Sunday, July 31, 2011

Farmers support immigration reform

That was the dominant theme of a field trip I took at the Rural Sociological Society meeting in Boise a few days ago. In particular, dairy farmers in the state's Magic Valley (did you know Idaho is the third biggest milk producer in the country now?) are running nearly entirely off Latina/o labor, and they live in fear of an ICE raid. Why? They say they won't be able to run their operations if "their Mexicans" are taken away.

On one level, what the dairy farmers say is offensive. That is, just the very phrase "my Mexicans," makes me shudder. The farmers say that white labor is unreliable, that no one else wants to do these unpleasant, back-breaking jobs except the "Mexicans." They may be right. They laud the "Mexicans'" extraordinary work ethic, relying on this immigrant labor, much of it apparently undocumented, to do the grinding work of their operation, often in 10-hour and 12-hour shifts. The massive dairy farm we visited (milking about 3,000 cows, keeping up to another 10,000 calves at times) employs about 200 workers, paid between $2000 and $3000 a month, depending on job and seniority. That may be a living wage, but just barely. Meanwhile, it seems to me that use of this immigrant labor Latina/o-izes the underclass--which in my mind is a very good argument for immigration reform.

The dairy farmers told us that all of their workers present the requisite Social Security Number and photo identification, but they don't know if the documents are valid.

On the other hand, I understand why the dairy farmers don't feel they can absorb greater labor costs. They work very hard and are struggling to make ends meet and turn a profit as commodity markets control so many aspects of the industry's economics, and input costs (feeding the cattle!) sky rocket.

What is happening in Idaho's dairy industry is reflected in this story in today's New York Times. Jesse McKinley and Julia Preston report from Patterson, California, under the headline, "Farmers Oppose G.O.P. Bill on Immigration." Here are the first few paragraphs:
Farmers across the country are rallying to fight a Republican-sponsored bill that would force them and all other employers to verify the legal immigration status of their workers, a move some say could imperil not only future harvests but also the agricultural community’s traditional support for conservative candidates.

The bill was proposed by Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. It would require farmers — who have long relied on a labor force of immigrants, a majority here without legal documents — to check all new hires through E-Verify, a federal database run by the Department of Homeland Security devised to ferret out illegal immigrants.
McKinley and Preston's story echoes what is happening in Idaho. Farm laborers present documents to their employers, but it is an "open secret that many farmworkers' documents are false."

As one dairy farmer to whom we spoke in the Magic Valley said, "this [the immigration law] has got to be fixed, unless you want to start getting your milk from China."

Saturday, July 30, 2011

"Savant of country wisdom"

Kim Severson reports in today's New York Times about Bobby Kirk, from Bogart, Georgia, population 1,407. The story illustrates what happens when there's a slow news day (I've noticed a lot of these days in recent weeks). Mr. Kirk shared his observation that it's "too hot to fish" with a local newspaper reporter last week-end and here's what happened next:
Then, as it does in this digital age, the swirl of fame began. The article got sent around on Twitter and picked up in other local newspapers. A CBS radio affiliate in Atlanta, about an hour west of here, called for an interview, as did the crew from Comedy Central. There was talk of T-shirts and ball caps. A large urban newspaper took interest.
Ultimately, even a crew from The Colbert Report traveled down the country road to Kirk's house for an interview.

A reporter from the Athens Banner-Herald commented on the phenomenon of Mr. Kirk's newfound fame:

“People can identify with what Bobby was saying .... He’s just a plain-spoken, average guy. I think it’s just time for the average guy’s opinion to come out.”

While I have some qualms about this poking fun at a simple Southern man, Kirk apparently doesn't mind. “They can make a monkey out of me as long as I get some money,” he said.

Polygamist leader, on trial, warns of "sickness and death"

Yesterday, polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, who is on trial in San Angelo, Texas for having sex with two under-age females in his sect, told the court that those involved in the trial would face "sickness and death" unless the trial was halted. The warning came after Jeffs spoke extensively in court, objecting to the introduction of evidence that the F.B.I. seized from his group's Eldorado, Texas compound. After Judge Barbara Walther overruled his objection, he asked to read what he called a "statement from God." Judge Walther dismissed the jury before he read the statement of demand that the trial end. She warned Jeffs not to make any such comments in the presence of the jury.

Earlier this week, Jeffs, who is the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, fired his lawyers, and he is representing himself.

Read more here and here about this week's trial. An earlier post about the sect and events at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas is here.

Jeffs was convicted of rape in Utah a few years ago, but those convictions were overturned last summer. Read more here.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Rural America disappearing?

That was the message from the Associated Press in this story yesterday. Here's the lede:

Rural America now accounts for just 16 percent of the nation's population, the lowest ever.

The latest 2010 census numbers hint at an emerging America where, by midcentury, city boundaries become indistinct and rural areas grow ever less relevant.

* * *

Barring fresh investment that could bring jobs, however, large swaths of the Great Plains and Appalachia, along with parts of Arkansas, Mississippi and North Texas, could face significant population declines.

