Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Liberal Democratic group targets 72 rural counties

A newly organized group of rural actvists from around the country is planning an ambitious outreach effort for 72 rural counties in 10 states this summer, seeking to build relationships with people who they believe voted for President Trump because they've been neglected by both parties.

People's Action is targeting counties in Alabama, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin. "Notably, their list includes 28 so-called 'pivot' counties that supported former President Barack Obama twice before flipping to Trump," David Catanese reports for U.S. News & World Report. "The initiative will begin with 10,000 'deep conversations' this summer conducted by local activists in these rural enclaves, a sort of battery of listening posts to serve as an ice-breaker in places not used to hearing, let alone supporting, progressive ideas."

George Goehl, director of People's Action, said they want to "contest the narratives" told about and to rural people. Rural America is only 14 percent less diverse than the rest of the country, belying the popular image of rural America as mostly white, he said: "We will provide an alternative to the racist and divisive worldview and instead point people toward the true causes of their pain. And we will tell the story of rural people, not as victims, not as Trump voters, but as people who are protagonists in the fight to go against corporate tyranny and racism in this country. We will not concede the rural vote to the right, or to centrists for that matter."

One problem for Democrats is that they haven't expended the time and energy to consistently communicate with rural areas that have been increasingly hostile to progressives. Dee Davis, founder of the Center for Rural Strategies, told Catanese that Democrats won't be successful unless they're willing to "buy somebody a cup of coffee, put your hand on their shoulder, listen and change."

Jobs in rural America up, but gap with metro jobs widens

Daily Yonder chart; click the image to enlarge it
"New annual job numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that the effects of the Great Recession went deeper and have lasted longer in rural America than they did in the rest of the nation," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder.

Though rural employment increased 0.4 percent from 2016 to 2017 (and rural areas near metropolitan areas did a little better), jobs in the largest metro areas increased 2 percent in the same time period. That's consistent with job trends since the 2008 Great Recession.

The data reveals that the employment gap between the largest metro areas and rural areas is widening: While metro areas have seen steady job growth since 2008, job growth in rural areas (especially very rural areas) has been anemic. The largest metro areas, with populations over 1 million, regained their pre-recession job levels by 2012, and now have 10 percent more jobs than they did in 2008. But rural areas still had 3.5 percent fewer jobs in 2017 than they did in 2008.

"The 2017 employment pattern also roughly matches trends revealed in the most recent county population figures from the U.S. Census," Marema reports. "Rural counties closer to metro areas had more U.S. residents move there than leave. But rural counties not adjacent to metro areas had a net loss in population due to domestic migration."

Mother and daughter take to treehouses to fight pipeline

A Virginia mother and daughter have been trying to block a natural-gas pipeline on their family's land for nearly a month by staying in neighboring treehouses in the path of the pipeline, Gregory Schneider reports for The Washington Post. The Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile, $3.5 billion project to transport gas through West Virginia and Virginia, has been a target for protesters since before it was approved, with one Giles County resident writing his opposition into his obituary.

The protest waged by Theresa "Red" Terry, 61, and her 30-year-old daughter, Theresa Minor Terry, has drawn national attention. The platforms are on a 1,500-acre tract southwest of Roanoke which they say the British king grants to the elder Theresa's husband's family. The Terrys have fought the pipeline since learning about it four years ago, attending hearings and rallies and supporting anti-pipeline candidates in local elections. Though they had been glad to allow power lines to cross their property because they help locals, they don't think the pipeline meets that standard, Schneider reports.

The pipeline builders, EQT Corp. and NextEra Energy Inc., claimed the land by eminent domain and offered to compensate the Terrys, but the family turned down the money. When a federal judge ruled against them last month, Red's husband and other activists began building the treehouses in the middle of the pipeline's planned route where workers were about to start clearing trees, copying the actions of other treesitters blocking the pipeline's advance in West Virginia.

Emergency medical technicians check on the women every afternoon and local restaurants donate food. Last week police charged the women with trespassing, obstruction of justice and interfering with property rights, and are waiting around the clock to arrest them when they come down. In mid-April they decreed that family and friends could no longer bring them food and water, and locals protested that the police were treating the women inhumanely. But when the women recently said they needed food a few days ago, Roanoke County police sent up pizza and bologna sandwiches, Laurence Hammack reports for The Roanoke Times.

Both women say they intend to stay up as long as they can. Red told Schneider it would probably end "poorly for me and many of my neighbors," but said the community remains undaunted. The pipeline builders "might've broken their hearts but they sure as hell didn't break their spirits . . . I'm hoping maybe we can change a few things."

FDA cracks down on sales of e-cigarettes to youths

"The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday announced a nationwide undercover 'blitz' to crack down on the sale of e-cigarettes — particularly the hugely popular Juul products — to children and teenagers by regular and online retailers," Laurie McGinley reports for The Washington Post.

The month-long push, which will continue to the end of April, has found dozens of violations of the laws, and 40 warning letters have been issued related to Juul sales. Juul (branded JUUL) is a highly popular vaping device that packs a powerful nicotine punch, with dozens of flavors like mango and creme brulee that attract teenagers. Because the device is small and looks like a USB drive, teens find it easy to hide them from parents and teachers. Other vaping devices like myblu and KandyPens are similar.

Because teen smoking rates have dropped dramatically in the past 20 years, vaping makes up the lion's share of adolescent nicotine use. And although many consider vaping safer than smoking traditional cigarettes, the vapor contains other dangerous chemicals. Adults have become alarmed at the meteoric rise in popularity of Juul and other e-cigarettes.

"The announcement about the crackdown came a week after health organizations and lawmakers urged the FDA to be more aggressive in discouraging e-cigarette use among minors. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Truth Initiative, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Heart Association and American Lung Association sent a letter to [FDA Commissioner Scott] Gottlieb warning that progress against smoking is 'at serious risk of being reversed' because of the agency's failure to take action against products that appeal to youth," McGinley reports.

Juul Labs said in a statement that selling its products to minors was "unacceptable" and it already has programs in place to prevent and act on violators, but promised to announce extra measures soon.

Free, two-day workshop in Columbus will help journalists cover local jails, criminal justice system

We reported yesterday that rural jail populations have increased in the last five years, largely through longer incarceration on inmates awaiting trial. The are many issues to explore with local jails and the criminal-justice system, and The Poynter Institute will host a free, intensive workshop in Columbus, Ohio, June 21-22 to help journalists better understand the causes of local incarceration and its consequences, and how some communities are addressing these issues. Al Tompkins, Poynter's senior faculty for broadcast and online, will lead the workshop; some seminars will be led by representatives from the Vera Institute of Justice, which has done extensive research on local jails, and The Marshall Project. The deadline to apply is May 7. From the workshop website:

"Local jails are the gateway to the U.S. justice system. They are overloaded, overused and, while they were intended to house people who were deemed to be a societal danger or a flight risk before trial, they have become warehouses, often for people who have not been convicted of a crime but cannot afford to bail themselves out. In some cities, jails are filled with people who suffer from addictions and mental illness."

