Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Time for an update on the hog CAFO in Newton County

I have written frequently in the past 18 months or so about the industrial hog farm on Big Creek, in the Buffalo National River watershed in Arkansas.  Read more here, here, here and here.  That operation, C & H Hog Farm, was approved by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) without notice in any area newspaper or, for that matter, to the National Park Service.  The only notice given was on the ADEQ website.

Ever since folks in Newton County realized the CAFO was under construction, local and regional groups of concerned citizens have been trying to get it shut down.  Among other things, they filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture "Farm Service Agency and the U.S. Small Business Administration for their inadequate review and improper authorization of loan guarantee assistance to C & H Farms."

Efforts are also underway to change Arkansas law so that no more operations of its kind can be sited in the Buffalo River watershed. That watershed includes parts of Madison, Newton, Searcy, Boone, Pope, Marion, Van Buren, Stone and Baxter counties) As of May, 2014, the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission (APC & EC) "enacted a 6-month moratorium on issuing new permits for large confined animal operations in the area of the" river.

In June, APC & EC held a hearing in Harrison, in neighboring Boone County, about proposed changes to APC & EC regulations 5 and 6 on "Liquid Animal Waste Systems" and "Regulations for State Administration of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System," respectively.  These changes proposed would apparently make the moratorium on CAFOs in the Buffalo River watershed permanent.  The usual suspects showed up, including Gordon Watkins, an organic farmer in Newton County who leads the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance (BRWA). He reported that the Alliance had grown to about 1000 members this year, growth largely attributable to interest in this issue.  Needless to say, the Alliance supports the permanent moratorium.

Also speaking at the meeting were two farmers form Benton County, which presumably would not be affected by the moratorium because that county is  not in the Buffalo River watershed.  Nevertheless, the farmers traveled to Harrison to speak against the proposed amendments and permanent moratorium. One of them, a diary farmer, said:
We rely on science and technology to produce a healthy product and protecting our environment for our family, our community and our cows.  This rule making sets a very negative precedent, and is not based on science.  This year it's hog farms.  Next year it could be poultry, dairy or beef.  I am pleading on behalf of family farmers for you to consider delaying all rulings until the research takes its course.
Clearly, this farmer is concerned about a slippery slope that could mean added regulation of her operations in the future.  One Newton County residents also spoke in opposition to the changes.  He  closed with:
We don't need further restrictions that destroy our freedom and our lifestyle.
Another spoke in favor of the proposal, focusing on the need to protect property values, jobs, and clean air.  He also expressed concern about well water contamination and the need to keep the promise "to our children, and to their children, that special places like the Buffalo will be preserved for them to experience."

Neither the temporary moratorium nor the changes under consideration will impact the permit under which C & H Farm operates, which was issued in August, 2012, and which will expire in October, 2016.

A few days before the hearings in Harrison, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the Ozark Society, the Arkansas Canoe Club and the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance hosted a day-long media event. The event was on the lower Buffalo, between Grinder's Ferry and Gilbert, a segment below where Big Creek flows into the national river and therefore the stretch that would be most affected by pollution from C & H Hog Farm.  Among those participating in the event, which included an aerial tour over the hog farm, was Dr. John Brahana, a retired hydrologist with the University of Arkansas and Bob Allen, Piney Creeks Chapter president of the Arkansas Canoe Club.  The Newton County Times June 11, 2014 issue quotes Allen speaking to the media:
We all want to eat bacon but we can't raise it in the watershed of the Buffalo River.
Brahana reported rumors that Cargill, which has the contract with C & H Farms, "wants out of the situation."  In addition, he reported, Teresa Marks, head of ADEQ, "ways out of her job and the governor wants a resolution of the problem."  Brahana reported that "he has taken some 40 samples from wells, springs and creeks in the area around the hog farm and has found dangerous concentrations of hazardous materials. He added that he introduced non-toxi dye into the ground across the road from the hog farm.  About 30 hours later, he said, it showed up in Big Creek."