Interestingly, a contrary message is being delivered at the annual meeting of the Rural Sociological Society, where I am right now. Kenneth Johnson of Loyola University Chicago and the Carsey Institute says the AP figures are misleading for two reasons. First, they are imprecise about the starting point--that is the 2000 Census rural population, which they put at 20%, suggesting a 4% drop in the nation's rural population over the decade. Second, they do not acknowledge that the definition of rural has changed between the two censuses. Johnson says that, taking these two factors into account, the drop in population percentage was more like 17.3% to 16.5%.

Johnson noted that one state, West Virginia, has gone in to natural decrease in its entirety, while Maine is not far behind. Another focus of his comments was the fact that children are on vanguard of demographic change in rural America--in particular the children of immigrants in so-called new destinations.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Water banking pits urban against agricultural in California's Central Valley

The New York Times reports today from Bakersfield, California under the headline, "Storing Water for a Dry Day Leads to Suits." The rural angle is principally an agricultural one. Here's an excerpt about residential water users who began to experience water shortages last summer:

They blamed water banking, a system in which water-rights holders — mostly in the rural West — store water in underground reservoirs either for their own future use or for leasing to fast-growing urban areas.

So the neighbors’ small local water utility has gone to state court to challenge the wealthy farming interests that dominate two of the country’s largest water banks.

Viewed as test cases for the size and scope of water-banking operations, the lawsuits claim that enormous withdrawals of water by the banks lowered the water table, causing geological damage, service disruptions and costly repairs.

The Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District is the plaintiff, suing the Kern County Water Agency.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My Rural Travelogue (Part XV): Local politics in the Northern Neck of Virginia

This is part two in a series about my trip last month to the Northern Neck of Virginia. Read the first post here, which provides background on the counties' economic and demographic profiles. In this post, I am going to summarize some of the stories in the local newspapers we read while there. First, though, I want to note that each of the counties we visited seems to have only a weekly paper, and they all appeared to have the same owner. I deduced this because many of the same stories appeared in each of the papers, under the same byline.

One of the papers, the Northern Neck News, covered several counties, and it featured this story out of Richmond County: "Against the grain, board votes to approve budget." The story is accompanied by a photo of a number of senior citizens holding up identical signs that say, "'We the People' Say No!" In spite of this message from some of the county's voters, the story reports that "supervisors voted 3-2 last Thursday to proceed with funding what will be Richmond County's largest capital investment to date," a new high school. The supervisors voted to approve a $20.3 million spending plan, an increase of more than $750,000 over the prior year's plan. This will result in an increase of property tax to $.67 per $100 assessed, up $.11 per $100. "Under the current plan, Richmond County Intermediate School would be vacated for what now functions as the county's high school, the population of which would relocate to the new facility estimated to cost $23 million." I suppose it is nothing new for elderly folks to oppose spending on schools, but it seems awfully short-sighted for the community--especially given that Richmond County's poverty rate is 19.3%. The county's population is just under 10,000.

In another front-page story, the paper reports that the Warsaw Town Council "shelved" a "citizens' proposal to lower the number of elected officials in Warsaw" and impose term limits ... "in deference to the council's desire to see how the upcoming newly formatted election will work." The paper does not explain how the format of upcoming elections is new, but it does include many quotes from council members about why they oppose term limits.

I note that in both of these stories, local governing bodies are resisting populist calls for limits on their powers and/or spending.

In other news:
  • Northumberland County's plan for re-districting was approved by the U.S. Dept. of Justice.
  • St. Stephens Episcopal and Anglican congregations put on evidence in a lawsuit to determine which is entitled to St. Stephens church in Heathsville. The suit apparently stems from a split within the Episcopal church worldwide, whereby some members have left to join the Convocations of Anglicans in North America.
  • The ranks of Republicans vying for the 99th District House of Delegates seat thinned from five to three. The primary is August 23.
  • Commencement photos from Northumberland High School and Rappahannock High School are features.
  • An environmental controversy has erupted over a new asphalt plant in Tappahannock. An amendment to a zoning ordinance has been proposed.

Rural kids' pasttime becomes rodeo sport

Here's an excerpt from the light-hearted story in today's New York Times:
Playing make-believe rodeo with sheep has long been a pastime of rambunctious rural children. But the sport has begun to move from horseplay, and the occasional rodeo halftime show, to wider, sometimes suburban, audiences and competitors, toward becoming a codified sport with its own gear and championships.
* * *
The sport’s popularity seems based in ... a rejection of the trend of bubble-wrapping childhood — and a move toward embracing traditional, rough-and-tumble Western culture, according to interviews with participants.
I guess it is a slow news day--or the NYT is looking for some light relief from the depressing news of partisan politics in Washington.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cutbacks in "rural" air routes

Both NPR and the New York Times did stories this past week on impending cutbacks to commercial airline routes that serve small markets. Both used the word "rural" to characterize these markets, which are more accurately labeled nonmetropolitan.

Here's the lede for the Times story, which appeared in the business section and focuses on airline economics.
Rural America, already struggling to recover from the recession and the flight of its young people, is about to take another blow: the loss of its airline service.

