Thursday, February 19, 2015

Denver Post runs three-part series on housing, agriculture and extraction industries in metropolitan/exurban/rural Weld County, Colorado

Mark Jaffe and Kevin Johnson wrote this three-part series, published this past week, for the Denver Post.  Weld County is in north central Colorado.  Its population is 269,785, and its population density is 63.4 persons per square mile.  Greeley, population 96,539, is the county seat.  Weld County is part to the Greeley Metropolitan Area, which in turn is part of the Denver-Aurora Combined Statistical Area.  Yet it includes rural pockets and, as other posts about Weld County here, here, and here suggest, is often thought of as manifesting a rural culture.  Now to the Post's series.

Part I, "Drilling Rigs and Housing Developments Face Off in Denver Suburbs," was published on February 13, 2015, and its dateline is Erie, population 18,135.  Erie actually straddles Boulder and Weld counties, and its population has nearly tripled since the 2000 census.  Here's an excerpt:
The state has issued nearly 5,000 Front Range drilling permits in the past two years — most in Weld County. 
Powered by the ability to drill 2-mile-long horizontal wells and release oil from hard shale with hydrofracturing, or "fracking," drilling rigs are pushing closer to homes. 
At the same time, suburbs are sprawling onto the plains — the six Front Range counties where drilling has occurred added nearly 105,000 residents between 2010 and 2013 — and at the edges, houses and drill rigs collide. 
In some communities, such as Lafayette and Fort Collins, the clash has led to drilling bans and industry lawsuits to overturn them. In others grassroots groups are opposing drilling projects. 
Local governments, such as Erie, have sought to address residents' concerns, and drillers are searching for ways to limit their impact. Ultimately, whether communities and drillers coexist or remain in conflict depends on whether they can find some common ground.
Part II, "Weld County Agriculture and Energy Intersect in Nuanced Relationship," was published on Feb. 16, 2015.  Here is a key excerpt:
With more than 3,500 farms and ranches spread out over more than 3,000 square miles, Weld County is Colorado's agricultural juggernaut. And now, it also hosts the most concentrated oil and gas operations in the state, creating a sometimes-awkward balancing act of interests amid an economic power surge. 
Concerns over water — quality and quantity — have particular resonance for farmers and ranchers. Vast increases in traffic on rural roads can create health and safety concerns for people and livestock.
It includes this quote from fourth-generation farmer Dennis Hoshiko, described as having spearheaded a movement for surface owners' rights:
Having two major industries vying for use of the same real estate often makes for an uneasy and sometimes contentious coexistence.  Yes, domestic oil and gas production is vital to our nation's well-being, but so is domestic food production. And when push comes to shove, I like to eat more than I like to drive my car.
Part III, "Weld County's Energy Boom Moves Small Towns to Revisit Identities," was published on February 17, 2015. The story features towns such as Eaton, population 4,567, and Kersey, population 1,454.  Here's an excerpt:
The money that has flowed with the tapping of the Niobrara Formation revved the economic engine for an entire region, but small communities sprinkled across the map have been presented with uniquely transformative opportunities and challenges.
The arrival of the energy industry sparked expansion and annexation, filled local restaurants and provided new customers for other businesses. But it also brought an annoying onslaught of noise and traffic and uncertain environmental consequences. 
For schools, it has showered benefits from bikes to buses but also lured district workers — sometimes even teachers — away to more lucrative oil field jobs. 
New tax revenue and corporate cooperation have helped towns expand their infrastructure. But while the growth has given rise to rooftops in some corners, it also has underscored a housing crunch in others.
* * *  
But the broader view across Weld County has been complicated by the more immediate volatility of crude oil prices, which fell off severely in December. And while town officials don't sound panicked, some are preparing for a lull in activity that could impact their bottom line.  
Overall, I thought Johnson painted a rosier picture than I anticipated of the energy industry's impact on Weld County.   Jaffe's piece on housing vs. drilling rigs seemed more balanced.     

