Friday, November 24, 2023

While imperfect in its representation of the Osage Nation, "Killers of the Flower Moon" highlights the Osage's important story

Martin Scorsese recently released his latest film, "Killers of the Flower Moon." In honor of Native American Heritage Day, this blog post takes up the issue of how the Osage Nation received the film. 

"Killers of the Flower Moon" or ("Killers") is a three-and-a-half hour epic western, romance, and comedy. "Killers" is based on David Grann's 2017 acclaimed nonfiction book, whose subtitle is: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. This film tells a dark and painful chapter of the Osage nation. It is inspired by true events. 

Scorsese decided that the heart of "Killers" should be the relationship between Mollie and Ernest Burkhart, an Osage woman whose family members were mysteriously dying off (Lily Gladstone), and her settler husband (Leonardo Dicaprio). 

The film takes place around Pawhuska, Oklahoma, shortly after World War IPawhuska is the county seat of Osage County, Oklahoma. With a population of 2,984, Pawhuska is rural according to the U.S. Census Bureau definition. 

While the Osage's ancestral domain included much of Oklahoma, legends indicate that the tribe originally lived near the mouth of the Green River in Kentucky. In paleolithic times they ranged from the fork of the Ohio River to the Mississippi and beyond, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. The ancestral home of the Osage was part of the Louisiana Purchase that the U.S. acquired in 1803. Missouri achieved statehood in 1821, and soon after over 5,000 Osage were removed west to the "Indian Territory."

By 1872, American settlers forced the Osage to relinquish most of their remaining homelands and relocate to a reservation in present-day Oklahoma. In 1897, the Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company discovered vast oil deposits under their new reservation. The Osage had the mineral rights to the oil discovered, which made them some of the richest people in the world by the 1920s. This oil wealth also made them targets of a murder conspiracy.

"Killers" tells the true story of the so-called "reign of terror," when members of the Osage Nation were murdered after they became wealthy from the discovery of oil underneath their land. The murder conspiracy was concocted by affluent rancher William K. Hale (played in the film by Robert DeNiro). The film revolves around the relationship of an Osage woman, Mollie Kyle and white World War I veteran Ernest Burkhart, who is Hale's nephew. 

The Osage murders became the U.S. Bureau of Investigation's first major homicide investigation

"Killers" was met with critical acclaim and was widely acclaimed by critics and audiences, receiving a rare 93 percent tomatometer rating, with one reviewer writing:
Enormous in runtime, theme, and achievement, Killers of the Flower Moon is a sobering appraisal of America's relationship with Indigenous peoples and yet another artistic zenith for Martin Scorsese and his collaborators.

However, not everyone received the film well initially. When Martin Scorsese indicated he would direct and co-write "Killers," plenty of Osage people were skeptical. Since the film largely centers around a white man, many Osage members criticized the film, including Christopher Côté, an Osage language consultant on the film: 

As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from the perspective of Mollie and what her family experienced, [b]ut I think it would take an Osage to do that.

Former Osage Nation Chief Jim Gray told CNN about his initial hesitancy about the creation of "Killers." Gray served as the Osage Nation chief from 2002 to 2010, and he is direct descendent of one of the Osage murder victims. Today, he is the principal consultant at D.B.A. Gray Consultants. Gray expressed initial reaction with the film:

I was worried we were going to get exploited again — not so much in losing resources and our land, but in the telling of the story of how we lost our resources and land.

In an editorial in the Tulsa World, Gray explained that while he has an uncomfortable perspective with the film and the history it tells, overall he is pleased that it highlights Osage history.

Devoid of today’s understanding of how we think of ourselves as Americans and our so-called exceptionalism, this movie lures you in with the beauty of the Osage culture and the excitement of the oil boom. Then it grabs you by the lapels and demands that you pay attention to what society and federal Indian policy thought of Indigenous people when the lure of money brought in society’s every dark element to engage in an orgy of theft, murder and exploitation. It wasn’t just bad people doing bad things; it was bad federal policy that permitted it. 
Gray commented that he was glad that, before the film was shot, Scorsese and "Killers" film crew recognized and listened to how the Osage tribe and community were impacted by these murders.

In 2019, Scorsese and his team met with members of the Osage Nation and others to discuss "Killers." At the meeting, Gray and other tribe members got the chance to voice their concerns about the script and the film, offer feedback, and share ideas that partially changed the trajectory and theme of "Killers." Gray wrote in the op-ed:
If we don't take control of our own story and communicate our own narrative about our own history then somebody else will.
Due to the consultation with the Osage community, Osage orthography and language is spoken by both Osage and non-Osage actors. Throughout the film, the characters don traditional clothing made by Osage artisans. The scenery in the film is accurately depicted and was filmed on the Osage reservation.

Gray said that the Scorsese team welcomed the consultation with and feedback from the Osage nation. He suggested that this should be an industry standard in Hollywood: 
If you're going to make a movie with indigenous content this is the model you need to follow [b]ecause this history of Hollywood misrepresenting indigenous stories is something that should remain in the past.
Gray suggested that by centering the story on Ernest Burkhart and William Hale, perhaps "Scorsese was asking all of us to consider our part in this whitewashing of our history and possibly his own complicity as a filmmaker." 

Chad Renfro, the tribe’s ambassador for the film and a consulting producer on the project, mentioned that even if it is not perfectly told, it is positive that such a major movie highlighted the Osage's important story
It’s not every day that a small Native nation gets this platform. This is a horrific story, and it is something that is really hard for us to watch. But it is thrilling to say the least to see it come to life in such a way.
"Killers of the Flower Moon" is playing in theaters now, but it will eventually be available to stream on Apple TV+. To read more posts about indigenous peoples, see here and here

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Barbara Kingsolver speaks to the NYT about Demon Copperhead

The New York Times today published a brief interview with Barbara Kingsolver, who this year won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, Demon Copperhead, set ini Appalachia. (Read more about the book in several posts here).  This quote from the NYT interview caught my attention.