That was underscored last week when Delta Air Lines announced that it “can no longer afford” to continue service at 24 small airports. The carrier says it is losing a total of $14 million a year on flights from places like Thief River Falls, a city of 8,600 in northwest Minnesota that fills only 12 percent of the seats, or Pierre, the capital of South Dakota, where Delta’s two daily flights are on average less than half full.
The map accompanying the story indicates that the states losing routes are Mississippi, Alabama, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, and Montana. Delta took on many of these routes when it acquired Northwest Airlines. Serving these markets has been made more economically feasible by the nearly $200 million in federal subsidies that small airports receive in order "to maintain air service under the Essential Air Service program." Those subsidies are set to expire in 2013.

The NPR report is more focused on politics than business, as the headline suggests: "Partisan Dispute to Partially Shut down FAA." Here's the story's lede:
Efforts to avert a shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration failed Friday amid a disagreement over a $16.5 million cut in subsidies to 13 rural communities, ensuring that nearly 4,000 people will be temporarily out of work and federal airline ticket taxes will be suspended.
* * *
But underlying the dispute on rural air service subsidies was a standoff between the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate over a provision in long-term funding legislation for the FAA that would make it more difficult for airline and railroad workers to unionize.
Read more here.

Finally, this item in today's New York Times also mentions "rural airports" in passing. The story is about how wealthy families are now using private planes to get their kids to summer in camps in hard-to-reach places like Maine. One line notes that this week-end, a popular one for family visits to camps, "private planes jammed the runways at small rural airports" in Maine. I guess those families can pay whatever fees the small airports charge, even absent subsidies.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Training physicians in rural Kansas--and hoping they'll stay there

The University of Kansas is taking a somewhat novel approach to the shortage of primary care doctors in rural America: going to rural (or at least nonmetropolitan) America to educate doctors. The New York Times reports today on a new medical school in Salina, Kansas, population 46,006, which has an entering class this fall of eight students. The program is similar to one with some of the same aims at the University of Indiana in Terre Haute.

This excerpt from A.G. Sulzberger's story contrasts the experience that Salina students will have with those at the University of Kansas's "state-of-the-art medical and research facilities in Kansas City":

It will be a different experience, one that administrators say will better prepare students for the realities of a rural practice. Lectures on subjects like anatomy will be delivered via streaming video, lab work will be overseen by more practicing generalists and fewer academic specialists, and the problems of patients will tend more to the everyday than to the extraordinary.

And, the thinking goes, spouses picked up along the way are less likely to complain about moving to a small town.

This last part seems a critical component of the strategy because keeping the new doctors (and their families) interested in rural living is key to getting and keeping them engaged in rural practice.

Sulzberger notes other strategies policy makers have used in recent years to ameliorate the shortage of rural physicians, including recruiting students from rural areas and giving them preference in admissions, guaranteeing admission and/or forgiving loans for those who commit to rural practice, and encouraging students to spend time training in a rural locale.

In Kansas, the shortage of medical professionals has become acute in recent years--and it is expected to worsen as more physicians retire. A "vast majority" of Kansas is under-served, according to Sulzberger's report, with five counties lacking even a single physician.

Salina is the county seat of Saline County, Kansas, a micropolitan county with a population of 54,076. It is in north central part of the state.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Going rural to dodge government regulation

That is one of the messages of A.G. Sulzberger's story about the construction of a 72,000 square foot "castle" in the rural Ozarks. Sulzberger writes of the "behemoth vacation home" that Steven T. Huff, chairman of the board of TF Concrete Forming Systems, is building in Christian County, Missouri, between Springfield and Branson. The home, which has been under construction for two years already, is made primarily of concrete.

Sulzberger writes that many are speculating about the purpose of the structure--the largest single-family dwelling in the United States--but that Huff says "he wanted to demonstrate the viability of new concrete technology that he believes will lower energy consumption. The size of the building, which is significantly larger than the White House, partly reflects a desire to build at a commercial scale for testing purposes," Huff said.

Here's the part of the story that struck me as especially interesting in relation to the rural locale:
Mr. Huff, a longtime resident of Virginia, chose the site on Woods Fork Road because it is just hours from his boyhood home. Also, he said building in that part of the country would help him show how the technology handles both hot and cold weather and even tornadoes. Finally, there is another advantage — by locating in an area famous for a small government approach, he is not subject to building regulations or inspection, which he said would have complicated his efforts.
So, Huff suggests two characteristics associated with rural people and places: (1) attachment to place and (2) a relative absence of law and regulation. A Christian County planning and zoning official confirms the latter, stating, "We try not to be more intrusive than we have to."

Small-town government run amok (Part IV): Gould, Arkansas

A few days ago I wrote about a feud between the mayor and town council in Quartzsite, Arizona. Today's featured mayor-city council feud is in Gould, Arkansas, population 1,552. There, the city council has passed an ordinance making it illegal to form any type of group without the council's permission. The council was apparently motivated to pass this law because it believes the city's mayor is using public resources to "hold community meetings without advertising them to the entire town." The ordinance is one of a cluster of three recently passed that seems to target the Gould Citizens Advisory Council, which describes itself as "a nonpartisan group that educates voters and raises money for public causes."

As Robbie Brown reports in today's New York Times, "legal scholars agree" this is "a clear violation of the Constitution." Brown quotes Mark Hayes, general counsel for the Arkansas Municipal League: “I’ve seen some humdingers, but never any ordinance like this. This is certainly one for the books.”