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Student Lawyer magazine highlights "adventure" of rural practice

Student Lawyer magazine this week ran a story headlined, "Adventurers Sought in Rural America."  The story's lede highlights rural-urban difference:
You may seek work at a firm in a large city where you’re paid handsomely, specialize in one type of law, and there’s a Starbucks on every corner where you can grab a cup of joe on your way into the office.

Or, you may choose to go down an entirely different path and look for work in a much smaller—perhaps a rural—setting, where you may run into clients at the local market, work on more types of cases, and receive a paycheck that’s considerably lower than what you’d receive at a big-bucks firm. 
Perhaps most pressing, there’s a dire need for legal representation and not enough lawyers to serve the unique demands of rural communities. During a time when jobs are few and far between, rural communities offer an untapped market with plenty of perks and a chance to fill a void and make a serious impact in the lives of residents.
The story, by free-lancer Karen Schwartz, covers efforts to increase access to legal representation in rural parts of California, Iowa and Maine.  Among the tactics those states are using are programs whereby rural attorneys mentor law students during summer stints, mentoring that sometimes turns into succession planning.   One lawyer who had done a summer internship with Phil Garland in Garner, Iowa, offered these observations on rural practice:
One of the benefits of working in a small town in terms of clients is that you help that client with everything.  You might help that client with a will, and then they might come in if they want to purchase land or need assistance with an estate. It’s nice to build client relationships and it’s easier to do that in a smaller community.

William Robitzek, who practice in Lewiston, Maine, and is currently president of the New England Bar Association, commented on and refuted perceptions of rural places and rural practice:
There’s the misconception that you can’t have a successful practice in the rural areas of the state. Once students spend time in Portland—the largest metropolitan area in Maine with the only law school—they don’t want to leave, they get used to the lifestyle. They think all the clients are in Portland, but there’s a lot of legitimate activity taking place in the rest of the state as attorneys get older, and in some areas, we only have a few lawyers. And attorneys who stay in Portland right out of law school don’t necessarily get legal jobs.
The full story is here.

Monday, February 16, 2015

FSA and SBA enjoined from guaranteeing loans for industrial hog farm in BNR watershed

Big Creek, near Vendor, Arkansas, February 2015
I'm catching up on blogging, and have good news to report regarding the litigation about C&H Hog Farm in Newton County, Arkansas.  That's the 6500-hog facility approved by the Arkansas Dept. of Environmental Quality in 2012--with NO local notice--and built in 2013 on Big Creek, six miles upstream from the Buffalo National River (BNR).  The "farm" is supported by loan guarantees from two federal agencies, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA).  Well, the good news is that in December, 2014, Judge D. Price Marshall of the federal district court for the Eastern District of Arkansas enjoined the FSA and the SBA from guaranteeing the loans to C&H.
Entrance to C&H Hog Farms

Critical to the judge's decision was his finding that the the environmental assessment by the FSA (and adopted by the SBA) was shoddy at best.  Judge Marshall called it "cursory and flawed," noting that
[I]t didn't mention the Buffalo River.  It didn't mention Big Creek.  It didn't mention the nearby Mt. Judea school.  It didn't mention the Gray Bat.  
The latter is an endangered species found on the Buffalo National River.  As for the Mt. Judea school, it is about 3/4 mile from the hog farm and even closer to some of the fields where the hog litter is being sprayed.  (The school has been the topic of several posts about its proposed consolidation here, here and here.  Some Mt. Judea residents worried aloud at an early public meeting about the farm that its proximity to the farm might ultimately be used to justify closure of the school).

Of the environmental assessment, the judge concluded:
Brevity is commendable, but conclusions can’t take the place of reasons.
Having read the EA myself, I would say it was downright deceptive by omission.  The EA is required to address environmental justice concerns, yet it failed to mention the high poverty rate in either Newton County (23-27%, depending on which estimate you credit) or in the Mt. Judea community in particular (the poverty rate in White township, which includes Mt. Judea, is about 43%, while the child poverty rate there is 51.5%).  Further, Newton County in its entirety is a persistent poverty county, a place marked by entrenched, intergenerational poverty.

