansas City Star.

The requirement starts Jan. 1, 2008, and motorists are already scrambling for information about how well their cars might handle the mix. Cars made in the last decade handle the mix fine. Ethanol-blended fuels caused created problems for cars in the late 1980s when the alcohol attacked engine seals and metal parts, but automakers have since made adjustments, reports Wagar. As for prices, ethanol usually rises and falls with gasoline prices, but tends to be somewhat higher. (Read more)

The Rural Blog last reported on states requiring an ethanol blend on April 28. To read about efforts in Washington, Minnesota, Montana and Hawaii, click here for the archived item.

California may be first state with comprehensive regs on fish farming

"California will become the first state in the nation to adopt comprehensive controls on future fish farming in its coastal waters, if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs a tough set of environmental standards that state legislators have approved," writes Jane Kay of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Sustainable Oceans Act's regulations would apply to the farming of fish in the ocean and not in fresh water. It contains provisions for aquaculture businesses that produce finfish -- such as halibut, bass or tuna -- to be sold on the open market. About 100 such businesses operate in California, but none of the farms raise finfish. The has banned farm-raising salmon or genetically engineered fish, reports Kay.

The act aims to prevent fish farms from interfering with wildlife and marine habitats or with commercial fishing. Farms would have to limit the use of fish meal and fish oil obtained from the ocean, and prevent diseases from spread or fish entering the environment. Regional water-quality boards would provide businesses with permits and regulate against pollution discharges, writes Kay. (Read more)

Annual 502-mile yard sale may bring 30,000-plus visitors to five states

An annual event known as the US11 Antique Alley sale stretches 502 miles, lasts four days and brings more than 30,000 visitors to five different states.

The "yard sale" started yesterday, but will launch into full swing today with Bristol, Va., serving as the starting point or ending location for participants. In addition to buying items, travelers can see "Doors Open," a Heritage Alliance event which provides free admission tomorrow to historic sites in northeast Tennessee, including Rocky Mount in Piney Flats, the Exchange Place in Kingsport, the Blountville Historic District, and the E.W. King house in Bristol, reports J.H. Osborne of the Kingsport Times-News.

From Bristol, Va., the route goes to Knoxville, then across the northwest corner of Georgia, across Alabama and into Mississippi. Whether people want to sell goods or just purchase some, participation is free, writes Osborne. (Read more) For more information, including a map of the route, click here.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Two states get flexibility in measuring students under No Child act

U.S. Department of Education officials are granting Tennessee and North Carolina more flexibility for measuring student progress under the No Child Left Behind Act, which could save school districts money.

The two states will be allowed to track how individual students progress each year in reading and math, compared to the current system of measuring success on whether a larger share of students are passing state exams. The measurement system is critical for schools with mostly poor students that fail to show adequate yearly gains on tests. Failing schools can be forced to pay for tutoring, to allow students to transfer and possibly to shut down, reports Diana Jean Schemo of The New York Times. (Read more)

"Tennessee and North Carolina will be allowed to count students as meeting the goals of the law if the students are judged to be on a trajectory toward proficiency in reading and math in three or four years. Other states must show that students are actually reaching proficiency," writes Schemo. Sixteen states submitted requests for the flexibility, and the department encouraged Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Delaware, Florida and Oregon to reapply after making recommended changes to their proposals.

For The Washington Post version of this story, click here.

No Child Left Behind closes door on rural teachers, opines paper

Education reform is pushing out some of the nation's most experienced, respected teachers, because the No Child Left Behind Act uses a system that labels some rural teachers as "not highly qualified," opines the Salt Lake Tribune in an editorial.

"The requirements that all teachers have a college degree or take extra college training, largely at their own expense, in order to pass a rigorous test in every core subject they teach by the end of the 2006-'07 school year puts an overwhelming burden on teachers in Utah's small rural schools," writes the newspaper.

"At the very least, the federal education department should create a separate category for schools that face unique circumstances and challenges, such as those in tiny Utah communities where only a handful of teachers provide instruction in all the core subjects. We're not advocating lowering teaching standards; any teacher who fails to help students learn should find other work. But we believe that some gifted teachers can communicate information in a way students understand, even without a degree in that particular subject," continues the newspaper. (Read more)

Washington county hires ombudsman to hear rural residents' concerns

King County, Wash., which has both highly urbanized and very rural areas, is now using an ombudsman to protect the interests of people living in the small communities outside Seattle, and the man chosen for the job is an expert on land-use disputes.

"Probably no other county in the state faces a sharper divide between urban and rural interests. Sharp political divides fall along that line as well. The county's controversial Critical Areas Ordinance is a painful example. Few issues strike as many legal, constitutional and emotional chords as property rights. As the competing pressures of population growth and environmental protection increase, all sides can benefit from a levelheaded, knowledgeable mediator" opines the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. (Read more)

In a Tuesday article, the paper's Neil Modie wrote about David Spohr, the deputy property rights ombudsman for the state of Utah, being hired: "The County Council voted last year to add the position to the county ombudsman's office to give residents of outlying areas an impartial channel to investigate and mediate property-related complaints. . . . Spohr holds one of only a few rural ombudsman positions in state and local governments across the country. From his Salt Lake City office he investigates, mediates and arbitrates land-use disputes between property owners and government agencies." (Read more)

Wal-Mart may use eminent domain to take rural land for center

Retail giant Wal-Mart refuses to let a few reluctant land owners prevent it from constructing a massive distribution center in Florida, which means some rural residents may be forced to give up their homes.

Wal-Mart have informed landowners they will ask Putnam County to use its powers of eminent domain because several families refuse to sell their properties. The company needs about a half-dozen parcels to widen an access road to a proposed 800,000-square-foot distribution center located in neighboring Volusia County, where officials are currently trying to block the development in court, reports Etan Horowitz of the Orlando Sentinel.

Gov. Jeb Bush recently signed a bill curbing the "use of eminent domain to benefit private businesses. But the bill, which was in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed a Connecticut city to condemn an entire coastal neighborhood for a developer, does not apply in this case because the road is public, said a legal expert who helped craft the legislation," writes Horowitz. (Read more)

Kansas law to place veterinary students in rural areas for one year

A bill signed by Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is designed to serve the livestock industry by establishing the Veterinary Training Program for Rural Kansas at Kansas State University's veterinary college.

Up to five students may enroll in the program each year, starting in their first year of college, and they can each get $20,000 a year for up to four years for tuition and training expenses. The students will practice veterinary medicine full time only in counties with populations of 35,000 or less. The amount of loan forgiveness is set by the amount of assistance received. For each $20,000 a student receives, one year of work in a rural community is required, reports Newswise, a research-reporting service.

Kansas is believed to be the first state to establish such a program, and several industry reports have identified shortages of large animal veterinarians in rural communities. "Over the last several decades, the demand for companion animal care has increased dramatically. Many graduates would like to practice in a rural setting, however, they often say that the main reason for not pursuing rural practice is an inability to earn an adequate income and service their educational debt," reports Newswise. (Read more)

N.D. seeks volunteers for rural ambulances; young people in short supply

North Dakota's rural ambulance services are in urgent need of volunteers because of young people choosing to leave small towns and the burnout feeling experienced by existing workers.

"In the past year, three ambulance services have shuttered in a state where about 90 percent of EMTs are volunteers, said Tim Meyer, director of the state Division of Emergency Services. About one-third of the state's 141 ambulance services are at risk of the same fate, he said. EMTs and officials worry the shortage could hurt the quality of health care, forcing people to wait longer before an ambulance arrives," reports Jenny Michael of The Associated Press.

Volunteer shortages are occurring in most states, and one main issue is people getting older and retiring from their work. The average age of an emergency medical technician in North Dakota is 46, and about 20 percent of volunteers are older than 60. Some EMT squads are recruiting high school juniors, and others are consolidating ambulance squads into countywide services, reports Michael. (Read more)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Most rural families to get annual benefit of less than $50 in new tax act

Most rural families will receive less than $50 annually in a tax bill slated to be signed today by President Bush, according to a press release from the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy.

The Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005 (H.R. 4297) is projected to provide a total of $70 billion in tax cuts to America’s taxpayers. "Based upon an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, the primary beneficiaries of the legislation are higher income households and those who invest in the stock market. Median household income is twenty-five percent lower for non-metro families than for metro families (USDA Economic Research Service) and fewer rural residents than urban residents participate in a retirement plan (Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2005)," states the release.

According to the Tax Policy Center, the annual average savings include: $0 for income less than $10,000; $3 for $10,000-20,000; $10 for $20,000-30,000; $17 for $30,000-40,000; $47 for $40,000-50,000; $112 for $50,000-75,000; $406 for $75,000-100,000; $1,395 for $100,000-200,000; $4,527 for $200,000-500,000; $5,656 for $500,000-1,000,000; and $42,766 for more than $1 million.

Rural students face long bus rides; Arkansas parents sue over trips

Long bus rides are common for students in rural school districts, and there are rarely time limits for how long children can spend going back and forth, transportation directors nationwide said Tuesday.

Patrons of Paron High School in rural Salie County, Arkansas, contend there should be in a lawsuit against the state Board of Education that also seeks to prevent the school's closing. The board voted last week to close grades 6-12. "Some students in grades 6-12 face three-hour round-trip bus rides to Bryant schools next fall, and plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue that excessive time on a bus would violate some students' right to equal educational opportunities under the state constitution," writes Aaron Sadler of the Arkansas News Bureau. (Read more)

Michael Martin, the director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, said bus rides should be kept to one hour tops. West Virginia asks districts to limit bus rides for elementary students to 30 minutes and high schoolers to one hour. Kansas tries to limit them to less than an hour. Until 1993, South Carolina required rides of no longer than one hour and 15 minutes, but that no longer exists. Texas and Oklahoma officials said several of their bus routes take longer than 90 minutes, reports Sadler.

Democrats target religious conservatives in Social Security debate

House Democrats are turning to radio stations to remind those Christians and conservatives who traditionally vote Republican of that party's plan to add private investment accounts to Social Security.

Representative Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois, chairman of the House campaign organization, and other Democrats say they chose Social Security because polls suggest that many Christian dislike the private investment account idea. The one-week ads were slated to start running today on radio stations catering to Christians in five House districts in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Virginia, many of which are predominantly rural. The five incumbents who are the targets of the advertisements include Representatives Geoff Davis of Kentucky, John Hostettler of Indiana, Michael E. Sodrel of Indiana, Steve Chabot of Ohio and Thelma D. Drake of Virginia. The ads suggest that Bush's plan could add $2 trillion in federal debt, reports Carl Hulse of The New York Times.

The ads might simply add to feelings already possessed by conservative voters. "The rise in the debt limit and criticism of the growth in federal spending bills is adding to unrest among conservatives that is contributing to low public support for Congress. Even if the party is unable to convert conservatives, the advertisements could help hold down Republican support in districts where races could be tight," writes Hulse. (Read more)

Big-city mayors often dismiss rural voters in governor bids, opines writer

"If Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley prevails in this fall's Maryland Democratic primary for governor, he'll likely have a decent shot of ousting incumbent Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R), thanks to the state's strong Democratic tilt. But in another sense, O'Malley will be fighting against the historical tides. Big-city mayors don't run for statewide office as much as one would expect. When they do, they often lose. And those who do win seem to be disproportionately Republican," opines Louis Jacobson of Roll Call in his latest "Out There" column.

Jacobson opines that big-city mayors are dismissive of rural voters: "Truth be told, big-city mayors haven't always been the most diplomatic ambassadors to outlying areas of their states. (Former Portland Mayor Neil) Goldschmidt, though he ultimately won the governorship, saw his standing dip significantly when he declined an invitation to debate in Bend, the biggest city in Oregon east of the Cascades, grousing that it was 'in the middle of nowhere.' And (former New York Mayor Ed) Koch offended countless potential supporters by declaring in Playboy magazine that Albany -- where he wanted the voters to send him -- was 'small-town life at its worst' and that living upstate was 'wasting time in a pickup truck when you have to drive 20 miles to buy a gingham dress or a Sears and Roebuck suit.'"

"So what are the keys to victory? The biggest seems to be political moderation -- less, perhaps, for the purpose of appealing to rural voters (since they may be a lost cause for a big-city mayor anyway) than to build support among suburban swing voters who know of the mayor but who may not have strong views about them. Indeed, a glance through the list of mayors who later won statewide office uncovers many more middle-of-the-roaders than either staunch liberals or conservatives," concludes Jacobson. A subscription is required to read this column.

Skeleton crews work to patrol, protect Western U.S. landmarks

In Southwest Colorado's Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, one federal ranger patrols 256 square miles, roughly four times the area of Washington, D.C. That is not an isolated incident, though, as many rangers find themselves all alone in our nation's historical landmarks.

Small staffs are being asked to patrol large land masses throughout cultural and historical sites across the western United States that are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, according to a study titled "Cultural Resources on the Bureau of Land Management Public Lands," issued Tuesday by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Richard Moe, president of the preservation group, says many of the sites are "in real danger of being destroyed" because of inadequate staffing and funding, reports T.R. Reid of The Washington Post.

The bureau oversees about 262 million acres of federally owned land. Since there are few prospects for increased public spending for historic preservation on public lands, other funding sources should be explored, the study says. One possibility is higher user fees for drillers and miners extracting minerals and for hikers, bikers and tourists, writes Reid. (Read more) Click here for the study.

