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Patrick Springer, Published June 18 2010

Poll: North Dakota residents back conservation

North Dakota voters strongly support a greater state role in setting aside land to protect natural areas, water and wildlife habitat, according to a new poll.

The opinion survey, released Thursday by a coalition of conservation groups, found that two-thirds of state voters favor setting aside more land for habitat and preservation.

Strong support was consistent among geographic groups, including voters in rural and urban areas and all regions of the state, according to the poll, commissioned by The Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society, North Dakota Natural Resources Trust and Ducks Unlimited.

“Every survey shows North Dakotans are very appreciative and hold dear their outdoor values,” said Mark Trego, executive director of the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust.

The telephone survey of 400 North Dakota voters was taken April 6-8 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent. The poll had a bipartisan flavor, in that it was jointly done by a firm that serves Republicans and one that caters to Democrats.

The poll results were released in a news conference Thursday in Bismarck, but conservationists met recently with The Forum editorial board to discuss the findings.

North Dakota has rich natural resources, but protecting land and water is a greater challenge with unprecedented energy development throughout much of the state, including wind farms, oil wells and pipelines, conservation advocates said.

“We thought it was very timely to take a good snapshot of where the public is,” Trego said. If North Dakota fails to protect its natural resources, he added, “We aren’t going to have the opportunities we have now. We think it’s time to start a larger discussion.”

Despite strong public support for conservation, efforts to preserve wildlife habitat are hampered by “unique” restrictive laws that make it difficult for nonprofit conservation groups to acquire land, Trego said.

“There are no other states in the country which have some of the laws we have,” he said.

Years ago nonprofit conservation groups supported laws requiring them to pay property taxes on land set aside for preservation to support local governments, yet conservation projects often meet steep resistance by farm groups and other interests, conservationists said.

The restrictive laws are in contrast to public opinion, conservation advocates argue, and claim the poll supports that view.

Voters are more than three times as likely to favor allowing land owners to sell their property to conservationists than to oppose sales that would take farm land out of production, according to the poll.

Underlying that support for conservation land acquisition is a bedrock belief in individual property rights, with 85 percent supporting such sales and 11 percent against.

“That puts it in the ‘mom and baseball and apple pie category,’ said pollster Lori Weigel.

Among the potential projects poll respondents regarded as “extremely important” or “very important”:

Stephen Adair, director of Ducks Unlimited’s Great Plains office in Bismarck, said North Dakota needs development and tillage agriculture, but also needs preservation of important natural resources.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522