Saturday, June 30, 2012

Seen in the foothills (Part II): You, too, can strike it rich

Last month I saw several of these signs around El Dorado County advertising a "Gold Prospecting Summit."  The event appears to be directed at those in the area who might wish to make their fortunes--or perhaps just supplement their incomes--with  El Dorado County is, of course, part of the California region known as the "motherlode" based on its association with the era of the forty-niners--the 1849'ers, that is.  But most gold mining ended here many years ago, and once active mines like this so-called Wabash mine near Amador City California became tourist attractions.  Here's a photo I took of my son and his friend when we toured that mine in March 2011.  The boys were delighted with the opportunity to "pan" for gold in a flume, though the nuggets planted in the bags of sand I bought for this exercise were pyrite and brass painted rocks.  During that spring 2011 visit, our guide told us that the mine would soon be closing as a tourist attraction and reopening as a working mine because the price of gold--which has been on the rise for several years, especially since the Great Recession--had reached a point where it exceeded the cost of extraction.  Sure enough, by fall of 2011, the mine was once again dedicated to the industrial extraction of gold.  You can see a photo of that at bottom, along with a photo of the signage for the tourist attraction, a silhouette of old-fashioned mining equipment, which remains even after the closure to tourists.    

I wonder what impact the closure of a tourist attraction like this one will have on the region as a destination, compared to the presumably positive economic effect of the actual extraction of gold.  This will probably depend in part on how hefty an extraction tax Amador County levies on the precious mineral.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Chinese officials concerned about rural unrest

That's the key point of Mark McDonald's piece in the International Herald Tribune summarizing comments from Chen Guangcheng, the activist who escaped house arrest last month and subsequently was permitted to leave China for the United States, where he is studying law at New York University.  The headline for McDonald's piece summarizes it nicely, "Activist Says Chinese Officials 'Terribly Afraid' of Rural Unrest."  Here's a quote from Guangcheng's interview with Ian Johnson of the NYT Beijing bureau:
People abroad look at China's human rights situation and they mainly see the situation of better-known people.  But they don't know about all the violations of ordinary people.  But they'd on't now about all the violations of ordinary people. ... People abroad look at China's human rights situation and they mainly see the situation of better-known people.  But they don't know about all the violations of ordinary people.
Guangcheng goes on to  elaborate on the "huge number of the disabled in China, or the women who are bullied and abused, or the orphans in China," saying that "officials are so afraid--because they know the true extend of the problem.  They are terribly afraid of people organizing."

Based on Guangcheng's other comments, it appears that "ordinary people" refers mostly to rural Chinese.
[The situation is] very delicate in the countryside right now.  This is why they constantly resort to detentions and so on.  They don't even try to find an excuse, they just do it--they are that scared. 
*** 
There is nothing the leaders can do.  There is a saying in China that if you are not correct, how can you correct others?  Their sons and daughters have moved overseas and they are working in China all by themselves. ... But they are very clear that if it continues like this they are going to be devastated.   
*** 
People [abroad] often just focus on elite in China's cities.  If they do, they will completely misunderstand modern-day China.  The most important cases over the past year come from the countryside.  Westerners like to train local officials, to improve their understanding of the law.  But when there's been an improvement, it's not because of improving the quality of officials; it's because the ordinary people grasp the law and push. ... [T]he decisive pressure for change is at the grassroots level.  
Read related posts hereherehere, and here.  

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Is Montana different? In context of campaign finance law, Supreme Court says "no"

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday issued its decision in American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Bullock, the case under which the Court determined the constitutionality of Montana's campaign finance law. That law, which dates to 1912, bans corporate money from campaigns. (A law passed a few years later limits individual donations to $160/person.) The U.S. Supreme Court held on Monday that the law banning corporate money is unconstitutional because it conflicts with the 2010 decision in Citizens United.  Four justices joined in a dissent written by Steven Breyer:
Moreover, even if I were to accept Citizens United, this Court's legal conclusion should not bar the Montana Supreme Court's finding, made on the record before it, that independent expenditures by corporations did in fact lead to corruption in Montana.  Given the history and political landscape to Montana, that court concluded that the State had a  compelling interest in limiting independent expenditures by corporations.  2011 MT 328, para. 36-37, 363 Mont. 220, 235-36, 271 P.3d 1, 36-37.  Thus, Montana's experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the Court's decision in Citizens United, casts grave doubt on the Court's supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so.    
Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer published this op-ed, "Mining for Influence," about the case in the New York Times earlier this month.  In it, Schweitzer describes how Montana came to adopt the law banning corporate money.  In short, a miner William A. Clark became wealthy overnight after finding a massive copper vein.
He bought up half the state of Montana, and if he needed favors from politicians, he bought those as well.  
In 1899 he decided he wanted to become a United States senator.  The State Legislature appointed United States senators in those days, so Clark simply gave each corruptible state legislator $10,000 in cash, the equivalent of $250,000 today.  
Clark "won" the "election," but when the Senate learned about the bribes, it kicked him out.  
Schweitzer also explains the laws' consequences for Montana:
These laws have nurtured a rare, pure form of democracy.  There's very little money in Montana politics.  Legislators are basically volunteers:  they are ranchers, teachers, carpenters and all else, who put their professions on hold to serve a 90-day session, every odd year, for $80 a day. 
And since money can't be used to gain access, public contact with politicians is expected and rarely denied.
U.S. Senator Jon Tester of Montana had this to say in the the wake of Monday's Supreme Court decision:
The court's supposed to be full of smart, well-thought-out people, but they rolled back Montana 100 years, back to the time literally when millionaires and billionaires bought elections, and they did it under the guise of free speech, which is crazy.   This is really a sad day in American democracy.
It is worth noting that Tester's opponent in the upcoming election, Denny Rehberg, is well supported by groups like Crossroads GPS, whose donors are largely unidentified.

All of this left me wondering about the extent to which Montana's claim of exceptionalism relates to its rurality.  So I had a look at its brief in opposition to the petition for certiorari.  While that brief does not use the word "rural" or "nonmetropolitan," it does say this:
Issues of corporate influence, sparse population, dependence upon agriculture and extractive resource development, location as a transportation corridor, and low campaign costs make Montana especially vulnerable to continued efforts of corporate control to the detriment of democracy and the republican form of government.  Clearly Montana has unique and compelling interests to protect through preservation of this statute.  
And that, to me, those descriptors suggest rurality.  And, indeed, as of the 2000 Census, 50.2% of the state's residents lived in places with populations less than 2,500, the Census Bureau definition for a rural place.  That makes Montana one of the most rural states in the nation, at least as measured by the percentage of population who are rural dwellers.

