Rural Jobs Grew a Percentage Point in September, but the Longer-Term Trend Is Still a Problem

Rural Jobs Grew a Percentage Point in September, but the Longer-Term Trend Is Still a Problem

Rural America added more than 200,000 jobs over the past year but is still below pre-pandemic employment levels, according to a Daily Yonder analysis.

The failure to reach full recovery three and a half years after the start of the pandemic is related to larger trends, including an aging population, lack of childcare, and lower levels of formal education, according to an economist.

Rural employment grew to 20.4 million in September 2023, the latest month for which county-level jobs data is available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s an increase of one percent from last year. But rural America still has 64,000 fewer jobs this year than it did the same time in 2019, before the pandemic.

Meanwhile, metropolitan counties have gained back more jobs than they lost during the pandemic.

“Rural areas took a hit,” said Elizabeth Davis, Ph.D., professor of economics at the University of Minnesota.

Rural counties haven’t fully recovered from the 2008 financial crisis, much less the drop in employment brought on by the pandemic, Davis said.

Every month, the BLS releases data on the number of employed and unemployed people for every county for the preceding 14 months. To take a look at longer employment trends, I compared each month between January of 2020 and September of 2023 to the same month in 2019. The result gives a percentage change in employment from the last full year of pre-pandemic employment. Comparing the same months each year removes seasonal variations that affect employment.

Take this graph, for example. The start date is January of 2020, which I compared to the employment numbers of January of 2019. February of 2020 then shows the change since February of 2019, and so on. By September of 2023, employment in urban areas grew by 2%, while rural areas decreased by 0.31%, compared to pre-pandemic employment.

Urban Counties Recovered Faster than Rural Ones, but the Gap Is Closing

At the start of the pandemic in early 2020, rural counties initially didn't suffer as much job loss as urban counties. Employment dropped 13% in April 2020 compared to 2019, while urban counties had a 15% decrease for the same period.

(We’re using the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidelines to categorize counties as either metropolitan or nonmetropolitan. The OMB metropolitan definition is based on the size of a city in the county and/or the commuting patterns of county residents. Counties not categorized as metropolitan are nonmetropolitan. We are using this nonmetropolitan category as a proxy for rural.)

By May, employment nationwide began to recover. Rural counties were actually ahead of urban ones in employment recovery for the first year of the pandemic. (See the red line [rural/nonmetropolitan] in the graph below, which is above the blue line [urban/metropolitan] until about June 2021.) After that, urban gains eclipsed rural gains in employment. The graph below shows how that gap widened noticeably in January 2022.

This graph shows a gap in recovery rates of rural and urban counties. Where the red line is below zero, rural areas were doing better than urban ones. When the red line is above zero, urban areas are doing better. During the second year of the pandemic, urban job recovery outpaced rural recovery by larger margins.

As of September of 2023 (the most recent data available), urban employment recovery was 2.5 percentage points higher than rural recovery.

Only 43% of rural counties have returned to pre-pandemic or better employment numbers, while about two-thirds of urban counties have. If we break that analysis into different sizes of urban/metropolitan counties, we find that the suburbs of major and medium-sized metro areas did the best. Small metros (under 250,000 residents) were the worst-performing metropolitan counties. And rural/nonmetropolitan places were the least likely to have fully recovered.

Rural counties made up 95 of the top 100 counties with the most employment loss. Six percent (122) of rural counties have 10% fewer jobs now than they did in 2019, compared to only 0.7% of urban counties.

But the good news is that the rural/urban gap has been narrowing over the past few months. Five out of the nine months in 2023 saw a decrease in the disparity between rural and urban counties. The gap was 3 points in January, compared to 2.5 points in September of this year.

Possible Factors: Lack of Childcare, Lower Levels of Formal Education, Older Populations

Davis, the University of Minnesota of economist, said it can be hard to generalize about rural employment because rural areas are so different from each other. But there are a few demographic factors she said might be at play in employment recovery.

“We hear a lot of employers concerned about the lack of childcare because they can’t find workers,” Davis said. “They hear from their workers and their families that they can’t find childcare so they can’t work, or can’t work full time.”

Davis said it’s challenging to sustain childcare centers in rural areas because the market is smaller. There may not be enough families with young children who can afford to pay for childcare to sustain such businesses. Lower wages and higher costs of transportation in rural areas can also affect household decisions about childcare.

A greater share of the rural population is also moving into retirement, which reduces the number of employed people.

“The aging of the workforce is happening faster in rural areas than urban areas,” Davis said.

The median age of the rural population is 43, compared to 36 for the urban population, according to the Census.

Not only are employers having trouble finding employees of working age who can afford childcare, but lower levels of formal education in rural America can also shrink the pool of potentially employable people.

Although education levels are on the rise in small towns and rural places, they still haven’t caught up with urban levels. Twenty-one percent of rural residents over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree, up from 15% in 2000. The share of the urban population with a bachelor’s degree increased from 26% to 36% during the same time period, which widened the gap between rural and urban education levels.

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A USDA program gives a second chance to food that stores won’t sell — but is perfectly good to eat

Over 100 billion pounds of food goes to waste every year in America. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to Food Bank is trying to cut down on that waste by connecting local farmers and food pantries, but its future depends on how much funding is included for the program in the next farm bill.

Community colleges are helping with housing, gas and food to keep students in class

A student gets off of a short blue bus.

Peja Reed lives in Bristol, about 10 miles from Virginia Highlands Community College. But it usually takes her an hour to get to class in the morning.

Four days a week, she wakes up at 6 a.m. to be ready for the school’s #CollegeExpress bus. Driver Jeb Turner said Reed is always waiting in front of her house when the bus rolls off nearby Interstate 81 and collects her from her street on the north edge of the city around 6:45 a.m. Then Turner picks up a few more students closer to downtown Bristol before heading to campus in Abingdon, about a dozen miles back up I-81.

Reed then has almost two hours on campus before her 9:30 a.m. biology class. “I’ll do my school work,” she said. “But that’s what I was trying to do this morning, and I fell asleep.”

Transportation challenges are common for students at Virginia Highlands, which has an enrollment of about 2,000 students — and a service area of more than 1,000 square miles. Many students live far from the bus stops that serve the region’s commercial core, and even those bus lines have gaps that can make it difficult to get to campus.

That transportation challenge could be the breaking point for some people who are thinking about enrolling in an academic or job-training program at the community college.

Help paying for tuition is plentiful: Beyond federal and state student aid, Virginia also offers free tuition for a variety of job-training programs in an effort to place more workers in growing industries. And high school graduates going directly to community college can often get free tuition thanks to local “last-dollar” programs that pay for what’s left over after federal and state aid are applied.

But free tuition doesn’t mean much if a student can’t get to campus.

The #CollegeExpress is one example of how community colleges are trying to meet the evolving needs of their students in Southwest Virginia, a largely rural corner of the state facing widespread challenges driven by systemic changes in the region’s economy.

And as the population of fresh-out-of-high-school students levels off, community colleges must also figure out how to better serve adult learners who are seeking new skills that can lead to better-paying jobs, and who are dealing with their own financial, transportation or child care barriers.