Emily Jones, Southeast Program Manager for NPCA said that her organization filed the lawsuit against USDA and the Small Business Administration only after attempts at dialogue with the ADEQ authorities failed.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Law and Order in the Ozarks (CXXVI): Court move makes it easier for defendants to pay fines and fees

The Newton County Times reported in its July 16, 2014 issue that the district court's office will open late on Fridays so that people can pay their fines and fees as they are on their way home with their week's wages.  Here's the lede:
The Newton County Quorum Court met in regular monthly session Monday night, July 7, and passed an ordinance allowing the clerk, the deputy clerk/probation officer and the probation officer of the Newton County District Court to collect fines, costs, and restitution assessed by that court.  
Those monies are also collected at the sheriff's office by collection clerk appointed by the sheriff, but due to staffing problems there hasn't been a clerk available to take the moneys on Friday.  Persons can continue to make payments at the Sheriff's office the rest of the week.  
District Judge Tommy Martin told the Times afterward that it is important to have a location to collect payments on Fridays because that is the day when most people get paid.  They have the money to make their court-ordered payments and avoid having a warrant issued.  The District Court is normally in session the first and third Mondays of each month.  Fines, costs, fees, and restitution can be made with the court at the time of adjudication, Martin said.  
In other business, Justice of the Peace:
  • adopted a resolution supporting the application for any Automated Records System Grant opportunities that become available.  These grants help counties to purchase hardware and software designed to improve the efficiency in research and sharing of information for office personnel, the assessor, abstractors, bank personnel, attorneys as well as the general public.  They also reduce future space needs.
  • passed a resolution authorizing the county judge to apply for state General Improvement Funds from the Arkansas Rural Development Commission and the Department of Rural Services.  The grant is in the amount of $151,340.73 and is available through a second funding cycle that began last month.  This represents the second half of about $400K earlier earmarked for the county sheriff's office and the county jail project.  
  • passed an ordinance allowing Carolyn S. Bailey to solemnize marriages. Two JPs voted against this ordinance.  
  • heard from proponents of a legalizing alcohol sales in Newton County.  That group supports a statewide effort that is submitting 84,000 signatures to the Secretary of State in an effort to put an initiative on the state ballot.  
The Sheriff reported that dispatching radio equipment was being installed in the new jail, with the steel tower having been erected that day.  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Overcoming spatial challenges to feed rural kids in the summer

Pam Fessler reported today for NPR from Hopkins County, Kentucky (population 46,920) on how USDA programs are helping keep kids from low-income families fed over the summer.  I have written before about the challenges of adapting school-lunch type programs for low income kids to keep the summer nutrition programs running when school is not in session and the kids are thus not at a central locale, which eases food distribution logistics.  Fessler reports that government agencies and non-profits are "doing some creative things" to feed "millions of meals to kids who might otherwise go hungry."

Fessler describes Hopkins County as "mostly farms and coal fields and gently rolling hills," which leave children "widely dispersed and often isolated" when school is not in session.  
That makes it a challenge for the local YMCA. It's feeding about 700 children a day this summer, mostly at central sites like camps and parks. But increasingly, it's using mobile units to get food to some of the harder-to-reach areas in the county. 
One of the units is a red pick-up truck, with two Y employees in front and several coolers of food in the back. One of its first stops of the day is a Baptist church in the small town of Earlington. 
Church volunteer Don Egbert is waiting inside for the lunch delivery — about 20 pork barbeque sandwiches, carrots, strawberries and milk.
Fessler also describes this vignette at the Earlington church:
No sooner is the food set out on a long table at the church, when two little girls rush in.
Kiarra and Ciara Crook, ages 7 and 8, live right around the corner. 
Egbert says they come to the church for lunch every day, like clockwork. 
"Well, we don't have any food at home, " explains Ciara, adding that her mother works, but only gets paid once a month.
Under the USDA summer nutrition program, "any child who shows up gets a free lunch. No questions asked. The kids just have to live in an area where more than half the children qualify for free-or reduced price meals at school," which includes most of Hopkins County, which has a poverty rate of 19.5%. Fessler features Ed Wallace,  executive director of the Hopkins County Family YMCA, who "has a map on his wall, where he's circled in black marker what he calls 'pockets of poverty' — areas where kids not only lack money, but often transportation to get to other sites or grocery stores."  The YMCA uses four mobile routes to target hard-to-reach areas of the county.  Wallace comments:
We stop, feed them, make sure they're eating then we move on to the next site. 
I am impressed at the many agencies and individuals making this food delivery possible--including the critical USDA funding.

