Saturday, October 30, 2021

The rural housing crisis out west

High Country News reported a few weeks on the housing shortage in the American West.  Here's the lede from Kylie Mohr's story:

Housing is getting more and more expensive in the West, and not just in the region's resort towns and booming tech hubs. A new report from Headwaters Economics, a community development think tank, digs into recent trends on record-breaking housing costs. “What was very apparent to us is that these unprecedented price increases that we’ve been seeing lots of anecdotes about aren’t isolated,” said Headwaters Economics researcher Megan Lawson. “It’s incredibly widespread. It’s not just limited to the Bozemans and the Boises. It’s ubiquitous.”

Nationwide, 607 counties saw a record rise in housing costs between 2020 and 2021, 134 of them in the West. Why is the West affected? Lawson ticked off a few hypotheses: Local housing stock is expensive relative to local wages, but it’s generally affordable to people from bigger metropolitan areas. At the same time, the pandemic is driving migration to areas with amenities and a high quality of life. It’s created a perfect storm of growing demand — and that drives up prices.

And here's a story from the Colorado Sun out of Silverton, population 637, in San Juan County in the southwest corner of the state.  Shannon Najmabadi reports under the headline, “Glorified homelessness”: Even tiny Silverton is experiencing the housing crisis that’s crushing mountain workers."  The subhead is, "Colorado’s housing shortage is exacerbated in remote Silverton, where there are no suburbs to commute from and little space to expand."  The story suggests that rents have as much as doubled in a year.  

Here's a resource on the rural housing crisis in California.  

Postscript:  This story illustrates another downside to the West's rural housing crisis--building and buying in the wildland-urban interface, which is particularly susceptible to fire.  

Friday, October 29, 2021

Can rurality help hide money-laundering?

Using businesses in rural America for money laundering is a central premise of the Netflix series "Ozarks," and it's also the gist of this Politico story about the recent shenanigans of a Ukrainian oligarch in a small Illinois town.  The story is headlined, "A Ukrainian Oligarch Bought a Midwestern Factory and Let it Rot. What Was Really Going On?"

Here's an excerpt from the latter, which is definitely not fiction:  

Recently, wealthy elites have begun looking for other places to park their funds, places they think authorities won’t look. Places that offer all the financial secrecy these elites need, but that few would associate with lives of luxury. As a result, shadowy and sometimes ill-gotten wealth has started pouring not just into yachts and vacation homes, but also into blue-collar towns in the U.S. whose economic struggles make them eager to accept the cash.

One of these small towns appears to have been Harvard, Ill., a depressed factory community that allegedly became part of a sprawling network used by Ukrainian banking tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky to launder hundreds of millions of dollars earned from a Ponzi scheme. Kolomoisky, who was recently hit with U.S. sanctions for “significant corruption” in Ukraine, is separately accused by the Justice Department and Ukrainian investigators of using a constellation of shell companies and offshore bank accounts to move millions in misappropriated funds out of Ukraine and into a series of real-estate investments in the American Midwest. (Kolomoisky denies wrongdoing, claiming he made the investments with his own money.)

My article on how rural spatiality conceals crime is here.  

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Globalism's negative impact on rural places

Jared Phillips, a professor of history, rural development and human rights at the University of Arkansas, published a thoughtful op-ed in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette today, "At what cost?  Rural areas bear the cost of globalism."  His focus is the Arkansas Ozarks, where he lives and works and where his family has lived for five or six generations (just like my family, I might add).  Here's an excerpt focusing on burgeoning inequality within the region--inequality that is obscured by the region's growth and facial prosperity:  

Well, in the last few decades, the fleeting wealth created by global corporations like Walmart has hidden a legacy of loss for the Arkansas uplands, making it difficult for many to believe that globalism can indeed be beneficial--especially when we're told that we as a community aren't needed, displayed best by a recent campaign to attract people here that promises $10,000 and a bicycle.

This image is incomplete, however. Because of efforts like this, and the millions of dollars funneled into the region by the Walton Foundation and its partners, Ozarkers look more prosperous, stable, and well-positioned to meet the future than ever before. But are we? I wonder.

The Ozarks is generally a rural and remote region, and following the trend of much of America, since 1950 farm numbers have plummeted by 59 percent. Certain sectors--like dairy--within agriculture have dropped by 99 percent. As these farms disappeared--and with them the small towns they surrounded and supported--the region's urban and semi-urban populations boomed as outsiders flocked to Walmart, or Tyson, or the University of Arkansas.

As farms folded, land values have jumped, and folks on the fringes are pushed into troubling employment at places like those listed above--all three of which have troubling histories of how they treat and pay their respective work forces.

This shift paved the way for a new story in the hill country, one defined by globalized progress and corporate ambition. This prosperity, however, is only true for the upper ranks of Ozark life.
* * *
This type of community change--rural decay coupled with corporate extraction and an expansion of inequality--has fueled the expansion of a strong anti-federal, anti-outsider ideology in corporate boardrooms and back hollers alike.

Most folks--at least those outside the region--think all of  Northwest Arkansas is rural.  It's good to see someone who knows and cares about the region disaggregating rural from urban and honestly observing that the rising tide in northwest Arkansas is definitely not lifting all boats.  

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Federal judge intervenes in county's effort to starve pot farms of water

The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday from Siskiyou County, California, where local officials had taken steps to cut off water to cannabis grows of Hmong farmers. The reasoning behind a federal judge's intervention in the local government decision:  the county had not taken such steps when the illegal pot grows were by white folks.  

Here's an excerpt from the story Alex Wigglesworth and Anh Do: 

In the spring of this year, county supervisors effectively outlawed the transportation of water into a rural tract that had become known for its prolific cultivation of pot, squalid living conditions and large population of Hmong farmers.

The measure was just the latest attempt by local officials to shut down the pot farms, which authorities blamed for a spike in violent crime and environmental degradation.

This time however, as the Lava fire tore through the countryside, Siskiyou County’s crackdown would erupt in violence and draw national attention to a bitter conflict involving race, water and the legalization of marijuana. It would also cause a federal court judge to openly question the county’s motives for implementing such harsh measures, coming as they were at a time of severe drought, record heat and extreme risk of wildfires.

“The dehydration and de facto expulsion of a disfavored minority community cannot be the price paid in an effort to stop illegal cannabis cultivation and any attendant harms,” wrote Judge Kimberly J. Mueller of the Eastern District of California.

More on California's water crisis and the black market for water sales that the crisis has spawned is here.  Earlier posts about Siskiyou County's Hmong pot farmers are here and here.  

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Review: ‘Gunfight, My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America’

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11 last month, J.D. Vance tweeted a photo of himself holding his young son amidst tables of guns. He captioned it, “Took the toddler to a gun show this morning. Saw some amazing historical weapons, some going back to the Civil War.”

Vance is, of course, the author of the best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, now running as Republican for the U.S. Senate from Ohio.

I found the tweet curious. After all, Vance has told us an awful lot about himself in all that he’s written, and he’s never held himself out as an outdoorsman, hunter, or gun collector. In his memoir, Vance did mention his Papaw giving him a BB gun. And we know Vance did a stint in the Marine Corps, but his was a desk job, in “public affairs.”
Tweet from J.D. Vance Sept. 11, 2021
So what gives with the kid at the gun show?

