Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Outdoors amendment rejected by N.D. voters

Lehr, N.D. — Waves of waterfowl and upland game hunters descending on North Dakota this fall found the usual  triangular yellow “PLOTS” and green-and-white rectangular “WPA” signs inviting public access, but new to the landscape was a crop of signs and billboards stating either “No on 5” or “Yes on 5.” They were simple messages in a heated referendum campaign staked to the core of culture here, with both sides determined to do what they believe is best for the state’s natural resources in face of mounting pressures from the state’s widely publicized oil boom.

In what nearly everyone thought would be a close race almost right up to election day,  voters on Nov. 4 overwhelmingly defeated North Dakota Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment Measure 5 by nearly an 80 percent to 20 percent margin, 198,600-51,578 votes. In August, supporters turned in petitions bearing validated signatures of 41,136 voters. The general election brought out about 47 percent of North Dakota’s registered voters.

“Conservation groups were devastated,” said Mike McEnroe, of Bismarck, N.D., a leading conservationist and retired biologist who voluntarily monitors the oil industry. “Our citizens said we don’t consider conservation a priority. Maybe, too, it was all let’s say ‘no’ to more government.”

Spearheading Measure 5 support financially and politically were conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society, Pheasants Forever, and Delta Waterfowl, which combined to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the campaign, a culmination of four years of debate and petitioning for the vote.

North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, an umbrella group representing farming and ranching, construction businesses, and various chambers of commerce, was equally as surprised by Measure 5’s margin of defeat.

The Measure 5 drubbing, according to Kevin Hullett, a spokesman for North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, clearly showed that “North Dakotans don’t want a constitutional amendment and mandated spending for conservation issues. And those needs should be decided by those who live in North Dakota, not out-of-state special interest groups.”

“They (amendment proponents) never got one endorsement or even asked for it from the ag community,” said Dick Anderson, a Willow City, N.D., state legislator, farmer, and hunter. “I think DU did damage beyond repair in North Dakota.”

Steve Adair, a Bismark-based DU official who helped organize Measure 5 support, said while the initiative was soundly defeated, its debate “started a dialogue for dedicated state funding that has elevated the discussion of conservation and outdoor recreation like no other time in the state’s history.”

Adair also credited Measure 5 debate for development of the new North Dakota Outdoor Heritage Fund, which resulted in an unprecedented legislative commitment of $30 million per biennium for conservation.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dairymple reportedly is working on a new biennium budget that could include additional millions for heritage fund, depending on what will be going into state tax coffers subject to oil prices that of late have been declining.

If approved, Measure 5 would have used 5 percent of anticipated hundreds of millions in annual state oil and natural gas extraction tax revenues to set up a separate trust and fund. It would have provided grants to public and private agencies to improve water quality, natural flood control, fish and wildlife habitat, parks and outdoor recreation areas, accesses for fishing and hunting, land acquisition, and outdoor education for youth.

Of the 5 percent of the North Dakota’s oil and gas tax revenues, 90 percent would have gone into the fund and 10 percent into the trust. Overseeing the fund would have been a commission composed of the governor, attorney general, and agriculture commissioner. A citizen accountability board would have been appointed to three-year terms to review grant applications and make recommendations to the commission. The principal and earnings of the trust could not have been used until 2019 and then only with approval by two-thirds of the state Legislature.  

Every 25 years voters would have been asked to decide on retaining the measure. At current oil prices, the state’s oil/gas tax revenues could have generated some $4.8 billion for the initiative, according to media reports.

Observers said the measure’s chief stumbling block was ranchers’ and farmers’ objections to outside interests buying more land for public accesss and wildlife habitat. “East Coast wetlands people” donating money to the Measure 5 campaign also upset state residents, Anderson said.

Western North Dakota’s Bakken Oil Field expansion and resulting human influx have brought many jobs and new-found wealth, but also the rapid energy surge has imposed major impacts on thousands of acres of former ranchland and farmland. Conservationists are concerned not enough is being done to protect the region’s fragile natural resources and North Dakotans’ way of life.  

“There’s no doubt there’s an awareness that we should be looking out for wildlife and clean water,” said John Devney, vice president of U.S. policy for Delta Waterfowl, a leading waterfowl and wetlands research group headquartered in Bismarck, N.D. “Farmers and ranchers want a seat at designing the programs. We went and talked to leadership of farm groups to outline why we were supporting the measure. We support the kinds of programs that farmers have shown they want, and they told us they would rather sit this one out.”

Anderson, a member of the North Dakota House Natural Resource Committee, said, “Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, and other supporters insulted ag producers by stating we needed clean water and better conservation in our state.

Most farmers, they’ve done a good job of managing the land resources.”

No one contacted for this story was willing to speculate if or when the two sides can or even if they should attempt to re-open debate on using dedicated oil and gas tax revenues for conservation.

“In reality, the product (Delta Waterfowl) members want is ducks, and 95 percent of those ducks are produced on private land. If we’re going to have large-scale comprehensive action that puts enough ducks on the wing and keeps hunters happy, we have to work with farm and ranch groups. And that’s the challenge – compromise,” Devney said.

“CRP (the federal Conservation Reserve Program) taught us all we need to know. We can’t buy our way out of the problem; the landscape’s too big. We’ve just got to find tools to work together,” he said.

As for reconciliation, Hullett said, “Unless there’s a change in direction of fundamental issues (about land acquisition and mandated spending), reconciliation could be difficult. The Legislature is now tasked with balancing conservation funding with other needs in North Dakota, such as education and infrastructure.”

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