Mt. Judea School, February 2015

While this is certainly a victory for conservationists and--at least implicitly--for locals who are now tolerating the stench and other negative externalities of the farm, the victory may be short lived because the defendants have appealed.

Read earlier posts about the hog farm and the circumstances of its approval and construction hereherehereherehereherehere, and here.  The Buffalo River Watershed Alliance website also features a wealth of information about the hog farm and litigation against it.

Literary ruralism (Part X): Same Sun Here

I recently read Silas House and Neela Vaswani's Same Sun Here, a young adult novel consisting of letters between a boy in small-town Appalachian Kentucky and an Indian immigrant girl living in Manhattan's Chinatown.  I loved the book and thought it did a fine job of presenting some fairly mature themes to young adults.  (Actually, the book is recommended for those 9 years and up).  These themes included civil disobedience, absent parents, death of a grandparent, socio-economic disadvantage, and environmental degradation, among others.

Having grown up working class in the Ozark Highlands, I found that the letters by the Appalachian boy, River Dean Justice, resonated powerfully with me.  His description of his world seemed highly  authentic, and the turn of phrase, too, was uncanny.  Here's just one of the passages that struck a chord with me, where River is describing a trip he, his grandmother, and other activists took from their fictional home town, Black Banks, to the state capital, Frankfort, to join a protest against mountain top removal.
Everybody we knew all piled in together on a bus we had rented from a church.  It was an old school bus that had been painted white, and instead of saying CROW COUNTY SCHOOLS down the side like a normal bus, it said John 3:16 on one side and HONK IF YOU LOVE JESUS on the other side.  
* * * 
On the way up, one of the community organizers (that's what Mamaw is, too, a community organizer) led everybody in songs.  We sang all the way to Frankfort, which is a two-hour drive from Black Banks.  We sang "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," and "Which Side are You On?" and "Hard Times."  Those are real old songs that people in the mountains sing all the time, so I'm not sure if you've heard them or not, but I've been hearing them all my life.  It's like if you're from here, you're sort of born knowing those words, like they're part of your body or something.  
Another favorite passages was when River described a supper of "salmon patties and soup beans, which I love," made by his grandmother (Mamaw).  That's a meal from my own childhood, too--and a special treat it was (even though I now know how gauche that is, not least because the salmon came from a can).

In short, this little book was full of images and phrases I have not heard or thought of in years, not since my entire world was Newton County, Arkansas.  Notations made by a prior reader in the library copy I read was a reminder of that some of the phrases and word choices were unusual.  The other reader's notations commented on words like "fret," which I don't see as especially noteworthy, though they do  perhaps reflect a regional parlance.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Three cheers for Colorado's Farm-to-school movement

Read today's Op-ed about Colorado House Bill 1088 in today's Denver Post.  Here is the lede:
Colorado is known as the nation's leanest state, but this distinction belongs only to its adults. Colorado ranks 29th in the nation for childhood obesity. 
Meanwhile, Colorado's rural economies have not grown at the same pace as those in the Denver metro region. 
Colorado House Bill 1088, sponsored by Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, effectively addresses this childhood obesity problem and uneven economic recovery by providing grants to help farmers produce healthy, nutritious food for public school kids. 
Research shows that farm-to-school programs work for students. They provide kids with healthy food options and teach them about nutrition and food production.
According to the op-ed, sixteen other states support farm-to-school programs, and similar support is being proposed by House Bill 1088.  What Colorado does have right now is a privately funded task force which has been considering how to expand these programs.  According to the op-ed,
Schools have reported to the task force that there simply are not enough local agricultural producers in the market to initiate or expand farm-to-school relationships.
The authors observe that Colorado schools spent $180 million on school meals in 2013-2014, and they assert that keeping more of that money in the state could have economic benefits, especially in rural places.
Farmers who sell to schools see an average 5 percent increase in their total income. Furthermore, studies show that each $1 invested in farm-to-school programs produces $2.16 of local economic activity, and for every one job created by schools purchasing local food, 1.67 more jobs are created locally.
The authors of the op-ed are Jake Williams, the executive director of Healthier Colorado, and Anthony Zamora of Leffler Family Farms in Eaton, a member of Colorado's Farm to School Task Force.

