Oct. 17–North Dakota is known for its picturesque outdoors.
In order to preserve and grow the resource, a petition is being sent around to form the Clean Water, Wildlife and Park Fund, an amendment to the North Dakota constitution.
The fund would take 5 percent of the Oil Extraction Tax and be put back into North Dakota outdoors. After the initial funding, 10 percent of the money would go into a trust.
“It’s only purpose is a granting body,” Stephen Adair, Great Plains Regional Office director of Ducks Unlimited said of the fund. “There’s been some confusion about that with some people and what authority does this commission have. All they are is a granting body. The only purpose is to make grants. That’s all they can do.
“The idea of the trust is that we know this oil boom is going to decline at some point in the future. The trust fund would be there to continue conservation for some time after the boom is over.”
Though the plan sounds like a good idea, North Dakota Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said there’s already an initiative in place for providing money toward outdoors.
“We passed legislation during the session where we set up a heritage fund,” he said. “They can argue that we didn’t put enough money into it, but we started it. As time goes on, we can increase the funding to that.”
The biggest difference between the Outdoor Heritage Fund and the Clean Water, Wildlife and Park Fund comes down to money. The Outdoor Heritage Fund has an annual payout of $10 million, while the Clean Water, Wildlife and Park Fund would have a budget of more than 10 times the amount.
Wardner worries the money generated from the Clean Water, Wildlife and Park Fund would be too much.
“We’ve already done it,” he said. “The Legislature already has a fund in place. The governor has already appointed an advisory board to it. What’s the difference between what the Legislature did and what is proposed? It’s the amount of money.
“We are questioning why you would need that much money. Now go back to (Outdoor Heritage Fund), is there enough money in there? Arguably, probably not enough, because it sits at $20 (million) at best for the biennium, but we always take a small step before moving into new programs. If this thing works out and there are projects that need doing, we’ll put more money into. We’ll change the percent that goes into it and increase it.”
However, one of the biggest contributions the Clean Water, Wildlife and Park Fund could provide is added incentives to farmers or landowners in the Conservation Reserve Program.
The numbers of acres in CRP continues to fall in North Dakota. The peak of the acres in CRP was in 1998 and 2008 when there were nearly 3.5 million acres. In 2012, there was less than 1 million acres in CRP.
“A lot of CRP offers right now are about half of what the landowner can get for renting it out for corn, soybeans or other crops,” Adair said. “You could actually take this fund and sweeten that pot too, so it’s more economically feasible for a landowner to do conservation.”
Keith Trego, executive director of Natural Resources Trust added: “Some of the bigger ideas are landscape conservation. Where groups would come together and put together ideas of conservation programs that farmers and ranchers are very interested in. We know that. We watch the farm bill with interest. Every program is oversubscribed by two or three to one. In today’s environment with high-commodity prices, there’s much interest than there are dollars or acres available. The idea of finding folks want to be engaged in this sort of thing out on the landscape the demand is there.”
Nonetheless, the residents of North Dakota have the final say whether the petition will be passed or not. It would need 27,000 signatures to be put on the ballot, but the goal for the petitioners is 40,000.
If passed, the measure would effect oil produced on or after Jan. 1, 2015, or the first day of the first calendar quarter beginning after the date it’s approved by the voters.
“North Dakota is an outdoor state,” Trego said. “Our outdoor heritage, the time we spend outdoors with our families, hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and bicycling is a part of our fabric. We are seeing that change. We are seeing pressures on the landscape.
“We are on the edge of losing something that’s very special. It’s something we have and it’s something we take for granted in this state. A lot of other states have lost the outdoor opportunities we have. Frankly, that’s why a lot of those people want to come here.”
Purpose of the measure
The idea of the proposed measure is to create a fund which would be used for grants to state agencies, tribal governments, local governments, political subdivisions and nonprofit organizations.
The purpose is to protect, improve, maintain or restore water quality thought the restoration and protection of rivers, streams, lakes or other surface waters, groundwater, wetlands, grasslands, prairies or forests.
It would also be used for improving natural flood control through the restoration or protection of natural areas. It would also protect, restore or create wildlife and fish habitat through voluntary program on private lands including working farms and ranches, and public lands through grassland, prairie, wetland, stream, lake and forest restoration, creation and protection.
There would be funds to conserve or acquire natural areas, parks and other recreation area or provide access for hunting and fishing. It would also create more opportunities and places for children to learn about and enjoy nature and the outdoors.
What the funds can’t be used for
The fund may not be used to fund litigation, lobbying activities, activities which would unduly interfere, disrupt or prevent the development of mineral rights.
It would also not fund projects outside North Dakota, more than 50 percent of grant awards per biennium for any one stated purpose, acquisition of land through condemnation or the use of eminent domain, and compliance with legal mitigation requirements of any local, state or federal permit or grant.
Trego said the public’s biggest worry when the proposal began was the committee’s acquisition of land. Since the funds may not be used to acquire land, Trego said there has been positive response around the state.
“We’ve clearly spelled out the money these things can’t be used for,” Trego said. “We think these are good improvements and address concerns people brought up and tried to learn, improve and we think the trust is another a really good addition. It reflects a very good approach to use resources, whether you are using your resources or public resources. We have something for future.”
Members of the board
The board would consist of 13 members. The members of the board would provide grant recommendations to the commission. Seven of the members would be appointed by the governor. The other six members would be appointed by various groups.
The members appointed by the governor would be four citizens recommended by the director of the Game and Fish Department, two citizens recommended by of the director of Parks and Recreation department, one citizen recommended by Indian Affairs commission.
The members appointed by other groups would be two members of the state Senate appointed by the president pro tempore with equal representation from the two largest political parties in the Senate and two members of the House of Representatives appointed by the speaker with equal representation from the two largest political parties in the House. The final two members would be one energy industry representative to be appointed by the Public Service Commission and one farmer or rancher to be appointed by the Agriculture Commission.
“That’s one element that would assure some political balance,” Trego said.
A worry Wardner presented would be the power the 13 member committee would have over allocating funds. With the members not being elected, the board doesn’t have to answer to anyone in making decisions about distributing funds.
“Everybody complains about the board of higher education,” he said. “They are their own board. The governor appoints them. The governor will appoint the board in that petition too. Once they are on, we have no control over them. That’s a concern that you have a board that answers to no one. They aren’t elected.”