Thursday, September 29, 2011

A proposed pipeline through places of "low consequence"

The New York Times reported yesterday from Glendive, Montana, population 4,582, about the proposed pipeline that would carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, to refineries in Texas. This pipeline has been much in the news of late, including a few weeks ago when environmentalists were demonstrating against it outside the White House.

Yesterday's NYT headline "A Pipeline Divides Along Old Lines: Jobs Versus the Environment," sums up well what's at stake, as does this excerpt:
Addressing that question [of whether the pipeline is in the national interest] — especially in the sprawling sweep of six huge states through which the pipeline or its pump stations would run like a spine — takes in a universe of conflicting, interlocking issues, from short-term economics to global climate, from the discontent of a rural belt losing population to issues of national energy security, joblessness, corporate power and prices at the corner pump.
As the headline suggests, the conflict between jobs and the environment is really "old" news. What was different about this report were some of journalists Kirk Johnson and Dan Frosch's characterizations of rural people and places, as well as quotes from the Montanans they interviewed. Here's the first:

And people in rural areas like eastern Montana say they also know that the dry and mostly empty ranchlands where they live are not, and never have been, places of high consequence.

“Nobody wants to be told they’re of low consequence,” said Tim Hess, 65, a wheat farmer and cattle rancher born and raised here in Montana who would have about 1.5 miles of pipe cross his land but still did not know how much he would be paid for it.

It's interesting to see journalists acknowledge how insignificant these individual land owners and their property are in the great scheme of things. No sentimentality there. The second quote is from Glendive mayor Jerry Jimison, which Johnson and Frosch characterize as containing a veiled threat.
All I ask is that you treat the 50,000 people in these six counties [in Montana through which the pipeline would flow] with respect and dignity ... That will affect the long-term relationship into the future.
A threat perhaps, but I read the statement as reflecting fear as much as anything else--fear that the pipeline company will not compensate them fairly, and perhaps also fear about short-term and long-term environmental damage to their land and their livelihoods.

NPR has covered the pipeline story closely this week, and you can find other stories about public hearings in Nebraska and Oklahoma here, here and here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Geographical disparities in medical treatment

The California HealthCare Foundation's Center for Health Reporting released a report earlier this month finding residents of a rural Northern California town, Clearlake, California, undergo two common surgical heart procedures more than any other Californians. Clearlake residents underwent elective angioplasty and angiography more than five times the rate of other Californians. In 2005, 2006, and 2007, residents of Clearlake had the highest inpatient angioplasty rate in the country.

Angioplasty is used to open blocked arteries that supply blood to the heart, and angiography is a diagnostic test that detects coronary artery blockages. The variations in the administration of these procedures have far-reaching health and financial implications.

These results are part of a study being conducted by Stanford health research and policy Professor Laurence Baker. Baker analyzed statewide hospital data, including the three most recent years of Medicare data (from 2005 through 2007). His research revealed that the use of certain elective procedures varies significantly with geography. Baker hypothesizes that this extreme variation in elective procedures is not necessarily tied only to the conditions of the local population. Some of the disparity may be linked to differences in how doctors treat diseases.

If variations in elective procedures are tied to how doctors in certain areas treat diseases, where you live in California will affect what medical care you receive. John Wennberg, a professor at Dartmouth Medical School, conducted the Medicare analysis with Baker. Mr. Wennberg explained:
Depending on where people with chronic illnesses live, and which hospital or doctor they are loyal to, they receive very different levels of care.
To account for variations in local health conditions, Baker adjusted the rates of both heart procedures to eliminate the differences in the health of the populations and their access to health care. The raw data showed Clearlake residents undergoing the two heart procedures at a rate seven times the state average. After accounting for variables such as rates of heart attack hospitalization and diabetes diagnoses during hospital stays (both variables that suggest higher local need for the heart procedures), Clearlake residents still appear to have the two procedures at a rate more than five times the state average.

Assuming Baker's adjustments successfully rule out local population differences, the fact that radical variations in treatment practices persist suggests that the difference may come down to how physicians practice in their communities (sometimes called "physician culture"). This may be particularly true when physicians have discretion in how to treat illnesses.

For those who dispute the results of Baker's analysis, Baker points out that Californians in 23 other regions had higher heart attack rates than in Clearlake, yet showed a much lower use of angioplasty and angiography procedures. So, how are local communities dealing with variations in treatment, if at all?

In the Sacramento, California region, Blue Shield worked with Hill Physicians and Catholic Healthcare West to reduce variation. The group shared and analyzed treatment data to determine which procedures had high rates of variation across the region. They found higher rates of variation for knee surgeries, weight-loss surgeries, and invasive hysterectomies in the Sacramento area.

In hopes of remedying these high variation rates, Hill Physicians looked specifically at the hysterectomy rates. They learned that some physicians had never received training in less invasive techniques. They then worked with doctors to determine which patients were candidates for the less invasive procedure and trained other doctors on how to perform the newer procedure. According to Tricia Griffin, a spokesperson for Catholic Healthcare West, recent results show a decline in invasive hysterectomies in the Sacramento region.

Blue Shield is now teaming with San Francisco hospitals to implement a similar program to combat the high variation in patient care among hospitals.

I am skeptical, however, that these programs studying variations will be successful in targeting the root cause of this disparity in rural communities. If the communities where certain treatments are more heavily used are the same communities where there is a shortage of primary care doctors, these efforts may not help much. In rural communities with less access to health care, perhaps by the time they see a doctor, their cases are so advanced that the more invasive procedures are necessary. There seem to be other variables that should be accounted for before we can universally and confidently conclude that variations in treatment are significantly linked to doctor preference and training.

In the meantime, people should be prepared to take control of their treatment. They should ask their doctors questions about their options and come to an informed decision together.