Rural workers to get training for alternative fuel jobs in Montana

U.S. and Montana officials announced Tuesday that a new project will train rural workers for jobs in alternative-fuels development and production, with the target area being communities and colleges in central and Eastern Montana.

Called WIRED (Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development), the three-year project is supported by a $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. Keith Kelly, director of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, said the project will involve working with tribal community colleges and existing industries that are using vegetable oils for biofuels. Much of the work will be on-the-job training, reports Jim Gransbery of The Billings Gazette.

"The WIRED initiative focuses on labor market areas affected by global trade and natural disasters, or those reliant on a single industry. The program will grant $195 million to 13 successful applicants around the country," writes Gransbery. (Read more)

Former owner barred from Calif. weekly for three years; can still write

"Dave Mitchell, longtime editor and owner of the tiny Pulitzer Prize-winning Point Reyes Light, must stay away from the current owner and editor for three years, after a temporary restraining order granted on Feb. 17 was made permanent last week," reports the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

New owner Robert Plotkin had charged that Mitchell grabbed him by the neck and then tried to run over him with an automobile during an argument. Despite the restraining order, Mitchell will still write his "Sparsely, Sage and Timely" column for the weekly and stay on part-time as a consultant with the status of emeritus editor and publisher, notes the CNPA. (Read more)

The Rural Blog last reported on this feud in its May 10 edition. Click here for the archived item.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Rural residents pay more for health care than urban dwellers

Americans who live in rural areas or work for small businesses are not getting the same level of health care for their money spent as are their urban counterparts.

"In a first state-by-state look at the 'generosity' of employer-based health insurance, researchers found that people in largely rural states often paid more for the benefits they got than their urban-area counterparts did. The researchers gauged insurance plans' generosity by calculating their actuarial value -- the percentage of an employee's medical expenses that the plan covers. When average premiums were adjusted for actuarial value, people in states such as Maine, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming got the least value for their money," writes Ann Norton of Reuters.

Predominantly urban states such as California, New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, usually got more service for their dollar. The study, conducted by the Center for Studying Health System Change, also shows that people working at small businesses usually paid 18 percent more than workers at large corporations, based on insurance premiums adjusted for generosity, reports Norton. (Read more)

High court OKs businesses tax incentives, often key in rural areas

Corporate tax incentives help urban and rural areas lure new businesses, and the U.S. Supreme Court preserved the tool with a unanimous decision on Monday.

The Court protected a $281 million tax-break package that an automaker received to rebuild a Jeep factory in Toledo, Ohio. "Governors and other state officials watched the case closely after the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals struck down the Toledo incentives. Governors warned that more than 40 states would be in jeopardy if the decision were allowed to stand," writes Daniel C. Vock of Stateline.org.

In overturning the 6th Circuit’s decision, the Court ruled that the plaintiffs possessed no legal standing to sue. The dispute will return to Ohio state courts. Similar suits have occurred in Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin and North Carolina, where a judge dismissed a lawsuit last week over a $279 million package offered to Dell to build a plant in Winston-Salem, reports Vock. (Read more)

Virginia tax break rewards property owners who preserve land

In the face of urban sprawl, record numbers of Virginia property owners are protecting their land with a little-known tax credit that makes the state a national leader of private land conservation.

Six years after state legislators passed a tax credit for landowners who place their property under conservation easements, a review of the number of those easements reveals a massive increase. In 1995, landowners gave fewer than 6,000 acres, but that number totaled 35,000 last year, reports Amy Gardner of The Washington Post.

"The credit can be claimed over six years, and, as of 2002, it is transferable, meaning people can sell it if their income isn't sufficient to claim its full value. Few other states allow the credit to be sold -- and that probably explains the explosion of easements in Virginia, conservation officials say. The Maryland Environmental Trust, by comparison, accepted slightly more than 2,000 acres in donations last year," writes Gardner. Since 2000, property owners have qualified for nearly $382 million in credits, according to the Virginia Department of Taxation. (Read more)

To see a year-by-year breakdown of the number of acres donated by private landowners in conservation easements, click here.

New York City runs stings, files suits vs. illegal gun sales in rural areas

In an effort to crack down on illegal gun sales that supply firearms to its jurisdiction, New York City had private investigators pose as gun buyers in five states. The approach paid off, as authorities nabbed 15 dealers making illegal sales, several in rural areas.

"In the two-month sting operation, which city officials and gun control advocates said was the first of such wide scope, teams of operatives wearing hidden cameras traveled to Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia to make what are known as straw purchases, a violation of federal law in which one individual submits to the required federal background check for a gun that is clearly to be used by someone else," writes Diane Cardwell of The New York Times.

All 15 dealers, who are linked to 500-plus crimes in New York City from 1994 to 2001, improperly sold firearms to private investigators. A lawsuit filed against the dealers yesterday in Federal District Court in Brooklyn seeks monetary damages and the appointment of a special master to monitor the dealers' sales, reports Cardwell. (Read more)

Biodiesel demand rises: Californians opt for grease or vegetable oil

Some California residents are bypassing gas pumps in favor of using vegetable oil, the cheap, clean-burning fuel to fill up their diesel-powered automobiles.

Such automobiles can run on refined biodiesel from the pump, cooking oil from a grocery store or used frying grease from a restaurant. This is a prime example of the increasing demand for biodiesel, and all travelers need is a biodiesel conversion kit that can be installed for about $700, reports Mike Cassidy of the Mercury News in San Jose.

"Fringe fuels are moving mainstream as gas prices soar. Think biodiesel. Willie Nelson is selling it. Daryl Hannah is drinking it. And manufacturers are producing it -- 75 million gallons sold in 2005 compared with 25 million the year before," writes Cassidy. Many restaurants will give away used grease, and jugs of soybean oil can be bought at $2.40 a gallon, compared with $3.18 for regular at the pump outside or $3.40 for petroleum diesel elsewhere. (Read more)

Top photographer Bill Strode, of rural roots and rural subjects, dies

Bill Strode, who came from rural Southern Kentucky to become national photographer of the year before age 30, died yesterday. He was 69.

The former photographer for The Courier-Journal shared two of the paper's Pulitzer Prizes, after joining the staff full time in 1960. Strode had worked two summers at the paper while attending Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, near his home town of Glasgow. In 1966, the National Press Photographers Association named him Photographer of the Year, and he served as the group's president in 1974, reports Paula Burba of the Louisville newspaper. (Courier-Journal photo)

While working on a strip-mining project that led to a Pulitzer, Strode was arrested in Knott County, along with Ollie Combs, known as "the Widow Combs" who stood up to bulldozers. Strode later wrote: "The sheriff asked who I was. I told him. He produced a handful of 'John Doe' warrants and said he had a warrant for my arrest. He reached for one of the two cameras I carried and we fought for it. The strap broke and the camera skidded away in the loose dirt. I got to it first and kept it. I had 3½ hours in jail before I was released, so I took pictures through the bars of Mrs. Combs, who was being held in a police car outside -- and of myself."

Strode left the C-J in 1976 and freelanced for National Geographic, Life, Time, Sports Illustrated, Smithsonian, Esquire, The New York Times and The Washington Post, reports Burba. Stride died of cancer at a hospice in Versailles, Ky. Funeral arrangements are pending. (Read more)

Monday, May 15, 2006

Billions spent to computerize student records; many states still lacking

Almost every state is working to computerize its school records, but rising costs are putting many of the projects behind schedule and making it hard to report all the student progress data required under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, reports Sam Dillon of The New York Times.

North Carolina's effort, called NC Wise, is now nicknamed "NC Stupid" because it is years behind schedule and estimated to cost $250 million. California built a system with $60 million, which is how much it will cost to connect schools. Such efforts are costing taxpayers billions nationwide, and the U.S. Department of Education gave $52.8 million in grants to 14 states last November. The money is for "longitudinal" computer systems for monitoring individual student records from year to year.

The National Center for Educational Accountability, affiliated with the University of Texas, surveyed states' educational technology plans last year and found that 48 were building longitudinal systems. The most advanced systems appeared in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Utah. Thirty-six states have given a statewide number to every student, a prerequisite for monitoring year to year and school to school data, writes Dillon. (Read more) Click here for the center's survey.

Virginia county says 'cowboy church' fails to meet public safety rules

Have you heard of "cowboy" churches? They "appeal to farmers, horse enthusiasts and other people who might be busy on Sundays, but want to attend a service on a weeknight. People come in jeans, boots or other attire," write Pamela J. Podger and Beth Jones of The Roanoke Times, in the only story we were able to find on what appears to be a new phenomenon.

The peg for the story is the fight by a southwest Virginia barn owner to let the Rev.Raymond Bell keep holding church services in the barn. Bedford County officials say the location does not meet safety standards for a public facility. "I just wonder what would Jesus do about this? Would he say 'Get out' because the zoning is not right?" barn owner Garland Simmons asked. "I could understand the complaint if we had a dance hall or a drinking joint. [But] there is no wine or beer. It is nothing but the word of God and nothing but good country Christian singing."

The barn, in an area zoned for agricultural or residential use, needs lighted exit signs, emergency lighting, adequate exits and plumbing, according to a violations notice issued April 28. Simmons is appealing the notice. Bell has teamed up with the Liberty Counsel, which is affiliated with the Rev. Jerry Falwell's ministries in nearby Lynchburg, to combat a ban that they claim violates religious freedom and right of assembly.(Read more)

Congressman's method to funnel money to poor district prompts probe

U.S. Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, the Appropriations Committee Democrat who has represented northern West Virginia since 1983, "chose an unusual way to funnel federal funds into his poverty-ridden district," writes Jeff Birnbaum of The Washington Post. "He set up a network of nonprofit organizations to administer the millions of dollars he directed to such public endeavors as high-tech research and historic preservation. Over the same period, Mollohan's personal fortunes soared."

The Post reports that in 2000-04, Mollohan's assets "grew from no more than $565,000 to at least $6.3 million. The partners in his rapidly expanding real estate empire included the head of one of these nonprofit groups and the owner of a local company for which he arranged substantial federal aid. ... Mollohan denies that he raked off any of the federal funds that went to his state ... He said his newfound wealth is due primarily to the run-up in value of his family's ownership of 27 condos in a Foggy Bottom high-rise. By leveraging that asset, he said, he has been able to buy other properties, usually with the help of loans, in North Carolina and West Virginia. ... One of the five nonprofit groups to which Mollohan steered more than $150 million "is headed by a former aide with whom Mollohan bought $2 million worth of property on Bald Head Island, N.C." (Photo of Mollohan by Jason Deprospero, Wash. Post)

Here's the immediate news peg in Birnbaum's story: "Controversy over this blending of commerce and legislation has triggered a federal probe, cost Mollohan his position on the House ethics committee and undermined the Democrats' effort to portray the GOP as the party of corruption because of the Jack Abramoff scandal. As early as today, the 12-term congressman will admit that he misstated some transactions in his congressional filings, according to Mollohan staffers."

Birnbaum looks at the reaction of Mollohan's district: "During a trip home last week to northern West Virginia, Mollohan was questioned at length by a radio interviewer from Weirton about his business connections. But everywhere else, Mollohan -- the son of a longtime congressman and a cousin of a former senator -- was welcomed as a patron of the state." (Birnbaum doesn't name the interviewer.)

In an interview with Birnbaum, "Mollohan said he is unapologetic and proud of the thousands of jobs he has brought to West Virginia and that, legally speaking, everything he has done to secure them is 'squeaky clean.' But he acknowledged that his actions might look incriminating and that he may have had an ethical 'blind spot' that prevented him from questioning whether he, as a government official and vice chairman of the ethics panel, should have invested with such close associates."

Big farming county uses brochure to welcome (warn?) new residents

Accomack County, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, is the Old Dominion's top producer of corn, soybeans, wheat and tomatoes, and the No. 2 poultry-producing county -- and the scene of a residential boom that is attracting newcomers who are unaware of its agricultural status.

The Accomack County Farm Bureau wants to give people a clear picture of the county before they buy homes and move in, which is where a new brochure comes into play. Author Jim Belote, Accomack’s extension agent for agriculture and natural resources, identifies crops grown in the county and the amount of work required to harvest them, reports the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

David Hickman, an Accomack grain, soybean and vegetable grower, sees the brochure as a great introduction: “So many people are moving to the Eastern Shore from Baltimore and D.C. and New Jersey that are not familiar with agricultural practices, and we want them to know that, when they come here, part of the joy of country living is tractors running at night, diesel engines running all night long, dust in the summertime, the odor of manure a few months of the year." (Read more)

Georgia farmers jump on agritourism bandwagon with pets, pumpkins

Agritourism is cropping up on farms in rural counties near Athens, Ga., with activities for visitors including "pick your own fruit" areas, find and grab pumpkin patches and of course, plenty of petting zoos.

Whether they offer hay rides or carve out corn corn mazes, farms are taking advantage of an opportunity to bring in extra money from school groups and tourists of all ages, reports The Associated Press. In some counties, public meetings are being held to discuss ways to enhance farm tourism, and some participants are considering having features that go beyond recreational interests and actually educate tourists about the importance of agriculture. (Read more)

Near Crawford, Ga., University of Georgia professor Robert Rhoades runs the Agrarian Connections Farm, which uses restored log cabins to teach college students about the tools and techniques used by pioneers in the 1800s. Rhoades aims to make the farm a living history museum for tourists, reports AP.

Wisconsin county considers tougher manure spreading rules, fines

Farmers in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, may face tougher manure management regulations, on the heels of two large manure spills at area dairies being referred to the Wisconsin Justice Department.

