Thursday, June 30, 2011

From "peasants to cosmopolitan villagers" in Thailand

That's one of the messages of this story by Thomas Fuller in today's New York Times, "Rural Thais Find an Unaccustomed Power." In addition to explaining the changing nature of rurality, the story explains how the new consciousness among rural Thai citizens is bringing them increased political power--power that it likely to influence the outcome of Sunday's national election. An excerpt from Fuller's story follows:

Once passive and fatalistic, villagers are now better educated, more mobile, less deferential and ultimately more politically demanding.

Researchers who study rural life say villages like Baan Nong Tun may be ground zero for understanding why Thailand’s political crisis — warring political factions, five years of street protests and violent military crackdowns — has been so intractable. The old social contract, whereby power flowed from Bangkok and the political establishment could count on quiet acquiescence in the Thai countryside, has broken down.

Villagers describe a sort of democratic awakening in recent years and say they are no longer willing to accept a Bangkok-knows-best patriarchal system.
The "peasants to cosmopolitan villagers" quote is from Charles Keyes, professor emeritus at the University of Washington, who studied village life in Asia five decades ago. The quote that follows, from Attachak Sattayanurak, a history professor at Chiang Mai University, elaborates on the shift in Thailand:

The old establishment and the Thai state have a picture of an agrarian society frozen in time. ... They maintain a picture of local people as well-behaved and obedient, which in fact they aren’t. Peasant society doesn’t exist anymore. ... If the country’s leaders do not understand these changes, they will not be able to solve our problems.
Indeed, riots in Bangkok last year were a manifestations of this shift in rural consciousness--and a widening chasm between the interests of urban elites and the rural have nots. Read more here.

Among other reasons Fuller mentions for the shift in consciousness among villagers are technology and migration.

Some of my more academic musings on spatial inequality and the rural-urban income gap in Asia are here.

Brown vetos California bill that would have eased farm worker unionization

Jennifer Medina reports in the New York Times on the bill. An excerpt from her story follows:

[T]he United Farm Workers has long pressed for a new way to organize workers, saying that growers use intimidation to stop their employees from joining. The legislation would have allowed the union to simply collect signed petition cards from workers, rather than holding a secret ballot election at farms.

* * *

Similar legislation was vetoed four times in the past four years by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but many supporters assumed they would have support from Mr. Brown, who often speaks about his personal relationship with Cesar Chavez, the venerated founder of the union.

Medina's story quotes Arturo Rodriguez, president of the union:

The fact that he didn’t believe that farm workers need this kind of assistance and change in law is very disappointing. I am angry and I am upset that this governor treated us just like all the rest of the governors.

The bill had easily passed the Democratic-controlled state legislature. Brown vetoed it at 11 pm on Tuesday night, an hour before the bill would have become law. When he was last governor, Brown had helped shape the current law, which permits farm workers to unionize through secret ballot. Brown explained his veto by saying that the bill would have been a “drastic change” to existing labor laws and he was “not yet convinced that the far-reaching proposals of this bill” were merited.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Do rural places matter more when they are home to urban interests?

This is a possible message from a few recent stories about natural disasters in essentially rural places that are home to sensitive and essentially urban interests. Indeed, this story about the wildfire near the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and this one about a nearly flooded nuclear plant in Fort Calhoun, Nebraska (population 685) appeared side-by-side in the west coast print edition of the New York Times today. Yesterday, the New York Times ran this story about the other Nebraska nuclear power plant under threat from the Missouri River flood, this one in Brownville, Nebraska, population 103.

What struck me about these stories was that federal officials--in the case of Los Alamos, U.S. Senator Tom Udall--have taken such significant interest in what is happening. Here's a quote from the story about the New Mexico fire:

"We are throwing absolutely everything at this that we got," Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico said in Los Alamos.

The fire has forced the evacuation of the entire city of Los Alamos, population 11,000, cast giant plumes of smoke over the region and raised fears among nuclear watchdogs that it will reach as many as 30,000 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste.

By the same token, Gregory B. Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, visited the two Nebraska nuclear plants this week.