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LXXXVII): Finally, a new jail under contract

The September 14 and 21 issues of the Newton County Times report progress on the matter of a new jail for Newton County, a story I've been covering here on Legal Ruralism for about three years. After residents voted in 2008 to support a sales tax increase to pay for a new jail, a number of challenges related to infrastructure and cost arose. Some of these infrastructure challenges are quintessentially rural--like the fact that the proposed site wouldn't pass a perc test to permit a septic tank, a deal breaker since the favored site did not have access to any city or county water and waste system. Read more here, here, here and here.

Now, the Quorum Court (essentially the county board of supervisors) has authorized the County Judge (chief administrative officer, an elected official), to purchase a "57-feet by 80-feet structure on real estate" in the center of town for the sum of $250,000. The structure will be converted into a new jail. Interestingly, the chosen site is in the center of the City of Jasper, the county seat. It is adjacent to both the old historic jail and the county's law enforcement center, and it is just one block off the town square, where the county court house sits. This is in sharp contrast to the earlier contemplated location, several miles outside the City of Jasper--a location that would have responded to "nimby" concerns, though I have seen none of those voiced in all of the news coverage I have read about the jail.

Not only has the land purchase been authorized, the Quorum Court has now also accepted the lowest bid, $840,000, to construct the jail. The bid went to Davis Construction, based in nearby Harrison, Arkansas. The only other bid from a contractor with the required bond was from a Tennessee company, with a price tag in excess of $1.3 million. The new jail will include five felon men cells containing two beds each; two felon women cells with two beds each, a male dormitory containing six beds, a women's dormitory containing six beds, a holding cell, a control room and a "cell meeting the American Disability Act standards for the handicapped." In addition, the jail will include a dormitory for eight state inmates in the Act 309 program, an ADA-compliant public restroom, an industrial kitchen, two inmate visitation rooms, a laundry room, an inmate property room at 180 square feet, a booking room, a record room, two men's showers and two women's showers. It will meet all "Criminal Detention Facilities Standards."

Final drawings by the contractor's architect will have to be approved by the state, which is likely to take about six weeks. Construction itself is expected to last eight or nine months.

Murder in Murdock: My first exposure to rural life

By my junior year in college at UCLA, I had lived my whole life in Orange County and Los Angeles, Ca. and hadn’t really traveled anywhere except big cities like New York. That fateful year of 2006, I covered the UCLA Women’s Volleyball team for the Daily Bruin and a photographer and I were sent to Omaha, Nebraska when the team made the Final Four.

As a student newspaper with limited funding, we were always looking to cut costs. Coincidentally, the photographer’s great aunt and uncle lived on farmland in tiny Murdock, Nebraska and they offered to house us for the trip and save us the expense of a hotel. The city is about a 40 minute drive from Omaha and is about as “in the middle of nowhere” as one could hope to get.

To say that it was a unique experience for someone like me is a severe understatement. The one anecdote among many that really sticks out to me occurred when I sheepishly informed the photographer’s aunt and uncle (who were the nicest and most hospitable people I’ve ever met) that I couldn’t eat what they had prepared for dinner because I am Kosher and can’t eat certain kinds of meat. This prompted two reactions. Aunt: “Well, I…I just don’t understand that at all!”. Uncle: “I once met and befriended a Jew when I worked in a factory out here during the war. What a nice man he was!”

Murdock is an agricultural based town that is perfectly content to stay as isolated as possible from society. No one I talked to in Omaha had ever heard of the town. However, when I was there, the town was buzzing over an incident that had taken place just a few days prior to my arrival. A double murder had occurred at one of the resident’s homes and everyone was talking about it.

At the time, the investigation was ongoing and information was limited. However, in a town like Murdock, where everyone knew the victims like close family and where criminal activity of any kind is virtually nonexistent, the shock factor was intensified. For the first time that anyone could recall, media vans and reporters lined up to investigate and interview Murdock residents. I will never forget the looks on the faces of the residents when they were talking about the murders. I’ve been around a lot of unfortunate and tragic scenes, but days after the murders, people could simply not come to grips with what had happened. The perpetrators were eventually caught and convicted.

Having never experienced any atmosphere like Murdock, my three days there taught me a lot about how people outside my suburban/urban bubble live and deal with problems. The trip erased a lot of preconceived notions that I had coming in and showed how a town that is not used to dealing with crime and its devastating effects could lean on each other to get through a tragedy. It was a terribly sad thing to watch, but also beautiful. I never had thought a short stay made to save some money could be so educational and memorable, but I will certainly never forget my trip to Murdock.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rural self reliance

Growing up a "country boy" I was introduced early to home gardening, raising livestock, hunting, home repairs, and general self reliance. It was always a joke when family from California came to visit. These "city kids" were out of their element and were often shocked at the difference in lifestyle. I remember having a feeling of superiority over my cousins, with their lack of knowledge and inability to take care of themselves (although the roles were reversed when I traveled to their homes in California).

Thinking back on it I began to wonder if rural communities are generally more self reliant and why? It was easy at first to see why rural areas appear more self reliant. Many areas are forced to be by their location and isolation, others are intimately involved in farming and raising livestock on a grand scale, and in many rural areas hunting is as much a cultural past time as a necessity in filling the family freezer.

So does something make urban areas less self reliant? Following my previous reasoning, urban areas are not isolated or forced to do things themselves, there are often many options if you need help or a particular service. Few urban places have any room to grow a substantial garden and even fewer see it as a necessity when three or four grocers are within a five minute drive with a large selection of produce. Forget about raising livestock in an urban environment, there are usually city and local ordinances that bar it, even if you have the room to do so. Plus, remember you have those three large grocery stores just down the road that will even trim the fat from any cuts of meat you buy. Hunting is even rarer in an urban area. One reason being it is probably illegal and two there's the lack of actual game to hunt. Also, once again, you have that butcher just down the road with all of the nicely prepackaged meat.