"The spills, last year at Maple Leaf Dairy near Cleveland and in 2004 at Sunnyside Dairy Farm near Valders, allegedly caused liquid manure to flow into Fisher Creek and Point Creek, which lead to Lake Michigan. While the specific damage has yet to be quantified, the spills have created an image problem for area farmers, who say the public perception that they are unconcerned about the environment is untrue," writes Kristopher Wenn of the Herald Times.

The county is drafting a referendum for the November election that increases fines for violating county manure spreading regulations, and requires that farmers incorporate manure into the soil if it is spread near a sinkhole. "The stakes are high. A little over 13 percent of the county workforce is employed on farms, while agriculture accounts for almost 10 percent of the county's total economic income," reported Wenn, citing extension data. He did not specify the fine increase. (Read more)

Media center offers resources, seminars on how to cover immigration

As the nation's media continues its coverage of the ongoing immigration debate, the Knight New Media Center is attempting to help reporters cover the story by offering an array of articles and sources.

"You will find valuable and credible sources and articles from many points of view as well as videos from previous seminars on immigration issues. In the future, we will continue to visit the issue as well as others related to the changing faces and voices of our communities. Please sign up for our emailing list to be notified of future seminars," according to the center, launched in April. The Center gives fellowships for seminars on professional growth, critical thinking and topic training.

The Knight New Media Center is a partnership of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Click here for the Center's resources database.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Lawmaker's efforts for rural district delay transport-worker ID card

A powerful Kentucky congressman's efforts to steer federal work to his poor district, one of the nation's most rural, has delayed the creation of a tamperproof identification card for airport, rail and maritime workers, Eric Lipton of The New York Times reported today in a 2,276-word story.

"The Department of Homeland Security has invested tens of millions of dollars and countless hours of labor over the last four years on a seemingly simple task," Lipton writes. "Yet nearly two years past a planned deadline, production of the card, known as the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, has yet to begin. Instead, the road to delivering this critical antiterrorism tool has taken detours to locations, companies and groups often linked to Representative Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republican who is the powerful chairman of the House subcommittee that controls the Homeland Security budget."

Rogers "inserted language into appropriations bills that effectively pushed the government to use the same patented green card technology and to produce this new card in Corbin," a town of 8,000 that Rogers had helped get into the ID-making business during the Clinton administration. However, the department "had already identified a more flexible and secure technology" than the one used by the Corbin plant.

Other Kentucky companies "turned up in each phase of the early tests of the identification cards," known as smart cards -- including one that employs Rogers' son and has contributed to the congressman's political action committee. John Rogers told the Times that the contract "has nothing to do with who my father is," and that he has worked in data management and technology for 13 years. "In all, about $100,000 in contributions have come to Mr. Rogers from parties with at least some ties to the identification card effort, records show," the Times reports.

"When tests on a smart card prototype identification card finally got under way in November 2004, the program again ran into an obstacle. To try to speed up the work, contractors decided initially to produce the prototype cards in Pennsylvania. But Homeland Security demanded that the work be moved," citing Rogers' mandates, the Times reports. "The smart card printing equipment was picked up and sent to Corbin, adding to the expense and causing another delay. Interventions by Mr. Rogers were far from the only reason for delays. Homeland Security repeatedly revised plans for the identification card, related to matters like the method for collecting and storing personal information."

ROGERS told the Times in a prepared statement that he imposed mandates to speed up the process. "I have been extremely frustrated with the slow, wandering pace of the program," he said.

Meanwhile, "A separate fight involving Mr. Rogers was playing out," Lipton writes. "Starting in 2004, his staff repeatedly pressed the Transportation Security Administration to hire ... the American Association of Airport Executives to help handle background checks that transportation workers had to undergo to get identification cards." Last year, Rogers inserted language requiring that the association be hired for the work, noting that it already helps with background check for airport workers.

(Hal Rogers photo by Doug Mills, New York Times)

The lobbying group "has paid for trips by Mr. Rogers and his wife worth more than $75,000, including the six visits to Hawaii, four to California and one to Ireland" since 2000, the Times reports. He ranked seventh of the 535 members of Congress in travel gifts accepted in the last five years, according to Political Money Line, which was cited by the Times.

When the trade group created a for-profit subsidiary and sought investors of up to $25 million, watchdog groups barked."This is really a perversion of every part of the contracting process," Danielle Brian, executive director for the Project on Government Oversight, told The Times. Lipton writes, "Executives in the intensely competitive biometrics industry protested," and quoted Walter Hamilton, chairman of the International Biometric Industry Association, as saying, ""It is a sleazy arrangement."

The airport executives' group and its would-be partner, Daon, "had sponsored . . . a July 2005 conference and golf outing that the congressman attended in Dublin, where Daon is based," the Times reports. The company's board includes former homeland security secretary Tom Ridge. Under pressure, Rogers and Homeland Security backed off last week. "The no-bid contract for the airport executives would be killed. This would mean another delay, because the advertisement for the bidding would have to start over again," Lipton writes. "No one has yet moved to reverse the Congressional directive mandating where the cards are produced." (Read more)

Friday, May 12, 2006

Campaign pushes those in trucks to buckle up, cut rural fatalities

Only one-fifth of Americans reside in rural areas, but fatalities in those locations made for 58 percent of the nation's total in 2004. To reduce the rate of rural fatalities, often involving trucks, state and federal officials will join forces next week in a "Click It or Ticket" campaign to persuade pickup truck drivers and their passengers to "buckle up in your truck."

"Americans driving or riding on rural roadways face a much greater risk of being injured or killed in traffic crashes than do those in urban or suburban areas, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Safety belt use in the nation's rural areas consistently trails the national average. Nationally, in 2005, only 79 percent of rural drivers and their passengers were observed wearing their safety belts compared to 81 percent for urban motorists and 83 percent among suburban motorists," reports George Jones of the weekly Sand Mountain Reporter in Albertville, Ala.

"The motor vehicle crash fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in rural areas is almost double the fatality rate in urban areas. Part of the danger to rural drivers comes from delayed recovery and emergency response along isolated roadways," writes Jones. (Read more)

Postal rates for mailing newspapers in same county could go up 25%

"Postal rates in May 2007 could rise nearly 25 percent for in-county newspapers if the United States Postal Service has its way, and annual increases are in store for the foreseeable future," reports the National Newspaper Association, the national lobbying group for weeklies, which rely on the mail.

USPS announced yesterday that it wants "a larger rate hike for local newspapers than for virtually any other mail class," NNA says on its Web site. "The proposed increase is the highest in more than a decade. The announcement came with the filing of proposed rate increases for all mail, including a 42 cent first-class stamp. Rates would be expected to go into effect around May 2007." The postal service said the increases are needed to cover rising costs, including fuel and retiree health care for retirees and higher fuel costs, but also wanted to push mailers "to change their mail to shapes and containers that were more efficient for USPS to handle," NNA reported.

NNA President Jerry Reppert said, ""This has to be one of the saddest days in the history of community newspapers and the Postal Service, which has always been one of our strongest partners. USPS seems to be saying our mail is no longer desirable because newspapers are shaped like newspapers and have to be transported in containers that the Postal Service no longer wants to use."

Reppert, publisher of the Anna (Ill.) Gazette-Democrat, said newspapers have few if any choices for pleasing the Postal Service. "Newspapers cannot be mailed on pallets, as a rule. We must use sacks or trays for transporting bundles through the mail system. And short of throwing out our printing presses and putting newspapers on tidy little sheets of typing paper, or dispensing with mail delivery altogether, we are limited in what responses we can make to these price signals."

NNA Postal Committee Chairman Max Heath, vice president of Landmark Community Newspapers Inc., said, "I have to believe that the planners for this rate case do not fully appreciate the damage they will inflict upon community newspapers, and therefore upon local communities, if they continue in the direction they seem to be headed." NNA will intervene in the rate proceeding of the Postal Rate Commission.

Clean-coal power plants proposed in Va., Ky.; one draws a lawsuit

The Richmond-based electric company Dominion Power wants to construct an $800 million plant in mountainous Wise County. Some say it could be the biggest economic burst in Southwest Virginia's history. In the Western Kentucky Coal Field, promoters are touting another plant that would use clean-coal technology, but environmentalists filed suit yesterday to stop it.

Government agencies will review the Virginia project's potential effects on air quality, nearby streams, roads and other potential issues. The plant first hit the radar of environmentalists in 2004 when state Sen. William Wampler, R-Bristol, successfully proposed a bill to let Dominion find a location for a coal-fired plant in the region. Dominion plans to use a circulating fluidized bed burner that uses waste coal, wood and other fuels in a way that cuts back emissions, reports Ray Reed of The Roanoke Times. (Read more)

In Kentucky, the state Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet "ordered further cuts in the Muhlenberg County project's allowable emissions of mercury and nitrogen oxides [but] the reductions did not satisfy environmentalists," who filed suit in Franklin Circuit Court, writes James Bruggers of The Courier-Journal. Officials of Peabody Energy, which wants to build the plant known as Thoroughbred, say the plant would be one of the cleanest coal-fired power plants in existence. (Read more)

Federal judge upholds 'valid existing rights' rule limiting strip mines

A federal judge has rejected a challenge by the National Mining Association to the Office of Surface Mining's 1999 rule limiting the "valid existing rights" that coal companies had to mine sensitive areas when the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act took effect and protected them in 1977.

The law prohibited mining near homes, churches and cemeteries, and on public lands, unless companies had "valid existing rights" to mine. The Reagan administration interpreted that broadly, but the courts and Congress rejected that approach as overbroad. In 1999, the Clinton administration narrowly defined the exception, requiring that in order to be allowed to mine in protected areas, a company had to show that it had made a "good faith" effort to obtain "all permits needed" for mining at the time the law took effect.

The Kentucky Resources Council, the Citizens Coal Council and other groups intervened in the lawsuit to defend the Clinton-era definition. In his opinion upholding it, U.S. District Judge Richard Roberts said a broader standard would have led to the mining of 2,855 to 3,000 more acres of protected lands between 1995 and 2015. The opinion, in the case of National Mining Association v. Scarlett, Civil Action No. 2000-0283, is available from the U.S. District Court for the the District of Columbia Web site.

The ruling will not change the status quo in 20 of the 24 states where state agencies enforce the federal law, because they have adopted the current federal standard, KRC Director Tom FitzGerald said. "We anticipate the industry will appeal, since they have litigated nearly every regulation under that law since 1978," FitzGerald said. "We look forward to aggressively defending a well-reasoned District Court decision, a sound agency rule, and the public and private lands the rule and Congress sought to protect."

Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, called the current definition "a cruel hoax on property owners, since it tells them after the fact that the only way their property rights would be protected is if they had applied for a permit before August 3, 1977. Industry isn't interested in actual mining near homes, churches and cemeteries, but we do sometimes need access near these properties to gain access to mining property. Being barred from simply crossing a public land will in some cases preclude a person from developing his private property."

Many West Virginians lack health insurance, see no end in sight

Many middle-aged people in West Virginia, a predominantly rural state, are struggling without health insurance. As they wait to qualify for Medicare, they are working long hours just to pay for medical care.

As many as 400,000 of the Mountain State's 1.8 million residents will have no insurance for all or part of 2006, but about half of them do have jobs. Every year, tens of thousands lose or are forced to drop their health insurance. "Some lost insurance when they were laid off. Others became uninsured when their spouse died. Others got divorced or had to file bankruptcy. Or the insurance company raised the premium so high, they could no longer afford it. Or their employer dropped health insurance. Others became disabled," writes Kate Long of the Charleston Gazette. (Read more)

Long's story focused on research done by Gail Bellamy of the West Virginia University Institute for Health Policy Research, who interviewed uninsured aged 50-64 and was shaken by their stories.

“It was one of the most emotional experiences I ever had,” Bellamy, 54, told Long. “This is my age group. It’s a case of ‘There but for fortune.’ Today I have health insurance. Tomorrow, I could just as easily not have. . . . I was stunned by the terror with which they spoke of life without health insurance ... the certainty that health insurance is what stands between you and financial disaster, between you and being on the street. This age group is very much at risk in our health care system. They are more likely to have chronic health problems, but they’re still years away from Medicare.”

Family doctors often help patients who cannot pay, but some uninsured cannot find private physicians who will treat them. That leaves some people with few options: a community health center or Health Right clinic. The outlook is bleak when uninsured people walk into such environments. "Many were dismayed to find that medical staff treated them with less respect after they became uninsured," reports Long.

Insurance costs and rising medical bills may prevent people from improving their situations, especially with the cost of insurance rising 73 percent in the last five years. "The average West Virginia hospital bill was $12,544 in 2004, according to the state Health Care Authority. Insured people might owe $500 of that bill. Uninsured people face the entire bill. On top of that, they owe doctors' bills," writes Long.

Food, games and learning help promote diversity in rural La.

A cultural tourism initiative is bringing together different races in the rural community of Lake Providence, La., with the help of "soul food" and heritage festivals.

The East Carroll Cultural Tourism Initiative also sees "that developing tourism, economic development and creating racial harmony is more than fun and games. Partnering with the local institutions of higher learning, Southern University of Baton Rouge and Louisiana State University, has brought additional resources and methods of implementing the organization's goals," according to the Routes of Change newsletter published by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

The project is one of 12 community-partner grantees of Kellogg’s Mid South Delta Initiative, which aims to help 55 contiguous counties and parishes along the Mississippi River in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi build communities based on a shared vision of all races, classes, and ages. (Read more)

Utah's rural residents may mail in votes to reduce election costs

Rural residents in Utah may be required to vote by mail using absentee ballots, because counties want to limit the expense and problems involved in training poll workers for the state's first electronic election.