In sharp contrast, I noted this announcement in my hometown newspapers, The Newton County Times,  back on June 4, 2014:
The Jasper School District campuses will be serving summer meals free to anyone 18 and younger beginning June 9 through August 1, Monday through Friday. 
Breakfast is served from 8:30 to 9 am.  Lunch is served from 11 am to 12 pm.   
Meals will not be served on the Independence Day holiday.  
The school district has two campuses in addition to the one in Jasper.  The others are Kingston (in Madison County) and Oark (in Johnson County).  Still, the program as run by Jasper School counts on the kids being able to get to a central location, which doesn't do much good for those in outlying areas.    

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part CXXV): New jail about to open, but is it under "worst case scenario"?

I have often followed on these pages the goings on related to the county jail in Newton County, Arkansas, the persistent poverty county where I grew up.  Some earlier posts are here, here, here, here, here, and here.  The most recent post is here, from August, 2013.

In short, the county's century-old jail was condemned by state inspectors as unsafe in about 2007. The county's Quorum Court (the equivalent of a Board of Supervisors) decided to put the funding of a new jail to the voters, proposing a 1/2 cent sales tax to build the jail and another 1/2 cent sales tax to fund its operation.  In the fall of 2008, voters approved the former but not the latter.  Over more than five years, there have been many false starts and a lot of wasted money preparing building plans and preparing sites that ultimately proved not useable for the facility.  Finally, in 2012, the county bought an existing building (that had actually been a person's home and garage, albeit in a metal building), and proceeded to convert that building into a jail.  But the new facility still lacked operating funds after a 2012 ballot measure seeking approval to finance the operation with sales taxes again failed.  Finally, last November, the Quorum Court "levied the county general operating fund to 5 mills the maximum allowed by state law without voter approval to generate more revenues for the jail and other county offices."  All was set … except that the county still apparently did not have enough money to staff or use the jail, not least because those funds won't be available until after collected, in October 2014.

Enter the State of Arkansas.  The state came to the rescue this year--in more than one way.  First, State Senator Michael Lamoureaux helped the county to secure a $400,000 grant to finalize the jail's construction "and furnishing costs to free up other money for maintenance and operation purposes," quoting a July 9, 2014 story in the Newton County Times.  Elsewhere, that story mentions a $150,000 grant to purchase furnishings and equipment, including large clothes washer and dryer. (It is not clear if this $150,000 grant is part of the $400,000 the Senator helped to secure).   This state funding comes in two cycles, the first from January, 2014, and the second beginning in June, 2014.

The second way in which the state is involved is what I am suggesting may be a "worst case scenario." The jail can open, apparently, contingent "upon the jail being able to house state prisoners," for which the Arkansas Department of Corrections (DofC) will pay the county $28/day for each prisoner housed.  According to the Times, the D of C "is in a financial and overcrowding bind.  A special session of the state legislature was called earlier in the week to take up the matter."

Net-net:  It appears that the Newton County jail is about to become operational--but that it will do so only by becoming part of the national prison industrial complex.  Read more from the 2012 story regarding the same phenomenon in Louisiana … and it's happening in other states, too.

I'm not convinced that Newton County needed its own jail. It was paying a reasonable amount of money to house prisoners in the jails of surrounding counties.  The only thing Newton County will get out of the current arrangement is some local "pride" in having its own jail--and a couple of jobs for those who operate the jail.

I assess it as a sad day for Newton County.

In other jail-related news, these facts are from various issues of the Newton County Times in recent months:

  • In early May the Quorum Court appropriated $32,059.61 in Title Three funding to the sheriff's office.  These are federal monies received to compensate the county for providing emergency services on federal lands.  
  • Members of the Criminal Detention Review Committee for the 14th judicial district toured the "soon to be opened" Newton County jail on July 2.  The facilities were described thusly in the news report 
segregated facilities for male and female adult misdemeanor and felony prisoners, the drunk tank, short term holding cell, and even a special cell for a prisoner having a physical handicap.  It can also be used when a prisoner needs a 'time out' and be isolated from the rest of the jail population.   There is another room for securing medications and prisoners' valuables.   
From the main control room sheriff's personnel can monitor all areas of the facility via cameras.  They can control lighting, water and even air in each of the cells.    
* * * 
The fully equipped commercial kitchen can prepare 90 meals that can be served each day at the jail.  The jail can house up to 30 prisoners.  [The jail administrator] said that cooked meals will be served because it costs less than buying prepackaged and processed meals.   
* * *
Prisoners must also be abel to have one hour of outdoor exercise each day.  A small outdoor exercise area consisting of a cement pad surrounded by a rectangular chain link cage topped with razor wire fills the need.  A perimeter fence keeps the prisoners from coming into contact with outsiders and getting contraband passed to them … outdoor sessions will be at random.  