Thanks to a grant from the MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge, tuition, hotel costs and most meals will be covered for those whose applications are accepted. Attendees are responsible for flights or transportation, though Poynter has some limited flight funding for hardship cases. Seats will be saved for local journalists at the workshop. And if you can't go to the one in Columbus, the workshop will be held again in Oklahoma City from Aug. 1-2 (the deadline to apply for that workshop is June 8). Previous workshops have been held in New York and Salt Lake City.

Click here to apply or for more information about the Columbus workshop.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Rural police have fewer resources to help mentally ill or addicted citizens avoid arrest, lengthy pretrial wait in jail

In the past five years, jail populations have risen sharply in rural areas and declined in cities and suburbs. Most inmates are defendants awaiting trial; prosecutors encourage lengthy waits in jail since it helps them extract guilty pleas from people who just want to go home. "On April 17, Louisiana sheriffs revealed some 2,181 defendants, about 15 percent of the parish jail population, have been locked up for at least a year awaiting trial, with 674 of them having been there at least two years," Marc Levin writes in an opinion piece for The Hill. Levin is the vice president of criminal justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan research institute it says is guided by the principles of liberty, personal responsibility and free enterprise, and its conservative national campaign organization Right on Crime.

A small fraction of pretrial defendants are dangerous enough to require detention, but Levin argues that the practice harms other defendants, increasing their risk of being re-arrested in the future. "Studies suggest that this is because, as time goes by, defendants lose their jobs and homes, and become disconnected from potential sources of support such as family and community organizations like churches," Levin writes. "Indeed, academic research has found that pretrial detention reduces future employment earnings by 25 percent."

Some states and communities are using new technology to cut down on the ballooning pretrial population, such as text-message reminders of court hearings; those result in a 26 percent increase in hearing attendance, which means fewer defendents being jailed for contempt. Levin also applauds solutions that keep police from arresting people in the first place, such as more training on how to interact with the mentally ill, or having police take someone suffering a drug overdose to a hospital or detox center instead of jail. That can be harder in rural areas. "With their smaller police forces, more limited treatment capacity, and dispersed populations, implementing police diversion in rural areas requires extensive planning and collaboration," Levin writes.

But citizens' ability to access justice shouldn't depend on whether one lives in a rural or urban area, he writes, and hopes rural areas don't get left behind in criminal justice reform measures.

North Georgia community works to keep hellbender salamander off threatened or endangered species lists

The eastern hellbender (USFWS photo by Gary Peeples)
In a rural Georgia community in the southern Appalachian mountains, private landowners along Betty's Creek are pitching in to restore the stream and the at-risk salamander that calls it home, Dan Chapman reports for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The FWS is considering adding the hellbender to its threatened or endangered species list later this year, which landowners would like to avoid since such an action would tighten rules about how they can use their land, increasing costs.

One of those landowners is Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, one of the largest college-prep boarding schools in the South. It's more famous for spearheading the 1960s Foxfire project to preserve Appalachian culture, but the hellbender preservation efforts are closer to home. Betty's Creek is an important part of science education for the students: "Students from sixth grade through high school monitor the hellbender’s habitat, test water quality, analyze the food chain and restore streambanks," Chapman reports. "Their labor of love is also reflected in their grades and presented to the public in an end-of-year science fair. They, as much as adjoining farmers, have a significant stake in the hellbender’s health."

The slime-covered "homely hellbender" is the largest amphibian in the U.S. and can reach two feet in length. Its habitat once stretched from upstate New York to northern Georgia, but sightings are rare these days. Betty's Creek and others in northeast Georgia, western North Carolina and East Tennessee are also promising habitats for the hellbender. It needs cold, clear, moving water and big rocks to burrow under, but fertilizer and chemical run-off from farms, and dirt from construction and road sites have muddied up Betty's Creek, filling crevices hellbenders like to hide and breed in, Chapman reports.

The school is doing its part to keep the creek clean: it only allows its cows to cross the stream at one spot, keeping them from kicking up mud, and now gets its drinking water source from the county system instead of a tributary of the creek, adding 200,000 gallons of water to the daily flow.

Seventh grader Claren Spivey told Chapman: "As a school, and a community, we are a very important part of the watershed and we want to keep it safe because it impacts so many other things in society and nature. . . . As private citizens we should really try to preserve what we have instead of ruining it." (Google map)

Beset by tariffs and ICE raids, some Trump-supporting Calif. farmers say they're glad to take one for the team

How California voted in 2016 (L.A. Times map; click to enlarge)
There's no doubt some of President Trump's policies are adverse to American farmers: the trade war with China is leading to stiff tariffs on many export crops, and his clampdown on illegal immigration has triggered farmworker shortages and immigration raids on farmers. But many conservative farmers in California say they still support Trump because his policies are better for America overall, Geoffrey Mohan reports for the Los Angeles Times.

Matt Fisher, a fourth-generation citrus grower in Arvin, told Mohan: "If I’ve gotta take a few bullets getting caught up in the cross-fire, but after four years or eight years — however long he spends in office — we’re on a better trajectory as a country, then it’s all parred up . . . I did my part, so to speak."

California farmers may have more latitude to take one for the team, since the state's wide variety of crops — over 200 — could temper the impact of tariffs. But the tariffs could be devastating in the Midwest, where farmers depend on soybeans and corn. China slapped a 25 percent tariff on American soybean imports and a 15 percent tariff on ethanol imports. California exports $2 billion worth of crops to China each year, its third-biggest customer after Canada and the European Union. California's top four food exports to China have all been hit with new tariffs: pistachios went from 5 percent to 20 percent, almonds went from 10 percent to 25 percent, wine went from 14-20 percent to 29-35 percent, and oranges went from 11 percent to 26 percent.

Conservative California farmers' philosophical attitude toward Trump is likely helped by their horror of socially liberal candidates. "That magnified fear of liberal zealotry — founded or not — explains a lot of what keeps agriculture in Trump’s fold," Mohen reports. "Politics is local, and nothing is more local than planting crops in the ground."

Western Kentucky county rocked by high-school shooting remains skeptical of gun control measures

A deadly school shooting rocked Marshall County High School in Western Kentucky this January, but that hasn't changed local attitudes about gun control very much, Dylan Lovan reports for The Associated Press.

Lovan focuses first on Jeff Dysinger, whose 15-year-old daughter Hannah was shot in the arm and chest. He doesn't agree with calls to curb military-style weapons. A former soldier who uses his AR-15 for sport shooting and hunting, he told Lovan, "I think everybody in rural Kentucky, we're all brought up with guns, I mean we've all been around guns our entire life. . . . Kids in cities like (Parkland, Fla.) don't get that." Hannah Dysinger said she supports more comprehensive background checks and, like her dad, wants to make sure the wrong people don't get their hands on guns.

Marshall County (Wikipedia map)
That stance is reflected by former sheriff Brian Roy, who was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for Congress in 1996, the election after a Republican won the seat for the first time since the Civil War, partly because the one-term Democrat had cast a vote that helped put an "assault weapons" ban in that year's crime bill. "I think everybody here respects guns. We appreciate the opportunity to have them," Roy said. "We respect the Second Amendment. We're not going to be the type to go out and have any dramatic changes, because we've grown up with guns, for hunting."