None of this is to say that either the national media or federal officials has overlooked the recent natural disasters in the midwest, plains and rural southwest. Indeed, these events have attracted a lot of attention, such as here, here, here, here and here. (The New York Times recent establishment of a news bureau in Kansas City turns out to have been fortuitously timed). And, of course, federal entities such as the Army Corp of Engineers have made key decisions in relation to the disasters, including those regarding who gets flooded (mostly the rural) and who is spared (mostly the urban). Read more here and here.

Nevertheless, coverage of the Los Alamos fire and the flooding around the Nebraska nuclear plants--and the seemingly ramped up attention federal authorities have given these crises--reminded me of the extent to which rural areas are used to "house" interests that serve primarily urban populations, e.g., dangerous nuclear installations.

Maternal health challenges in rural Mozambique

Listen to an NPR feature here. The story highlights rural-urban differences in the availability of health care. An excerpt featuring one such contrast follows:
In the countryside, more than half the babies born are delivered like Belita's was: not in a health facility, but at home. The women are often attended by a relative or friend, but not by a skilled health worker. The risks are great for both mother and child.

So the government is trying to encourage women to have their babies in maternity units, like the one at the Rural Hospital of Monapo.

The irony in this government policy becomes apparent as the story goes on to describe the grim conditions in the Monapo hospital, including blood-stained sheets, lack of a fetal heart monitor, and no doctor on duty. Then comes the contrast with an urban facility:

As unforgiving as conditions are at the Monapo rural hospital, some 40 miles away in the city of Nacala, there is a brand-new hospital painted a creamy yellow. It's spotless.

the story goes on to describe how Mozambique is dealing with a doctor shortage by training nurse practitioners to perform a range of surgeries, from c-sections to hysterectomies, at hospitals like the one in Ncala.

A second story, this one announcing this NPR series on maternal health and providing more details about the Mozambique situation, is here.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LXXXIII): State and federal funds flow (or trickle) into county

Several issues of the Newton County Times have arrived while I've been writing about other topics, and a common theme among stories from my hometown paper is the county's link to state and federal funding sources. Here's a smattering of headlines from May and June issues.
  • The state has awarded a $135,000 grant to the county for restoration of the county courthouse. The grant is from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, an agency of the Dept. of Arkansas Heritage.
  • The Kingston School, part of the Jasper School District, has been awarded two Joint Use Agreement Grants totaling $25,800, through the Arkansas Dept. of Education Grant Program. Kingston is in neighboring Madison County, and is not a Census Designated Place. The grants, one for the elementary school and one for the high school, will allow the high school's weight room to be open for community use and finance new playground equipment that will also be available to the community. The Joint Use Agreement Grant is a collaboration of the Arkansas Dept. of Education, Arkansas Dept. of Health, and the Arkansas Dept. of Health Improvement.
  • The Arkansas Dept. of Rural Services presented a grant of $4026 to the Jasper Fire Dept. so that it could purchase Class A foam, an intake valve, helmet lights, and an SBCA testing device. This grant was part of $166K in grants to 20 rural communities during the Fiscal Year 2011 cycle.
  • The Arkansas Natural Resources Commission (ANRC) announced approval of a loan for up to $51.5K from the Water, Sewer and Solid Waste Fund to the Marble Falls Water, Sewer and Solid Waste Disposal SID No. I, Phase II. The loan is for 20 years at 5 percent interest. Also approved from the same fund was a grant for up to $129K. The funds will be used to make wastewater plant repairs and upgrades and to pay other expenses associated with a consent judgment against the District.
  • The Jasper School District Board of Education is asking voters to approve "0.9 new debt service mills through 2041 to finance construction projects" at the District's three campuses. "There is also a request for extension of existing debt millage, 10.9 mills, through 2041, which is 10 years beyond the current commitment. The new millage rate would be 36.8 mills. The state average millage rate was of the 2010 election is 36.99 mills. The story notes that the District "has also been approved for a federal Qualified School Construction Bond (QSCB) of $925,000 which will have little or no interest cost to the school district." Read about a similar bond issue for other Newton County schools, along with its link to federal stimulus funds, here.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Reverse migration to the South, but not to its rural reaches

This story about Blacks from the North (especially New York) returning to the South appeared earlier this week in the New York Times. Here's an excerpt with the gist of it:

The economic downturn has propelled a striking demographic shift: black New Yorkers, including many who are young and college educated, are heading south.