It seems to make sense on paper, but what about in real life? In a small village on the Greek island Karpathos, the locals are demonstrating their ability to be self reliant and even enticing many urban dwellers to make the migration to the rural communities with hopes of a better life. The small village, relying on traditions, frugality, and self reliance offer many reassurance and security in a country that is currently in dire economic straights.

With Greece struggling with its nation's finances, tourism at a low, and the decrease in family members' wages working in other countries, this small Greek village has found a way to keep its head above water when others have been washed out to sea. The villagers cultivate produce to sale or barter, they make cheese from scratch, and they see their bread transform from grain in the fields to food on their tables, all through the work of their own hands.

The village relies more on their family and faith than the government, especially as they watch it struggling to stay alive. The village, situated 400 miles from Athens, has actually enticed many of its youth to return from the larger cities and has even convinced some "city slickers" to move to the area.

While this small Greek village is surviving, many rural areas struggle as their only source of employment diminishes or dries up. So what of their self reliance, what can they do to gain it back?

Michael H. Shuman suggests that rural areas create new "import substituting clusters", latch on to them, and ride them into prosperity. So what's an "import substituting cluster"? Shuman describes it as an imported good or service that the community can produce themselves. He refers to any import that the community could produce itself as "energy leakage" and recommends that the community replace those services and goods with local business. In Shuman's article he gives several examples of rural communities doing just that, finding what they can do without from outside their community and replacing it with local goods or services.

It can be a difficult task to accomplish and there will always goods and services that a rural community can't produce, such as computers, vehicles, and medicine. But Shuman argues that it is often simpler than one would think. He suggests that rural communities first look at what goods and services they most commonly use and then start producing them locally.

The town of Hardwick, Vermont did just that. When the granite factories closed down, other businesses did as well. Soon Main Street was filled with vacant shops and Hardwick was forced to do something in order to survive. Hardwick decided their import cluster was food and rallied around it. Local farmers provided the produce for local restaurants and grocers, local dairies made and sold local cheese, and the community worked and supported each other by sharing capital and facilities to keep the local economy growing. The result has been an increase in wages and employment, all without relying on outside capitol or support. A more in depth look at Hardwick's story can be read in Ben Hewitt's book, "The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food".

As the few rural communities mentioned above strive for rural self reliance they also face possible problems. As people return to the rural communities from urban areas or as long time city dwellers relocate, the rural community will be faced with new problems and new perceptions on how to operate. Earlier blog posts such as "Farmville (Part II): Gone with the wind" and "The uninformative rural mystique" illustrate just a few of the problems that may arise.

So who's more self reliant, urban or rural? Maybe it depends on geography, or maybe it can't be answered academically. Either way, I'll put my money on rural and I wouldn't be the first to do so.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Skype: the future of rural lawyering?

I first used Skype, a free Internet videoconferencing service, when I was studying abroad in college to talk with my family and friends back home. In law school, I have come to believe that legal service providers might productively use Skype to connect with rural communities.

A few years ago, a friend introduced me to telemedicine and its benefits to rural communities. Legal Ruralism has previously discussed the topic of telemedicine and rural communities here and here. Recently, I thought if the medical community could use new technology to assist rural communities by evaluating strokes and other medical conditions remotely, the legal community could also use new technology for outreach. From that thought my project for this past summer was born: I was going to use Skype to connect rural residents with legal aid attorneys.

This summer I worked with a legal aid organization in Woodland, California, Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC), which serves Yolo County and its many rural areas. My project was to connect LSNC attorneys with low-income rural populations in Yolo County through Skype. For those rural clients who wanted face-to-face contact with an attorney, Skype would grant the client an opportunity to see the attorney he or she was consulting without requiring the client or the attorney to spend time and money to meet in person.

My plan was to coordinate with rural community organizations to find locations where rural residents could access the Internet and use Skype. Having the Skype videoconferences at a community center would allow those without computers in their homes to use the service. The main problem I encountered with implementing my project was finding community organizations that were able to participate.

I targeted local community organizations in rural communities such as Esparto, Winters, and Knights Landing. Some organizations did not have the physical space or broadband capacity for such a service, while others did not have computers to spare. While many organizations were willing to participate, by the end of my 10-week summer, only one organization had proved able to participate in the project.

The organization I worked with was the Knights Landing Family Resource Center, a subsidiary of the Yolo Family Resource Center. The Center had a computer in a private room with sufficient broadband for Skype. I purchased a webcam and speakers for the Center, downloaded Skype on computers at both the Center and LSNC, and set up a time where potential clients could come to ask an attorney questions. The format was supposed to be like a legal clinic except that, unlike a typical legal clinic, the potential client would talk to the attorney via Skype instead of in person. Despite advertising the Knights Landing program in both English and Spanish, no potential clients showed up for the first clinic.

The limited success of my project prompted me to reconsider how effective Skype could be in providing rural communities with greater access to legal services. Using low-cost videoconferencing is not a new idea when it comes to the legal profession. Many for-profit attorneys have realized the benefits of Skype, as described in advertisements and articles like those here and here. If it works for for-profit attorneys, why was I having difficulty making it work for legal aid?

One problem was likely the fact that I was not at LSNC long enough to expand and advertise the service; another problem was that few community organizations had the proper equipment. As discussed in earlier posts in Legal Ruralsim, such as here, here, and here, access to broadband is an issue in many rural areas. If rural communities do not have access to the Internet or if the connection is too slow, it would be impossible to receive legal services over Skype. Increased broadband service is necessary to give rural communities the chance to have greater access to affordable legal services.

Despite my project not being as successful as I had hoped, other legal organizations have been more successful. They prove that Skype is a viable option for serving the legal needs of rural communities. In an article, found here, the author describes a similar situation discussed in Legal Ruralism here of many lawyers, in this instance in Canada, not being willing to practice in rural areas. As a solution, many urban practitioners are using Skype in Canada to connect with low-income rural clients.

In addition, Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Maine has used videoconferencing to reach rural areas that already have telemedicine equipment in place. If broadband increases in rural areas and more community organizations are willing and able to lend their computer resources, Skype could help bring greater justice to rural communities through increased access to legal services.

