Tuesday Roundup: Unify

One word suggested for rural: Unify • Paper Cuts a fine series on Wisconsin timber industry • One wolf in California • Gov. Gregoire may be EPA chief

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Tom Dennis, writing in the Grand Forks Herald, has a one-word suggestion for how rural Minnesota should respond to the shrinking demographic power of rural America: 

Unify.

Dennis is writing in response to a new report from the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter, Minnesota, which finds that rural Minnesota has “lost its influence in policy discussions that occur in both the private and public sectors.” 

Dennis continues:

The fact is, rural Minnesota is not going to reverse powerful demographic trends anytime soon. But the region’s lawmakers can and should focus on the true-est of the truisms in politics: “In unity there is strength.”

In practical terms, that means lawmakers should join hands, put party differences aside and speak with one voice when bills that are important to rural Minnesota come up for debate. If they could do this — and if, in turn, they started using their newfound unity as a bargaining chip, withholding support on other bills in return for metro and suburban lawmakers’ cooperation on rural issues — then the next policy paper won’t bemoan rural Minnesota’s lack of clout.

Instead, it’ll celebrate the region’s facing up to the realities of demography and economics, and forging a productive way forward through good old-fashioned politics.

But how to get from here to there? After all, rural Minnesota elects both Democrats and Republicans; and right now, the prospects of their cooperating on much of anything seem slim.

Is it realistic to imagine the lion lying down with the lamb?

Absolutely, because the sad reality of small-town decline has a way of focusing one’s mind — and if properly directed, the object of that focus can be on practical solutions, not partisan politics.

Mine Closings — We shouldn’t forget there is an ongoing rise in unemployment in the Appalachian coalfields, as mines close. Coal is losing favor among utilities, who are finding natural gas a cheaper alternative.

Today’s example comes from Kentucky, where four mines employing 260 miners were closed along the Harlan/Letcher county line. 

Even production in the West has declined. Wyoming produced 9 percent less coal in 2012 than the year before. 

(Un)kind Words for Farm Bill — The Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star writes in an editorial: 

“The message is clear — despite high market prices, virtually unlimited commodity and crop insurance premium subsidies to mega farms remain uncapped, but beginning farmers and rural communities are left twisting in the wind, and conservation of our precious land and water gets put on hold,” said Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs.

The farm bill did extend the important Conservation Reserve Program, but other programs, such as the proposed “sodbuster” were ignored. “Congress is allowing thousands more grassland acres to be converted for short term gain, destroying habitat for grassland birds and other wildlife,” said Julie Sibbing of the National Wildlife Federation.

With a new session of Congress beginning with newly elected members, most observers assume that efforts to write a farm bill will restart. There won’t be much enthusiasm. Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, threatened to stop working with the administration. “I’m done with them for the next four years. They are on their own,” Peterson told Politico.

The lack of urgency to pass a farm bill was a sign to many of the diminished clout that agriculture has in Washington.

“There is absolutely no way to explain this other than agriculture is just not a priority,” said Senate Agriculture Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. The Obama administration this year did not even present Congress with a proposed farm bill, although it did propose a list of cuts in farm programs.

“I can see it coming, limping along, limping along, extension after extension, just like we seem to see happening everywhere here,” Stabenow said. The Obama administration “has this blind spot — passing a farm bill is something they’ve never really been interested in,” Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition told Mother Jones magazine.

In short, the future of federal policy on agriculture is more uncertain than it has been for generations. The dysfunction that plagues Washington has claimed another victim.

Object Lesson — The New York Times tells how, over 90 years, a tax break intended to help family farmers has morphed into a way for “everyone from commercial real estate developers and art collectors to major corporations” to avoid taxes on transactions. 

The original tax break allowed farmers who wanted to swap horses or land to avoid paying capital gains taxes as long as they used the proceeds to replace or upgrade their assets, the Times reports. But over the years this ability was transferred to everybody and their cousins. People trade race horses, oil wells, vacation homes to avoid capital gains taxes. General Electric uses the law and so does Wells Fargo. The result is that billion of dollars in potential tax revenue are lost to the treasury every year.

Gregoire for EPA Chief — The Seattle paper is reporting that outgoing Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire will be the new head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The paper is quoting unnamed sources. 

Gregoire was director of Washington’s Department of Economy before being elected Attorney General in 1992. She negotiated a Hanford nuclear waste cleanup agreement with the first Bush administration.

Water Sample Rule in Colorado — Colorado has proposed a rule to protect groundwater from oil and gas exploration, but the Denver Post reports that the rule “would not apply to more than 25 percent of wells or to the tanks, pipelines and other production facilities that are frequent sources of leaks.” 

California’s Lone Wolf — One male wolf has been seen in California. That leads Rocky Barker to suggest that now is the time for the state to think about what will happen when the wolf population gets some traction.

Barker says that in other wester states, wolf populations have grown much faster than anticipated, and that has led to conflicts between ranchers and wolf supporters. Barker writes:

No one expected the population explosion that came after wolves were reintroduced (in Idaho) in 1995. The goal of 10 packs in each of three states was reached in seven years. And in Idaho especially, the population ballooned. There were more than 750 wolves in Idaho and more than 1,500 in the region at the peak.

The growth of the wolf population outpaced any reasonable expectation for social acceptance and political support, especially in states that had rejected them in the first place. So now the wolf populations are recovered, but the political and social systems of the West are only beginning to settle into the new reality.

California has time to begin its process for adjusting to its new migrant population. It wants to think it will be more accepting since it has cultural values more like those in Wisconsin and Minnesota. But even those states are going through a rude adjustment to the reality of recovered wolves.

How will California’s rural communities react 20 years from now to rapidly expanding wolf numbers in their backyards?

Paper Cuts — We are thankful to National Public Radio for a story it did yesterday on Paper Cuts, a series done by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter John Schmid on the Wisconsin paper industry.  Otherwise, we would have missed this excellent series.

The full series is here. It describes how the Wisconsin paper industry was damaged both by world markets and by the turn away from print to digital products. And it describes how some paper makers have survived. There is great history here as well as a description of the culture of work and life that grew up along with the industry.

 

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