A Little Rock broadcast journalist, Donna Terrell, was so surprised by news of the ordinances that she blurted out on television, "You've got to be kidding me." She subsequently attributed events in Gould to the lack of anonymity in small towns:
Political feuds become especially heated in places “where everybody knows everyone." ... "You start to see a lot of emotion where sometimes in a larger city people tend to mask their emotions.”
Brown notes that the discord has arisen, in large part, because of differing opinions over what to do about the city's fiscal crisis: $300,000 in unpaid taxes. I wonder if, as in Quartzsite, Arizona, the core dispute in Gould is about the size and role of (local) government. Another common theme of events in Arkansas and Arizona is that both governing bodies have responded to public criticism by trying to squelch it (e.g., not permitting public comments at meetings; banning organizations that criticize the government). Funny, I would have expected small-town, libertarian leaning governments to be more likely to endorse the good ol' marketplace of ideas.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Prineville, Oregon: Silicon Valley's rural outpost?

Facebook recently sited a server farm in nonmetropolitan Prineville, Oregon, a place that was previously (and perhaps still) best known for its "rowdy summer rodeo." Prineville is smack dab in the middle of the state, in a high desert region where another type of farming--ranching, that is--has dominated the economy. American Public Media's Marketplace featured a segment about the Facebook move on today's program. You can listen here. In it, Mitchell Hartman of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports details of the economic deal that was cut to attract Facebook to the area:
Under a property-tax exemption worth millions to Facebook, the company has to employ at least 35 full-time workers.
Currently, Facebook is employing 47 full-time employees in Prineville, including some senior managers it moved in to run its outpost there. The Facebook workers at the server farm earn an average of "$53,000--1.5 times the typical county wage." In addition, those 35 (or more) full-time jobs beget other jobs, helping grow--or at least sustain--a rural economy. Hartman reports:
Realtors say the local housing market is picking up. And the dry climate, available workforce, and local tax breaks have enticed several other tech firms to consider building data centers here now that Facebook's put Prineville on the map.
Prineville's population is about 10,000, about half that of all Crook County, for which Prineville is the county seat.

This Facebook-in-Prineville story reminded me of this report out of India a couple of years ago--about establishing village outposts of the call centers and other outsourcing operations now so closely associated with that nation.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Giving credit to rural public schools, at least anecdotally

Don't miss Nicholas Kristof's column in today's New York Times, "Our Broken Escalator." It's worth a read for the broader points it makes regarding our nation's disinvestment in education, from K-12 on up--and the devastating consequences of that disinvestment, especially for "have nots" and "have a littles." As one who appreciates rural people and places, I found especially heartening Kristof's shout out for the rural school of his youth, in Yamhill, Oregon, population 780. He writes:
In a rural, blue-collar area like Yamhill, traditionally dependent on farming and forestry, school has always been an escalator to opportunity. One of my buddies was Loren, a house painter’s son, who graduated as salutatorian and became a lawyer. That’s the role that education historically has played — but the escalator is now breaking down.
Earlier in his column, Kristof refers to the "plain brick building" that housed his high school as his "rocket ship," the place where he "embraced sports, became a journalist, encountered intellectual worlds, and got in trouble. These days,' he writes, "the 430 students still have opportunities to get into trouble, but the rest is harder." Kristof goes on to document, anecdotally, cuts to public education, at all levels, across the United States. He closes with this paragraph:
Sometimes I hear people endorse education cuts by arguing that “school isn’t for everybody,” which usually means something like “education isn’t for other people’s children” — or that farm kids in places like Yamhill really don’t need schools that double as rocket ships. I can’t think of any view that is more un-American.
My hats off to Kristof for, among other things, sticking up for rural kids and the schools they deserve. It's in sharp contrast to so much that we see not only in the media, but also in higher education and admissions policy, that discounts the achievements of rural kids. (Read some earlier commentary on this topic here and here. Mitchell Stevens also documents this phenomenon in his book Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites where he discusses the "rural New England valedictorian" who never gets admitted).

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Small-town government run amok (Part III): Quartzsite, Arizona

I wrote two stories last year under the heading, "Small-town 'justice' run amok," (see here and here) but a story in today's New York Times has prompted me to expand that to "Small-town government." Jennifer Medina's story, dateline Quartzsite, Arizona, population 3,446, is a tale of dysfunctional small-town government in which the mayor seems pitted against most of the other city officials. The mayor, Ed Foster, has called the city's police chief a "corrupt thug" and is accusing various elected officials of malfeasance in relation to public coffers. Foster has invited the state attorney general's office to investigate. Meanwhile the city council has declared a public emergency and ceased to permit public comments at their meetings. They have said they fear for their safety and have brought in a police officer to guard the town hall.

It's hard to sort out who is most at fault in this "he said, she said" type tale, but a couple of quotes struck me as summarizing what appears to be partly a struggle over the size and functions of government, playing out at a low scale:

“We’re an example of everything that is wrong with small-town government,” Ms. Jones [a supporter of the mayor] said, wearing a button reading “Clean up Quartzsite” and featuring a large broom and the Web address for the state’s Tea Party chapter. “People come here to live cheaply; they know how to live within their means and they want their government to do so, too.”
Medina then summarizes:

A vast majority of homes here are mobile homes, and the residents are not the sort to embrace bureaucracy. With open desert as far as the eye can see, it is about as close as they can get to the Wild West these days.

