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Patrick Springer, Published August 12 2013

ND conservation advocates resurrect ballot measure designating oil money for conservation

FARGO – Conservation advocates are resurrecting a proposed ballot initiative that would set aside a bigger slice of North Dakota’s mushrooming oil revenues for an outdoor heritage fund.

The Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment would set aside 5 percent of the state’s oil extraction tax, which totaled $880.4 million in 2012, a sum that has more than quadrupled since 2008 when the boom began.

At the 2012 level, the 5-percent set-aside would generate $44 million per year or $88 million per biennium for conservation efforts.

“I think the needs in North Dakota are huge and I think the measure-dedicated funding will help us protect very important areas like the Badlands for our kids and grandkids,” Peggy Ladner of The Nature Conservancy, one of six sponsoring organizations behind the proposal, said Monday.

Supporters still are working on proposed ballot language, but expect to begin circulating petitions in September to collect the 40,000 signatures required to place the initiative on the November 2014 ballot.

An earlier proposal, derailed last year by a petition fraud scandal involving bogus signatures, would have set aside 5 percent of both the oil extraction and oil production tax, then estimated to generate at least $100 million per biennium, based on earlier production levels.

Advocates say the landscape in North Dakota is under unprecedented pressure from oil and gas development and a loss of acreage dedicated to wildlife habitat because of high crop prices, among other factors.

If approved, the fund could help expand areas set aside for parks and recreation, including trails. It could also help create wildlife habitat and improve water quality and restore wetlands, Ladner said.

“I think these are very prudent investments at a very important time in the state’s history,” she said. “It’s a unique opportunity to protect basically our way of life in North Dakota,” including an appreciation for big open spaces as well as hunting and fishing.

A new Outdoor Heritage Fund, approved earlier this year by the North Dakota Legislature, can collect up to $15 million per year or $30 million per biennium by setting aside 4 percent of the first 1 percent of the oil and gas gross production tax.

A fiscal note for the legislation predicts the fund will collect $17.62 million during the 2013 biennium.

By leaving the oil and gas production tax untouched, the proposed Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment would not be in competition with funding to pay for infrastructure needs in the Oil Patch, said Keith Trego, executive director of the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust.

Last year, the oil and gas production tax generated $795.7 million.

The extraction tax provides revenue for the Legacy Fund, which now has a balance exceeding $1 billion, the Resource Trust Fund and school and public lands, but the conservation measure would not touch those programs, Trego said.

“It will not have any impact on any of these other programs,” he said, “and that’s very important.”

Advocates point to public opinion polls showing widespread support for setting aside revenues for clean water and lands. Between 60 and 70 percent of respondents are in favor, Trego said.

“There’s huge citizen interest in this,” he said.

Administrative costs would be no more than 3 percent of the fund, leaving 97 percent for programs, supporters said.

The conservation coalition sent out a mass mailing asking people to volunteer to gather signatures. The organizers, including Ladner and Trego, credited Gov. Jack Dalrymple and legislators for taking the “first step” toward dedicated funding for conservation.

“Unfortunately, the huge landscape changes require more resources than the legislature appropriated,” the letter stated. “Also, an advisory board with a majority of conservation representation is necessary.”

The Outdoor Heritage Fund’s 12-member advisory board, which will screen project proposals, is comprised of four members from farm-based organizations, two members from the energy industry, four members from conservation and outdoor sportsmen organizations, a member of the Greater North Dakota Chamber and a representative from the North Dakota Recreation and Parks Association.

Go online for more information at www.cleanwaterwildlifeparks.org

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522