Backers of ND conservation fund seek ballot spot

Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A North Dakota constitutional amendment that would give an appointed board power to spend millions on conservation projects was denounced Monday as "a massive money grab" that would divert money from education, health and road construction needs.

The amendment would establish a "clean water, lands and outdoor heritage fund," financed by a 5 percent share of North Dakota's oil tax revenues. North Dakota's budget office estimates the fund would collect more than $80 million annually.

Its supporters on Monday turned in more than 1,300 petitions, which they said contained at least 36,000 signatures, asking for a November statewide vote on the amendment. North Dakota's citizen initiative laws require the signatures of at least 27,000 voters to put a constitutional amendment directly on the ballot.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger, who received the petitions Monday, has about a month to review them and decide whether the measure qualifies for a November vote.

The proposal establishes a nine-member board, chosen mostly by North Dakota legislative leaders and the governor, which would decide how to spend the fund's revenues.

Conservation groups, nonprofit organizations, Indian tribes and state agencies would be eligible to apply for grants. The amendment lists a number of ways the money could be spent, including establishing new parks, developing habitat for fish and wildlife, conservation incentives for farmers, and restoration of wetlands and grasslands.

North Dakota's budget office estimates the fund would collect at least $80 million annually, and the state's rising oil production could boost its income considerably beyond that.

The chairman of the initiative campaign, Stephen Adair, a regional director for Ducks Unlimited, said more conservation spending is needed to counteract the effects of western North Dakota's burgeoning oil development.

"The health of our land and water are really a foundation for our state. Our economy depends on it. Our health and welfare depends on it," Adair said. "Things are changing rapidly with all of the development around the state, and now is the time to make that investment."

A coalition of organizations is forming to fight the measure, including groups representing farmers, cattle ranchers, North Dakota businesses and western North Dakota's oil- and gas-producing counties.

Its spokesman, Andy Peterson, who is president of the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, called the measure "a massive money grab."

"It takes away from the human needs in North Dakota, including building roads, flood protection, schools, those kinds of things," Peterson said. "We're putting conservation above the needs of people."

The proposed board would have a guaranteed flow of income and would not have to answer to the Legislature or the governor, Peterson said.

"All they need to do is give a report ... saying how they spent the money," he said. "There's no oversight, and the Legislature has no teeth to change it."