Movement to online newspaper publication leaves out rural and poor

Roy Hoffman of the Mobile Press-Register published this op-ed in the New York Times this morning about the recent decision by The New Orleans Times-Picayune and other papers in its publishing family (including the Mobile paper), to publish a print edition only three days a week.  Here's an excerpt that highlights the consequences of that decision for the poor--and the rural--especially in light of Alabama's digital divide.
Countless folks I've profiled in my home state have been old, poor or seen as marginal; they live down rural lanes or speak English as a sec on language.  Yet they clutch the paper when it's in their hands.  they are hungry, too, for news of their community, town, state and nation seven days a week.
Hoffman goes on to offer an anecdote based on his recent reporting in Prichard, Alabama, a small city of 23,000 that made national news last year when it was unable to pay its pension obligations.  The poverty rate in Pritchard is a whopping 36%, and the police chief there estimated that just 25% of the population have Internet access.  Hoffman believes many there rely on the print edition of the newspaper:
How many Prichard residents read the newspaper itself?  Far more than subscribe, I'd harvard to guess. I've written many stories about people and places in that community, and I know how papers get passed around at the barbershop, the church social, the front porch.  
Hoffman goes on to make a plea for government intervention to make news accessible to all in this digital age of newspaper belt-tightening:
Whether it's through a commitment to public Wi-Fi service in every town, or giving tax deductions for family computers and online services, or offering free classes on how to operate what for many are still newfangled gadgets, attention must be paid.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Mississippi about to (effectively) lose sole abortion clinic

Campbell Robertson reported in the New York Times a few days ago on a Mississippi law that will effectively close the state's only abortion clinic, in Jackson, when the law becomes effective on July 1.  The story features Dr. Willie Parker, who flies from Washington to Jackson each week to be one of several abortion providers at the clinic.  Here's an excerpt:
[O]nce inside, Dr. Parker will begin seeing the young women who have made their way from all corners of the state to the Jackson Women's Health Organization, Mississippi's only abortion clinic.   
All of these journeys may end soon after July 1, when a new Mississippi law goes into effect.  The law, which was passed this spring by large margins in the State Legislature, requires all physicians associated with an abortion clinic to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.  
Most physicians who work at the clinic do not have such privileges, and three of four of them do not even live in Mississippi.  Several of them are currently scrambling to acquire such privileges.

I note in particular Robertson's reference to "all corners of the state" because most of those corners are rural.  As of 2000, more than half (53.5%) of Mississippi's residents were living in rural places, defined as population clusters of less than 2,500 or in open territory.  I wrote about abortion access for rural women--and the Supreme Court's misunderstanding of the burden of rural spatiality in this context--here.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Does ignorance of fracking reflect ignorance of rurality?

A recent University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll showed that 35% of Americans have never heard of fracking and that 28% are not familiar with it.  Because so much fracking occurs in rural and quasi- rural places, I can't help wonder if this is just another reflection of the invisibility of rural.

Other recent headlines about fracking are:

Environmental Groups Say They Will Fight Cuomo's Gas Drilling Plan
and
In Western Pennsylvania, An Energy Boom Not Visibly Stifled

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Locals battle feds for water in historic Tombstone, Arizona

The dateline is Tombstone, Arizona, and the story is one of western grit, along with federal-local tension over repairing a water system as old as the city itself.  The city claims the rights to 25 springs to supply its water, and it set out to repair three of them following damage last year by rocks and trees dragged downhill in the wake of summer monsoons.  As journalist Fernanda Santos writes, "The underlying point of contention is an Old West conundrum:  who has authority over water that flows from federal land?"

Here's the lede for Santos's story in the New York Times, which highlights the federal-local tension:
The rules were clear:  no vehicles and no heavy machinery on the mountainside spot ravaged by fire and rain.  Fixing the PVC pipe that carries water from a spring in the Coronado National Forest to this old frontier boomtown, the United States Forest Service decreed, would have to be done by hand.  
* * * 
[T]his tourism outpost of dusty streets and restored saloons is waging a modern-day fight against an enemy its people say is just as threatening as the bad guys of the past:  the federal government.  
So rebel types from around the West came together to fix the Tombstone water system--by hand, insisting that the federal government had underestimated the town.  Santos described the motley crew as "men with long beards and handlebar mustaches, men in cowboy boots and roughed-up hiking shoes ... a city commissioner from Elko, Nev.; a state legislator from Utah; a rancher from Truth or Consequences, N.M.; and a Republican Congressional candidate from Arizona who is running to represent a district that is not Tombstone's."

The president of a local motorcycle group commented, "Big government has underestimated this city.  They thought we might abandon the whole thing when they made it so difficult, but this is not the way Tombstone operates."

A case about the city's claim to the springs that feed its water system is pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Tombstone, with a population of 1,562, is in Cochise County, Arizona, population 71,518.

Arkansas Supreme Court strikes down death penalty law

The Arkansas Supreme Court yesterday struck down the state's death penalty law, "faulting a provision that permitted the Corrections Department to select the fatal drugs used in an execution."  In the 5 to 2 ruling, the justices sided with ten death row inmates who had challenged the constitutionality of the law.  The majority held that the legislature--not the department of corrections--must set the quantity and type of drugs used in lethal injections.  Read the New York Times coverage of the decision here.

This ruling comes in the context of a shortage of the anesthetic sodium thiopental, one of three drugs used in lethal injections.  When the active ingredient in the drug became too difficult to obtain, the company that had previously manufactured sodium thiopental stopped making it in 2010. Arkansas has no doses of the drug left. The Arkansas law does not specify whether a substitute for this drug is acceptable.  Arkansas has not held an execution since 2005, while it has dealt with legal challenges.

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part CIII): Six-year sentence for drug conviction

The June 13, 2012 issue of the Newton County Times reports that a 41-year-old man was sentenced to six years following his May conviction for delivery of a controlled substance (methamphetamine), a Class Y felony.  The man, William Bolin, delivered 1.9 grams of methamphetamine in transactions in July 2011.  Those transactions were "controlled by law enforcement."   Bolin's sentence was linked to his plea deal, which dismissed one felony count and amended the remaining count to a charge of possession with purpose to deliver, a class C felony.  Bolin was also fined $1000 and ordered to pay court costs and other fees.

In other matters:
  • A 40-year-old man was charged with two counts of aggravated assault, a Class D felony.  He allegedly rammed with back of a 2000 Chrysler automobile into a 2001 KIA Sportage, occupied by a driver and passenger.  In a plea agreement, the man was sentenced to 36 months of probation and fined $1000 along with court costs and fees.  He must also commit 30 days of community service and have no further contact with the victim. 
  • A 25-year-old woman was charged with a Class Y felony of introduction of a controlled substance into the body of another person.  "According to court information the defendant was breastfeeding her child at the time when she admitted to smoking methamphetamine.  The child was 'drug tested,' and the results revealed that the infant child tested positive for methamphetamine and amphetamine."  In another case file, the woman, Elizabeth Weiland, was charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of a minor, a Class A Misdemeanor.  The Class Y felony charge was subsequently dismissed in a nolle prosequi order.  
  • A 26-year old man was charged with criminal attempt to manufacture methamphetamine, a Class A felony; possession of a controlled substance, alprazolam, a Class A misdemeanor; possession fox  controlled substance, hydrocodone, a class D felony and possession of a controlled substance, marijuana, a Class A misdemeanor.  About a year earlier, the man, Christopher Walker "had admitted buying pseudoephedrine for several meth cooks and that he had made some himself.  He had in his possession a pouch continuing several syringes, a small quantity of marijuana, alprazolam and hydrocodone.  The items were seized following a traffic stop by Jasper Police. Officials with the 14th Judicial Drug Task Force intervened in the case."  Pursuant to a plea agreement, the defendant was sentenced to five years probation on each charge, to run concurrently.        
  • A 19-year-old woman was charged with conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine after she acquired 4 grams of pseudo ephedrine, lithium batteries, and cold packs containing ammonium nitrate.  The prosecuting attorney subsequently dropped the charges because he learned that she  was under duress from her co-defendant.  
  • A 44-year-old man was charged with two counts of terroristic threatening after he recorded telephone conversations in which he threatened bodily harm to two individuals.  In a plea deal, the state amended the felony charges to one count of terroristic threatening, and the man was sentenced to a year of probation.  He was also fined $750 along with costs and fees and was ordered to have no further contact with the victim in that case. 
  • A 35-year-old woman was charged with possession of firearms, knowing that she had previously been convicted of a felony.The arrest was made in February 2011 during a home visit by her probation and parole officer.  She pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of possessing an instrument of a crime, a class A misdemeanor, and was sentenced to a year  of probation. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Feds sue municipalities in Utah, Arizona for religious discrimination, police harassment

The U.S. Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona, for discriminating against residents who are not members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Most residents of the neighboring border towns are members of the sect, and its shared police department, the Colorado City Police, is dominated by church members.  The suit accuses the Colorado City police of flouting the law by allowing sect members to "destroy crops and vandalize property of nonmembers."  Justice Department officials also accuse the officers of keeping "underage brides from running away," and the complaint alleges that the cities refuse "to provide electricity and water to nonmembers." Federal officials filed the lawsuit only after both the Utah and Arizona legislatures failed to pass bills that would have abolished the Colorado City Police Department. 

