Tuesday, January 27, 2015

01/19/2015 at 8:55pm

Charlie Neibergall/APPresident Obama speaks at Cedar Falls Utilities in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Wednesday. He encouraged the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt state laws that keep local government from getting directly involved in providing broadband.

Supporters of municipal broadband networks are looking for a boost Tuesday night from the president’s State of the Union Address.

The president says he’ll push federal regulators to overturn laws that restrict public involvement in providing Internet service. Such laws are on the books in 21 states, according to a new report.

The president has no direct voice in the proceedings of the Federal Communications Commission, which will consider a request next month to undo such laws in Tennessee and North Carolina. But the president’s announcement is important because it shines a national spotlight on community-based networks, said one consultant who helps communities design public networks.

“What the president brings to this issue is serious weight and a ton of public relations,” said Craig Settles, who also writes about broadband issues. “There’s no way broadband advocates could have generated this level of interest and news coverage of the issue without the president’s involvement.”

Last week, during a series of speeches and visits highlighting elements of Tuesday's address to Congress, the president touted community broadband networks as one way to get high-speed service to hard-to-reach communities, including rural areas.

Such community networks can take various forms. A city government or a public utility can build and run the network. In other cases, public entities create partnerships with private Internet providers to improve Internet access and capacity. There’s also another familiar rural model – the cooperative – where customers own and govern the business. Other communities have nonprofit organizations at the center of their public networks.

The important element is to have some local ownership, Settles said, because it ensures that local needs – not just the profits of an absentee corporation – are part of the equation.

In Cedar Falls, Iowa, where the president expressed his support for community broadband, a public utility owns and manages the community broadband network.

With a population of 40,000, Cedar Falls may have some relevance for other small cities and rural communities. The city, which is a couple of hours northeast of Des Moines, is in a metropolitan area, but a small one– just three counties with a combined population of about 170,000. The largest city, Waterloo, has about 69,000 residents – barely above the 50,000 residents required to qualify as metro.

Despite these modest population figures, Cedar Falls boasts a broadband network that can deliver 1 gigabit per second – ranking it among the fastest in the nation.

“In 1994, no provider offered high speed internet service in Cedar Falls, and the phone and cable companies then serving the town had no plans to upgrade their networks any time soon,” wrote the general manager of Cedar Falls Utilities. “Unwilling to wait, citizens led the charge to pass a referendum that founded our community broadband service and tasked CFU with designing, building and running it.”

But communities that would like to follow Cedar Falls’ lead and build their own networks will have a tougher time if they are located in 21 states that have restricted the ability of public entities to own broadband networks.

Restrictions can be especially tough on rural communities, because publicly owned broadband could be the best option for some rural places, Settles said.

01/16/2015 at 12:29pm

Photo by Corey Rich/Aurora Photos Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson recently completed the first ever free ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. This means they climbed, for a total of 19 days, using ropes only to stop a fall, not to aid the climb. Here, Caldwell climbs at night. Hands are less sweaty and climbing shoes less stretchy at night, which helps. The Dawn Wall is "considered the longest, hardest free climb in the world," according to the story in Outside Magazine.

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The tidy maps in the “State of Rural Minnesota” report – delivered to a state House committee January 15 –  give a glimpse of the diversity and complexity of rural, small city, and urban counties in the North Star State.

Minnesota is complicated. But then again, so are most -- make that all -- states in the Union. Multiply the Minnesota report by 50, and you start to get a sense of just how big and complex rural America is as a set of geographic regions and an intellectual concept.

One map of note in the Minnesota report is the change in distribution of people of color. Rural areas have smaller populations, of course, so small changes in population that might not register for a city are statistically more pronounced in rural areas.

 This map shows the percent of change in people of color. The north central portion of the state had less change, but generally more diversity, because of Native America populations. Although some of the highest growth in people-of-color population was in the suburbs surrounding the Twin Cities in the south, “numerous western and southern counties saw dramatic growth with the in-migration of Latinos, Laations, Somalis, Sudanese, Hmong and other groups,” the report says.

Don Davis at the Forum News Service has more discussion around the report, which was presented to the House Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Policy Committee.

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Farm Aid will hold a Texas drought summit on Thursday, January 29, in San Antonio, just before the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. The summit will discuss long-term responses to chronic drought that plagues sectors of American agriculture.

“Persistent drought is becoming the new normal for many farmers and ranchers across the country — especially those in the South and the West,” said Joel Morton, Farm Aid’s farm advocate, in a press release. “Farm Aid has a long history of delivering immediate help to farmers in need, but as weather extremes become more common, the solution lies in increasing the resilience of family farms.”

Farm Aid will provide travel support and scholarships for farmer and rancher attendees. Find out more here.

