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Mike Nowatzki, Forum News Service, Published February 20 2014

Coalition launching campaign against ND conservation measure

BISMARCK – A coalition is launching a campaign Thursday against a proposed ballot measure that would set aside North Dakota oil extraction tax revenue to create a Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Fund.

North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, led by the Greater North Dakota Chamber, is holding press conferences in Bismarck and Fargo to begin its campaign against the proposed constitutional amendment.

Kelvin Hullett, president of the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber of Commerce, who will speak about the campaign in Bismarck along with North Dakota Farmers Union President Mark Watne, said the coalition has more than 20 members and represents diverse interests from across the state.

“We have a variety of concerns with the measure and will be conveying those to the voters of North Dakota,” Hullett said Wednesday.

Opponents already have aired some of the concerns, including that the constitutional amendment would set a bad precedent, that the Outdoor Heritage Fund created by the 2013 Legislature already is addressing conversation needs and that the proposed fund would take money away from other spending priorities.

The fund would annually receive 5 percent of the state’s share of oil extraction tax revenue, which would amount to a projected $150 million in the 2015-2017 biennium.

Ten percent of the annual revenues would be deposited into a trust. The other 90 percent would be used to award grants to public and private groups for projects benefiting water quality, natural flood control, fish and wildlife habitat, parks and outdoor recreation areas, access for hunting and fishing, land acquisition for parks and outdoor education for children.

A commission comprised of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner would govern the fund, taking grant recommendations from a 13-member Citizen Accountability Board. A statewide vote on whether to continue the fund would happen every 25 years.

Stephen Adair of Bismarck, chairperson of the measure’s sponsoring committee, said about 400 volunteers have collected nearly 10,000 of the 26,904 petition signatures they need to submit to the secretary of state’s office by Aug. 21 to get the initiated measure on the November ballot. They hope to collect 40,000 signatures, he said.

“Most of the people approached, I’d say 70 to 80 percent, gladly signed the petition,” he said Wednesday. “I think the changes that we’re having in our state, people are really seeing that and are concerned about it and they want to maintain the great quality of life that we have in North Dakota.”

Adair said the Outdoor Heritage Fund, which can receive up to $30 million every two years in state oil and gas production tax revenue, is “a great start.” But he noted that only 17 percent of the funding requests were met in the first round of grants awarded Jan. 29 by the state Industrial Commission.

“Frankly, it’s a tiny fund to meet the things that are going on in North Dakota,” he said, referring to landscape changes brought on by energy development and loss of grasslands. “Those types of impacts require a much more substantial fund than what the Outdoor Heritage Fund is providing.”

Conservation groups supporting the measure include the Audubon Society, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, The Nature Conservancy, The National Wildlife Federal and Audubon Society.

Other groups opposing the fund include the North Dakota League of Cities, North Dakota Association of Counties, North Dakota School Boards Association, Lignite Energy Council, North Dakota Petroleum Council, North Dakota Farm Bureau, North Dakota Grain Growers and North Dakota Corn Growers.