Read more here.  An earlier post briefly discussing Hildale/Colorado City is here. Colorado City's population is 4,821, and that of Hildale is 2,726.

Warren Jeffs, the spiritual leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is serving a life sentence in Texas for having sex with under-age females.  Read more here and here.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Feds re-open investigations of Oglala Sioux deaths

The U.S. Attorney for South Dakota, Brendan Johnson, has announced the "re-examin[ation of] the circumstances surrounding dozens of deaths that occurred on or near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, many dating back to the 1970s when the reservation was embroiled in political violence."  The original investigations into many of these deaths ruled them accidents or suicides, but the Oglala Sioux had in May sent Johnson a letter seeking the re-opening of 28 cases.

Mr. Johnson announced that a panel, including his top deputy, would re-consider 50 cases spanning 40 years.  Once that process is complete, he will decide whether any given case presents enough unanswered questions to merit asking the FBI or another agency to assist.  The New York Times quotes Johnson:
If we get the information, the evidence we need for get a prosecution, I don't care how old the cases are.  I don't think it is going to be a short process.  Wit this many cases it might take as long as a year, maybe two years, but I want to get this right.
Many of the deaths occurred between 1973 and 1976, a period known as the "reign of terror" at Pine Ridge.  The American Indian Movement (AIM) was in a power struggle at that time with tribal president Richard A. Wilson and his Guardians of the Oglala Nation, a paramilitary organization known as GOONs.  The period was "marked by deadly ambushes at highway checkpoints and gunfights that on occasion lasted for days."  Many Oglala Sioux believe that federal authorities failed to properly investigate deaths from this period because federal agents were implicated in some of those Indian deaths.

But the cause of some more recent deaths will also be considered, including the 1999 deaths of two relatives of the tribe's current vice president, Tom Poor Bear.  Poor Bear's brother and cousin were found beaten to death in Whiteclay, Nebraska, which borders the reservation.  Their deaths remain unsolved.

Read Timothy Williams coverage of these events in the New York Times here and here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Rural sprawl in El Dorado County, California

Carlos Alcala of the Sacramento Bee reports today on a study by two UC Davis scholars who label El Dorado County's planning process dysfunctional, with a focus on exurban and rural issues.  Here's an excerpt:
Past practices and politics mean that the county may not, on its own, be able to create plans for growth that will be sustainable in the long run, according to the paper, titled, "Gold Country:  the politics of landscape in exurban El Dorado County, California." 
"El Dorado County represents a very dysfunctional politics.  It is kind of the cutting edge of dysfunction," said Stephen M. Wheeler, a professor of landscape architecture [and the paper's co-author]. 
The paper's other author, Craig Beebe, labeled the county's efforts at planning "difficult" and "unproductive."
One example is the 14-year struggle to develop a general plan for the county, approved in 2004 and facing some revisions right now.  
The Wheeler-Beebe paper cites several key factors that make planning difficult in El Dorado County:
  • Widespread subdivision of rural lands in the 1970s and 1980s.
  • Economic pressures from development interests.
  • No-growth or slow-groth advocacy.
  • Strong property rights advocacy.  
Alcala quotes some key parts of the paper, including these:
While many elected officials espoused the rhetoric of reality in terms of preserving rural character and lifestyles, in practice they sided with developers seeking to capitalize on that rural ideal by building thousands of homes. 
*** 
The prevention of suburban developments often enables continued piecemeal subdivision in the form of rural sprawl, rather than potentially continuing this development to specific areas.
Alcala notes that the term "exurban" in the paper's title "refers to formerly rural areas developed piecemeal" on lots larger than suburban ones, "but too small for agriculture."  

Pictured top is the entrance to just such a development, Showcase Ranches, in Fairplay.  Photos center is a cluster box unit at the entrance to another such development in the Fairplay area.  

Robert Laurie, a private land-use attorney in El Dorado County got his back up over some of the paper's suggestions--in particular the suggestion that locals cannot be entrusted with the planning process, which he sees as part of the "democratic process."  Beebe challenged the characterization of the process as "democratic," though, asserting that development is inevitable, but that the growth v. no growth debate often excludes groups like low-income agricultural and service workers.     

Alcala's story helps shed some light on a matter I've speculated about in the past:  candidates for El Dorado County Supervisor touting their rural credentials.  Read more here.

Here is a recent related story from the Bee reporting concern by some in El Dorado County that the United Nations is trying to control its planning process.

Michelle Wilde Anderson of UC Berkeley's law faculty recently published an academic paper on the issue of rural zoning and planning, and how it relates to (and can undermine) urban planning.  It is called "Sprawl's Shepherd:  The Rural County."  Download it here.  

Monday, June 18, 2012

Rural-urban tensions in the 2012 elections

Don't miss Ari Shapiro's recent NPR story on the efforts by Romney and Obama to woo rural voters.  Here's the lede:
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was in New Hampshire on Friday, back at the farm where he launched his presidential campaign one year go.

"In the days ahead, we'll be traveling on what are often called the backroads of America," he said.  "But I think our tour is going to take us along what I'll call the backbone of America."

It was the first stop on a five-day bus tour that will take him to small towns.  The former Massachusetts governor's campaign is calling it the "Every Town Counts" tour. 
Shapiro goes on to label both Romney and Obama "city slickers," but Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture and Chair of Obama's Rural Council, is quoted as touting Obama's agricultural and rural accomplishments, documented in this recent report.  Vilsack says the report is essentially the Obama plan "for revitalizing the rural economy."  Meanwhile Jim Talent, a former U.S. Senator for Missouri, spoke of  Romney's plan for rural America, referencing "more oil and natural gas drilling, lower taxes and deficit reduction."
"Folks in rural America understand you can't borrow your way to prosperity, and they know that for themselves, and they know it for the federal government as well,"  says Talent.  
Shapiro's story also quotes Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies.  Among other things, Davis says he doesn't expect Obama to do as well among rural voters in 2012 as he did in 2008.

Away from the Presidential campaign, another important race this year is that to be U.S. Senator from Nebraska.  Joe Bai wrote a feature about the race in the New York Times Magazine this week.  Bob Kerrey, a decorated Vietnam veteran, the state's youngest governor, and the U.S. Senator from Nebraska until 2001, is the Democratic nominee facing Republican Deb Fisher, who has strong Tea Party backing.  Though Kerrey is a Nebraska native, he has lived for the past decade in New York City, where he has been president of the New School.  So, he can be cast as something of a carpet bagger, especially compared to Fisher, a rancher from Valentine, population 2,737.