From handing out grocery gift cards to offering laptops on loan, some campuses are finding ways of providing “wraparound” services to help students not just enroll but also complete their programs, earning degrees or certificates that can boost their earning potential.

Reed would like to study international business economics at East Tennessee State University, an hour over the state line from Bristol, or at Mary Baldwin University in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. For now, she’s a first-semester student in the general studies program at Virginia Highlands. If she didn’t have the #CollegeExpress, she’d need to ask her father to fit pickups and dropoffs around his shifts at a gas station.

She doesn’t have her driver’s license yet, but she’s been putting away money from her part-time fast-food job to buy a car in time for the fall 2024 semester. So far, she has $300 saved.

The Virginia Community College System has implemented a systemwide platform to match students with resources to provide for some of their most basic needs. But system leaders acknowledge continued struggles to serve the diverse student body.

One of the few things that unites every community college in the state system is “the significant need for wraparound services for the students they serve,” said Jennifer Gentry, vice president of institutional advancement for the state community college system.

Peja Reed, 18, laughs at a comment from driver Jeb Turner as she rides the #CollegeExpress bus after attending biology class at Virginia Highlands Community College. The bus takes students who lack transportation to and from classes. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

Community colleges as essential education hubs

Virginia’s community college system has come under increased pressure to bolster the state’s economy in recent years, in part to fill jobs left vacant by population declines in the southern and western parts of the state.

In rural parts of Southwest and Southside Virginia, students come from expansive geographic areas that have been transformed by the decline of the coal, tobacco and textile industries. Rural areas have increasingly aging populations, and four-year college students are more likely to leave Virginia than stick around after graduation.

Community colleges in these places must serve a wide array of students with a range of education and career goals. Reasonable costs and open access are part of the draw, whether students plan to transfer to a four-year university or take their credentials earned over a matter of weeks or months into the workforce. The cost per credit hour to attend a community college in Virginia is $155; it costs almost three times that to attend a public four-year college in the state.

Virginia ranks seventh in the nation for educational attainment beyond a high school diploma, according to analysis by the Lumina Foundation. But the affluent Northern Virginia region around Washington, D.C., plays a significant role in that ranking. As you move into rural Southwest and Southside Virginia, the attainment level declines considerably. In Lee County, at the very southwestern tip of the state, only 18% of adults 25 and older have at least an associate degree.

In the 2023 spring semester, Virginia’s community colleges enrolled about 133,000 students in academic and workforce training programs, 70% of them part-time. Fields of study range from commercial truck driving to dental hygiene to music theory.

Financial aid, including federal and state grants, is critical at these 23 schools spanning 40 campuses. Nationwide, about 1 in 3 community college students receive federal Pell grants, reserved for students with the greatest financial need, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. In Virginia, that number jumps to almost half. At some rural community colleges in the state, it’s closer to 60% of students receiving Pell grants.

But while traditional financial aid might cover some or all of tuition and fees, it may not stretch to cover the cost of books, required software or uniforms such as nursing scrubs. Nor does it pay for living expenses such as housing, fuel, food or child care.

The state community college system knows that many of its students are struggling. The system, too, is trying to do more with less.

Funding for community colleges in Virginia pales in comparison to what the state Legislature  sends to four-year schools. For fiscal year 2022, Virginia ranked ninth from the bottom for state appropriations per full-time-equivalent student at two-year schools.

“We educate the learners that are the most challenged and therefore need more help accessing these resources. And yet we are funded 57 cents on the dollar for every dollar that goes to a four-year university,” said David Doré, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System. “An investment in our learners is an investment to get people into high-wage jobs that will stimulate the economy.”

The current state funding structure provides limited financial support for wraparound services, leaving it up to individual schools to obtain grants or contributions to cover the costs of such programs.

The majority of community college graduates remain in the commonwealth, Doré said, so “Why would we not be investing more in that?”

Laura Pennington, vice president of institutional advancement at Virginia Highlands, said some schools can better address basic student needs than others.

“It takes money,” she said. “And you’re very often not going to be able to use state money or federal money to address those” basic needs. Foundations and community-based organizations are crucial for continued success of low-income students, she said.

Each school’s philanthropic foundation has an emergency fund for students that’s supplemented by a statewide foundation, the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education.

The state foundation has distributed nearly $13 million to local community college foundations over the last five years to help students with costs related to attending school.

“The niche is to fund where the state doesn’t fund,” said Gentry, vice chancellor of the  community college system who also serves as executive director of the foundation. “We try to fill in where students have the greatest needs, and we count on the colleges to identify what those needs are in their local communities.”

The foundation’s major initiatives include financial support for former foster youth attending community college, workforce development in rural areas and services for student parents, along with covering unexpected expenses that can derail a student’s progress.

Virginia Highlands has used money from the state-level foundation and its own philanthropic arm to build its transportation and food assistance programs.

The #CollegeExpress bus started as a carpool matchmaking effort by college staff to help bridge the transportation gap for students who live outside its base in Abingdon. The school’s service area covers two counties and the city of Bristol, for a total population of just under 100,000.

In Virginia, about a third of community college campuses lack a public transit stop within walking distance, according to analysis by the Civic Mapping Initiative of the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, which promotes access to public services.

When Virginia Highlands’ carpool matching became too unwieldy, the school secured a $25,000 grant from the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education and contracted with the local transit agency to provide service for its students.

The #CollegeExpress launched in 2019 with one route to Bristol and just a handful of regular riders; it now has three routes, and 37 students are signed up to ride.

The bus service, which picks up most students within a block or two of their homes, evolves with student needs. Karen Cheers, who runs a program at the college that supports low-income, first-generation college students, said a student recently called her on a Tuesday because she found out she didn’t have a way to get to class the next day.

Cheers coordinated for the bus to add her to a route on Wednesday.

Lelia Bradshaw, dean of students at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap, gives a tour of the campus food pantry. The pantry, which has been open for about 10 years, offers a variety of dry and frozen goods along with baby formula and diapers for students in need. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

Responding to critical needs

Leigh Ann Adams couldn’t figure out why all the milk was gone.

Adams coordinates the PHIL Station at Virginia Highlands, a food pantry posthumously named after a beloved faculty member. Tucked away in a building that has low foot traffic for privacy, the modest windowless room offers an array of nonperishable options and quick-prep meals.

If anything, Adams said, students are shy about using the food pantry, concerned that it will take away from another who needs it more. But one day during this fall, she said, all two dozen of the small containers of milk she had purchased just a few days earlier vanished from the minifridge. Concerned about possible theft, she asked campus security to check the camera mounted in the corner of the room, to find out if one person had taken the milk, or many.

“That many people had come in,” she said, and had taken all of the milk.

Last spring, Adams restocked the pantry every three weeks. This semester, she says, “I could probably go to the store twice a week, if I had the time and we had the funds to do that.” She said the pantry easily goes through $325 worth of food weekly.

The PHIL Station food pantry at Virginia Highlands Community College is open for students looking for a meal to eat between classes or for groceries to take home. The pantry opened in January 2020. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

Initial funding for the pantry came from a grant from the Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation, which has supported community college food pantries across the state. Now, the college relies on local donations to keep it going. This year, Virginia Highlands raised more than $6,000 on Giving Tuesday to keep the PHIL Station stocked, thanks to a combination of individual contributions and a matching program from the VFCCE and Aetna Better Health of Virginia.

