Thursday, March 4, 2021

Covid stimulus bill includes $4 billion debt relief program for Black farmers

Most experts expect the Democratic-controlled Senate to pass President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill in the coming days, although negotiations will continue as Republicans use various procedural levers to amend some aspects of the bill. 

This will be the third stimulus package passed by the United States Congress since the start of the pandemic, and like the previous two, this bill (the American Rescue Plan) will also include funding for agricultural programs (see agriculture provisions in the March 2020 CARES Act and the December 2020 stimulus package). 

However, one new centerpiece of this round of agriculture funding is a $4 billion program of debt relief for “socially disadvantaged” farmers. More precisely, the program would provide farmers of color with direct payment to pay off U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) loans and USDA-guaranteed loans and provide an additionally 20% in funding to cover related taxes. 

Today, 98% of agricultural land is owned by white people. Slavery and the Homestead Act of 1862 primarily benefitted white men. Despite these giant obstacles, law professor Jessica Shoemaker notes, “[B]y 1890, African Americans represented 14 percent of all farmers and owned roughly 15 million acres.”

Yet, over the past century, Black land ownership plummeted dramatically. Black land owners lost 12 million acres of farmland, which has especially impacted people in Southern states as illustrated in the below graph from the New York Times. For example, Black farmers in Mississippi lost 800,000 acres of land from 1950-1964, which researchers have calculated would be a $6.6 billion loss today

This bill merges a 2020 proposal by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker with a proposal by newly-elected Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock

Despite the bill’s likely passage, there is still plenty of pushback. Former Republican New York lieutenant governor, Betsy McCaughey, argues in an op-ed that the bill won’t solve any problems “because the restaurants that accounted for half the demand for . . . [farmers’] products aren’t buying.” What is noteworthy about this reasoning is its focus on the plight of New York restaurants—an urban-centered argument. 

Additionally, Georgia Republican Rep. Austin Scott argues that the allocations are unjustified because there is no proof of discrimination against Black farmers. He offered as a better model the 1997 Pigford v. Glickman class action, which resulted in large settlements paid out by the USDA for discriminating in its allocation of farm loans. (For more background on the history of civil rights and the USDA, including Pigford, see this prior blog post.)

However, Scott’s argument only underscores the need for legislative action here because it shows Black farmers’ reasonable distrust in the USDA as an institution due to its historic discriminatory practices. As journalist Mark Bittman writes in an op-ed for the New York Times:

Black farmers understandably have called the USDA “the last plantation.” 

Moreover, this bill reflects an important public policy interest in preserving Black agricultural land ownership, which is already at such low numbers. Can justice provide an adequate remedy if Black-owned farms were to disappear? Many Black-operated farms are smaller and have less income, which can be precarious in an industry where farmers regularly rely on credit to finance operations. As a result, the USDA recently suspended debt collections for distressed borrowers, but this may not be enough wiggle room for some farmers. 

Senator Booker believes this is only the start if the aim is to increase the number of Black farmers. Shoemaker observes that “10 percent of U.S. agricultural land— or roughly 100 million acres—will change hands over the next five years based on natural aging events,” which creates opportunities for meaningful intervention for the next administration. Bittman proposes the U.S. federal government can buy out “buy land from farmers cashing out for retirement so that rather than being absorbed by existing large landholders, the land can be redistributed to smaller or beginning farmers of color.” Hopefully this bill signifies potential political momentum.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CXXV): Tribal nations demonstrate vaccine distribution success

Vaccine distribution continues to be a critical issue facing the nation, as well as the world, and posts on the blog here, here, and here highlight the challenges and achievements thus far. Although many communities face obstacles in reaching vulnerable populations and motivating individuals to seek vaccinations, there is hopeful news coming from rural tribal nations across the United States who are leading the country in the vaccine rollout.

Recent stories from NPR and The New Yorker highlight the success many tribal nations have achieved in getting vaccines to people, including both tribal members and non-tribal members. The foundation of this success rests on tribal nations choosing to distribute the vaccine through the federally run Indian Health Services (IHS) rather than state programs. IHS is managed by the federal government as part of the trust relationship between sovereign tribal nations and the United States.

The Cherokee Nation has already vaccinated 10% of its population, with a focus on elders and tribal members who speak Cherokee fluently. Likewise, more than 100,000 members of the Navajo Nation have received at least the first dose of the two part vaccine. The Rosebud Tribe, located within the borders of South Dakota, are vaccinating at twice the rate of the state, with non-tribal members in distant cities seeking out rural tribal nations in an attempt to get a shot. Where states often have limited vaccine quantities and lack of organized management across counties, tribal nations consistently have sufficient vaccines through IHS.