Millard County is requiring mail-only voting in 11 precincts and both Emery and Clawson counties may follow suit. Utah's election law allows counties with 500 or fewer voters to adopt vote-by-mail regulations, but it is unclear just how many areas will follow through with the option. The opposite is occurring in Salt Lake County, as new electronic machines will allow about 3,000 residents to return to the polls from previously mail-only precincts, reports The Associated Press. (Read more)

Rural residents enjoy free wi-fi networks in High Country, N.C.

Residents in rural High Country, N.C. are jumping on the World Wide Web for free via high-speed wireless hotspots that are becoming more prominent at coffee shops and restaurants.

In addition to residents and travelers enjoying the convenient hook-ups, local business owners are reaping the benefits of providing free wireless service. "For those not wanting to buy coffee, there are public Wi-Fi hotspots which offer a bit more seclusion. The Watauga and Ashe County libraries as well as 30 buildings on the campus of Appalachian State University are such examples. . . . Approximately, 30 buildings have wireless access which extend several hundred feet beyond the exterior and into many parking areas," writes Marie Freeman of the weekly Mountain Times in Boone, N.C. (Read more)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

FBI investigates 2,000 cases of public corruption, gets help from press

Here's a reminder that journalists everywhere need to be on the lookout for wrongdoing by local officials, and by state legislators, who are locally elected: The FBI says it is finding a lot of corruption in local and state governments.

"Bureau officials believe that the investment in corruption cases is easily worth the cost. In 2004 and 2005, more than 1,060 government employees were convicted of corrupt activities, including 177 federal officials, 158 state officials, 360 local officials and 365 police officers, according to F.B.I. statistics. The number of convictions rose 27 percent from 2004 to 2005," reports The New York Times.

"Almost every one of the F.B.I.'s cases has been the subject of widespread news reports by local news organizations, and Time magazine has reported on the national scope of the effort. In some instances, . . . reporters appear to have been the first to uncover some aspects of possible wrongdoing. Agents regard such articles as tips for which they can claim success if they succeed in bringing a case," writes David Johnston. (Read more)

People can provide the F.B.I. with tips on corruption at this Web site. The tips cannot be anonymous.

State government coverage declines, but CNHI puts reporters in capitals

Coverage of state politics and regulation continues to decline, to the point where newspapers and their owners should be ashamed, two expert speakers said Monday at the Center for First Amendment Rights' annual Milton Sorokin Symposium at the University of Connecticut School of Law.

"One of the things we should really be worried about is the way our state capitals are covered," said David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette."It's a disgrace."

"Miles Rapoport, former Connecticut secretary of the state and now president of a liberal group called Demos USA, agreed," reported Tom Breen of the Journal Inquirer of Manchester, Conn. "When he first won state office in 1974, he said, Connecticut's largest newspaper [the Hartford Courant] had seven reporters in its Capitol bureau, a number that has shrunk to two today." (Read more)

The trend is national, according to surveys by the Project on the State of the American Newspaper, reported in American Journalism Review. But in a few states, state-government coverage is being buttressed by smaller papers. One example is Community Newspaper Holdings' assignments of Ronnie Ellis and James S. Tyree to the capitals of Frankfort, Ky., and Oklahoma City. Ellis, formerly at CNHI's Glasgow Daily Times, reports for an overwhelmingly rural and Appalachian audience -- dailies in the towns of Glasgow, Somerset, Corbin, Richmond and Ashland, multi-weeklies in London and Morehead, and weeklies in Monticello, Whitley City, Grayson and Olive Hill.

From left, Davis Holland, Will Holloway, Stephanie Reitz and Haley Wester pose in Croatan National Forest.

Photo by Jacquelyn Martin for The New York Times

N.C. students protesting national-forest sales get visit from federal official

A top U.S. agriculture official decided a letter from sixth-graders protesting the sale of national forest land deserved a personal visit at their school in Newport, N.C.

The letter, written by Haley Wester at Broad Creek Middle School, began, "What is the deal with cutting down the Croatan National Forest? How would you like it if we cut down some trees around your house?" That forest is part of 10,000 acres of North Carolina land included in under secretary of agriculture Mark Rey's proposal to sell 309,000 acres of national forest space across the country, writes Felicity Barringer of The New York Times.

"(Rey) told a dubious young audience sitting cross-legged on the floor that the sale was designed to help raise $500 million to $1 billion to pay for rural schools in heavily forested counties like theirs. But he said the amount of land likely to be actually sold to raise the needed money would be cut to nearly half, or 175,000 acres. He said his proposal was designed to meet an obligation that dates back 98 years. When the national forests were carved out by President Theodore Roosevelt, the government promised to repay the counties most affected by the loss of their tax base," reports Barringer. (Read more)

'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition' might make for extreme taxes

Families who get new homes from the ABC television show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" could face large tax bills if audited, according to a nonbinding ruling issued by the Internal Revenue Service.

In apparently breaking this story, The Roanoke Times reports that Blacksburg, Va., resident Carol Crawford Smith might owe on an additional $122,400 in income, and her tax liability could increase by at least $20,000 because of her participation on the show. This news came when the Internal Revenue Service released an "information letter" March 31 that contradicts what the show's producers advise participants on how to avoid paying federal income taxes on the new homes.

The show focuses on helping needy families by demolishing their old homes and building replacements in fewer than seven days. "Participants lease their homes to the show for the duration of the shooting, which ABC says will help the families avoid taxes," reports Tonia Moxley. ABC claims it consulted with tax experts, but the IRS counters that the houses are prizes in the same category as lottery winnings. As of yet, there are no court cases pending in this matter. (Read more)

Rural communities should watch Medicaid closely, urges health group

The National Rural Health Association wants residents and leaders in rural communities to closely monitor Medicaid changes because of the critical role it plays in ensuring access to care.

The call for monitoring is based on a new report by the Rural Policy Research Institute called "Medicaid and Its Importance to Rural Health." That report talks about how rural physicians rely on Medicaid to stay in business, which in turn impacts economic development.

There is also a higher percentage of rural residents using Medicaid, 14.2 percent, compared to 11.2 percent of urban residents. An NRHA press release states, "The reasons for this higher enrollment are numerous: rural communities have higher rates of disability, a higher proportion of elderly residents, higher poverty levels, and lower availability of employer-sponsored insurance." Click here for the report.

Farming program partners immigrants with U.S. mentors in rural areas

Immigrants hoping to farm are getting help from a mentoring program sponsored by the National Immigrant Farming Initiative that connects them with U.S. farmers for training.

Twenty-five immigrant families living in Florida and Georgia recently met in Douglasville, Ga., to learn from new mentors. "The Farmer Field School was structured to not just draw out mentor farmer knowledge, but to create a two-way exchange so the aspiring immigrant farmers also shared their knowledge. The training sought to encourage interactive problem-solving with the mentor farmers and to help the aspiring farmers adapt their existing agricultural practices and incorporate new knowledge to create successful small farms," according to the Routes of Change newsletter published by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a funder of the program. (Read more)

The National Immigrant Farming Initiative aims to provide training, information sharing, networking opportunities, and positive exposure for immigrants wishing to work in communities. The initiative is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency and Heifer International. For more information, visit this Web site.

Rural Va. county takes Internet into its own hands with free network

Leaders in Bland County, Virginia, grew tired of waiting on private companies to provide Internet service, so they built their own free, wireless network for downtown residents and businesses.

Bland is one of Virginia's most rural counties, and leaders hope to expand the network to cover everyone, reports WDBJ 7 in Roanoke. The people behind this wireless initiative hope it spurs other community development and improvement projects. (Read more) A previous WDBJ report highlighted the problem of rural areas being neglected in the push for high-speed Internet. (Read more)

Bland County's effort received praise from The Roanoke Times in a May 4 editorial: "Today Bland County strides into the digital world as its free, public, wireless Internet system goes live. They get it in Bland. 'It,' of course, is that this is a wireless world. People expect to be connected to their data almost everywhere. If business leaders and tourists visiting a town like Bland cannot surf the Web on their laptops, they'll go elsewhere." (Read more)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Half of teachers quit in first five years; bad news for rural schools

A National Education Association study reports that half of new U.S. teachers are likely to quit within the first five years because of low pay and poor conditions -- bad news for rural schools.

The study described the average teacher as a married, 43-year-old white woman who is religious, reports Lisa Lambert of Reuters. Since younger teachers are dropping out, the number of job openings should continue to rise during the next 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, rural schools often have trouble attracting teachers, and this phenomenon constricts the available pool.

Other demographics in the study include: the proportion of teachers holding master's degrees is 50 percent, up from 23 percent in the early 1960s; 6 percent of teachers are African American, and 5 percent are Hispanic, Asian or come from other ethnic groups; and men represent a quarter of the field, the lowest amount in 40 years. (Read more) The study is not available online.

Just one S.C. school district closes today for Confederate Memorial Day

All but one of South Carolina's 85 school districts will hold classes today on Confederate Memorial Day, though all state agencies, the Senate and some county offices are shutting down.

The only district closed today is Berkeley County, which is located just north of Charleston and includes some of its suburbs. The district first took the day off in 2001, after receiving requests from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, former school board Chairwoman Frances Brewer told Seanna Adcox of The Associated Press. The county's population is 68 percent white and 27 percent black. Twenty percent of the residents are veterans, much higher than the national average of 12.7 percent, reflecting military installations in the Charleston area.

South Carolina is one of several Southern states to designate a state holiday to honor Confederate soldiers. Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi mark the anniversary of April 26, 1865, when Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston surrendered the last organized Confederate unit, and Texas honors General Robert E. Lee's birthday, Jan. 19, as Confederate Heroes Day. (Read more)

Rural health interests again fighting to save federal appropriations

"In a depressing but not surprising rerun of last year's budgetary drama, President Bush has once again cut programs that provide health care to millions of rural Americans -- this time by 83 percent. Among the programs on the chopping block are those that help hospitals, clinics and other providers work together to reach underserved people and provide higher quality care to all," opines Thomas D. Rowley, a fellow at the Rural Policy Research Institute.

"The Senate has already voted in its budget resolution to fully fund all rural health programs. The plotline in the House isn't so straightforward. Though not yet passed, the House budget resolution toes the President's hard fiscal line. What really counts, however, are the spending bills that will come later this year (appropriations subcommittees start work this week). That's when we'll know whether and by how much funding that ensures that rural Americans have access to affordable, quality health care will be cut or restored," continues Rowley. (Read more)

"In cutting other programs, the Administration has cited poor performance as measured by the Office of Management and Budget's Program Assessment and Rating Tool, PART for short. The problem here is that the rural health programs are, in fact, judged to be performing adequately," concludes Rowley.

Youth get involved in making decisions for rural communities

Many rural communities leave out young people in local decision making, but a few South Texas communities decided to change that. They can now serve as examples for the rest of rural America.

"The Llano Grande Center in Edcouch is leading a project to involve youth into local decision-making in this community. Some 95 percent of the 20,000 residents living there are of Hispanic heritage; most are under the age of 50, many are migrant workers, and the majority of the people are low income. The Center organized the Tomorrow’s Leaders Today youth group four years ago, and are equipping and encouraging the youth to become involved in their community. An important side benefit of the program is that as the youth become involved, so do their parents," according to the Routes of Change newsletter published by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. (Read more)

"The work of Llano Grande began informally in the early 1990’s through a process to show Edcouch-Elsa High School students that not only was college an option for them, but that it was necessary, and that they could go to any college they wanted. . . . The work of college preparation became more focused on transforming students into community-minded leaders who would be ready for higher education. This was achieved through various community-based projects developed and implemented by students and teachers with support from the Kellogg Foundation’s Managing Information with Rural America (MIRA) initiative."

Meat packer broke law in fighting union effort at N.C. plant, court rules

The Smithfield Packing Co. repeatedly broke the law nine years ago in its efforts to stave off a union drive at its pork-processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C., according to a federal appeals court ruling.

"In a decision released on Monday, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a broad cease-and-desist order that the National Labor Relations Board issued against Smithfield in 2004 in response to complaints by the United Food and Commercial Workers. The union accused Smithfield of illegally skewing a 1997 election by intimidating and firing workers," writes Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times.

Concluding that Smithfield engaged in "intense and widespread coercion," the court upheld the labor board's ruling that one worker was improperly coerced by being ordered to put a "Vote No" stamp on hogs. The appeals court ordered Smithfield to reinstate four fired workers, and the plant's 5,500 employees make it the world's largest pork-processing facility. The union is continuing its organizing drive at the plant, notes Greenhouse. (Read more)

Financial crisis shuts down emergency medical services in rural Okla.

Emergency ambulance services in rural Oklahoma are in such a state of financial crisis that callers to 911 may soon be providing basic care and transporting patients to hospitals.

"In the Enid area, where several rural ambulance services have shut down, response time to Garber, an area now being covered by Life EMS in Enid, is between 18 to 20 minutes. A state task force report indicates lives already are being jeopardized because lack of funds, and manpower shortages have slowed response times. Initial findings of the report were released to the state Board of Health. A final report is due Oct. 1," according to a combined Enid News and Associated Press report. (Read more)

Ten rural ambulance services recently closed, and several others towns have lost the services. Some of Oklahoma's 160 ambulance services are hospital-based, while others are taxpayer-subsidized or are private, for-profit businesses. Reasons for the financial problems include Medicare cuts for emergency care, uninsured patients, an aging population and budget shortfalls, according to the story.

