Compromising the Extension Service

November, 2013

Lincoln -- As a former 4-H Club member, I've always been a supporter of cooperative extension programs in agriculture. Informing farmers and consumers about the latest agricultural research, the programs have worked successfully for decades, not least because of their unusual funding structure: part federal, part state, part local.

Each level of government has a stake and a say; no level has to bear the entire burden. This is a model ("cooperative federalism") that could be used more throughout government.

But my confidence in ag research and extension programs has been shaken by the intrusion of other interests into the equation.

This fall I visited a local Lincoln nursery to buy trees for our prairie property. I was surprised to see trees (e.g., ashes and elms) with known susceptibilities to certain insects offered for sale. The problems were dismissed by the nursery: just drench the roots annually with Bayer Advanced insecticide, which contains a neonicotinoid (imidacloprid) to kill the insects, I was advised.

But we raise bees and we try to provide a safe environment for pollinators of all types. Our country's food security is facing a serious challenge because of the precipitous loss of pollinators in recent years. We would not want to use any products that contain imidacloprid, which is toxic to bees.

I consulted an extension service webpage on the matter. It did not mention that imidacloprid is harmful to bees. I asked the nursery how many of their trees were already drenched with Bayer Advanced. Many species, it turns out. The nursery thought the more, the better, it was clear, as if this were a selling point.

The extension service is disseminating information on imidacloprid through the filter of Bayer Crop Science. Bayer is aggressively fighting bans of its products both in this country and abroad. Some localities in the USA prohibit imidacloprid; France, Germany, and Italy do not permit its use because of its toxicity to bees. Bayer claims its products pose a negligible risk to bees.

The Bayer tail is wagging the extension dog. As a taxpayer, I want the tax dollars I pay at the federal, state, and local levels devoted to research and extension uncompromised by fourth parties with agendas that may well be dangerous to the overall public interest: namely our food chain.

"George Norris, Going Home"

November, 2013

Lincoln -- Gene Budig and Don Walton have finally published a book they started over fifty years ago: George Norris, Going Home. They began it with interviews of Norris's widow, Ellie, that ran in the Lincoln Star at the beginning of their careers; they finished it decades later after Gene's wife found their abandoned book-version manuscript in an attic.

The slim volume is full of references to Norris's life, such as where he and his family lived in Washington when Congress was in session. It was at the Dodge Hotel, now the site of the Hall of the States on North Capitol Avenue, a few blocks from the Senate near Union Station.

My favorite passage is the description of Norris's appearance in the Nebraska Unicameral chamber at noon on March 10, 1943. It was his first visit to the unique institution he had campaigned for, against all odds, nine years earlier. That was also the same day I made my first appearance in this life, across town a few hours earlier at Bryan Memorial Hospital.

My least favorite passage (which appears twice) is where the authors pull their punches regarding the shameful treatment given George Norris by two U.S. senators in the mid 1950s, over a decade after his death. (The episode is recounted in the official history of the Senate). The authors, inexplicably, do not name the names of those behind the political pettiness.

Norris had been the top choice of 160 scholars for recognition of the U.S. Senate's five historically greatest members. But he was vetoed for inclusion by Senators Carl Curtis and Roman Hruska, who threatened extended debate against the man who had been their home-state political rival. So the "famous five" turned out to be Webster, Clay, Calhoun, Taft, and LaFollette, but not Norris.

Did this dimish the lasting memory of Norris, and the importance of the state he represented? I think it did. When I was working in the U.S. Senate in the early 1980s, Senator J. James Exon sent a letter to President Ronald Reagan alerting him to a celebration of Norris's accomplishments. The President sent back a letter regretting that he could not attend, but asked Senator Exon to extend his regards to Senator Norris.

Philippine Relief

November, 2013

Washington -- It is so difficult to imagine the calamity that has struck the Philippines; UNICEF appeals to me daily with descriptions of the suffering. I hope many Americans are helping with relief and hope. It is the least we can do for a country and a people who are so closely linked to ourselves and to our own history.

The first entry I wrote in this series dealt with the Philippines. I remember so well the day in 1967 when the USS Rainier (AE-5) made landfall in the San Bernadino Straits after a three-week ocean crossing. Cooking smoke curled up from forest villages in the mountains; the aroma of sampaguita (the Philippine national flower) blew across the narrow channels we navigated.

Many Americans can never get their Philippine experiences out of their minds. In the summer of 1990, former Concordia University president Dr. Ralph Reinke and his wife visited me in Berlin. We went into East Germany together. One of our topics of conversation was Ralph's recent trip back to the Philippines, where he had once served in the U.S. military. He had to visit Subic Bay again.

I'm glad the USS George Washington, with its huge evaporators producing drinkable water and its cavernous storerooms filled with food, is on the scene providing relief. During our years of service, many of us in the Navy welcomed chances to provide humanitarian help whenever possible. My Rainier division's sailors and I once helped build and paint a school on the edge of the Bataan peninsula, a day's bus ride over the mountains from where Americans once battled Filipinos, decades before, in an ill-conceived war that was started, most unfortunately, by Nebraskans.

Americans saved the Philippines from a brutal military regime in World War II but it is time to help the Philippines again, as the country struggles to recover from a year of natural disasters.