Tribal nations and communities in rural Alaska similarly demonstrate success in their vaccination efforts, and are setting their own standards in prioritization by some choosing to focus on teachers and educators, and others working to get indigenous language speakers vaccinated first. Alaska overall is seeing high vaccination rates, currently at 21.8% statewide, but the greatest success is from tribal nations in rural areas. The ease in coordinating the smaller community numbers is a contributing factor, and communities are using planes, snowmobiles, and ferries to reach people.

A key to tribal nations’ success is the utilization of a variety of methods to inform individuals about vaccinations, relying primarily on phone calls.
Across Indian Country, tribal leaders say they’ve set up call centers—often staffed by fluent Native language speakers—to answer inquiries, book appointments and reach out to citizens. They’ve also gotten the word out through existing outreach programs, newsletters, social media, radio announcements and direct mail.
Tribal nations and Native communities are battling the current pandemic within the context of a genocidal use of epidemics during the colonization of America. Although historians used to contribute the effects of epidemics on indigenous peoples to the mere historical accident of new diseases arriving, the truth is that many epidemics were “a direct and foreseeable consequence of decisions made by the United States and its citizens to dispossess Native people of desirable lands and shove them someplace else.”

Even now, COVID-19 ravaged tribal nations throughout 2020, with Native Americans dying at a rate twice that of white Americans, discussed in blog posts here and here. This racial disparity in death rates and hospitalizations is also evidenced among Black Americans and Latinx Americans.

The health inequities during the current pandemic can largely be attributed to systemic inequalities in income, housing, and employment. Studies show that people of color are more likely to be essential workers thus unable to work from home, reside in high population density areas, and lack accessible healthcare, COVID-19 testing, clean water, and grocery stores. Further, people of color were also found to receive less medical treatment and testing when seeking care for COVID-19 symptoms. For indigenous people in rural communities, far distances to medical facilities and “high rates of diabetes, heart disease and other preexisting conditions made tribes... even more vulnerable during the pandemic.”

Tribal nations are working diligently to combat the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 felt in their communities, with great success. The efforts of tribal nations bring some much needed positive news, and offers a hopeful outlook for vaccinations moving forward.

Monday, March 1, 2021

"Yellowstone" and the preservation of the modern west

As a fan of Taylor Sheridan's films, I recently began watching his television series, "Yellowstone." Like all of his films, "Yellowstone" captures the entanglement of modern life in the frontier Western United States. This time, the narrative follows John Dutton, patriarch of a multi-generational cattle ranch near the national park. His single ranch is supposed to be the largest in the country, and he spends his days maneuvering to protect it from encroaching interests. In that regard, he has three sources of anxiety: his family, land developers, and a neighboring Native American nation. Despite his wealth and influence, Dutton is pessimistic about the future of his ranch without absolute control over his family and foes, alike. Still, he represents possibly the only figure who can resist the powerful forces of concentrated wealth in rural America: someone with the same means and ambition.

Unlike his adversaries, Dutton is an owner-operator of his land. He lives there with his employees and occasionally his adult children, too. Gil Birmingham plays one of his antagonists, Thomas Rainwater; a tribal chief of the neighboring Broken Rock Reservation, who owns a casino and wants to use his amassed wealth to reclaim the land from the Dutton family ranch. Danny Huston plays another, Dan Jenkins; a billionaire land developer from California who has Dutton's ranch in his crosshairs. Both Rainwater and Jenkins represent the past and future converging on Dutton in the present day.

For his part, Dutton is more of a real estate magnate than a rancher. His work mainly takes place in different offices, such as the Governor's or a private box at a cattle auction. He maintains control of the ranch with the help of his sons: a lawyer and a quasi-SWAT livestock agent. His daughter does her share by convincing her employer, a financial firm, to turn the land surrounding the ranch into trusts for the tax incentives. If not for the landscape and outfits, the Dutton family's story would translate well into an urban elite setting.

Despite being fictional and possibly out-of-touch with its rural setting, the main driver of the plot--land and its ownership--is not farfetched. For example, the Land Report recently published an article about Bill and Melinda Gates being the largest private farmland owners in the United States. At more than 240,000 acres, that amount of real estate defies notions that the founder of Microsoft is focused on a technology-based future. Likewise, a few years ago, NPR reported that the amount of farmland in the US owned by foreign investors doubled in the past two decades to thirty million acres. 

