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Measure to use oil taxes for wildlife projects

Steve Adair, a regional director for Ducks Unlimited in Bismarck, speaks Thursday at a news conference in the North Dakota Capitol's Memorial Hall in Bismarck announcing a proposed North Dakota constitutional amendment that would reserve a portion of the state's oil tax revenues for wildlife and conservation projects. Standing off to the right are Peggy Ladner, director of the Nature Conservancy, and Keith Trego, director of the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust.

BISMARCK (AP) -- Conservation groups said Thursday they would campaign to put a North Dakota constitutional amendment on the ballot that would reserve tens of millions of dollars of state oil tax collections for water, wildlife and conservation projects.

The amendment would give a nine-member appointed board authority over a special fund, which would automatically get 5 percent of North Dakota's tax revenues on oil production and extraction.

The fund could collect between $51 million and $84 million annually, according to estimates Thursday from the state Tax Department and Office of Management and Budget.

The initiative needs almost 27,000 petition signatures to qualify for the ballot. Supporters of the amendment have one year to get the names they need, but to get on the November ballot, the petitions would have to be turned in to Secretary of State Al Jaeger's office by Aug. 8.

Backers of the amendment held a news conference in the state Capitol on Thursday to publicize the effort, including representatives of the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust.

Conservation groups are among the potential beneficiaries of the proposed fund. Steve Adair, a Ducks Unlimited regional director based in Bismarck, is chairman of the initiative campaign.

North Dakota's oil production has boomed in recent years, resulting in a shower of revenue for the state treasury. The state's oil output recently topped 500,000 barrels daily, and North Dakota is expected to become the nation's No. 2 oil producer next year, behind Texas.

"This is both a remarkable and critical time for North Dakota. Our citizens must take action now to protect our lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands and prairies before they are gone," Adair said. "It is appropriate that we set aside a portion of this prosperity that we are currently experiencing to maintain our quality of life for future generations."

The amendment includes a lengthy list of possibilities for spending the money from the proposed fund, including wetlands and grasslands restoration, "natural flood control," developing habitat for wildlife and fish, new parks and improvements to existing parks, and conservation incentives for farmers.

Eight of the board's nine members would be picked by legislative leaders and the governor. The ninth would be chosen by the North Dakota chapter of the Wildlife Society. Board members would serve three-year terms, with a limit of three terms.

For the 2011-13 budget period, the state's share of oil tax revenues is expected to be almost $780 million. Along with helping to finance education, human services and other state programs, some of the money is set aside to reduce local property taxes, pay repair costs for natural disasters and finance building projects.

A chunk of North Dakota's oil revenues are already earmarked for water projects, and state aid for other programs mentioned in the proposed amendment, including improvements to water quality, wildlife habitat and soil conservation, is already available.

The Legacy Fund is getting 30 percent of the state's oil tax revenues. None of the fund's money, which is expected to top $600 million by mid-2013, may be spent until July 2017, and there are subsequent restrictions on how much the Legislature may draw from the fund.