About 17 percent of the African-Americans who moved to the South from other states in the past decade came from New York, far more than from any other state, according to census data. Of the 44,474 who left New York State in 2009, more than half, or 22,508, went to the South, according to a study conducted by the sociology department of Queens College for The New York Times.

Dan Bilefsky's story points out that the phenomenon is not limited to New Yorkers, but that Blacks in other major cities in the East and Midwest are also heading to the South--often drawn to a less expensive, more relaxed lifestyle.

One thing that interests me about this news is that Blacks returning to the South are returning to cities--most notably Atlanta. They are not returning to the rural areas from which their ancestors often initially came when they moved to northern cities during the so-called Great Migration.

Compare this demographic news with another angle on connections between North and South for Blacks: urban Black children making extended visits to relatives in the rural South. Read more here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Moratorium on natural gas disposal wells sought in Arkansas

I've written here about hydro-fracking in central Arkansas, as well as efforts to stop it here. Now the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission has "proposed a permanent moratorium on disposal wells related to the natural gas drilling in a 1,150-square-mile area in the center of the state." Here's an excerpt from a story in the New York Times:
State scientists have found a highly suggestive link between the operation of these wells and a swarm of more than 1,220 earthquakes since early last fall, including a 4.7-magnitude quake in February. Since two of the wells were shut down in March, the number of earthquakes has dropped by almost 50 percent.
The Commission will make a decision about this proposal on July 26.

Friday, June 17, 2011

High art for the heartland (even if the venue isn't technically "rural")

I wrote about six weeks ago of an LA Times piece that characterized Bentonville, Arkansas, soon to be home to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, as "rural." Indeed, I fairly ridiculed the unidentified LA Times writer for that characterization , explaining how Bentonville can hardly be rural when it sits amidst a major metropolitan area.

Now the New York Times is writing about Crystal Bridges and Alice Walton, its benefactor. Here's an excerpt, heavy on quotes from Ms. Walton. The quotes take up the issue of "place," with some emphasis on the "heartland" versus the coasts, but with no mention of the "r" word.

“I never would have thought of collecting anything but American, truly,” she said. “This is the heartland of the country. It’s what should be here.”

Ms. Walton acknowledged that in the beginning it was not always easy dealing with members of the East Coast art establishment. “A lot of people there don’t really know this part of the world, really don’t know the people here and the desire and the need for art,” she said. “But once they come and see what’s here and what we have, their attitudes will change.”

Still, she is realistic enough to know that a world-class museum can’t be created overnight, or even over a decade. “We want to share; we want to borrow; we want to loan; we want to have really active partnerships with museums worldwide.”
Elsewhere in the story Ms. Walton, age 61 and the youngest child of the late Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, is quoted:
For years I’ve been thinking about what we could do as a family that could really make a difference in this part of the world .... I thought this is something we desperately need, and what a difference it would have made were it here when I was growing up.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Rural California and Brown's veto of the state budget

This NPR story today listed higher fees for fire protection for rural residents as among the budget "gimmicks" that Governor Jerry Brown rejected in his budget veto today.

Read coverage of the veto from the Sacramento Bee here and the New York Times here, though neither mentions fire protection fees in rural areas or other rural-specific issues.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LXXXII): County once again contemplates a (truly) new jail

After many months in which the possibility of the county getting a new jail (as opposed to refurbishing part of the "old nursing home" to serve as the county jail) has not been discussed, such a facility was back on the Quorum Court agenda at a recent meeting of the county's governing body. The June 8, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times reports that on June 6 the Quorum Court was "shown a new plan for a much leaner stand alone jail back on the originally selected site, county property on state Highway 7 south of Jasper." As long as a year ago, the county shelved plans to build the jail on this site because it "failed to perform satisfactory [sic] on a percolation test to see if the subsurface was suitable for a septic system. ... Under the plan existing at the time, the county could not afford both the facility and the cost to connect to Jasper municipal waste water treatment plant."

Now, however, with the cost of renovating the "old nursing home" and converting it to a jail on the rise (in part because of the expense of asbestos abatement), Prosecuting Attorney Ron Kincade "presented a rough outline on tracing paper a working drawing of a jail meeting state jail standards. He said he asked a contractor to take an earlier design created by the project's architect and 'reduce' it to meet the county's $1.2 million budget." Kincade believes the smaller facility and additional funding from the Rural Development might permit "a 6-inch line to the municipal sewer possible," thus making possible the construction of a new jail.

