Third town opposes national wildlife refuge, another puts off a commitment
A third Franklin County town signed on this week to a letter to Maine’s congressional delegation opposing a national wildlife refuge in the western Maine mountains, while a separate town abstained from a commitment.
The Wilton Board of Selectpersons unanimously approved the letter Tuesday and the Carrabassett Valley Select Board decided not to take a stance after a discussion with a federal official and an opposition member.
The two approaches — one town voicing objection, the other adopting a wait-and-see outlook — reflect broader trends by local officials, residents and recreationists in the area.
Those staunchly against the refuge have said state and local conservation efforts in the area are sufficient. They are wary of federal oversight, which they say could limit hunting and recreation access; others say it’s too soon to decide either way.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this spring began exploring the creation of a roughly 200,000-acre refuge straddling the Appalachian Trail in the High Peaks region.
Ultimately the area would likely be pared down to between 5,000 and 15,000 acres, according to Nancy Perlson, a local conservation consultant working with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The High Peaks region encompasses some of the highest mountains in Maine and one of the state’s largest roadless expanses.
Paul Casey, a Fish and Wildlife official managing the process, has said the refuge would provide more opportunity for conservation and protection of local wildlife than the state currently offers.
Over the past few months, the agency has held a series of “scoping sessions” in Rangeley, Farmington and Carrabassett Valley to hear public input.
A formal proposal is expected by this fall and would be followed by a 45-day public comment period.
Along with Wilton, other Franklin County officials have begun voicing opposition to the proposal.
In May, the Eustis Select Board voted unanimously to oppose it and was followed in June by the Franklin County Commission, which voted 2-0-1 in opposition, with one abstention.
Both the town and county went on to sign the opposition letter, which Franklin County Commissioner Bob Carlton said was written by a coalition of citizens who oppose the refuge.
The town of Avon’s select board also signed the letter, a town official said Friday.
Carlton and Tom Saviello, a former state representative and Wilton selectperson, attended Wilton’s meeting Tuesday to lay out their arguments against the proposal and present the letter.
“We all want to protect the High Peaks, there’s no question about it,” Carlton said. “We want to keep what’s there, we want to keep it open for all the things we like to do,” like hunting, fishing, ATVing and snowmobiling.
Carlton said ATVs wouldn’t be allowed on the refuge, and certain hunting methods would be restricted — including bear hunting with bait and using lead ammunition on small birds and game.
“All of a sudden we have a piece of land … that we can do what we want and we follow the state of Maine laws and regulations,” Carlton said. “Now we’re saying, ‘Come here, but these are the rules you have to follow,’ so it’s restricted right off the bat.”
Saviello, who said he supported an earlier USFWS refuge proposal in 2013, emphasized that the current proposal would pull control from local residents and center it in Washington as opposed to Augusta.
“If there’s a problem in the refuge, with access and so forth, where do you have to go? Washington D.C.,” Saviello said. “If there’s a problem on public lands today, you go to Augusta, you go to your legislator, you have a voice that’s very strong if it’s managed by the state.”
Casey, the USFWS official managing the process, is based in New Hampshire, where he is the manager of the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, which includes parts of western Maine.
Selectperson Mike Wells agreed with Saviello, saying the refuge would dilute local input.
“The closer it is to home, the more of a voice we have,” Wells said.
The Carrabassett Valley Select Board took no action following a similar conversation with Carlton, as well as Casey and Perlson.
Though two select board members said they were apprehensive of the proposal, another expressed being uncomfortable with voting in opposition that night, adding that he thinks the community wants to know more, according to the Daily Bulldog.
That sentiment is reflected in a recent editorial by Will Lund, editor of The Maine Sportsman magazine.
Lund wrote in the August edition that fellow recreationists should hear out the USFWS and not jump to conclusions while the refuge proposal is in such early planning days.
“The easiest position to take on such proposals is an automatic ‘No,’ since many of us have a healthy distrust of the federal government in any form,” Lund wrote. “However, in our view it does not make sense to shut down the conversation.”
Lund went on to refute claims that the refuge would outlaw hunting, fishing, general public access and the rights of current private landowners.
In regard to snowmobile and ATV use, Lund wrote that the USFWS knows no proposal would be supported unless it called for continuation of snowmobile and other motorized travel.
He also asks outdoorspeople to consider whether private landowners will commit to public access in the future, rounding the editorial out with a contemplative approach to what the USFWS is proposing.
“To be clear, we are not supporting establishment of a refuge. How could we?” Lund wrote.
“There has been no written, detailed plan put forth that draws the boundary on a map, or that takes into consideration the input the Service has received,” and other questions need addressing, he added.