On a much more minute level, corporate ownership is attached to tools used on the land, too. As previously discussed in this blog, a farmer's "right to repair" their tractor has been a subject of debate in some states in recent years. At the national level, a unanimous Supreme Court in Bowman v. Monsanto found that farmers could not save seeds patented by Monsanto beyond their single season limited use license. Against this backdrop of modern macroeconomic decisions affecting the rules of rural living, Dutton is the hero for beating against the tide. He plays the same corporate game, but he is redeemed for not looking outward, like the "coastal elite" developer. He is equally uncompromising when it comes to the grievances of the bordering reservation. 

These aspects of Dutton were a given at the beginning of "Yellowstone." He was set up to be as formidable as possible, and so the show begs the question: how long can such a person last?


Wednesday, February 24, 2021

California Rural Legal Assistance submits powerful amici brief to the Supreme Court supporting union access for farmworkers

There is a pending case in the Supreme Court regarding whether the access regulation of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (“ALRA”) constitutes a per se taking of farmer’s property under the Fifth Amendment.

The access regulation of the ALRA, established in 1975, grants union organizers the ability to access farmworkers on farms for the purposes of sharing information about various employee rights and helping with union organization. However, the access is limited. Union organizers must provide the employer with prior written notice of their intent to access farmworkers. They may only access farmworkers before or after work or during the farmworker’s lunch break. Furthermore, the time the organizers spend with the farmworkers on the farm must not exceed one hour per meeting or three hours total. There are also limitations governing the secrecy, timeframe, and procedure of union elections. In addition, the access regulation is strictly enforced and organizers who violate the rule are subject to sanctions.

The case at hand, Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid arose in 2015, when organizers from the United Farm Workers (“UFW”) union entered Cedar Point’s California nursery to speak with its farmworkers. However, at the time of entry, UFW had not provided Cedar Point with any notice of their intent to take access in violation of the regulation’s requirements. Cedar Point then filed suit against the Agricultural Labor Relations Board arguing “that the access regulation, as applied to them, amounted to a taking without compensation . . . and an illegal seizure” in violation of both the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

The California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (“CRLA”) submitted an amicus brief arguing in favor of the access regulation requirement and explaining why the regulation is still needed, forty-five years later. CRLA argues that unlike regular employees, farmworkers are inaccessible outside the workplace. Thus, the usual methods of communication are not effective and the need to access the farmworkers on the farm remains the most effective way to reach them. CRLA mentions housing, access to technology, and lack of education of farmworkers as reasons why the access regulation is needed.

In its brief, CRLA touches on the fact that farmworkers often have inadequate or no housing at all, making it difficult to reach them at their place of residence. They explain that many farmworkers are homeless, living in cars, tents, or garages as a result of the cost and lack of available housing. CRLA refers to Lisa Pruitt and Zach Newman’s article on the rural housing crisis to show that following Los Angeles, “the next four highest cost-burden counties in California are rural.” Those who have employer-provided housing are not much better off. In fact, they’re often subject to “unofficial oversight and control.” For example, when employers provide the housing, they can refuse to provide farmworkers with internet access. They may also impose strict rules, as described by the following quote:
“Most employer-provided housing at motels, in labor camps, or even in single family homes, have rules establishing curfews, requiring visitors to sign-in, and even require permission from foremen who live on-site before visitors can enter the housing or common areas.”
Challenging the assumption that farmworkers can be reached through the usual methods of communication such as written materials, CRLA refers to a 2015 Agricultural Labor Relations Board Memo which found that “many [farmworkers] are also ‘functionally illiterate’ (reading at between fourth and seventh grade levels) or ‘totally illiterate’ (reading below fourth grade level), struggling or unable to acquire information through print. Thus, CRLA argues, print communication is futile.

Like print communication, information communicated via technology may also be difficult for farmworkers to navigate. CRLA argues that “what may generally be considered simple tasks, like joining a conference or video call, are immensely difficult tasks for farmworkers.” In addition to the fact that “only about one-third of California rural households subscribe to internet service,” farmworkers in particular are less likely to have access to internet. The Agricultural Labor Relations Board found that when confronted with expenses, internet is the first expense that farmworkers cut when money is short. More on the broadband gap in rural areas can be found here.