Every community college in Virginia has some sort of food assistance program, though they’re all different in size and scope depending on the college’s resources and partnerships with community organizations. In a survey of more than 10,000 Virginia community college students in fall 2020, 32% said they had faced food insecurity in the previous month.

The PHIL Station was open for only three months before the pandemic forced students off campus. Gift cards to the regional Food City chain of grocery stores were crucial in keeping students fed while the physical pantry was closed, Adams said. She still routinely sends gift cards to students who ask for them, in amounts ranging from $25 to $100.

Inside each envelope, Adams adds a handwritten note wishing the student well in their program, which she looks up and mentions by name. “[I’m] just trying to make them feel like somebody knows them as a person, not just as the kid who needs,” she said.

Map by Robert Lunsford.

Sixty miles away from Virginia Highlands in the town of Big Stone Gap, Mountain Empire Community College also has about 2,000 students enrolled each semester. It’s more rural than Virginia Highlands, serving a mountainous three-county area that stretches more than 90 miles from its most northern point to the southwestern-most tip of Virginia.

The food pantry at Mountain Empire has been open since 2013, driven by a rise in student requests for emergency aid to pay for groceries. The college’s philanthropic foundation helps fill the shelves with nonperishable and toiletry items that line three sides of a wide room. Two refrigerators are packed with frozen items and microwaveable meals.

Dean of Students Lelia Bradshaw recalls being able to fill the pantry at the beginning of a semester and having the supplies last almost until final exams. But now the food pantry needs a monthly restock. Some students will fill a bag with groceries to take home, while others pop in to microwave a hot lunch.

The school’s laptop loan program was also prompted by a critical need.

Campus staff noticed that many students starting at the college had Chromebook laptops that they’d used in high school. But many fields of study require a computer that’s more powerful to run specialized software. The college ordered a few laptops in 2019 and started lending them out. “And then COVID hit, and everybody needed a computer” to complete classes online, said Bradshaw. “So we ordered a big round [of them].”

Mountain Empire began the fall 2023 semester with about 80 loaner laptops but ran out within the first few days. So the school ordered 50 more. Anyone who’s enrolled and taking at least six credits a semester (or an equivalent for shorter career and technical programs) can borrow a laptop, charger and carrying case, thanks to a combination of funding over the years that has included COVID federal relief money, Virginia Department of Social Services funds, and other similar sources totaling about $60,000.

Mountain Empire also has graphing calculators available for loan for students who can’t afford to buy the devices, which cost about $150.

Emergency funds meet unexpected needs

Beyond everyday basic needs, emergency expenses can trip up students and prevent them from completing their classes. Nationwide, about 70% of all colleges and universities offer some type of emergency fund to help students stay enrolled despite unexpected costs.

At Virginia Highlands and Mountain Empire, students can request help with financial emergencies, with funding coming from each school’s philanthropic foundation.

There’s often a gap left after federal and state funding are applied to a student account, said Pennington at Virginia Highlands. “Even though I think students are grateful for what they get for tuition [aid], there’s never enough for books and access codes” for online tools and software, she said.

Pennington has purchased quarts of oil for a student’s car to hold them over until they could get repairs done. She used the emergency fund to pay for hotel nights to help a student get out of an unsafe housing situation.

In October, she helped two students in a practical nursing program who each needed to buy $790 worth of books and software for the year. She was able to give $500 to each.

The campus at Mountain Empire Community College. Many students drive for more than 30 minutes to attend class, and car repairs and fuel are among the top requests received by staff managing the student emergency fund. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

For many students, she said, one modest financial crisis can wreak major havoc on their lives.

“And many of them don’t have families who have a long history of college attendance, and a lot of them don’t have a real deep bench in terms of support at home,” Pennington said.

At Mountain Empire, students fill out an online form to request emergency aid; the help is capped at $700 per semester and $1,400 during their tenure at the school. The MECC Foundation provides about $20,000 annually to fill student requests. Bradshaw said money for vehicle repairs and gasoline is often requested, as many students drive more than 30 minutes to attend class.

A challenge: Measuring return on investment

Community colleges often measure the success of these emergency funds and basic needs initiatives in terms of program completion: the rate of students who go on to graduate or earn a credential.

Measuring workforce success is more difficult, as there’s a delay in the data for the employment rate of community college graduates. The most recent year of Virginia data, from 2020, found that almost 80% of career and technical students were employed 18 months after graduating from community college. The rate is comparable to the outcome for the classes of 2018 and 2019, but it will be several years before the true picture of pandemic and post-pandemic outcomes crystalizes.

Having multiple strategies working in tandem to help students can amplify their impact.

A 2023 study looked at four Arkansas community colleges that converted their food assistance efforts from simple pantries into holistic hubs for basic student needs, providing connections to public assistance programs, financial and career advising and life skills training. Students who used the hubs were up to 8 percentage points more likely to reenroll the following semester and the following academic year, and to ultimately earn their credential.

The education journey for community college students can be far from linear, with completion sometimes taking far longer than the typical standards for measuring student success.

Bradshaw of Mountain Empire said that “life issues” can easily take students away from campus. Sometimes they’ll attend for a semester, take the next one off to focus on work or family obligations, then return in the summer. The ultimate win, in many cases, is when students remain enrolled despite a financial hardship — when they come back semester after semester for however long it takes to finish their degree or credential.

“It’s like a revolving door,” she said. “We have a lot of students who live in a multigenerational household. So you’ve got parents and grandparents and nieces. … We see a lot of that, and … [sometimes] school just falls by the wayside.”

While enrollment remains fairly flat across the state’s community college system after years of gradual decline, program completions and degrees have increased. The increases are notable at both Mountain Empire and Virginia Highlands. In the 2017-18 school year, Virginia Highlands awarded 548 degrees and certificates. In 2021-22, that had risen to 705. Over the same period, Mountain Empire jumped from 650 to 975.

Bradshaw said a recent focus on short-term programs can help prospective students anticipate challenges and plan for them. An eight- or 10-week program to earn a technical certification may not be students’ ultimate career goal, but they can take that certification into the workforce immediately and start to see the benefits while planning their next steps.

Students have Single Stop for help

In 2021, VCCS launched the Single Stop platform at all 23 of its community colleges. The program, operated by a national nonprofit, allows students to input basic information about their household and income and learn if they’re eligible for SNAP (often referred to as food stamps), housing assistance or other social benefit programs.

Becky Kell, who manages Single Stop for Virginia Highlands, said food assistance and health insurance access are common benefits for students. But Single Stop also can connect users with tax preparation help, affordable internet service and utility assistance programs.

The platform has been especially helpful, she said, for students who may not be eligible for benefit programs but can get connected to local resources for help. Kell said most Single Stop users at Virginia Highlands are in their 20s or 30s and are often the heads of their household.

Since VCCS rolled out Single Stop across its system in spring 2021, more than 45,000 students have used it, accessing more than $35 million in social service benefits across the state, said Jim Babb, communications manager at VCCS.