Marshall County generally reflects the gun views of rural America. Lovan notes, "A Pew Research poll from April 2017 showed 63 percent of Americans in rural areas said it's more important to support gun rights than gun control, compared to only 37 percent in urban areas."

After the shooting, the conversation in Marshall County tended to focus not on gun control, but on improving security and increasing the presence of armed personnel in schools. School Supt. Trent Lovett said his students' familiarity with guns may have helped save lives; when shooter Gabriel Parker was changing magazines on his Ruger, some students saw the moment for what it was and were able to direct students to run.

SPJ offers webinar, Twitter chat for annual Ethics Week

This week is the 15th annual Ethics Week of the Society of Professional Journalists, meant to help the public understand the high ethical standards journalists are supposed to follow. With public trust in the news media at an all time low, and cries of "fake news" becoming pervasive among conservative politicians and pundits, it would seem that Ethics Week is more important than ever.

Ethics Week encourages journalists to explain to the public how they ethically cover stories, and discuss with them how to identify and support ethical journalism.

SPJ will present a free ethics webinar tomorrow, April 25, at noon ET (register here) and a Twitter chat on April 26, also at noon ET (follow with #PressForEthics). Click here for more information about how you can participate in Ethics Week.

Monday, April 23, 2018

How could repeal of net neutrality affect rural America?

The Federal Communication Commission's repeal of net neutrality, instituted under the Obama administration, takes effect today. The change could hurt most in rural areas that already have difficulty gaining access to reliable, affordable broadband.

Many still don't know what net neutrality is, but the upshot is that internet service providers could slow or halt access to certain sites and streaming services unless you pay more for a fast lane, Ali Budner reports for Wyoming Public Radio.

Caroline Fry, advocacy and media manager for Colorado Common Cause, believes net neutrality is important for democracy, and that it protects the free dissemination of information online. Rural people often have fewer options for internet service, and are therefore more at the mercy of telecoms companies imposing rate hikes. That can hurt rural residents who want to run businesses, or access education, health care, and entertainment online. "It's more than just about do I watch Netflix or Hulu," she told Budner. "This is about how do I get the resources I need to be able to participate in our society."

Montana Public Service Commissioner Travis Kavulla disagrees that the repeal of net neutrality will hurt rural areas. He serves on the panel that oversees telecommunications for the state, and said "the internet relies far too much on federal subsidies and content providers like Netflix, Google and Apple are getting a free ride. He’d like to see those companies picking up the tab," Budner reports.

Kavulla says rural internet access could expand more without stifling net neutrality rules. He doesn't mind the idea of fast-lane internet packages, speculating that rural residents would rather have some content at a reliably high speed than all content at an equally slow speed.

The vast majority of people polled support keeping net neutrality rules in place. Montana's governor, Steve Bullock, issued an executive order to keep net neutrality in his state, and Idaho and Colorado are trying to accomplish the same goal via legislation, Budner reports. And some towns are getting around the issue by creating their own locally controlled internet services that guarantee net neutrality.

Federal net neutrality rules die today, but Americans can preserve it on the local level, internet engineer writes

The rollback of federal net neutrality rules takes effect today, leaving Americans with little protection from powerful telecommunications companies. But Americans can regain some control by insisting on internet service provided by local governments, which are more accountable to residents, writes one internet engineer. "As the chief information officer for Concord, Mass., I’ve overseen the creation of a successful municipal broadband system by treating Internet service like what it really is — a public utility, like water and electricity. We’re providing residents with broadband Internet service that is inexpensive and reliable and respects net neutrality and privacy principles," Mark Howell writes for The Washington Post. Concord is a town of about 18,000 near Boston.

Concord leaders established the service in 2013 after realizing that big telecom companies didn't find it profitable to serve their town. The town issued bonds to raise the initial money to build the fiber network, but customer revenue will eventually repay the bonds, and is covering current operating costs. Meanwhile, the service is saving the town tens of thousands of dollars each year and, hopefully, attracting residents who want small-town life with fast internet service, Howell writes.

A local nonprofit company set rules for the phone and internet service, and locally elected leaders and residents volunteer to serve on the governing board. The service is so well-liked that they don't need to advertise, and they stick to a simple flat-rate price structure to keep costs low. In the past four years, they've never raised the price and have raised internet speeds twice. The local approach seems popular with locals: ISPs are frequently on lists of the most-hated companies in the U.S., but 90 percent of Concord's internet service customers say they'd recommend it to a friend, Howell writes.

Hundreds of other cities, towns and counties are providing similar services, which Howell writes is proof that "Washington and the big telecoms are letting us down, but local leaders can protect people’s rights and expand access to quality Internet with municipal broadband."

Penn State Outing Club no longer allowed to go outside

A Pennsylvania State University club for outdoors enthusiasts is no longer allowed to go outside, on the grounds that it's too risky. In the words of columnist Dave Barry, we are not making this up.

"After a two-month review that did not include consultation with student Outing Club leaders, the university’s offices of Student Affairs and Risk Management made the determination that the hiking, canoeing, kayaking, trail building and camping activities the student-led club has long engaged in are too risky," Don Hopey reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "The club is one of the oldest entirely student-run organizations at Penn State."

Penn State spokesperson Lisa Powers said the university evaluated risk at all campus sport and recreation student groups, and said "student safety in any activity is our primary focus." The other two outdoors groups, the caving club and the scuba diving club, were also deemed too risky. The Alpine Ski Racing Club, the Archery Club, the Rifle Club, and the Boxing Club passed.

Outing Club leaders said they have fully complied with more stringent safety standards introduced in the past year, but protested that the risk assessment office did not talk with them about perceived dangers. Timothy Hackett, the club's outgoing treasurer, said he knows of no student injuries on any Outing Club trips within the past four years, Hopey reports. Powers said the risk assessment was proactive, and not based on previous injuries.

The university has a similar program called Outdoor Adventures, which Powers said has better trained and more experienced leaders, but Richard Waltz, the Outing Club's 2017-18 president, said Outdoor Adventures trips cost more. "The two programs offer very different experiences," he told Hopey. "The Outing Club is very accepting and welcoming of students who may be out experiencing nature for the first time in a meaningful way. Participants learn organically and develop more of a mentor-mentee relationship over the years."

The Outing Club's board said in a statement that they'll keep working with advisers and university staff to find a way to keep going.

In recent Oklahoma protest, lawmakers say rural and urban teachers wanted to increase funding in different ways

A teacher protesting in Oklahoma City on April 4, 2018.
(Agence France-Presse/Getty Images photo by J. Pat Carter)

"Even as they presented unified calls for increased funding, rural and urban educators had starkly different ideas of how to accomplish it, lawmakers said," Janelle Stecklein reports for the Enid News & Eagle in Oklahoma.

During the recent protests for education funding, educators from larger urban districts such as Tulsa and Oklahoma City said new revenue should come through consolidating rural school districts. Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, a retired teacher and vice chair of the Education Committee, said teachers wanted to reduce the number of districts from more than 500 to 70 or 77. Rural teachers wanted to preserve their school districts, which bring a sense of community to their towns.