Monday, July 14, 2014

How a socialist charms the "Northeast Kingdom"

That was a part of this NPR story last week, headlined "Could a Socialist Senator Become a National Brand?"  It's about Bernie Sanders, of course, the Independent Senator from Vermont who is a self-described socialist.  Here's an excerpt with some background on the Senator, who was the mayor of Burlington in the 1980s:
Sanders barely got 2 percent of the vote when he first tried breaking into Vermont politics in the 1970s, but now there's buzz that the man known simply as "Bernie" may be a presidential candidate in 2016.
But it was another part of the story caught my "ruralist" attention.  It's about Sanders' popularity in the notoriously conservative--and rural and poor--Northeast Kingdom.  Alisa Chang, reporting for NPR, calls it "lush and green … dotted with dairy farms"--and a place "where Sanders does really well."
Randy Meade, a dairy farmer, is a gun owner, thinks gay marriage is immoral and says the government should spend a lot less. But he has always voted for Sanders because he says Sanders protects small farmers like him against the larger dairy farms. When milk prices dropped a few years ago, the senator led the push for more government assistance so family farms wouldn't go out of business. 
"He's not intimidated by large money," Meade says. "He's not intimidated by well-dressed people with, you know, $2-, $3,000 suits. That's not Bernie. And that's not us either."
Chang says Sanders' ability to "bring in federal help resonates more loudly than
any dig that he's a 'Leftist' or a 'liberal.'"  She notes that he has brought federally funded health centers here, as well as outreach clinics for veterans.  Chang quotes Steve Brochu, whom she met at the Veterans of Foreign Wars club room in Newport:   
I really believe that he cares a lot about us, even though he's never experienced what we've been through.  He cares and he listens.
I note that, according to wikipedia, Newport is the only incorporated city in "the Kingdom's" three county area, which has a total population of 64,764.

It seems a pity that more rural voters, seemingly conservative by culture and instinct, don't show more appreciation for the government largesse Democratic (and Independent!) senators and congresspersons channel their way.  

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part CXXIV): Crime reported, criminal cases adjudicated (and a bit of history about moonshine)

This post is one of my periodic updates about crime and punishment in Newton County, Arkansas the persistent poverty in the Ozarks where I grew up.  Of particular interest to me is the final item--a "Gone but Not Forgotten" column that recounts the seizure of "moonshine" or "wildcat" stills in Newton County during the 1940s.  Those seizures were made by federal agents with the assistance of the local sheriff.

The June 11, 2014 issue of the Newton County Times features some big crime headlines on the front page.  First, "Two arrests following shooting" reports that two men, a 37-year-old and an 18-year-old, threatened to kill a woman at her home and also to take two girls from the home.  The two men had earlier that day used a firearm to threaten a man at a home nearby.  The men have been charged with residential burglary and terroristic threatening, with bonds set at $25,000 and $15,000 respectively. Both have posted bond.

The other story is headlined, "Burglar unmasked before escape," and it reports a "break-in attempt at a rural country store was foiled by the owner when he responded to the alarm and confronted the make burglar."  Arriving at the store in response to an alarm, the owner "followed the suspect to a vehicle where he yanked a mask off of the alleged burglar."  The owner recognized the man, who then fled.  The vehicle in which the man fled was reported on fire a short time later.  Deputies at the scene of the vehicle fire were able to recover some of the items stolen from the store, as well as some DNA evidence.  A 27-year-old man was arrested a short time later and has been charged with commercial burglary, theft of property, criminal mischief and criminal trespass.

The July 9, 2014 issue of the paper reports that a 60-year-old man was charged with killing the 75-year-old female owner of a Boone County business, the Ozark Emporium.  The man, who has a record of serious crimes and lengthy prison terms,  told investigators that he was hired to rob the store.  He has not admitted killing the woman, who was strangled to death.  The killer apparently took property worth about $300,000 from the store.  A security video at the store captured images of the man and his vehicle, which facilitated his arrest a short time after the incident.