Feud of past, current paper owners pits 'folk singer' vs. 'James Bond'

When David V. Mitchell sold his Pulitzer Prize-winning weekly newspaper last year to Robert I. Plotkin, some residents in Point Reyes Station, Calif., correctly predicted a rather rough transition.

The two men will appear in court May 12 for a review of a temporary restraining order Plotkin obtained in February against Mitchell, requiring that he stay away from Plotkin and the weekly Point Reyes Light office, after the two came to blows over a pending story.

"The nasty public feud between the past and present owners of the Light — Mr. Mitchell, a gangly, corncob-pipe-smoking 62-year-old who looks like an aging folk singer and won a Pulitzer Prize, and Mr. Plotkin, a 36-year-old onetime prosecutor with a GQ fashion sense who describes himself as 'a man of action, like James Bond' — has captivated the 14 far-flung villages here on the western tilt of Marin County," writes Patricia Leigh Brown of The New York Times.

"Along with oysters, pristine coastal scenery and mildly pungent organic cheeses, idiosyncrasy is part of the culture here. It has been this way since the early 1970's, when an oil spill cleanup first drew environmentally minded hippies, artists and opinionated Berkeley eggheads, who turned this area a short drive northwest of San Francisco into a spirited bastion of the rural left. It is a place where local news can just as easily run to skinny-dippers' rights as agricultural land conservation," continues Brown. (Read more)

The Rural Blog previously reported on this feud in its March 22 edition. Click here for the archived item, which includes a link to a story giving localized details.

Sacramento Bee wins Taylor Family Award for newspaper fairness

A series in The Sacramento Bee about the misuse and abuse of Latino immigrants who work in America's forest industry has won the 2006 Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers. The award, which carries a $10,000 prize, was established through gifts for an endowment by members of the Taylor family, which published The Boston Globe from 1872 to 1999. Judges praised The Bee's series, "The Pineros: Men of the Pines," for including "all the groups affected by this timely issue and for the way the pictures and stories gave a voice to people who are rarely heard." The contest is administered by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. --California Newspaper Publishers Association

Wisconsin Newspaper Association to discontinue hard-copy newsletter

The Wisconsin Newspaper Association's weekly Bulletin is about to go completely electronic. Other state newspaper associations already publish electronic-only newsletters. Will more follow suit, and is it a harbinger of the future for newspapers themselves? Starting June 7, the Bulletin will be available only on the World Wide Web, where 165 subscribers already receive the weekly reports on Wisconsin's papers and on valuable reporting resources. WNA Executive Director Peter Fox attributed the move to the $50,000 spent on printing and mailing the newsletter.

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Civic clubs perform good deeds, but can they with fewer members?

When news about civic clubs appears in local newspapers, it's usually about their good works. But those works may be fewer in many places these days, because many clubs' membership is declining. So in your town, it might be time for a story like the one done by the Florence TimesDaily, which took a look at the clubs in northwestern Alabama.

"According to 'Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community' by Robert D. Putnam, 58 percent fewer Americans attended club meetings in 2000 than they did in 1975. Those trends are troubling for local civic clubs that depend on members to help improve the community. To compensate for the trend, local clubs are ramping up efforts to attract new members. Most civic groups around the Shoals are finding is that potential club members have little time," writes Ty West.

During civic group's big years, employers often encouraged their workers to get involved, but nowadays that rarely happens due to time constraints. So, civic groups are starting to see their futures in other groups that include young people. Joining a civic group can be intimidating at first, said Will Heaps, a young man who recently joined the new Shoals Young Professionals Association, a networking and community service group. "Maybe hanging out with your peers might lead into getting involved in those other organizations," he told West. (Read more)

Chicken advocate gets stirred up by tonight's bird-flu thriller on ABC

When a chicken-industry lobbyist learned that ABC Television planned to broadcast a disaster thriller, "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America," tonight at 8, part of a key month for TV ratings, one might say he started running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

Richard Lobb of the National Chicken Council, which represents almost all chicken producers and processors in the U.S., demanded that the network change the word "bird" to "pandemic" in the title. He also wants the movie to carry disclaimers such as "This movie is fiction" and "Eating poultry is safe." Lobb also posted a video on his trade group's Web site featuring healthy chickens and points about how hard it is to contract avian flu, reports Jane Zhang of The Wall Street Journal. (Read more)

"With all the talk of avian flu, 53-year-old Mr. Lobb is the ultimate anti-Chicken Little. His job is to convince the public that the sky isn't falling, despite scary TV movies, disturbing media reports and government warnings that the flu is headed to the U.S. . . . To counter the scary stories, Mr. Lobb pointedly calls the disease the 'Asian bird flu,' with the emphasis on Asian. He notes that the government is testing tens of thousands of wild birds to try to get an early warning of the virus's arrival," writes Zhang.

U.S. senator urges grant-giving foundations to help rural America

Sen. Max Baucus, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, says rural America is often shortchanged and he wants foundations to double their grants to those areas in the next five years.

During a presentation Monday, Baucus cited statistics showing that 10 rural states received $35 per resident in foundation grants in 2005, compared to the national average of $104 per resident. That disparity hurts a part of America that already suffers from poverty, he said. A press release from the National Rural Funders Collaborative expands on that poverty: "Rural communities and regions are home to nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population -- 55 million Americans -- and 80 percent of the nation's land. Poverty is disproportionate in rural areas compared to urban areas -- 16 percent of the rural population is poor, while 12 percent of those living in urban areas are poor."

Baucus "said the states that receive the least money from foundations — Alaska, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia, Vermont, and Wyoming — have created wealth in other states by providing coal, timber, food, and other resources. But they all lack big cities, which have 'a wealth of people, expertise, and money' that can benefit rural areas," writes Suzanne Perry of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Some foundations must restrict their giving to metro areas, but others should give 5 percent to 10 percent of their grants to rural America within five years, Baucus told the foundations in Pittsburgh. (Read more)

Rural demand for broadband leads AT&T to provide satellite service

If you live in a rural area, chances are good that you are among the 72 percent of American households that either dial up to use the Internet or have no access at all. Now the nation's largest telephone company is entering the market for the expensive way to get high-speed broadband -- satellite service.

AT&T Inc. announced Monday it is partnering with WildBlue Communications Inc. to offer the service, targeting rural areas. The service costs much more than a digitial subscriber line (DSL), starting at $49.95 a month for a download speed of 512 kilobits per second. A speed of 1.5 megabits costs $79.95 a month. Click here to read a story from news services, compiled by the Detroit Free Press.

"Twenty-eight percent of American households subscribed to broadband service in 2005, about 30 million homes. Of the rest, 30 percent subscribe to dial-up Internet service, and 41 percent have no home access. Among broadband subscribers, distribution between cable modem and DSL was almost evenly split. DSL is less likely to serve rural residents; service is only available within a three-mile radius of a central office," writes Enid Burns of the ClickZ Network.

"Certain household factors make residents more or less likely to subscribe to broadband services. Households with high incomes are 39 percent more likely to subscribe to broadband than lower-income households. College-educated heads of households are 12 percent more likely to adopt broadband than households headed by someone without a college degree," continues Burns. (Read more)

Wind farms have little effect on economies, including energy sector

Andrew Kantor of the Roanoke Times follows up yesterday's story about a proposed wind farm with some basic truths about the industry -- it has little effect on economies where the turbines are located: "Putting 54 wind turbines on Bent and Poor mountains might change the view, and it could well stir environmental resistance. The proposed project would likely have little effect on the economy. Its prospects for bringing job growth, economic stimulation or cheap power to local residents are minimal."

In a question-and-answer format, Kantor's article tackles the basic facts about such wind farms. One such question is whether a local market really exists for "home-blown electricity." (Nice turn of phrase there.) "Probably not," reports Kantor. "In reality, Invenergy, the company studying the mountains as a possible location for those turbines, likely wouldn't sell the electricity to a local utility. Although produced locally, the electricity isn't priced more economically to customers in the area."

Another key question addressed by Kantor is the new Roanoke-area turbines would actually offset rising local electric prices. "Not likely," he writes. "The electricity generated by wind is a mere one-tenth of 1 percent of U.S. production." (Read more)

Every vote counts in 18-resident Md. town that 'flies in the face of logic'

"Mathematically, democracy in Port Tobacco approaches perfection: Two-thirds of all households have members who sit on the governing body and have a direct voice in municipal affairs," writes Joshua Partlow of The Washington Post.

Mortician John T.E. Hyde is the mayor and lone Democrat in Maryland's smallest municipality (population 18). "The budget last year had six times as much revenue as expenditures. And there has been nary a scandal since the courthouse mysteriously burned down 114 years ago," reports Partlow. Hyde certainly does not stress about his duties. "Before I became mayor, I wasn't paying attention" to the town, he said. "I'm hardly paying attention now."

But in a 60-acre town with eight homes and one-room schoolhouse, the same question keeps popping up: Can a small town be too small? "It kind of flies in the face of logic to even have an incorporated town of less than 20 people," said resident James L. Barbour, 81, who first wanted the government abolished in 1989, when Port Tobacco housed 36 residents. Every time the issue comes up, though, the town votes to retain itself, notes Partlow. (Read more)

Monday, May 8, 2006

Rural residents pay more for drugs than urbanites, study shows

The new Medicare Part D prescription drug plan is producing mixed results in rural areas, and a study reveals an insurance equity gap between rural and urban residents.

"Rural persons do apparently like these stand-alone prescription plans because 21 percent of them have signed up, as compared to 13 percent of urban persons," said Tim McBride, one of the authors of Medicare Part D: Early Findings on Enrollment and Choices for Rural Beneficiaries. "However, rural persons may be enrolling in these plans because they don’t have as many other options as urban persons do for prescription drug coverage."

The new study by the Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis of the Rural Policy Research Institute reports several key findings: 59 percent of rural beneficiaries and 67 percent of urban beneficiaries have creditable drug coverage; 3 percent of rural beneficiaries were enrolled in Medicare Advantage prescription drug (MA-PD) plans, compared to 16 percent of urban beneficiaries; and average monthly premiums for MA-PD plans vary from $6 in urban New Hampshire to $53 in rural Hawaii. Click here to read the report.

Drilling, mining booms give rural states best per-capita income growth

Americans with the most per-capita income growth since 2000 reside in five states that are major suppliers of oil, natural gas or coal, according to a USA Today analysis of federal data.

"Wyoming topped the list: Personal income rose an inflation-adjusted 13.9% from 2000 to 2005. The state was well-positioned to take advantage of higher energy prices. It ranks No. 1 in coal production, No. 4 in natural gas and No. 7 in oil — but No. 50 in population. Not far behind the energy states were Virginia and Maryland, which experienced explosive growth in their Washington, D.C., suburbs," writes Dennis Cauchon of USA Today. (Read more)

Rounding out the top five were Montana (13 percent), North Dakota (10.3%), New Mexico (10.1%) and West Virginia (9.6%). With each state, the USA Today analysis credited high energy prices for boosting the per-capita incomes. For a chart on state-by-state incomes and to see how those figures have changed across the country from 2000 to 2005, click here.

High fuel costs force rural Alaskans to decide whether to eat or heat

Rising heat costs are forcing Alaskan villages to ration electricity by going dark on the weekends, reports Johanna Eurich of KDLG (Dillingham, Alaska) for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

Across rural Alaska, village residents have seen fuel prices double during the last two years. Many villages do not even have the option of rationing electricity, because they lack enough fuel to run their generators, notes Eurich. Some residents are having to choose between purchasing food or paying for heat.

"Residents all over rural Alaska worry about the latest wave of price increases in the lower 48. As long as the rivers remain frozen and the fuel purchased back in the fall holds out, they'll continue to pay last fall's fuel prices. But when the ice breaks loose and the spring barge heads up the river, it will leave behind a wave of even higher fuel prices. Many wonder if they can afford to continue living in these places they call home," reports Eurich. Click here to listen to the report.

No Child Left Behind targets poor districts, but is funding adequate?

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, aims to provide more resources to school districts with high concentrations of poor children, but critics say federal support is lacking.

"In response, federal officials have pointed to increases in Title I spending and new money to pay for testing as evidence of the government’s financial commitment to the law. They have also charged that the states have not taken full advantage of the federal funds available to them. Others have added that the accountability measures prescribed by No Child Left Behind Act may themselves help ensure that education resources are used more efficiently," reports Education Week.

A survey of the states conducted for Quality Counts 2004 further highlights the concern about whether states will be able to help all the districts not meeting federal progress targets. The survey reported that in the 2003-04 school year, 36 states planned to provide assistance to such schools, and 22 states planned to punish low performers, according to Education Week. (Read more)

Rural Tenn. kids create Holocaust memorial, break many stereotypes

Students at Whitwell Middle School in southeast Tennessee took a unique approach to learning about the Holocaust -- they collected six million paper clips to illustrate the scope of the Nazi campaign, in "a lesson in social tolerance, diversity and stereotypes," and it "grew into a children's Holocaust memorial."