I suspect the answer lies in what Vance wished to communicate with his tweet—and who he wished to reach. Vance has recently taken policy positions that indicate a right-ward lurch on a range of polarizing issues. He notoriously retracted his 2016 criticism of Trump and has been chasing Trump’s endorsement for months. But Vance may have accomplished more with that single tweet than with all his recent op-eds and policy statements combined. After all, few messages will reach a MAGA voter as clearly and directly as a kid at a gun show.

From my hometown newspaper, 2003

But guns have long signaled something different in rural places than in urban ones. Just as significant, guns now signify something radically different than they did a few decades ago. In short, guns have become highly politicized, both a cause and a symbol of our nation’s accelerating polarization.

If you’re curious about that shifting meaning and the rural-urban rift in relation to firearms, you’ll want to read Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America, a compelling and timely new book by Ryan Busse.

Busse, who grew up rural in western Kansas and until last year was a gun industry executive, uses memoir as a vehicle for serving up a tell all on one of the nation’s most secretive, profitable, and powerful industries. He takes the reader through step after increasingly painful step of how the firearms industry—effectively corralled and led by the National Rifle Association—became so mighty a force in American life and politics that many in Congress quake in their boots at the very mention of three little letters: NRA.

Two Factions of Gun Owners

Busse attempts to thread the needle between two broad factions of gun owners. On the one hand are hunters and outdoors folk, the aficionados of guns like old-school, bolt-action rifles, pistols with artisan grips and such—the sorts of guns that are, or could become, family heirlooms. The folks who own these guns are widely associated with rural America. They’re the people I grew up with.

On the other hand are what the industry once pejoratively (and politically incorrectly) called “tactards,” those drawn to fire power, high capacity magazines, and the semi-automatic experience associated with so-called “black rifles.” Interestingly, lots of folks also associate these guns with rural America, though no one needs a semi-automatic weapon to hunt game or to protect themselves.

Busse is firmly in the former camp. His love of guns and the outdoors—and his respect for both—drew him as a fresh-faced 20-something to his dream job with Kimber, a boutique manufacturer of rifles and pistols based in Kalispell, Montana. The early rollicking pages of Gunfight exude a youthful enthusiasm. Those chapters are populated by colorful characters like Busse’s first boss at Kimber, an Aussie who ate three meals a day at the neighborhood strip club (who knew strip clubs served breakfast?) and a fellow Kimber salesman with a “world-class mullet,” a mustard-yellow pick-up, a dog named Ted Nugent (after the famously pro-gun rocker), and chronic girlfriend problems.

But as Busse climbs the corporate ladder, the gun scene in the United States shifts away from the old guard gun faction, which Busse calls “wise men,” and towards the tactards and their black rifles. This is where the tale turns ominous—for both Busse and the nation. There’s the bullet-proof glass erected at Kimber’s manufacturing facility to protect executives in the event a worker “goes postal.” There are the crass jokes about a “back-to-school sale” on guns in the wake of Columbine. Eventually, as Busse refuses to toe the industry line on politics, there are threats against him.
From ‘Old Guard’ to ‘Tactard’

This shift from old guard to tactard is illustrated well by two vignettes from Gunfight.

The before times are represented with a description of the Southwind Classic, an annual prairie dog hunt Kimber sponsored at the Kansas ranch of Busse’s youth. The event gathered trade journalists to try the company’s wares and have a good time. When a young writer showed up at the event in 2004 with an AR-15, the wise men of the industry
huddled around the new kid to explain the unwritten rules of their polite gun society. … ‘Look, son “normal” people don’t use or shoot that kind of gun,’ one of them explained. … ‘We’re not like those tactards,’ someone said, referring to … fringe consumers who believed more in the rifles of militia building than the art and craftsmanship of the fine guns we were trying to sell.
Fast forward eight years to the after times. Busse describes in chilling detail the Bushmaster XM-15 E2S Shorty AK that Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012: “specifically designed for professional military combat in close-quarter situations … like vehicles, terrorist-filled caves, and buildings with numerous hallways and doors—building like grade schools.” Busse details the gun’s various upgrades to establish that Lanza was “equipped with the most lethal military weaponry ever made,” thus illustrating how the industry had shifted to cater to the very tactards the old guard had shamed and shunned less than a decade earlier.

Busse argues that fearmongering and associated pressures within the firearms industry effectively fueled not only the development of guns like Lanza’s—guns “designed to win wars through efficient mass killing”—but also the demand for them:
Social media accounts boomed. New companies were built. Fortunes were made. Lanza and his rifles were products of it all, and when he arrived at Sandy Hook and pulled out his own black rifle, there were no norms left to break.
Studies in contrast like this one make Gunfight a menacing account of how quickly the firearms industry changed, in a deadly feedback loop with what Busse sees as a radicalized segment of America. But it’s impossible to say which came first, the chicken or the egg? That is, was the firearms industry fomenting the radicalization, as Busse asserts, or was it radical, right-wing forces outside the industry that prodded firearms manufacturers down the incendiary and deadly path they are still on?

Busse’s Big Pivot

Whether the genesis of the polarizing winds was from within the industry or outside it, Busse saw the tornado taking shape on the horizon well before Sandy Hook. Busse’s big pivot—at once personal and professional—came midway through the Bush administration when he spoke out in a high-profile venue against a Bush-Cheney plan to open public lands in the West to energy exploration. Among the places at risk was Badger-Two Medicine, Busse’s most beloved Montana hunting grounds and a place sacred to the Blackfeet tribe.

Busse didn’t see his pro-conservation position as being at odds with his employer or his industry, explaining he was “trying to help save places so we can sell more guns.” But his stance attracted attention from across the political spectrum because it marked him as a turncoat, “a red-meat gun executive who criticizes a Republican.” Busse writes of being “betrayed and embarrassed” at having “been duped into believing I was part of an industry that shared the values of my childhood—much of the talk about conservation and hunting was just another ruse to get people like me into the culture war.”

Both the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation came down on Kimber for Busse’s opposition to the Bush administration plan, and for a time, his job seemed to hang by a thread. Yet the attention Busse garnered from his contrarian stance convinced him he could “exert an outsized impact by staying inside the industry.” So stay he did. By Busse’s account, he was a fly in the ointment of the firearms industry during that time, a consistent voice of moderation in the face of a freight train barreling in the direction of hate, intolerance, fear—and the attendant proliferation of military- style weapons available to anyone who wanted them.

Busse’s writing is clear, and the story thread of Gunfight is fast-paced and engaging. He does a fine job of stitching together much of the recent history and politics of firearms in America. But perhaps Busse’s greatest value add is having been in the room where it happened. Busse was privy to industry decisions about marketing and re-positioning their wares to take advantage of shifting tides and emerging cultural forces.

Among these forces was the role of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans-turned-influencers, men like Kyle Best and Mat Lamb who developed massive followings on social media and inspired wannabes that the industry called “couch commandos,”
the millions of consumers who had never fought in a war, much less joined the military, but who nonetheless considered themselves experts simply because they scrolled through the social media feeds of [influencers] like Lamb and Best, and knew how to play first-person-shooter video games from the comfort and safety of their couches.
Thanks to the demand created by consumers like these, guns in “desert tan” finish became a standard feature of new product launches.