Many rural teachers told Ginger Tinney, executive director of the Professional Oklahoma Educators Association, that they're often the highest-paid professionals in their towns, Stecklein reports. That pay disparity could make it hard for rural teachers to demand more money, Tinney said.

Rep. Mike Sanders, R-Kingfisher, said rural teachers tended to be more appreciative of the state legislature's attempts to resolve teachers' demands, and said that although teachers support each other, "Sometimes I wonder whether or not those big organizations really speak for my smaller schools."

Oklahoma teachers staged a nine-day walkout after deeming new increases in educational funding insufficient. The state legislature had approved measures to pay teachers about $6,000 a year more and support staff $1,250 more, funding the raises with taxes on oil and gas production, fuel, online sales and tobacco. Teachers asked for a repeal of capital-gains tax exemptions to help finance a $10,000 raise for themselves, a $6,000 raise for support staff and $200 million in additional classroom funding. "After adjusting for inflation, spending per student has declined 28 percent per student in Oklahoma since the recession hit in 2007-08, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities," Bree Burkitt reports for The Arizona Republic. The walkout ended after teachers weren't able to secure the additional funding from the Republican-controlled legislature.

Difficulty of luring vocational instructors hurts rural colleges

Rural colleges are facing a faculty crisis, especially in attracting instructors for vocational programs. "Nurses or electricians can make far more in the private sector than a college can pay them to teach, and being in remote locations with fewer experienced workers to tap as instructors doesn’t help," Matt Krupnick reports for The Hechinger Report, an education newsletter. "That leads to a skilled worker shortage that spells trouble for the schools as well as for local businesses."

The problem doesn't just hurt rural colleges and local economies, but the national economy. A dramatic shortage of skilled blue-collar workers in the U.S., combined with a rising wave of Baby Boomer retirements, is going to hit industry hard over the next few years. There are about 30 million jobs that pay at least $55,000 per year that don’t require bachelor’s degrees, reports  Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. But many require some training at a community college or other technical program; without vocational instructors to teach those courses, the economy in some places could stall," Krupnick reports.

Another factor contributing to the problem is poor reporting.  Many rural colleges fail to report persistent faculty vacancies to the states, and many states fail to adequately push the issue. Without accurate numbers, it's hard to fix the problem, according to Mary Jo Self, an Oklahoma State University associate professors of occupational education studies.

Rural colleges are trying new approaches to attract and keep instructors. In North Dakota, nursing schools are holding more classes at hospitals and clinics so nurses who teach the classes can more easily keep working while they teach. Some colleges are opening satellite sites to help more rural residents gain skills and hopefully stick around afterward. In California, some community colleges are trying to make it easier for instructors with no degree but years of experience to teach in the classroom, Krupnick reports.

Rural Iowa radio's Leonard dubbed 'Trumpland translator' for interviews and essays about what rural Americans think

Leonard (Register photo by Rodney White)
In an age where urban journalism drives the national conversation, a small-town Iowa radio guy has tpbeen dubbed the "Trumpland translator." That's what big-city folks call Bob Leonard, the news director for KNIA and KRLS in Knoxville and Pella in rural Iowa. Following Trump's 2016 win, urban journalists scrambled to understand more about rural America's concerns. Leonard's radio interviews with locals, along with TV appearances and opinion pieces in national platforms like Salon and The New York Times, have provided much-welcomed insights into rural values and motivations. "In his role as Trumpland Translator, Ph.D., he studies rural conservatives in a county where 61 percent of voters chose Trump," Mike Kilen reports for the Des Moines Register.

Leonard, who says he leans liberal and hates Trump, says he found his niche by listening to people and not assuming they're stupid. "He's not writing to change minds, he said, but to explore what they think," Kilen reports. His anthropological approach is no accident; Leonard has a Ph.D. in anthropology and taught it at the University of New Mexico.

Though his interviews with locals help illuminate rural Iowa for urban denizens, they also help open eyes closer to home. Megan Suhr, chairwoman of the Marion County Democratic Party, said Leonard's pieces help her understand neighboring Republicans better. "I don't always agree with his conclusions of rural Iowa," she told Kilen. "But he does make me more patient with others in my community."

Friday, April 20, 2018

Urban challenges make city birds smarter than rural ones

The great tit songbird, a menace to milkmen everywhere.
(Photo by Joe Tobias)
Life is a lot harder for birds living in cities, but the challenges have apparently sharpened some birds' wits and made them smarter than rural birds. Read how in this article in Aeon by Menno Schilthuizen, an excerpt from his upcoming book Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution.

Some adaptations he describes seem sensible, and some almost defy belief. Carrion crows in the Japanese city of Sendai, for example, figured out an excellent way to break open walnuts. The local walnuts are too tough for them to crack, so country crows fly high and drop the nuts on rocks to break them. Sendai crows, though, realized the nuts would crack easier when dropped under the wheels of slow-moving cars.

A songbird called a great tit was also well-known for its puzzle-solving prowess in early 20th century England. Some figured out how to open the glass bottles of milk left at doorsteps in the morning. Birds can't digest lactose, but the layer of cream at the top of the bottle contains very little lactose and a lot of fat that birds need in the winter. Dairies tried to stymie the birds with wax-sealed caps, then aluminum, but tits figured out how to open both. After dairies began offering skim and homogenized milk (which have no layer of cream on top), tits learned which color cap denoted whole milk and, apparently, were able to teach their friends the secret.

Read here for more.

Farmers warn of GOP losses over Trump trade policy

President Trump's attempt to revive industry in Rust Belt states with steel and aluminum tariffs are putting him at odds with rural farming voters, a larger bloc that is "essential to Republican success in the midterm elections and beyond." Jonathan Martin reports for The New York Times. Farmers across the Midwest say they are considering not voting Republican because of their concerns about President Trump's trade policies.

In Casselton, N.D., fourth-generation soybean farmer Robert Runck told Martin: "If he doesn’t understand what he’s doing to the nation by doing what he’s doing, he’s going to be a one-term president, plain and simple." Runck also noted that Trump's political woes could hurt Republicans running in local elections as well.

Barry Bergquest, a biology professor at the University of Northern Iowa and part-time farmer who voted for Trump in 2016, told Martin that commodities prices were down and hurting neighboring farmers. National politicians are "not in touch with the reality of the Midwest and the impact that the tariffs would have," he said.

Local and state-level politicians in farm country are facing an increasingly nervous populace, according to Iowa-based Republican strategist Grant Young. The radio farm show hosts are "usually a happy-go-lucky bunch promoting industry and holding a two-hour infomercial for the Farm Bureau," he told Martin. "But the last couple of months I’m wondering if they need to take the sharp objects out of the studio."

And Bob Henry, a Kansas corn and soybean farmer, acknowledged that China was targeting Trump's political base with the tariffs: "China knows who got Trump elected."

Trump met with some farm belt Republican senators and governors last week to discuss trade policy and how it's affecting farmers and ranchers. He floated the idea of rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership to mitigate the economic damage to rural areas, but walked that back on Twitter later that day.