Single Stop helps track the number of people who receive assistance and the value of ongoing aid, but it’s sometimes hard to get students to complete a profile to see what their options are — it’s just one more form for them to remember to fill out. Mountain Empire has offered grocery store gift cards to students who complete a Single Stop profile. At Virginia Highlands, students are asked to fill out a profile before they can request a second grocery or gas gift card.

But Single Stop can’t solve all the social infrastructure challenges facing students.

Child care still a barrier for many

One of the biggest barriers to signing up for and completing an education or training program at the state’s community colleges is child care, which is an increasingly critical area of focus for school leaders.

Even if students can afford child care, it’s often hard to find a reliable source. Nearly half of Virginians live in a child-care desert, according to research from the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, meaning there’s a severe shortage of child care providers.

Mountain Empire President Kris Westover has been talking to United Way and Head Start in the region to discuss options for offering child care on campus. “It’s probably one of the biggest barriers to our students being able to come and be successful right now, is child care,” she said.

Doré, who became chancellor of the state community college system less than a year ago, said the need for child care for student parents struck him during his initial tour of the system. A handful of campuses have or are about to open child care centers, but they’re usually operated separately from the community college, which typically don’t have the means to do so independently.

“The most effective approach … is if we can provide the space at one of our colleges and then partner with a community based organization to offer the childcare services,” Doré said.

“We just don’t have a lot of options,” Bradshaw said of the area surrounding Mountain Empire.

Sometimes students bring their kids to school with them, which the faculty has supported. A few years ago, the only way the school could field a nursing aide course was to use grant money to offer child-minding, which let parents drop their children off at the campus gym before going to night classes.

The school plans to restart that program in 2024.

This reporting is part of a collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit NewsRural News Network, and the Cardinal News, KOSU, Mississippi Today, Shasta Scout and The Texas Tribune. Support from Ascendium made the project possible.

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What really affects hunting in the West

A landscape photograph of a large meadow, with deer visible in the high grass

A landscape photograph of a large meadow, with deer visible in the high grass
Deer in high grass near Paonia, Colorado. Photo courtesy P.J. Briscoe

A disgruntled hunter wrote a Writers on the Range opinion recently about Westerners getting fed up with the many out-of-staters coming in and buying up draw licenses to shoot bull elk, deer, bear and other big game animals.

As a hunter myself, I understand their frustration.

But reducing non-resident tags, as Andrew Carpenter suggests, takes us in the wrong direction. The greatest threat to hunting now and in the future is the loss of habitat.

Private lands provide up to 80% of habitat for all wildlife species, including critical winter range that’s the limiting factor for most big game populations. Yet these family farms and ranches are struggling for economic survival and in many places are under immense development pressure.

According to the American Farmland Trust, Colorado is on track to lose approximately a half-million acres of open land in the next two decades. Other states have similarly alarming projections. As these lands disappear, so does the wildlife they support.

Income generated by providing access and outfitting services to out-of-state hunters is one of the few economic lifelines keeping ranches and habitat intact.

As New Mexico rancher Jack Diamond explained, “Without non-resident hunters, we couldn’t survive at this point in the ranching business. I don’t want to see this place subdivided, but we’d have to consider that as a last resort.”

David Olde, also a rancher from New Mexico, concurred: “We ended up with so many elk that we had to reduce our cattle. If I can’t sell hunts, what can I do — turn it into ranchettes?”

For the fourth-generation Bramwell family ranch in Colorado, hunting income is an integral part of their operation.

“Our out-of-state clients have been coming here to hunt for generations,” Darla Bramwell said. “These migratory animals do not care whose grass they are eating or whose fences they tear down as they come from forest lands to eat in our hay meadows at night. Without the income from the non-resident hunters, something would have to give.”

Most states already heavily favor resident hunters, both in draw quotas and license fees. In Colorado, for example, residents are now allocated 75% of licenses while non-residents receive only 25%. Further, non-residents typically pay hundreds of dollars more per license than residents. In Colorado a resident bull elk tag is $61. A non-resident bull elk tag costs $760.

Several things happen when non-resident licenses are further reduced. First, it squeezes the bottom line of family farms and ranches that support wildlife and depend on hunting for a portion of their income.

Second, it harms local livelihoods and rural economies. Visiting hunters outspend resident hunters by a large margin, supporting local restaurants, hotels, stores, outfitting services and the local tax base in rural communities.

As Bramwell said, “When our out-of-state hunters come here, they not only support our family but they support our community. They buy local gifts, food, fuel, lodging, meat processing and taxidermy work.”

Diamond’s operation supports between seven to 10 guides from August through December. “These are good-paying jobs and the money generated is all spent locally in the two counties we live in,” he said. “We buy gas, propane, groceries. We also pay state gross receipts tax on the entire hunt.”

Third, state wildlife agencies depend on the high license fees they charge out-of-state hunters.

Fourth, the loss of visiting hunters would remove incentives for prospective ranch buyers to invest in conserving and managing land for wildlife.

Finally, it would also mean more hunters crowding public lands and forcing elk to seek refuge on private lands, reducing hunter opportunity and creating a lower-quality hunt experience.

Pulling the economic rug out from under private lands and wildlife isn’t the answer. So, what is a better solution?

We need to increase, not decrease, incentives for landowners to conserve habitat and provide hunting opportunities. We should bolster, not undermine, the role of hunting in supporting agricultural lands and rural economies. And we need to improve wildlife habitat on public lands with better management of our forests and rangelands.

The future of hunting — and wildlife — both depend on landowners and sportsmen working together to sustain our remaining wild and working lands.

A photograph of writer Lesli Allison

Lesli Allison is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring conversation about the West. She is CEO of the Western Landowners Alliance, a West-wide, landowner-led organization that supports working lands, connected landscapes and native species,

In this shrinking Mississippi Delta county, getting a college degree means leaving home behind

ISSAQUENA COUNTY — The kings and queens of the South Delta School District tossed candy and waved at their families as the mid-October parade wound through a small town several miles north of this rural county.

“There’s no place like homecoming,” read a sign on a colorful “Wizard of Oz” themed float with a picture of Emerald City on the back.

Homecoming in Issaquena County, the least populated county in Mississippi — and one of the smallest in the country — is so popular that locals call it “South Delta University.”

But there is no college here, not for miles and miles; in fact, there is no public school of any kind. Students from Issaquena County attend school in neighboring counties — and it’s a big reason why many of these kids will have no choice when they grow up but to move away.

There are virtually no jobs for college graduates in this rural county blanketed in farm fields of soybeans, cotton and corn. There are no factories and no hospitals in Issaquena County. There are no public schools – haven’t been for decades. The median household income is roughly $24,000, a little more than half of the statewide average.

A single statistic underscores all these factors. Here, out of the county’s 1,111 residents, just an estimated 42 people aged 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree — meaning Issaquena County’s population has one of the lowest rates of educational attainment in America.

That’s not because people from this county aren’t going to college. Many of their families want them to get a degree — and then leave.

There’s little appetite or means in Issaquena to change this reality, a product of generations of decisions that favored powerful, largely white land interests over education and jobs.