The scaled-down version would have the capacity to house 10 women and 20 men, with four cells for the "most violent prisoners."

A contractor who originally bid on the project gave the new design to Kincade. Kincade said the county is in the process of capping the architect's fee for the project because the architect has already been paid for the original plans.

Read earlier posts about the multi-year jail dilemma here, here, and here. The county has been operating without a jail for two years.

In other business, the Quorum Court passed an appropriation ordinance placing $13,202 from an Administrative Office of the Courts courtroom safety grant in an account to be used for a metal detector, stun cuffs, fireproof safes and security mirrors for the courthouse. It also appropriated $35,000 from the Dept. of Arkansas Heritage for preservation and renovation work on the courthouse.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Agritourism keeping more small farms out of the red

A few years ago, the New York Times ran a travel feature on agritourism in Europe. Yesterday, it ran a business feature on agritourism in the United States. It's no secret that those who own and run small farms have typically relied on both farm and off-farm income to make ends meet. Now, however, more farms are relying on a second type of farm revenue: fees paid by tourists, many who want to see and teach their children where food comes from. William Neuman summarizes the phenomenon, writing from Santa Margarita, California.
[I]ncreasingly farmers are eking more money out of the land in ways beyond the traditional route of planting crops and raising livestock. Some have opened bed-and-breakfasts, often known as farm stays, that draw guests eager to get a taste of rural living. Others operate corn mazes — now jazzed up with modern fillips like maps on cellphones — that often turn into seasonal amusements, with rope courses and zip lines. Ranchers open their land to hunters or bring in guests to ride horses, dude ranch style.
Neuman notes that the USDA is promoting agritourism, as through grants like the one that went to an Oregon entrepreneur who established the website Farm Stay U.S. The USDA also tracks such enterprises and others aspects of farming as a business in its Census of Agriculture. The Census indicates that California is among the leaders in agritourism (as it is in agriculture more broadly), with about 700 farms averaging more than $50K/year in such revenue.

The USDA estimated that in 2007, 23,000 farms in the United States engaged in some aspect of agritourism, which generated an average of $23,400 in income. The average agritourism income in the 2002 Census was only $7,200, although more farms reported participating in such enterprises then.

Read other posts about agritourism here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Budget cuts hurt state parks--and rural economies

This story about state park budget cuts appeared in the New York Times earlier this week. The dateline is Anacortes, Washington, population 16,533, home of Deception Pass State Park, which is one of a number of Washington State parks that will begin charging entrance fees on July 1. The story by William Yardley also discusses cuts to and closures of state parks in other states, including California, Ohio, Idaho, New York, Arizona and Florida. Here's an excerpt about an Ohio plan to allow energy exploration in the state's parks:

The resignation some feel about the Ohio plan is rooted in a broader sense nationwide that the status of parks has permanently changed, that parks officials cannot passively presume that lawmakers, Democrat or Republican, will rescue them. Yet some officials also worry that rising fees, rising gas prices and a need to “market” parks to people who will spend money will keep those with lower incomes from enjoying public lands.

“We’re catering more to Middle America, to middle-class recreationists, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Richard Just, the chief planner at the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation and immediate past president of National Association of Recreation Resource Planners.

I thought these comments about class were, well, interesting--in part because people don't tend to acknowledge the existence of class. Of course, "middle class" is a pretty amorphous category. Growing up, I thought state and national parks were appealing, but for the affluent--and out of my family's reach, in part because we didn't take vacations at all. Now I am a big "consumer" of such parks, and I do like to think of myself as middle class. So, sadly, Mr. Just may be correct. The parks were perhaps never very accessible to those with lower incomes, never mind the onset of entrance fees.

This brings me to another observation: middle class park goers may also represent wealth transfers from the urban places where many (most?) of them live to the rural locales of many state parks. The story doesn't discuss the impact of park closures and entrance fees on the areas surrounding the parks--the places where tourists purchase fuel, camping supplies, food, lodging, and other recreation activities. Many of these places are rural by one definition or another. For example, one of the impacted parks is Farragut State Park in Idaho, about 30 miles from Metropolitan Coeur d'Alene, in Kootenai County. But thinking in terms of this Idaho park also points up another characteristic associated with some rural areas, especially those that are home to parks: they are in "amenity rich" locales, which already fare better economically than most other rural areas.