Some rural Democratic politicians, like Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, may ride Trump's decreasing popularity in rural areas to victory in the upcoming midterm elections. "Rob Port, a conservative talk radio host and columnist in the state, put it: 'This is the perfect issue for her. Her base eats up the Trump bashing, but it’s also an economic argument that’ll have rural Trump voters saying, 'Maybe blind allegiance to Trump isn’t such a good thing,'" Martin reports.

First 2018 wildfire deaths reported as Oklahoma blazes rage

The Rhea Wildfire (Tornado Titans photo by Chris Sanner)

The first two apparent deaths of the 2018 wildfire season were reported in Oklahoma this week as wildfires rage across the southwest part of the state. A woman, whose name hasn't been reported, was found dead in her car in Dewey County on Tuesday, and Jack Osben, 61, died Thursday from injuries sustained in a fire.

Hundreds have been ordered to evacuate from their homes because of the two largest fires. "The largest blaze — the Rhea fire in Dewey County — has scorched across about 246,000 acres. That fire was still only about 3 percent contained Monday afternoon. That percentage remains unchanged since Sunday, according to Oklahoma Forestry Services," Matt Dinger reports for The Oklahoman. "The 34 Complex fire in Woodward and Harper counties has scorched across about 68,000 acres, and was about 45 percent contained as of Monday afternoon, officials said."

Firefighters have faced flames that topped 70 feet at times, Reece Ristau reports for Tulsa World. Tulsa Deputy Fire Chief Andy Teeter told Ristau: "You can’t even imagine the scale of how big they are, how fast they move and how far they can jump ahead of themselves."

Western Oklahoma and several other areas of the U.S. are facing extreme or exceptional drought conditions in 2018, increasing the likelihood of a bad wildfire season.

Irish Senate honors rural Pulitzer and Gish Award winner after Iowa Senate, upset by his editorials, declines to do so

After the Iowa Senate refused to honor a rural Iowa journalist who won last year's Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, another Senate from farther afield stepped in: the one in Ireland.

Art Cullen, editor of the twice-weekly Storm Lake Times, won the prize for his editorials on water quality and agricultural issues, and his family won the 2017 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism, given by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. But Republicans in the GOP-controlled Iowa Senate have stalled a resolution to honor him since Feb. 14. "Republicans in Iowa indicated that the journalist’s reporting had rubbed some lawmakers the wrong way, which is why Senate Resolution 108 has been stalled for months," Morgan Gstalter reports for The Hill, a Washington, D.C., publication that mainly covers Congress.

A member of the Senate in Ireland, from whence the Cullens' ancestors immigrated five generations ago, stepped in. The Irish Senate passed a resolution honoring Cullen yesterday. The motion was introduced by Irish Sen. Mark Daly, parliamentary spokesman for foreign affairs.

"Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver told reporters on Thursday that they’re 'not really taking the lead from the Irish Senate' on considering the resolution," Gstalter reports.

Cullen wrote in a column Wednesday that he "would not want the support of a den of philanderers and oafs" and "I honestly do not care if I am ever honored by the Iowa Senate, the U.S. Congress or any other institution of dysfunction and cynicism. We did not get into this business to win awards or receive resolutions."

It remains to be seen whether the Iowa Senate will honor this year's Pulitzer winner for Editorial Writing: Andie Dominick of the Des Moines Register, who won for her columns on how privatizing the state's administration of Medicaid hurt the poorest Iowans.

Colorado Journalism Week, Denver Post editorial board war with hedge-fund owners, remind us why journalism matters

Today wraps up Colorado Journalism Week, a celebration whose importance is made clear by the recent tension between the Denver Post and its hedge fund owners Alden Global Capital. After Alden announced 30 newsroom layoffs--about a third of the staff--the editorial board declared war on its owners with a full page of editorials decrying "vulture capitalists" and urging readers to remember why news matters.

"The public tension between the Denver Post’s hard-working staff and managers of a soulless hedge fund is symptomatic of broader issues that cut across Colorado and the country. It reflects the state of journalism and how it is practiced in these turbulent times," Kevin Duggan writes for The Coloradoan. "It should be no surprise that the Coloradoan editorial board knows journalism matters. We believe thoughtful, fact-driven, accurate, unbiased reporting is a key component of our democratic society. We believe that as we mark Colorado Journalism Week on our calendars that the work of a free press remains necessary, relevant and worth fighting to preserve.

Why? Because it's important to keep readers informed, and the best way to do that is with trained journalists who know how to get the story. "How would you know what hides in the dark corners of our government agencies if journalists were not around to notice and ask questions?" Duggan writes.

Another reason journalism is so important: in the digital age, there are plenty of biased bloggers and activists pushing an agenda, Duggan writes. But trained journalists work with the facts and adhere to strict ethical standards, and when they get it wrong, they say so. That honesty is the cornerstone of readers' trust in journalists, and helps readers become more media literate.

But good journalism comes at a cost, and readers have to pitch in somehow to keep newspapers going, Duggan writes. Journalism "will survive and flourish because readers who care about their communities see the value in quality journalism, and will do what it takes to help keep it alive."

Thursday, April 19, 2018

FCC delays keep high-speed internet out of rural schools

"Under the Trump administration, rural schools requesting funding for broadband expansion have faced record delays and denials, according to the non-profit EducationSuperHighway, which works to get schools connected to the internet," Issie Lapowsky reports for Wired magazine.

The organization argues that more than 60 eligible fiber-optic cable projects that sought funds from the E-Rate program have been unfairly denied by the Federal Communications Commission since 2017, a much higher number than in years past, and more than 30 schools have been waiting about a year for approval. The average wait is 240 days. That adds up to about 750,000 students who lack access to high-speed internet, Lapowsky reports.

The problems stem come from a 2014 order that shifted more E-rate funding to expanding broadband connectivity for schools and away from older communications systems like subsidized phone service.  The Universal Service Administrative Co., an FCC arm that oversees E-Rate, began offering to pay up front for fiber-optic cables to very rural areas, and also offered to match state money put up to pay for construction.  "But because USAC now fronts more of the costs, it's also more cautious about how that money gets spent," Lapowsky reports. "Now, USAC asks E-Rate applicants detailed questions about the precise cost of each fiber construction project, the route the fiber would take to get to the school, and other specifics that the small schools asking for these funds have struggled to answer. Often, the problems preventing students from getting online prove to be blandly bureaucratic."

One problem is that USAC wants to pay for only the fiber used by the school, but local internet service providers can't feasibly build out a fiber line to just one rural school without gaining other rural customers in the process, and it's very difficult for ISPs to distinguish between what part of the cost is being used to provide fiber to the school and what part is being used to provide service to area businesses and residents.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai acknowledged problems with E-Rate in April 2017, but little progress has been made. An FCC spokesperson told Wired that Pai has told the USAC "to take steps to make the processing of all E-rate applications—including, but not limited to, fiber applications—more efficient," Lapowsky reports.

China slaps 179 percent tariff on U.S. sorghum imports

Statista graph; click on the image to enlarge it.
In the latest salvo in a trade war with the U.S., China announced Tuesday that it will impose a 179 percent tariff on American sorghum, accusing the U.S. of dumping the subsidized crop on Chinese markets, Daniel Shane reports for CNN. China began investigating sorghum imports in February as a warning shot to President Trump about his new steel and aluminum tariffs. The Chinese Commerce Ministry said its ruling is preliminary and that the sorghum tariffs are temporary. China had already announced 25 percent tariffs on U.S. sorghum imports earlier this month, but has not announced when those tariffs will be enforced.

