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Retiree improves wildlife habitat, raises property's value

IRELAND — At age 79, John Cobb doesn’t have to spend six to eight hours a day working to improve wildlife habitat. He does, though, because he wants to.

Like an ever-growing number of West Virginians, Cobb participates in a program that reimburses private landowners for turning patches of dense forest into places more attractive to migratory birds and other wildlife species.

“It’s good for my mind, it’s good for my body,” said Cobb, a Maryland native who purchased 365 heavily forested acres of Mountain State countryside in 2006 and built a home there. “It allows me to be productive and to have a sense of purpose in my retirement.”

None of that was on Cobb’s mind when he bought the land. His most immediate priority was to chainsaw a path through the forest to gain access to his future home site. In fact, it didn’t occur to him to begin improving wildlife habitat until he had a random conversation with a worker at the U.S. Department of Agriculture office in Weston.

“In 2009, I wanted to see if there were any aerial pictures of my property,” Cobb recalled. “At the USDA office, they had some great big ones.

“I got the pictures and, as I was leaving, the woman who was helping me said, ‘Do you know you can get money to improve your land?’ I said, ‘Really? What’s that about?’ ”

Cobb, who retired from marketing, discovered that the USDA, through the National Resources Conservation Service, has a program that reimburses landowners who improve wildlife habitat on their properties. The program meshed perfectly with Cobb’s goals for his property.

An avid hunter, Cobb wanted to maximize his land’s ability to grow deer, turkey, grouse and other wildlife species. He learned he could be reimbursed for the time he spent cutting grapevines, eliminating holly thickets, creating wildlife clearings and more.

The programs required him, with the help of agency foresters and biologists, to create work plans and to sign contracts agreeing to either do the work or have it done. After the work was completed, officials followed up to make sure the work had been done and to sign off on payment.

“Right now, I have 11 or 12 contracts working,” Cobb said. “They’re lined up through 2023, but I want to add another one. I want to plant [blight-resistant] American chestnuts and gobbler oak trees.”

American chestnuts were once the dominant tree species in the Eastern United States, until the chestnut blight of the early 1900s killed almost all of them. Cobb said geneticists have created a blight-resistant strain that shows great promise.

Cobb’s property has plenty of oak trees, but he wants to add to the mix some sawtooth oaks, popularly known as “gobbler oaks” for their ability to produce dense annual crops of small acorns.

Some of the contracts have paid quite well. For example, he received a check for $7,960 from the NRCS for having loggers perform an 11-acre clear-cut on a hillside downslope from his house.

“I also made about $38,000 for the sale of the timber, based on the standard 60/40 contract,” he said.

Two other contracts paid far less, but Cobb undertook them because he knew they would benefit the cerulean warbler, a migratory songbird whose population has declined 70% in the past 40 years.

Ceruleans prefer to live in forest canopies riddled with small openings. By selectively cutting trees on two small tracts — one 6 acres and the other 4 acres — Cobb dramatically improved the cerulean habitat on his land. The contracts for the cuts paid $1,803 and $1,205, respectively, but Cobb said the larger reward came the year after the cuts were made.

“Before the cuts, biology students from [West Virginia University] found just one family of ceruleans on the property,” he said. “After the cuts, they found eight. That’s an amazing change for one year.”

Cobb’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2019, he was named West Virginia’s Tree Farmer of the Year.

“I didn’t even know there was such a designation,” he said. “I didn’t really need the recognition, but I realized that, if I got that status, I could use it to promote the program, and that’s what I’ve done with it.”

For four years now, Cobb has made an annual pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation.

“I’ve met with Sen. [Joe] Manchin, Sen. [Shelley Moore] Capito and Rep. [Alex] Mooney to help try and get more Interior Department funding for the Appalachian Mountain Joint Venture,” Cobb said.