Environmentalists theaten to sue Central Valley farmers

Alex Breitler writes in the Record of a decades-long dispute over selenium run-off into the San Joaquin River:

Growers say great progress already has been made in decreasing the amount of toxic selenium that drains from their lands and into the San Joaquin River, which flows downstream past Stockton. Scientists have found deformities in fish, which have been linked to selenium. Last year, regulators gave them an extension of nearly 10 years to finish meeting a standard established in 1996.

Displeased with that delay, a coalition of advocacy groups filed papers Tuesday claiming the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority need federal permits for the farmers' runoff and have failed to acquire them. The environmentalists warned they intend to sue within 60 days.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LXXXI): Community food room to use "old jail"

Finally, the "old jail" in Newton County has found a use. I've written a lot about the county's travails regarding the century-old jail, such as here, here and here. Now, the May 18, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times reports that the Newton County Food Room will relocate into the historic jail. "An army of volunteers were at work scrubbing and painting walls in the main floor of the old jail Monday morning, May 16." A donor gave the supplies to clean up the jail.

Because the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, its exterior must be maintained, but the interior has been remodeled a number of times over the years. The story states:
The front reception area will be maintained except for the third class partition between the public and the former dispatcher's desk has been removed. Behind it in the front office is where most of the commonly distributed foods will be stored. Refrigerators and freezers will be moved into rooms along the east side of the building and the cells in the back of the building will serve as the warehouse for food stocks.
The food room serves about 300 families each month. The charitable organization, sponsored by the county's churches, will not be paying rent to the county, but it will pay utilities.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Another natural disaster in rural America: Arizona wildfires

As noted in other recent posts, a theme of media commentary on rural natural disasters ("but why would anyone live there in the first place?") is inter-generational attachment to place. Indeed, once again, a New York Times reporter seems respectful of this rural phenomenon. Marc Lacey reports on the Wallow fire, dateline Eagar, Arizona, population 4,317, in east-central Arizona, in the White Mountains/Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Here's an excerpt regarding some residents' refusal to evacuate, in some cases because they hope to protect their homes, businesses and livestock:

The authorities called the holdouts foolhardy and required them to sign liability waivers, but did not try to force them out.

“They have a constitutional right to stay on their property,” said Brannon Eagar, chief deputy of the Apache County Sheriff’s Department, who acknowledged being frustrated by those who stay behind. “We will not go in and remove people, but we will not be liable for their safety.”

Deputy Eagar, whose great-great-grandfather founded this town, said he understood people’s attachment to the area. “Most of the people who live here have lived here for a long time,” he said.

“One of the reasons we live here is because of this beautiful mountain,” he added. “It tears you up to see what’s happening.”

Deputy Eagar fought back tears as he addressed residents at a community meeting on Monday night, moved by the despair of his neighbors and their camaraderie, too. The residents in the audience, many of whom had watched him grow up, clapped loudly. Link

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tipster tricks media, as much as rural Texas law enforcement

I was galvanized when a New York Times news alert landed in my inbox about 3:45 this afternoon. It was headlined "Up to 30 Dismembered Bodies Found near Houston, Reuters Reports." The New York Times is always so circumspect about breaking news that I figured there was something to the report or this would not have appeared on its website, let alone in an email announcement. I was especially intrigued by the blurb's mention that the bodies had been found in a rural area, so I searched around the web for more information, and I found reports in UK newspapers and in a few Houston-area sources--but really little detail beyond reports that all bodies were children and that police had requested a search warrant of the house near the reported mass grave. Thinking about it now, I should have realized that something was wrong when the stories reported that police were seeking a search warrant for a nearby farm house based on the presence of blood. After all, if a mass grave containing 30 bodies were on the premises, would police have to wait to get a search warrant for the house?

In any event, within an hour of the initial report, the New York Times released an email stating, "Sheriff's Office Has Not Found Bodies at Site of Reported Graves, Houston Chronicle Says." The story reports:
Deputies who swarmed a rural Texas neighborhood Tuesday to search a farmhouse where a person claiming to be a psychic told officials multiple bodies were buried found no evidence of even a single homicide, a sheriff's official says.

