Heritage Fund signed: Now what?

The first attempt at creating a fund to set aside a percentage of North Dakota’s oil and gas production tax dollars for the enhancement and restoration of wildlife habitat ended when it was discovered that some of the signatures obtained for an initiated measure were obtained by fraud. The disclosure by the attorney general meant that the measure would not reach voters that November.

However, Represen-tatives Todd Porter, R-Mandan, and Al Carlson, R-Fargo, along with Senators Stanley Lyson, R-Williston, and Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, introduced House Bill 1278 during the current legislative session. The bill, better known as the Outdoor Heritage Fund, was worded similarly to the initiated measure but requested far less money – $30 million per biennium as compared to the original request of approximately $100 million.

HB1278 narrowly passed the House 48-44. The Senate voted 33-12 in favor. Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed the bill into law last Wednesday. It is scheduled to take effect July 1.

Keith Trego, executive director of North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, was one of the leading proponents of the original initiated measure seeking to set aside a percentage of oil and gas tax money for habitat issues. The stated mission of the Natural Resources Trust is “To preserve, enhance, restore and manage wetlands and associated wildlife habitat, grasslands and riparian areas in the state of North Dakota.”

Trego says passage of the Outdoor Heritage Fund is a step in the right direction.

“I’ve been testifying on this issue for over 30 years. This is the first real conversation on bigger ideas for conservation. It’s a good thing,” said Trego. “The needs out there are just incredible. It’s a start.”

Much of the recent impetus for the bill is spawned from furious development in the Bakken oilfield in western North Dakota. Energy development has cleared land, added many miles of roads and significantly increased traffic necessary to drill and maintain oil wells. Much of the land previously coveted by hunters and other outdoor-types is now shunned by many. Changing land use has led to increased concern over wildlife populations, big and small.

In signing the Outdoor Heritage Fund into law, Dalrymple said, “Our ongoing work to enhance North Dakota’s quality of life must include the preservation and enhancement of our great outdoors. With this fund, the people of North Dakota have tremendous resources to expand and enhance our opportunities for hunting, fishing and all outdoor recreation experiences.”

Sen. Stanley Lyson, R-Williston, added, “This bill creates new opportunities for us to conserve our lands for future generations while working in cooperation with our state’s ranchers and farmers.”

Legislators were clearly divided on the issue of how the Outdoor Heritage Fund will be used, likely because there is not yet a clear answer to the question of how $15 million per year will be spent. While the fund has been authorized, a recommended list of projects must still be formulated by a yet-to-be-determined advisory board consisting of 12 members.

The dozen members are to be made up entirely of those appointed by the governor. The list will be composed of four members from the agricultural community – one each from the Farm Bureau, Farmer’s Union, Stockmen’s Association and Grain Growers Association; two from the energy industry – one from the Petroleum Council and one from the Lignite Energy Council; four members from the conservation community – one from Ducks Unlimited, one from Natural Resources Trust, one from Pheasants Forever and one from the conservation community at large. The final two appointments will come from the Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce and the North Dakota Recreation and Park Association.

However, the House Natural Resources Committee made a move this past Thursday to alter the make-up of the 12 advisory board members. The committee passed a recommendation to eliminate the requirement that the governor appoint one member each from Ducks Unlimited, Natural Resources Trust and Pheasants Forever. The recommendation must still go to the full House for approval.

The 12-member board will be tasked with presenting its wishes to the State Industrial Commission. The Industrial Commission consists of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner. The commission must give final approval to any expenditures or programs.

“It is a step in the right direction, but with a lot of restrictions,” said Mike McEnroe, North Dakota Wildlife Federation president. “This is an insurance policy. This is how much the state thought it would cost to stop another initiated measure from being voted on.”

Whether or not another initiated measure, such as the one that faltered in the signature process, will be attempted remains to be seen. To date, no person or group has publicly stated an intention to do so. Still, the possibility of a future initiated measure seeking additional dollars appears to have been part of the thinking of at least a few legislators.