“All my grandkids, they’re going to college,” said Norah Fuller, a Black farm manager, as he watched the football game that Friday night. “I’m going to make sure they’re going to college. Do we want the kids to stay? No. What they gonna stay here for?”

Farmland in the Mississippi Delta is pictured here on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Unless his grandchildren want to work on a farm, it’s hard to say. Outside of local government and a prison, the primary source of jobs are the farms that have existed since before the Civil War. But these days, the white families who own much of the land in a county that’s 63% Black are hiring less, and they have little incentive to make room for industries or jobs that could bring college-educated people back.

Fuller himself left the area, dropping out of school in the early 1960s. He didn’t come back until he felt mentally ready to do the same kind of labor enslaved people in this area did.

“I had to get away,” he said. “I stayed away until I could handle it.”

So the cycle continues in Issaquena: Year after year, more and more people move away, leaving behind fewer reasons for anyone else to stay, for any change to happen, and more reasons for young, educated people to go.

“Around here, that’s really the only way you’re gonna make money,” said Amber Warren, a 29-year-old mom who has an associate’s degree and has tried to get a job in Issaquena that will support her three kids. After years of applying, she finally landed one as a caseworker aid last year making $11-an-hour. 

Now she’s searching for a better-paying job, up the hills and out of the Delta, away from all her family.

Issaquena County is flat, desolate and strikingly more rural than anywhere else in Mississippi. The famous “blues highway” largely skirts this southwestern corner of the Delta, where much of the traffic consists of pickups, tractors and trailers. Along the river looms a grassy levee that’s rivaled in height only by large silver grain bins and silos.

The county has been in a state of economic depression for decades. But that didn’t happen overnight.

The story of this fertile land starts in 1820, when it was ceded by the Choctaw, whose words for “deer river” form “Issaquena.” Wealthy settlers — cotton farmers from the east — swooped in and set up plantations. By the eve of the Civil War, a vast majority of the nearly 100 farm operators in Issaquena owned enslaved people, who made up 93% of the county’s population, the highest percentage in Mississippi.

Reconstruction did little to change this imbalance of power. Agriculture continued to dominate the local economy. The “wild lands” were cheap, and Mayersville, the county seat, became something of a boom town, replete with hotels and saloons as the area grew to more than 10,000 people.

The water tower is the only structure taller than the levee in Mayersville. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Soon politicians, businessmen and planters all over the Delta were vying for a railroad to come through their town, eager for alternatives to the crumbling, unpaved roads.

Issaquena’s landowners resisted, believing their land could get a higher price from the railroad companies. That wasn’t the case. The county was circumvented, and Issaquena, as one newspaper in 1902 put it, had “repented” ever since. A few logging rails run through the county today.

Thus began Issaquena’s first major population decline. Mayersville was soon considered the last undeveloped place in the Delta. By the 1930s, the county’s population had shrunk to less than 6,000. Nearly all of the farms were operated by sharecroppers.

Around this time, Stan Delaney’s grandfather crossed the river from Arkansas to Mayersville and, with money he’d saved from managing a farm, bought land. Delaney grew up on it. He learned to drive a tractor when he was 7, and he dropped out of the newly formed, private Sharkey-Issaquena Academy in his senior year to farm, working alongside a Black family, the Wallaces, that his dad employed.

The Wallaces have since moved away, Delaney said. Today, Delaney’s wife and son help him work the family’s roughly 1,150 acres, which are worth about $1 million. One of the county’s 189 farm producers who are white, Delaney rents the land from his mother.

His daughter, Whitney Delaney, went to college because she didn’t now want to farm. Now she figures she makes less working in a local community college’s student services than her brother does in farming.

Stan Delaney and his daughter, Whitney, talk about their family’s connection to the land in Issaquena County, Miss. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Delaney wants to see more young people in Issaquena — especially so his 28-year-old son can meet someone. He knows industry could bring that. But he’d never dream of selling the land to make way for something different. If his kids didn’t feel the same, he’d set up a trust so it could never be sold.

“My dad worked so hard, and my grandfather worked so hard and sacrificed,” he said. “That’s your tradition, that’s just your Southern tradition.”

Like everything else here, the brick building four minutes from Mayersville on Highway 1 is surrounded by fields. Bales of cotton bound in bright yellow plastic greet visitors driving down the gravel road to the Head Start. The school, which opened in 1964, is Issaquena’s sole educational institution.

LaSonya Coleman logs attendance on her sherbert-green office’s desktop computer around 10 a.m. As the center manager, she oversees the development of 41 students. Just seven, she said, are from Issaquena.

The only educational institution in Issaquena County, Miss., the Head Start serves 41 children from the surrounding area, but only seven are from Issaquena. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Today, many residents, Black and white, aren’t troubled by Issaquena’s lack of public schools because the population is so small. In rural school districts across the country, consolidation is a common cost-saving measure.

But the reason why there are no public schools in Issaquena has nothing to do with population.

In 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court took up five cases that signaled it was going to rule on school segregation. Fearing the end of separate-but-equal, white lawmakers in Mississippi scrambled. In a special session, they passed a plan to finally “equalize” the white and Black schools, believing the ruling could be stopped if the state proved it actually funded separate-but-equal facilities equally.

It was a futile attempt. Instead, the plan threw into relief how unequal school funding really was: Black students received just 13% of education funding around that time, despite making up 57% of the school-age population.

In Issaquena, which had no white schools, the plan resulted in the shuttering of the school district, making it the first county in the state to not have one of its own. There was little reporting on the local fallout, but according to a 1988 article, Isssaquena’s 13 public schools closed too.

Yet Issaquena County has continued to pay taxes to support public schools that, aside from educating its residents, provide scant economic benefit to the county itself. South Delta is based in Sharkey County; the Western Line School District is in Washington County. Mississippi Delta Community College is 60 miles away in Moorhead.

Last year, Issaquena paid more than $937,000 in taxes to support all three institutions, the bulk going to South Delta, according to the county auditor.

“Having a school district does require college-educated people earning not great salaries, but still college-educated salaries, which helps in terms of property taxes, income taxes, all of the above,” said Toren Ballard, an analyst at Mississippi First, an education policy nonprofit.

LaSonya Coleman is the center manager of the Head Start, the only educational institution in Issaquena County. Credit: Courtesy of LaSonya Coleman

Coleman, the Head Start director, had grown up just south of Issaquena in a tenant house her father designed and built on a plantation farm. A “country kid,” Coleman and her 14 siblings would play in a nearby creek while her dad worked the land and her mom, a housekeeper, cared for the farm owners’ kids.

In 1991, Coleman, wanting to explore after she got her associate’s degree at Hinds Community College, moved to Chicago. She worked at her sister’s daycare center. Four years later, she came back to the area after her dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He could no longer work on the farm, so he had to move out of the house.

By 2016, Coleman returned for good to find the area’s population even smaller than when she’d left. She said she would always tell her sister that local politicians should be working to bring more to the county, like a museum, something that isn’t seasonal like farming or school.

“I mostly stay to myself, but I do a lot of observing of what goes on in the community,” she said. “And I feel that they should bring the jobs in.”

If anyone wanted to bring more jobs to Issaquena County, it’d be tough to do it without talking to George Mahalitc first.