CRLA emphasizes that the access regulation is critical in reaching farmworkers. Farmworkers tend to move from field to field instead of working at one particular farm. Thus, aside from the access regulation, there is no easy way to reach the workers as they move frequently and are often scattered throughout the state. Further, there is no place where organizers can meet with the workers. CRLA describes that there are no coffee shops or multi-purpose rooms where they can meet with the farmworkers. Instead, they remind the Court that where the “highway ends, the growers land begins,” leaving union organizers reliant on this access if they wish to reach farmworkers.

CRLA also argues that aside from the fact that the access regulation remains necessary and is constitutional, Cedar Point has not proven an injury nor is the issue ripe for adjudication. Thus, CRLA argues, Cedar Point has no viable claims, and the access regulation should stand.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Does illegal immigration affect rural Americans?

As you may have guessed, rural Americans oppose illegal immigration. A recent survey conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Washington Post found that 42 percent of rural residents feel that immigrants are a "burden to the United States," while just 16 percent of those living in or near big cities believe the same. Additionally, this study found that 63 percent of rural residents believe stricter immigration laws will help bring back jobs to their communities.

Are rural Americans' calls for stricter border security warranted? Are their jobs actually in danger? Are immigrants an economic burden to the United States?

A review of the literature on illegal immigration paints a pretty clear picture: immigration (both legal and illegal) likely is a net-positive for the American economy, but a net-negative for low-skilled American workers.

George Borjas, an economics professor at Harvard who has studied immigration for 30 years, claims that liberals and conservatives don't tell the full story about the effects of immigration. Mr. Borjas claims that President Trump overlooks findings that suggest "immigrants can potentially be a net good for the nation, increasing the total wealth of the population." However, Mr. Borjas notes that liberals ignore that certain groups bear the brunt of the negative effects of immigration:
[A]nyone who tells you that immigration doesn’t have any negative effects doesn’t understand how it really works. Because a disproportionate percentage of immigrants have few skills, it is low-skilled American workers, including many blacks and Hispanics, who have suffered most from this wage dip. The monetary loss is sizable. When the supply of workers goes up, the price that firms have to pay to hire workers goes down. Wage trends over the past half-century suggest that a 10 percent increase in the number of workers with a particular set of skills probably lowers the wage of that group by at least 3 percent. 
Immigration redistributes wealth from those who compete with immigrants to those who use immigrants—from the employee to the employer. And the additional profits are so large that the economic pie accruing to all [Americans] actually grows.

 In sum: immigration financially hurts low-skilled Americans (those with a high-school degree or less), but that economic loss is outweighed by the financial benefits to employers (from having cheaper labor sources) and the immigrants themselves (who now have a job).

The United States incorporates the idea that increasing the number of people in a particular "skill class" (i.e. low-skilled workers) will lower the wages for that skill class, into their immigration policies. The United States purposefully factors in an applying migrant's level of skill when deciding whether to grant a visa. The United States is more likely to approve a visa for a high-skilled immigrant than a low-skilled immigrant because there are many more low-skilled applicants than high-skilled ones. They wouldn't want the few negative economic effects of immigration to disproportionately impact one skill class over another.

Obviously, when it comes to illegal immigration there is no screening process to limit certain skill classes from entering. A majority of undocumented immigrants are low-skill laborers. So low-skilled Americans are hit harder by illegal immigration than legal immigration because of the increased competition in their skill class.

The United States Commission on Civil Rights issued a report titled: "The Impact of Illegal Immigration on the wages and employment opportunities of Black workers." This report found that "[I]llegal Immigration to the United States in recent decades has tended to depress both wages and employment rates for low-skilled American citizens, a disproportionate number of whom are black men." The commission came to the same conclusion as Mr. Borjas: immigration depresses the wages of low-skilled Americans, and yet might still be a net positive for the U.S. economy as a whole due to the benefits accrued to more wealthy Americans.

Rural Americans are more likely to rely on low-skilled jobs than urban Americans. Thus rural Americans tend to suffer more economic consequences from illegal immigration than their urban counterparts. So are rural Americans correct to believe immigration is a burden on America? Not really; the data suggests that the economy is benefitted on the whole. Are rural Americans correct to believe that illegal immigration hurts their wages? The science would suggest yes, so long as you are a low-skilled American.

On August 7, 2019, ICE raided six chicken factories operating in Mississippi, arresting 680 undocumented workers. Crider Inc., a separate chicken factory, lost 75% of its 900-member workforce after an ICE raid in 2007. These aren't isolated incidents either. The liberal in me is saddened by the pain that these raids must cause for the undocumented workers caught up in them, but another part of me remembers all the times I've told conservatives that illegal immigrants don't take the jobs that Americans are willing to do. Can I really look in the face of an unemployed American living in the rust belt, or in the south, and tell them they wouldn't work a factory job when that was the last job they had before becoming permanently unemployed?