Then there are the city dwellers, who examined their own prejudices after reading “Demon Copperhead”; and the parents of teenagers who thought twice before filling a prescription for an addictive painkiller. Kingsolver has heard from them too. Because Demon, that scrappy redheaded survivor, “has been out there doing his job, I can relax a little bit. I can knit and grow my garden.”

Another key quote closes the article;  

If you’re troubled, if you’re struggling, if your kids are not OK, this is not a personal failing. This is not a failure of virtue. It’s a disease. It is not cured by incarceration. It’s cured by compassion and medicine like any other disease.

And that message reminds me of this information, from an interview George Goehl of People's Action did with Chris Hayes in a 2019 episode of "Why Is this Happening?"  Goehl told of fliers with this message being distributed in North Carolina:  

"Are you addicted to opioids?  It's not your fault.  You didn't do anything wrong.  You deserve help."  So quite loving in message.  "Please call us, the white knights of the KKK." 

I'm intrigued that two sources at opposite ends of the political spectrum would be conveying a similar message to those suffering from opioid addiction:  It's not your fault.  

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Less oversight means more risk to child workers

Worthington, Minnesota, population 13,947, described by a former resident as “a small, rural town in Southwestern Minnesota,” has more unaccompanied migrant children per capita than anywhere else in the country. Also in Worthington: a long-standing open secret that some of these migrant children are illegally employed to clean a slaughterhouse run by JBS, the world's largest meat processor.

In Green Forest, Arkansas, population 2,972, a cleaning company that works with meatpacking plants was fined over $90,000 for unlawfully employing six minors who were forced to work 16-hour shifts with no breaks. You can read more about Green Forest, AR, here and here.

While the number of children working in dangerous jobs is rising and media coverage of the phenomenon has raised public outrage, the recent trend among some states is to roll back child labor protections. 

Just two weeks after authorities found minors working illegally at the meatpacking plant, the Arkansas legislature passed the Youth Hiring Acteliminating work permit requirements for children under the age of 16. Before the Youth Hiring Act was passed in March 2023, child workers under 16 years old had to get a work permit from the Arkansas Division of Labor.  Some fear that by eliminating this requirement children will be subject to less safe working conditions because the state will have no records of where underage children are employed.
Iowa also rolled back child labor protections in the spring of 2023. As of April 2023, children in Iowa as young as 14 can now work night shifts, and 15-year-olds can work on assembly lines.
Accompanying Arkansas and Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio and Georgia have all introduced bills or laws this year to allow teens to work more, and with less government oversight.
Who is advocating for this weakening of child labor protections? Most of the bills on this issue that were introduced in Iowa, Arkansas, and Missouri were designed by the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA). Funded by ultra-conservative and Republican donors, the FGA “frames its child worker bills as part of a larger debate surrounding parental rights, including education and childcare.” 
But important and shocking facts provide a counternarrative that is grounded in parental rights: Children under 18 are twice as likely to be seriously injured at work than those over 18. In the dairy industry, injuries among all workers are double the national industry average, yet children as young as 14 regularly use dangerous equipment in that sector.
Most at risk for unsafe, unregulated working conditions are undocumented minors who come to the United States without a guardian. In 2022, 130,000 unaccompanied minors entered the United States, triple the number entering just five years ago. Undocumented children don’t necessarily understand the laws in the United States or even the language, which puts them at greater risk for labor trafficking.
While child workers are employed in all 50 states, from Maine to Hawaii,  undocumented children are likely more at risk in rural areas given the industries associated with it and the challenge of enforcing laws there. You can read about the challenges surrounding law enforcement in rural places here.
In addition to the obstacles regarding law enforcement, agriculture is the primary industry in many rural areas, and agriculture is a context in which child labor is commonly exploited. This is partly because federal laws are more relaxed when it comes to agricultural labor regulations.

In 1938, the standards for children performing farm work were more lenient because farming was considered a family-oriented task.  Farm consolidation, which peaked between 1950 and 1997,  shifted the size and number of farms in America substantially. From 1987 to 2012, the number of farms with more than 2,000 acres nearly doubled while farms with over 200 acres but less than 1,000 acres fell by 44%

Despite the shift away from family-oriented farms towards large industrial ones, the labor laws covering agricultural workers have remained largely stagnant. As a result, underage farm workers today are often paid significantly less than the minimum wage and are subject to harsh working conditions such as pesticide exposure, long working hours with no overtime, and no bathroom access or available drinking water. In fact, of all the jobs that children do, only about 7% are in the agricultural field yet agricultural jobs make up 40% of youth work-related fatalities.

Of course, child labor violations are not limited to rural places or the agricultural sector.  Tens of thousands of children are working illegally in hotels, delivery services, restaurants, and more. This is happening in all 50 states and in places stretching from rural Virginia to New York City.

As consumers of Nature Valley granola bars, Lucky Charms, Ford cars, Tyson chicken nuggets, and Ben & Jerry's ice cream (all of which, along with many more companies, have used child labor in their factories per the New York Times) we all have a responsibility to demand tighter labor laws for children in this country. Moreover, addressing this problem should not be limited to rural or urban places. Instead, this is a topic that should be tackled by coalition building along the rural-urban divide. 

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Do Democratic victories in small towns, rural areas portend different statewide trends in North Carolina?