So writes Bill Poovey of The Associated Press in the latest report on an inspiring project in what some might think is an unlikely place -- a coal-mining town of 1,660 in the Sequatchie River valley, a wide gash in the Cumberland Plateau 15 miles northwest of Chattanooga. The latest news peg was a Friday visit by a group of Jewish bikers, another example of broken stereotype.

When the school began teaching students about the Holocaust, teachers realized the need for something to illustrate its magnitude. Someone suggested they collect six million pieces of some kind of object, and a student suggested paper clips because Norwegians wore the clips on their lapels to protest deportation of Jews from the German-occupied country. The project was supposed to last three years, but has been continued indefinitely, with the addition of a rail car used to transport Jews to a Nazi concentration camp.

"It's an amazing story," Sam Blumenstein, a Jewish biker from Melbourne, Australia, told Poovey. "My mother, Sylvia, was in one of those cattle cars. That's why I'm here." Assistant Principal David Smith, who with English teacher Sandy Roberts started the project, told Poovey that the bikers' visit also struck at the stereotype of "Southern, redneck people" and "conservative fundamentalist Christians. . . . We are saying you should be tolerant and learn to respect cultural diversity." (Read more)

Two books try to redefine Appalachia and dispel its stereotypes

Appalachia is often stereotyped as backward, uncultured and poor, but two new books may change those long-standing perceptions, reports Howard Berkes of National Public Radio.

The United States of Appalachia, by Jeff Biggers, and The Encyclopedia of Appalachia, co-edited by Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell, highlight the region's historical and cultural achievements.

Abramson described to NPR the different definitions of Appalachia that exist today: "The Appalachia at large that people generally talk about now, which extends from Mississippi to New York, is a political definition that was created in the mid-1960s. . . . Then you have another definition of it which is basically the definition of landforms, the mountains themselves, which extend from down into Alabama all the way up off the coast of Newfoundland."

The Encyclopedia opens with a 1900 New York Journal article's description of the "hill-billie" as "a free and untrammelled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him."

The United States of Appalachia looks to completely debunk that image. "It is not a definitive history of the region; instead, it is a portrait of a hidden Appalachia on the cutting edge, full of revolutionaries and pioneering stalwarts, abolitionists, laborers, journalists, writers, activists, and artists overlooked among the lineup of conventional Appalachian suspects," writes Biggers. Click here to listen to the NPR report.

Virginia's rural areas hope to attract high-tech businesses from D.C.

While Northern Virginia benefits from high-tech jobs, state leaders want to start bringing businesses to the rural areas and they plan to do that by working with Washington, D.C.-based companies.

"In two months, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership will throw its weight behind another such effort, asking companies in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area to 'offshore' some of their functions to an area that might as well be overseas to some because it's perceived as so remote: the western area of Virginia," reports Angela Manese-Lee of The Roanoke Times.

The Distributed Services Initiative will promote the communities of Blacksburg, Lynchburg, Danville and Harrisonburg as ideal places for businesses looking to move back-office operations to lower-cost areas, writes Manese-Lee. (Read more)

Washington town uses Web site to bring back its young people

Winthrop, Wash., population 349, is already succeeding at recruiting entrepreneurs from Seattle, 200 miles by road across the Cascade Mountains, but now it hopes to bring back its young people with the Web site www.bringbackthekids.com, recently featured on Jack Schultz's Boomtown USA blog.

The site is under construction, but already contains descriptive passages about rural America: "Unfortunately, our culture is slipping away. As more and more kids grow up and leave this place, a social vacuum is created. An influx of new people bring new values and ideas, many of which are good and welcome. But . . . we are always a community at odds with itself; a community unaware of it’s past. Only the continuity of generations can preserve this tribal knowledge that any healthy culture requires."

The town's mission statement is simple: "Bring Back the Kids. Bring back tomorrow’s community leaders. Bring back the power, the personality, the passion we bred into these people. We invest too much in them to let them slip through our fingers. The price to retain them is low, the cost of losing them is great. All we need offer them is a place to work, a place to contribute, a place to succeed."

Chicago company eyes Virginia mountains as spots for wind farms

"Long based in the West, the wind energy industry is rapidly expanding into the Appalachians and other Eastern sites as the United States looks for more renewable energy sources," writes John Cramer of The Roanoke Times, covering Chicago-based Invenergy Wind LLC's plan to build wind turbines atop the Bent and Poor mountains in Roanoke County, Virginia.

"Details about the potential project -- including the number and location of turbines -- have not been determined," Cramer reports. "But Eastern wind farms typically use 400-foot-high turbines, and 81 megawatts would require more than 50 turbines covering several miles, making it a large facility for the Appalachian Mountains, officials said."

Wind turbines produce cleaner energy than coal, oil and other sources, but they threaten animals and natural resources. The potential Bent Mountain project "serves to illustrate the big problem with Appalachian wind farms in general -- for the most part, the only areas with sufficient wind for commercial wind projects are the ecologically special areas that represent the best of what remains of our wild landscape," Rick Webb, a University of Virginia environmental scientist, told Cramer. (Read more)

Community Newspaper Holdings eyes paper in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., a Birmingham, Ala.-based chain with almost 300 newspapers in 21 states, is interested in buying the Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., from the McClatchy Co. when the company buys the newspaper from Knight Ridder.

CNHI owns 89 daily and more than 200 non-daily newspapers. "Some analysts think the Times Leader doesn’t fit into the CNHI chain, which is comprised of small-circulation newspapers in non-competitive markets," writes Renita Fennick of the Times Leader. The newspaper's daily circulation is 41,334. That would make it the second-largest paper in CNHI, if the chain buys it.

The Times Leader is one of eight Knight Ridder newspapers being sold by McClatchy, which announced its purchase of the 32-newspaper chain in March. (Read more)

Friday, May 5, 2006

Teenage pregnancy increases risk of rural children living in poverty

Rural children are becoming more likely to live in poverty for a number of reasons including the fact that only 420 counties were considered agriculturally-dependent in 2000, down from 2,000 counties in 1950, according to the latest Center for Rural Affairs newsletter.

Another reason includes the decline of family structure: "While urban and rural areas experience similar divorce rates, it is clear that poverty rates for children are higher in rural areas. Single female parent households in rural areas account for up to 48 percent of children considered in poverty. This compares with 34 percent in urban areas."

The newsletter also cites teenage pregnancy rates: "Unwed teenage mothers with less than a high school education have a 78 percent poverty rate. Mothers who are married, over 20, with at least a high school education experience only a 6 percent poverty rate. According to USDA statistics, unwed mothers in rural areas have children earlier than those in urban areas, impacting their educational attainment." (Read more)

Immigrants help build communities just as ancestors did, opines writer

"Rural America would be best served by a balanced approach to immigration. It should be managed to limit the work force to levels that allow working people to earn decent wages. But we should embrace the immigrants who are here and enable them to become full and contributing members of our communities," opines Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs.

Hassebrook writes that as U.S. lawmakers strengthen immigration laws and work on ways to better enforce them, it is important "to recognize the benefits of immigration managed at reasonable levels and the importance of assimilating new Americans into our communities. New families can help build our communities, as did our own immigrant ancestors.

"For their part, new immigrants should embrace the responsibilities, as well as the rights, of becoming part of America. That includes taking steps to citizenship, learning the language, joining in community life, voting, and contributing their time and talents to the betterment of America and its communities," Hassebrook concludes. (Read more)

Asset building, economic development cited as keys in 2007 Farm Bill

Two keys to the 2007 Farm Bill will be economic development in rural areas and asset-building strategies for residents in those communities, according to the latest Center for Rural Affairs newsletter.

"Entrepreneurship is now recognized by many as the alternative model to traditional industrial and business recruitment. Federal rural development policy must begin to recognize its importance. Asset and wealth-building strategies are equally important. And agriculturally-based entrepreneurship and innovation must also continue to play a vital role in rural development policy," notes the newsletter.

The newsletter also contains a feature article with more specifics about the proposals. (Read more)

Pay for protection: Rural areas might be billed for police for N.J.

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine is proposing that rural municipalities start paying for State Police protection, even though that service is provided in some big cities for free.

"An analysis on the Department of Law and Public Safety, released for yesterday's Senate Budget Committee hearing, shows the proposal would cost 73 rural towns $24 million for full- or part-time State Police patrols. This would range from $9,520 for Walpack in Sussex County to $1.3 million for Southampton Township in Burlington County," writes Rick Hepp of The Star-Ledger.

Attorney General Zulima Farber informed lawmakers that the state currently spends about $80 million a year to provide police coverage for rural areas. She suggested towns team up with neighboring communities for use of their local police departments. Neither her suggestion or the governor's proposal is going over well with many rural leaders, reports Hepp.

In Sussex County, half of the 24 towns depend on state police protection "Oh, my God, I don't believe this. This will kill towns," Lafayette Township Commit teeman John D'Angeli, whose town would owe $223,720 for coverage, told Hepp. "I just hope it doesn't get approved by the Legislature." (Read more)

Wisconsin governor removes 'rural' from the Rural JobZ Act

When Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle cut the word "rural" from the Rural JobZ Act, some politicians say he eliminated a tool for economic development in those non-urban areas.

"Metro areas already have tools for economic development. We wanted something for rural areas," said Rep. Kitty Rhoades, R-Hudson. The Rural JobZ Act would have created up to 10 economic development zones for rural areas not larger than 50,000 acres. Doyle also his line-item veto option to reduce the size of economic development zones from 50,000 acres to 50 acres, reports Brady Bautch in the River Falls Journal. Bautch is the Internet publisher for the RiverTown Newspaper Group.

Dan Leistikow, Doyle's communications director, said, "The bill would have been open to an urban area like Green Bay, but not Madison or Milwaukee. There's no reason it should not have benefited the entire state." Doyle recently signed a bill to give tax credits to broadband development in rural areas, which could lure companies into providing Internet service, writes Bautch. (Read more)

Arizona Board of Regents to gain two rural county representatives

Rural residents will fill two spots on the Arizona Board of Regents, after Gov. Janet Napolitano signed a bill into law Thursday.

The two regents will be appointed for eight-year terms beginning in 2008, marking the first time for rural representation on the board since January 2004. One regent must come from Apache, Coconino, Gila, Mohave, Navajo or Yavapai county and the second must come from Cochise, Graham, Greenlee, La Paz, Pinal, Santa Cruz or Yuma county, reports The Associated Press. (Read more)

"Supporters of the bill said having two regents from rural counties would provide a voice for those counties' concerns, particularly desires for increased opportunities for four-year degrees," reports AP.

Pugnacious Kentucky editor gets in local hall of fame, posthumously

Guy Hatfield, who died last year at 54, has been in the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame for five years but only last night entered the Hall of Honor of the Estill Development Alliance, his home county's hall of fame. It might be because he "got people's noses out of joint ... part of the job description of a journalist," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

"A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country. That’s what the carpenter’s son told his fellow Galileans when he returned to his home country, performing mighty works and getting their noses out of joint," Cross told the audience. "On the wall of the School of Journalism at the University of Kentucky, there is a plaque certifying to a man who performed mighty works in his home country – and also got some people’s noses out of joint."

That plaque says, in part: “Publisher of three strong weekly newspapers . . . Kentucky’s youngest publisher . . . the youngest president of the Kentucky Weekly Newspaper Association, and the only person to head that organization three times . . . as president of the Kentucky Press Association, visited every newspaper in the state . . . most valuable member of KPA . . . winner of 542 awards [some from the National Newspaper Association] . . . staunch defender of the First Amendment . . . uncovered many stories of corruption in government and schools.”

Cross said a former Hatfield employee reminded him that "When one of his biggest advertisers got into some big legal trouble, Guy didn't shy away from printing the story. That business still doesn't advertise with the Citizen Voice and Times, but Guy knew that was the price you sometimes had to pay for maintaining your integrity as a journalist. Doing those essential journalistic things is more difficult in a small community like this one, where today’s neighbor is tomorrow’s story subject. But people in smaller communities should have the same right to journalism that fulfills the promise of the First Amendment. That means you have to make some tough calls that get people's noses out of joint, and sometimes those calls are wrong, or they have repercussions you don't expect. But a good editor is like a watchdog -- you have to out up with a little extraneous barking if the watchdog is doing a good job. Guy Hatfield was committed to the idea of watchdog journalism, and it’s what made him not only a great public servant for Estill County, but a great example for other rural journalists to follow."

Whoops, there he goes, still getting those noses out of joint. But Guy had the courage, talent, tenacity and integrity it took to tell the people what they needed to know to be fully informed citizens. To read Cross's remarks, click here.

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Inspector says at hearing he may have caused Sago miscommunication

A state mine inspector testified Wednesday that he may have been the source of the misinformation that 12 miners survived the January explosion at the Sago Mine. "I don't recall the exact words I used,'' said Bill Tucker, an assistant inspector at large for the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training. "I was just screaming out for help," reports The Associated Press. (Read more)

That testimony came in hearings with federal, state and company officials in Buckhannon, W.Va. "I started screaming for help, saying 'They're over here, they're over here!'" Tucker said. "I think I said they're alive and that might have been part of the communications mistake. In my mind, I knew most of them were dead," report Dennis B. Roddy and Steve Twedt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (Read more)

For more coverage on Wednesday's hearings by Ken Ward Jr. in the Charleston Gazette, click here.

New pandemic bird flu plan calls for urban-rural assistance strategy

A new Bush administration plan for dealing with pandemic flu calls for a strategy to make sure assistance is given to both urban and rural areas throughout the world.