“We got an increase of $1.5 million. Under the Joint Venture concept, there are corporate, educational and nongovernmental organizations that match each federal dollar with $31. Bottom line: That $1.5 million increase turned into $46.5 million of on-the-ground impact that will go to landowners who participate in the program.”

Scott Warner, who heads up the Wildlife Diversity section for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, said the Joint Venture has allowed his agency to do work it otherwise wouldn’t have the funding to do.

“We’ve done 3,700 acres in the last 5 years, a lot of it on 10- to 15-acre woodlots,” he said. “It’s a win-win. Landowners can benefit from it financially and get technical assistance. A lot of landowners like to hunt, and the work they do carries benefits for all wildlife.”

Warner said landowners who want to know more about the program should contact their local DNR office. “We’ll put them in touch with our Partner Program biologists,” he added.

Matt Aberle, a Partner Program biologist who works out of the NRCS’s Summersville office, described how he handles landowners’ questions about the initiative.

“I ask them questions about their property, and what their goals are,” Aberle said. “I get them into the USDA system, walk the land with a forester, and get an idea of the work that needs to be done. I help them come up with their conservation plans, and then monitor progress on the work.”

Cobb often urges fellow landowners to do similar work on their properties.

“The majority of West Virginians that own property should be able to get into programs that help them improve their forests for wildlife,” he said. “Every one of those I can get to sign up makes me feel really good. I’m not in to make money. I do it from my heart.”

Kanawha asks for public input for safe trick-or-treating

Kanawha County issued guidance Wednesday for safe trick-or-treating on Halloween this year and is asking for public input on how to ensure children can safely celebrate the holiday.

The Kanawha County Commission advised holding trick or treat from 5 to 7 p.m. Oct. 31, a Saturday. The time and date are not binding for any cities or municipalities in the county — it is just a recommendation.

For those not wanting to participate in trick or treat, commissioners advised leaving your home’s outdoor or porch light off. The commission asks that those participating respect the houses that aren’t.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised “many traditional Halloween activities can be high risk for spreading viruses” and “there are several safer, alternative ways to participate in Halloween.” There is a complete list of low-, moderate- and high-risk Halloween activities on the CDC’s website.

Trick-or-treating in a yard or driveway, and setting up individually wrapped goodie bags for easy grab-and-go, is considered a moderate-risk activity by the CDC.

Traditional trick-or-treating — knocking on doors and reaching into a communal bowl for individual candy — is considered a high-risk activity.

Public input for how the county can safely hold trick or treat can be directed to the county’s Facebook post calling for comment, or by directly contacting the commission. Final guidance and other details will be given within the next two weeks.

Commission President Kent Carper said Wednesday that if there is a significant surge in positive COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks, the county may advise no celebration at all. But, he said, trick-or-treating is an activity that “can absolutely be done safely,” if people commit to mask wearing and social distancing.

McConnell says: 'We have the votes' on Barrett confirmation; committee to vote Oct. 22

WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee has formally set a panel vote on Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court for Oct. 22.

Democrats protested the swift action less than three weeks before the Nov. 3 election, but are powerless to stop it.

“We have the votes,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters in Kentucky as he said the full Senate will begin debate on the nominee Oct. 23.

Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate. President Donald Trump has said he wants Barrett confirmed before the Nov. 3 election.

One Democrat senator protested the move by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the committee chairman, to go ahead with setting up the nomination vote, under committee rules that require at least two members of the minority to be present during the meeting. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., was the only Democrat present until Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., showed up.

But Graham went ahead and held a vote that set the committee’s vote on the nomination for next week. Durbin and Blumenthal voted in person.

“What’s going to happen is that we’re going to be denied the ability to operate as normal,” Graham said.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., appealed to Republicans to halt Barrett’s nomination process in the name of saving the institutional integrity of Congress, appealing to them to commit “an act of heroism” by delaying her confirmation until after Election Day.