Screen shot of Anderson Clayton praising the work Democratic county
parties are doing in North Carolina.  Nov. 8, 2023

I've written a great deal here on Legal Ruralism about Anderson Clayton, the young chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party who has attracted national attention.  One thing Clayton has advocated is rebuilding her party from the ground up--with something of a focus on ensuring local elections are contested so that North Carolina is truly a two-party state.  She wants to ensure voters everywhere have choices and that the party is present everywhere.  

Now, Laura Leslie reports for WRAL out of Raleigh, North Carolina under the headline, "NC Rides National Wave of Democratic Victories."  Here's an excerpt.

In North Carolina, Democrats are celebrating mayoral races and town council seats in unlikely places. They’re smaller wins, to be sure, but they’re perhaps even more surprising than some of the bigger victories elsewhere.

Most North Carolina municipal elections are nonpartisan. But it’s not unusual for parties to recruit, train, endorse and support candidates.
Democrats swept the mayor’s race and council seats in Huntersville, in Republican-leaning northern Mecklenburg County — the first time that’s ever happened, according to Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer.
"This is an odd election,” Bitzer said, adding that the Huntersville area has been growing and becoming more politically competitive.

* * *  

Clayton re-posted this candidate recruitment post from a county party.
Democrats also won all the open seats in New Hanover County, which is politically nearly evenly divided. They won the mayor’s race in High Point, a seat that’s been held by a Republican for many years. They even swept the town councils in Cooleemee, a tiny town in Davie County, and in Mars Hill and Marshall in Madison County, all typically Republican areas.

Democrats have not engaged much in local races in recent cycles, but longtime Democratic strategist Gary Pearce says that’s changing under new party Chairwoman Anderson Clayton. He credits her for the wins.

Pearce is further quoted:

She had made a big thing when she came in about wanting to compete in municipal races. Some Democrats were afraid that would take the focus off the 2024 election, but she proved them wrong.

They recruited candidates, people organized, and that’s good practice for next year.  It’s also just a psychological boost. You can’t underestimate how much a boost like this means.

I'm seeing a similar focus on candidate recruitment by the Arkansas Democratic Party.  

Other important stories about organizing--about being present at the local level--are here and here (the latter more focused on North Carolina), this time with attention to how Republicans are going into places like Pembroke, North Carolina, and opening community centers.  Pembroke is home of the Lumbee tribe and "in the largely rural, poverty-addled county of Robeson, in the state’s southeast corner."

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Democrat Beshear re-elected Kentucky Governor, with notable support from rural voters

Major media outlets have just called today's gubernatorial race in Kentucky for Andy Beshear, the Democratic incumbent.  Beshear becomes only the second governor in the Commonwealth's history to serve two consecutive terms.  

Dave Wasserman, the political commentator, tweeted details of several nonmetro counties' election returns, with several showing that Beshear improved his margin over his Republican opponent this year, Daniel Cameron, compared to his margin over his Republican opponent four years ago, then-incumbent Matt Bevin.  

The counties mentioned here are Anderson (population 23,000), Bell (population 25,000), Nicholas (population 7,500), Taylor (population 26,000), along with Elliot (population 7,400) and Magoffin (population 12,000).  Wasserman characterized the latter two as eastern coalfields.

Then Wasserman tweeted (that is, posted on the platform now known as X) this, comparing Beshear's performance in rural Kentucky to that of other Democrats vying for statewide office: 

It says:  

So far, Beshear (D) is running 20-30 points ahead of other statewide Dem candidates on the margins in many of these rural counties, which is a decent early sign for him.  #KYGOV

More evidence of Beshear's rural prowess is found in this data point from Midas Touch.  It contrasts Beshear's margin with Trump's 2020 margin in nonmetro Letcher County.

Letcher County, population 21,548, is in the state's southeastern corner, which is Appalachian.  It happens to be home of the Center for Rural Strategies and Appalshop, both in Whitesburg, the county seat.  The area was badly flooded in late summer 2022.  

A student shared with me this AP piece written by Bruce Schreiner in December, 2022, which sheds light on Beshear's rural strategy.  The feature focuses on both Beshear's rural outreach and on his focus on meeting people's needs, on helping them.  It uses the word caring.  Here's an excerpt: 

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Wednesday that Democrats have a better chance of connecting with rural voters in his home state and elsewhere when they talk about the things people need and the ways they can help them.
Schreiner quotes Beshear at length:
When we think about how do we communicate with our rural families, the first thing is to care about them. And to show that you care about them, and to earn their trust that you do truly care about them.
The AP story continues: 
Beshear said his party’s candidates need to show up with a core message centered on good-paying jobs, access to quality health care and good public schools — all issues that he sees as resonating with rural voters who have abandoned the party in droves in recent elections.

Beshear, who faces his own tough reelection fight next year in a state dotted with small towns and farms, is better positioned than most Democrats to talk about connecting with rural voters. He has maintained strong job approval ratings in a state where the GOP has become the dominant party.

Beshear has devoted much of his time as governor leading recovery efforts in rural areas of Kentucky stricken by devastating tornadoes a year ago and historic flooding earlier this year.

To make inroads in rural regions, candidates need to focus on the things that matter most to people — whether they’re making enough to support their families, can afford quality health care that’s accessible and can send their children to good schools.

Beshear extended Medicaid in Kentucky to include vision, hearing, and dental care.

Here's another direct quote from Beshear about vying for rural voters: 

I think Democrats should show up more in rural America because it’s America. Every person counts. The great lesson of COVID is that we all matter. And if we’re not lifting up every single part of Kentucky, we’re not doing our job.

On the caring theme, this Twitter thread is fun.  

I don't see any mention of rural people or places in the Washington Post's coverage of Beshear's victory today.   The Hannah Knowles report does note, however, that Kentucky is a "deep-red state."  The New York Times election night coverage also does not mention his rural outreach.  I expect a more in-depth feature tomorrow, and it'll be interesting to see if it notes the rural angle.  