Another post about farm-to-school programming--where the farm is part of the school--is here.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Carey on limited AP courses at rural schools

The Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire issued a policy brief this week on rural school districts'  limited AP course offerings.  Don Gagnon and Marybeth Mattingly reported these key findings in their brief :

And this shows AP Success for Districts in the Most and Least Affluent Quartiles, by Urbanicity.

The authors speculate on the reasons for these disparities:
Rural districts may find it difficult to offer rigorous coursework because of insufficient numbers of capable students, lack of appropriate teacher staffing, or other logistical concerns owing to small, isolated populations.  Regardless of the causes, the result is that fewer rural students leave high school having experiencing college-level coursework or having earned college credits.  
Other posts about the challenges facing rural schools are here and here.  

Monday, February 2, 2015

The health insurance gap is wider in the country.

Since the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) implementation in 2013, there has been speculation that the Act would not support rural areas as well as it supported urban areas. Initial news reports noticed that the health insurance marketplace lacked competition in rural areas, and that rural residents were being charged higher premiums than their urban counterparts.

Wyoming’s insurance commissioner blamed much of the discrepancy on the health infrastructure in his state. All but a single Wyoming county is serviced by one hospital, and the lack of hospitals holds a virtual monopoly over those residents. The commissioner argued that there is little incentive for insurers to attempt to introduce themselves into a market with such entrenched competition.

Government agencies like the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) immediately started collecting ideas to improve rural access to health care. But the problem was worse than initially speculated. Earlier this year, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that rural residents were less likely to have employer-provided health insurance than the rest of the population, and were more likely to need access to healthcare through programs that the ACA provides. However, rural residents were also more likely to be caught in something called the “coverage gap”: a position where someone makes too much money to qualify for Medicaid in their state, but too little money to qualify for the tax credits offered for having health insurance.

The New York Times just published an article about the coverage gap today, and the article details what people who are caught in the coverage gap are doing in order to be able to afford health care. Please read that article, and think about how this article relates to the rural American experience today. Rural residents are more likely to be stuck in that coverage gap than than the rest of the United States.

This problem is not entirely the ACA’s fault, but it is an issue that could have been addressed by the ACA. States were offered an extended Medicaid program that would have extended Medicaid coverage to state residents whose income did not exceed 138% of the federal poverty line. The coverage gap problem is caused by states who did not accept the extended Medicaid program, which limits Medicaid to those under the federal poverty line. The ACA does not extend tax credits to those between 100% and 138% of the federal poverty line, so those people are essentially “forgotten” by the legislation.

Although this issue is not limited to rural residents, it disproportionately impacts them for two major reasons. First, two-thirds of rural residents in the United States live in a state that has not expanded Medicaid. Second, rural residents are poorer on average and therefore more likely to fail into that gap than other residents.

It is a politics game. The federal government wants to encourage states to expand Medicaid. Offering financial aid to people who would be covered by the Medicaid expansion would not encourage states to expand Medicaid. States, on the other hand, are willing to gamble with people who are in the coverage gap as they fight over the future state of American health insurance.