Valentine is the county seat of the largest county in Nebraska, Cherry County, on the South Dakota state line.  The entire county's population is just 5,713, and its population density is a mere 1 person/square mile.  The New York Times ran this story about Fisher two weeks ago, calling her the "G.O.P's Best Bet" in the Senate race.  Fisher and her New Jersey-sized district were also mentioned in this June 2011 story about the waning power of rural legislators in state houses.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Full closure on a travesty of justice in remote Australia

I've been captivated this week by coverage of the inquest report out of Darwin, Australia declaring that 9-week-old Azaria Chamberlain died of a dingo attack in August 1980.  The infant died while camping with her family at Uluru, formerly known as Ayer's Rock, in Australia's Northern Territory.   (Here's a link to the New York Times initial story about the inquest report this week).  In 1982, Lindy Chamberlain, the child's mother, was convicted of murdering Azaria and sentenced to life in prison at hard labor.  At the time of the trial in Alice Springs, Ms. Chamberlain was "heavily pregnant" with her fourth child, but conventional wisdom holds that the lack of emotion she showed then and in the wake of Azaria's disappearance generated and later confirmed rumors that she had not responded with adequate emotion in the wake of Azaria's death.  Many of my generation saw the film made about the prosecution and conviction of Lindy Chamberlain for Azaria's death.  That film, "A Cry in the Dark," was one of Meryl Streep's early films.  It was released shortly after Ms. Chamberlain was freed from prison in 1987, following the discovery of Azaria's jacket near a dingo den.

This piece by Mark McDonald in the International Herald Tribune, "The Dingo Took Her Baby," offers a more atmospheric report of recent (and earlier) events.  McDonald also quotes the coroner's Tuesday comments:
[A]n inquest by the Northern Territory coroner Elizabeth Morris fully exonerated the Chamberlains, saying that Azaria "died at Uluru on 17th August 1980 as a result of being attacked and taken by a dingo." 
Ms. Morris's voice wavered as she held back tears, extending her sympathies to the Chamberlains over the loss of their daughter," the newspaper The Australian reported.  "'Please accept my sincere sympathy on the loss and death of your special and loved daughter and sister, Azaria,' she said.  'I'm so sorry for your loss.  Time does not remove the pain and sadness of the death of a child.'" 
Ms. Morris said that new evidence about dingo attacks "excludes all other reasonable possibilities."
In recent years, a dingo attacked and killed at least one victim, a young boy.  An expert had told this most recent inquest of 239 reports of dingos attacking humans in Queensland between 1990 and 2011.  The warning sign above, now in the airport at Uluru, reflects the current thinking about dangers associated with dingos.

As I read the coverage of these events, I kept wondering about the impact that the location of Chamberlain's trial--remote Alice Springs--might have had on the proceedings.  Then I came across this quote form Azaria's father (and Lindy Chamberlain's former husband), who was convicted of being an accessory after the fact and given an 18-month suspended sentence in 1982.  This Michael Chamberlain quote is from Rebecca Puddy's story in The Australian:
"You can get justice even when you think that all is lost but you must have truth on your side. 
"This has been a terrifying battle ... but now some healing a chance to put our daughter's spirit to rest.
He thanked the "courageous and independent" coroner, saying he was told he would never get justice in the Northern Territory."  
"We have fought a justice system that left one senior justice officer telling me 'you will never get justice in a Northern Territory jurisdiction'," he said.   
"Well, now the truth is out."  
I wish the story provided more detail about what made (or makes) the Northern Territory's justice system problematic.  I note that the Chamberlains were were from a regional center in Northern Queensland, Mt. Isa, where Mr. Chamberlain was the Seventh-day Adventist minister.  So, the Chamberlains were essentially rural people who were tried by other rural people, albeit in a different state.

Linda Wolfe offers one spin in her review of John Bryson's book, Evil Angels, which was the basis for "A Cry in the Dark."  Wolfe opines on the forces and personalities that led to the Chamberlains' wrongful convictions:
The police are ambitious.  The press is cynical.  The public is intolerant.  A careerist police detective convinced that Lindy Chamberlain has murdered her child, pursues her overzealously and sneakily.  Reports and television crews trick the Chamberlains into ill-advised interviews.  Bigots asset that Seventh-day Adventists perform human sacrifices ....
Perhaps, then, a lack of checks and balances in this rural justice system, coupled with ignorance of Seventh-Day Adventists, played critical roles in the nightmare the Chamberlains have lived for decades.  So, perhaps did juror misconduct in the context of rural lack of anonymity.
In a startling fragment, [Bryson] takes us to the dining room of the small trial town's principal hotel and there serves up a shocking portrait of human fallibility.  The jurors are celebrating the conclusion of testimony in the case; one member of the party throws up on the dress of another, while an inebriated male juror, only hours after the panel has been warned not to discuss the case with anyone, corners the prosecutor and announces, "I want to talk to you about the case." 
Finally, differing rural and urban attitudes about animals seemed to play a role, at least according to Bryson and Wolfe, who described "an atmosphere of hatred and hullabaloo, some of it stirred up by big-city animal lovers who view the dingo as a cute canine rather than--as Australia's leading expert on the animal advises--a predator."  Park rangers were among the few who believed in the 1980s that a dingo would attack a baby.  It's interesting that even in the rural context of Alice Springs, the urban view of the dingo held sway, a fact further illustrated by young women at the Alice Springs courthouse at the Chamberlain trial, wearing T-shirts "printed ... with slogans of home-town support.  The words said: 'The Dingo is Innocent.'"  But bias against indigenous knowledge may also have been a culprit, as one commentator noted that "evidence indigenous trackers gave about drag marks near the tent was brushed aside."

Recent related items include Australian journalist Julia Baird's op-ed, "She's Innocent.  We're Guilty," in the Sunday New York Times opinion page.  Illustrating the hype around the case in the 1980s, Baird recalls a 1984 poll showing that 76.8% of Australians thought Lindy Chamberlain was guilty.   In a country where the vast majority of the population are urban, that statistic necessarily reflects principally urban attitudes.  "Australia's Changing View of the Dingo" is from the NYT Science pages earlier this year.  


Friday, June 15, 2012

Pulling out all the stops to save a rural school (Part IX): Marketing the school

I have written frequently over the past year about the struggle against consolidation among the schools in my home county and region.  (Read more here, here and here).  Recently, I became aware of yet another aspect of the situation:  the effort by rural schools to attract students away from other schools.  I laughed out loud when I saw over Memorial Day week-end the billboard above, a few miles south of Harrison, Arkansas, and about 17 miles north of Jasper, Arkansas, the county seat of Newton County.  My mom, who works at the school as non certified personnel, told me that schools in Arkansas are now free to enroll students from outside their district's territory.  I am familiar with school choice, of course, but I had never contemplated its application in the highly rural context, in which students are typically riding buses great distances to get to the nearest school.  It seems very unlikely under these circumstances that families would send their children even greater distances to get to a different and presumably better school.  Among other things, how would they get their kids to the more distant schools when buses presumably do not serve areas beyond the district territory?

A May 9, 2012 story in the Newton County Times provides some details about Arkansas's school choice program.  This particular story indicates that the much smaller Deer/Mt. Judea district is also accepting applications for school choice for 2012-2013. Here's an excerpt: 
Before a student may attend a school in a nonresident district, the student's parent or guardian must submit an application on the form approved by and provided by the [Arkansas] Department [of Education] to the nonresident district.  The application must be postmarked no later than July 1, 2012.
Students applying from districts that are in "academic distress" need not meet the July 1, 2012 deadline.

While the Deer/Mt. Judea district is not in academic distress, it is in what might be called numerical distress.  That is, the district's enrollment has for a few years now been hovering at or below the minimum required to prevent consolidation under Arkansas law.  Indeed, recent reports indicate that its consolidation with the Jasper School District is imminent.  (Read more  here).  If, however, Deer/Mt. Judea could attract students from neighboring districts, it might bolster its enrollment above 350 and thus maintain its independence.