In other law and order news, the May 28, 2014 issue of the Newton County Times reports the following:
  •  a 24-year-old mother was sentenced to two years (as part of a plea deal) for endangering the welfare of a minor (a Class D felony) after her 3-year-old child was shot in the foot.    The woman apparently allowed her child to ride in the pickup truck of a man knowing that he had two handguns in the truck.  The child picked up one of the guns and dropped it, causing it to discharge and shoot the child in the foot.   The mother allegedly endangered her child further by delaying medical attention--this involved going to the home of the child's grandmother and getting the grandmother to drive them to the hospital. The woman's sentence is being served concurrently with a sentence on unspecified charges from Benton County.  I don't know how serious the Benton County charges are, but a two-year sentence for child endangerment seems steep.
  • A 50-year-old woman was charged with two counts of forgery for writing two checks to Harp's Grocery, one for gas and one for food, totaling $120.14.  The checks were written on an account belonging to another person.  As part of a plea deal, the woman was sentenced to six years probation, to be served concurrently with another sentence out of Boone County.  She was also ordered to pay restitution, costs and fees.  
  • A 48 year old man and his 35 year old wife pleaded guilty to drug charges related to possession of marijuana.  The marijuana was discovered after an alarm went off at the couple's residence, apparently justifying law enforcement arrival at the home, where they smelled marijuana.  They soon returned with a warrant and seized firearms, marijuana, and "homemade smoking devices."  Because the couple's three-year-old child was present, they were also charged with endangering the health of a minor.   The plea agreement involved dropping all charges against the wife and the surrender of "the evidentiary items seized," plus a $500 fine and court costs.  
  • A 20-year-old man pleased guilty for failing to register as a sex offender after he moved to Newton County from Crawford County.  Attention was drawn to him after he was found with a 16-year-old woman whom he had encouraged to stay home from school.  He was sentenced to 36 months probation for felony failure to register as a sex offender and for misdemeanor contributing to the delinquency of a minor.  He was also fined $1250 and ordered to have no further contact with the juvenile.  
  • A 27-year-old man pleaded guilty to "unauthorized use of a motor vehicle," a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to 12 months probation plus court fees and costs for stealing a vehicle last August.    
A "Gone but not Forgotten" column in the July 9 issue of the paper is headlined, "Illegal Stills in Newton County."  It recounts a Nov. 28, 1947 headline, "Officers Capture 55-Gallon Still."  Here is the story:
A 55-gallon still was captured Monday on the farm of Harley Houston, one-half mile northwest of Pruitt, by Federal Officers Tom Harris and Al P. Knapp, assisted by sheriff Russell Burdine and Deputy Ray Brazel.   
Part of the boiler of the still was found in the house where Houston lives and part was found in the hen house, officers said.  Mash was found about 100 yards from the front gate on the same farm.   
In the barn, ten empty bottles bearing the Arkansas revenue stamp were found, officers related and fruit jars smelled of whiskey also were located in the house, according to officers.   
As the Newton County Times goes to press no arrest has been made.   
The search on Monday was the third which had been made for a still on the Houston farm, Sheriff Burdine said.   
The law now allows the sheriff to pick up any whiskey in bottles bearing the Arkansas revenue stamp which have been broken into in order that he may send the contents to Little Rock to be analyzed to determine whether the whiskey is "wildcat" or licensed.  
A preface to the column provides some historical context:
In the months leading up to the local option election of June 4, 1946, there were news account of raids of local stills and a court case that ended in a mistrial.  This is but one account that published in the Newton County Times during that era.   

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Crime and Punishment (or lack thereof) in far northern Norway

The New York Times again this week featured a story from Arctic Norway, in particular the island chain of Svalbard, also known as Spitsbergen.  (The earlier story was noted in my recent blog post about my trip to northern Norway). Andrew Higgins's story is "A Harsh Climate Calls for Banishment of the Needy."  The gist of the story is that homelessness and unemployment are banned on Svalbard, which has a particularly positive impact on the crime rate.  Higgins suggests Svalbard as a manifestation of Ayn Rand's vision and contrasts it with the Scandinavian norm of a generous welfare state.  These policies are credited for creating a place that as close as Europe gets to a "crime-free society."  Indeed, the place has just six police officers and one detention cell, last used for two days last summer.  