Quartzsite is in LaPaz County, population 20,489, in western Arizona, near the California state line.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

(A few) Rural lawmakers hang on, even thrive, as their states become more urban

The headline in today's New York Times is "Some Rural Lawmakers Defy Power Erosion," and in it William Yardley features a couple of state legislators from different states' rural reaches who have managed to stay in office. Indeed, these two men have increased their stature and authority within their state houses--even as rural populations are in sharp decline across the country. Yardley features, for example, Mark Schoesler, a Republican (and a rice farmer) from
Ritzville, Washington, and Ward Armstrong, a Democrat from Bassett, Virginia. Both have leadership roles in their respective state houses--Schoesler as the Washington Senate's Republican floor leader and Armstrong as minority leader in Virginia's House of Delegates.

Here's an excerpt from the story that summarizes how those who do it, do it:
Like other longtime lawmakers, representatives of rural areas in states without term limits tend to hold on longer. Those with the most longevity, and power, are mostly white men and often from states in the South, Midwest and West that have strong rural traditions, even if their populations are now more urban. They succeed in part because experienced hands are still in demand, even amid calls for change in state capitols. There can be a paradox in their power: the regions they come from are often in decline, so their seats may not be hotly contested.
Yardley's story also includes anecdotes from other states in the West. He notes, for example, that the the co-speakers of the evenly divided Oregon house are from adjacent rural districts in the state's southwestern reaches, where timber is king. The two credit their ability to get things done--as well as their election to the leadership posts--to small-town values. The Democrat, Arnie Roblan explained: “It’s our basic beliefs about how people should behave and that your word is your bond. Your neighbor is your neighbor.” As David Frum commented in a recent NPR segment, we could use a little more of that among U.S. congresspersons and senators in Washington.

Finally, Yardley discusses a phenomenon I've often associated with states popularly thought of as rural, even when a majority of their population live in urban areas: a rural mindset and rural values may persist in urban areas of such states if many urban dwellers maintain significant links to rural areas, such as parents and grandparents who still live there. In politics, this phenomenon--which is about both familiarity with the rural and nostalgia for it--seems to create a "lag between demographic and political shifts." Thus, political scientists interviewed for the story suggest, the effects of re-districting because of demographic shifts, won't be felt right away.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

New secession move by California counties reflects rural-urban tensions

A story in today's New York Times discusses the latest effort by a cluster of counties--these in southern and eastern California--to form a new state: South California. Jennifer Medina's report, prompted by a vote by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors last night to endorse planning "a conference for California municipal leaders to discuss ways to fix state government or consider secession — although they said they would make sure that no county money or personnel were used to plan such an event."

Medina attributes the frustration that many in the state's so-called Inland Empire feel about state politics, which they see as dominated by coastal liberals, partly to rural-urban difference:
Outside the biggest cities, the landscape is dotted with orange groves instead of palm trees and deserts instead of coastlines, an environment that is generally more rural than urban. The population tends to be poorer and more socially and politically conservative — Republicans outnumber Democrats in all but three of the counties in [the]proposed new state, which includes San Diego.
Medina also provides historical perspective by referencing the 1941 effort of various northern California counties to secede and form a new State of Jefferson, along with several southern Oregon counties.
At the time, the counties said they did not have enough roads and created a “Proclamation of Independence” for the 49th state — Alaska and Hawaii had not yet joined the union.

But just as the movement was gaining traction, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and residents put aside their dreams for a new state to work on the war effort.

Finally, she references similar secession efforts in other states, all driven by a sense that "one part of the state believes it is getting the short shrift from the capital." Not surprisingly, those disgruntled parts are often rural in one sense or another.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Competing for ecotourists

This story in today's New York Times caught my attention for several reasons--not least because I've been dealing with the Montana Tourism Office of late as we plan a family vacation in Montana for next month. I like the way Brian Schweitzer, Governor of Montana, sends me an email every time I request information from the tourism office. Mostly recently, he welcomed me "back to Montana" because I indicated when making the inquiry that I had visited before.

But I digress ... the Times story, written by William Yardley, contrasts two states' spending on promoting themselves as travel destinations. Those two states are Washington and Montana. The latter has apparently been making a big push to attract residents of the former, inundating the Puget Sound region with dramatic, eye-catching billboards of wildlife and mountain vistas. Washington state, meanwhile, has eliminated its tourism office, which means it is no longer promoting its own beautiful Cascade Mountains--nor the space needle or Pike's Place Market in Seattle.

That brings me to something else that stands out about this story: how states promote their rural treasures and reaches as much or more than their urban gems. Of course, Montana has no major urban areas at all, so it's going to promote its national parks--and perhaps rural gentrification gems like Bozeman and Kalispell. But even Michigan, which the story holds out as another state that has upped its tourism spending, is promoting non-metropolitan venues (as in those "two peninsulas") to offset lost revenue associated with--to quote Yardley--"Detroit's urban decay."