The plan, presented Wednesday, is the administration's latest effort to detail how federal, state and local agencies would handle a flu epidemic. It also calls for the U.S. to work with the international community to develop a plan on how to distribute pandemic influenza assistance to urban, rural, and remote populations. To read the 233-page Implementation Plan for the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, click here.

Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the preventive medicine department at Vanderbilt University, called the plan "realistic" by it not suggesting borders be closed and said that cities and states need to prepare, reports Gardiner Harria of The New York Times. "Localities cannot rely on the feds to be the cavalry that rides over the hill to rescue every U.S. town and city from pandemic influenza," he said. (Read more)

Rural areas use wireless Internet to boost economies, end digital divide

A rural technology grant from the American Distance Education Consortium is helping residents of Chesterhill, Ohio, gain access to wireless Internet and that is just one example of communities charging into the technology future.

"Local governments across the country are getting into the wireless Internet business. Communities left behind by the high-technology revolution of the last two decades view municipal networks as an affordable means of renewing their economic competitiveness and a way to bridge the digital divide between technology haves and have-nots," writes Tim Gnatek of The New York Times.

The industry Weblog muniwireless.com reports that more than 120 such networks are up and running around the country. Nearly 60 other cities have requested proposals from vendors or started the process of creating their own networks, reports Gnatek. Several telecommunication companies have criticized the municipal efforts, saying they instead are better suited to meet consumers' needs. (Read more)

Immigration bill causes farmers to worry about losing workers

If a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives becomes law, farmers that employ illegal immigrants would be charged with a crime and face thousands of dollars in fines.

"In recent weeks, thousands of immigrant rights supporters have rallied to oppose some of the proposals, expressing concern about stiff criminal penalties and calling illegal immigrants important to the economy. Chief among the concerns of most growers is the loss of much-needed labor. They say that without migrant workers, they would face bankruptcy and the cost of food would soar," reports Mark Johnson of The Associated Press.

A U.S. Department of Labor survey conducted in 2001 and 2002 shows that 78 percent of the nation's 1.8 million crop workers are immigrants, mainly from Mexico, and 53 percent are not here legally. The legislation passed by the U.S. House would also order a fence along stretches of the U.S.-Mexican border to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country, reports AP. (Read more)

Va. town elects anti-immigration slate; new paper aided campaign

An election in Herndon, Va., on Tuesday saw three pro-immigration officials get the boot because of their support for a job center, and this may just be the beginning of a national backlash against immigrants.

Voters unseated Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly and two Town Council members who supported a day labor center created to help immigrant workers find jobs. Their replacements hope to bar the use of taxpayer money for the facility and limit access to legal immigrants. "Immigrant rights organizations called it a small election in a small town, carrying no larger message," write Bill Turque and Karin Brulliard of The Washington Post. This story is just one example of how immigration might influence political campaigns.

"In the last weeks of the campaign, at least two editions of a new newspaper, the Herndon Compass, were widely distributed in residential neighborhoods. The masthead and bylines include the names of prominent opponents of the labor center, including Susan Powell, a signatory to the lawsuit brought against the town by conservative group Judicial Watch. One story, under the headline 'Herndon Serious Crime Up 45% -- Or More,' was called inaccurate by Herndon police," write Turque and Brulliard. (Read more)


Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Inspector says at hearing he may have caused Sago miscommunication

A state mine inspector testified today that he may have been the source of the misinformation that 12 miners survived the January explosion at the Sago Mine. "I don't recall the exact words I used,'' said Bill Tucker, an assistant inspector at large for the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training. "I was just screaming out for help," reports The Associated Press.

The hearings involve federal, state and company officials in Buckhannon, W.Va, and allow relatives of the 12 coal miners who died to demand answers about the explosion. "The hearings are intended to give the families a chance to ask questions directly of the officials involved. By turns plaintive, skeptical and mocking, they challenged government regulators and officials of the International Coal Group, the mine owner, to provide more information," writes Christopher Maag of The New York Times.

"I think I may have said 'They're alive.''' Tucker said today. Then he said he realized that the first miner did not have a pulse. Further checking revealed only Randal McCloy Jr. had survived. "I picked up the radio and I hollered over the radio that we only have one (alive)," Tucker testified. (Read more)

The miners carried self-rescuer devices with an hour's worth of oxygen, and tests showed that all of them were functional. However, in a letter to victims' families, McCloy wrote that four of the canisters malfunctioned during the disaster. Officials have questioned whether the miners were adequately trained on the devices, reports Maag. "They donned their respirators and barricaded themselves as they were trained," said Christopher Toler, the son of the late Martin Toler Jr. (Read more)

For additional coverage on the hearings by Ken Ward Jr. in the Charleston Gazette, click here. For coverage by Dennis Roddy and Steve Twedt in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, click here.

Ally of religious conservatives wins Ohio gubernatorial nomination

Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, an African American with strong ties to religious conservatives who are largely white, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland of southeastern Ohio, an ordained Methodist minister whose allies call him a "Golden Rule Democrat," won the primaries for governor of Ohio last night, setting up a fall fight that will be closely watched nationally.

Blackwell, who had the tougher primary, immediately focused his sights on his new opponent in his victory speech: "Message to Brother Strickland: You can run, but you can't hide. We represent change. We represent the future. There is no retreat in our bones."

"Strickland signaled that Blackwell's proposed Tax and Expenditure Limitation (TEL) proposal, a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to limit government spending, will be a key issue in the campaign, contending that it will cause more problems than it solves," reported Joe Hallett and Mark Niquette and Catherine Candisky of The Columbus Dispatch.

They wrote, "Some observers said yesterday's primary represents a fundamental shift in the state GOP away from more traditional fiscal Republicans to social and religious conservatives." William C. Binning, chairman of the political science department at Youngstown State University and a veteran Republican activist, told the Dispatch, "It's a redefinition of the Ohio Republican Party." (Read more)

Blackwell would be "perhaps the most openly theocratic governor since John Winthrop ruled the Massachusetts Bay Colony as the right hand of God," opines The Revealer, a daily online review of religion and the press, published by the Center for Religion and Media at New York University. The Revealer says the best reporting on "Blackwell's possibly illegal relationship with two major Ohio megachurches" has been done by local news outlets and "Now" on PBS. Their report on it "is just straight-up TV reporting -- which, compared to a national press which still considers religion mostly a private matter -- is extraordinary," The Revealer says. "Watch it and take notes -- this race matters." (Read more)

J-prof's research leads to pardons for Montanans convicted of sedition

In Montana, a largely rural state, 78 people convicted of sedition 88 years ago will be pardoned today by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, as the result of research performed by college professors and students.

Shortly after Clemens P. Work, director of graduate studies at the University of Montana School of Journalism, wrote a book called "Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West," Jeffrey Renz, a law professor at the University of Montana, had his students research the sedition issue as part of a criminal law clinic. Students spoke with family members of the 78 people, all now deceased, and others researched the law, ultimately leading to a petition for the pardon being granted today, reports Jim Robbins of The New York Times.

Montana's sedition law made it a crime to say or publish anything "disloyal, profane, violent, scurrilous, contemptuous or abusive" about the government, soldiers or the American flag. It passed by legislators in February 1918 and expired when World War I concluded, notes Robbins. (Read more)

A Billings Gazette editorial applauds the pardons: "Wartime heightens suspicions of those who are different and intensifies the tendency to find a group to blame. Tests of patriotism are devised or implied when the nation's highest officials insist that their critics are endangering national security. Much as Montanans may want to think that those days are gone in which a citizen was imprisoned for refusing to buy government bonds or for making an opinionated remark, the truth is that our society cannot take freedom of speech for granted now or ever." (Read more)

The more farming changes, the more it stays the same in Calif. county

The Ventura County Star confronted the past, present and future of farming in Southern California with a new series called "Farming on the Edge."

In the first story, "A future in doubt," reporter John Krist describes the series' mission: "Each month for the remainder of the year, this series will take you into local fields, pastures and orchards for a behind-the-scenes look at farming in Southern California's last great agriculture landscape."

In the second half of part one, "Story of agriculture is repeating itself," Krist writes, "The long history of agriculture in this region reflects a continuous pattern of evolution as growers have confronted successive challenges to their profitability -- from isolation and aridity to global competition and sprawling urbanization -- by adopting the products of research and experimentation. Yet despite 200 years of continuous change, agriculture in Ventura County still displays some features of its earliest days. To name two: imported water and imported labor. And a third: vulnerability to foreign competition."

Click here to read more of the stories, view maps and watch videos. (Scroll down the left side of the page and click on the series' pop-up window.)

Software grants to boost computer literacy in Appalachian communities

The Appalachian Regional Commission and Microsoft Corp. are partnering to provide software grants to non-profit organizations serving Appalachian communities.

"If your organization provides education, training or other kinds of computer access in rural or other underserved areas then Microsoft and ARC want to help. Grants are generally awarded for programs that provide services like computer literacy training, worker training, community education (youth/adult/elder), or business development training and support. However, this program is designed to be very flexible in helping to meet the needs of each community organization, so if you have a question about whether your program qualifies, please ask so we can help," writes David Glasgow, special assistant to the ARC's federal co-chair.

A typical grant will provide software valued between $5,000 to 15,000 per facility/program. For details about an application or for other questions about this program, contact Glasgow at 202-884-7663 or dglasgow@arc.gov.

Newspaper editor tells community papers to embrace the Web

Newspaper Web sites can and should be more than just the online presentation of the newspaper, with many possibilities for increasing readership and expanding the news product, writes Charlotte Atkins, editor of the Rome News-Tribune, a 20,000-circulation daily in Rome, Ga.

She targets her column in the Alabama Press Association newsletter AlaPressa to all sizes of community papers, many of which hesitate to publish much online. She writes that her paper has gone from a daily to an "hourly" via the Web, and its site is getting 1 million hits a month.

"Instead of sticking a toe in the online waters, it's time for community newspapers to plunge in and recognize that in this news-on-demand world that a dynamic Web site is an opportunity to give our readers news as it happens throughout the day in an interactive and compelling way," Atkins writes. "Newspaper readers and online users seek experiences, not just information, with their news."

Readers still like to read the morning paper with their coffee, as always, but now check online for updated coverage throughout the day, she writes. Other readers rely on the site to keep them informed about what happens in the community. To drawn these users in, the paper has expanded its online offerings with a photo gallery, blogs, news alert e-mail, online calendars and streaming Associated Press news. They have also added a Spanish section to target the growing Hispanic community. And because of their efforts, the paper has been able to offer usual readers more services and has targeted a lagging demographic, the 18-34 age group.

"We are an hourly news organization that has a morning print edition and dynamic electronic edition that is updated as news unfolds throughout the day," Atkins writes. "Some newsrooms are finding this demand for immediacy challening, but I believe it's more about changing newsroom culture than introducing new technology."

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Immigrants' boycott, protests add steam to issue for rural America

As more than a million mostly Hispanic immigrants boycotted work Monday to protest a reform package being debated in Congress, one rural town anxiously awaited a Supreme Court ruling.

In Calhoun, Ga., population 13,000, nearly one-sixth of the population hails from another country, writes Dahleen Glanton of the Chicago Tribune: "Some whites see immigrants, legal or not, as unfair contenders in the competition for coveted jobs they have held for generations at the carpet mills. For the most part, they have accepted the changing demographics with apprehension, much as they reluctantly took to forced integration with African-Americans in the 1960s."

Located in the Southern Appalachians between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn., the town was involved in a case heard by the Supreme Court last week -- a class-action lawsuit by one current and three former workers at Calhoun's largest employer, carpetmaker Mohawk Industries. The suit claims the company kept wages for its more than 4,000 local workers low by recruiting illegal immigrants. The court must decide whether a company thought to have knowingly hired illegal immigrants can be sued under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970, originally designed to target organized crime and eventually expanded to include immigration violations, reports Glanton. (Read more)

Yesterday's boycott produced little effect on Calhoun. The Calhoun Times reported that local businesses had already scaled back work shifts because of slow business, thus minimizing the boycott's effects. Many area businesses' staffs are less than 10 percent Hispanic, according to the staff report. (Read more)

The Washington Post wrote about the day's impact on various job sectors: "The agriculture industry saw some impact in California's Central Valley, where growers are harvesting lettuce and thinning fruit trees. An estimated 30 to 40 percent of fieldworkers elected not to go to work Monday, said Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League." (Read more) A Reuters story described the agriculture-immigration connection: "Agribusiness is warning Americans that the $12 trillion U.S. economy could be forced to go on an expensive diet if immigrant workers are restricted." (Read more)

Small newspapers will lead the way as industry adapts, exec says

As the newspaper industry grapples with great challenges, the best ideas will come from smaller papers, Charles Pittman, senior vice president of Schurz Communications, based in South Bend, Ind., told editors of smaller papers at last week's American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in Seattle.

"I know we are not in the last days of our business; we are simply at the frontier of a new era," Pittman said. "And, you, the representatives of smaller newspapers are the ones who will be the innovators. You will discover better ways to run your business. And, then we will all steal from each other. I’m not psychic; I’m simply aware that Steve Jobs started Apple Computer in a garage and Bill Gates once had to borrow money. Great things have always come from things that were once small. You are small and able to adapt more quickly to the realities of the market. You look to the future because you hear something coming down the tracks and you refuse to let it knock you off course."