Rural states that cry “Wolf!”

After hundreds of years of eradication by unrestricted hunting and habitat destruction, the grey wolf population in the United States has been making a small comeback.

The Federal Government, under the Endangered Species Act, has sought to reintroduce wolves to areas that can support them. These efforts have been limited to very rural areas with lots of remote federal or state controlled land because wolves need space, natural food sources, and limited human interaction to thrive.

It is estimated that the U.S. has well over 9,000 wolves. Alaska has the most with an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 wolves. Minnesota has about 2,900 with some spreading out into Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan. Both of these states never lost their native populations and were deemed not in danger of extinction. Both have been allowed to manage their wolf populations with limited federal intervention, management that includes limited hunting.

Problems have arisen, however, in states that have had wolves successfully reintroduced: Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Wolves were wiped out in all three, but through reintroduction and some natural migration from Canada, an estimated 1,700 wolves now roam in the Northern Rockies and Yellowstone National Park today, up from an estimated 1,200 in 2006.

The original federal plan was to bring the wolf population in the Rockies up to 300. The plan was crafted with input from ranchers, land owners, conservationists, and animal rights activists about the impact wolves would have on local areas and the conditions needed for successful reintroduction.

The success of the protection plan created a population nearly six times the originally planned 300. The population is now big enough to prompt the federal government to remove the wolf from the protection list in those states and call the effort a great success. The de-listing gave the states the right to manage wolves in all areas within their borders except within the boundaries of Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.

When the wolf was first de-listed in 2008, all three states rushed to implement the wolf management plans that they had submitted to U.S. Fish and Wildlife prior to the de-listing. All three states submitted plans that included hunting wolves. These pro-hunting plans came about in part because of intense pressure from ranchers (angry about livestock killed by wolves) and hunters (both hunters who wanted to hunt wolves and hunters who complained of reduced populations of other game animals because of wolf predation).

These plans came under intense scrutiny by animal rights groups. These groups sued to stop the hunts. Federal District Court Judge Donald Molloy agreed with the animal activists that the revised plan violated the Endangered Species Act and issued an injunction to stop the planned hunts and state management of the wolves. Judge Molloy deemed the populations were too fragile to be managed by the states and opined that the wolves required continued protection by the federal government.

Before leaving office, the Bush Administration again removed the wolf from the protected list in January 2009, but did agree that Wyoming’s wolf population was too weak to support hunting and kept those wolves on this list. Judge Molloy countered in 2010, finding again that the plans violated the Endangered Species Act, but not before planned wolf hunts occurred in Montana and Idaho in 2009. In response to Judge Molloy’s second ruling, U.S. Senator Jon Tester (MT) and U.S. Representative Mike Simpson (ID) added a provision to a 2011 spending bill that again de-listed wolves in Idaho and Montana. This of course has spawned a new round of lawsuits. A U.S. District Court judge in Montana granted a summary judgment in favor of the government on August 3, 2011. Yet the judgment is sure to be appealed.

The ruling caused quite a row about federalism, separation of powers, and the role of law in conservation efforts. A friend of mine once asked “who is better at wildlife management: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the respective state agencies filled with biologists and game management experts… or is it a Federal judge with no ‘practical’ experience?” Of course my friend conveniently forgot that Judge Molloy was a native and lifelong resident of Montana who probably has lots of “practical” rural legal experience.

There is a lot of anger and rhetoric being tossed around. Rural Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming are heavily dependent on ranching and hunting for revenue. Ranchers are angry about predation by wolves that not only kill valuable stock, but also put stress on living stock that results in lost weight and health. Hunters are angry because wolves have put a large dent in elk and deer populations in some wilderness areas, prompting them to find other places to hunt. Elk hunts generate between $600 and $1,000 per hunter in fee revenue alone, let alone the private economic impact of guide and butchering profits. The temptation of fees gathered for wolf licenses and tags in already cash strapped states is also a factor for states.

States also face the conflict of trying to return wilderness areas to their pre-white settlement state. Most Americans want the wild places of U.S. to be as vibrant as the once were, and that vibrant picture should include wolves. To the surprise of some, many hunters side with protecting a healthy wild wolf population. But the size of that population and how to manage it is the dividing force.

Ed Bangs, the man who was in charge of the area's wolf reintroduction for 16 years, stated in 2011 upon his retirement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that “The best science clearly documents that wolves are fully recovered and will not be threatened in the future. We are rock solid… It’s time to move on.” ( Bugle, Vol. 28, Issue 5, Pg. 63, Sep/Oct 2011) But it is unclear in the emotional and legal tug-o-war that is occurring in this rural area if we ever will move on. And as wolves are being reported in Oregon and Washington, it is a struggle that appears will be affecting more rural areas in the future.

See these related posts:

Pig rustling flummoxes law enforcement in the Midwest

This New York Times story about the rising problem of pig theft reminded me of another recent story on a special law enforcement unit in Texas that targets cattle rustling. Here's an excerpt from the hog theft story, dateline Lafayette, Minnesota, population 659, where 150 pigs recently disappeared from a farm building with deadbolts on the doors.
[I]n Iowa, with added cover from the vast stretches of tall cornfields, pigs have been snatched, 20 or 30 at a time, from as many as eight facilities in the last few weeks, said the sheriff of Mitchell County, adding that among other challenges, the missing are difficult to single out.

“They all look alike,” said Curt Younker, the sheriff, who said he had only rarely heard of pig thefts in his decades on the job. “Suddenly we’re plagued with them.”
Some livestock economists pointed to the thefts in this hog-rich region as one more sign of the grim economy, a reflection of record-high prices for hogs this year and the ease of stealing pigs from the large barns that are often far from the farmer’s house.