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Frontier Communications, a cable company that serves primarily small cities and rural communities across the nation, has launched a $10 million competition to find “America’s Best Communities.” Just to make sure they have your attention, Frontier and its partners have also added country musician Vince Gill as an ambassador to help get out word on the competition.

Gill was part of a presentation Thursday held at the Country Music Hall of Fame announcing his involvement in the contest. He shared the stage with the heads of Frontier Communications and two other backers of the contest, DISH Network and CoBank.

The competition will award prizes of $1 million to $3 million to the top three winners. Semifinalists and finalists for the big prizes will also receive awards to help them create applications for the contest.

The competition is open to communities from 9,500 to 80,000 that are in the Frontier service area, which covers parts of 27 states.

What about smaller communities? The contest rules encourage them to join other municipalities in making a joint proposal.

The deadline for initial applications is March 25.

More information on the contest is here.

01/15/2015 at 1:20pm

Photo via the Boston Globe Doctor shortage or distribution problem?

The folks at Vox look at a new report by the Institute of Medicine that says there is "no credible evidence" of a doctor shortage in the U.S. But there is definitely a “distribution problem.”

On the geographic distribution issue — that physicians aren't going where they're needed most — there's quite a lot of consensus. Physicians are normal people who are drawn to attractive places to live, just like everyone else. But it's more than that: doctors who live in wealthy communities are often paid much more handsomely.

"Right now Medicare pays more to providers who work in more expensive areas — providers who work in Manhattan get more than providers who work in Milwaukee," [Harvard economist Amitabh]

Chandra said. "Maybe what you want to do is offer additional payments to physicians working in underserved areas."

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Last year Chipotle Mexican Grille said it couldn’t get enough grass-fed beef in the U.S. and added Australian suppliers. Now the Mexican-food chain has suspended serving carnitas at 600 restaurants because it says it can’t get enough “responsibly raised” pork in the U.S.

The New York Times reports:

The fast-growing restaurant chain announced on Tuesday that it had suspended a major pork supplier after a routine audit found that it had failed to meet the company’s standards for animal welfare. “Without this pork, we cannot get enough pork that meets our Responsibly Raised standard for all our restaurants, and we will not be able to serve carnitas in some locations,” Chipotle said in a statement, referring to its standards for the humane treatment of livestock.

Another provider has upped its supply of pork to the chain to help make up the shortfall, and the restaurant says it’s recruiting additional hog farmers, according to Business Insider.

The company currently oversees 700 farmers who must follow strict guidelines for raising pigs, such as feeding the animals a vegetarian diet and giving them access to the outdoors.

"We would like to double the number of farmers over the next couple of years," Tripician said. "Though we have demand now that would even exceed us doubling the farmers."

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Anyone who lives in, or has road-tripped through, the South has seen religious billboards and monuments: huge white crosses, Bible verse admonishments, etc. Now a new player is getting into the game. Atheists are filling billboards with messages to counteract their spiritual counterparts. The problem with this media war, argues The Daily Beast, is that the war itself is useless.

The rural Southern political billboard is… a surefire way to force others to witness your own self-satisfaction but an ineffective way to accomplish anything other than that. These billboards and roadside displays aren’t a form of rhetoric so much as they are what Walt Whitman might call “barbaric yawps,” inchoate assertions of presence in the wilderness.

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CoOportunity Health, one of the Obamacare medical-insurance cooperatives thought most likely to succeed, is in danger of shutting down due to its “hazardous financial condition.” The company is no longer taking applications and expects most of their clients will find other health insurance by the February 15 enrollment deadline.

About two dozen such co-ops have been set up nationally. One of the main goals was to provide choices in states, such as Iowa, where the health-insurance market was dominated by one or two carriers. CoOportunity was initially seen as one of the co-ops most likely to succeed. That was largely because its founders included David Lyons, a former Iowa insurance commissioner, and Gold, a former executive at the state's dominant carrier, Wellmark Blue Cross & Blue Shield.

01/15/2015 at 6:53am

Don Blankenship addresses the crowd at a Labor Day rally in Holden, West Virginia, in 2009, the year before the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

Why does it take a coal-mine disaster like the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion to begin the legal process of bringing coal barons like Don Blankenship to justice? 

Blankenship is the former chairman and CEO of Massey Energy, owner of Upper Big Branch Mine.  A 2010 explosion at the Raleigh County, West Virginia, mine killed 29 miners.

Blankenship’s indictment is a historic event in West Virginia. The document charges that a coal mine owner and operator deliberately disregarded laws governing miners’ safety and health. It further says that disregard resulted in miners’ injuries and deaths.  The judicial attempt to bring this “King of Coal” to justice is a long overdue step in the right direction. 

For nearly five years, coal miners and their families in the Appalachian coalfields have been praying for Blankenship to be held accountable.