“The greatest acts of American history are when people have the authority to do something, but they showed the restraint of power and did not use the authority,” Booker said. “This is one of those moments, where that is the kind of grace that can stop this tumbling of this institution further toward what I think will be a real constitutional crisis.”

The timing of Barrett’s confirmation process has been a key dispute between Democrats, who insist it is wrong to put a new justice on the Supreme Court while the 2020 voting season is underway, and Republicans, who argue that, while Donald Trump is president, he may appoint whomever he wants.

Democrats have accused Republicans of being hypocrites, because of their refusal in 2016 to consider then-President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland. But they also have acknowledged that Barrett’s confirmation “is pretty much cooked,” as Booker put it Thursday.

Still, he warned, there are “troubling” aspects of the process that would contribute to the “erosion of precedent” in the committee, for future Supreme Court fights. In particular, he pointed out that Barrett had “refused to answer” a lot of questions he considered to be “in bounds” — including whether she supported the peaceful transfer of power between presidents.

“We do have common virtue, we do have common values, we have common cause,” Booker said, adding that the “tit for tat” of partisan politics is something lawmakers could try to change. “But we are doing this and failing as a body to lead in a time of crisis.”

“This is not happening in a vacuum ... it is happening in a time of terrible crisis for our country,” Booker said. “I am appealing right now, that we have to find a way to stop this. The only thing that heals this body is revival of civic grace.”

The Judiciary Committee vote is on whether to advance Barrett’s nomination to the full Senate for a final confirmation vote.

Meanwhile, representatives from the American Bar Association who evaluated Barrett’s qualifications to be a Supreme Court justice detailed to the Judiciary Committee on Thursday why they gave Barrett their highest rating available.

ABA evaluators found that Barrett’s integrity, judicial temperament and academic charter “met the very high standards for appointment to the Supreme Court,” said Randall Noel, a Memphis attorney who led the review.

The evaluation, Noel said, “reflects the consensus of her peers that know her best.

Pamela Roberts, a Columbia, South Carolina, lawyer who also helped lead the evaluation, read to the committee some descriptions of the outside input the ABA received on Barrett — including “whip smart,” an “intellectual giant with people skills and engaging warmth” and, “without question, the smartest student I’ve ever taught” from a former professor.

The interviews with her colleagues, students and former professors, as well as a review of her writings, amounted to thousands of hours of work, Roberts said.

Noel and Roberts said they would “absolutely” feel confident in litigating before Barrett.

WV poet, activist asks US Senators: 'Do not confirm' Barrett for Supreme Court

When West Virginia writer and activist Crystal Good needed compassion and trust from her government after finding out she was pregnant at 16 years old, “all I got was another barrier,” she told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Good, of Charleston, was one of several people who testified during the fourth day of hearings for the nomination of U.S. Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. Good testified as a guest of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

President Donald Trump nominated Barrett to the court to fill the vacancy left by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Good described herself as a “sixth-generation West Virginian, a writer-poet, a small-business owner, a graduate student at West Virginia University and an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse,” as well as a mother to three “brilliant” children and the daughter of a white mother and black father.

“These identities are parts of me, but not all of me,” she told the committee.

Good told the committee how she was abused by her white stepfather from the time she was 5 years old until she was 15, and how no one in her family initially believed her. She said the adults in her life then failed to hold him accountable once the truth was known.

She told the committee he eventually was convicted for his crimes in 2012.

She said that, when she was 16 and in a safe and joyful relationship, she found out she was pregnant, and began to explore her options in West Virginia, which required parental consent for a minor to receive an abortion.

By then, Good said, she couldn’t trust any of the adults in her life.

“For many reasons, including the decade of abuse she did not protect me from, I could not tell my mother,” Good said. “Instead, I sought a judicial bypass.”

She said she had to coordinate around her school day to see the judge, whom she told about her academic achievements and her now-realized goal of going to college and becoming a writer.

He granted her the ability to have an abortion without her parents’ consent.

“It felt like a miracle,” Good said. “An adult believed me. An authority figure deemed me to be in charge of my own body and my own future.”