Elsewhere, the story further amplifies the spatial isolation theme, noting that the so-called "finishing barns" where pigs are often raised are "often off gravel roads, far from most houses and busy towns, in part to avoid complaints about the smells of pig waste and other environmental concerns." These facilities often operate automated feeding and watering systems, which means workers are rarely present.

I wonder if law enforcement authorities in Minnesota and Iowa might benefit from the collective knowledge of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, an organization featured in the earlier story about cattle rustling. In both cases, raising the animals--and transporting them--requires specialized knowledge and equipment. Further, as with cattle ranchers in Texas, it seems that world of hog raising in the Midwest is tight knit. This has raised uncomfortable questions about the possibility that meat-processing plants or affiliated “drop-off” facilities or auction barns have processed the stolen pigs--and that they have done so with knowledge the pigs were in fact stolen.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A different outcome, in a different kind of company town

This post a few weeks ago told of the demise of a company town in Nevada, one based on mining. Today's New York Times features a more positive story about a company town, this one Warroad, Minnesota, where Marvin Windows and Doors, a privately held company, dominates the economy. George Marvin founded the company here in 1904, and it employs about 4,300 people total, about 2,000 of them in Warroad. That's pretty remarkable when you consider that the town's population is only 1,621. Journalist Andrew Martin calls Marvin a "throwback to another era," and it is in several senses. One is that the company has managed not to lay off any workers during the economic downturn, in which new home construction has been especially hard hit. Instead, Marvin has cut back on employee hours and employee profit-sharing--including among the 16 Marvin family members who work for the company. Here's an excerpt from Martin's story:
What’s more, Marvin takes an old-fashioned, even paternal view of its role here in Warroad, where the Marvin family has run things for just about as long as anyone can remember. The company has cut employees’ pay and reduced perks like tuition reimbursement and 401(k) matching.
To further illustrate the company's relationship to the town, the story explains that "Marvin employees get the first Monday of November off for “Deer Monday,” so they can go hunting. ... [O]n the Fourth of July the company hands out two nickels to children in town, as George Marvin did during the Depression."
Susan Marvin, granddaughter of the company's founder and its current President explains the company's decision not to lay off workers:
While it’s challenging for our people right now, and not everybody understands all the reasons why, the alternatives are devastating. These people would have to pick up and leave.
Indeed, she notes that some employees have left--some to take jobs in the booming oil fields of North Dakota. Others are working multiple jobs.

But Marvin's actions may not be entirely altruistic. Susan Marvin explains that she sees the company as situating itself to benefit in the long term, by retaining its investment in its employees.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Stories from the margins: lgbtq farm workers speak out!

On a quite September evening in Stockton, CA, a powerful and resounding event took place at the San Joaquin Law Library. Proyecto Poderoso or Project Powerful (a California Rural Legal Assitance program that serves the rural lgbt community) hosted an exhibition called "En Nuestra Tierra" (In Our Land). The exhibition presents a collection of oral histories from lgbt latino farm workers in the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys. Along with the oral histories, the exhibition displays portraits of the participants taken by well known photo journalist David Bacon.

The project accounts for eight oral histories. The participants discuss a wide range of issues that relate to their intersectional identities. Harassment, humiliation and sacrifice are running themes throughout the testimonies; some participants talked about the strenuous process of coming out to their families and others described their degrading experiences in the work place. Yet, it was not all first hand accounts of victimhood. Many of the participants shared stories of celebrating identity, expressing their creativity through dance and successfully asserting their rights in the workplace.

During the event, several community members representing different non-profit and public service organizations discussed how difficult it is to reach out to rural lgbt communities. It is even more difficult when lgbt folks are undocumented immigrants as well. The primary researcher agreed that it is extremely difficult to first find people who identify as trans* or queer immigrants and second to have them open up to service providers, claiming that participants would voice fears about being deported if they tried to access public services.

Legal Ruralism has written about the work of CRLA' s Project Powerful in the past (and other related rural lgbt issues here). Repeating patterns of isolation, poverty, and discrimination plaques rural lgbt folks. Discrimination against lgbt people does not just happen on the street. Discrimination based on one's sexual orientation or gender expression happens when people apply for jobs or seek affordable and safe housing. These are the same themes that many poor urban lgbt people experience, however, a major difference is that in the urban setting there are built networks and centralized institutions to address these concerns. Unfortunately, the lack of services made available specifically for lgbt immigrants forces people to look elsewhere for their needs.

In an urban hub like Stockton where the surrounding community relies heavily on the agricultural industry, services for lgbt folks are even more dire. Be that as it may, the launch of the touring exhibit has helped spark more conversations between stakeholders concerned about the livelihoods of lgbt immigrants and farm workers. The event, the first of its kind in the San Joaquin Valley, was definitely an inspiring affirmation of a growing community.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Farmville (Part II): Gone with the wind

Greetings from the farm! This past weekend, I spent time at my grandparents' ranch. My grandparents have lived on the same street on the outskirts of our micropolitan town for 45 years. The street is predominantly farmland with a few homes scattered between orchards.

My grandparents!

Where the backyard ends and their orchard begins. Most of the homes on my grandparents' street are tucked into orchards.

To the left of my grandparents' home is another house. This neighbor moved to the street about a year ago. Since he moved in, the neighbor has complained that the pesticides my grandfather uses drift onto his property. The neighbor has threatened my grandparents with litigation claiming the pesticide drift is a nuisance and constitutes trespass.

The neighbor's home in proximity to my grandparent's ranch is too close for comfort.

In property law there is the "moving to the nuisance" doctrine. This means if one were to purchase a home next to a nuisance, such as a noisy and smelly factory, the purchaser should be aware of the noises and odors when they buy the home. Since the purchaser "moved to the nuisance," there is no legal cause of action for the noises and smells emitted from the factory. The reasoning behind the doctrine is that it is unfair for the owners of the noisey and smelly factory to have neighbors move next to them, knowing full well of the business operations, and then complain afterwards. My grandfather's situation is a classic example of moving to a nuisance. The neighbor knew he was moving onto a street with orchards and ranchers who use pesticides.