I note that Beshear's Kentucky win with 52.5% of the vote exceeded the margin of Republican incumbent Tate Reeves, who prevailed over Democratic challenger Brandon Presley.  Reeves secured 51.8%.  In that race, a third party candidate won 1.4%.  

My earlier writing on statewide candidates' rural strategies--in particular that of U.S. Senator John Fetterman--is here and here.   

Postscript:  Here's a Nov. 13 Politico analysis of Beshear's win, featuring an interview with the governor's campaign manager, Eric Hyers.  

Monday, November 6, 2023

History repeats itself on Arkansas' Buffalo River

I grew up on chatter about the Buffalo National River, the nation's first national river, which was designated in 1972.  I grew up on that chatter because I grew up five miles from the river, in Newton County, Arkansas, home of the river's headwaters.  

My parents talked in my early childhood about their friends--the parents of my friends--whose land was condemned by eminent domain to become part of the park's land, owned and controlled by the federal government.  

While I was still a tween and teen, I saw the establishment of canoe rental enterprises in Jasper and surrounding communities, businesses that had been granted concessions by the National Park Service.  The county attracted growing numbers of tourists as it was remade into a regional ecotourism destination.  (Read more about that here and here; this is just some of my coverage of an industrial hog farm that threatened the river for several years starting in 2013). By the time I was in college and law school at the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville), 80 miles to the west, I had become a tourist on the river myself, consuming (in a sense) the very rurality in which I'd grown up, the very wilderness I'd taken for granted.  (See more photos of Newton County, including the county seat, Jasper, here and here).  

Decades on, I saw the proliferation of vacation rentals--even buildings like a beauty salon in Jasper converted to an AirBnB.  Though I've not seen any news reporting or data on the topic, folks in Jasper have told me that the widespread conversion of buildings to short-term rentals has resulted in a housing shortage.  Of course, that's happening in lots of rural communities, and urban ones, too.

In the past few weeks, the Buffalo has suddenly burst back into the news, once again in relation to its status as a national river.  The reason:  two grandsons of Sam Walton, the legendary founder of Walmart Corporation, have been working behind the scenes--apparently in cahoots with Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders and U.S. Congressman Bruce Westerman--to get the river re-designated from a National River to a National Park Preserve.  

I first saw this news on the front page of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette on October 7, but it didn't seem to break through the standard media humdrum until KUAF, the NPR station associated with the University of Arkansas, two counties over ran this program on Oct. 16.  After that segment, things started popping on social media, and the next thing I knew, I was seeing reports on X (formerly known as Twitter) of a town hall held in my hometown on Thursday, Oct. 26.  Though only about 550 folks live in Jasper, twice that many reportedly showed up at the Jasper School cafeteria, which photos show at overflow capacity.  Another couple thousand folks were said to have attended the meeting on Zoom.  

Meanwhile, the Madison County Record, a weekly newspaper in neighboring Madison County, which lies to the west, between Washington County (where the land grant University of Arkansas is) and Newton County, has been credited with breaking the story of the proposed  re-designation of the Buffalo River.

Historic building in Kingston, Arkansas, just off the square.
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2023

That is, apparently it was the Madison County Record that first reported that the Walton Family was buying up land in Madison County with an eye to its long-term appreciation if the Buffalo National River becomes a bigger deal. I can't find that coverage online, but here's more from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Walton land purchases in Madison County, including a building on the Kingston town square bought under an alias with a Nebraska address in December, 2021.  The Waltons, via the spokesperson for their Runway Group, have issued this statement about the Kingston property
Kingston Community Library
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2023

As part of a restoration effort, members of the Walton family acquired three historic buildings on the square in downtown Kingston, intending to update them and open their doors to the community. While we don’t yet have a timeline for the opening, we will share more when we do.

Though Kingston is in Madison County, its school is part of the Jasper School District. You can see a photo of downtown Kingston here.  (And there is a darling, tiny and well-cared-for library on the town square in a squat wooden building that presumably has not been purchased by the Waltons, but lies amidst the three they now own).

Of note is that the Madison County Record has made free its coverage of the Buffalo River re-designation, including this about the community meeting in Jasper on October 26.  What follows is from publisher Ellen Kreth's reporting: 

After a town hall meeting last Thursday, proponents of turning public land around the Buffalo National River into a national park preserve said they would step back from the idea. The following day, a website touting the benefits of re-designating the land was taken down.

But opponents of the idea are not backing down and don’t trust that efforts to re-designate the land are no longer ongoing.

Misty Langdon, owner of Steel Creek Cabins, who organized the town hall meeting, said proponents have poured too much time, resources and money “into this project that seems to be linked to Bryan Sanders [Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ husband],” to just walk away.

In July 2022, the Runway Group approached U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., who represents Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District and chairs the Natural Resources Committee, with the idea of making public land around the river a national park preserve.

Grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton and co-founders of the Runway Group, Steuart and Tom Walton are investors in real estate, outdoor initiatives, conservation, recreation, hospitality and businesses in Northwest Arkansas.

* * *

The Runway Group also has been linked with working with the governor’s office and the First Gentleman on the possibility of re-designating public lands.

Last Friday, Runway Group’s Vice President of Corporate and Community Affairs Krista Cupp said the group watched the town hall meeting. She reiterated they are not going forward with any proposal for re-designation. There are “no next steps,” she said.

“We wanted to explore a new idea for our home state together. However, this is not our decision to make. There is no new action being taken,” a statement issued earlier by the Runway Group said.

