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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published March 07 2013

Conservation funds take divergent trails in North Dakota

BISMARCK – The Legislature could provide $15 million a year for statewide conservation efforts, or voters can opt for a $100 million fund.

Either way, both legislative proposals brought a mixed group of more than 80 people – some in suits and ties, others in camouflage and blaze orange vests – to the Capitol on Thursday morning.

A majority voiced their approval of the idea. Both would create an Outdoor Heritage Fund to provide grants to various organizations for outdoor conservation projects.

Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, speaking on behalf of Gov. Jack Dalrymple, said the oil boom has created some challenges for state conservation efforts and the fund would help take conservation lands and projects into the future.

“The idea is unique, impressive, but also fragile,” he said. “What’s being put together isn’t being put together for the next three weeks or three years; ultimately it’s for the decades ahead. If we are about the heritage in North Dakota, we have to be about the generations ahead.”

The $15 million per year proposal, or $30 million a biennium cap, under House Bill 1278, sponsored by Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan, is backed by Dalrymple and a group of energy, agriculture, business and conservation groups who helped write the bill after a failed attempt to put the idea to a statewide vote last year.

The $100 million proposal cap comes from Sen. Tyler Axness, D-Fargo, and a handful of co-sponsors under Senate Concurrent Resolution 4027.

Both would take a percentage from the state’s earnings on oil and gas production.

The point of the heritage fund is to fund organizations to protect and improve water quality, protect and restore wildlife and fish habitat on private and public lands, conserve natural areas and improve natural flood control through the restoration and protection of natural areas.

But the differences vary in regard to who would hear the proposals and distribute the grants and how much should be in the bank.

$30 million

Dan Wogsland, with the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, said he supports the idea as long as the funding level doesn’t exceed $30 million.

“If you observe all the needs the state of North Dakota has, we have before us a $30 million pilot project,” he said. “I think that is a pretty big commitment by the North Dakota Legislature.”

Greg Daws, a Grain Growers Association member from Michigan, N.D., is convinced the state has enough conservation efforts after he says he lost more than $60,000 in crops in the past two years because of a large geese problem.

“How much wildlife is enough?” he asked. “We need to be careful of what we ask for,” highlighting the fish and wildlife easements near his home, by Lake Laretta, have kept the state from fixing flooded roads.

Concerns over the bill also come with the Industrial Commission’s final determination over the grants. Some are worried the commission, comprised of the state agriculture commissioner, attorney general and governor, may not have the best interests of conservation organizations after the commission approved of oil development in the Killdeer Mountains, despite some objections.

HB 1278 would take 8 percent from the oil and gas production tax. It’s estimated to raise $17.62 million in the 2013-15 biennium and reach its $30 million cap in following year.

$100 million

If voters choose the larger option, the extra funds could help the state reclaim more Conservation Reserve Program acres, which has declined by 1.6 million acres over the past six years, said Keith Trego, a member of the Clean Water, Lands and Outdoor Heritage Coalition. Trego said North Dakota outdoorsmen believe conservation land is a part of the state’s infrastructure, like roads.

SCR 4027 would take 4 percent of the oil and gas production tax and 4 percent from oil extraction taxes. According to the Office of Tax Commissioner, if enacted and voted into law, it is expected to result in an estimated $43.9 million in the final 5 months of the 2013-15 biennium and reach its maximum $100 million per year in following years.

The Senate resolution differs from the House bill by creating an Outdoor Heritage Commission to oversee and distribute the funding, rather than the Industrial Commission. The outdoor commission would have 10 members including the governor and ag commissioner, as well as legislative leaders and representatives from state outdoor agencies.

If approved by voters, the measure would become effective Dec. 31, 2014 and expire on Jan. 1, 2039 to allow the state to evaluate the fund.

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