China is America's biggest customer for exported sorghum, importing about $960 million in 2017. The lion's share is grown in Kansas, with Texas following a distant second. Used for livestock feed and in making baiju, a liquor popular in China, the grain thrives in arid pasturelands where wheat does well. "Squeezing the sorghum trade could also hurt America's rural economy -- particularly in states like Kansas -- where President Donald Trump has a lot of support," Shane reports.

U.S. is world's largest corn grower but imports organic corn

The U.S. is the world's biggest producer and exporter of corn, but it's a net importer of organic corn. The number of acres planted with organic corn increased by 28 percent between 2015 and 2016, to 214,000 acres. But that number is still less than 0.5 percent of the total corn planted in the U.S. Why? It isn't because of profit margins: farmers who plant organic corn get about 30 percent lower yield than with conventional corn, but the organic stuff sells for twice as much. Leo Mirani of The Economist explains the three main reasons more U.S. farmers don't grow organic corn:

Growing organic takes a significant investment of time and money. A field must be cultivated with no chemicals or contamination for three years before crops produced on it are certified organic. "In effect, that means putting in all the effort required for organic crops with none of the payback," Mirani writes from Norfolk, Neb.. "Moreover, it often means buying separate equipment rather than risking contamination through shared use with machines handling the conventional crop."

Growing organic is riskier, too: non-organic pollen drifting from nearby farms can pollinate the organic crop and render it uncertifiable. Weather and weeds are a bigger threat without conventional fertilizers and herbicides. And growing organic takes more work, which is both more expensive and sometimes harder to find.

Farm Bill passes out of committee on party-line vote

The House Agriculture Committee approved Republicans' proposed Farm Bill yesterday on a party-line vote of 26-20. "Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, told reporters afterward he hopes the bill can get to a full House vote during the first week of May. Conaway said in opening remarks he was determined to get the bill done on time, as the current farm bill expires Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year," Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

Democrats objected to the bill's huge cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. It would also add work requirements for able-bodied recipients who have no dependents. Ranking Democrat Collin Peterson of Minnesota called it "a flawed bill that is the result of a bad and nontransparent process," and aid the SNAP changes would turn urban lawmakers against farm programs on the House floor. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., who chairs the nutrition subcommittee, said the changes in SNAP aren't about saving money, but about creating "good policy to help our neighbors in need who find themselves in a tough circumstance."

The committee made no changes to the commodity section of the bill; Democrats offered no amendments at all. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, added an amendment that would override a California law that requires eggs imported to the state to meet the same cage-free standards required of eggs produced in-state. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., added an amendment to make it a felony to knowingly slaughter or import a dog or cat for human consumption.

"With trade being an emphasis right now, farm groups had called for doubling funding for the Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development program -- known as MAP and FMD," Clayton reports. "The bill doesn't add funding, but does restore full funding for the programs, which are considered key tools to help sell U.S. agricultural products overseas."

Weekly paper gives readers (and potential readers) a look at the pressroom, and delivers a useful message at the end

One way local news outlets can engage more deeply with their communities is to be more transparent about how they do their jobs. A typical method is a "letter from the editor," explaining a newspaper's policies, perhaps telling readers how and why a story was reported. But there are other ways to explain the workings of your organization, and some that may be more interesting than others.

Charles Myrick, editor of The Mountain Advocate in Barbourville, Ky., did a two-minute video of the printing of the newspaper at J. Frank Publishing, a sister company in London. Few people have ever been in a newspaper pressroom, so this is "insider footage" that will draw an audience. Myrick's first headline on the YouTube video is "Behind the Scenes."

At the end, Myrick has a overlay slide with an important message: "To produce just one issue of the Mountain Advocate requires employment of dozens of skilled workers in every aspect. It truly takes a team effort! We want to thank our readers and advertisers for continuing to make our jobs possible, and for believing in democracy and freedom of the press."

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Why gun culture is so strong in rural America: ideals

Illustration by Nolan Pelletier for The New York Times
This item originally appeared March 20 but omitted the source and a link to it.

The country's deepest cultural divide might be on guns, and it "has a profound political dimension, reliably driving rural Americans into Republican arms," writes Robert Leonard, the news director for rural Knoxville, Iowa, radio stations KNIA-AM and KRLS-FM. In a thoughtful essay for The New York Times, Leonard digs into the gun debate and what it means for America.

While he grew up hunting small game with his grandfather, he says he's come to understand and appreciate arguments for gun control too. Guns are important to the culture in his conservative town of 7,313, so he said he wanted to understand more about pro-gun opinions.

Leonard spoke to a local police officer who believes better background checks could prevent some gun violence, and said people need to do a better job of keeping their guns locked up. But the officer doesn't think rural Americans will ever approve of significant gun-control measures, and says other officers have told him they'd rather quit their jobs than start taking away others' guns. He also said that gun control won't stop criminals from getting guns.

"To understand why many conservatives in rural America believe this, you must start with first principles, because the argument ultimately isn’t about guns; it runs even deeper than the Second Amendment," Leonard writes. "At a 2015 campaign event during the Iowa caucuses, J. C. Watts, the former congressman from Oklahoma, spoke about perspectives on original sin. It helps illuminate the differences in worldview between many conservatives and liberals. Mr. Watts said Democrats think people were born basically good, so when good people did bad things, something in society (in this case, guns) needed to be controlled. Republicans think the fault lies with the person — the perpetrator of the evil. Bad choices result in bad things being done, in part because the perpetrator lacks the moral guidance the Christian faith provides."

If Democrats want to connect with rural Americans, Leonard writes for the Times' primarily Democratic audience, they must understand rural ideals.

Index of readiness for disasters and health emergencies has regional differences; report has detailed profiles for states

2018 National Health Security Preparedness Index
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's annual report on the nation's readiness to manage disasters, disease outbreaks and other health emergencies shows significant improvements over the past five years, but adds that "deep regional differences" persist.

“Five years of continuous gains in health security nationally is remarkable progress,” Glen Mays, who leads the research at the University of Kentucky in developing the index, said in a news release. “But achieving equal protection across the U.S. population remains a critical unmet priority.”

The 2018 National Health Security Preparedness Index found that overall, the U.S. scored a 7.1 on a 10-point scale for preparedness for 2017. That was nearly 3 percent higher than in 2016 and a gradual improvement of nearly 11 percent since 2013.

Eighteen states had preparedness levels that exceeded the national average, and 21 states were below the national average. Eleven states were more or less average. Maryland scored highest, at 8.0; Alaska and Nevada were lowest at 6.4.

The report gives a detailed health security profile for each state. The index analyzes 140 measures, such as the number of pediatricians, flu-vaccination rates, bridge safety and food and water safety, to calculate a composite score of health security for each state and the nation as a whole.

Suggestions from the report to to improve health security include: improving data sources and metrics; strengthening networks and coalitions; improving workforce policies, such as offering paid leave and health insurance; improving health-care delivery preparedness; assuring a dedicated and adequately resourced health-security emergency response is in place; assuring adequate funding for an established health security infrastructure; and flexibility in health-security funding.