Liberty County Sheriff's Capt. Rex Evans said there was no indication of bodies being anywhere on the property about 70 miles northeast of Houston. Officials ended their search Tuesday night and went home, with the focus of the investigation now turning to the tipster who led local law enforcement and FBI agents to the home.

The mass grave was said to have been between Daisetta, population 998, and Hardin, population 696. Both are in Liberty County, population 74,941, which is part of the Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown Metropolitan Area.

Special law enforcement unit combats cattle rustling in Texas

Dan Barry reports in yesterday's New York Times of the special rangers for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Barry calls this unit "part industry advocate, part law enforcement agency," and he tells how the white-hatted rangers caught a recent cattle rustler after a spate of major thefts (more than a dozen cattle each time) in east and south Texas. This is a group of law enforcement officers specializing in the cattle business, so the rangers know when rustlers know the business, too. Indeed, a knowledgeable rustler--a cattle whisperer, Barry calls him--was the culprit they arrested for the thefts this spring. The defendant in this case, from a cattle raising family himself, had been busted by the rangers less than a decade ago for another spate of cattle thefts.

The rangers appear to be a public-private hybrid, financed by the Cattle Raisers Association but "with the power of arrest, all wearing guns and white hats." Barry explains that the "the 15,000-member cattle raisers association, founded in 1877 by a band of rustler-weary ranchers, has 29 special rangers" who use "sophisticated databases (including a file of more than 100,000 registered brands) and plain common sense (checking cow pies for tire tracks)," to "investigate thefts of livestock and property and inspect millions of cattle a year." In the past ten years, they have "investigated more than 11,000 cases of livestock-related thefts, and recovered or accounted for more than 37,500 head of cattle."

The story's dateline is Groesbeck, Texas, population 4,304.

Monday, June 6, 2011

"Crash tax" retained in nonmetropolitan California

The Sacramento Bee reported today that, while Sacramento and Roseville have recently rescinded so-called crash taxes, some smaller municipalities in central and northern California have retained them. Here's an excerpt:

Sacramento and Roseville killed "crash taxes" earlier this year amid political push-back, but small towns and rural fire districts across the region still have the controversial emergency-recovery fees in place.

Fire departments, especially those along the Interstate 80 and Highway 50 corridors, continue to bill out-of-town motorists when crews respond to accidents.

Some fire officials say the fees, which range from about $400 to $2,500, are an important source of extra income in tough times and haven't resulted in political strife, as they did in Sacramento.

Critics in the capital said the fees targeting out-of-towners would hurt business and tourism, and had angered neighboring localities.

But a number of area fire districts have no plans to eliminate them.

Among the municipalities and fire districts collecting the tax: Newcastle and Woodland. Newcastle is a Census Designated Place but without a population figure on the U.S. Census Bureau's American FactFinder website. Woodland is much larger, the county seat of Yolo County, with a population of 53,069. Both are part of the greater Sacramento metropolitan area.

I wonder if this means that smaller municipalities are even more desperate for revenue than large ones. They also seem less concerned that these fees might put a damper on business.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LXXX): Lawsuit filed to stop "fracking" in Ozark National Forest

The May 25, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times reports on a lawsuit filed in federal court by an attorney in Heber Springs, Arkansas, population 7,117, seeking to stop gas drilling by hydraulic fracturing in the Ozark National Forest in northwest Arkansas and under Greers Ferry Lake in north central Arkansas. Richard Mays of the lay firm Mays & White filed the suit. He has been involved in a number of high profile environmental cases in the state. The suits seeks an injunction against the issuance of additional gas leases until environmental impact statements and other federal requirements for drilling have been brought into compliance.