Good told the committee she realizes the work the Supreme Court has done in the past to uphold certain rights and freedoms, including a right to an abortion, integrating public schools, upholding the Affordable Care Act and providing workplace protection for her transgender daughter.

But with Barrett’s nomination, Good told senators, she is losing faith in the court.

“President Trump has been clear that he would only appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade,” Good said of the Supreme Court ruling protecting a woman’s right to an abortion. “Unfortunately, through learning about Judge Barrett’s record, I understand why the president believes she passes the test.

“Please listen to people who have had abortions,” Good said. “Hear us when we ask you, please do not confirm this nominee. Our futures, our families, our lives depend on it. We, too, are Americans.”

PEIA: No premium increases next year, but potential hikes looming

For a third year, the PEIA Finance Board on Thursday tentatively adopted a benefits plan that features no changes in premiums or benefits for its insurees.

“We’re not doing a thing. We’re just sitting idle,” Ted Cheatham, executive director of the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency, said of the proposed 2021-22 benefits plan. “No changes to premiums. No changes to benefits for any of the sectors we serve. No changes for one more year.”

However, the PEIA finance plan projects the need for an 8.4% premium increase in the 2022-23 plan year, and for a 14.4% increase in 2023-24. Cheatham said the increases could be partially offset by a $105 million PEIA Rainy Day Fund created in 2019 that has yet to be tapped.

Cheatham said that fund is controlled by the governor, and it is not clear if expenditures from that fund would trigger PEIA’s 80-20 rule, which requires any increase in employer contributions to PEIA be matched by an increase in employee premiums on an 80%-20% ratio.

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee told board members that, while state teachers appreciate that there will be no plan changes in the coming year, “Our concern at WVEA is what’s going to happen after the 2022 fiscal year?”

Lee said Gov. Jim Justice set up the PEIA Task Force in February 2018 to help resolve a statewide teacher walkout, and directed task force members to come up with long-term funding solutions for PEIA.

On Thursday, Lee told the board, “I’m a member of the PEIA Task Force that has not met since January of two years ago.”

The task force last met Jan. 8, 2019, and one of its last proposals at that meeting was a controversial change to the 80-20 rule that would cap future employee premium increases. As Lee noted Thursday, the Wests Virginia Legislature has never taken up bills that would have enacted that and other changes proposed by the task force.

A third consecutive year with no PEIA premium increases was made possible, in part, by lower-than-expected medical and pharmaceutical costs in the 2019-20 plan year, which ended June 30.

Medical claims costs of $429.56 million were about $12.15 million below the budgeted amount for 2019-20, and prescription drug claims of $141.47 million was $13.4 million below budget.

That helped leave PEIA with a year-end net of $225.4 million, about $38.2 million more than projected.

At the board’s last meeting, in June, PEIA chief financial officer Jason Haught had projected a downturn in costs, saying any increased costs for COVID-19 testing and medical care for PEIA insurees would be offset by a drop-off in elective medical procedures during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We will see spiked utilization of services with the pandemic, but we also will see a decline in elective services,” he said at that meeting.

PEIA will conduct a series of public hearings on the proposed plan in November, and the Finance Board will meet Dec. 17 to give final approval to the 2021-22 plan, which will go into effect July 1, 2021.

Also Thursday, Cheatham insisted that a planned rebid of PEIA’s Medicare Advantage Plan program is routine.

“This is business as usual,” he said. “There is no financial issue. There’s no quality issue. There’s no service issue. It is simply our duty to bid this out.”

Humana currently has the contract and is expected to bid on the new contract, which would go into effect Jan. 1, 2022.

Cheatham said that, regardless of the outcome of the bidding, plan benefits will not change.

“Everybody in the world has changed benefits providers, unless you’ve been in PEIA from soup to nuts,” he said. “Everyone working for a private employer has changed plans, at some point.”