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Omdahl: Some arguments favor the conservation amendment

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Omdahl: Some arguments favor the conservation amendment
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

The Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment proposing to dedicate $100 million annually to conservation in North Dakota has become the subject of a well-orchestrated attack by an array of state organizations and their supporters.

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As stated in a previous column, there are some good reasons for being skeptical about the proposal. But that does not preclude the possibility that there are good arguments in favor of the idea.

For one thing, it may be that North Dakota is underfunding its water, wildlife and parks, considering that various state funds are bulging with surpluses generated by the oil boom and farm prosperity. We can afford to do more than ever before for conservation.

Next, we need to acknowledge the loss of millions of acres of outdoor recreational space. Due to federal budget cuts and high commodity prices, the acreage in the federal conservation reserve program (CRP) has declined from 3.4 million in 2008 to less than 1 million. Thousands of other additional acres have been moved from pasture to production.

The constitutional right to bear arms and the right to hunt will have little meaning when we have no game to shoot. So perhaps there is a need for the state to shore up its hunting habitat.

The Amendment promises to better utilize the wetlands and potholes. Without a doubt, one of the major undertakings would be paying farmers for easements of nonproductive potholes for wildlife production. The owners of wetlands have a property right that they should be able to convert into income.

Public opinion supports expanded conservation programming. In a poll conducted by reputable polling organizations, 67 percent of the people favored the dedication of funds for outdoor projects. Eighty-five percent favored sales for conservation and 60 percent favored conservation easements.

In the last session of the Legislature, these figures were given short shrift, thereby defying public opinion just as it did in the tobacco debacle of 2009.

North Dakota won a settlement of $750 million in the nationwide suit against the major tobacco companies, and the first thing the Legislature did was divert the money to programs other than curbing the abuse of tobacco.

Incensed, a citizen’s group then initiated a measure creating a planning committee and directing use of the money against tobacco consumption.

Insulted by the initiated proposal, the Legislature snubbed the vote of the people and refused to appropriate the money. Instead, it amended the initiated measure to abolish the committee, turn the program over to the state Department of Health, and to spend the money on peripheral programs.

On the last day of the 2009 session, the Legislature belligerently restored the original measure and passed an appropriation.

So here we are again.

Public opinion supports a new direction and the Legislature obfuscates the will of the people.

Another point in favor of the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment is the proposed management system. It provides for the involvement of the most committed individuals on the planning committee.

We have scores of state administrative committees and licensing boards full of members who have a vested interest in their programs. Whether it makes for efficient government or not, we subscribe to the idea that everyone ought to have a voice in North Dakota.

To manage the proposed program, an advisory board would submit plans to the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner, acting as the state Industrial Commission, thereby preventing any radical spending.

When all of these points are weighed against mandated spending, the amount of money involved and long-term constitutional status, voters will not have an easy decision.

Omdahl is former North Dakota lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email him at ndmatters@q.com.

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