Rural advocate: farm bill should help rural health more

North Carolina Rural Health Research and Policy Analysis Center map. Click the image to enlarge it.
Though the House's proposed Farm Bill would allow the agriculture secretary to declare a rural health emergency, rural advocates say Congress should ensure that the bill does more to address rural health care needs, especially helping struggling rural hospitals, Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder.

Maggie Elehwany, government and policy vice president for the National Rural Health Association, told Oates, "There is a long history with USDA and the farm bill when it comes to health care in rural communities, particularly when it comes to funding care through loans and grants."

Rural areas generally have an older, poorer and sicker population with a higher percentage of chronic disease and farmworkers doing dangerous jobs, all of which contributes to problems in providing health care access, she said. The inclusion of the rural-health-emergency section to the bill is important not just because of health-care access, but because hospitals provide jobs and help keep rural economies going. Elehwany told Oates that she would like to see more specific language about the opioid crisis, which has stressed the rural health-care system, and specific funding levels for the STRESS Act, which increases rural access to mental health services. Read more here.

Tennessee coal-ash spill workers file new lawsuit as EPA seeks to kill rules that could have prevented the spill

In the wake of a Knoxville News Sentinel series probing the treatment of cleanup workers at the nation's largest coal-ash spill, at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant, more stories of dead and dying workers have come to light. Some workers and their surviving families filed a federal lawsuit in 2014, but since the News Sentinel's series, more workers have come forward and filed a second lawsuit, this one in state court, against Jacobs Engineering, which TVA hired to clean up more than a billion gallons of coal ash and slurry that escaped from the plant in December 2008.

The Kingston disaster spurred the Obama administration to issue regulations that the Trump administration is seeking to roll back, Sue Sturgis notes for Facing South in reporting the lawsuit and recounting the Gannett Co. newspaper's reporting.

The Environmental Protection Agency's proposed changes would affect how ash from more than 400 coal-fired power plants is stored and allow states to alter how frequently they would test for groundwater contamination. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the changes would save companies between $32 million and $100 million annually, Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report for The Washington Post.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

T-Mobile fined $40 million for faking rural call connections

"T-Mobile has agreed to pay a hefty $40 million fine levied by the Federal Communications Commission after an investigation found that the company was playing fake ringing sounds to customers who were calling rural areas, making them believe that their call was going through when in fact the call had never connected," Christian de Looper reports for Digital Trends.

Calls to rural areas can take a few seconds to connect, but T-Mobile was filling those seconds with fake ringtones to make callers believe the call had already connected. The company promised to halt the practice when it was outlawed in 2014, but continued doing it.

The FCC's ruling said the uncompleted calls "cause rural businesses to lose revenue, impede medical professionals from reaching patients in rural areas, cut families off from their relatives, and create the potential for dangerous delays in public safety communications," de Looper reports.

In addition to the fine, T-Mobile must end the practice within 90 days and issue annual compliance reports to the FCC for the next three years.

Pulitzer prize winners include Charlottesville protest photo

(Daily Progress photo by Ryan Kelly)
The winners of 2018 Pulitzer Prizes were announced Monday, and several have rural resonance:

The staffs of the Arizona Republic and USA Today Network won the Explanatory Reporting prize for what the judges called "vivid and timely reporting that masterfully combined text, video, podcasts and virtual reality to examine, from multiple perspectives, the difficulties and unintended consequences of fulfilling President Trump's pledge to construct a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico," which would mostly be located in rural areas. Read more here.

Ryan Kelly of The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Va., won in the Breaking News Photography category for a photo he took on his last day in the newsroom: "a chilling image that reflected his reflexes and concentration in capturing the moment a car struck protesters at a racially charged rally," the judges said. It was Kelly's last day at the paper, and he is no longer in journalism; read more here.

John Archibald of the Alabama Media Group (Birmingham, Montgomery and Huntsville newspapers owned by Newhouse) won the Commentary prize for "lyrical and courageous commentary that is rooted in Alabama but has a national resonance in scrutinizing corrupt politicians, championing the rights of women and calling out hypocrisy, the judges said.

South Dakota ranchers say drought aid data is inaccurate

Some South Dakota ranchers told Republican Sen. John Thune that the weather data that determines whether they're eligible for federal drought aid is inaccurate, since the nearest weather station is sometimes many miles away and may not reflect the weather conditions at their ranches. The U.S. Agriculture Department's Pasture, Rangeland, Forage insurance program only accepts data from certain weather stations operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"The South Dakota Stockgrowers Association encouraged members to collect data for the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network. The network sends data to a variety of entities, including certain federal agencies," The Associated Press reports. "But only some USDA programs accept data from the network, said Silvia Christen, the association's executive director."

The ranchers spoke to Thune at a recent discussion over the federal farm bill, and Thune promised to look into it.

The lack of accurate data comes at a perilous time for ranchers, as many areas of the U.S., including the Dakotas, are facing extreme or exceptional drought conditions this year.

Employment for TV news surpasses dailies for first time

Total local TV news employment has surpassed total employment at daily newspapers for the first time in the more than 20 years that the Radio Television Digital News Association and Hofstra University have been compiling an annual Newsroom Survey.
RTDNA/Hofstra graph; click the image to enlarge it.
"The latest survey found that the average TV station hired 6.8 replacements during 2017 and 1.2 staff for new positions. This is a change of 0.3 more replacements than a year ago, but 0.4 fewer new positions. In other words, turnover is slightly up and newly created positions slightly down," Bob Papper of Hofstra University reports. Part of the reason for that is the continued consolidation of local TV news stations. TV staffing totals are up in every market except the smallest, which have primarily rural audiences.

Though the number of multimedia or backpack journalists have steadily increased for the past several years, growth slowed this year for the first time. But in the average newsroom MMJ jobs still increased while reporter jobs decreased. Almost 90 percent of news directors expect their staffing to remain the same or increase in the coming year. Journalists in new positions are increasingly expected to pitch in with digital responsibilities such as social media or uploading and posting content to the website.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Global warming has moved eastward the boundary between the humid Eastern U.S. and drier lands to the west

Earth Interactions map
"A boundary that divides the humid eastern U.S. and the dry Great Plains states appears to have shifted 140 miles to the east over the past century due to global warming," according to a study recently published in Earth Interactions, a journal of the American Meteorological Society, Doyle Rice reports for USA Today. The study's authors say the boundary will likely continue moving east in the future and profoundly affect agriculture, especially corn growers.

The boundary was at 100 degrees west longitude when American geologist John Wesley Powell identified it in 1878. The meridian roughly marks the eastern boundary of the sparsely populated Great Plains. Wheat grows well in the west, but east of the boundary, thirstier crops like corn thrive.

Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the study's lead author, "predicts that as the line continues to move farther east, farms will have to consolidate and become larger to remain viable," Rice reports. "And unless farmers are able to adapt, such as by using irrigation, they will need to consider growing wheat or another more suitable crop than corn."