Other aspects of gun marketing also morphed to meet the moment’s burgeoning new consumer sectors. Corporate leaders had previously consulted with attorneys to avoid giving guns names that might expose companies to liability on the basis that they encouraged deadly behavior. Thus products had long been marketed with mundane names like Kimber Custom Classic, the Remington 870, and the Smith & Wesson Model 629. But as the industry shifted to fuel sales to the new “tactical culture,” it embraced provocative names like the Ultimate Arms Warmonger and the Combat Super Sniper AR-10.

The pages of Gunfight are replete with illustrations of the power and greed of the firearms industry. Take the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey amendment, introduced in 2013 in the wake of Sandy Hook. Seeing some federal gun reform as inevitable—and even a good idea—a few industry players expressed early support for the amendment, a less restrictive option than one proposed by the Obama administration.

The Manchin-Toomey amendment would have done nothing but close the loophole that permits purchasers to avoid background checks when they buy at gun shows. That law had long been a thorn in the flesh of those seeking regulation, in part because it was that very loophole that had enabled Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to get their hands on the guns they used to kill 15 at Columbine High School in 1999. Indeed, the loophole is another reason the photo of Vance at a gun show is, well, triggering—no pun intended—for those who support common sense gun reform.

As Busse explains it, the Manchin-Toomey amendment would have had a negligible impact on gun sales, simply channeling purchasers to established retailers. But for the NRA, stopping the law—any gun safety law—was about more than short-term profits. It had become a matter of principle after Smith & Wesson secretly negotiated with the Clinton administration in 2000 to agree to several safety features and marketing limitations, e.g., trigger locks, not marketing firearms to the general public, in exchange for limits on liability associated with handgun violence.

Combined with Clinton’s success with the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban of the 1990s, Smith & Wesson’s move—considered a betrayal to the industry—had been too much for the NRA to bear; indeed, it also put both Clintons permanently in the cross-hairs of the organization. After Smith & Wesson’s back room deal, Busse asserts, the industry rigorously policed internal dissent. It embraced zero tolerance of gun safety regulation and developed a lobbying machine capable of achieving that goal.

It was in that context that Wayne LaPierre and his deputies went for broke on Manchin-Toomey. In the face of what looked like the worst of a string of public relations disasters for the gun industry over the course of a few decades—the massacre of 20 first graders and six educators—the NRA announced it would “score the vote” on the amendment. This meant politicians’ NRA rating was at stake. Too many senators, anxious to retain their A+ grade from the NRA, were unwilling to call the organization’s bluff. Manchin-Toomey failed by a vote of 54-46.
A Million Gun Sales after Sandy Hook

If the slaughter of innocents with a semi-automatic rifle inside the walls of a primary school couldn’t move the needle on gun reform, it got harder to imagine what could. Equally shocking was the NRA’s decision to roll out a new slogan in the wake of Sandy Hook: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Again, the firearms industry turned a national tragedy into a literal call to arms, which meant it conveniently doubled as a sales opportunity. Not only did the slogan stick among a growing number of second amendment absolutists, a million guns sold in the week following the massacre. Other staggering new records were set, as daily gun sales hit 30-to-40 times normal levels at national retailers like Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s and tens of thousands of high-capacity magazines flew off the shelves in a single hour.

As Busse expresses it, the firearms industry had again succeeded “in converting an opportunity to make policy improvements into just another temperature increase for the national pressure cooker.” It is that failure to make policy improvements that Busse seems to think portends ill for gun owners like him and other hunters, those of the old-fashioned, wise men variety. Busse argues that if gun owners won’t accept moderate regulations, they risk far more sweeping regulations once the legislative tide finally turns on gun safety measures. The weakness in his argument is that it’s nearly impossible to see that tide ever turning with sufficient force to threaten the sorts of guns the old guard values and owns.

The firearms industry flex, like the one in response to Manchin-Toomey, is a move Busse documents through one mass murder after another—and through one Democratic administration after another. The specter of regulation always goosed gun sales, in part because the firearms industry messaged paranoia—even lies—about the loss of gun rights. During the 2008 presidential campaign, for example, the NRA claimed Obama would “ban use of firearms for home self defense,” “ban the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns,” develop plans to “ban virtually all deer hunting ammunition” and “erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and exorcise it from the U.S. Constitution.” No evidence supported these assertions, but like the “alternative facts” that came to be associated with the Trump administration a few election cycles later, truth was beside the point.

In talking about how the industry leveraged Obama’s Blackness to drive up fear, Busse doesn’t shy away from calling out a racial dog whistle. For example, he summarizes the NRA’s message about Obama’s candidacy: “the only thing worse than losing a culture was having it taken by a Black community organizer from Chicago with a law degree from Harvard.”
Book Ignores Street Violence, Suicide

Yet Gunfight generally neglects other racialized and gendered phenomena associated with guns. These include the role of firearms in killing thousands every year—disproportionately people of color—in street violence, as well as their role in an epidemic of intimate partner violence. The word “suicide” isn’t used once in the book. Busse also glosses over controversies associated with self-defense, though he does name names in placing the blame for the “Stand Your Ground” law that protected George Zimmerman when he killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012: Marion Hammer, LaPierre’s predecessor at the NRA. The epidemic of children—including toddlers—who get their hands on guns and kill or wound people accidentally or purposefully also is not taken up in the book, though this phenomenon surely implicates all gun owners and suggests that the gun safety norms that were a feature of my rural upbringing have fallen away. All told, hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost to gun violence in the last decade, but Busse sticks almost entirely to headline-grabbing mass shootings to bolster his depiction of an industry with no internal controls and, he concludes, no decency.

Following Busse’s initial dust-up with the firearms industry over his pro-conservation stance, he describes an enterprise in airtight alignment with the Republican Party and all its policy stances. What Busse reveals, in fact, sounds remarkably like an early iteration of the sort of loyalty and purity tests we have seen more recently in American politics, though associated with the cult of personality as much or more than policy positions. Consider that the few members of the GOP supporting an investigation into the Capitol insurrection of January 6 have become pariahs within their party.

Indeed, while Gunfight was already in the publication pipeline on January 6, 2021, it’s interesting to revisit the line Busse draws between the old guard and the tactards in light of that day’s events. Initial reports suggested that it was rural and working class white folks who’d stormed the Capitol, but subsequent investigation has revealed that relatively affluent suburbanites led the charge. The coastal elites among whom I live and work tend similarly to associate rural folks with the black-rifle set—if they differentiate at all between Busse’s two factions of gun owners. Guns have thus become one more reason for folks in my uber woke world to cast rural residents as the bad guys, though I suspect there is no more correlation between rurality and the take-no-prisoners, permit-no-regulation set in the gun industry than the media have found between rurality and the January 6 insurrectionists.

Gunfight depicts the firearms industry as a big bully, but it hasn’t just bullied senators, members of Congress and, by extension, the entire nation. Part of the book’s tension comes from the parallel bullying Busse experienced as a dissident within. In one jarring scene, Busse’s boss at Kimber—angry at slumping gun sales at the end of Obama’s presidency—quips, “The problem is that we have Democrats. Let’s solve our problems, Ryan. How about we just kill all the Democrats? Well, all of them except you, Ryan. Let’s kill all the Democrats except Ryan.”

In the face of such an abusive workplace, Busse’s explanation for why he stayed at Kimber as long as he did is not always convincing. At several junctures, one fears he will sacrifice his marriage for the company and his career, as his wife repeatedly implores him to get out of the gun business. In the face of these pressures, one assumes that Busse was not only stubborn, but presumably well compensated, perhaps anticipating that Kimber would go public and deliver a windfall. That didn’t happen, and sanity—as well as the proverbial love of a good woman—ultimately prevailed when Busse left Kimber in mid-2020.