The Nebraska Climate Change Study

November, 2013

Lincoln -- The State of Nebraska has embarrassed itself nationally over legislation to study the potential effects of climate change on the state. The Nebraska legislature authorized and funded such a study but before it could get underway, a state senator (who is running for governor) announced that his last minute amendment to the legislation before it passed was intended to prevent those doing the study from looking at any man-made influences on climate.

A State Department of Agriculture official said that the study could therefore look only at "cyclical" climate change, as opposed to anthropogenic effects. Whereupon some University of Nebraska scientists concluded that they could not participate in the study if the politics of climate change limited their freedom of inquiry.

National television news channels pounced on the contretemps.

Happily, the Vice Chancellor at the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources has stepped up to say the University could do an independent study; he provided a modest budget and suggested a graduate student could pull together existing studies free of ideological baggage.

This might be easier said than done, given the passions and the rhetorical excesses from all sides.

Any such author would do well to start with the history of climate change in Nebraska and the previous controversies that surrounded the subject. The University has often been in the thick of the controversies. An early professor, Dr. Samuel Aughey, told 19th century settlers inaccurately that "rain follows the plow," resulting in over-settlement of many rural areas and an inevitable de-population that is still in progress over a century later. During the First World War and the decade that followed, University agronomists and extension agents urged farmers to put prairie land into production with newly mechanized farming techniques. But conservation measures were not in place, so the winds blew the soil and exacerbated (if not caused) the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

One heroic professor stands athwart these unhappy eras, as he witnessed them firsthand, studied them, learned from them, and remediated their environmental consequences.

Dr. Frederic Clements, Lincoln-born and NU-educated professor of botany and ecology, established (with his wife, Dr. Edith Clements) a laboratory in the Rocky Mountains where he could study the effects of climate on plants. Scores of Nebraskans and others trained at their Alpine Laboratory from 1900 to 1940, first supported by the University of Nebraska, then Minnesota, and finally the Carnegie Institution. As the devastating consequences of the Dust Bowl became apparent, the U.S. government turned to the Doctors Clements for remedies. The husband-wife team traveled the country (Edith driving), visiting the conservation experiments of those they had trained at their lab. They recommended to the nation such new conservation measures as small shelterbelts, contour farming, minimum tillage, and cover crops, along with the establishment of citizen-controlled Soil Conservation Districts.

When drought once again raised fears of another dust bowl in the early 1950s, much of the land had been restored and protected with these conservation techniques. Scientists and conservationists of the time credited these man-made countermeasures.

The Clementses were not political; they believed that the climate disasters they had witnessed were both cyclical and man-made. Frederic Clements joined with the founder of the science of dendrochronolgy, A.E. Douglass, to examine the effect of solar activity on climate. He likewise was a severe critic of the kinds of farming techniques that destroyed the prairies and caused them to blow.

Nebraska -- its state university in particular -- has every reason to conduct an independent study on the potential effects of 21st century climate change. A good place to start would be to review the lives and times of Frederic and Edith Clements.

"Enrollment Management" is Out of Control

November, 2013

Washington -- If ever there was compelling evidence demonstrating the need for the Secretary of Education to enforce the Student Right to Know Act*, it has presented itself in recent days:

• George Washington University has admitted to its student newspaper that it takes students' ability to pay tuition into account in its final admissions decisions. GWU had previously misled students by claiming admissions were need blind.

• College clients of a student net-price calculator company have requested that the company block student access to another such company's net price calculator, inhibiting students from comparing college costs.

• Some colleges are using federally-collected FAFSA information to deny students admission or to cut their financial aid.

This is just the most recent evidence that the "enrollment management" industry is out of control. The integrity of many colleges has long-since been compromised; federal funds in the billions annually have been wasted and abused through unethical financial aid packaging procedures; even the nation's economy has been damaged by plunging students into levels of debt that can hobble them for life.

Colleges and the enrollment management industry have been able to obfuscate and misinform students, families, and taxpayers by insisting -- without challenge from the U.S. Department of Education -- that their procedures and practices constitute proprietary information and are not subject to disclosure. This is demonstrably false. The Student Right to Know Act already provides that colleges must disclose to students the details of how amounts of financial aid are calculated and the methods used by the colleges to determine those amounts. "Methods" means nothing if not the disgusting practices of the enrollment management industry.

What is the Secretary of Education waiting for? With one letter to the higher education community, the Secretary of Education could beam disinfecting sunshine into the shady world of student admissions and financial aid. Such action would be welcomed by the remaining colleges and financial aid administrators who believe colleges must not just teach ethics (and transparency) but practice them as well.
* The Student Right to Know Act, as used here, includes financial assistance information as currently codified in 20 USC 1092; the implementing regulations are at 34 CFR 668.42. These provisions also deal with graduation rates, campus crime, and a variety of other matters setting forth the obligations of colleges to inform students. The codification includes legislation passed with various titles over several decades.

Prairie Autumn

November, 2013

Lincoln -- The trees and grasses on my home prairie, in the Oak Creek valley northwest of Lincoln, have never been more colorful. Warm September days followed by cool October nights (but with no hard freezes) have made each day more spectacular than the day before.

Bees in the hives are still active; deer and wild turkeys are plentiful; quail uprisings startle hikers on the trails.

A coyote who lives in the riparian wetlands looks fat and happy. A trail camera catches skunks, racoons, and opossums making nightly courses through their grass highways. A fox checks out what's happening around the barn.

A great horned owl hoots before midnight and again at dawn. Old growth cottonwoods, bright yellow against deep blue skies, preside over the season.