While the Mt. Judea school in Sept. 2010 touted a welding certification program (the only one in the state!), its offerings probably cannot compete well with neighboring district, including Jasper.  A school district like Jasper is likely to have more to offer students from neighboring districts like Deer/Mt. Judea, rather than vice versa.  (On the other hand, I would be surprised if students from a larger and more affluent neighboring district like that in Harrison would choose to attend Jasper).  I have written a great deal about the Jasper School District (here, here and here, for example), which includes campuses at Kingston and Oark.  It is a far-flung district.  Lately, however, I've written of the school's efforts to attract grants and partners that enable it to offer special programs.  For example, this post discussed the district's efforts to secure a grant that would permit it to offer a criminal justice course.

More recently, the Newton County Times has been full of news about a $500,000 Coordinated Health School Grant the district is seeking from the Arkansas Dept. of Education.  The funds, to be paid over five years, would be used to establish a school health center.  Here's the lede from the May 16, 2012 story about the "wellness center":
North Arkansas Regional Medical Center [NARMC] in Harrison has agreed to be the medical provider for a proposed wellness center at Jasper School campus. The announcement was made during the regular monthly meeting of the Jasper Board of Education Thursday night, May 10.
***
If the grant is awarded, the hospital will provide a physician and and an advanced practical nurse [APN] at the wellness center.  The center will serve students, staff and the community and will be able to partner with other health care providers for dental, vision and mental health services.  
The Jasper District had been assured it will receive the grant if the school found a provider by May 11.  Subsequent issues of the Newton County Times report that the Arkansas School Based Health Center Team from the State Dept. of Education visited the school on May 18, 2012 to discuss further details of the grant.  About 30 health professionals, school faculty and staff, parents, students and members of the community attended that meeting.

One Deputy Superintendent provided a "statistical view" of the district, which covers 654 square miles:  
We have 897 kids currently, plus 43 pre-school kids, 180 staff members and three communities all combined that have limited access to any health care at all. 
The president of the Newton County Ministerial Association similarly highlighted county demography:
We live in a demographic situation ... that is challenging to the educational system.  Establishing the Center would be an opportunity for the health and welfare of our students because many of them, if you don't come, will not have access to help.  It's just that simple. 
The Jasper elementary school principal explained that the district currently "take[s] kids to Marshall to see a dentist because that is where the nearest dentist is who will accept them.  Children are also taken to Harrison for vision care.  There is a good relationship with the [NARMC] medical clinic in Jasper, but there is a need for better access."  Several parents who spoke at the meeting noted that "it can take up to two hours to get into the doctor or APN at the NARMC clinic in Jasper.  The school nurse at the very remote Oark campus said that parents often "don't have the gas or a vehicle to come get their [sick] kids and [the kids] don't get seen" by a medical professional.  

The Center would be sited in the so-called "Nutter house," on the edge of the Jasper School campus, and an initial $150,000 transfer from the grant would be used to renovate the house and convert it for health care provision.

N.B. The June 13, 2012 issue of the newspaper reports that the Jasper School District has received the grant and will be hiring someone to run the clinic.  

In other news, the "Jasper School District is providing free meals for children in its free feeding program though out the summer."  About 130 children participated in the program during its first week.  What the story does not mention is that the funding for this program is presumably directly from the U.S.D.A.  Read more here.

Also, the May 23, 2012 edition reports that U.S. News and World Report has awarded "bronze medals" to Deer High School and Jasper High School.  The publication reviewed 21,776 public high schools in the U.S., and 81 Arkansas schools made the rankings.  Among other metrics noted, Jasper's student/teacher ration was 10:1, while that for Deer High School was 5:1.  "The magazine also reviewed the composition of the schools' student bodies as well as their test scores."

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

New York to limit fracking to mostly rural, economically desperate areas

Danny Hakim reports in today's New York Times on the Cuomo administration's anticipated plan for limiting fracking to the southwestern region of the state.  Hakim explains the decision in--among other terms and frames--rural and urban.  An excerpt follows:
The plan ... would limit drilling to the deepest areas of the Marcellus Shale rock formation in an effort to reduce the risk of groundwater contamination.  
Even within the southwest region--primarily Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Steuben and Tioga Counties--drilling would be permitted only in towns that agree to it and would be banned in Catskill Park, aquifers and nationally designated historic districts.  
More than the rural-urban divide, however, the divide between where fracking will and will not be permitted to occur is based on economic need--indeed, in some places, economic desperation.  A few dozen communities in the state's "Southern Tier," directly north of Pennsylvania and in western New York, have passed resolutions in favor of fracking.  Hakim's story goes on to give a vivid sense of why people in these nether regions of New York tend to supporting drilling:
"A lot of people look at this as a way to save our property," said Dewey Decker, a farmer, a member of a coalition of landowners supporting fracking and the town supervisor of Sanford, in Broome County, at the Pennsylvania border.  Residents of the town, including Mr. Decker, have already leased thousands of acres to a drilling company. 
Mr. Decker said that the area's traditional dairy business had been in sharp decline, and that the promise of fracking had already helped some residents.  He said there were "a lot of people who, when we signed and got the upfront money, were going to be losing their land and couldn't pay their taxes."  
One environmental organization, New Yorkers Against Fracking, called the Cuomo plan "shameful" and a "violation of environmental justice."  Sandra Steingraber, the founder of the group, criticized the "[p]artitioning [of] our state into frack and no-frack zones based on economic desperation."

Meanwhile, it is clear that the Cuomo plan is looking out of for New York City.  Last year, the state's Department of Environmental Conservation last year indicated support for fracking, excepting "environmentally sensitive areas like New York City's upstate watershed."  In that situation, rural and urban interests were arguably aligned--at least if environmental protection is the foremost concern.  Now, however, the Cuomo administration is said to be "trying to acknowledge the economic needs of the rural upstate area."

In related news, some academics at SUNY Buffalo are challenging a report suggesting that state regulation has made fracking safer.  The academics are up in arms because the report was given the University's imprimatur, via the recently formed Shale Resources and Society Institute, though the report's primary authors--both associated with other universities--conduct research for the industry.  The report's lead author was widely quoted in the media about the report:
Now we have comprehensive data that demonstrates, without ambiguity, that state regulation coupled with improvements in industry practices result in a low risk of an environmental event occurring in shale development, and the risks continue to diminish year after year.
This report came at a time when Congress was considering greater federal regulation of fracking, which of course implicates whether state regulation is sufficient.  SUNY Buffalo initially indicated that the report was peer-reviewed, but subsequently acknowledged that it was not.  In fact, much of the report's analysis tracks a Manhattan Institute Report on "The Economic Opportunities of Shale Energy Development."  That report was by three of the four authors of the UB/SRSI report.  As Martha McCluskey wrote on the CPR blog a few days ago, the UB/SRSI "report proves only the power of the fracking industry to weaken both regulation and academic integrity."  Read more here.

And don't miss this on how the "fracking mess" is about to aggravate the "mortgage mess."  In short, signing a gas lease without lender consent is likely to constitute mortgage default.  Further, Wells Fargo, the largest home mortgage lender in the U.S., does not make home loans on properties encumbered with natural gas drilling leases.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

India considers reform of its failed food-for-poor system

Amartya Sen asserted 30 years ago that hunger is not due to scarcity, but rather to poverty, inequality, and poor management of resources.  (Sen, Poverty and Famines:  An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation 1981).