Yardley also picks up on the rural appeal to tourists--especially those in sweltering cities--writing:
Montana’s campaign focuses on specific urban areas, Seattle, Minneapolis and Chicago among them, and has won awards for its creativity, including the wrapping of city buses with pastoral images of Big Sky Country.
I look forward to writing about some of those pastoral places in the "My Rural Travelogue" series next month as my family and I enjoy "the last best past."

Legal challenge to Utah's polygamy law

Kody Brown and his four wives, a Utah family featured on the television show "Sister Wives," are expected to file suit on Wednesday challenging the state's polygamy law. Read the New York Times story here. An excerpt focusing on the legal arguments follows:
The lawsuit is not demanding that states recognize polygamous marriage. Instead, the lawsuit builds on a 2003 United States Supreme Court decision, Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down state sodomy laws as unconstitutional intrusions on the “intimate conduct” of consenting adults. It will ask the federal courts to tell states that they cannot punish polygamists for their own “intimate conduct” so long as they are not breaking other laws, like those regarding child abuse, incest or seeking multiple marriage licenses.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Mixing narrative, politics, energy and art

Listen to this piece on, which juxtaposes comments of local residents about the so-called Guy earthquake storm with snippets of a ballad by folk singer and songwriter, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, about what the residents said.

Interesting to me is the fact that so many listeners of this story, which aired last Friday, were so annoyed by the format. See the listener comments here. Was it hearing the rural, southern accents that bothered them--even those who noted that they were from Arkansas? Some complain about the lack of hard scientific information in the feature, others about the confusing juxtaposition and resulting "cacophony." But I'm not sure what the problem was with the story. Maybe because I read the comments before I listened to feature, I was not at all confused. Also, I felt the voices were honored by the reporting, not ridiculed. I saw it as a human interest story, not science reporting.

Earlier posts about the Guy earthquake storm are here and here. The small quakes began in September, 2010, mostly between Guy, population 557, and Greenbrier, population 4,148, are in Faulkner County, Arkansas, population 105,000 and part of the greater Little Rock Metropolitan Area.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LXXXV): Dogpatch lawsuit finalized

Some months ago, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld a 2008 jury verdict against Michael Carr and other owners of an abandoned property where Pruett Nance, then a minor, was injured in 2005. The initial jury verdict for $400,000 was intended to compensate Nance, along with his father Stewart Nance, for injuries the younger Nance suffered when he rode a four-wheeled all-terrain vehicle into a cable stretched between two trees on the abandoned property where the amusement park Dogpatch USA once stood. The trial court initially reduced the $400K award to just over $237K, but the Arkansas Supreme Court reinstated the larger award, saying that the elder Nance was entitled to compensation for care-giving he provided to his son and that "the verdict was not so great as to shock the conscience of the court or demonstrate prejudice on the part of the jury."

The precise sequence of events that led to Nance's injury was disputed at trial, but the essence is that Nance, then a minor, was "driving an ATV down a defined road in the park and drove into a steel cable strung between two trees, striking him in the throat." In dispute was whether Mike Carr knew Nance was on the property and whether he strung the cable intending to injure Nance or knowing that he was likely to do so. Apparently, the Nance's had ridden ATVs on the property in the past as trespassers--without the owners' permission--and Carr knew of this past practice. The Arkansas Court of Appeals' decision said that "Stewart Nance had spoken with Mike Carr, who was believed to be associated with the theme park, and he was aware of their presence in the park. It noted that the cable was unmarked and was across the road at a height and position to injure a person driving on the road."

One legal issue before the Arkansas Supreme Court was whether the cable was "an ultra-hazardous condition or activity." Carr had testified to the jury that he had gone to get some tape to mark the cable at the time the accident occurred. The circuit court stated that "ordinary care would have reduced the risk of harm" from the cable, "but not have eliminated the risk." The Arkansas Supreme Court held that "hanging a cable does not constitute an ultra-hazardous activity, but hanging an unmarked cable at a dangerous height in areas where a landowner knows people are traveling on four-wheelers changes the definition."

A recent Newton County Times story reports the end of the story, as it were. The defendants were ordered by a Circuit Court judge in May "to tender a warranty deed for the property in case the judgment wasn't paid." Thus, the Nances and their attorney became the owners of the land that was once home to Dogpatch USA.

Several things make this story particularly interesting from a local (or localist/rural) standpoint. One is that the outcome flies in the face of widespread assumptions that rural folks are super vigilant about respecting property rights. In this case, after all, the trespassers recovered a $400K judgment. On the other hand, the defendants in this case were "out of towners" while the plaintiffs were, in a sense, true locals. That is, Carr and his family and others have owned Dogpatch USA for many years, and the Carr family are from neighboring Boone County. The Nances, on the other hand, have roots in Newton County. That is, Stewart Nance is the son of the man who previously owned the Newton County Bank, even though Stewart Nance and his siblings attended high school in Boone County, and none of his generation--let alone the injured Pruett Nance--has lived in Newton County for years.

