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Conservation advocates make case for larger Outdoor Heritage Fund

GRAND FORKS -- North Dakota legislation to create an Outdoor Heritage Fund is encouraging, but the allocation isn't enough to meet the needs that exist in the wake of the state's energy boom, increased ag development and the loss of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.

That was the message Thursday from members of the Clean Water, Lands and Outdoor Heritage Coalition, who were in Grand Forks to talk about the measure and the need for additional funding.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, in his proposed budget, recommended dedicating $10 million from the tax revenue generated by oil and gas production for conservation projects. A bill in the North Dakota Legislature, HB 1278, proposes to increase that allocation to $15 million annually.

Steve Adair, Great Plains director for Ducks Unlimited, said the level of support from the governor and legislative leaders is encouraging.

Less encouraging is the dollar amount, he said.

"The thing that we're still struggling with is the level of investment to really address the big changes going on out there," Adair said.

Those changes, he said, include the loss of 1.5 million acres of CRP land, the ongoing fragmentation of habitat in the western North Dakota Oil Patch and the lack of personnel to

implement a series of "best management practices" developed by conservation and oil industry officials to minimize the impact of the energy boom on the landscape.

"We hear from leadership, 'This is new, be patient, then we can come back and invest more,'" Adair said. "We're not convinced by that argument."

Avoiding mistakes

North Dakota, Adair said, doesn't have to repeat mistakes such as those made in Iowa, where a recent New York Times story highlighted the loss of 1.6 million acres of habitat for pheasants and other wildlife. According to the story, Iowa's pheasant harvest plummeted from more than a million birds in 2003 to less than 109,000 in 2011.

But it's going to take state investment to avoid those mistakes, he said.

"We feel there's a great urgency to retain parts of North Dakota we care about," Adair said, "and the longer we wait, the more we lose."

In that context, Adair said, the support for an Outdoor Heritage Fund presents an opportunity for the state to make a difference. The coalition, he said, would prefer an annual investment closer to $100 million for conservation, but the best chance for reaching a middle ground depends on constituents contacting their legislators.

"I think the legislators just need to hear from the people," Adair said, adding hunters and anglers also need a stronger voice.

"The political voice of conservation pales (compared to) energy and agriculture. That's really what we're up against."

Time is now

Joining Adair on Thursday were Erik Fritzell of Grand Forks and Dick Monson of rural Valley City, A retired biology professor who taught at the University of Missouri and Oregon State University, Fritzell is president of the Grand Forks County Wildlife Federation. Monson is a farmer and a longtime activist in North Dakota sportsmen's issues.

According to Monson, North Dakota's wild places need to be saved before it's too late. That's why additional funding for an Outdoor Heritage Fund is so crucial, he said.

I really believe as a farmer, we would have way more funding requests for those grants than has been appropriated," Monson said. "You won't get farmers to do this out of the goodness of their hearts. Without some kind of incentive, there's just no place to go."

Fritzell, who moved back to his hometown of Grand Forks about five years ago, said there seems to be a lack of awareness among many residents about the impact sound management can have on the landscape.

The question is whether anyone cares enough to change that "frontier mentality."

"If that matters, we will have to shift from the mentality of exploitation to management of the resource," Fritzell said. "In my opinion, (HB 1278) is potentially the most important piece of legislation to come along in a long, long time.

"We don't have the tools to do anything positive for all of the negative impacts."