This is an unfortunate position that is not likely to be solved by executive planning. State and federal legislators and executives need to come together to close this gap that hits rural America hardest.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Rural lack of anonymity amidst a measles outbreak

A story in the New York Times today about the measles outbreak affecting more than a dozen states included these bit about the impact in Kearny, Arizona, population 1950, which is described as a "small rural community with an economy tied to a nearby copper mine."
[A] single family’s Christmas vacation has upended the rhythms of daily life. The family visited Disneyland in December, and four of its unvaccinated members came back with measles; a fifth person in Kearny also contracted the disease. 
Now, many businesses in town — the grocery store, the post office, and more — have measles alerts in the windows featuring a blond boy with a rash all over his face. Several signs say that someone with the measles was in the store at a specific time last week and advise others who were there at the same time to be alert to symptoms.
The story quotes several Kearny residents regarding their attitudes toward the situation and the family who didn't get vaccinated.  It's especially interesting to consider these comments since everyone in Kearny knows who the family is.  

Interestingly, school officials there report that the children who contracted measles at Disneyland are the only ones in the school district who have not been vaccinated.   Compare that with the rate of non-vaccination for measles in San Geronimo, California, another place featured in the NYT story:  40%.  A whopping 58% of San Geronimo students are not fully vaccinated.  San Geronimo is in Marin County, north of San Francisco, and the story characterizes it as "a mostly rural community of rolling hills and oak."  I suspect it is characterized as "mostly rural" because of the rolling hills and oak.  After all, Marin County is metropolitan, with a population of a quarter million, and San Geronimo is just 8 miles from Novato, population 51,904. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Rural America's Silent Housing Crisis

That's the headline for Gillian White's story in Atlantic Magazine, dateline today.  She leads with a rural-urban comparison and then gets to this depressing (but for me, familiar) point:  
Few people think about rural communities—not only when it comes to housing issues, but at all. It’s mostly a numbers game. According to data from the Housing Assistance Council (HAC), in 2012 only about 21 percent of Americans lived in rural areas, which means that not many people outside those areas—or about 80 percent of Americans—probably feel much association with rural issues. And that can make it difficult to shed light on the problems that happen there. Making the case to divert funds and attention to parts of the country that house a mere 20 percent of the total population can be an uphill battle, especially in difficult economic times. 
Is everything about rural America essentially "silent"?  I'm reminded of the philanthropy gap between rural and urban.

In any event, White provides some quotes from folks very knowledgeable about the rural housing crisis, including Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition:
Much of the affordable-housing stock in rural housing areas is old and in need of repair. Many of the people who live there don't have the resources that they need in order to keep the houses in good repair. 
And from David Dangler, director of Rural Initiatives at Neighbor Works America, which advocates for affordable housing and acts as a network for nonprofit housing groups:
When we are looking at areas that are most challenged economically we're also finding some of the most challenging housing conditions.
Then there is the part of the story where she illustrates the problem with several examples.  They seem dramatic, but they may be more typical than we--especially we urbanites--think.

The story is well worth a read in its entirety.  And I can't help wondering how Ms. White came to the topic. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Geography and class mobility, an opinion piece in the Sacramento Bee

Foon Rhee of the Bee's editorial board wrote yesterday in a piece headlined, "To Make it to Middle Class, Location Matters."  Here's an excerpt from his California-oriented analysis:
Moving up happens less often for poorer children in the Southeast and Midwest, while it is more common in the Northeast and West, according to the study by top economists at UC Berkeley and Harvard. (Geographic differences don’t mean that much for well-off children; the rich tend to stay rich no matter where they grow up.) 
Mobility is generally better in California, but just as poverty is worse in the Central Valley than along the coast, there’s wide variation in metro areas across the state. 
The odds of making it to at least the middle class are 8 percent for poor children in the Eureka area and 8.3 percent in Fresno, but 11.2 percent in San Francisco and San Jose and 11.8 percent in Santa Barbara. The number is 10 percent in Sacramento, 10.2 percent in Modesto, 10.4 percent in San Diego and 9.6 percent in Los Angeles. 
The researchers found that mobility tends to be higher in areas where the poor are less concentrated and there’s a bigger middle class, and in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary and high schools and more civic engagement.
Sadly, Rhee's piece is quite metro-centric.  The only place he lists that is rural by any measure is Eureka, population 27,191, and the county seat of (barely) metropolitan Humboldt County, population 134,623.  Many folks think of Fresno as rural because it is in the Great Central Valley amidst California's agricultural economy. However, with a population of half a million, Fresno is the fifth largest city in the state.  So, what if you're from Ukiah or Bishop?  What are your chances of ascending from poverty to the middle class? 

