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Fuglie: Conservation amendment would benefit farmers

I am saddened that less than six months into his new job as North Dakota Farmers Union president, Mark Watne has damaged his credibility and sullied the reputation of North Dakota’s most prestigious farm organization.

As a nearly lifelong Farmers Union member, I want to reassure members of the conservation community that Watne’s recent letter about the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment does not reflect the feelings of most rank and file Farmers Union members.

And I want to correct a few misstatements he made.

Watne charges that “out of state groups” are trying to undermine agriculture. That’s not true. In addition to being a Farmers Union member, I’ve been a member of two of the major sponsors of this measure, Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited, throughout many of my years as a hunter and conservationist, as have more than 10,000 current North Dakota members of those organizations.

We’re not from out of state, and we’re not “hostile to the ag industry” as Watne claims. We know that farmers — who make habitat for the birds we hunt — are our best friends. We’d hardly want to undermine them.

Pheasants Forever, to my knowledge, doesn’t own any farmland. Ducks Unlimited from time to time buys small pieces of wetlands — mostly unproductive farmland — on a willing-seller basis, although not so much in North Dakota because of our state’s anti-corporation farming laws.

Watne knows full well that those laws, of which the Farmers Union is the staunchest defender (one of the reasons I am proud to be a member), prevent those groups from even owning farmland here.

Watne says that the measure will create a “private fund” in our constitution and give nonprofit groups hundreds of millions of dollars to buy land. Again, that’s not true, and he knows it.

All funds that go into the new program are controlled by a committee made up of the governor, the attorney general and the agriculture commissioner. They have to approve every penny that is spent from that fund.

I’m pretty sure they are not going to allow it to be used to compete for land with farmers.

As president of Farmers Union, Watne is entitled to his own opinion on these things; but he represents the members of an organization, and he can’t just make up his own facts.

At last fall’s state Farmers Union Convention, members voted to reject a statement opposing the conservation measure. I expect there is pretty broad general support from Farmers Union members for this measure.

And I would think there is a lesson to be learned from the actions of the state’s other farm organization, the North Dakota Farm Bureau, when its leaders got too far out ahead of their members at the recent state Republican convention. The leaders turned around and found no one was following them.

Most farmers and most Farmers Union members don’t hold the hostile attitude towards conservation organizations reflected in the recent letter. Many of them are members of those organizations.

And most sportsmen and women know that farmers are our best friends. It’s their land we hunt on. We’d never get behind any measure designed to hurt agriculture.

The facts are that much of the money generated for this Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks fund (the North Dakota Office of Management and Budget says it will be about $150 million, not the made-up $300 million to $400 million figure Watne and other opponents of the amendment have been using) likely will find its way back to farmers to help them make habitat for wildlife, much as the Conservation Reserve and PLOTS programs have been doing here for years.

In that case, everyone wins — farmers, hunters and critters.

Fuglie is a former director of the North Dakota Department of Tourism.