Additionally, California courts have also found that "nothing which is done or maintained under the express authority of a statute can be deemed a nuisance." Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo, Inc. v. W. Farm Serv., Inc., 190 Cal. App. 4th 1502 (Cal. Ct. App. 2010) Since my grandpa is spraying the pesticides correctly, it seems the neighbor does not have a viable cause of action for nuisance.

The neighbor's home is surrounded by orchards. He therefore "moved to the nuisance"

In July, a Minnesota court determined that pesticide over spray drift to a neighboring property may now qualify as trespass. In the case, an organic farmer contended his neighbor's pesticide drift caused his farm to lose its organic certification. The court found, in this instance, that pesticide drift could constitute as trespass. It will be interesting to see if other states follow Minnesota's precedent.

Currently in California the two important statutes relating to pesticides are California Food and Agriculture sections 12972/73. The statutes read:

"The use of pesticides by any person shall be in such a manner as to prevent substantial drift to non-target areas" and
"The use of any pesticide shall not conflict with labeling registered pursuant to this chapter which is delivered with the pesticide or with any additional limitation applicable to the conditions of any permit issued by the director or commissioner."

California courts have defined "substantial drift" as severe mismanagement of pesticides. In one case, a woman was sitting in the comfort of her home when a farmer, ignoring the directions and regulations of the pesticides he was using, encased her home in a fog of pesticides. These pesticides physically injured her. Patterson Flying Serv. v. California Dept. of Pesticide Regulation, 161 Cal. App. 4th 411 (2008)

From the court's reasoning in these cases, it seems pesticide drift can constitute as trespass only if an extremely negligent farmer causes a substantial decrease in business profits or physical injuries occur. Even with the Minnesota case, the law still seems to be on the side of the farmer.

In the case of my grandparents, the commissioner visited the street to observe the neighboring farmers and my grandpa's spraying methods. The commissioner found the farmers on the street, including my grandpa, were using the pesticides within regulation and there was no substantial pesticide drift. Along with the commissioner's report, the leading legal cases and statutes indicate the neighbor's trespass claim is gone with the wind...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Must pop culture always stereotype the South?

This op-ed piece in the New York Times a few days ago, headlined "The South Ain't Just Whistlin' Dixie," argued that the South is still depicted rather simplistically in television and movies. Citing reality television hits such as "Glamour Belles," "Lizard Lick Towing," and "Sweet Home Alabama," Karen Cox argues that such "promise new insight into Southern culture," but actually "depict a typecast South: a mythically rural, white, poorly educated and thickly accented region that has yet to join the 21st century."

Cox, a history professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, asserts that '[t]hese stereotypical depictions are insulting to those who live in the region and know that a more diverse South exists. Even worse, they deny the existence of a progressive South, or even progressive Southerners."

Now I don't consume much television, but a few days after reading Cox's op-ed, I happened to watch the very first episode of the hit FX drama series "Justified," about U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. The series is set largely in Harlan County, Kentucky, which is quintessential Appalachia. As I watched the episode, I found myself considering to what extent it caricatured the place and its people. While I found some Appalachian stereotypes, e.g., ill-educated white supremacists, the depictions of the people and place were more nuanced than I expected. For example, the team of marshals with whom Givens works includes an African-American woman, and the show depicts Lexington and city life, too. Indeed, I liked the way that the plot connected rural with urban, and the way it used rural realities such as lack of anonymity to craft the story line. Even "white supremacist" Boyd Crowder may be more complicated than he seems at first blush, with Givens suggesting that Crowder's really in that game for money, not because he's a "true believer" in white supremacy. So, for example, when Crowder fire bombed a black church in Lexington, Givens suggests he did so because the minister was dealing drugs, and a competing drug dealer had simply paid Crowder to eliminate the competition.

Certainly, I find myself looking forward to future episodes.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Internet anonymity undoes rural lack of anonymity, taking gossip to new "heights"

A front-page story in today's New York Times features a range of interesting assertions about rural society, rural culture, and rural difference. The story is "In Small Towns, Gossip moves to the Web, and Turns Vicious." The dateline is Mountain Grove, Missouri, population 4,544, in the Missouri Ozarks, but journalist A.G. Sulzberger quotes academics generalizing about rural places, particularly rural areas of the the South and Appalachia. Here's an excerpt about the "complications" arising from the growing use of social media in rural America, where the population is "older, poorer and more remote" and has typically "lagged the rest of the country in embracing the Internet":

The same Web sites created as places for candid talk about local news and politics are also hubs of unsubstantiated gossip, stirring widespread resentment in communities where ties run deep, memories run long and anonymity is something of a novel concept.

By way of explanation, Sulzberger quotes Professor Christian Sandvig of the University of Illinois, who has studied rural use of social media:

Something about rural culture seems to make people want to have conversations in public.

Using Internet sites such as those hosted by Topix, rural residents can have those conversations anonymously, thus defying the everyone-knows-everyone constraints long associated with small towns. Sulzberger colorfully observes that while "online negativity seems to dissipate naturally in a large city, it often grates like steel wool in a small town where insults are not easily forgotten." He again focuses on the rural-urban distinction with this comment:

Topix, a site lightly trafficked in cities, enjoys a dedicated and growing following across the Ozarks, Appalachia and much of the rural South, establishing an unexpected niche in communities of a few hundred or few thousand people — particularly in what Chris Tolles, Topix’s chief executive, calls “the feud states.”

Sulzberger goes on to use as an example of such a place Pikeville, Kentucky, population 6,361, once the stomping grounds of the Hatfields and McCoys. (The "feud" reference reminds me of Jim Webb's book on the Scots-Irish, Born Fighting, and Joe Bageant's characterization of white working-class rural folks as "warmongering.") Another Kentucky community, Hyden, has a population of under 500, but had 107 simultaneous users on the Hyden Topix forum one day this month.