“This bill is an effort to head off an all-encompassing out-of-state designed and funded effort to initiate a program that does not fit what we want and need,” stated Rep. Matthew Klein, R-Minot.

Among the dozen legislators contacted by The Minot Daily News, there seemed to be little consensus about why they did or did not support the Outdoor Heritage Fund. Most seemed to be in agreement about the impact on the environment by energy development and the need to address the issue, but had different ideas about how to resolve the issue.

“First, I think our outdoor heritage and recreation opportunities are an important part of who we are as North Dakotans,” said Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot. “Second, it’s appropriate to use oil and gas revenue to support the fund because oil and gas activities are adversely impacting outdoor recreational opportunities. I do not believe the money should go towards enhancing waterfowl habitat as I think there is ample habitat for ducks and geese. On the other hand, if North Dakota were forced to take over the fish hatcheries, this would be an appropriate use of outdoor heritage funds.”

The fund may be used to “improve, maintain and restore water quality, soil conditions, plant diversity and animal systems; to conserve wildlife and fish habitat; provide access to private and public lands for sportsmen; and to conserve natural areas for recreation by developing parks and recreation areas.”

As pointed out by Sen. Randall Burckhard, R-Minot, the fund may not be used for “acquisition of land, litigation, lobbying, projects outside of North Dakota or any activity that would interfere with surface coal mining, oil and gas operations or energy infrastructure development.”

“We are committed to maintaining our state’s legacy for future generations,” said Burckhard. “This is a new concept that needs to prove itself out and if we see a greater or lesser need in the future we can adjust the fund accordingly.”

Rep. Scott Louser, R-Minot, called the bill one of the more difficult ones to vote for.

“The bill includes the necessary provisions that the fund may not be used for litigation, lobbying activities and most importantly, the acquisition or encumbrance of land,” said Louser. “It was important to me that assurances were provided to protect private property and it’s my hope that this restricts out-of-state special interest groups from attempting to acquire private property for a conservation agenda.”

“I voted against it with the thought in my mind that up to $30 million would better be spent on property tax reduction,” said Rep. Bob Frantsvog, R-Minot. “Now that the bill has become law, I sincerely hope that the intended use of the funds meet the expectations that they hope to achieve. With that, we should all work to help meet those objectives.”

One of the possible applications of Outdoor Heritage Funds being discussed by some is the possible creation of a program similar to the existing Conservation Reserve Program. CRP acreage has been on the decline. Less CRP means less wildlife habitat and less wildlife.

“I’m hoping that we see some big ideas, maybe a state cover program. Something on that order,” said Trego. “Grassland programs could involve large acreages. I’m hoping some ideas come forward around those big concepts. I’m not talking about just the hunting aspect, but other huge environmental benefits like soil erosion and water quality. Our idea all along has been to involve farmers and ranchers that have a huge interest in doing conservation and being part of the larger picture. These would be cooperative, voluntary programs.”

A provision of the Outdoor Heritage Fund states the fund cannot be used for “The acquisition of land or to encumber any land for a term longer than 20 years.” That means if a cover-type program were to be proposed, it would be limited to a maximum of 20 years by law.

“No land, no easements, nothing that can interfere with oil or gas development,” noted McEnroe. “We can replace CRP, but tree plantings and native grass you never get back. You never get back an oil well.”

Rep. Dick Anderson, R-Willow City, and a former member of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department Advisory Board, sees a need for the Outdoor Heritage Fund and is in agreement with the version signed by Dalrymple.

“It is best to start there ($30 million per biennium) and measure how effective it is before increasing any funding,” said Anderson. “I hope the Heritage Fund will somewhat replace the habitat loss from the CRP program reduction. It will also provide more outdoor recreational activities in our state. Campers, boaters, hikers etc. should see more opportunities to enjoy North Dakota outdoors with the passage of this bill.”