George Mahalitc, the largest landowner and one of the major employers in Issaquena County, Miss., said he doesn’t want a “big population” in the area. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

With more than 9,200 acres, Mahalitc is one of the largest private landowners in the county. His properties flank Mayersville to the north and south. In a classic tale of American success, his family moved to the area from Texas in 1961. Now, he may be the only farmer in Issaquena rich enough to grow cotton, an expensive crop. If a field is marked by bales of cotton wrapped in yellow, some locals say that probably means it’s Mahalitc’s land.

Mahalitc is also one of the county’s major employers. He hires tractor drivers and mechanics and workers for the cotton gin he owns with his brothers just over the county line in Washington County.

All told, Mahalitc employs about 30 people — something, he said, that’s getting harder to do.

Workers get ready to pack processed cotton to be shipped on Nov. 1, 2023 from Mahalitc’s Issaquena-South Washington Gin Inc. in Glen Allan, Miss. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

He believes that Issaquena has no jobs for college graduates, and few jobs for anyone else, because its people don’t want to work. His point of view is not uncommon among farmers and landowners.

“What needs to happen is people need to get off their lazy tails and wanna go to work,” Mahalitc said. “Our government is subsidizing paying these people to sit at home. That’s the problem.”

But it doesn’t take long for Mahalitc to admit that farmers, by and large, want Issaquena to stay this way.

“Us farmers, we like it like that,” he said. “We don’t want the big population.”

As farmers have historically provided most of the jobs in Issaquena, they’ve also resisted efforts to develop the land that could bring other industries to the county, even as mechanization means they’re hiring less. And because just 26 farm producers in Issaquena are Black, most of the people protesting development in Issaquena are white.

Some farmers want more development. For Mahalitc, it depends on the project; he was interested in selling his land to a solar panel company that recently approached him but, he said, the company backed out.

Waye Windham, another white farmer and the county’s sheriff, said a decade ago, he would hire seven to eight workers for his farm of soybeans and corn. Now he hires two.

“We can’t stop looking for industry to come here,” he said. “If we do, we won’t ever find anybody.”

Harvested cotton is seen at George Mahalitc’s Issaquena-South Washington Gin Inc. in Glen Allan, Miss., on Nov. 1, 2023. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Yet in 1990, farmers across the tri-county area foiled the county board of supervisors’ efforts to get a $75 million hazardous waste incinerator. It would have created 79 permanent jobs and increased local tax revenues by an estimated $2.5 million at a time when cities and towns across the southern United States were competing to process each other’s trash.

And it was a rare opportunity: Issaquena is prone to backwater flooding that can destroy roads, homes and farmland, another factor that has limited the county’s economic opportunities.

Fearing the damage the waste could cause to local crops, a pair of farmers fiercely opposed it, writing op-eds and sending mailers to every registered voter in the county, which ultimately voted 413-315 against the plant.

Mahalitc was one of the 413. The plant would have been across his property line, and he was worried about his crops. Plus, he didn’t think anyone in Issaquena would be qualified to work at the plant.

“Where would they have qualified people to help run something like that?” Mahalitc said. “They’re not here.”

Those who wanted to develop Issaquena didn’t pin their whole hope for the future on the incinerator. The county also voted to legalize gambling (but the riverboat casino went to Vicksburg). Then came along the prison.

When the Issaquena County Regional Correctional Facility opened in the late 1990s, it promised to bring $1 million in revenue to the county tax rolls, but some locals are skeptical the prison has kept its word. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

When the 376-bed Issaquena County Correctional Facility opened in 1997, it brought $1 million to the county tax rolls. Today it is the largest employer in the county — more than 50 people work there, but many are not from Issaquena — and it sits across Highway 1 from Mayersville. It, too, borders Mahalitc’s land.

Stallard Williams, a board supervisor who represents Mayersville, is skeptical the prison has kept its promise to Issaquena County. So is Willie Peterson, an alderman who has worked in local government for decades.

“We ain’t got no benefit from it, make sure you put that down,” Peterson said.

The prison recently has been at risk of shuttering. In 2019, the board of supervisors voted to do just that, believing the prison had lost more than $760,000 that year. But Williams thought there was more to the story. He’d been getting calls from people concerned the prison would be privatized, so he audited the numbers and determined the shortfall had simply been a mathematical error.

“I feel like, if something is not right, if it’s something that especially an interest group or anybody else have over the people, over the community, then I speak up,” Williams said.

With what money the county does have, Williams would much rather be spending his time on ambitious projects to finally develop Issaquena. In his nearly eight years as a supervisor,  he has led the board to build a park and secured funding for a walking trail outside the county courthouse, right next to the street that could one day be Mayersville’s center of business activity.

Issaquena County Supervisor Stallard Williams , center, received an award in June 2023 from the institute for Excellence in County Government. With him are his brother Robert, right, and fellow Supervisor Eddie Holcomb. Credit: Courtesy of Stallard Williams

But Williams wants to do more. He has a long list. To attract tourism, he wants to preserve the home of former Mayersville Mayor Unita Blackwell, the first Black woman to be elected mayor in the United States.

The Mississippi River, he says, is Mayersville’s “golden opportunity for economic development,” but the town doesn’t even have a port. He’d like to raise salaries at the prison, which pays just a few dollars above minimum wage. Issaquena, with its quiet swathes of land, attracts hundreds of recreational hunters and fishers — but there’s no place for them to buy gas locally.

The county’s future, Williams said, should be about “give and take” between landowners and workers.

“I benefit from the farmers,” said Williams, who started with his dad a local lawn business mowing farmers’ yards. “But as far as the people that just want a job here, they’re more likely gonna have to work on a farm or go 50 or 60 miles to get a job.”

Yet so many of his ideas require land to generate taxes and to build on. In recent years, some of the county’s land was bought by the state to create hunting grounds named after former governor Phil Bryant.

Change also requires political will. Some supervisors, like Eddie Hatcher, who runs a trucking company and privately owned hunting grounds, believe jobs are available in Issaquena if people want to work.

Barges on the Mississippi River sit on the other side of the levee from Mayersville, Miss., which lacks a port despite locals’ desire to develop one. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

“When the government is giving able-bodies money for nothing,” he said, “why would you go to work?”

And sometimes even small improvements can be hard to do in an under-resourced place like Issaquena.

In late October, the Mayersville board of aldermen met at the town’s multipurpose complex. The mayor, Linda Williams Short, led the meeting. She has been mayor since she unseated Blackwell by 11 votes in 2001. Like most people in Issaquena, Williams Short doesn’t have a college degree.

Just two community members attended the meeting. The Yazoo City-bound Warren, whose mom is an alderman, and a man who Warren said always comes for “moral support.”

A heated discussion concerned some of the aging infrastructure in Mayersville, and the local construction company that was struggling to keep up. A few pipes were leaking across town. The water tower needed a new pump, and its gate, which had just been fixed, was falling down.

One alderman suggested getting “the whole system redone.” Williams Short insisted there was nothing she could do to speed up the work.

“We all know it’s been too long,” she said. “And all we can do is ask.”

This reporting is part of a collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit NewsRural News Network, and the Cardinal News, KOSU, Mississippi Today, Shasta Scout and The Texas Tribune. Support from Ascendium made the project possible.

