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Conservation leaders seek stable account, te version of transportation bill includes stable conservation funding from offshore oil revenues

Conservationists and leaders from Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever are calling on Congress to ensure proceeds from an offshore oil revenue account go to the conservation initiatives it is supposed to fund.

That could happen if a House-Senate conference committee approves a provision in the transportation bill now being debated in Washington.

In a conference call Thursday, leaders from the two conservation groups, along with a retired South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks director and others, talked about the importance of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Known as LWCF, for short, the fund results from legislation passed in the late 1960s mandating that a portion of the revenues from offshore oil-drilling operations go into government coffers for protecting land and water resources across the country.

Diverted funds

Problem is, Congress historically has diverted the funds.

As part of the 1960s legislation, the conservation fund is supposed to receive $900 million annually from offshore oil revenues. But as conference call participants explained Thursday, the fund rarely receives more than $350 million and in some years, as little as $125 million.

According to John Cooper, former secretary of South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, the remainder of the money ends up in the general treasury with little accountability for how it is spent.

"They're not taxpayer dollars," Cooper said. "These are funds specifically set aside by Congress to be used for natural resources conservation and protection."

The Senate version of the transportation bill now being debated in conference committee would ensure that happens by authorizing the fund receives $700 million annually for the next two years. The Senate's transportation bill also would permanently commit 1.5 percent of the fund for projects to improve access for hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation.

Time is of the essence because the current authorization is set to expire June 30.

"What we're trying to do today is make sure Congress understands the importance of this provision the Senate put into the transportation bill," Cooper said.

Preserving prairie

Paul Schmidt, conservation director for Ducks Unlimited, said the fund is especially important to the Prairie Pothole Region of the Dakotas and neighboring states because it would benefit the Dakota Grasslands Conservation Area project. The Prairie Pothole Region is widely known as "North America's duck factory."

The Dakota Grasslands project, administered through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, aims to conserve 240,000 acres of wetlands and 1.7 million acres of grasslands in the Dakotas through voluntary easements from willing landowners. The easements would prevent wetland drainage and working up the prairie, but landowners would retain all other use and access rights.

Schmidt said more than 70 percent of the native prairie in the Dakotas has been plowed or converted to cropland and continues to be lost at about 130,000 acres annually.

"If those rates increase as expected, one-half of the remaining native prairie will be lost in the next 34 years," Schmidt said. "In absence of action, the skies will no longer be filled with the waterfowl and other birds we cherish."

Dave Nomsen, vice president of government affairs for Pheasants Forever, said a fully funded Land and Water Conservation Fund would be a good first step in reversing the decline in prairie and wetland habitats.

"It's incredibly important we attack this problem right now," Nomsen said, and "help the landowners do good things for soil, wildlife and conservation."

Dokken is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.