Topix does not require commentators to identify themselves, and it even permits the same user to claim a different alias for each post. Topix does, however, make some effort to remove comments that are "obvious[ly]" defamatory, and it automatically screens out comments that feature racial slurs and such. Topix had previously required payment for expedited review of allegedly libelous content, but it ceased that practice after the attorneys general from 30 states challenged it. As a forum, Topix is immune from liability for defamation, but individual commentators in the forum could be liable, if identified. The company reported that it receives about one subpoena a day for the computer addresses of anonymous commentators. Not surprisingly, however, many who feel aggrieved by gossip on the service don't have the wherewithal to sue. They may thus find themselves stuck with whatever new reputation fellow townspeople have endowed them.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LXXXVI): 8000 residents, 12 of them arrested in relation to meth

The Sept. 14, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times is chock full of law and order news. In this blog, I will focus primarily on the front-page story about "Operation Mulligan," in which "[m]ore than 60 law enforcement officers from local, state and federal agencies gathered at the Newton County Fairgrounds" on Sept. 9 to "conduct a sweep of individuals having outstanding arrest warrants on charges of manufacturing or distributing methamphetamine." Officers arrested 12 suspects--more even than they had aimed--which seems like a lot in a county with a population of only 8,311. The operation's name stems from the fact that all arrests were of repeat offenders.

The Sheriff reported that four search warrants were executed simultaneously as part of the Sept. 9 operation and that officers had hoped "to make at least 10 physical arrests." The Newton County District Judge, Tommy Martin, was on hand to oversee and sign the warrants that were executed or served. Two National Guard helicopters were used in the operation. As of the evening of Sept. 9, all of the suspects remained in custody, awaiting bond hearings.

The twelve persons arrested range in age from 47 to 18. Of initial interest to me was the fact that both the 47-year-old, Chester Gilbert, and a 46-year-old woman who was also arrested, Debra Vanderpool, were classmates of mine at Jasper School. Gilbert has been charged with "manufacturing marijuana, possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver, possession of marijuana with intent to deliver, simultaneous possession of drugs and firearms, possession of drug paraphernalia and two counts of delivery of marijuana." His list of offenses is longest among the twelve. The shortest list of offenses, I'm relieved to say, belongs to 18-year-old James Raulston, who was arrested for delivery of methamphetamine. As for 46-year-old Debra Vanderpool, she is charged with conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine, while 25-year-old Jason Vanderpool--perhaps a son or nephew of hers--was arrested for the more serious crime of manufacturing methamphetamine, as well as with three counts of delivering it, possession of fire arms, two counts of delivery marijuana, and "absconding from Drug Court." Another man, Brandon Carney, 30, of Nail, was arrested for delivery of methamphetamine. The news report notes that he was arrested while on his way to "Drug Court in Russellville."

Newton County Sheriff Keith Slape explained that Operation Mulligan was a continuation of "investigations that followed the search of property near Mt. Judea almost two years ago." Read more about that here. He indicated that county residents have also continued to provide quality information about drug manufacture in the county.

Among those participating in the operation were officers from neighboring Baxter, Boone and Marion counties, as well as officials from the 14th Judicial Drug Taskforce, Arkansas State Police troopers, Arkansas Game and Fish officers, U.S. Forest Service enforcement officers, canine teams from the Arkansas Dept. of Corrections, and agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Agencies.

This issue of the Newton County Times also reports action by the Quorum Court on matter of a new jail, but I'll save that for a future post.

In still other law and order news, the Sheriff has instituted a new Adopt-a-Car program, by which businesses in the county take financial responsibility for equipping patrol cars. The cost per car is about $1500, and the first sponsor/adopter, H & S Auto, on Highway 7 just north of the Boone County line. Apparently, the need for such sponsors has grown because the Sheriff's office has recently acquired new patrol vehicles.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Rural Nevadans hope snails might slow the pace of Las Vegas pipeline

In order to fuel both the tourism industry and its astounding growth rate, Las Vegas needs water. Lots of it. And with Lake Mead's water levels continuing to drop, officials have put plans in motion to pump water from rural valleys throughout eastern Nevada and western Utah to Las Vegas.

This week, opponents of the pipeline project may have found a powerful ally in the form of snails. As reported by the Reno Gazette Journal, federal officials have agreed to take a look at 32 species of spring snails to determine whether they deserve special protection. This week's ruling was the first step in a long process to determine the status of the snails.

Opponents of the pipeline believe that federally protected snails might be the single biggest obstacle for the pipeline in future litigation. The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) claims that it has mitigation measures in place in the event that the snails are declared endangered species. However, it should be noted that snails are only a small part of the potential ecological impact of the pipeline. As outlined in this press release by the Center for Biological Diversity which petitioned on behalf of the snails, it is estimated that the pipeline would impact "305 springs, 112 miles of streams, 8,000 acres of wetlands and 191,506 acres of shrubland wildlife habitat."

Even if SNWA can overcome the challenges posed by snails and other native species, there would seem to be plenty of other stumbling blocks along the way. One estimate suggests that removing water from the state's underground aquifer might cause some 525 square miles of land to subside more than 5 feet and could lead to the generation of 34,742 tons of windblown dust each year. This is in addition to the potential for the project's cost to spiral out of control as reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

At the heart of the debate lies a fundamental disagreement over the best use of Nevada's water resources. As reported by NPR, Patricia Mulroy, SNWA's general manager, has stated "ninety percent of Nevada's water goes to agriculture and generates 6,000 jobs, which is less than the Mirage Hotel generates." She continued, "the West was settled by the federal government as an agrarian economy (but) it isn't that anymore …The West is becoming an urban area." Rural residents feel differently. One resident of Snake Valley along the Nevada-Utah border said, "without water, even [with] decreased water, the future's going to go away." Ms. Mulroy would argue that the future lies in Las Vegas and its tourist destinations rather than in the fields and pastures around towns like Baker, Nevada.