That assertion appears to be borne out by Vikas Bajaj's recent story in the New York Times, "As Grain Piles Up, India's Poor Still Goes Hungry." The hunger problem in India, it seems, is largely attributable to a failed distribution system--a substantial part of the failure attributable to corruption.  (I have written some about these issues in relation to India's rural poor and rural development here).

Bajaj writes of rotting grain surpluses in the north of India, while slum dwellers in New Delhi go hungry.  He provides this context:
Spurred by agricultural innovation and generous farm subsidies, India now grows so much food that it has a bigger grain stockpile than any country except China, and it exports some of it to countries like Saudi Arabia and Australia.  Yet one-fifth of its people are malnourished--double the rate of other developing countries like Vietnam and China--because of pervasive corruption, mismanagement and waste in the programs that are supposed to distribute food to the poor.  
Currently, India's federal government buys and stores grain, and each state takes grain from these stocks, with the amount determined by the number of the state's residents who are poor.  The grain goes to subsidized "fair price" shops, and the states decide who is permitted to buy the cheap grain there.  The government spends 750 billion rupees ($13.6 billion) annually on the program, about 1% of the national GDP.      
Now, however, the Government of India is considering a new "food security law."  Indeed, the alternative headline for Bajaj's story is "A Failed Food System in India Prompts an Intense Review."  The new law would cost the government as much as 2 trillion rupees a year, more than twice the current expenditure.   Critics warn, however, that it will successfully alleviate hunger and poverty only if corruption in the distribution pipeline is checked, or other means are devised for getting the food assistance to those in need.  According to a recent World Bank report, just 41% of the grain that the federal government purchases reaches Indian homes.  Not only is a lot of grain diverted from the distribution pipeline, a substantial portion of it rots because it is not properly stored.  

Some reformers advocate cash payments or the use of food stamps, systems that would lead the government to buy only enough grain to ensure against bad harvests.  Such systems would also give beneficiaries food choices other than grains.  Others, however, are concerned that such a system would disserve the needy because "men would trade [food stamps] for liquor or tobacco" rather than feed their families.  

Bajaj quotes a man who advises India's Supreme Court on food issues.
The reason we are facing this problem is our refusal to distribute the grain that we buy from farmers to the people who need it.  The only place the this grain deserves to be is in the stomachs of the people who are hungry.    
What's more interesting to me than what the expert says (predictable, right?) is his role:  advisor to the Supreme Court.  Imagine an advisor on "food issues" to the U.S. Supreme Court.  I suppose this says something about the differing (or lack of) separation of powers of India, as well as a difference in advocacy systems and roles.  In the U.S., we expect parties before the Court, as well as amici, to do the advising.

Cross-posted to Agricultural Law.

North Dakota ballot measure considers abolition of property tax

Monica Davey reports from Bismark, North Dakota, in today's New York Times on the effort there to abolish the state's property tax.  Davey speculates--without explicitly referencing the state's oft-noted "rural" character--about why this initiative arose there:
In a way, North Dakota, though 48th in population among the states, was a logical place for such a movement to brew.  While the state's property tax collections per capita generally fall near the middle among states, the surge in oil production over the past five years, mainly in the western portion of the state, has seen its effects ripple through other parts of life here.  The state's coffers are full, overflowing event.  Assessments of home values, especially in some areas, have risen dramatically too. 
Interestingly, the two proponents of the abolition--indeed, organizers of the movement--which Davey quotes are women.  One of them is quoted regarding the current property tax:  
It means all of us are renters--none of us are homeowners.  
Wacky statements like this one have me wondering if female activists like these two have been inspired by the Palin phenomenon.  

Monday, June 11, 2012

Seen in the foothills (Part I): Tea Party linked to rurality

When I spend week-ends in the Sierra foothills east of my home in Sacramento, I often see things I think worthy of short posts--or just visuals that seem emblematic of rural living.  I feel inclined to share these, so I am starting this new series "Seen in the foothills."  This past week-end, I saw this sign at three or four locations around Amador and El Dorado counties.  I am not entirely surprised to see the Tea Party linked to "Rural America" and its defense, but I half wish I could attend the event in order to see if this linkage gets fleshed out--and if so, what the details of that linkage are.  Prior posts hereherehere, and here discuss the "rural-ness" or lack thereof of El Dorado, Amador and neighboring Calaveras counties.

Under the Office of Management and Budget definition, Amador County is nonmetropolitan, but El Dorado County is metropolitan.  El Dorado County is part of the greater Sacramento Metropolitan area, but Amador County is not.  Sutter Creek, the site of the event, is in Amador County.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part CII): Sheriff gives county officials a tour of new jail

The past few issues of the Newton County Times have been stacking up while I have been, among other things, visiting Newton County.  Recent headlines cover the renovation of a building that will become the new jail.  (I took the featured photos of the old (above) and new (center) jails during my visit over Memorial Day week-end).

The May 9, 2012 issue of the times features Sheriff Keith Slape's tour of the new jail.  He showed the Newton County Quorum Court (essentially the County Board of Supervisors) around following their May 7, meeting.  I have previously published a photo of (what was to become) the new jail here; that post also summarizes the history around financing and building the new jail, along with the history of the old jail's condemnation.  As you can see from that photo and the more recent one, the shell of the building is metal, and it was previously being used as a private residence and storage.  That suggests a cavernous space inside.  According to the story, "[c]ement block walls [have been] erected to form hallways, rooms and prisoner cells."  Slape explains that the jail's control room will be "manned" 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  All the other details of the jail--including its capacity for male and female prisoners and ADA compliance--I covered in this earlier post.  (Other 2012 posts about the jail are here and here).  The new jail is on track for completion by August 20, 2012.

One thing that strikes me in looking at the two jails--which incidentally sit right next to eat other, is how insubstantial a metal building looks as a jail--especially compared to its century-old predecessor made of native stone.  Not to mention how much more atmospheric the old jail is.  The new one looks like a warehouse ... and maybe that's how lots of folks see its function:  warehousing the "bad guys."  Heck, the new jail doesn't even have bars on the windows ... but I guess you don't need bars in the absence of windows!

A more recent story, from the June 6, 2012, issue of the paper, indicates that Newton County still does not have funding to operate the jail.  In 2008, the county's voters passed a half-cent sales tax to finance the bond issue to build the jail, but voters rejected another half-cent sales tax that would have provided funding for the jail's ongoing operation.  At its June 4, meeting the Quorum Court again took up the funding issue.  Justice of the Peace Terry Clark suggested the court seek a sales tax to meet the jail's operational costs.  He moved that the County Clerk draft two resolutions for the Quorum Court to consider at its July meeting, one resolution that would call (again) for a half-cent sales tax to operate the jail and another that would call for a one cent sales tax, with proceeds to be divided evenly between jail operations and county roads.  (Photo below is of the county law enforcement center, which is also conveniently adjacent to both the old and new jails, and just one block off the square.)

In other news, the Quorum Court at its May meeting passed a resolution designating Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District (NWAEDD) as project administrator of a grant for which the county is applying.  The grant application, for about $934,000, will be lodged with the Arkansas Community and Economic Development program.  The funds, if received, would be used to partially fund improvements to the Nail-Swain water system.  The project's total cost will be about $2.6 million.  NWAEDD will be an "administrative consultant to assist in the implementation of the grant application" and administration of the funds, if the grant is successful.

The Quorum Court also appropriated $3,685.39 from the "Department of Emergency Management for training and exercises."  The funds were transferred into the Sheriff's Office budget for "capital outlay."