The post In this shrinking Mississippi Delta county, getting a college degree means leaving home behind appeared first on Mississippi Today.

New Uvalde school shooting documentary and investigation reveal details of law enforcement’s flawed response

The “Inside the Uvalde Response” film and related reporting by The Texas Tribune, ProPublica and FRONTLINE analyze one of the most criticized mass shooting responses in recent history and show real-time insight into officers’ thoughts and actions.

The best forest managers? Indigenous peoples, study says.

New research from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences has identified a key to successful forest restoration: long term, local governance by Indigenous peoples or local communities. The more formalized the land tenure rights, the better the outcomes. Research shows that Indigenous and rural communities are the best stewards of the forests they live in, but the study’s novel finding is that community-managed forests yield better, more positive results for both environmental and social outcomes.

“Where people depend upon forest resources for a range of livelihood benefits, like firewood, timber, food, various things, they often have an incentive to take care of those forests. It’s really quite simple,” said lead author Harry Fischer. “When you give communities the opportunity to manage in those ways, you will often see better outcomes.”

Forest restoration is a critical tool for global climate change mitigation, and is particularly important to the 1.8 billion people living in, and relying on, forests for their livelihoods. Restoration projects have historically prioritized environmental outcomes like planting trees to improve biodiversity, or monetizing carbon sequestration through carbon credit schemes. But typically, those interests take precedence over the interests of local communities. The authors argue that a locally-focused, rights-based approach means that those interests don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

The study analyzed data collected by the International Forestry Resources and Institutions over three decades, from 314 community-managed forests, across 15 nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Researchers wanted to understand what the best forests had in common in order to better inform future restoration efforts. The study focused on tropical ecosystems because of the high prevalence of forest restoration efforts in these regions, like the Trillion Trees project and other tree planting initiatives. Common measures of successful forest restoration include healthy biodiversity, like planting trees or stopping deforestation, climate change-mitigation services, like carbon sequestration and carbon credits, and improved livelihoods for local communities in the form of access to forests for food and housing. But the forests with the best results across all three measures were the ones where local communities determined the rules for forest management.

Fischer and the other researchers’ critique of those efforts is that they are target-based. Forest projects focused on planting trees or selling carbon credits saw benefits concentrated in those areas, but poor performance in other areas, particularly when it comes to improving the livelihoods of local peoples. That means that while those projects may be good on paper for international conservation groups or investors, they don’t provide positive spillover effects to the people that live there.

“What we’re saying in our study is, OK, planting trees is not bad,” Fischer said. “Giving power to local people is going to be more effective over the long term. If they have power, the interventions are going to be more legitimate. They’re going to have more local buy-in for that.”

But that transfer of power isn’t being applied. Additional reports show that the world remains off track from reversing forest degradation and meeting decarbonization goals — in part due to a failure to work with Indigenous peoples or local communities, or recognize their rights. A study earlier this month from the Forest Declaration Assessment, a nonprofit that tracks forest conservation efforts, analyzed the National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans of 27 countries with substantial forest ecosystems and Indigenous populations. According to the study, those plans to establish national conservation efforts had gaps where Indigenous peoples were performatively included or completely left out. Less than a third of those countries engaged Indigenous peoples when developing their plans.

Levi Sucre Romero, coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests and co-chair to the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, says this low rate of inclusion is one of the critical issues on the table at COP28 in Dubai.

“This implies that decisions are still being made from desks, from cities, for an issue as crucial as forests and those of us who are living and protecting those forests are not taken into account,” Romero said. “The world’s rulers must hear that they can no longer continue making promises about the problem of climate change if they are not going to fulfill them.”

Fischer says that a forest restoration approach that prioritizes local livelihoods instead of making them a secondary benefit will take time — but on average will generate the best results for both environmental and social concerns.

“If we’re going to have participation, let’s do it in a way that really sort of redistributes power over a long, long period,” Fischer said. “[Then], people are able to really manage and get practice, and these practices get institutionalized over time.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The best forest managers? Indigenous peoples, study says. on Dec 4, 2023.

From creeks to clouds: The invisible invasion of microplastics

This is a picture of Marsh Creek, a Neuse River tributary. The device in the middle of the river is a cage made of PVC and mesh netting. The cage is floating on the water and contains trapped plastic waste — bottles, Styrofoam cups, etc.

By Will Atwater

Judging by recent developments, microplastics have risen to the status of supervillain. Reports about these new anti-heros read almost like celebrity sightings. The tiny particles are everywhere: in water, on land, on mountaintops, in humans and animals — and even in the clouds.

Microplastic compounds are defined as being less than 5 mm long, which is slightly larger than a sesame seed, but many microplastic particles are much smaller. These substances can last hundreds, even thousands of years in the environment. Globally, more than 430 million tons of plastic is produced annually. Some plastics break down into these microplastic particles, and a significant amount of them end up in the ocean, where marine animals swallow them and they enter the food chain, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Chatter about the need for regulations to reduce the proliferation of this problem is growing louder by the day as reports about the adverse health and environmental impacts of microplastics have started piling up.

In November, researchers published studies suggesting more potential risks of microplastic exposure for humans, including a Duke-led study that suggests links between nanoplastic particles and a brain protein that may result in increased risk for Parkinson’s disease and some forms of dementia.

Extreme close up image of bleu, red and green specs against a black back ground. The image shows interactions between microplastic particles and proteins in the brain.
Plastic nanoparticles (green), visible under a microscope, co-mingling with protein aggregates(red) in neuronal lysosomes (blue). Typically, concentrations of the protein aggregates are so small, they would not be viable at this level. Credit: Duke Health

“Our study suggests that the emergence of micro and nanoplastics in the environment might represent a new toxin challenge with respect to Parkinson’s disease risk and progression,” said lead researcher Andrew West, from the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology at Duke’s school of medicine. “This is especially concerning, given the predicted increase in concentrations of these contaminants in our water and food supplies.”

Previous studies have revealed that humans ingest about a credit card-size amount of microplastics weekly and suggested links between microplastic ingestion in people and Inflammatory Bowel Disease. There’s also some suggestion that microplastics alter how hormones function in the body.

Moreover, in October, the Guardian reported that Japanese researchers found microplastic particles in cloud formations around Mount Fuji and Mount Oyama. Researchers said that they found nine types of microplastics in cloud water, such as polyethylene (which composes plastic bags, food and drink containers), polypropylene (which makes up high heat tolerance plastics, cleaning products, pill bottles) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET/disposable drink bottles), among others.

The researchers said their “findings suggest that high-altitude microplastics particles influence cloud formation and, in turn, might modify the climate.”

A muliticolored infographic illustrates how airborne microplastics influence cloud formation and climate change. The poster is divided into 3 sections, depicting how tiny plastic particles migrate from water surfacs to clouds.
New research suggests that microplastics are carried from water surfaces to clouds through the evaporation process. Credit: WASEDA University

One step forward, two steps back?

Environmentalists have sounded the alarm about the proliferation of single-use plastics for years and, to be fair, some government agencies and municipalities are making changes. In the United States, 10 states and Puerto Rico have banned single-use plastic bags.