Rhee closes with some policy implications for this data:  
[P]oor children in some places need more of a helping hand up the income ladder – from the religious community, from nonprofits and volunteers and, yes, even from government.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Another story about Keystone XL and the unusual bedfellows it has made in Nebraska

The New York Times reports today under the headline, "Defenders of Tradition in Keystone XL Fight,"    of the unexpected alliances between farmers and ranchers on the one hand and environmentalists on the other in opposing the Keystone XL pipeline's path through Nebraska.

Mitch Smith's story features the Harrington sisters of Bradshaw, Nebraska, one of whom was featured in this December post about the pipeline and this NPR story regarding local conflicts over the controversial piece of energy infrastructure.    
Four Harrington sisters — Abbi, Terri, Jenni and Heidi — grew up in the 1960s and ’70s tending livestock and crops here, and three of them have remained in Nebraska and continue to farm the land. They fear that construction of the pipeline could threaten their livelihood and a family farming tradition that dates back about 150 years, to when their great-great-grandfather settled on the plot.
Smith describes how folks like the Harringtons, who according to dominant lore about rural folks should be conservative (note the "defenders of tradition" phrase in the headline), have partnered with environmentalists to oppose the pipeline.
The pipeline project has become a cause célèbre, and not just among conservatives, who cite its potential to create jobs, or among environmentalists, who lament the risks they say it poses to groundwater. Several farmers like the Harringtons are also in a personal battle to protect land that in many cases has been passed down through generations.
* * *  
[N]ational environmental groups have joined forces with an unlikely, and bipartisan, team of farmers, ranchers and city dwellers. 
Terri Harrington was among several landowners who filed lawsuits in county court last week; they are challenging the route through Nebraska. Read more here.  Four of seven justices on the Nebraska Supreme Court recently ruled that "the law giving Mr. Heineman the authority to sign off on the route was unconstitutional. The other three justices did not say whether they thought the measure was constitutional, and the law stood because five votes were needed for it to be overturned."  Read more here.  

Yesterday's story features a photo of a "No Oil in our Soil" sign--and anecdotes about how Jenni Harrington's activism has caused her children to be teased at school.  (Another example of that is illustrated in this story).
All of this reminds me of this quote from a newspaper publisher in York, Nebraska, which was included in an NPR story last month about the pipeline.  Publisher Greg Awtry figures he has written some 50 editorials opposing the pipeline.  He declares:
I'm very conservative.  Profit is good! 
The only place I think that this [pipeline] is political would be Washington.  Out here on the ground, we have very conservative lifelong Republican ranchers and farmers, arm-in-arm with the very liberal environmentalists who had little to nothing in common along those lines before this came up. 
* * *  
We are talking about one of the greatest natural resources in the United States of America: the Ogallala Aquifer, which furnishes drinking water to people in eight states.  So even though the risk may be minimal, minimal risk is not acceptable.
Awry opines that the the fact the aquifer is unseen creates challenges for pipeline opponents:
[It] is one of the reasons you don't see a huge uproar about it, because you can't put your hand on it, you can't see it. It's not a park, you can't go climb it like a mountain. ... It's out of sight, out of mind.
As my earlier post suggested, for those elsewhere--outside Nebraska and the plains, that is--that entire region is also out of sight, out of mind.   (I have written here and here about environmental hazards in relation to rural spatiality and the out-of-sight, out of mind phenomenon.  One of those posts is based on this 2012 event.)     

Other posts about Keystone XL are here and here.  A recent op-ed about another pipeline project that threatens rural livelihoods is here.  Reports on recent pipeline spills in Montana and North Dakota respectively are here and here