Cupp said when the group approached Westerman, it didn’t present a proposal to re-designate the land but simply asked if the idea was worth exploring.
Kingston Community Library 

Two Westerman staff members attended the town hall in Jasper, and his office issued a statement including this: 

Although it is in the purview of the House Natural Resources Committee to advance legislation to designate National Parks, I’ve made it clear I would not support any proposition that does not have grass roots support from those that live, work, and raise their families in the Buffalo River watershed.

As the Representative for Arkansas’s Fourth Congressional District, my first priority is advocating on behalf of my constituents. I will continue to listen to the thoughts and concerns of Arkansans that would be impacted by any change in designation. 

Westerman said he had no plan to write or introduce any legislation that would re-designate the land. 

While the Madison County Record story says the meeting was convened by Misty Langdon of Steel Creek Cabins, another report says it was convened by a non-profit that appears focused on preserving the area's history, the Remnant Group.  

Here's part of a column by Jared Phillips, a Washington County farmer who teaches at the University of Arkansas, writing about what's at stake with the proposed re-designation. 
This push by the heirs of Sam Walton to take control of Arkansas’s resources nakedly shows their true aim: control, not philanthropy. The news surrounding the proposal to change the designation of the Buffalo National River, alongside the reported purchase of Horseshoe Canyon, continued land grabs along the Kings River and more amount to only one thing: the wealthiest in the region are pushing the rest of us out. Removal by way of development and recreation is still removal.

The thing is, claims that this development will ease poverty and boost economic vitality in rural areas is suspect at best. Across the nation, developing rural outdoor recreation areas doesn’t produce a meaningful decline in poverty rates at a county level. In fact, in many cases — and Newton County is one — when poverty rates go down in these areas, it has less to do with a wage increase or better opportunity. Economic indicators look better simply because poor folk can’t afford to stay in their place any longer and must leave. That’s why we’ve seen both a drop in poverty in Newton County and a drop in population. The claim that this sort of transition brings about wholly positive things is, on its face, untrue.

The current conversation about the Buffalo isn’t actually about the river. Bike trails, art parks, high-brow museum expansions — it’s not really about that. It’s about the future of the Ozarks. All of us, old stock and new, need to ask ourselves if we are truly represented in the decision making that is shaping — often literally — the next generation’s hills.
And if we’re honest, the only answer is that we’re not. If we truly were, we’d see regional efforts to push the wealthiest and the powerful to put their money where their mouth is. We would see meaningful, long-term action to effectively address economic injustice and food security in the region. To address worker safety. To thoughtfully and wisely engage in land planning that preserves working, welcoming landscapes instead of putting fences around elite, enclosed playgrounds built on the bones of our grandparents.

Instead, what we have is an idle class dictating the region’s future according to their own wishes.

A 2021 column by Phillips and published in the Democrat-Gazette echoed some similar themes and challenged the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats.  Read it here.  

Then, yesterday, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Rex Nelson wrote in favor of the proposed National Park Preserve, offering a perspective that runs squarely counter to that of PhillipsThe headline, "Loving it to death," is a reference to tourists loving the Buffalo River so much that they come in such great numbers that the current infrastrcture, e.g., parking lots, toilets, is overwhelmed.  Interestingly, Nelson vouches for the Walton brothers--declaring their motives "pure."    

In addition to their distrust of government, those who live in these hills distrust outsiders. They’re concerned by the large amounts of land being bought by entities associated with brothers Tom and Steuart Walton of Bentonville. I know the Walton brothers, and I want to make one thing clear: Their motives are pure. They realize that our state’s ability to attract and keep talented people in the decades ahead will rest in part on our protecting and enhancing outdoor recreational attributes.

The Walton brothers could live anywhere in the world and do anything they want. But their focus these days is on enhancing quality of life in Arkansas. Other states should be so lucky. Their involvement in the Coalition for Buffalo River National Park Preserve doesn’t worry me. It gives me hope that this effort will succeed.

Here's a competing column from Mike Masterson arguing that the river should be left as it is.  And here's a column from John Brummet, political columnist writing for the Democrat-Gazette, "Selling the state down the river?"  Brummet, too, is skeptical of the wisdom of a re-designation and of the motives of Governor Sanders and the Walton brothers.  

Here's a post on how to bring oldtimers and newcomers together in places like Newton County.  And here's a post, in the context of an industrial hog farm controversy a decade ago about how the interests of folks in Fayetteville and the wider northwest Arkansas region are often seen as being at odds with those of the rural, Newton County locals.  And that reminds me:  I've not seen anyone talking about how many of the folks who showed up at the Oct. 26 meeting were "locals" from Newton County--as opposed to environmentalists from the wider region.  

Postscript:  Here's a Nov. 8, 2023 update from the Madison County Record reporting that the Newton County Quorum Court (essentially a county board of supervisors) had voted unanimously to oppose any re-designation of the Buffalo National River.  A quote follows: 

Newton County Quorum Court members passed a resolution at their Nov. 6 meeting opposing “the changing of the name designation or expansion of the Buffalo National River, and any further negative impact on the agricultural lands or infringement on private ownership on the Buffalo National River Watershed.”

The vote was unanimous with approximately 25 citizens in attendance.

Justice of the Peace Jamie Mefford said the court wanted to show its opposition to any name change, park expansion, private land rights restrictions and any agricultural restrictions.

The Newton County Times currently has yet to post anything about this on its webpage.  Sad when the neighboring county newspaper is able to cover a county's news faster than its own paper can.  

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

President Biden pops in to rural America today, reaching out to mitigate the flow of rural voters to the GOP

X post from afternoon of Nov. 1, 2023
President Biden visited rural Minnesota today, and his administration dispatched another dozen officials to various corners of rural America to talk about his agenda to help the nation's rural reaches.  

