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Conservation proponents highlight new ND amendment

GRAND FORKS -- Proponents of an amendment that would dedicate a small portion of North Dakota's existing oil and gas extraction taxes for natural resources and conservation say the retooled measure is an improvement from a similar proposal that was scuttled last year because of irregularities in the petition-gathering process.

Steve Adair, chairman of the North Dakota Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Coalition, said Friday the revised plan wouldn't touch oil production taxes that help fund crucial infrastructure such as roads and highways.

Nor is it a "land grab," as some critics have claimed.

"I think it's real important for people not to get diverted down these bunny trails" of misinformation, Adair said. "It's not intended to lead to massive land acquisitions."

Instead, he said, any land purchases would be for small, specific projects.

Adair, of Bismarck, and Marshall Johnson, executive director of Audubon Dakota, visited with members of the Grand Forks Herald's editorial board on Friday to outline the proposal and how it differs from the previous measure. Also attending was Becky Jones-Mahlum, communications manager for Ducks Unlimited's Great Plains Regional Office in Bismarck.

If approved by voters, the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment would generate some $75 million annually for conservation projects in the state. A commission made up of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner would govern the fund, and a 13-member "citizen accountability board" would sift through grant proposals and provide recommendations to the commission.

"There are huge, unprecedented changes to our state taking place," Adair said, citing the loss of nearly 2 million acres of land in the Conservation Reserve Program and the ongoing development in North Dakota's Oil Patch. "The habitat loss is staggering, and it's going to have a huge impact. We feel a real sense of urgency. We've got to invest more in this state if we care about natural resources."

Petition drive

The secretary of state's office recently approved wording for a petition that requires 40,000 signatures by mid-August 2014 for the amendment to qualify for the November 2014 ballot.

Supporters of the amendment this week launched a campaign to recruit and train volunteers to gather petition signatures. The goal is to recruit 800 petition volunteers, Adair said, and the coalition already has 350.

Supporters say they hope voters get the opportunity to weigh in this time around.

"If there's one silver lining to doing this again, it's having the opportunity to step back and absorb criticism and refine" the measure, Johnson said.

He said the new amendment, as worded, wouldn't allow funds to be used for litigation or lobbying against energy development.

"It's not the intent of this measure to interfere with oil development," Johnson said.

The Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment would supplement the Legacy Fund lawmakers approved during the 2013 legislative session. That fund allocates up to $30 million per biennium from oil production taxes for natural resources, which supporters of the initiated measure say doesn't meet the needs.

Adair said a bipartisan opinion poll conducted earlier this summer showed nearly 70 percent of survey respondents supported the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment. The results are based on a statistically valid sample of 500 potential North Dakota voters and mirror results from three previous polls on the measure.

"It really feels like the people are ahead of the Legislature on this issue," he said.

The measure would have a 25-year sunset clause, at which time voters would have to re-approve the funding, Adair said.

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