House's Farm Bill would cut food stamps drastically, allows agriculture secretary to declare rural health emergency

"The House version of a new Farm Bill released Thursday would allow the secretary of agriculture to declare a rural health emergency, making it easier to award grants and loans to community health facilities and telehealth programs," Bryce Oates and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder.

The bill doesn't name specific types of health emergencies, but prioritizes loans for facilities providing "recovery services," which could refer to the opioid epidemic. The emergency provision affects Title VI of the farm bill, which covers "rural utilities like electricity, phone, and broadband; community facilities; small business development; waste water and water treatment; and similar programs," Oates and Marema report. Trump proposed big cuts in those programs in 2017, but Congress hasn't followed through. 

The bill would also add more work requirements for an estimated 4 million to 5 million participants in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, and cut the program by about $93 billion over 10 years. Republicans have tried that before and failed. SNAP and other nutrition programs account for about 80 percent of Farm Bill spending.

Other facets of the bill include:
  • Reauthorization of the Delta Regional Commission and the Northern Great Plains Regional Authority at reduced funding levels.
  • Significant changes to conservation programs: the Conservation Reserve Program acreage cap would be increased from 20 million acres to 29 million acres over the next five years, and per-acre rental payments would be decreased. No new sign-ups would be permitted in the Conservation Stewardship Program. Funding would be increased for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
  • $255 million per year to develop international agricultural trade.

Former coal lobbyist confirmed for No. 2 EPA spot

Andrew Wheeler
(Zuma Press photo by Alex Edelman)
Former coal and uranium mining lobbyist Andrew Wheeler was confirmed in the Senate last week as the deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, which would put him in line to run the agency if Administrator Scott Pruitt left. The vote was 53-45, with three coal-state Democrats supporting Wheeler: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

Before his lobbying days, Wheeler worked on environmental legislation as a longtime aide to Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Environmental and Public Works committee who famously denies climate change, Rebecca Hersher reports for NPR. He also worked at the EPA as a special assistant in the agency's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics in the early 1990s, helping the agency update its early warning system for regulating and keeping track of new chemical hazards.

"Environmental groups and many Democrats have criticized the nomination, pointing to Mr. Wheeler’s lobbying for the coal industry and, in particular, his work for behalf of Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp," Heidi Vogt and Timothy Puko report for The Wall Street Journal. "Murray Energy, the country’s largest privately held coal-mining company, and its controlling owner, Robert Murray, have been some of the largest donors to Mr. Trump’s political groups."

Wheeler sought to distance himself from Murray, telling the Journal that Murray was "just one client" and that critics highlight his former connection for "political reasons”. However, he said his biggest accomplishment has been working with Murray on health care and pension issues for coal miners.

Republicans attack ex-con coal CEO in W.Va. Senate race, fearing he will win May primary and lose in November

Don Blankenship
The contentious Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat in West Virginia has become a potential obstacle for the GOP's drive to preserve its two-seat Senate majority in the November elections. Career Republicans in many states are distancing themselves from President Trump, but his popularity in West Virginia — which had a higher share of votes for Trump than any other, 69 percent — led state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins to emphasize their support for Trump as candidates for the Senate seat, which is currently held by Democrat Joe Manchin, Asma Khalid reports for NPR.

But a third Republican candidate, Don Blankenship, is jeopardizing their odds with a mostly self-funded campaign that has turned the race into a three-way tie. Blankenship, the former Massey Energy CEO who spent a year in federal prison for his role in one of the nation's deadliest mine explosions in decades, mentions Trump the least in his campaign, but he has much in common with the president, as a wealthy political outsider with a polarizing message. "Some analysts say Blankenship's campaign is a vendetta — a personal quest to clear his name. But, even if it began as payback, it's morphed into something much more — he has an intense desire to crush his opponents and win at all costs," Khalid reports. "He's been running attack ads against both of his chief opponents, and they've been reluctant to punch back in public (or attack him directly about his prison record)."

Republican leaders are worried that Blankenship could be toxic in the general election, and some political operatives with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have spent nearly $700,000 on anti-Blankenship attack ads via a newly formed political action committee called the Mountain Families PAC. "The national party isn’t promoting its role in the group, but its fingerprints are all over it," Alex Isenstadt reports for Politico.

"At the same time, they’ve been concerned that attacking him would allow Blankenship to portray himself in the race as the embattled adversary of powerful D.C. interests," Isenstadt reports. "The scenario is similar to the one that played out in last year’s Alabama Senate race, when the party spent millions of dollars in an unsuccessful effort to stop former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore from winning the GOP nomination."

UPDATE, April 18: Tensions between Blankenship and the national Republican party heightened when Blankenship compared Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to Russians interfering in political races, Alex Isenstadt reports for Politico. "McConnell should not be in the U.S. Senate, let alone be the Republican Majority Leader. He is a Swamp captain," Blankenship said in a statement Monday. "The Russians and McConnell should both stop interfering with elections outside their jurisdictions."

Anti-solar, pro-coal power bill dies in Ky. legislature

This is an update of an earlier item.

"Kentucky's urban-rural divide surfaced during a legislative committee's final discussion about a controversial solar-energy bill Thursday before it was narrowly passed with three new members added to the panel," James Bruggers reports for the Louisville Courier Journal.

The bill, introduced by Republican Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence, in the West Kentucky Coalfield, would reduce the credits utilities must provide to future solar panel owners for any extra electricity they produce, using the wholesale rate (3 cents per kilowatt hour) rather than the retail rate (9 to 11 cents)

The bill moved out of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee with 14 yes votes, two more than needed, possibly helped because the committee was expanded last week; two of the three new appointees voted for the bill.

Supporters of the coal industry like the bill, but it was unpopular in more Democratic and urban areas like Lexington and Louisville. "Southeast Kentucky Democrat Rick Nelson of Middlesboro, who was also added late to the committee, said the bill looks to him like a way for monopoly utilities 'to get solar for themselves'," Bruggers reports. In an earlier story, he noted that PPL Corp. (formerly Pittsburgh Power and Light), the parent company of Kentucky's two major utilities, LG&E and KU, has announced it will eliminate the bulk of its coal-burning in years to come.

UPDATE, April 16: The solar-energy net-metering bill was sent back to Senate committee on the last day of the legislative session, effectively killing it., Christian Roselund reports for PV Magazine.

Friday, April 13, 2018

County-level map shows changes in ACA enrollment; county data available via spreadsheet, interactive map

"The Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchanges have proven to be quite sturdy despite a barrage of federal actions that threatened to topple them," Shelby Livingston reports for Modern Healthcare. "The picture of the exchanges that emerges from the CMS’ final open-enrollment data is far from the imploding market that the Trump administration and countless headlines over the past year warned about."

Though enrollment decreased and premiums increased by an average of 30 percent this past year, tax credits increased enough for most people that the average person paid less for coverage than the year before. ACA plans remain unaffordable for millions who aren't eligible for financial help, Livingston reports. Congress is unlikely to pass legislation that would decrease premiums before insurers file 2019 plans later this spring.

For an Excel spreadsheet showing county-by-county data on Obamacare enrollment, click here.

An interactive map shows the changes over the past year. Here's a screen grab:
Modern Healthcare map. Click on the image to enlarge it or click here to see the interactive version.