After the ICE raid on Crider Inc, the corporation immediately hired 200 locals from the rural community, most of whom were black, whilst simultaneously raising wages for those positions.

Immigration is what makes America the special country we are. No nation in the history of mankind has cultivated the racial diversity that America has currently, and I believe that's a badge of honor for this country. But it's important to note that the effects of unemployment and lower wages are painful: increased addiction rates, increased depression, increased deaths of despair, increased domestic abuse, poorer health results, and more. Rural Americans aren't necessarily xenophobic for wanting to alleviate these ailments by limiting illegal immigration as much as possible. For many struggling rural economies, no potential economic stimulus can be taken off the table.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Is Josh Hawley rural?

Josh Hawley is the junior senator from Missouri; he defeated Claire McCaskill (D) in 2018.  Hawley has attracted attention most recently for his role in disputing the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election.  On January 6, just before insurrectionists entered the U.S. Capitol, Hawley famously raised his fist in an apparent show of strength and solidarity with them.   So, Hawley has aligned himself with populists and often plays the anti-urban, heartland card.  Since elected, Hawley has lived in suburban northern Virginia while using the Missouri address of his sister in Ozark.  

But is Hawley rural and can he authentically play the "rural card"?  Well, Frank Morris of Missouri Public Radio considered that issue in this story for NPR.  For that story, Morris visited Hawley's hometown.  Here are some excerpts: 

Josh Hawley sets himself up as an antidote to cosmopolitan elites who he says are ruining America. Hawley draws his rural credibility from growing up in Lexington, an old Missouri River town of about 4,500 people. Hawley's family moved to Lexington in the early '80s when Josh was a toddler.

JIM KENNEY: His mother and father were salt of the Earth, widely respected, beloved.

MORRIS: Jim Kenney is a fifth-generation Lexington resident. He says young Hawley stood out.

KENNEY: I can remember my kids coming home one time and saying, Josh Hawley told us all he's going to be president someday. And that was probably - he was in the sixth - fifth or sixth grade at the time. So people remember that around here.

MORRIS: Another thing people remember - when Hawley finished eighth grade, his parents sent him off to a Catholic school an hour away in Kansas City. For many in Lexington, that was the last they saw of Josh Hawley. He went on to Stanford and Yale and eventually came back to town to launch his political career.

* * *

MORRIS: In [a] campaign ad for his 2018 Senate race, Hawley is strolling by the picturesque old courthouse downtown. It's beautiful imagery, but it did not sit well with everyone here. Tim and Allyson Crosson, music teachers who worked with Hawley, say the ad was disingenuous.

TIM CROSSON: He tries to portray himself as a good old boy from rural Missouri and my constituents are all these rural people. And they don't buy into it at all.

Another story about Hawley and his relationship to Lexington and its residents is here.  

Friday, February 19, 2021

Rurality in "Ted Lasso" series

I just finished watching Season 1 of "Ted Lasso" with my family.  We started it a few weeks ago and paced ourselves.  (Ok, maybe we didn't really pace ourselves given that we watched the last three episodes tonight).  I'm motivated to write about the show now because in the third from last episode, a British soccer fan called Ted Lasso a "hillbilly."  As you will gather, Lasso is the central character in the series, and in case you haven't seen it, let me explain that Lasso was a coach of American football (the Wichita State Shockers) who is recruited to coach the AFC Richmond soccer team, in southwest London.  

This moniker, used as an insult, led me to contemplate on what basis Lasso could be considered a "hillbilly"?  And the only basis I can think of is a broad definition of middle America, including Kansas, as a land of hillbillies.  Perhaps it is a synonym for "red neck."  But it still rings odd to me given that  Kansas is not known for its hills (let alone mountains).  

Other cultural references in "Ted Lasso" to that broad swath of middle America sometimes called the "flyover" states include Willie Nelson and the Marlboro Man.  There's also a more specific reference to a Kansas institution, the Westboro Baptist Church. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Oak Flat mine project looms in Arizona despite Apache legal efforts

On Friday February 12, a federal judge ruled against an Apache activist group ("Apache Stronghold") fighting to protect sacred Oak Flat lands in rural Arizona from development into a copper mine. Wendsler Nosie Sr., leader of Apache stronghold, has been advocating against the project for decades.