Politico's headline was revealing: "Lose by less:  Biden tries to stanch Democratic losses in rural America."  Elena Schneider and Garrett Downs report: 

President Joe Biden will visit Minnesota farm country Wednesday — officially to promote his administration’s work to support farmers in the fight against climate change and help rural areas connect to broadband.

But privately, allies hope the White House outreach — part of a two-week blitz of rural America — can also help claw back voters in a part of the country where Democrats have hemorrhaged support in recent years. While party strategists are under no illusions they can win majorities in rural counties, they desperately need to lose by less next year.

* * * 

Biden’s path to victory in 2024 cuts through these rural counties, where the Biden campaign must make “sure the margins stay close,” said Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, who’s scheduled to appear alongside the president on Wednesday and grew up in a town of 400 people.

* * * 

Losing by less matters in a slew of battleground states, from Georgia to Pennsylvania to Arizona, where Republicans can overcome leads Democrats may build in urban and suburban centers by blowing them out in small-town America. It’s a perennial challenge for Democrats, as their losses have meant fewer rural representatives in the party nationally. In a segmented media landscape, it’s harder to reach rural voters through traditional media, while the broader party brand deteriorated there in recent years. 
On that "lose less" theme, you'll find lots of content on this blog, like here and here.  

Here's a quote from Matt Hildreth, founder of Rural, a super PAC:  
Biden is a champion for these communities, but the mechanics of the party get in the way [because] getting Democrats out of this hole is a multi-cycle process. We can’t coordinate with Democrats [as a super PAC], but there wouldn’t be anyone to coordinate with even if we wanted to. I don’t think that’s Biden’s fault. I think there’s just not enough talent in the Democratic party from rural communities.

And this is from Lauren Gepford of Contest Every Race, which recruits and supports Democrats in rural places:  

I’d love for [the] Biden campaign to be on rural radio, rural billboards — make it safe to be a Biden supporter in rural America. It’s unlike me to support yard signs, but in rural areas, visibility is key.
The Politico story includes this important quote from former Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who lost the contest for U.S. Senate last year to J.D. Vance, the Republican whose 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, brought him fame and fortune.  
You can show up, but if you show up and say, ‘aren’t you doing great?’ … whether they’re the president or the secretary of Agriculture, you will be seen as completely and utterly out-of-touch and that is when people go and look elsewhere to vote for someone.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration's comms people took to X (formerly known as Twitter), with postings like these (following on the one at the top of this post):

X posts from afternoon of Nov. 1, 2023
All of this said, it'll be interesting to see if Biden's rural messaging gets through to rural Americans.  The comments in my X feed are mostly from Biden detractors, ridiculing him for these posts and lots of other things.   And, as I have written before, the fact that Hillary Clinton had a rural plan/program (and Donald Trump did not) did her little good in the 2016 election. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

The politics of guns in Maine, before and after a mass murder

New York Times screenshot from Oct. 27, 2023

Maine has been very much in the headlines for nearly a week, prompted by the nation's worst mass murder of 2023.  It began at about 7 pm Eastern time on Wednesday night, October 25, when Robert Card, 40, entered a bowling alley in Lewiston (population 37,000) with a semi-automatic weapon and began shooting.  Less than half an hour later, Card entered a bar and grill and used his weapon to kill and wound many others.   

Lewiston, with a population of 37,000, is the state's second largest city (after Portland), and it sits across the river from Auburn, population 24,000, and the county seat of Androscoggin County.  Based on the size of the population cluster, the area hardly sounds rural, but rural is a descriptor that's often been used in coverage of these events.  More often still, I have heard the word "forested" used, which is perhaps more salient with regard to the hunting theme, which I'll unpack below. 

I didn't know much about Maine's gun laws when this disaster began to unfold in the media, but we were soon to learn more.  In short, Maine's gun laws are quite lax, in part because of the state's culture, which values self-reliance and enjoys hunting, two things that happen to be related, to at least some degree.  

In the days since the mass murder, hunting has been very much a part of the story of how officials have responded to this tragedy.   For example, even after the shelter-in-place order was lifted on Friday, hunting was prohibited in the towns of Lewiston, Lisbon, Bowdoin, and Monmouth.  As the New York Times reported (see screenshot above), deer-hunting firearms season had been scheduled to begin on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, but it was initially postponed after Wednesday night's events--at least in the Lewiston-Auburn area

New York Times Screenshot, Oct. 27, 2023
following the discovery of gunman Robert Card's body 

We've also seen plenty of mentions of the state's "gun culture" in coverage of Wednesday night's events.  One New York Times headline was "After Shooting, Maine Senators in Spotlight on Guns," which included this tidbit.   

The carnage in Lewiston came as a shock to Maine, which the F.B.I., in a statistical update on crime Monday, called the safest state in the country. It also has one of the largest percentages of gun ownership.
The story quotes U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine):  
Our state has a long history of responsible gun ownership.

But the most momentous political statement about guns came from Maine's congressman for the state's second district, Jared Golden.  That district is massive, stretching from Lewiston all the way to the Canadian border.  (The state's only other district, the 1st,  includes Portland, just 40 miles south of Lewiston, and points south to Massachusetts). Some would say that Golden, a former Marine, is barely a Democrat.  Certainly, he is a centrist who has straddled a fine line between the two parties--and between rural and urban interests--with his constituents.  That is reflected in these August comments about student loan forgiveness, which he vigorously opposed as in the interests of elites and not in the interests of working-class Mainers who choose not to go to college.  

Well, less than 24 hours after the shooting, Golden, who grew up in Lewiston and attended Bates College there, grabbed the headlines by doing an about-face on his previous position on assault weapons.  As the New York Times reported it, Golden "stunned constituents in his traditionally pro-gun district by "declaring that it was time for him “to take responsibility” for his “failure” to back a ban on assault weapons, “like the one used by the sick perpetrator of this mass killing.”  The full comments, as reported in the (Portland) Press-Herald follow: 

I have opposed efforts to ban deadly weapons of war, like the assault rifle used to carry out this crime. The time has now come for me to take responsibility for this failure, which is why I now call on the U.S. Congress to ban assault rifles, like the one used by the sick perpetrator of this mass killing in my hometown of Lewiston, Maine.

