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Conservation amendment proponents hold meeting in Jamestown

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JAMESTOWN -- A ballot initiative that would provide funding for wildlife conservation from oil tax revenues was discussed at a meeting held by members of the North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks at the Jamestown Arts Center on Thursday night.

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The proposed initiative — the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks amendment — would use 5 percent of the state’s oil extraction tax to fund conservation efforts in North Dakota, which proponents say is seeing a drastic reduction in grasslands and wetlands that support local wildlife. The group needs 27,000 signatures by Aug. 6 to get the initiative on the November ballot.

Opponents of the CWWP amendment say the money could be better used in other ways, the amendment would drive up land prices, and the supporters of the amendment are funded by out-of-state interests.

Thursday’s meeting began with a photo display of the past and present states of former Conservation Reserve Program land by local photographer Rick Bohn. CRP land is land that has been pulled or protected from agricultural production by landowners who sign multi-year contracts with the state and receive payments for letting that land go fallow.

Bohn, who has spent much of his life taking photos of the outdoors, showed what could be described as post-apocalyptic photos of CRP land in Stutsman County that was – in these instances – transformed from lush wildlife habitat to unsuccessful and eroded fields.

Bohn noted that CRP soil does not necessarily translate into good crop soil, and said over the years he’s seen more and more CRP acres fall under the plow.

“To give you an idea of the magnitude of this, we’ve lost 36,000 acres (of CRP) in Stutsman County in one year,” Bohn said. “There was 106,000 (acres), I think, in 2012, and maybe 180,000 in the year 2000.”

The science

Lloyd Jones, former director for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and a speaker at the meeting, said North Dakota is part of the Prairie Pothole Region, an ecosystem comprised of wetlands and grasslands located in parts of south-central Canada and areas in the states of Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa.

Jones said the PPR supports 18 species of waterfowl, 96 species of songbirds, 36 species of water birds (shore birds without webbed feet) 17 species of raptors, five species of upland game birds and one endangered species: the piping plover. North Dakota has more land in the region than South Dakota, and both Dakotas have more land by far in the PPR than any other state.

“North Dakota is located right dead-center-mass in the Prairie Pothole Region, so when you want to talk about special places in North Dakota, you have to talk about the wetlands and grasslands that we have here,” Jones said. “We look to our neighbors in Montana; they’ve got a few mountains, and we look to our neighbors in the east and Minnesota has a few lakes. Those are very important ecological areas as well, but, in reality, the wetlands and grasslands in the Prairie Pothole Region dwarf those other areas in productivity and biological diversity; they’re not even close.”

Jones said the Dakotas are losing an average of 35 acres of grassland per hour while conservation efforts are protecting 9 acres an hour, and wetlands and grasslands work in conjunction to support wildlife production.

“If somebody said ‘with the swing of a wand you get to keep all the other wetlands that are left but you’ve got to give up all your grasslands,’ it would destroy the productivity of the birds,” Jones said. “And vice-versa — if we were able to keep our grasslands but had to give up all the wetlands it would not be as near as productive. It’s that combination of wetlands and grasslands that makes such a huge difference on the landscape.”

Greg Spenningsby of Jamestown attended the meeting, and said he has about 600 acres in CRP northwest of Woodworth in northwest Stutsman County. Spenningsby said some CRP land gets farmed by reluctant farmers who could not get their CRP contracts renewed because of government stipulations.

“I was lucky I could get back in but a lot of people I’ve talked to couldn’t get back in because their land didn’t qualify,” he said. “They didn’t want to farm it and it should’ve been in but because of government rules and because of a lack of government funding they couldn’t get in.”

Federal funding for CRP payments has been steadily declining in recent years, and North Dakota ranks 42nd in the nation in terms of state-level conservation funding.

Jones said the loss of CRP is fueled mainly by high prices for crops like corn. He said he could remember a time in North Dakota where farming corn was unheard of, but now the state has counties that qualify as part of the Corn Belt.

“It’s just unbelievable to me that things have changed so dramatically with crop varieties and genetics and how equipment has changed so much,” Jones said. “It’s just unbelievable the changes that have occurred in the farming industry that have resulted in a lot of pressures to convert these areas from grassland to cropland.”

The opposition

The North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation Coalition opposes the amendment.

It is comprised of North Dakota Farmers Union, North Dakota Farm Bureau and several other groups across the state.

The NDCSCC says on its website it opposes the amendment because it is driven by out-of-state special interest groups, it would create a lack of flexibility regarding the use of state funds, it would create a biased advisory board, it would mandate $4.8 billion in conservation spending over the next 25 years but does not provide clear details about how the money will be spent, and it would be the first-ever spending measure in state’s constitution.

North Dakota Farmers Union President Mark Watne said Friday the NDFU is concerned about the potential dollars that would be allotted to this conservation plan. A 13-member board would be established to oversee the CWWP fund, and sections 2d and 2e of the amendment, which allows the board to “Conserve or acquire natural areas, parks, and other recreation areas or provide access for hunting and fishing; or create more opportunities and places for children to learn about and enjoy nature and the outdoors,” could put conservation groups into direct competition for available land with farmers and ranchers, Watne said.

“It amounts to about $300 million in a biennium, and they have to spend about 75 percent of that each year, and they don’t really utilize all of the dollars that we have in that current Heritage Fund that we passed last (state legislative) session,” Watne said. “And this plan allows for them to acquire land and that puts it in competition with the folks that we represent in production agriculture and so forth.”

Watne said in particular he was irked by out-of-state special interest groups he believes are trying to overrun North Dakota agricultural production.

“A lot of their funding is coming from out of state from some of the groups that don’t always see eye-to-eye with agriculture production and tend to want to tell us how we should operate our land and our state,” Watne said. “I just think it’s a little offensive that they think they know better how we should control our land and our state than we do.”

Complete list of NDCSCC members

North Dakota Farmers Union, North Dakota Farm Bureau, North Dakota Farm Credit Council, North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, North Dakota Grain Growers Association, North Dakota Corn Growers Association, North Dakota Soybean Growers Association, North Dakota Ethanol Producers Association, U.S. Durum Growers Association, North Dakota School Boards Association, North Dakota League of Cities, North Dakota Association of Counties, North Dakota Water Users Association, North Dakota Motor Carriers Association, North Dakota Association of Builders, Landowners Association of North Dakota, Northwest Landowners Association, Utility Shareholders of North Dakota, Fargo-Moorhead Area Association of REALTORS, Greater North Dakota Chamber, Bismarck-Mandan Chamber of Commerce, Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce, Minot Area Chamber of Commerce, Associated General Contractors of North Dakota, Hettinger County Job Development Authority, North Dakota Petroleum Council, Lignite Energy Council and the North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties.

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