Thursday, before Judge Logan ruled against the motion, Apache Stronghold posted a statement.
[W]e have been saying that Oak Flat or Chi’chil Bildagoteel cannot be replaced, and that its destruction and the destruction of our religion cannot be mitigated…We need Chi’chil Bildagoteel to survive as it is so central to our religion as provided by the Creator.
Located about an hour east of Phoenix, the Oak Flat area is in the Tonto National Forest. It is widely loved for its camping and trails, but to the Apache people the connection is deeper. To the tribe, the land is ‘Chi’chil Bildagoteel’ and it has been sacred for years. Both the Apaches and other Native American tribes have used the land for burials, ceremonies, and other culturally significant traditions for generations.

Nosie’s granddaughter, Naelyn Pike, had her Sunrise Ceremony on the land. This tradition is a rite of passage for young Apache women. The copper mine would prevent the continuation of this ceremony. Pike has spoken fervently against the mine.
“How can we practice our ceremonies at Oak Flat when it is destroyed?,” Pike asked. “How will the future Apache girls and boys know what it is to be Apache, to know our home when it is gone?”
The mine proposed would be one of the largest copper mines in the country, and the estimated impact would be devastating to the area. Estimated impacts of the mine predict a two-mile wide, 1,000 ft deep crater in the Oak Flat area as a result of Resolution Copper’s practices. 

Oak Flat, located in Pinal County, is closest to Superior, Arizona (population est. 3,178 in 2019 according to the U.S. Census). The mine has also raised concerns with water use. Massive groundwater pumping could drain the regional aquifer, and place disproportionate environmental harms on rural and indigenous communities.

In 2014, as part of the obligatory 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, a midnight rider was added by Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake. It included a land transfer: the 2,422-acre Oak Flat area was to be transferred from the National Forest to Resolution Copper in exchange for 5,300 acres in private lands owned by the mining giant.

In Trump’s final days in office, the Forest Service published a final environmental impact statement almost a year ahead of schedule. This initiated a 60-day countdown for the land swap and created the impending March 16 transfer date.

Last Friday, Judge Steven Logan (an Obama-appointee) denied the Apache Stronghold's motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent the transfer and held that the group did not show that it was likely to prevail on its claims. Because Apache Stronghold was not a federally recognized tribe, the court found that the group did not have standing. The court rejected the argument that the land was reserved to the Apaches pursuant to an 1852 treaty. 
Even read liberally, Logan said “the court cannot infer an enforceable trust duty as to any individual Indians.”
Despite the loss on the injunctive motion, the case may still go to trial. In addition to Apache Stronghold’s pending suit to block the project, the San Carlos Apache Tribe filed its own suit against the mine, and a third suit was filed by a coalition of Native American and conservation groups.

The result of this upcoming litigation is unclear, but it is less hopeful after Judge Logan's recent decision. For more readings on the blog regarding environmental justice and native lands, check here, and here (discusses Biden Admin's prioritization of environmental justice).

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The enigmatic monoliths bringing people outside

The stay-at-home and social distancing orders throughout the COVID-19 pandemic have brought new found hobbies to many, from sourdough baking to watercolor painting. For some, the discovery of mysterious monoliths throughout the world provided the perfect starting point for a wave of outdoor, sculpture hunting hobbyists.

The monolith movement sweeping across the globe began in November 2020. Wildlife biologists, while surveying vast deserts in Utah, discovered a never-before-seen metal sculpture deep within a canyon on vast, untouched land. Dubbed a monolith by the Utah Department of Public Safety, an image of the rectangular pillar was posted online without an exact location. Intrigued by the mysterious object, particularly its similarity to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, many individuals set out on a hunt for the monolith in the Utah desert.

Within days, someone managed to locate the monolith and subsequently send out the GPS coordinates for others to do the same. This treasure hunt seemed harmless enough: one could drive out to a remote Utah location, with little risk of viral spread, to view a sculpture with an unknown origin. People enjoyed speculating on the mysterious arrival of the monolith and visiting the object together, with one hiker describing it as a “positive escape from today’s world.” However, as the hunt for the monolith grew, it sparked concerns.

The beloved Utah monolith vanished one night about two weeks after it was discovered. The individuals responsible for its removal eventually came forward, revealing their reasons:
We removed the Utah Monolith because there are clear precedents for how we share and standardize the use of our public lands, natural wildlife, native plants, fresh water sources, and human impacts upon them. The mystery was the infatuation and we want to use this time to unite people behind the real issues here— we are losing our public lands— things like this don’t help.
The monolith removers went on to emphasize the trash and human feces left in the desert surrounding the monolith, along with the use of vehicles across the unpaved landscape. Although the removers faced backlash online, their actions raised important issues concerning public land in the United States.