As of June 2023, Surfrider, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization that works to reduce the impact of plastic debris on beaches and oceans, “identified 491 U.S. local single-use bag ordinances.”

Additionally, the third meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) took place in Nairobi, Kenya, earlier this month to continue work toward a treaty to reduce plastic pollution. A fourth round of talks (INC-4) is scheduled to take place in 2024.

“I am encouraged by the forward motion of the negotiations towards a treaty that ends plastic pollution,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, according to a release. He noted the INC’s “determination to get to the finish line and put us on course for a world where plastic pollution is a problem of the past.”

But not all attendees were as encouraged as Andersen.

Neil Tangri is the senior research fellow at the University of California-Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy and the founder of GAIA, an environmental advocacy group working to promote zero-waste cities. Tangri was disappointed that microplastics “were hardly addressed” at INC-3, he said by email.

“There is a widespread recognition of the need to ban primary microplastics (e.g., beads in personal care products and detergents),” he said in an email to NC Health News. “This is really low-hanging fruit and beyond obvious; many jurisdictions have already done so, but we need a global ban. But some countries are arguing that plastic production is out of scope of the treaty — which would mean that we couldn’t ban particular products such as primary microplastics.”

“Of course, the vast majority of microplastics in the environment are the result of physical breakdown of plastic products — e.g., tire wear or macroplastic waste that breaks down in the marine environment. Again, if we exclude production from the scope of the treaty — meaning we can’t reformulate plastic products to minimize microplastic generation, or ban the items most likely to end up in the environment — we end up with a waste management treaty, and there is no effective waste management solution to microplastics.”

Is it enough to move the needle at home?

While work is underway to reduce plastic pollution, North Carolina has yet to establish any regulations on plastic bags — despite the efforts of environmentalists.

The momentum gained by North Carolina advocates working to curb the use of single-use plastic bags in Durham, Boone and Asheville screeched to a halt in September when a provision in House Bill 259 that prohibits local municipalities from establishing plastic bag ordinances became part of the state budget.

Ways to address the problem

  • Require stronger regulations around the production and distribution of single-use plastics.
  • Improve the nation’s recycling system to reduce the amount of plastic going into the waste stream.
  • Demand more transparency in the recycling system.
  • Induce industry to create more biodegradable products.
  • Encourage consumers to invest in recyclable/reusable products.
  • Elect officials who support plastic waste-reduction initiatives.

Efforts to establish a plastic bag ordinance have been a polarizing topic since 2009 when former Democratic state Sen. Marc Basnight of Dare County introduced legislation that called for a ban on single-use plastic bags in retail stores in Outer Banks communities. Basnight’s family runs a restaurant in Nags Head, and the late senator was deeply involved in the coast’s tourism industry.

The legislation passed, and a ban was set in place from 2009 until 2017, when a Republican-led legislature repealed it. Critics argued that the ban unfairly taxed merchants who had to offer $.05 cent refunds or other incentives for customers who shopped with reusable bags. They also argued that paper bags were worse for the environment than plastic.

More data, more awareness

In 2022, some North Carolina riverkeepers began installing trash traps in creeks and streams to count and categorize pollution that collects there. A public dashboard contains data on debris removed from 11 waterways across the state, according to dashboard producer Nancy Lauer, a Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic staff scientist. The dashboard is on the Haw River Assembly website.

“The trash traps are important because they physically trap trash before it moves downstream, but when we can also collect data on what the traps are capturing, we are better equipped to keep the trash out of the waterways to begin with,” Lauer said. “The data tells us what plastics are frequently getting into waterways and what the sources of those escaped plastics might be.”

The image is a pie chart that displays percentages of plastic debris that was found in Durham's Third Fork Creek. Styrofoam particles, highlighted in a light blue color, made up the largest amount at 82 percent.
The pie chart represents debris captured by a trash trout placed in Durham’s Third Fork Creek from June 2022 to November 2023. Trash traps collect litter that floats downstream and are good at collecting buoyant plastics, like water bottles and Styrofoam. Other plastics- like bags and food wrappers – are still very commonly found in the streams but get snagged or lodged with sediment. Bags and food wrappers aren’t routinely captured by the trash trap, according to Nancy Lauer, Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic staff scientist.
Credit: Nancy Lauer

For instance, volunteers removed nearly 40,000 pieces of litter from Durham’s Third Fork Creek from June 2022 to November 2023. Of that amount, 82 percent of the debris was Styrofoam fragments, followed by plastic bottles.

Data collected from Boone’s Winkler Creek from June 2021 to February 2023 shows that volunteers removed 8,000 pieces of debris, and Styrofoam fragments comprised 72 percent of the trash.

The amount of Styrofoam fragments found in the two creeks alone is a concern to West because, in the Parkinson’s disease study, he and colleagues discovered that polystyrene, the source material for Styrofoam, bonded aggressively with a brain protein known as alpha-synuclein.

“Charged polystyrene contaminants are among the most toxic in the biological systems we use to study these diseases,” West said.

“Whether it’s lead pipes or different types of toxins that we find out later do more harm than good, I could certainly imagine polystyrene being added to that list as we [discover] what these particles can do,” he said.

The image is a multicolored infographic that explains how plastic pollution breaks down into tiny particles known as microplastics. Different items on the infographic have been found in the Neuse River Basin. The items include plastic food wrappers, bags, cups and Styrofoam.
The image is a multicolored infographic that explains how plastic pollution breaks down into tiny particles known as microplastics. Different items on the infographic have been found in the Neuse River Basin. The items include plastic food wrappers, bags, cups and Styrofoam.
Credit: Courtesy of N.C. State University

Barbara Doll, N.C. State University Agricultural Extension professor and professional engineer, co-authored a study that looked at the distribution and characteristics of microplastics found in the Neuse River Basin.

“When we looked at the microplastics [and] characterized them for type, our main microplastic components were polystyrene, polypropylene, and PET (plastic bottles),” Doll said. “There’s a link [between] the garbage and the microplastic types.”

How it Works

Barbara Doll, N.C. State University Agricultural Extension professor and professional engineer, explains how plastic pollution becomes microplastic compounds over time:

“Trash gets into the water, and it starts to break down and degrade by sunlight, by being banged around in the river, up against the river’s bottom, branches, limbs and rocks. It starts to break apart and become smaller and smaller fragments. It doesn’t go away; it just continues to break down.”

One of Doll’s goals through her research is to raise awareness.

“I wanted to establish that [microplastics] are coming from the garbage that everyone is throwing out of their car window on the ground or is blowing out of trash cans — this incredible prevalence of plastic in our everyday lives,” she said. “[It’s like], ‘Hey, this is what’s getting washed in the streams, floating through small creeks, down the river and getting out into our food resource.”

The post From creeks to clouds: The invisible invasion of microplastics appeared first on North Carolina Health News.

Wisconsin locals rally around small town library

Over the past few months, a group called Concerned Citizens of Iron River, a mostly anonymous group on Facebook, have started calling for books to be removed from my local library, the Evelyn Goldberg Briggs Memorial Library in Iron River, Wisconsin (population 1,100). Most of these books being challenged are about LGBTQ+, and specifically trans, […]

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