“However, it’s important to keep talking. It’s challenging to think in the long terms that are required to ensure access to land for our children and our children’s children. However, when land is developed, it’s gone forever. Let’s hear the feds out on this one.”
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Rural SNAP Recipients Will Have Harder Time with Return to Work Requirements
More than 1.7 million rural Americans live in counties where there aren’t enough jobs for people who want them, making it harder for SNAP recipients to meet work requirements that were reinstated when the federal pandemic emergency declaration ended.
Able-bodied adults without dependents must work 80 hours or more per month to continue receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The Trump administration suspended the requirement at the start of the pandemic, and the old requirements resumed in May.
The burden of meeting the work requirement may be more challenging in rural areas, which on average have fewer jobs, greater transportation needs, and less access to broadband. The work requirement was waived during the federal pandemic emergency. But rural America still doesn’t have as many jobs as it did before Covid-19.
“We know there are a lot of people who struggle in the economy who want full-time jobs but can’t get them,” said Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director at the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center (FRAC). “It may well be an issue in rural areas where people want the full time work, but they can’t find those hours or find a full-time job.”
States can ask for area waivers from the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) so work requirements don’t apply to areas without enough jobs. But some states restrict governors from requesting waivers.
A Third of Labor Surplus Areas Are in Rural Counties
The United States Department of Labor maintains a list of Labor Surplus Areas (LSA), or places where there are not enough jobs for the working age population. Researchers and federal agencies can use the list for a variety of purposes, including to identify where federal funding should be emphasized.
“The reason the labor department has such a list [of LSAs] is to help guide the federal government… to invest in those persistently struggling economic areas,” Vollinger said.
But living in an LSA may be more burdensome for people who live in rural areas where fewer households have access to things like broadband internet or reliable transportation to get to job interviews, says Vollinger. The price of fuel can also be higher in rural communities where there’s not as much competition for gas stations, adding another layer of challenge for people already struggling to meet the monthly work requirements.
How Labor Surplus Areas Are Defined
The Department of Labor can define an Labor Surplus Area at three geographic scales. They refer to these varying scales as civil jurisdictions.
A civil jurisdiction can be a city or town of at least 25,000 residents, a county, or a balance of county, which is a county excluding a city or town within it. For example, a balance of Calhoun County, Alabama, would be the entire county of Calhoun except for the city of Anniston, which is inside it.
To qualify as a Labor Surplus Area, a civil jurisdiction must have an unemployment rate 20% or higher than the national average for two years. But in cases where the national rate is above 10% or below 6%, then the qualifying rate is set at either 6%or 10%. In the 2022 fiscal year, there were 278 LSAs in the contiguous United States.
Time Limits on SNAP
Able bodied people without dependents between the ages of 18 and 50 are eligible for three months of benefits every three years without an employment requirement. But after that 90 day period, people have to work at least 20 hours per week to continue receiving benefits.
But for the recipients who live in places with insufficient jobs, that’s easier said than done. A 2022 survey of 25,000 American adults found that the most common reason people are unemployed is because of job availability. Twenty-eight percent of survey respondents said that there were no jobs that were good fits in terms of geography, wages, or hours of employment.
East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, for example, is a rural LSA in the Mississippi Delta. In 2021, 30% of households were receiving SNAP benefits, compared to only 14% of the total rural population, according to recent estimates.
Exceptions to the Rule
States can apply for waivers from the federal government to eliminate the SNAP time constraints in areas with insufficient employment. Insufficient employment is a vague term, so it’s up to the discretion of the federal government and state policymakers to determine eligibility on a case by case basis.
Governors make the waiver requests, and they will often use the LSA list to justify need in certain areas of the state. The FNS can then exempt those areas from the normal constraints. That means people who live in LSAs can remain on SNAP for longer than three months regardless of whether they meet employment requirements.
But Governors are not required to ask for waivers. And in some states, legislation actually prohibits them from doing so. In April of this year, Republican Governor Brad Little of Idaho signed a bill that increased the work requirement in the state from 20 to 30 hours per week.
“Many states did a good job of using area waivers,” Volling said. “But several states, mainly in the Southeast, chose not to use the area waivers.”
Mississippi prohibits work requirements waivers on the basis of job availability. Twenty-four percent of Mississippi households in a county with an LSA received SNAP benefits in 2021. Over 160,000 people live in an LSA in Mississippi, but if they are of working age and without dependents, they still have to meet work requirements to continue getting benefits.
“It’s a really harsh and arbitrary provision,” Vollinger said.
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Railway Safety Bills Need to Ensure Rural Areas Get Help, Experts Say
Rail-safety bills that Congress is considering in response to this year’s catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, need a guarantee that rural communities will get the help they need to deal with their increased risk for derailments, a policy expert says.