As should be evident by now, Gunfight is not just about guns. It’s about how guns have become a potent symbol in the culture wars—of Right v. Left, Republican v. Democrat and—accurately or not—rural v. urban. This book is also about greed, power, lobbyists, the post 9/11 wars, militias, and how we got to January 6. At the end of the day, Busse may convince you that guns are not only literally killing people, they’ve become a potent symbol of the polarization that’s killing our democracy.

Originally published by the Daily Yonder.  

Monday, October 25, 2021

Two stories of extreme political division in micropolitan Montana

The New York Times reported from near Great Falls, Montana today, and the Washington Post reported from Kalispell, west of Glacier National Park, near the Canadian border.   

The headline for Reid Epstein's front page story in the Times is "Where Facts Were No Match for Fear."  As suggested, disinformation plays a role in the division in that north central region of the state.  The headline for Lisa Rein's Washington Post story is "Montanans used to live and let live. Now bitter confrontations cloud Big Sky Country."

Both lengthy pieces are well worth a read.  The Kalispell story, which involved confrontation and open carry of guns at a parade there, reminded me of the opening scene of the book Gunfight, by Ryan Busse, published last week.  It depicts the participation of the author and his family in a Black Lives Matter rally in Kalispell, where they live, and their encounter with a pistol-toting MAGA supporter.  That scene, too, was very tense.  I have a review of the book forthcoming in the Daily Yonder tomorrow, so you can read more then and there. 

Sunday, October 24, 2021

In honor of the 125th anniversary of the NYT Book Review, the 1913 review of Cather's "O Pioneers!"

Here's an excerpt from what was published in the paper today
The hero of the American novel very often starts on the farm, but he seldom stays there; instead, he uses it as a springboard from which to plunge into the mysteries of politics or finance. Probably the novel reflects a national tendency. To be sure, after we have carefully separated ourselves from the soil, we are apt to talk a lot about the advantages of a return to it, but in most cases it ends there. The average American does not have any deep instinct for the land, or vital consciousness of the dignity and value of the life that may be lived upon it.

“O Pioneers!” is filled with this instinct and this consciousness. It is a tale of the old wood-and-field worshiping races, Swedes and Bohemians, transplanted to Nebraskan uplands, of their struggle with the untamed soil, and their final conquest of it.

Be sure to read the rest here, which includes some fascinating reflections on gender and the feminine.  Here's a post about "O Pioneers!" that I wrote in 2012, when I first read the book.  

More on the California water crisis

I've written recently about the coastal northern California water crisis, specifically in Mendocino County, a few times, here and here.  Now the Washington Post is also reporting from this scenic corner of the Golden State.  Scott Wilson reports under the headline, "In this California county, one town has no water. Another has enough to share."  Wilson contrasts what is happening in coastal, working class Fort Bragg, which has purchased a $335,000 water desalination plant, with what is happening down the road in Mendocino village the more picturesque tourist draw where residents are being encouraged to install 1000 gallon tanks.  But the bigger distinction is between these two coastal locales and the county seat, Ukiah, population 16,000, which is inland, across the coastal range.  There, water is plentiful, and trucks full of it are being dispatched to help their coastal counterparts. 

Here's an excerpt: 
The vastly different ways these small towns between San Francisco and the Oregon border are managing their water supplies highlight how uneven California’s brutal drought has been across the state — and even within a single county. Traditionally one of California’s wettest, Mendocino County is now a confused mountain-and-valley geography of damp and dry as the climate changes.

This was the first year in memory that Fort Bragg could not sell its surplus water to Mendocino Village, an old lumber town of historic Victorians and homegrown boutiques.

Postscript:  This story, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times on October 25, suggests that Marin County, two counties to the south from Mendocino and just north of San Francisco, and sharing a Pacific Ocean fronting, will run out of water by next year.  The story, reported by Bloomberg's Todd Woody, highlights Marin County's wealth--it's the state's richest county.  Here's the lede: 

In Marin County, a $2-million house with an ocean view doesn’t necessarily come with a reliable water supply.

Water managers are taking extraordinary measures to keep faucets flowing should the state enter a third year of a punishing drought this winter. That this affluent redwood-studded ecotopia faces such a possibility, though, is a harbinger of a climate-constrained destiny that is fast arriving.

Woody quotes Newsha Ajami, a hydrologist at Stanford University's Water in the West program:   

These droughts are now on a new timeline. There used to be at least 10 years in between droughts in California, which was time enough for water ecosystems to recover.

Sadly, that's no longer the case.  

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Parsing rural and urban in the final California recall tally

The San Francisco Chronicle this week published some analysis of the final results of the effort to recall Governor Gavin Newsom.  The story compares the September 2021 recall support for Newsom to the support he got when he ran for office in 2018, with data parsed at the county level.  Here's an excerpt that focuses on the state's more red counties, which tend to be the less populous ones or to include large rural populations, like those in the Central Valley: 
Counties that had majorities opposing Newsom in 2018 were likely to further oppose him in 2021. For example, only 38% of the 437,000 voters in Kern County were against the recall. That’s 2.9 points fewer than the share that voted for Newsom in 2018. In neighboring Kings and Tulare counties, Newsom support decreased by 4.3 and 3.9 points, respectively.

Similar patterns emerge in some northern counties, though their populations are much lower. For instance, Lassen County, with about 16,000 registered voters, had the smallest share of voters against the recall at 16%, which is nearly seven points fewer than the share that voted for Newsom in 2018.

There are some exceptions though. Some red counties saw support for Newsom grow slightly. In northern Shasta County, though only 30% of voters cast “no” recall ballots, that’s up 1.5 points from Newsom’s 2018 vote share. Nearby Trinity County had a 1.6 point increase, while support in Placer County in the greater Sacramento area increased 1.4 points.

Few counties with majorities that supported Newsom in 2018 had sizable negative shifts. Imperial County, a historically blue county at the southern border of California between San Diego County and Arizona, had a 2.3 point decrease from 62% to 59%.

Here's an earlier post about the recall.   

Thursday, October 21, 2021

On migration from urban to rural, from the coasts to the heartland

Lots of folks left city life for "country life" (by one definition or another) during the pandemic, as noted in this recent feature in the Los Angeles Times about Angelenos decamping to the high desert area around Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley in the Inland Empire.   Now comes another LA Times story about Angelenos (and folks in cities like Denver) on the move, but now the city folks are moving farther afield, to places like Nebraska and Iowa.  Don Lee reports.  Here's an excerpt about the trend, which Lee frames as a reversal of the rural brain drain:

For generations of young people reared in the nation’s heartland, it has been almost a rite of passage: Grow up in a small town, finish school, head out for the opportunities of cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. It’s been a major factor in the aging populations and declining economies of rural communities.

But the pandemic may be reversing — or at least slowing — that trend as many people reassess their priorities. Just as critically, the COVID-19 health crisis has opened up more telework opportunities, making life more feasible for those wanting to live in smaller states and towns.

Smaller cities such as Topeka, Kan., and Stillwater, Okla., are wasting no time capitalizing on new employment prospects, offering thousands of dollars in cash for new residents moving into their areas for work.

Iowa, Nebraska, West Virginia and other states have launched an assortment of grants and other inducements aimed at enticing people to work there, especially in rural communities. 