Higgins quotes governor Odd Olsen Ingero,  
“If you don’t have a job, you can’t live here,” Mr. Ingero said, noting that the jobless are swiftly deported. Retirees are sent away, too, unless they can prove they have sufficient means to support themselves. 
* * * 
Even Longyearbyen’s socialist mayor, Christin Kristoffersen, a member of the Labour Party, wants the town — named after an American industrialist, John Munro Longyear, who founded it in 1906 — to stay off limits to all but the able-bodied and gainfully employed. 
“This is a very special kind of place,” said the mayor, whose town has all the conveniences of a modern urban area, including an airport, high-speed Internet and even a high-end restaurant, but faces such a struggle to survive against the elements that it has no place for the jobless or infirm.
Although the story mostly credits the no-homelessness, no unemployment policy for the low crime rate, Higgins also notes some practical deterrents to crime:  
elsewhere run-of-the-mill crimes like car theft are an exotic and very risky business in a place where there are no roads out of town to escape on.
The story's dateline is Longyearbyen, population 2,040, the administrative capital of this region, which is an unincorporated area overseen by a state-appointed governor, Mr. Ingero.  As suggested by the quote from Mayor Kristoffersen, Longyearbyen has an elected local government.  

Friday, July 4, 2014

My Rural Travelogue (Part XVII): Northern Norway

Road signs near Kirkenes, Norway, June, 2014

Vardo Cultural Center
I spent several days last week on the "coastal express" MS Trollfjord, traveling from Kirkenes to Bergen, Norway.  The flight from Oslo to Kirkenes was nearly two hours long, which highlighted for me just how far north and east Kirkenes is.  Indeed, Kirkenes is just a few miles from the Russian border, north of Finland and in Norway's Finnmark county, which effectively cuts Sweden and Finland off from the Arctic Ocean.  Kirkenes has a population of 3,444, and it's nothing to look at, I have to admit, having been destroyed--like all else in these far northern reaches of Norway--by the retreating Germans near the end of World War II.  Like neighboring Vadso and Vardo (also stops on the Hurtigruten journey we took), Kirkenes is nearly as far east as St. Petersburg and Istanbul.  Also like these towns and many others we saw in Finnmark county, Kirkenes boasts a single church. This is presumably the Evangelical Lutheran church, effectively the national church of Norway.  As with other churches we saw on our journey, it was quite spartan, built after the war.  The loveliest such church we saw was in Tromso, the so-called Arctic Cathedral.  

Kirkenes church
Churches and such aside, what I really want to talk about is the transit and other infrastructure in this remote and very sparsely populated part of the world.  First, we stayed several miles out of Kirkenes, a few hundred yards from the Russian border at Storskog.  (More precisely, we were at Sollia Gjestegaard, a husky farm with a lodge, cabins, and restaurant on a lovely lake on the Pasvikelva River, which also forms the border between Russia and Norway).  En route between Storskog and Kirkenes, we saw several places that are probably considered villages by the Norwegian government, but which appeared to be little more than wide spots in the road.  Just a couple of houses were visible as we drove through each.  One of these villages was Elvenes, shown in the photo I took along the E-105.  (According to a wikipedia photo, Elvenes actually has a few dozen houses. Also according to wikipedia, it was home to a Russian prisoner of war camp during World War II, and 600 Norwegian teachers were sent there as slave labor during the war).  What was striking from a rural development and infrastructure standpoint was that there were bus stops and street lights along this route, and a bike path next to the road beside much of it, too.

As noted above, Kirkenes and the region have an airport served by Oslo and a few other Norwegian cities--our flights on SAS booked a number of months in advance for just $120, about half of which was for taxes.  Other tiny places along our journey also had airports, and once we were flying out of Norway from Bergen, I noticed the large number of flights going to remote towns where we had recently been, like Bronnoysund, population 4625. It is very hard to imagine such a comprehensive transit infrastructure in such a sparsely populated region of the United States.  (As for other types of public infrastructure, I note that Kirkenes had quite a large library in the center of town.  Every town had a cultural center, and the one at Vardo is pictured above).
Inn near Honningsvag, moved here from Lillehammer
Olympics