Even if there is enough water to go around as Ms. Mulroy suggests, it is unlikely that this argument will be put to rest anytime soon. As Ms. Mulroy points out, "there's a cultural gap. There's a rural-urban gap." It is doubtful that the rural and urban residents of Nevada will ever agree on the most effective way to divvy up the state's limited water resources. The snails are simply a side-show in a much larger culture war in Nevada.

For more background on Las Vegas' water issues and the proposed pipeline project, see the Las Vegas Sun's special reports here.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

You've got mail ... kind of

Legal Ruralism has previously highlighted the problem of post office closure in rural areas in February, in March and again just earlier this month. But I'm blogging about it again because I agree with the Daily Yonder that issues which disproportionally affect rural areas tend to get only a moment's recognition and are quickly forgotten by the often urban centric mainstream news. Unfortunately, rural communities continue to be plagued by the threat of impending closure of countless more post offices.

The Post Office has 574,000 employees, making it the second-largest civilian employer in the United States, excluding the federal government (Wal-Mart of course being the largest). However, the U.S. Post Office has been hit hard economically with the advent and proliferation of e-mail, online bill-paying, fax, and competition from 
Fed Ex, UPS and DHL. Despite cutting $12 billion and eliminating 130,000 jobs over the past four years, Postmaster General Patrick Donohoe told Congress earlier this month that the Postal Service is "at the brink of default."

In his comprehensive letter to Congress on September 6, Donohoe further highlighted the importance of the postal service, the bleak current financial situation, and strategies to address its projected $10 billion loss by the end of this fiscal year. Steven Greenhouse's September 4th New York Times article had a comprehensive report summarizing the proposals including: eliminating Saturday mail deliver, close 3,700 offices, laying off 120,000 employees (despite the no layoff union clause postal service employees enjoy), withdrawing from the federal retirement system and getting $6.9 billion in overpaid retirement funds returned. Many of these strategies will hit rural areas the hardest, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are up in arms.

Montana will suffer a great blow if the proposed USPS recovery plan is adopted because that plan would close 85 post offices and four postal processing facilities in the state. Montana Senator Max Baucus admonishes the postal services for not realizing the disparate negative effect closing post offices has on rural communities, an effect not felt by urban communities. She said, "[c]losing a post office in Alzada or Rapelje is not like closing a post office in Washington, D.C., or suburban Virginia and Maryland. Folks simply cannot drive a few blocks to reach another."

According to
Missouri Senator, Claire McCaskill, Missouri has 167 proposed post offices closures and “eighty-five percent of those are in counties of less than 50,000 residents.” Further, McCaskill pointed out the importance of Saturday delivery to rural communities in a September 7 press release, noting "[rural] communities’ reliance on the postal service for access to news, goods, and services that may not be available through other means."

Not surprising, rural elderly and disabled individuals will feel the impact the closures most. The Wall Street Journal quoted Dr. Brian Willoughby, of West River Health Services in Hettinger, North Dakota, who echoed this sentiment saying, "[w]hen they cut these services, there are multiple spinoff consequences for these older people out there in the middle of nowhere, but the bureaucrats sort of forget about that." For one thing, many cannot drive the distance to another post office (or at all), but they can walk to their local post office. Not only are alternative post offices far away, the 2008 Carsey Institute report points out that in rural areas " basic services, such as banks, schools, and hospitals might be 50 to 100 miles away." With major hospitals and pharmacies so far away from remote patients, a pharmacist could rush prescriptions to the local post office. Senator Susan Collins of Maine strongly opposes ending Saturday delivery as the cutback would be tough on people in small towns who receive prescriptions and newspapers by mail.

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia values the importance of the Postal Service stating that "[t]he post office is part of America as anything I know. And we’re going to do everything we can to fight, see if we can help make it efficient, be able to deliver services to our communities. It’s basically a lifeline to our rural communities." West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall, also shared his thoughts about the importance of rural post offices with Greg Jordan of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph (highlighted first by both The Daily Yonder and The Art of the Rural).

The post office itself is often the identity of small town USA, and when you close the post office, it’s literally the nail in the coffin for that community. People go to the post office not only to receive mail, which is sometimes could be prescription medicines or some form of communications. They also socialize with their family and friends at the post office, learn what’s on their neighbors’ minds, and they gather to support community projects or issues. It’s ironic that in order to have these required hearings on these post offices, the only place big enough is the post office.
Our founding fathers respected the importance of mail, believing it to be a "basic and fundamental" government function meant to "bind the nation together" by providing service to "all communities." While the artery that connects all parts of American society may one day be electronic, rural areas continue to lack access to broadband and even when they do, it may be painfully subpar. But for now the post office serves as a means by which rural towns can stay connected to the rest of the nation, and without them post office closures further exacerbate the negative effect of the spatial isolation felt by rural communities. 

For these towns, who's local school closed years age and reliable broadband has yet to arrive, when you take away the post office all you have left is a ghost town. "When they close the post office, they probably won't even come up here anymore and clean the roads," says Delmer Clark, a 70-year-old retired coal miner in Eastern Kentucky's Appalachian Mountains. A Siouxland (a region that encompasses the entire Big Sioux River drainage basin in South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa) local news channel quoted Clifford Faust, a life long 84-year old rural resident, who said, "[w]e got a post office, a gas station, and a pizza ranch. That's all we got." This effect only fuels the ongoing problem of rural population loss; one rural problem local lawmakers are currently throwing money at to fix

The most chilling words about the rural effect of post office closures (in fact it literally gave me goosebumps) was written by Carol Miller, a community organizer from Ojo Sarco, New Mexico (pop. 400) and an advocate for Geographic Democracy, in the Daily Yonder. She said:
Nothing brings home to a community how absolutely unimportant they are to the federal government more than losing a post office. First you lose the post office, then you lose the zip code and, the final blow, for postal purposes you lose the very name of your town.