Reminds me of this piece from The Conversation last week (which I blogged about a few days ago), where the focus was on climate change, rather than the pandemic, as the migration driver.  The headline there, "How ‘managed retreat’ from climate change could revitalize rural America: Revisiting the Homestead Act," and the authors are urbanists based in Toronto and New York, Hillary A. Brown and Daniel R. Brooks.  Here's a related story from the Daily Yonder a few days ago

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Combating illegal cannabis farming in California and related grandstanding by a U.S. Representative

I blogged yesterday about private fire fighting efforts by Hmong pot farmers in Siskiyou County, California, on the Oregon state line.  Today I want to highlight this Sacramento Bee story about efforts there to eliminate illegal cannabis grows.  The headline is "California marijuana busts surge despite legalization as agencies target illicit growers." The story embeds a video clip of what I think can fairly be described as a publicity stunt by U.S. Representative Doug LaMalfa (R).  It's a clip of him in a bulldozer destroying pot farms in the far northern California county, which is in his sprawling, mostly rural district.  At the end of the video, LaMalfa emerges from the bulldozer and raises his arms in a victory gesture.  

Andrew Sheeler reports for the Bee

Four years after weed became legal in California for adult recreational use, state law enforcement officials have doubled the amount of illicit marijuana plants seized and eradicated in an annual campaign.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta on Monday announced that the California Department of Justice’s annual Campaign Against Marijuana Planting program, also known as CAMP, had eradicated nearly 1.2 million illegally cultivated cannabis plants this year.

That’s up from 614,267 plants seized in 2018, the first year that recreational marijuana was legal in California.

It includes this statement from Bonta:   

Illegal and unlicensed marijuana planting is bad for our environment, bad for our economy, and bad for the health and safety of our communities.  Today, I’m directing my office to review the CAMP program and ensure that we are using our resources to effectively address the environmental, labor, and economic impacts of illegal cultivation. From dumping toxic chemicals in our waterways to cheating the state out of millions of tax dollars, illicit marijuana grows have far-reaching impacts and unintended consequences.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

If you thought private fire-fighting was a rich So Cal thing, you need to know what's happening in rural Nor Cal

Theo Whitcomb reports for the High Country News out of Siskiyou County, California, where Hmong pot farmers have established their own firefighting branch in the wake of this year's wildfires.  Here's an excerpt: 
In late June, lightning struck the western slope of Mount Shasta, a volcano in Northern California, igniting the Lava Fire. Four days later, gusting winds sent flames billowing towards the unincorporated community of Shasta Vista, where over 3,000 residents, predominantly Hmong Americans, live.

One resident, Neng Thong, who bought property there a year earlier, joined with 30 others to form a firefighting force. The community saw no choice; people no longer trusted the county or state to protect them. A seven-year crackdown on cannabis farming had eroded what little trust existed between the Hmong American community and county leaders. Thong believed the county would simply use the fire as an opportunity to clear the area. Others thought the county would implicitly approve the destruction of their property. Recently, vigilantes who’d fulminated against the subdivision on the sheriff’s Facebook page openly mentioned arson, with one user wondering whether it would be legal to start a fire. Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue, in a recent interview, brushed off the exchange, saying that the vitriol is “just kind of the way Facebook is.”

“They announced that they’re going to burn our town down,” Thong told me a month later, showing me a screenshot of the comment. “We wanted to save our property. If we hadn’t stayed, the entire area would’ve burned.”

An earlier post about these events is here, with a focus on the Hmong man who was shot by law enforcement.  

Another interesting angle on this is that wealthy communities have set up private fire fighting services in recent years in southern California, and wineries and tourist destinations are doing it in Sonoma and Napa counties.  But I wouldn't have expected it to happen in relatively poor Siskiyou County, where racial difference and attendant distrust seem to be the driving force.  

Monday, October 18, 2021

Revitalzing rural America in the face of/as a consequence of climate change?

It's a nice contrast with yesterday's post about the disparate ability of rural communities to fight climate change, but here's a piece in today's The Conservation about how it can be done, mostly with re-settlement efforts, re-directing folks who can work from home.  But is it feasible?  and who gets displaced? 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

A tale of two rural communities in the face of climate change

The Daily, the New York Times podcast, featured two rural North Carolina communities--one wealthy, one not--in an episode this week.  The availability of money is making all the difference in how impoverished Fair Bluff responds, compared to Avon, an example of rural gentrification, on the outer banks.   

Fair Bluff has flooded repeatedly in recent years, but there is no money to even re-open businesses or get city hall up and running.  Avon, on the other hand, is investing in a novel geo-engineering technique called "beach nourishment" to keep the beach from washing away, even as residents complain that their taxes might be increased to pay for the efforts.  Here's an excerpt from the transcript.  Flavelle is the journalist who has reported on the two communities, and Michael Babaro hosts The Daily.  Bobby Outen is an official in Avon.  

Chris Flavelle

Beach nourishment boils down to a fairly simple process. What you do is you find a spot offshore where the sand at the bottom of the ocean roughly matches the size of the sand that you want to replace, you build a machine that sucks the sand off the ocean floor, pumps it through a pipe a few miles to the beach, then you lay it down on the beach basically building back the beach that’s been torn away by the waves. 
Michael Barbaro
That doesn’t sound simple at all. It basically sounds like forcing a beach to exist where none does exist by mechanically pumping sand in.

Chris Flavelle
It’s not easy, but it works. The issue is how much does it cost.

Michael Barbaro
Well, how much does it cost?

Archived Recording (Bobby Outten)
The beach nourishment will cost us around $11 to $14 million.

Chris Flavelle
He says the price tag is as much as $14 million, which, even for this relatively wealthy town, is still a lot of money. Remember, there’s only a few hundred full time residents.

Archived Recording (Bobby Outten)
So now the question becomes how do we pay for it? And that’s probably why most if not all of you are tuned into this meeting. 
Chris Flavelle
So they’ve now got to figure out how they’re going to raise that much money.

Archived Recording (Bobby Outten)
There are no federal or state funds available. None.

Chris Flavelle
So right off the bat, and this is where the meeting becomes a bit contentious, he says, look, we’re not getting this money from the federal government. We’re not getting it from the state. We’ve got to find a way to come up with this money on our own.

Archived Recording (Bobby Outten)
We’ve been to every source of funds that we have, and we’ve been unsuccessful in getting funds. And so if we’re going to do the project, somehow it’s got to be done with funds that we generate in the county.

Chris Flavelle
This is where Bobby Outten says, you know what?

Archived Recording (Bobby Outten)
As we had proposed before, everybody in Avon would be paying something for this. 
Chris Flavelle
We’ve got to pay for it, and that means raising everyone’s taxes. But the problem isn’t just that people don’t like the idea of paying higher property taxes.

Archived Recording (Bobby Outten)
The rate of erosion in the Avon area has increased dramatically.

Chris Flavelle
The second problem is, this isn’t a forever thing.

Archived Recording (Bobby Outten)
Beach nourishment projects are designed to last five years.

Chris Flavelle
You don’t just do beach nourishment once. It’s a temporary fix.

Archived Recording (Bobby Outten)
And as that beach erodes, we plan to do a maintenance project in five years to put the beach back. And we plan to keep doing that as long as we can.

Chris Flavelle
Because, almost by definition, you are just putting back sand that’s designed to wash away. And the only issue is, can you keep reloading sand faster than the ocean takes it away?