One reason for some of this transportation infrastructure throughout sparsely populated parts of Norway is tourism, both domestic and international.  In the winter seeing the northern lights and going out on a sledge pulled by huskies is the thing.  As for us, we were there for the midnight sun--on the longest day of the year, when the light level seemed more dictated by cloud cover or lack thereof than by time of day.  Apparently there are lots of reindeer in the area, but we didn't see any in this part of Finnmark (we did see them elsewhere, on the island of Mageroya, in the area of Northern Cape and Honningsvag).
Street lights and bike path between Storskog/Russian
Border and Kirkenes, near Elvenes, Norway


The farther south we journeyed, the less "rural" the country looked, though single homes and small clusters of home are visible up and down the coast.  It's hard to know how many of them are summer homes, but all appeared well kept.  While our guide on Mageroya mentioned the area's population loss (in addition to the fact that children on the island have 13 years of education available there and must leave only for university studies), I'm thinking that the massive investment in transportation infrastructure--which in turn facilitates summer tourism--keeps many communities alive, if not thriving.  Other than tourism, fishing remains king all along the coast, and the Norwegian government still seems to assume it needs people to populate these villages--not merely to have workers fly in and fly out (as in Australia's remote mining regions) to work for a few weeks at a time.  Otherwise, it surely would not be so generous in support of infrastructure for these remote locales.

(I am reminded of this story in the New York Times from a few weeks ago--about Barentsburg, Norway.  Barentsburg is on Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago north of this part of Norway, in the Barents Sea.  The economy there is mining based and many workers are transplanted from the Ukraine.  On Svalbard, too, however, a tourism economy is growing.  Indeed, Hurtigruten, who operated our "coastal express" also run tours there).

When I planned this trip to Norway, I wasn't thinking of it as an opportunity to see a rural place, but it certainly was.  Indeed, I'm now thinking that Norway, and other parts of Scandinavia, may feature the most rural parts of Europe.  And the experience has me thinking in new ways about how governments can support rural and remote communities.
Arrivals room at Kirkenes Airport

Bus stop in Elevenes, near Kirkenes, Norway



Thursday, July 3, 2014

Rural poverty in Texas's Rio Grande Valley

The New York Times reported a few days ago out of Gardendale, Texas (LaSalle County), from what it characterized as a colonia, an unincorporated area in the Rio Grande Valley.  The story is a very, very sad one that emphasizes the inequality gap in a place where some are getting rich fast from the oil boom, while others can't feed their families.  That theme is reflected in the headline, "Boom Meets Bust in Texas:  Atop a Sea of Oil, Poverty Digs In."  Manny Fernandez and Clifford Krauss's story features a  28-year-old Latina, Judy Vargas, who works cleaning motel rooms and as a server or cook at local restaurants.  She lives in a trailer and supports her three kids.  Her grandmother, who also works at a motel, lives with her.  At times, as many as 10 family members have lived in their trailer.  Mrs. Vargas's husband is apparently in and out of jail, most recently for a drug offense.  Judy Vargas's world is dismal for sure, but here's some additional local context about the area's "haves":
[A]n expanding natural gas processing plant ... lies in the heart of the Eagle Ford, a giant shale oil field that here in La Salle County alone produces more than $15 million worth of oil a day, or about one out of every 55 barrels produced in the United States.
Needless to say, Vargas and her family aren't "feeling the love" of the oil boom. She states:
It feels the same to us.  The money that they have, we didn’t have it before. And we don’t have it now.
Fernandez and Krauss go on to describe the place in more detail, as well as its place in the history of the war on poverty:
This rural patch of thick mesquite in the brush country south of San Antonio had been known for something else. Five miles from here in Cotulla, Lyndon B. Johnson at the age of 20 saw hardship so searing that it would help inspire his war on poverty.
Colonias are associated with rurality because they are, essentially by definition, unincorporated areas without services.  Indeed, when things go wrong--like the dumping of "fracking sand" on the town's main roads--the law is essentially absent, not stepping in to protect the health and welfare of the place's denizens.
Gardendale has no mayor, no police department, and only a handful of tilting signs and streetlights. It is often used as an illegal dumping ground.
The story highlights other environmental consequences of the oil and gas boom, including poor air quality.  It also notes some economic upsides of the boom:  iPads for all the students at the Cotulla school.   Oh, and a few more downsides:  a housing shortage and rents rising so fast the that the school district had to establish its own trailer park to house its teachers.  