At its June meeting, the Quorum Court appropriated into the road budget $129,930 from the U.S. Forest Service for repair of roads.  (The of lack of federal support for roads was addressed in this earlier post).  The road department also received $66,509.81 from the Arkansas Dept. of Emergency Management.  Additionally, $336 was appropriated to the Sheriff's office, funds the state paid to the county for housing an inmate.  The "Elections account" received $16 from the State Board of Election Commissioners for the certification of poll workers.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rural politics, patronage and (their links to) prisons

Well, actually, this story is about jails more than it is about prisons--or perhaps more precisely about the broad and fuzzy line between prison and jail in places like Louisiana, where many prisoners--those convicted of crimes by the state, not those merely awaiting trial--are imprisoned in very capacious jails overseen by parish sheriffs rather than by the state corrections department.

Dave Davies of Fresh Air interviewed Cindy Chang of The New Orleans Times Picayune earlier this week about her expose on how parish jails--which she characterizes as prisons--have made Louisiana the world's "prison capital."  Chang reports that one out of every 86 adults in Louisiana is imprisoned, three times the rate of Iran and ten times the rate of Germany.  Then Chang explains one reason why:  Fifty-three percent of Louisiana inmates are housed in "local prisons run by sheriffs, and the state's correction system has created financial incentives for those sheriffs to keep prisons full."  Many of these jails/prisons were built by for-profit corporations, and many are located in "rural areas of the state."  Sheriffs receive almost $25/day for each inmate they house.

Two of the nonmetropolitan parishes Chang featured in her 8-part story are Jackson Parish, population 16,274, and Richland Parish, population 20,725.

Here's an excerpt from the part of Chang's series that focused on how rural parishes with lots of "prison beds" rely on prisoners form urban parishes to keep their prisons full--and therefore generating revenue for the sheriff's department.  This excerpt is about Richland Parish, which has 800 beds total in both its men's and women's facility.  The warden is Alan Cupp.
Cupp's 'honey holes,' as he calls them, are flowing nicely.  There is to need to ring up wardens in other parishes, asking, sometimes begging, if they have a few extra to send over.  
Cupp, a stocky 38-year-old with dark hair, a goatee and mischievous brown eyes, is reluctant to publicize his prime sources of inmates.  There are scores of other Louisiana wardens who could move in on his pipelines, which he has carefully tended through chummy relationships with colleagues in urban areas that have prisoners to spare.   
But a roster tells the story:  In the men's prison, 36 are form Jefferson Parish [population 432,552], 84 from Livingston Parish [population 128,026], 59 from Shreveport area [population 199,311], and a handful from New Orleans.  
Of course, the nonmetropolitan sheriffs are desperate for revenue.  As Chang notes, in Richard Parish, the only greater source of revenue than the prison hosting is a 1/2 cent sales tax.  Richland Parish Sheriff Charles McDonald can use the inmate revenue to buy patrol cars, bullet proof vests, and such.

Chang goes on to explain why this system makes a difference for the sheriffs above and beyond what it enables them to purchase for their departments.  Essentially, the sheriffs leverage larger inmate populations to keep themselves in office, and they do so with jobs.  Here's an excerpt from the Fresh Air interview.
"We went to Jackson Parish ... and what the sheriff there gets is a guaranteed $100,000 a year, whether the prison is making a profit or not," [Chang] says.  "But what he really gets--and he was not shy about using this word--is patronage.  Because his department, prior to this, had 50 employees, and now it has 150 employees.  In a place like that, 100 jobs with benefits is huge.  And what he means by patronage, of course, is that he'll get re-elected if he keeps supporting these [prison] jobs."  
This reminds me of how the patronage system operates in Newton County, my own home county in Arkansas.  I have written about this topic before.  One particular carrot that the county judge--the county's chief administrator, an elected official--has there is road maintenance.  Some of the plum jobs he (and it has always been a "he") has to dole out are road grader jobs--because so many county roads are unpaved.  And the judge can use road grading to keep constituents happy--and to re-pay their loyalty at the ballot box.  I was reminded of this when I came upon this sight in rural Searcy County, population 8,195.  In case you can't read it, the sign on the road grader says:  "Vote 4 Experience.  I'm grading my way to the Judge's Office :-)."  Some signs on the side of the grader identify the candidate as Duane Griffin. The heavy equipment was parked next to the volunteer fire station in remote Witts Springs.

This USDA map shows counties whose economies are dominated by state and federal government jobs.  Newton County is on it; Searcy County is not.  I wonder if, for purposes of this map, "state" jobs includes county jobs since counties are simply administrative arms of the state.  Neither Jackson nor Richland Parish is on the map, though some northern Louisiana counties just to the west of them are.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Gas leases take rural Ohioans from rags to (relative) riches

The New York Times ran this feature yesterday about the latest boom area for natural gas extraction:  the Ohio River Valley.  Keith Schneider reports from Caldwell, Ohio, where natural gas concerns are buying up mineral leases.  Here's the lede:
The energy boom has swept into the rural counties of the upper Ohio River Valley, producing a torrent of investment in mineral leasing that is jolting the economies of small towns and swelling the bank accounts of some working-class families. 
Here in Noble County, where vehicle repair and convenience stores are economic mainstays, Eclipse Resources, a Pennsylvania company, mailed $16 million in oil- and gas-leasing checks last month to 70 households whose property has been found to sit atop oil and and gas reserves.  Working with a lawyer in nearby Marietta, the residents are able to band together to negotiate an unusually lucrative deal with the company that paid $4,000 an acre and 19 percent royalties on oil and gas production, and included safeguards to protect water and land.  (The standard has been $10 to $30 an acre, one-sixth royalty rates, and no protections for water and land.)  
As Schneider points out, this buy up (or sell out, as one might see it) is having an enormous economic impact in the region, where the median household income is about $33,000 (though I note that in Noble County in particular it is $39,500).  This is, after all, Appalachia.  Schneider's story features quotes from several families--mostly working class, who have been cash poor but "land rich"--that have received checks in the $200K to $300K range for their leases, and who are anticipating even more in royalties as production gets underway.

Schneider also emphasizes the good deal these landowners got by banding together to bargain with the oil and gas concerns.  That was a theme in this 2008 story out of Wyoming, regarding neighbors who collaborated regarding leasing for wind farms, even though it forced them to share with one another financial information they might have wished not to share.

Caldwell's population is 1,956, and it is the county seat of Noble County, which has a population of 14,645.  This multi-media feature accompanies the story.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Small slaughterhouses aim to keep "local meat" local, sustain rural economies

Beth Hoffman reported on NPR's "the Salt" blog today about efforts to keep local meat truly local by bringing slaughterhouses back to rural America.
[T]he dirty little secret is, while [the] steak those 'locavores' just bought at the farmers' market may have come from a cow that is grazed in nearby pastures, it probably wasn't processed anywhere nearby.  In fact, many local meat products are sent to slaughterhouses hundreds of miles away, across state lines. 
So some small-scale cattle producers are taking matters into their own hands in an effort to keep money, jobs and something "local" on dinner plates. 
In Washington state for example, most grass-fed beef raised on the eastern plains journeys some 400 to 600 miles to Oregon or Idaho for processing before arriving back in Seattle.  This means not only a larger carbon footprint for each hamburger served, but processing animals out of state also sucks money out of the state's rural communities and makes locally produced beef more expensive.   
Forty years ago, seven slaughterhouses served eastern Oregon; today none do.  Currently, four corporations slaughter 80% of cattle in the United States.
So the Cattle Producers of Washington (CpoW), like several other innovative groups around the country, are breaking ground this summer on a new slaughterhouse in Odessa (Lincoln County [population 10,570]) that will cater exclusively to small eastern Washington ranches.  
Willard Wolf, President of CpoW, describes Odessa as a town that doesn't even have a stop light and which has lost 15% of its population in the last five years.  In a place that small, the slaughterhouse will bring "significant employment in transporting, distributing and raising locally raised meat."