For the good of my community. I will work with any colleague to get this done in the time that I have left in Congress.

Interestingly, Senator King  acknowledged Congressman Golden's "courage" in shifting his position on assault weapons, but neither he nor Maine's other U.S. Senator, Susan Collins, changed theirs.  In this NPR story, Collins is quoted as suggesting that the state's "yellow flag" law should have caused the shooter's guns to be seized.  We've since learned more about the failure of officials to act adequately on multiple reports that Card was having mental health challenges.

Back to hunting:  It's interesting that a significant aspect of the local news once Card's body was found Friday night was that hunting could resume.  It merited this "public security alert."

Screenshot from New York Times breaking news stream
at 7:55 PM Pacific, Oct. 27, 2023

Cellphones across Lewiston area just dinged with a public safety alert:  "The search is over for Mr. Card.  The caution is over.  Hunting may resume."

Postscript:  On Oct. 31, the New York Times reported under the headline, "After Mass Shooting in Maine, No Clarity on Whether Gun Laws will Change."  Here's a salient excerpt: 

Maine has a strong hunting tradition and high rates of gun ownership. It has also long had one of the lowest murder rates in the country. There were 19 firearm homicides in the state last year — just one more than the number of people who were shot to death in Lewiston in a single day. (Guns were also used in 159 suicides last year, out of 183 total gun deaths in the state.)

Monday, October 30, 2023

Tribal co-management of National Parks (Part IV): Big Cypress National Preserve

For the last installment of my National Park co-management series, I'm looking at Big Cypress National Preserve. Big Cypress covers more than 700,000 acres in southern Florida, north of the Everglades National Park. 

Big Cypress National Preserve (Antonio Chavez/Wikimedia Commons)
Big Cypress was the first National Preserve in the United States (Glacier Bay, another National Preserve I covered here, was a National Monument but became a National Park and Preserve in 1980). Parkland designations have a variety of meanings, but in the case of Big Cypress, the "preserve" designation didn't only preserve the swampland, it also preserved the preexisting land uses. Indigenous peoples thus retained their traditional use rights, as did other folks living in the swamp.

Big Cypress is the traditional homeland of the Calusa, Creek, Seminole, and Miccosukee peoples, among others. They have lived in Florida from time immemorial. Before contact with the Spanish, there were many nations and many peoples living throughout the state. After the arrival of the Spanish, disease, violence, and the slave trade decimated Florida's Indigenous population. Those who remained coalesced into broader Creek and Seminole groups. 

During Andrew Jackson's presidency, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which invalidated earlier treaties the United States had made with Florida Native peoples. The U.S. Army invaded Seminole territory and marched thousands of Seminole, Creek, and other Southeastern Indigenous people west to land that is known today as Oklahoma. The Seminole fought back for decades, eventually taking up residence deep in the Florida swampland. The US Army assumed that they would die there, and eventually abandoned the fight. 

Instead, the swamps of southern Florida have allowed the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes to thrive. The Seminole and Miccosukee have several reservations near Big Cypress and enjoy statutory rights to use the federal swampland as they traditionally would. Today, the Seminole Tribe of Florida is likely the wealthiest Tribe in the country. It operates 7 casinos in Southern Florida and owns Hard Rock International, the parent company of the Hard Rock Cafe franchise. Forbes Magazine valued the Tribe and its business holdings at $12 billion. The next richest Tribe in the United States, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota in Minnesota, have an approximate net worth of $2.7 billion.

The homelands of the Seminole and Miccosuke peoples in Big Cypress were first protected because of a massive, futuristic airport project. In 1968, two years before the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to complete environmental impact surveys on proposed projects, the state of Florida proposed the construction of the Everglades JetPort, an airport for the future. Five times the size of JFK International Airport, the Everglades JetPort was designed for supersonic flight. Boeing was working on an American answer to the Concorde, and the JetPort was  to have six runways to land those jets. It would connect to both Florida coasts through a 1,000 foot-wide transportation corridor on either side, capable of "handling tracked air cushion vehicles traveling at speeds of 150 to 250 miles per hour."

As construction began, the undersecretary of the Interior asked Dr. Luna Leopold, the son of Aldo Leopold (author of A Sand County Almenac), to conduct the state of Florida's first Environmental Impact Survey. Dr. Leopold found that the construction of the airport would almost certainly destroy Everglades National Park. The proposed runways would be only six miles north of the Everglades' northern-most boundaries, destroying vital waterways and wildlife corridors for endangered species like the Florida Panther.  

In order to build the airport, Florida would have to fill in thousands of acres of swampland. The loss of swampland would have almost completely destroyed the water flow into the Everglades. Additionally, the Big Cypress swamps allow the  aquifer that provides the drinking water for all of South Florida to re-fill. Building a giant airport would not only jeopardize that process, it would potentially contaminate the ground water with hazardous substances commonly used at airports, like jet fuel.

The reaction to the environmental impact survey was enormous  most of it in opposition to the airport. Construction on the JetPort halted in 1970, after only one runway was built. The federal government acquired the land and established Big Cypress National Preserve in 1973 by an act of Congress.

Perhaps because of the time period in which the Preserve was established, the amount of public support for the parkland designation was remarkable. The project was supported by environmentalists, Tribal interests, and everyone else living there. In addition to the Seminole and Miccosukee, the swamps of south Florida were home to many white settlers who lived off of the swampland. These people, sometimes called Florida Crackers or Gladesmen (or women), were instrumental in the establishment of the Preserve. 