Mining coal is ranked as the fifth most dangerous job in America, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  There is an entire federal agency (the Mine Safety and Health Administration) that monitors underground mining and enforces safety laws.  But all the laws, regulations and rules did not save the lives of the miners at Upper Big Branch. Where and how did the system fail?  Did this disaster occur because of a deliberate action or inaction by the mine owner or operator?

The new indictment of Don Blankenship says the coal baron was directly involved in a conspiracy to violate safety laws and then cover up those violations. He prioritized production over safety, according to a series of notes and memos from Blankenship to miners that are part of the indictment. Those notes allegedly threatened employees who failed to cut costs, according to the indictment. (“Please be reminded that your core job is to make money,” one communication read.  Another:  “You have a kid to feed. Do your job.”) 

01/14/2015 at 7:07am

All photos by Katie Currid Etta Wilcox-Hughes sweeps the floor as Ariel Shapiro leaves the pantry during “beautification day,” a day of cleaning. The people who come to the Possibility Alliance do so for different reasons. Some find the lack of electricity peaceful; others want to do their service to the planet by living simply; some want a break from the hustle and bustle of the city. But the message of the members of the alliance is simple: simply living so that others can simply live. This intentional community lives without electricity on an 80-acre homestead in northern Missouri, growing their food, biking to where they need to be and relishing in the simplicities of life.

 

Daily Yonder: Tell us a little bit about your background.

Katie Currid: I grew up moving around a lot.  I think I’ve lived in ten different states across the United States.  Most of my childhood from middle school on was spent in Missouri. My first experience with photography was in 8th grade, when my parents gave me a little digital point and shoot for my graduation.  We lived on a farm, so I would go and take pictures of my sisters running through the fields with the cows on our farm in the Ozarks in Missouri.

 

Left: Sisters Jennifer, 9, and Rachel Hartzler, 7, behind the Sugar Tree Country Store on Saturday, March 8, 2014, during the Highland County Maple Festival in McDowell, Va. The two said they have never cut their hair. Right: Nathan Showalter pauses after a turkey culling at Heartland Harvest on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, in Mt. Solon. Nathan, who is 20, has been involved in his family’s farm all of his life, and though his job culling the turkeys is a messy business, he said he’s never imagined doing any other job.

 

DY: And you eventually went on the study photography.

KC: Yes, I studied Photojournalism at the University of Missouri’s Photojournalism school.  The University of Missouri does a really good job of showing the importance of community journalism. One big thing that I took part in when I was there was the Missouri Photo Workshop, where they go and spend a week in a small town in Missouri to document it and photographers from all over come down to take part in this workshop. That really shaped my future career in terms of the kind of work I wanted to do.

During college, I was also the Executive Producer for My Life, My Town, which was a multimedia project that The Missourian (the city newspaper) and KBIA (the local NPR affiliate) would work on together and the whole purpose of it was to focus on issues facing rural teens to give this group of people who aren’t often heard from a voice that way.

 

Noah Arbuckle, 4, gasps as he lets go of a turkey's legs after his father, John Arbuckle, chops off the turkey's head at their farm in La Plata, Missouri. John is a farmer and a butcher and used the experience slaughtering the turkey to teach Noah about life and where food comes from.

 

DY: What was it like talking to those teens as someone who was once a rural teen herself?

KC:   The project was really good.  There was a lot of variety in the stories- a gay teen, a story about a brother and sister that lived on a farm and their diverging paths as they graduated high school.  We did a screening at a local movie theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and it was very cool. Our friends came, as did the families of the people in the movies and people from their hometowns. All these people converged and we discussed what we thought about these stories and these issues and how important they were to tell.

I also did a story about my own hometown called Bored in Lawson.  I think a big thing when you’re growing up in a small town is the boredom you face.  You talk about how bored you are all the time and you spend a lot of time trying to just find something to do.  So I ended up hanging out with my younger sister and her friends and spent the weekend shooting them, and talking to them about what it’s like to grow up in  a small town.

I wanted to do that story because that was my experience growing up.  I knew what it was like to go cruising on a Saturday night because we didn’t have a movie theatre and the only thing we’d do was go drive around cornfields and meet up with people in fast food parking lots and talk and make up things to do, basically.

 

01/13/2015 at 12:21pm

Video by Domina Law GroupLawyers for Nebraska landowners argue that last week's state Supreme Court decision does not settle the matter and that they will continue legal action, if necessary. Pipeline developer TransCanada says the ruling does allow the Canadian corporation to move forward. The video was produced by Domina Law Group, which represents landowners in the suit.

 

The Nebraska Supreme Court’s Keystone XL decision last week clears the way for the pipeline’s owner to start acquiring private land to route the crude-oil conduit through the state.

Or does it?

Most media reports say that the court’s January 9 decision gave Canadian pipeline company TransCanada the green light to take Nebraskans' land by eminent domain for the pipeline.

But lawyers for landowners in the case say the decision is far less certain.

