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Published January 21 2013

Forum editorial: A great proposal for a park

At first glance, a bill in the North Dakota House that would repurpose a 900-acre tract of state land near the Missouri River south of Bismarck looks like the same ol’ sleight of hand that was tried in two previous legislative sessions. But the bill filed last week by Rep. Alon Wieland, R-West Fargo, appears to be no such thing.

House Bill 1312 aims to move the Missouri River Correctional Center (commonly known as the state farm) from land near the river to a site on the State Penitentiary grounds in Bismarck. The river tract would be transformed into a recreation area and nature preserve with (and here’s the difference from previous proposals) no private or commercial development.

In other words, a truly spectacular stretch of river bottomland a short drive from downtown Bismarck would be protected from development and accessible to the public. And it’s not just any chunk of ground. In addition to open acres that are managed for hay and other crops, the tract features 9,000 feet of shoreline and an old-growth riverine forest of cottonwood, willow, ash and other trees. It is habitat for all manner of wild animals, from deer and beaver to songbirds and eagles. It’s a beautiful place in every season of the year. Preserving in its natural state for public use is a great idea.

The rub? The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is not sold on the plan. Director Leann Bertsch said the timing is not right to move the 150 male inmates at MRCC to the main prison site. She apparently thinks the new site would be less secure and might lead to crowding at the prison. Maybe so.

Wieland’s legislation (co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Carlisle, R-Bismarck) does not necessarily have to impose a timetable to spend the $12 million that would be needed to finance the move. But the process can begin while the corrections people adjust to accommodate the move.

In previous attempts to move MRCC off the river tract, it was suspected that real estate and development interests were lusting after the prime land for housing and commercial lots. They likely were. Objections to selling the land to private developers scuttled early proposals.

The current legislation includes the provision to keep the land in state ownership for a recreation and nature area. If it all comes together, generations of North Dakotans will enjoy a beautiful park, thanks to the 2013 Legislature.

But first the people at corrections, Game & Fish, and Parks & Recreation have to get off their duffs and develop a cooperative strategy aimed at getting it done, not merely whining that it can’t be done.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.