While the fracking in north central Arkansas has drawn national media attention because of earthquake storms in and around Guy, Arkansas (read more here), I have seen nothing about this process being used in the Ozark National Forest. Mays alleges, however, that hydraulic fracturing is taking place in the Ozark National Forest and that the number of wells there far exceeds estimates the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) made in 2005. The suit asserts that the drilling will severely damage the forest, with deleterious effects on both surface and ground water,the air, and other aspects of the environment. Mays argues that, under federal law, the BLM should have conducted environmental impact statements and Resource Management Plans before permitting the fracking.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Politics in state legislatures shifting with losses of rural population

A. G. Sulzberger reports in today's New York Times on the consequences of rural population loss in the legislatures of several states that are popularly thought of as rural. The dateline is Lincoln, Nebraska, from whence Sulzberger reports that over half of the state's population now live in the three counties that are home to Nebraska's three largest metropolitan areas. He summarizes some political consequences of this:
The people who remain in rural parts of the country are used to seeing declining enrollment at schools and shuttered businesses on Main Street, as well as weakening political muscle in Washington. But now they are watching their political power falter even in states that have long been considered synonymous with rural America.
The story notes that only eight of Nebraska's state senators currently list their primary occupation as farmer or rancher, whereas 20 senators listed an agricultural occupation 35 years ago.

Sulzberger also provides anecdotes from other states popularly perceived (at least by residents of the coasts) as rural.
In North Dakota, for example, where 79 percent of counties lost population but the Fargo area boomed, more education money has migrated to urban schools and universities. In Kansas, which is using tax exemptions to lure new residents to counties facing double-digit population losses, rural legislators were unable to block a transportation bill favorable to the thriving metro areas. And in Iowa, where the new redistricting map shows gains for urban and suburban areas, rural legislators are already strategizing about their handicap of operating with fewer votes.
Contrast this story with reports like this one from 2009, which suggested that rural populations are disproportionately empowered at the state level. In addition, I've observed the struggle between rural and urban legislators in Arkansas regarding school funding. Read about recent events on that front here. A legislator from Marianna, Arkansas, population 4,385, has been one of the most vocal advocates for rural schools, and he has also provided legal counsel to various districts fighting consolidation.  Sulzberger's story notes the rural-urban struggle for education funding in Nebraska, where schools in Valentine, population 2,737, saw state aid for schools drop from $1.2 million to $400,000 as legislators from urban districts argued that the money should go where the kids are--essentially to Omaha and Lincoln.   

Here's a U.S. government website you can use to determine what percent of any given state's population is rural by any of a number of measures/definitions of "rural." Click on "Rural Definition Mapping Utility" to access the interactive mapping feature. To get data on the percentage of any state's population that is rural, download that state's pdf after clicking on "State Level Maps," and go to page 8 of any given state's data.

If you work through the states systematically, you will find that very few states--even among those popularly thought of as "rural"--have a majority rural population by the U.S. Census Bureau definition: population clusters of fewer than 2,500 people and those living in open territory. One that did in 2000 was Vermont, where a whopping 72.3% of the population live in rural places. Compare that to Arkansas, where 46% of the population lived in rural places a decade ago, and Nebraska, where just 35.1% were rural in 2000. In Montana, the population was evenly divided between rural and urban a decade ago, but I am guessing the 2011 Census shows "urbanites" have gained the upper hand even in Big Sky country.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Capturing a younger Joplin

In their recent story in the New York Times, Dan Barry, Richard Oppel Jr., and A.G. Sulzberger, write of Joplin, Missouri a week after a deadly tornado hit, destroying hundreds of businesses, churches, and other buildings. Those buildings served as landmarks of sorts, compass points for residents. Their absence make navigating the city more challenging. The authors use the photos of long-time Joplin photographer, Murwin Mosler, as a jumping off point for a stroll down memory lane. Mosler died in 2003, but many of his photos remained in his former home studio until it was destroyed in the tornado, scattering photos with the winds.

These photos convey an American place, as much South as Midwest, that developed in the late 19th century around the valuable minerals in its ground — lead, then zinc. A prosperous, rowdy town, host to parades and the occasional lynching, Joplin became a regional hub, with railroads and Route 66 passing through.

Mr. Mosler and his assistants chronicled the city from the 1930s to the 1960s, as it thrived during wartime, as demand for its zinc waned. The Joplin Junior Beef Shows at the stockyards. The exploits of the Joplin Miners baseball team, for whom a young, scrub-faced Mickey Mantle once played. The bowling leagues and building fires and Easter Sunday births and the costumed performances by Mary Ann Hatley’s Dance School.

Although I have praised the media here for not labeling Joplin "rural," these descriptions suggest its small-townish past--with links to two economic engines associated with rurality: agriculture and mining. Certainly, these fine writers make Joplin sound culturally rural--and mostly working class.