“I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of media reports saying a hurdle to TransCanada construction was removed,” said David Domina, who represented Nebraska landowners in the case. “Any thoughtful reading of the [Nebraska] Supreme Court decision clearly discloses that’s not the case.”

The court case tested the constitutionality of a state law granting the governor authority to work with TransCanada to route the pipeline. Private landowners in the path of the proposed route said the state’s constitution requires the Nebraska Public Service Commission to approve the use of eminent domain for a pipeline.

A lower court agreed with the landowners.

Media reports say the state Supreme Court overturned that ruling. But in an online video, lawyers for the landowners say that the decision is much murkier and that they will continue the legal battle.

“This decision has simply been punted down the road to be answered on another day in the future,” said attorney Brian Jorde with Domina Law Group in Omaha.

Four of the state Supreme Court justices sided with landowners in the decision released last week. But three justices refused to vote. That left landowners one vote shy of the five-vote super-majority they needed to have the law declared unconstitutional.

Rather than deciding the case, landowner lawyers say, the Supreme Court added more uncertainty to the contentious issue.

“The cloud of uncertainty that we had hoped our lawsuit would answer once and for all is alive more than ever and looming larger over TransCanada’s head than before,” Jorde said. “It’s up to TransCanada to … play the next card. And they don’t have many cards to play.”

TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard disagreed with that assessment.

01/13/2015 at 7:06am

Bill Bishop / U.S. Election Atlas data Republican candidates won most counties in Appalachian Kentucky and West Virginia in the 2014 House election, continuing a 14-year trend toward stronger GOP performance in the region. Click map to make it interactive. (Data for Virginia Appalachian counties was not available.)

Ask the Democratic Party leadership in Floyd County, Kentucky, about their county’s voting record and they’ll tell you: “When the 1972 election results came out, George McGovern had only won the state of Massachusetts and Floyd County, Kentucky.”

Times have changed.

Floyd County, along with virtually every coal-producing county in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and southern West Virginia (the region known as Central Appalachia), now consistently vote for Republicans in federal and state elections. Across Central Appalachia, these midterm elections have brought more Republicans to historically Democratic seats, a 14-year trend.

There’s always a backstory. You can look at how race affected voting trends under the Obama presidency. You can also look at the convenient emergence of “pro-coal,” and “war on coal” rhetoric, coinciding with the Obama presidency, and you can look at how the decline of unions in Appalachia underwrote these stories.

Those conversations are the start of a real conversation about where Appalachia went to the right.

However, the first step is to challenge the narrative that a conservative monolith has prevailed in rural America since time immemorial, a narrative we see reproduced by our politicians and liberal and conservative media alike.

I set out to investigate how Appalachia became a Republican stronghold back in 2012, receiving several years of research grants to do so as a geography undergraduate at the University of California-Berkeley. For several summers, I conducted interviews in southern West Virginia.  

Race

During the summer of 2012, in counties such as Logan County, West Virginia, where nine out of 10 voters are registered Democrats, few would admit to voting for president Obama except behind closed doors. Signs saying “Fire Obama: End the War on Coal” littered the two-lane highways snaking their ways from eastern Kentucky to Virginia. As Obama became the target of widespread frustration amidst the tepid economic recovery and fears of massive layoffs at the mines, race became another point against the president.

In the Appalachian coalfields, blacks and whites have historically allied. In the early 20th century, the labor-hungry coalfields became a destination for African-Americans leaving the South. Labor organizing relied on interracial solidarity. By the 1970s, the United Mine Workers of America had anti-discrimination policies, including taking on racism and gender discrimination. In Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary, Harlan County, USA, a white miner sitting next to a black miner famously tells the audience, “When you come out of the mine, everyone’s face is black.”

At home it was a different story.

Like much of America, segregation in daily life continued well after legal integration. Some mining towns like Blair, West Virginia, were sunset towns. Residents will tell you: “Used to be black folks would make sure not to be in Blair after dark. Probably still is that way….” Coal company-owned towns were generally segregated. A Mexican-American son of a coal miner remembers: “The black people’s homes were the farthest up the holler, and ours were the next farthest, and then the white homes.” 

These days, what remains is the culture of segregation, not union culture. Without the labor politics that once dominated the coalfields, racial dialog is over, particularly as historically African-American communities in the coalfields empty out with young people finding work elsewhere. As with much of America today, the legacy of racism in the coalfields is alive and well.

This place was primed for a political alliance to stoke latent prejudices.

Pro-Coal

“They called it COALition Romney.” After the 2012 election, campaigners explained how the West Virginia Republican Party had strategically partnered with the West Virginia Coal Association in the 2012 election. Their coalition, which required the historically Democratic Coal Association to break with its party, was critical for bringing not only a sweeping defeat of Obama in 2012, but a host of Republican state senators and representatives into the coalfields.