As for the Newton County property at stake--the property that once was Dogpatch USA--it can now be said to be back in Newton County hands, at least nominally.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

My Rural Travelogue (Part XIV): The Northern Neck of Virginia

A couple of weeks ago, my family traveled to the Northern Neck of Virginia for a few days of rest and relaxation with long-time friends who own a second home near Remo, which is near Wicomico Church, which is near Kilmarnock. The area is quite rural (three of the counties are rated 9--the most rural--on the USDA ERS rural-urban continuum), and its residents self identify as rural. Note the rather defensive bumper sticker we saw on a car in the parking lot of the Tri-Star Grocery in Kilmarnock.

For those of us in the west, national news about Virginia often seems dominated by the Washington, DC suburbs that comprise a great deal of northern Virginia. Of course, the state (actually "Commonwealth") is also known for scenic rural regions such as the Shenandoah Valley and other Appalachian reaches farther into its southwestern corner. But I had never heard of the "Northern Neck" until our friends bought this property about five years ago. I understand that many affluent folks from Richmond have second homes in "the neck," and it is also home to The Tides Inn, a posh resort. Otherwise, the area doesn't seem very affluent, with an economy based largely on agriculture and fishing (photos of crab shack and farm near Remo). The region also boasts its very own wine appellation, though we didn't get a chance to sample its bounty. We found the area to be a lovely, historic place (home, for example, to George Washington's birthplace), with welcoming (mostly rural!) residents and good food--a nice place for a lazy vacation.

The "neck" is the long-standing local name for the land that extends out into Chesapeake Bay, between the Potomac River to to the north, and the Rappahannock River to the south. It includes four nonmetropolitan counties: Lancaster (population 11,408), Northumberland (population 12,330), Westmoreland (population 17,454) and Richmond (population 9,254) counties. The largest cities are Warsaw at on the western end of the neck, at just 1,228 and Kilmarnock, at the southeastern end, at just 1,560. Kilmarnock looks like a boom town relative to the other tiny population clusters, with a relatively new Wal-Mart, a small hospital, and lots of high-end stores and restaurants to cater to the week-enders. Other towns--even county seats--are really small, including Montross at 334 and Heathsville at 142 (a Census Designated Place only as of the 2010 Census). Tiny Lancaster, an unincorporated community, is the county seat of Lancaster County; because it is not even a Census Designated Place, no population figure is available.

Somewhat surprisingly given their very rural character, poverty levels in most of these counties are on par with the national average. Northumberland's County's is 13.6%; while that for Lancaster is 12.7% and Westmoreland, 14.1%. The poverty rate in Richmond County is quite a bit higher, at 19.3%, putting it right on the cusp of being a "high poverty" county. Still, signs of thrift abound throughout the region, including the flea market in the photo at right, near Rehoboth. Richmond, Northumberland and Lancaster are all are rated 9 on the USDA ERS rural-urban continuum (which spans 1 to 9, with 1 being most urban). In addition, Richmond is the county with the highest percentage black population, at 30%, but that percentage is not substantially higher than Westmoreland at 28% and Northumberland at 25%. Generally speaking the counties do not feature highly diverse populations. Latina/os make up about 5% of the population of Richmond and Westmoreland counties, less in the others. None of the counties has a significant Asian population.

In a future post, I will discuss some of the issues featured in the Northern Neck's local newspapers. In another, I will showcase photos of some of the area's striking and historic churches.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

An uplifting story of rural attachment to place

Kirk Johnson reports in today's New York Times from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, population 11,700. The headline is "A Clan and a Colorado Town, Long Thriving as One," and it provides a story of rural (well, nonmetropolitan) attachment to place that contrasts with those told in some of my recent posts (see here and here) in that the family who have stayed in Steamboat Springs for several generations have thrived. That is, they have arguably stayed because they have prospered, and not only because they are inter-generationally attached to the place.

The "clan" in Steamboat Springs are the descendants of F.M. and Carrie Light who came to the town around the turn of the 20th century and in 1905 founded F.M. Light & Sons clothing store. Since then, generations of Light descendants have exhibited their entrepreneurial spirit and staying power in and around Steamboat Springs. They have, for example, founded the Steamboat Springs ski resort, adapted their main street clothing store with the changing times (enter Wal-Mart), sold real estate, and become the county's Emergency Management Director.

Johnson puts the Lights' staying power in perspective:

Most places here in the West do not persist like Steamboat, as families get blown hither and yon or luck plays out.

In a region where cities like Denver, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas dominate life — the West is the most urbanized part of the nation, according to the census — small towns have been more likely to boom like firecrackers or fade slowly. Ghost towns dot the prairies and mountainsides.

Of particular interest to those of us concerned about the rural brain drain is the part of the story that highlights the Light descendants who have not only left--but also returned. Those mentioned include several with aerospace engineering degrees or MBAs and one who did a stint in the military before returning to Steamboat.

Read the entire story, and watch the multi-media slide show, for a great feel-good experience. Steamboat Springs is the county seat of Routt County, population 22,356, on Colorado's western slope, abutting the Wyoming state line. Interestingly, while Johnson mentions real estate and tourism, he doesn't mention rural gentrification, which is surely an aspect of how Steamboat Springs--and the Lights--have flourished.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Rural voters in Sunday's Thai elections

The Pheu Thai Party appears to have won an outright majority in Sunday's Thai election. This means that 44-year-old Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 military coup, will become Thailand's first female prime minister. Also of significance is the rural-urban angle on this story.