The Utah monolith existed on land that was part of the Bears Ears National Monument until 2017, when former President Trump reduced the national monument land by 85%. Public lands were particularly targeted during the Trump administration, with development valued over environmental and indigenous land preservation. As public lands, especially in the West, are reduced by the government, individuals pose a threat to the destruction of the remaining lands.

The sudden flock of humans to the outdoors is further evidenced in various corners of the nation. A blog post last week highlighted the consequences of re-opening a California state beach to recreational drivers after endangered birds expanded their habitat while visitors were away. Similarly, trees in Joshua Tree National Park were vandalized during the government shutdown at the beginning of 2019. Consumption of rural public lands was discussed further in blog posts here and here.

Even though the Utah monolith is gone, its legacy lives on. Since November 2020, more than one hundred and ninety monoliths emulating the original one in Utah have sprung up internationally, with the most recent monolith discovered in rural Turkey last week. Some of the monoliths, like the one in Utah, appeared in rural and remote areas where a human footprint was small. Yet others arose in easily accessible cityscapes. And much like the Utah monolith, many have disappeared as quickly as they appeared.

We may never know how the Utah monolith arrived, whether it was placed by aliens or is the work of an unacknowledged artist, but its continued emulation serves as a reminder of the fragility of the natural environment and the importance of its continued protection.

Florida breach signals why state and local cybersecurity infrastructure matters

Many infrastructure and national security experts, and most likely your organization’s IT department, have long warned about growing cybersecurity risks (see the New York Times reporter David Sanger’s 2018 book and Brookings podcast). Last December, cyber experts discovered the SolarWinds operation, uncovering a massive, sophisticated hack by Russian spies that targeted the U.S. federal government and affected 18,000 computer networks. Shortly after, President Biden committed to making cybersecurity a top priority.

Generally, only the more sensational cyber breaches implicating national security, like SolarWinds, or those resulting in expensive losses, make headlines. Other infrastructure breaches do not always capture the same attention, which is one reason the story surrounding the breach of a water treatment plant in Oldsmar, Florida is so noteworthy. This event shows the significant risks associated with weak state and local cyber infrastructure and suggests Washington shouldn’t be the only level of government concerned about cybersecurity. 

On February 9, hackers remotely accessed a major water treatment plant in Oldsmar, FL and manipulated the level of sodium hydroxide — “you’re basically talking about lye” — to unsafe levels that would have seriously sickened residents. Fortunately, an employee realized in the nick of time that an external force was controlling his computer, and no one was harmed. 

Oldsmar, a town of 15,000 and a suburb of Tampa, is not a rural area according to the USDA. However, this incident shines light on threats posed by weak cybersecurity infrastructures across geographies, including in rural areas. As the New York Times reported: 

“[Smaller systems] are the targets we worry about,” said Eric Chien, a security researcher at Symantec. “This is a small municipality that is likely small-budgeted and under-resourced, which purposely set up remote access so employees and outside contractors can remote in.”

Cybersecurity experts like to divide the world into two categories: those who have been hacked, and those who have been hacked but don’t know it. 

This is a fascinating feature of cyber-attacks. Hackers do not always target the deepest pockets. Malware technology enables hackers to go indiscriminately after a wide swath of devices at once via phishing or ransomware, enabling hackers to get smaller amounts of money from lots of different sources. Some ways hackers make a profit include holding data at ransom, selling huge quantities of personal identifiable information for tiny amounts on the dark web, or adding an innocuous line item on a credit card statement. 

Hackers frequently target weak security systems like small businesses, local governments, or independent medical providers and clinics. For example, in 2019, 23 town governments in Texas were hit by a coordinated hack. Also that year, non-metro Archuleta County in southwest Colorado was hacked and a $300k ransom was demanded. This kept the network down for weeks with a various costs. The county purchased more laptops and technical equipment, personnel spent weeks manually inputting records, and law enforcement operations were reduced. 

Additionally, some experts say that the pandemic has led to increased attacks because of our national reliance on digital infrastructure. Covid has underscored cybersecurity gaps in the education system. A December 2020 FBI report notes a significant increase in attacks on schools

In August and September, 57% of ransomware incidents reported . . . involved K-12 schools, compared to 28% of all reported ransomware incidents from January through July.