Michael Barbaro
And are the Avon residents in this meeting, are they on board with that? Paying for this through a tax?

Chris Flavelle
Oh, they were very unhappy with it. 
Archived Recording (Avon Resident 1)
I don’t understand why you don’t put in place a single countywide beach nourishment tax.

Archived Recording (Avon Resident 2)
I just don’t understand how you can tax everybody at different rates? It just doesn’t seem equitable.

Archived Recording (Avon Resident 3)
I find it almost unbelievable, frankly, that you propose raising property taxes on private property owners in Avon to pump sand onto a beach that’s owned by the U.S. federal government. And to help protect a section of highway NC12 that’s owned by the state of North Carolina.

Chris Flavelle
Now everyone seemed to have a different opinion about what to do instead. There was no agreement on who should pay for it.

Archived Recording (Avon Resident)
So you haven’t been successful so far. Go back again! Don’t give up. Keep trying until you get the funding we need.

Chris Flavelle
And so over the course of this meeting, which lasts maybe two hours, Bobby Outten becomes sort of the whipping boy for all these problems. He’s the guy who has the job of persuading people that although they are upset about this idea, there really is no alternative.

Archived Recording (Bobby Outten)
We can’t wait. If we wait to see what and if they’re going to do, by then we will — the problem we’re trying to prevent will happen. And so we don’t have time to wait.

Fair Bluff, which has a significant Black population, has been featured in several other New York Times pieces about flooding and climate change.  An early September 2021 article titled "Climate Change is Bankrupting America's Small Towns" features a number of struggling towns in addition to Fair Bluff.   

What follows is from a 2018 opinion piece in the New York Times titled "Decimated by Hurricanes, Rural America Needs Our Help." 

Coastal-plain residents ... don’t casually choose to live in harm’s way; they are deeply connected to a landscape, a culture and a way of life that makes their place home. North Carolina river towns like Fair Bluff, Goldsboro, Kinston, Lumberton, Princeville and Seven Springs have long, storied histories — Lumberton is home to the largest Native American community east of the Mississippi River, the Lumbee, and Princeville is the oldest town chartered by African-Americans in the United States.

These rural towns have much in common: river’s edge locations tied to agrarian roots; household incomes far below those required to live on the coast; and historic houses, town halls and churches in areas designated as floodplains.

It should come as no surprise that some of the poorest, most disenfranchised populations live in high-risk floodplain areas, and they are often the least equipped to evacuate before the storms or rebuild afterward.

The opinion piece refers to the same general region as the other NYT pieces.  And this is out of Fair Bluff in 2016, in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.  

Just as I am about to publish this blog post, another river region struggling with the impact of climate change, is featured in the NYT:  West Virginia, in particular Rowlesburg and Farmington.  The headline, responding to Senator Joe Manchin's refusal to support the Biden infrastructure bill unless concessions are made on climate change initiatives, is "As Manchin Blocks Climate Plan, His State Can't Hold Back Floods."  

Postscript:  A new Daily Yonder story features yet a third North Carolina community struggling with climate-change related flooding, Caruso.  

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Rural Californians struggle to keep homeowners insurance in wake of wildfires

PBS reported a few days ago from Greenville, California, destroyed by the Dixie Fire in early August.  Here's an excerpt from the story, Cat Wise being the journalist and Kevin Goss a pharmacist and member of the County Board of Supervisors, whose pharmacy was destroyed:

The state of California has issued a moratorium that will prevent insurers from dropping homeowners in wildfire-scorched areas over the next year. And the California FAIR Plan is supposed to ensure that all homeowners, including high-risk ones, have some basic fire insurance. But barriers remain.

Kevin Goss:

Insurance is always a problem, homeowners insurance. And some of these folks could not afford the higher rates that these insurance companies are having to charge to insure these homes.

Cat Wise:

It's only the beginning of a long process of cleaning up, but Kevin Goss says that, so far, they have gotten the help they need because this small town sits at a crucial waterway.

Kevin Goss:

They are actually moving at a pace that is urgent, as we are the headwaters to the Feather River that feeds Oroville, which is one of the main water sources for the state of California.

So, this debris, they do not want to go into that water system.

Cat Wise:

These green wattles are supposed to keep that debris from contaminating the water system.

Still, Chad Hermann says the aftermath of a wildfire in a rural community like Greenville is a far different picture than when fire strikes wealthier California enclaves

Chad Hermann:

When you look at the fires that they had down in Sonoma, you have an infrastructure with a fantastic money base, between the wineries and industry. In the real mountain communities, you don't have that.

We're not a rich county. So, when you have a group of people who have very little to begin with, and they lose everything, it makes it very difficult to come back from that. And we still have people without adequate housing. So we have people that are still in tents and travel trailers.

Cat Wise:

Kevin Goss is hopeful that the town he's known all his life will rise again with better fire-wise planning and more resilient construction materials to prevent the town from burning again.

Kevin Goss:

Some folks, the trauma is going to be too much for them to come back. And it's just — it's permanently seared in their brain and they don't want to go through that again. Folks like myself and others are going to say, hey, you know what? We're going to build this thing back to where it can survive a fire like this.

Most folks want to come back to their home. I mean, even though it looks like this, it's still their home. It's their piece of property. It's their — where they grew up or where they have had all these memories.

Note the contrast with Sonoma County, where wine country interests ensure more resources for fighting fires.  

Earlier posts about the Dixie Fire and the destruction of Greenville are here.  

Friday, October 15, 2021

On Liz Cheney's standing in Wyoming

John Montgomery reports for the Washington Post Magazine under headline, "What Wyoming Really Thinks of Liz Cheney" Wyoming is the least populous state in the country and therefore is pretty darned rural--at least by some measures.  An excerpt follows: 

The first person I interviewed, in Cheyenne at the southern edge of the state, was a retired elementary school teacher walking her dog near the state Capitol. She said she admired Cheney for standing up to Trump. She added, “I don’t know anyone else in Wyoming who supports her except me.” Passing the storefront office of the state GOP, I couldn’t help noticing a poster celebrating “Premier Wyoming Republican Women.” Of the seven women listed, two were dead and none was Liz Cheney.

To understand the origins of the grass-roots anti-Cheney movement, I knew I had to head west into Carbon County. Despite its name, the county is home to some of Wyoming’s most impressive wind farms. Herds of beef cattle grazed placidly beneath swooping turbines tilting at a carbonless future. I pulled into the town of Saratoga (population 1,615), where I found the Whistle Pig Saloon. Joey Correnti IV, chairman of the Carbon County GOP, was waiting for me. He wore a cap with a red, white and blue buffalo on the front, a white shirt, black vest, jeans, cowboy boots and a pistol on his hip. I mention the gun only because it was the first of many that I saw in this open-carry state, and soon I stopped noticing them. “I don’t see any reason not to have a firearm with me at all times,” Correnti told me in a rust-bucket baritone that I recognized from his appearances on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast.