Across the country, Sullivan County, New York, population 77,547, wants a new processing facility because it will help to retain the county's agrarian feel.  
"The rural nature of the county is a priority for us," says Jennifer Brylinksi, the Executive Director of the Sullivan County Industrial Development Agency, the organization who helped the county secure funding for the future facility in Liberty.  "We need the agricultural land here near New York City, and agriculture promotes tourism int his area.  We want to see the farm land kept as farmland."  
Sullivan County is 90 miles northwest of New York City.

Romney invoking Clinton to appeal to "rural, white, working class voters"

An NPR report today suggested that Romney, in his campaign rhetoric, is holding up Bill Clinton as a more moderate politician, in contrast to Barak Obama's partisanship, in an effort to attract "rural, white, working-class voters" who might have been Clinton supports and who might be tempted to vote Democratic in this year's presidential election.  Among other things (including the fact that Obama is also "using" Clinton to attract voters), I found interesting the collapsing of those three characteristics:
  • rural
  • white
  • working class
I discussed this collapsing phenomenon extensively in a 2011 article, The Geography of the Class Culture Wars.  

Sunday, June 3, 2012

An overflowing trough...and accompanying disincentives to land stewardship

A trough that overflows is the image Robert Semple, Jr., conjures in his editorial (by the same name) in today's New York Times.  In it, Semple argues that the current version of the next generation farm bill replicates the problems long associated with the farm bill:  it supports fat cat farmers while doing too little to help small-scale farmers.  Semple makes references to "rural" and "small town" in the opening paragraph, but does not return to these concerns expressly later in the piece.  He makes no mention of rural development funds, which have always been a proverbial drop in the farm bill/USDA bucket.

What Semple focuses on is how federally subsidized crop insurance is increasingly replacing direct payments (a/k/a subsidies).  The lede to Semple's editorial follows:
Every five years or so, Congress promises a new, improved farm bill that will end unnecessary subsidies to big farmers, enhance the environment and actually do something to help farmers and small towns.  But what it usually does is find ways of disguising the old inequities, sending taxpayer dollars to wealthy farmers, accelerating the expansion of industrial farming, inflating land prices and further depopulating rural America. 
Semple goes on to explain how the new farm bill fails to respond to environmental concerns, perhaps even aggravating them.  He concludes by hitting hard on the bill's likely environmental consequences, given that the new focus on federally subsidized crop insurance does not depend on keeping some land fallow; nor does it require farmers not to drain wetlands.  Semple concludes:
Enriched by high prices (at least for now), cosseted by inexpensive insurance, relieved of their environmental obligations, farmers could well be inclined to start planting from fence line to fence line.  That would be a severe blow to the American landscape.  
The "fence line to fence line" comment reminds me of this passage from Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow, just one of several in which Berry contrasts two men's approaches to farming to illustrate conflicting views of "progress" and the "good life."  The two men, Athey Keith and his son-in-law Troy Chatham, are residents of Berry's fictional Port William, Kentucky:
What I do know is that [Athey] used his land conservatively.  In any year, by far the greatest part of his land would be under grass--for, as he would say, "The land slopes even in the bottoms, and the water runs."  He was always studying his fields, thinking of ways to protect them.  He was doing what a lot of farmers say they want to do:  he was improving his land; he was going to leave it better than he found it.  I know too that his principle was always to maintain a generous surplus between his livestock and the available feed, just as between the fertility of his land and his demands upon it.  "Wherever I look," he said, "I want to see more than I need, and have more than I use."  And this is a principle very different from what would be the principle of his son-in-law, often voiced in his heyday:  "Never let a quarter's worth of equity stand idle.  Use it or borrow against it."  
***
Athey said, "Wherever I look, I want to see more than I need."  Troy said, in effect, "Whatever I see, I want."  What he asked of the land was all it had.  He had hardly got his first crop in the ground when he began to say things critical of Athey and his ways.  "Why, hell!" he would say, "it's hard to tell what that old place would produce if he would just plow it." Or:  "Why the hell would a man plow just forty acres of a farm when he could plow all of it?"  He would say these things leaning back in his chair, his ankle crossed over his knee, his foot twitching.  He was speaking as a young man of the modern age coming now into his hour, held back only by the outmoded way of his elders.  
***
Athey was not exactly, or not only, what is called a "landowner."  He was the farm's farmer, but also its creature and belonging.  He lived its life, and it lived his; he knew that, of the two lives, his was meant to be the smaller and shorter.  
Wendell Berry (with Wes Jackson) wrote this op-ed about the farm bill in the New York Times several years ago.

The photo above is of a farm in Witts Springs (Searcy County), Arkansas, May, 2012.  I offer it up as an example of place that will probably get very little benefit from the farm bill. Searcy County is a persistent poverty county, and Witts Springs is not even a Census Designated Place.  The community appears mostly reliant on an agricultural economy, principally cattle.  It sits on a ridge in the Boston/Ozark Mountains, about 16 miles from the county seat, and would presumably benefit from  rural development funds.  The U.S. Post Office at Witts Springs was until recently on the chopping block (read more here and here), and its K-12 school closed several years ago.  I would be very surprised if any farmers in Witts Springs are receiving USDA money, in part because of the size of farms, in part because of what is produced (mostly livestock).  One way the community does benefit from the farm bill:  lots of folks eligible for SNAP (formerly food stamps) benefits.  Another photo from Witts Springs is featured in this post.

P.S. Here is a story in the June 7, 2012 New York Times re the cost of the government subsidized crop insurance included in the new farm bill.  It details how rising crop prices have led many farmers to plant land that is prone to flooding--and to plant from fence row to fence row, even "where the land slopes and the water runs."  In North Dakota alone, the Times reports, nearly a million acres have become cropland since 2007.  South Dakota has lost nearly a half a million acres of grassland to farming.  Read more of the story at risk of depression.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The allure of the rural: From Oklahoma to Oxfordshire

I could not help chuckle yesterday when I read in this New York Times feature on Amanda Brooks, fashion director at Barneys. The big news is that she is--to use the British expression--"quitting New York" and moving with her husband and children to live in rural Oxfordshire for a few years.  Here's an excerpt:
[Brooks] announced that she was not just quitting the Barneys position, but leaving Manhattan itself and planning a yearlong move with her family to a farm in Oxfordshire, England, that is owned by the family of her husband, the artist Christopher Brooks.  
Journalist Bee Shyuan-Chang speculates in the story about the motivation for the move, floating such possibilities as Barneys' disappointment with Brooks' services.  But this quote from Brooks then sets the record straight on this weighty matter (well, this feature is from the Fashion pages, after all):
"It was because of Ree Drummond's blog, The Pioneer Woman," said Ms. Brooks, who has recently returned to a blog, ILoveYourStyle.com, that she started after publishing the 2009 book, which had the same name.  Reading a New Yorker profile last year of Ms. Drummond, a mother of four who lives on a cattle ranch outside Pawhuska, Okla., and posts prolifically on subjects like how to make cornmeal pancakes (using catchphrases like "yahoo, yippety") "got me really fired up,"  Ms. Brooks went on. "It's the idea of having a career on your own terms, anywhere."  
Shyuan-Chang goes on to highlight the differences between Brooks and Drummond, which is--of course--what had me chuckling.  She describes Brooks as "a consummate urbanite with coolly styled looks, [who] could not be more diametrically opposed to Ms. Drummond."

This post about Drummond assists in the "compare and contrast" exercise.