“If you look at the history of these catastrophic derailments, they’re overwhelmingly happening in rural places and in small towns across the country,” said Anne Junod, senior research associate at the nonpartisan think tank the Urban Institute, in an interview with the Daily Yonder. Her research informed the railway safety legislation being considered in the Senate.
Last week the National Transportation Safety Board held a hearing near the site of February’s East Palestine, Ohio, derailment, which resulted toxic-chemical fires that lasted two days and forced evacuations. Also last week, liquid asphalt leaked into the Yellowstone River in Montana after a train derailment and railroad bridge collapse over the river.
Rural train derailments incur the highest average damage costs, at just over $362,000 per derailment, according to a Daily Yonder analysis. This is compared to an average of $115,000 in major metropolitan areas and about $200,000 in medium-sized metropolitan areas.
Despite the likelihood and severity of rural train derailments, rural communities are less equipped than cities to adequately respond, according to Junod. This is because rail companies are not required to provide information about the contents of a derailed train to the community affected, leaving that outreach up to local officials.
“Right now, it's on the community to get a hold of the railroad, and say, ‘what was the material that is now on fire in our community?’” Junod said. “The different types of hazardous materials will dictate the way that you respond and try to control the fire or prevent an explosion.”
For rural areas where emergency response programs are often volunteer-led and more limited in capacity, conducting this outreach can be difficult when they’re already “punching well above their weight” to adequately respond to a disaster, Junod said.
This was the case in rural East Palestine, Ohio, where a train carrying chemicals used to make plastic derailed and spilled into the local waterways. Residents within a mile of the crash were under a temporary evacuation order in case of an explosion.
Reporting from CNN found that most of the firefighters who responded to the disaster were volunteers and did not have the necessary equipment to safely deal with a hazardous chemical spill.
Nor did they know exactly what they were responding to: While the public was alerted of a vinyl chloride spill immediately after the derailment, Norfolk Southern, the train’s operator, did not disclose what the other hazardous chemicals spilled were until a week later when the company submitted a remedial action work plan to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
And not all affected agencies and jurisdictions were made aware of the derailment. In a letter to the president of Norfolk Southern, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro wrote that the company failed to implement Unified Command, a multi-agency or multi-jurisdictional process that involves coordinated response from agencies and organizations that service the areas affected by a disaster.
Norfolk Southern decided to burn five of the derailed train cars containing vinyl chloride to avoid an uncontrolled explosion but did not consult Pennsylvania officials before making this decision (East Palestine is just one mile from the Pennsylvania border).
“Failure to adhere to well-accepted standards of practice related to incident management and prioritizing an accelerated and arbitrary timeline to reopen the rail line injected unnecessary risk and created confusion in the [remediation] process,” Governor Shapiro wrote.
Rail Safety Legislation Is Underway
On June 21, 2023, the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration announced a proposed rule that would require railroads to maintain information about hazardous material shipments. The database would be accessible to authorized emergency response personnel.
All emergency responders authorized, licensed, or otherwise permitted by a state to conduct emergency response activities in their community would have access to the hazardous materials information in the event of a rail accident, according to an agency spokesperson. This means a rural volunteer fire department, for example, would have access as long as they are permitted by the town, county, or state to conduct emergency response operations.
The proposed rule adds to other railway safety legislation already under consideration in Congress in the wake of the East Palestine derailment.
The RAIL Act, introduced in the House by Ohio Representative Bill Johnson on March 17, would require hotbox detectors be placed every 10 miles on railways used to transport hazardous materials. These detectors monitor how hot a train’s wheels are, which when overheated, can cause breakage and result in a derailed train, as was the case in East Palestine. The legislation would also provide grant funding for hazardous material training for first responders.
The Railway Safety Act of 2023, introduced in the Senate by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown on March 1, would also require wayside defect detectors – a monitoring system on railroad tracks that includes hotbox detectors – be used for every train carrying hazardous materials. Railway companies would be required to provide state emergency response commissioners with advance notice about what hazardous materials are moving through their communities.
While the bills are a good starting point, said Junod from the Urban Institute, they don’t go far enough to meet rural communities where they are. The federal funding from these bills would likely be disseminated through grants, which can be a barrier for rural communities who don’t have paid staff to apply for these grants.
“If [these bills] don't have a kind of rural guarantee, they're gonna face further challenges in accessing these really needed resources,” Junod said.
An interview with U.S. 4th Congressional District Representative Val Hoyle
By GARY CARL/for The Herald — It was a picture-perfect day, on Monday April 10th 2023, when Lynda & I rolled into Congresswoman Val Hoyle’s office in the Longworth Building in Washington D.C. for an official visit to our Nation’s Capital. Lynda had previously scheduled our visit and we were met by Nicole Gelser, a […]