Unlike the other parks I've covered in this series, which were either owned by Tribal Nations or were federal land at the time they became parks, Big Cypress was a conglomeration of private land rights that were purchased expressly for preservation. The designation of National Preserve, the first in the country, preserved preexisting land uses, including Traditional Seminole and Miccosukee practices, as well as fishing, cattle grazing, and oil and gas exploration (note, however, that no new grazing permits are being issued).

What is most remarkable about this project is that it predates quite a lot of important environmental regulation. Much of the Clean Air Act was passed the same year the JetPort project died --1970. NEPA was also enacted in 1970. The Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972. The Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973. Tribal interests, conservationists, and the people of Florida came together to prevent the construction of this airport before many of the conservation mechanisms we would use today existed. 

They were able to protect Big Cypress using older tools. 

Recently, the Collier Resources Company bought permits for oil exploration in Big Cypress. They gouged hundreds of miles of trails into the park to search for oil and gas reserves using a sonar-based system. Environmental organizations and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have spoken out about the damage the exploration has done. The National Parks Conservation Association is campaigning for the government to acquire Big Cypress's mineral rights to prevent any future extraction. 

This is the last post in my series about co-management of National Parks, so I want to offer a few over-arching observations. More so than I expected, co-management is a story of survival and of growth. The four parks I looked at were based on the four parks mentioned in this 2022 speech. Each park is unique and beautiful. Each co-management agreement is similarly unique. 

John Leshy spoke about the unique place that public trust land has in American politics at the California Lawyer's Association's Environmental Law Section Conference this year. (He covered similar topics in this interview) He argued that it can be a uniquely bipartisan issue. The creation of Big Cypress seems to exemplify that. The project was helmed by then-Senator Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, but had broad support across Florida.

I learned from Professor Leshy's talk that co-management is not defined anywhere in public lands law. He implied that this made further proliferation of these agreements more difficult. Though I don't doubt the difficulty of negotiating these agreements, it's possible that the process might make the management agreement fit with each ecosystem better. In each park, the co-management agreement has been different, according to the history, the landscape, and the interests of the Tribe(s) involved. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to land management in the United States. That's a good thing. 

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Orick: the gatekeeper and poacher of the redwoods

Every year, expensive cuts of redwood are used to make trinkets, furniture, luxury car consoles, and other goods. A significant portion of this costly timber used to make these items is poached from the Redwood National and State Parks in California. Much of it comes from in and around a town named Orick

Orick sits at the base of the Redwood National Park in Humboldt County, California. Once a place with a booming timber industry, it now has a high poverty rate, widespread drug use, and a dwindling population. Once home to 3,000 people, its population is now estimated to be just 300

Orick's undiversified economy is surprisingly supported by a lucrative underground tree poaching economy. Many Orick residents have turned to illegally harvesting redwood burls from their neighboring protected lands. Burls are the bumpy growths on redwood trees that form following trauma such as lightning, fire, and fungal infections. When injured, redwoods direct their nutrients and energy into healing this trauma, which results in the burls. The burls thus contain a lot of genetic material, making it likely for a tree to sprout from the rough bump. Cutting a burl does irreparable harm, weakening the foundation of the tree and making it susceptible to disease. More consequentially, it lessens the chance for the tree to reproduce

Tree poaching in Orick used to involve only dead redwood logs. The regular theft of redwoods began only about fifteen years ago. In 2006, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on authorities' concerns that poachers would begin chopping down live trees as the number of dead logs decreased, and this is exactly what happened. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that one in ten trees cut in national forests is poached, and the Redwood Park rangers are calling the poaching a "crisis." Investigators have discovered chunks of illegal burlwood along the 101 Highway from Eureka to Crescent City. 

Poachers are primarily motivated by money. These chunks of wavy burl hold significant financial value and a single slab of redwood can fetch a couple thousands of dollars. Poachers can easily drop their fresh loots off to local buyers in the area who then use the wood to make an array of luxury items. Burls are smoother and easier to carve making them ideal for sculptures and furniture. 

Poachers often work in teams and sneak into the park during the middle of the night. To lessen their chances of being caught, rainier weather is preferred during these operations. Poachers use chainsaws to cut into the trees and then haul away large chunks of redwood. From time to time, poachers are caught and charged. They are often fined, banned from the park, and ordered to complete community service (Read about one Orick poacher's sentence here.) These sentences, however, are sometimes not enough to stop poachers from coming back

With few economic prospects left in Orick, burl poaching has been a quick way for residents to make money. Orick had reached its peak as a logging town after World War II. During that time Orick had four sawmills, unionized timber jobs, and was a bustling town with bars, restaurants, and shops. This was also the period when many redwoods were logged––two million acres of coastal redwood were diminished to 300,000 acres. By the 1960s, the environmental impact of the logging industry was clear. In an effort to protect the remaining redwoods, environmentalists pushed for action, and in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed a bill creating the Redwood National Park. 

Timber companies blamed environmentalists for their downfall and the effects of deindustrialization that ensued. Officials told the town that while the timber industry was collapsing, tourism to the area would boom. But this did not happen. Lyndsie Bourgon, author of Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America's Woods, told NPR:

Orick finds itself ensnared in a vicious circle: its reputation for drugs and unsightly poverty deters anyone who might want to invest in making it a permanent home or a place where tourists might want to stay.

In her book, Bourgon argues that tree poaching is the product of desperation: people with a deep-rooted attachment to Orick are left with limited options. One poacher likened himself to Robin Hood, telling Bourgon, "Robin Hood was just taking care of his and his own." 

Read more about Orick here and timber poaching in California's national parks here