Here are some excerpts from the New York Times report which highlight the rural sector and the salience of the rural-urban axis in this election:
The vote is a vindication for Mr. Thaksin, 61, a populist champion of Thailand’s long-marginalized rural poor, who was elected prime minister twice, in 2001 and 2005, and removed in a coup in September 2006.
* * *

“This is a slap in the face to the establishment for what they’ve done since the military coup in 2006,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University. “This is a new Thailand that they must learn to live with.”

He added: “This whole election is all about the awakened voices. These people discovered that they can actually have access and be connected to the system.”

The Pheu Thai party is supported by many of the “red shirt” protesters, representing the rural and urban poor, who are committed to Mr. Thaksin and staged a two-month rally that paralyzed parts of Bangkok a year ago.

Read other posts about the situation in Thailand and the rural-urban axis here and here.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LXXXIV): Meth cases dominate county's criminal case load

The June 1, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times reports on recently adjudicated criminal cases, and four of the eight cases discussed involved methamphetamine production or sale. Another of the eight cases involved the sale of marijuana. The other three matters involved arrears on child support payment, commercial burglary, and a sex offender's failure to register when he moved. A run-down on the drug crimes and the sentences imposed follows:
  • 38-year-old Richard Ducheff III was sentenced to 5 years in the Arkansas Dept of Corrections (ADC) after pleading guilty to charges stemming from the manufacture of methamphetamine. Ducheff and two 18-year-old co-defendants were found to be in possession of "anhydrous ammonia, lithium and pseudoephedrine consistent with a reduction type methamphetamine laboratory." Ducheff was also charged with trespass because the meth lab he set up was in an abandoned house "in the Liberty area of Newton County." The lab was discovered after someone complained about "possible trespassers." Law enforcement investigating "uncovered a 'one pot' lab." In addition to serving 5 years, Ducheff was fined $1000 and ordered to pay courts costs and fees. He forfeited all seized property. The disposition of cases against Ducheff's co-defendants was not reported.
  • 23-year-old James Robert Gash was charged in October 2010 with delivery and manufacture of methamphetamine, as well as possession of drug paraphernalia. The prosecutor dropped the delivery charge in exchange for Gash's guilty plea to the remaining charges. Gash was sentenced to 10 years probation and fined $1000. He will also have to pay court costs and fees of $695. The news story states that he "also agreed to enroll in the OMART Matrix program," but it does not describe or define that program.
  • Charges were dropped against 19-year-old Vatisha Urrutia who had initially been charged with manufacturing methamphetamine and possessing drug paraphernalia. The paper reported that there was insufficient evidence that she "knew of the presence of methamphetamine precursors which were found both in her car when it was being driven by her boyfriend and in a barn at her parent's residence."
  • 30-year-old Kenneth Coy Smith was charged with simultaneous possession of drugs, firearms, possession of marijuana with intent to delivery and possession of drug paraphernalia. When he arrested, he was in possession of a "glass jar containing suspected marijuana seeds along with a plastic bag containing suspected marijuana all while in possession of a.22 caliber rifle." The story reports that he "also had a grinder, rolling papers and a suspected marijuana roach." In a plea deal, Smith was given 12 months probation and fined $1000 plus court costs and fees. As part of that deal, Smith pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance, and the prosecutor dropped the charges of simultaneous possession of a firearm.
  • 26-year-old Bentley Royce was sentenced to 10 years at ADC after he "received judgment" on charges he sold methamphetamine. He was also charged with manufacturing methamphetamine and with possession of drug paraphernalia, including "a 16 ounce bottle containing lithium floating in a semi-clear liquid. Also present were empty pseudoephedrine blister packs, ether, Coleman fuel, sodium hydroxide, ammonium nitrate, coffee filters, funnels and glass jars with residue." For the manufacturing and possession charges, Royce was sentenced to an additional two years at ADC and fined $1000. Presumably, Royce's sentences were so much stiffer than the others involved in drug manufacturing and selling because he was not offered--or did not accept--a plea deal. The news report does not indicate whether he was tried before a judge or a jury.
The other adjudicated criminal cases reported were these:
  • 24-year-old Shane Travis Middleton was sentenced to 30 months at ADC for breaking into several area businesses, including the Jasper Farm Supply, the Dollar General Store in Jasper, and the White Oak Station in neighboring Boone County. He was identified from a video taken by a Dollar General camera. After serving that 30 months at ADC, Middleton must serve a 30-month suspended sentence, too. He must also pay a $1000 fine plus court costs and fees.
  • 41-year-old Benjamin Robert Carter was found guilty of non-support and ordered to pay $25,680 in overdue child support. He will also serve two years' probation. The report does not indicate whether Carter was represented by legal counsel, but I am reminded of this decision by the U.S. Supreme Court just this past week.
  • Convicted sex offender James Zabel, Jr., was sentenced to 36 months in ADC and fined $1000 for moving from Newton County to Sharp County without registering his move. Such failure to register is a Class C Felony in Arkansas.