These examples (hacks on schools, water systems, and medical centers) are not specific to rural communities, but they do show that cybersecurity is very much a rural threat too. Authorities have not identified the culprit of the Oldsmar breach yet. Frankly, it sounds a little alarmist to think that a foreign adversary might be hacking a water system, but maybe not. Regardless of who the hacker is, however, incidents like the one in Florida give more credence to the warnings of cybersecurity Cassandras.

As previously discussed on this blog and in Prof. Lisa Pruitt's op-ed, increasing access to broadband should be an immediate priority for American policymakers. Accessing the internet implicates cybersecurity interests because users, whether they be individuals, local governments, or public utilities, rely on secure access. As policymakers consider proposals to expand broadband, breaches like the one in Florida or Archuleta County suggest it is not worth skimping on cybersecurity measures.

Friday, February 12, 2021

The right to water in the San Joaquin Valley

It has been widely reported by the news and by Governor Newsom that over one million Californians do not have access to clean drinking water in their homes. The good news is that the state has taken serious legislative action to address the issue over the past decade. Beginning in 2012, California became the first state to recognize a human right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water. At that time, the state was in the middle of a drought that would ultimately be its driest three consecutive years on record. As everyone in the state was called on to use less water, divisions grew about its proper allocation. Indeed, the San Joaquin Valley remains starkly divided on the issue: potable water is primarily diverted to agricultural use while many of its residents and labor force still lack safe drinking water. Within the Valley, those living in unincorporated communities are the most vulnerable to this public health crisis.

A recent article from the Hastings Environmental Law Journal notes:

The majority of those [one million] Californians [lacking safe drinking water] are Latinx and live in disadvantaged unincorporated communities (DUCs) throughout the state’s rural agricultural belts. The greatest number of noncompliant public water systems is located in the San Joaquin Valley, where approximately forty percent of DUCs with noncompliant systems are located within a mile of a city’s borders, while one-third are too far from a city’s borders to extend drinking water service. These dire spatial and racial inequalities suggest that California must explore new strategies to augment current efforts to implement the human right to water.

Unincorporated communities are residences located outside any municipality. They can be directly adjacent to one or miles away, as stated in the quote above.  Unincorporated in the rural context has been discussed before in this blog here. Their proximity to towns aside, these communities are often disconnected from public water systems that could provide safe drinking water, and they are left to their own devices to figure out their water needs. Historically, these communities have relied on groundwater basins, which have become polluted after decades of chemicals from pesticides and fertilizer seeping into the ground, as discussed here.

To address this issue, the California legislature enacted a plan to consolidate these communities with compliant water districts. The protocol calls for the State to identify noncompliant systems in unincorporated areas for consolidation, encourage the nearby compliant water system to consolidate voluntarily, and if unsuccessful, make consolidation mandatory. According to the state, nineteen systems have received notices asking to consolidate voluntarily. Two actions have ceased because they did not involve disadvantaged communities. Eight resolved to voluntarily consolidate; one is completed. Four mandatory orders have been issued; one is completed.

At this rate, the problem likely will not be fixed any time soon for the thousands of San Joaquin Valley residents in unincorporated communities. Furthermore, the Hastings article points out that the plan is targeting communities in close proximity to existing water systems. There has not been any progress for remote unincorporated communities in the Valley.

This short documentary follows the community of Tooleville’s effort to join the town of Exeter’s water system. Being unincorporated, Tooleville’s 80 homes do not have clean water, and the community has suffered because of it. Despite residents pleading with Exeter city council, and the state offering them $10 million interest-free loan as an incentive, Exeter refuses to consolidate voluntarily.

A lack of trust between the parties appears to flow upstream: Tooleville does not trust Exeter to extend their services willingly, and Exeter does not trust the state to fulfill their promises to subsidize and maintain the expansion. There is also an underlying racial tension in the meetings between Tooleville’s Latinx, Spanish-speaking residents and the white council. One Tooleville resident read a prepared statement in Spanish, but nobody translated her message to the city. Then, a man from the city took the Tooleville residents outside and made empty promises to their representative. Between the meeting not having a translator and a man making off-the-record statements, there was ultimately no reason to hold the meeting in the first place.

Although the state’s plan is fairly new, it’s become clear that it is not effectively fulfilling the promise that people have a right to safe drinking water. After five years, only two systems have consolidated, and they were bordering. More funding or a new strategy will be needed to expedite the process, especially for the remote communities that remain a blindspot to the state.