In this sort of place, the county has to pick up the services slack that no municipality bears.  The top elected official in La Salle County is the county judge, Joel Rodriguez, Jr.  He indicates that "the boost in property and sales tax revenue from Eagle Ford activities had been offset by increases in county spending on road repairs, law enforcement, fire safety and administrative functions." He was not laudatory of the oil and gas industry's support for the poor, suggesting that it basically boiled down to public relations and photo ops--like distributing turkeys at the holidays.

We don't know exactly how small (or large) Gardendale is because even wikipedia doesn't have a listing for it. (This story is not about the Gardendale in Ector County, in West Texas).  What we do know is that Cotulla, the town near Gardendale where LBJ taught school, has a population of 3,614.  It is the county seat of LaSalle County, which is definitely nonmetropolitan with an official population of just 7,369.  Note, however, that wikipedia indicates that Cotulla alone, in June 2014, "'self-declared' its population at 7,000 based on utility connections."  This, too, is consistent with colonias, which are often heavily Latino and where we would expect residents to go under-counted by official measures.  Further, LaSalle County has a poverty rate of 23.6%.  Indeed, it is a persistent poverty county, meaning that its poverty rate has been 20% or higher for each of the last four decennial censuses.   Fernandez and Krauss provide this data about the the colonias and the Rio Grande Valley generally, in addition to more specifics about LaSalle County:
An estimated 500,000 people live in about 2,300 colonias in Texas, along its 1,200-mile border with Mexico. Many colonias have benefited from infrastructure improvements in recent years. Others remain institutionalized shantytowns without basic services like water and sewers. 
At least in part because of the oil economy, Gardendale is one of the better-off colonias. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas found in a report to be released this year that 42 percent of the population of colonias in six Texas border counties — not including La Salle — lived below the poverty line, compared with 14.3 percent nationally. The median annual household income was $29,000. In La Salle County, other studies have shown that 39 percent of children live in poverty.
The story features other "locals" (like a cowboy turned roughneck) and is well worth a read in its entirety.  I first came across a much shorter version of the piece in the International New York Times as I am currently traveling abroad.  The full version in the domestic edition of the paper is much richer and provides a great deal more context for understanding what is happening in this out-of-the way place in south Texas.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The two Idahos of Bowe Bergdahl

I have written about this in a prior blog post and it was reflected in another NYT story last month. Now the "two Idahos" of Bowe Bergdahl is the topic of another New York Times story, "Many Sharp Turns in Bergdahl's Path to Army."

Those "two Idahos" are Hailey, where Bowe Bergdahl grew up, home schooled by his religious parents in a cabin with no phone, and Ketchum, which along with Sun Valley, is Hailey's posh neighbor about 10 miles to the north.  Hailey is the more staid, typical rural place, Ketchum the poster child for rural gentrification.  Both are in Blaine County, population 21,329.  Kirk Johnson and Matt Furber describe the two places and Bergdahl's experiences in them thusly:    

Ketchum as a "liberal-tinctured ski resort town, where [Bergdahl] took ballet and fencing lessons, met artists and debated philosophy" and "Hailey — the worker bee colony to Ketchum’s moneyed hive."  There, Bergdahl "learned the ways of guns, became a crack shot and developed an abiding interest in the military."

Johnson and Furber continue their description of Bergdahl's upbringing:
Although his home life was strict, Sergeant Bergdahl was given a long leash by his parents to explore Idaho on foot or bike or motorcycle, and was taught to be self-sufficient. “If there’s anyone from Blaine County who could take a compass and a knife and walk off into the mountains to survive on squirrels, it was Bowe,” one friend said. 
He routinely rode his bike to various jobs, including one at the Blaine County Gun Club, a shooting range about 13 miles from his home where he loaded trap machines and cleaned up. “He was one of the better workers I’ve ever had,” said David Rosser … former president of the club. “He would put his head down and do what you told him to do. He was respectful and took orders well.”
And so journalists continue to ponder the enigma of Bowe Bergdahl.

Hailey's population is 7,960, while that for Ketchum is 2,689.  Sun Valley's population is a tightly controlled 1,406.  The poverty rate in Blaine County is a measly 8.9%.