If anyone gets credit for helping spark the prairie fire of resistance to Cheney, it’s Correnti. The day of the impeachment vote, Correnti found himself fielding spontaneous impassioned rants from members of the party in Carbon County. That night he put together a Zoom meeting with maybe 50 people. They vented and began to brainstorm. Three consecutive nights of Zooms culminated in a virtual town hall with about 150 people from around the state. “Being rural Wyoming, if you have 150 people in a captive audience, you’re actually talking to about 15,000 people,” Correnti says. “It’s literally some people’s jobs in communities to be the person to know about this and bring it back to the coffee shop or whatever.” The next day, Jan. 16, the county party passed the first censure of Cheney. In coming weeks, all but a few of the state’s 23 county GOP chapters followed, modeling their resolutions on Carbon County’s, and so did the state GOP.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CLIV): Rural gentrification, driven by COVID, in the Los Angeles Times

Sarah Parvini of  the Los Angeles Times reported this week on families who decamped to the high desert of Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree to escape city life during the pandemic.  Here's a quote:

The high desert communities of Yucca Valley, Pioneertown and Joshua Tree about 130 miles east of Los Angeles have been inundated not only with new home buyers but also renters and city folk who come to work remotely at one of the many Airbnbs that have cropped up in recent years — sometimes to the chagrin of locals who could live without hearing the loud parties, or driving through the dust kicked up by Teslas plowing through dirt roads in a rush that those used to a slower pace of life have trouble understanding.

“It feels like the zeitgeist of the desert,” said Tom Murtagh, a Realtor in Twentynine Palms. “It’s a time of change. A lot of people here are having a tough time with it and I am very sympathetic. It’s a tough situation — gentrification reached the desert and it’s good and bad. There’s money to fix things, but it’s a double-edged sword.”

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Small town government run amok (Part VIII): Expose on nonmetro sheriff's department in rural northern California

Ryan Sabalow and Jason Pohl report in today's Sacramento Bee, out of Del Norte County, California, population 28,610, about malfeasance--or perhaps just negligence--on the part of the sheriff's office there. Here's a quote from the lengthy, front-page story:  

There’s a motto among locals in this coastal corner of Northern California, a rugged place where tourists ambling among the redwoods outnumber residents living in Crescent City. 

“There’s no law north of the Klamath,” a nod to the river at the county’s southern border with Humboldt County. 

Locals still mention the saying — which dates back to the unruly 19th-century Gold Rush — when they talk about the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office. 

The office has been struggling with a series of departures and scandals that have some in the community questioning whether the department is so dysfunctional that it cannot safely perform its duties and protect the public. At least two dozen sheriff’s office employees have left the department since January 2020, an average of more than one a month. It’s a disproportionate number for the department that currently employs just 60 people.

This framing in terms of rural lawlessness reminds me of my theorization of these issues in relation to rural spatiality, inability to achieve economies of scale and general lack of resources, as discussed here.  

Earlier posts featuring or mentioning Del Norte County are here.  

How Democrats lost the Midwest's "factory towns"

Jonathan Martin reports for the New York Times under the headline, "Democrats Lost the Most in Midwestern ‘Factory Towns,’ Report Says."  Martin is reporting on a study by a nonprofit, American Family Voices, about what has been going wrong for Democrats in small towns in America's mid-section, stretching as far east as Pennsylvania and upstate New York and as far west as Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri.  

The share of the Democratic presidential vote in the Midwest declined most precipitously between 2012 and 2020 in counties that experienced the steepest losses in manufacturing and union jobs and saw declines in health care, according to a new report to be released this month.

The party’s worsening performance in the region’s midsize communities — often overlooked places like Chippewa Falls, Wis., and Bay City, Mich. — poses a dire threat to Democrats, the report warns.

Nationally and in the Midwest, Democratic gains in large metropolitan areas have offset their losses in rural areas. And while the party’s struggles in the industrial Midwest have been well-chronicled, the 82-page report explicitly links Democratic decline in the region that elected Donald J. Trump in 2016 to the sort of deindustrialization that has weakened liberal parties around the world.

“We cannot elect Democrats up and down the ballot, let alone protect our governing majorities, if we don’t address those losses,” wrote Richard J. Martin, an Iowa-based market researcher and Democratic campaign veteran, in the report titled “Factory Towns.”

 * * * 

“If things continue to get worse for us in small and midsize, working-class counties, we can give up any hope of winning the battleground states of the industrial heartland,” writes Mr. Martin.

Surveying ten states — the Great Lakes region as well as Missouri and Iowa — Mr. Martin laid out a set of stark figures.

Comparing Barack Obama’s re-election to President Biden’s election last year, he notes that Democrats gained about 1.55 million votes in the big cities and suburbs of the region surveyed. In the same period, they lost about 557,000 votes in heavily rural counties.

But in midsize and small counties, Democrats lost over 2.63 million votes between the two elections. Dubbing these communities “factory towns,” Mr. Martin separates them by midsize counties anchored around cities with a population of 35,000 or more and smaller counties that lean on manufacturing but do not have such sizable cities.

Monday, October 11, 2021

A photo essay on rural Michigan Post Offices

It's from The Belt Magazine, by Josh Lipnik, and features all purpose-built "modernist" style structures built after WWII.  Sharing here since I've shared so many photos of rural U.S. Post Offices over the years.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

On liberal Democrats organizing and politicking efforts in rural communities

Mica Soellner reports in the conservative Washington Times, featuring candidates and organizers from various "red" or "reddish" rural communities.  One of the candidates featured is Jessica Piper, who is running for Missouri legislature from the northwest part of the state.  Images are from her Twitter feed.

Also featured is Anderson Clayton of Roxboro, North Carolina, whose work was highlighted in the Daily Yonder here a few months ago.  Clayton recently helped elect a Democratic majority--including two African American women--to the Roxboro City Council.  Clayton is chair of the Democratic Party of Person County.  Read more here.  

Friday, October 8, 2021

How feasible are electric vehicles in rural America?

Tesla Superchargers, Mount Shasta, California
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2021

The headline for Mike Seely's recent New York Times piece asserts that "Rural America's Roads Might Resemble Cuba's in 20 Years."  The crux of the story is, "As the nation shifts to electric vehicles, picture well-kept but long discontinued gas-powered pickups, especially in areas where charging stations may be sparse."  An excerpt follows:  

As the world’s cars become electric, it might be logical to presume that the mechanical wizardry required to repair a classic internal-combustion car within two hours will become a deeply discounted skill. After all, President Biden has announced that he would like to see electric vehicles account for 50 percent of all new U.S. car sales by 2030.  Fully electric vehicles currently account for about 2 percent of new car sales in the United States.

While the cause won’t be trade embargoes but rather this coming generational shift to electric cars, experts say it’s possible that American roads could resemble Cuba for a spell, with older cars running on gasoline engines kept in circulation long after they ordinarily would have been traded in for another fuel-burning model.

“We think there will be Cuba, especially in the rural areas of the U.S.,” said Michelle Krebs, an executive analyst for Cox Automotive. Battery advancements will be crucial to making progress on the number of electric cars on the road, she added. “Range is really important to people in faraway places; you have to drive long distances just to get to the grocery store,” Ms. Krebs said.

This recent Washington Monthly piece by Matthew Metz and Janelle London takes up another angle on adoption of electric vehicles:  how to structure the tax incentives to get more folks--especially folks who drive more--into electric vehicles.  The subhead sums things up, "Bigger rewards to gasoline 'superusers' will reduce carbon emissions more quickly.  Paradoxically, it may also diminish economic inequality."  Here is an excerpt:

Like so many things in the U.S., gasoline consumption in the U.S. by cars and light trucks is distributed unequally. According to our research, the drivers in the top 10 percent of gasoline consumption, whom we call “gasoline superusers,” each burn upward of 1,000 gallons of gasoline per year. Collectively they consume 32 percent of all gasoline. The top 20 percent of drivers burn about half of all gasoline.

