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Lawmakers send governor bill to create Outdoor Heritage Fund

BISMARCK -- A $30 million fund will be available to organizations to help preserve natural resources if Gov. Jack Dalrymple signs a bill passed Thursday.

Senate lawmakers passed House Bill 1278 to create the North Dakota Outdoor Heritage Fund, which would provide grants to applying organizations to protect and improve water quality, wildlife and fish habitat on private and public lands and conserve natural areas.

Dalrymple has supported the proposal to take 4 percent from the oil and gas production taxes to create a fund that would be capped at $30 million.

Under the bill, state agencies, tribal governments, political subdivisions and nonprofit organizations can apply for grant funding. No funds can be used for litigation or lobbying purposes.

"When people started talking about the initiated measure, there was a lot of people that thought it had some good components to it," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan, said about the failed 2012 attempt to put a similar fund to a statewide vote. "A lot felt some things could be done by using some of the oil money, and this bill was put together in order to capitalize on that."

The bill passed 33-12 but had strong pushback from some who felt the state's Industrial Commission should not have the final determination over the grants, which the bill proposes. Opponents are worried that the commission, composed of the state agriculture commissioner, attorney general and governor, may not have the best interests of conservation organizations after the commission approved a controversial oil development in the Killdeer Mountains.

"They don't have a history of working on projects like conservation," said Sen. Tyler Axness, D-Fargo, who proposed a resolution to create a heritage fund worth $100 million. "I also fear the amount is not going to address the needs now, and we're going to miss the opportunity to preserve the land we all grew up with."

Axness proposed a floor amendment to put the governance of the fund under the Board of University and School Lands, which also has the governor and attorney general, along with the secretary of state, superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction and the state treasurer. That amendment failed.

"The land board actually deals with and is knowledgeable about our land and is a distance from the influence applied to the Industrial Commission," he said.

The bill creates a 12-person advisory board that would serve a maximum of two four-year terms to provide advice to the Industrial Commission. The members would consist of appointments by the governor from the agriculture, energy, business and recreation communities.

Sen. Joe Miller, R-Park River, a farmer, said the bill would be a slap in the face to the agriculture community, which already is using best practices when it comes to conservation.

"Farmers spend a good portion of their day and time working on conservation matters," he said. "Because of what farming does today, there's more wildlife, and the waters are cleaner ... we have a myriad of things we do as farmers to try and conserve the topsoil and preserve the land because that's where we make our money."

The bill directly addresses the botched attempt in 2012 to create a state heritage fund that was proposed by the Clean Water, Lands and Outdoor Heritage Coalition. The coalition asked for 5 percent of the total revenues generated from taxes collected from the production and extraction of oil and gas.

Axness said he wouldn't be surprised if the fund was referred to a statewide vote or garnered support to put more money into it next legislative session.

"I don't think this is to the wishes of those that collected signatures," Axness said. "They want a bold plan from the state to address the rapid changing landscape."

Dalrymple has endorsed the proposal, putting $10 million in his budget to kickstart the fund. The bill was amended to fund $15 million each year of the biennium.