Pittman advised editors to "be relentlessly local, be people-centered, vary your writing, use breakouts as much as humanly possible, provide news your readers like, provide features they enjoy, offer motivators for your readers, explain more fully what articles mean, do everything possible to keep readers coming back by being respectful of their time, promote your own projects within an inch of their lives, embrace the web and increase reader interaction with your paper."

And he warned them to be wary of influential neighbors. "All the spinmeisters aren’t on Wall Street or K Street. They’re also on the Main Streets of Decatur, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa, and Loveland, Ohio," he said. "You know them; you go to the same parties as they do. But, you have to recognize that sometimes their jobs are to disseminate half-truths. Half-truths are easy to put out into the public consciousness and very difficult to erase. But, they can be erased." To read the full speech, click here.

Take out the trash: Rural county revolts over sludge from Los Angeles

"It's a typical day at Green Acres: Rippling fields of wheat await harvest, a cat scampers after field mice and workers unload 750 tons of processed human waste from Los Angeles, fertilizing a quiet revolt in rural Kern County. Fearful of deteriorating air and water quality, many folks in the New Jersey-size county have about had it with the daily parade of trucks dumping sewage sludge onto their fields," writes Steve Chawkins of the Los Angeles Times.

On June 6, Kern County residents will vote on a ban of the use of sewage sludge on farm fields. Los Angeles bought the 4,688-acre Green Acres farm in 2000 and believes a sludge ban would illegally restrict the use of its property. The county takes in one-third of the state's sludge, and such a ban could lead to similar actions in other parts of the San Joaquin Valley, Carol Whiteside, director of the Great Valley Center, a research organization in Modesto, told Chawkins.

Just the prospect of the "Keep Kern Clean" initiative has delayed a Missouri company's plan to build a landfill to hold millions of tons of Los Angeles garbage in the county. In the meantime, Los Angeles officials are talking to Arizona farmers about taking on the sludge, which would increase the cost to taxpayers from $7 million a year to as much as $21 million a year, reports Chawkins. (Read more)

Missouri House OKs college scholarships to help staff rural schools

Aspiring nurses and teachers in underserved parts of Missouri, many of which include rural areas, may soon get an all-expenses paid college education.

The state House passed a bill Monday that would provide a scholarship for Missouri high school graduates wishing to attend a state college or university, up to a maximum of 100 students annually. Several legislators said the bill is warranted because many of the state's rural and urban teachers lack adequate nursing and teaching numbers, reports Chris Blank of The Associated Press. (Read more)

The program would be handled by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and would let college graduates pay off one year of schooling with two years of work in a school with a more than average "at-risk" student base. If a teacher does not work long enough to pay off the scholarship, then it would become a loan with 9.5 percent interest. The state Senate will consider the bill next.

High gas prices lead to increased costs in many areas for farmers

Farmers across the U.S. are witnessing a jump in how much it costs to buy seeds and fertilizer, in addition to the already high gasoline prices.

"Fuel costs are a big deal, but it's not so much about what we put in the tractor, it's the cost of fertilizer, the cost of seed, the cost of transportation and everything that comes with high fuel prices," Westport, S.D. farmer Darren Engelhardt told The Associated Press. "The cost of everything has probably gone up 30 percent from last year to this year."

Allan May, an Extension agricultural economist, said high gas prices are starting to have a rollover effect into other farming areas: "It stretches beyond just the fuel farmers use. Farmers and others in the agriculture industry are going to start paying, if they aren't already, more for all the goods and services." (Read more)

Burley farming expands in Maryland as state's signature type dwindles

Southern Maryland, once known in the tobacco industry for its delicate, fine-burning Type 32 leaf, now raises more of another kind of tobacco -- burley, the main type raised in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Production of Type 32 this year will more than likely top out at 300,000 pounds, down from 1.9 million last year and more than 10 million a decade ago. Burley production in Maryland is estimated to be between 600,000 and 700,000 pounds this year. "My impression is that this crop was quite acceptable considering it was their first time growing the type," said David Conrad, Maryland extension tobacco specialist, told Chris Bickers of the Southeast Farm Press.

The death of Type 32 tobacco would end its nearly 400-year history. (Read more)

Calif. editor under fire after pressuring reporter for Final Four passes

Richard Luna, editor of the daily Ventura County Star in California, has been disciplined for pressuring a sports reporter to get him passes for the recent NCAA Final Four basketball games and is under investigation by E.W. Scripps Co. for other possible breaches of ethics.

The violation also prompted "a mass meeting with the publisher," Tim Gallagher, who told Editor & Publisher, "An appropriate disciplinary action has been taken." He wouldn't be specific, saying he was "trying to protect privacy," reports E&P's Mark Fitzgerald.

"Gallagher said in addition to investigating other rumored ethical violations, Mary E. Minser, Scripps’ director of employee relations, will look at how top management handled the investigation and discipline of Luna," Fitzgerald reports. He writes that newsroom employees told him "They have been frustrated by what they say has been a lack of transparency in the process. Nothing has been published about the ethical breaches in the paper, and Luna and top management have not detailed how the managing editor was disciplined." Gallagher told E&P that no coverage was called for because the violations did not directly affect readers. That call is up to Editor Joe Howry, who told E&P, “My inclination right now is full disclosure,” after the investigation is over.

"Luna has met with newsroom staff individually about the incidents. According to one reporter who met with him, Luna read from a prepared statement that he did not elaborate upon. Luna did not return a phone message from E&P seeking comment," Fitzgerald writes. "Luna joined the paper as managing editor in August 2004, about five months after he abruptly left the Detroit News, where he was metro editor. Press reports at the time noted that the year before he had also suddenly left his position as managing editor of the Indianapolis Star." Both those papers are owned by Gannett Co. Inc. (Read more)

Monday, May 1, 2006

Some violent crimes almost as common in rural America as elsewhere

The rate of certain violent crimes in rural America rival those in urban America, contrary to a long-standing perception that smaller communities are immune from crimes like rape and assault.

"Rural psychologist Pamela Mulder says people might be surprised to learn the percentage of completed rapes, domestic violence and assaults are just as high here as in bigger cities . . . due in part to the isolation of rural living," reports Jodi Juhl of WOWK-TV 13 in Huntington/Charleston. Most rural upbringings teach people they can trust their neighbors and not have to worry about crime, Mulder said.

In 2003, the rate of reported rapes in in rural areas, was 0.6 per 1,000 persons 12 and above; in urban areas it was 0.8 per 1,000. The rate of assault in rural areas was 16.4; in suburbs it was 18.1, and in central cities it was 23.8. To see a table from the Department of Justice, click here.

It appears now that younger rural residents are taking a different perspective on safety and they are learning more about protecting themselves, reports Juhl. A rape aggression defense class is attracting droves of students at Marshall University, who are being encouraged to be more aware of their surroundings. (Read more)

South Texas county calls for boycott of Exxon Mobil starting today

Officials in Bee County, Texas, on the plain between Corpus Christi and San Antonio, are taking a stand against rising gasoline prices, becoming possibly the first in the country to pass a resolution asking motorists to boycott Exxon Mobil fuel pumps starting today.

The resolution is coming as gas prices surpass $3 in some states, nine cents above the national average. The boycott call is targeted only at Exxon Mobil gasoline until retailers lower prices to $1.30 a gallon. "We've been conditioned to think that we can't do anything," Bee County Judge Jimmy Martinez told Jeorge Zarazua of the San Antonio Express-News. "We're beyond that now. Somebody needs to bring it up at the grass-roots level, to light the fire here so it can move on."

County officials said they targeted Exxon Mobil because its the nation's largest oil company and they hoped competitors might enter a price war and in turn drive down fuel costs. Both the National Association of Convenience Stores and the American Petroleum Institute said the county's efforts were misguided. API spokeswoman Jane Van Ryan told Zarazua that major oil corporations own fewer than 10 percent, or about 16,000, of the nation's convenience stores, and the price of fuel is dependant on how much crude oil costs. (Read more)

This is not the first time county officials have taken a stance on gasoline. The call for a boycott follows a June 2004 resolution that asked county drivers to not exceed 60 mph to reduce gas consumption, reports Fanny S. Chirinos of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. (Read more)

California reduces regulations for broadband over power lines

Cable and phone lines already connect people to the Internet, and now California regulators are making the way for electrical lines to do the same.

Broadband over power lines sends data over wires without interfering with electricity flows. However, because of the legal issues brought on by BPL being an electrical and a communications service, companies have been reluctant to get involved. So, the California Public Utilities Commission voted Thursday to ease the regulatory hurdles companies have to clear, reports Jessie Seyfer of the Mercury News in San Jose.

The rules adopted Thursday require less PUC oversight for agreements that BPL companies strike with utilities to access their power lines. Despite that move, BPL will most likely not lead to broadband in rural communities that lack DSL or cable-modem service, writes Seyfer. To provide BPL areas, companies would have to install a significant amount of equipment on the lines. (Read more)

Deal or no deal? Indiana farmers face pressure to sell for big factory

An unnamed manufacturing firm is offering Greensburg, Ind., farmers millions of dollars to buy their land for a factory that would cost at least $200 million and employ at least 750 people. Some city officials see it as a golden opportunity, but view it as the loss of heritage.

"Indiana lost 93,000 acres of farmland a year from 1997 through 2002, accelerating a decline stretching back 60 years. And wrenching decisions about the fate of family homesteads are increasingly becoming part of the Hoosier experience. The unnamed manufacturing firm looking to buy Doles' and others' farms along I-74 in southeastern Indiana marks the latest chapter in the story," report Norm Heikens and J.K. Wall of The Indianapolis Star.

The mystery firm has indicated in legal letters that it wants to buy options on about 1,800 acres at each of three different sites. As for the secrecy surrounding the project, the company's lawyers say they represent a "household name," and some people have speculated the large pieces of land could be needed for a Toyota engine plant, a major auto parts plant, a steel mini-mill or a casting plant, write Heikens and Wall.

All the talk surrounding development has spurred a campaign called "Stop the Lake." Darby Simpson of Morgan County, Indiana, runs the Web site, stopthelake.com, which focuses on keeping residents informed about development. "People shouldn't ever be forced to sell their property," Simpson told the Star. "To me, it's more important to pass on the family heritage." (Read more)

Rural residents struggle to find affordable, licensed child care in N.D.

An estimated 17,000 North Dakota families rely on paid child care, but people in rural areas are struggling to find affordable, licensed facilities.

"There's a huge shortage, especially as we see rural North Dakota starting to blossom," Tara Holt, director of the state's Rural Development Council, told The Associated Press. "If we don't have child care available in rural areas, or any part of the state, businesses cannot grow. Employees need to know their children have a healthy place to spend the day."

Rural residents often earn low incomes, which makes it difficult to pay for child care and to arrange for transportation. Three North Dakota counties -- Billings, Slope and Steele - had no licensed child care providers last year, reports AP. (Read more)

Kanab, Utah businesses shun rainbow sticker; town called homophobic

A tourism booster sticker in Kanab, Utah (pop. 3,528) reads "Everyone Welcome Here." No problem, right? Wrong. Little rainbow-colored people beneath the text have some businesses in the southern town believing the stickers represent gays and so they refuse to use the tourism tools.

So, the Kanab Chamber of Commerce intends to have new stickers, with its logo replacing the little people. The sticker situation began after the City Council voted in January to support "the natural family" concept, which includes a mother, father and "a full quiver of children." The council's resolution created concerns that people around the country might see themselves as "unnatural" and avoid the city. The stickers were supposed to be welcoming, reports Kirk Johnson of The New York Times. (Read more)

The controversial resolution has attracted criticism from residents all over Kane County (pop. 6,178), many of whom chose to write letters to the weekly Southern Utah News (only front page is online). Nationally-syndicated travel columnist Arthur Frommer labeled the Kanab resolution "homophobic" in a March article and called for a boycott of the town. Click here to read that column.

'Farm Boys' play focuses on gay man facing issues in rural America

"It's simplest to describe 'Farm Boys' as being about the perils of growing up gay in a Midwestern farm town. But that's not completely accurate. The new play at the Great American History Theatre toils in the fields of tolerance and acceptance, of self-knowledge, of the city-country dichotomy and of the difficulty in finding one's way home," writes Dominic P. Papatola of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The play begins with a farmer named Lyle leaving his 40-acre estate in Wisconsin to his ex-boyfriend John. Play authors Dean Gray and Amy Fox then tell the story of John coming home from New York and facing tough times in Wisconsin."The play is based on a collection of interviews with gay men who came of age in rural communities," reports Papatola. "Farm Boys" runs through May 28 at the theatre in St. Paul, Minn. Tickets are $22 to $32. For more information, call 651-292-4323. (Read more)

Atlanta reporter, accused of plagiarizing from Pittsburgh, resigns

Don Plummer, a reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 14 years, has resigned after the paper found he used unattributed passages from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a story.

AJC Editor Julia Wallace announced the resignation in a letter to readers Friday, saying the March 3 story "included extensive passages that replicated, verbatim and without attribution, passages in a similar article published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Jan. 24.".

"The articles in both papers reported on federal investigations into businesses operated by a suspended chiropractor from Pittsburgh who was convicted of cocaine possession in Cobb County [Ga.] in 1993," The Associated Press reported. "A Journal-Constitution editor discovered the similarity as a follow-up story was being discussed."

Plummer, 58, told AP a mixup between himself and an editor led to inadvertent publication of the story. "It was not complete and it was still in process," he said. "The part in this whole thing that I regret is not raising an alarm early and getting this thing corrected quickly."


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



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Last Updated: June 1, 2006