Based on National Highway Travel Survey data, we know that about 64 percent of gasoline superusers drive pickup trucks and SUVs, compared to 41 percent of other drivers. Superusers drive about 30,000 miles a year, nearly three times the average for other drivers, and they’re more likely than other drivers to live in rural places. Among metro areas, Houston, Detroit, and St. Louis have the highest concentration of superusers. In the Washington, D.C. metro area, 6.6 percent of drivers are superusers, and collectively they burn 22 percent of the region’s gasoline.

Heavy gas mileage takes a toll on your checkbook. Superusers spend on average 8 percent of their household income on gasoline and up to 20 percent for moderate- and lower-income superusers. But purchase incentives for electric vehicles don’t take gasoline usage into account. Indeed, it’s the lowest-mileage, higher-income drivers who are most likely to avail themselves of such incentives. The median household income of a Prius owner was estimated a few years ago by J.D. Power to be $108,283.

The poorer you are, the less likely you are to own an electric vehicle. Did we mention that cars are expensive?

The obvious solution is a redistribution of electric vehicle incentives toward superusers. An EV incentive of $10 per gallon of past annual average gasoline use would bestow $15,000 on a pickup truck driver burning 1,500 gallons a year. That’s a meaningful incentive for pickup and SUV drivers to buy electric versions of those vehicles now coming on the market.

All of this important analysis reminds me of the related struggle to find charging stations in rural areas.  A student wrote a blog post about this in her hometown, Ukiah, California, a few years ago.  I noticed when I was planning a trip home from Mount Shasta this past weekend that I could not reliably get to all of the places I wanted to go off I-5 (where charging stations are reasonably plentiful).  In particular, I was frustrated that I could not reliably drive home via Plumas and Lassen counties because the only charging stations in the Lassen County seat, Susanville, are not superchargers.  Indeed, it looked as if only patrons of two specific Susanville motels/hotels are permitted to use their so-called destination chargers, and I had no plan to stay at either.  (Destination chargers are like the ones Tesla owners have at their homes; they take hours to full charge a vehicle, whereas superchargers can do so in half an hour).  Adding to my aggravation and uncertainty was the fact that some maps showed a tranche of superchargers at a Susanville casino, but I ultimately concluded it had not yet been built, but was merely at the planning stage.  So, rather than travel home via these northern Sierra and high desert counties, where I wanted to survey the Dixie Fire damage, I just came home via I-5.  

Certainly, I can imagine living and working in Plumas or Lassen County and not being willing to go electric because of the high cost of electric vehicles and the relative lack of charging infrastructure.  These are problems that must be solved if widespread adoption of electric vehicles in rural places is to occur.  

All of this reminds me that one of the upcoming talks in the Rural Reconciliation series will be about transportation. Greg Shill of the University of Iowa will speak on that topic on January 27, 2022.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

A Day in the Life of a Central Valley town

Priscella Vega reported for the Los Angeles Times this week out of Stratford, California, population 1,277, an unincorporated community at the southern end of the Great Central Valley.  Vega's story, with photos by Brian van der Brug, is mostly a "day in the life" feature on this King County community.  The town is being sapped by drought, even as immigrants and others struggle to hang on--even innovating and seeking grants to help them put on festivals and events.  

But like many rural towns in the American West, Stratford, about 40 miles south of Fresno in Kings County, is a shell of even its humble heyday. It’s fading amid ever-rising temperatures, years of drought and recession.

Westlake Farms, once the biggest employer in town, scaled down its 65,000 acres and had massive layoffs in 2000 to a bare bones operation. U.S. Census figures show Stratford’s population shrank from 1,277 in 2010 to 901 in 2020.

Land sinks here, sometimes at nearly historic high rates of more than 1 foot per year, because of excessive groundwater pumping. Out of its four wells, Stratford can only rely on one — the others are unreliable and are unusable.

People in Stratford have tried to do what they can to help it stay afloat. The latest business to open, a taco truck, arrived at the town’s request. To raise money to revitalize the town, a nonprofit called Reestablishing Stratford applies for local grants and receives donations from local clubs and residents to host 5K runs, food drives and even haunted mazes for Halloween.

“Small towns like this remind you of all those little positive traditions that maybe big cities start to lose,” said Robert Isquierdo Jr., a former resident who co-founded the nonprofit with Chavez.

It's a poignant, yet somewhat hopeful story, well worth a read in its entirety.  An earlier story by Vega, also out of the Valley, is featured here.  

Monday, October 4, 2021

Rural California schools and transitional kindergarten

Steve Kellner attends briefly to rural difference in his essay for Cal Matters, "Universal Transitional Kindergarten Will Be a Game Changer."  

On a Tuesday evening in May, third-grade teacher Clara Yanez and second-grade teacher Jackie Gonzalez stood in front of their board of education and asked them to count little plastic farm animals.

While not a typical agenda item at Buttonwillow Union Elementary School, this exercise in “counting collections” was a way for these teachers to show board members the building blocks of coherence from preschool to third grade. Counting is essential to all years of early math, and this lesson design helps breakdown barriers that separate the grade levels.

Common classroom practices are an important first step in creating a collaborative environment where teachers and students benefit from a consistency between grade levels.
* * *

Creating a 14th grade in our public schools is a game changer, especially for students who come from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes and students who are English Learners. But the promise of transitional kindergarten will fall short if it is created as a stand-alone program across California’s 1,000 school districts.

Although high-quality education for 4-year-olds is difficult to access even in the state’s largest districts located in densely populated urban centers, most of California’s districts are small, less than 2,500 students, and located in rural areas, further compounding the challenge of early education options. Since many of these districts are often the community’s largest employer, the opportunity to provide transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds will fill a critical equity gap toward accessing early education across California.
* * *
Back in Buttonwillow, board members successfully grouped their plastic farm animals into groups of threes and fours to complete the lesson. Although this activity alone won’t create coherence, Yanez and Gonzalez both expressed that they were glad the board members had a tangible example of how teachers work together across grade levels.

“Even in our small district it is important to give our board members a connection to the student experience,” they remarked. Stuart Packard, superintendent at Buttonwillow noted that the board presentation was “an opportunity for our teacher-leaders to showcase their quality teamwork over the past year. Their perseverance to continue the focus on coherence even during distance learning was commendable.”

Friday, October 1, 2021

On the rise and (at least temporary) fall of Dollar General

Michael Corkery of the New York Times reports today on the struggles of Dollar General and other stores that cater to low-income populations:  
the unbridled success of dollar stores and their business model, which has benefited from the prevalence of poverty and disinvestment in the inner cities and rural America. Dollar stores, which pay among the lowest wages in the retail industry and often operate in areas where there is little competition, are stumbling in the later stages of the pandemic.

Sales are slowing and some measures of profit are shrinking as the industry struggles with a confluence of challenges. They include burned-out workers, pressure to increase wages, supply chain problems and a growing number of cities and towns that are rejecting new dollar stores because, they say, the business model harms their communities.

Prior posts about Dollar General (or at last mentioning it) are here.  Interestingly, I noticed a Dollar General visible from I-5 as I drove through Dunsmuir, California yesterday.  I don't recall it being there last time I visited, in summer of 2018.