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Published August 31, 2010, 08:17 AM

How to conserve more land

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — The politics of conservation in North Dakota just got a lot more interesting.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — The politics of conservation in North Dakota just got a lot more interesting.

Now, let’s strategize to make it more interesting still.

The words “let’s strategize” are important because the big change is the news that this editorial will be preaching to the choir. In the past when conservation policy arose, analysts could have reasonable doubts about the public’s sympathies. Did a majority of North Dakotans support the state’s barbed-wired restrictions on conservation groups buying land? Were voters proud of the fact that North Dakota is the only state with such rules?

Or did voters see the hypocrisy of “landowners’ rights” activists banning transactions between buyers and sellers?

Those questions now have been answered. “The survey results showed that North Dakota voters are strongly supportive of dedicating some state funding for conservation,” reports the bipartisan research team that polled voters in the state. “They also are overwhelmingly supportive of allowing landowners to sell their land to conservation organizations.”

Majority not necessarily rules

So: Let’s strategize, we who are among the astounding 85 percent of voters who support letting conservation groups buy land.

Given that high percentage, one approach is simply to present the poll numbers to lawmakers and let them make the change.

But here is where the politics gets interesting. You see, that proposal has been made before and has gotten nowhere. In fact, it’s gotten hammered so thoroughly that if you ask lawmakers about its prospects, they’ll snort with derision and keep snickering while they shake their heads.

How can that be, given public opinion?

It can be because of the nature of public opinion on this issue. . . . support for keeping the restrictions on nonprofits is narrow but hard. And in a legislative contest between those two, “narrow but hard” wins.

That’s likely to happen in 2011, too. Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy may have the poll results, but “landowners rights” groups will have the power of packing hearing rooms with supporters. In Bismarck, N.D., the latter strategy usually carries the day.

In Bismarck — but not necessarily statewide.

Options

For there are two other ways this reform could become law. The first is a challenge in federal court to the law’s constitutionality.

The second is through the initiative process. In North Dakota and other initiative-and-referendum states, that’s surest way to ensure “majority rule,” even against committed opponents with entrenched views.

In short, if the Legislature balks at reform . . . and a court challenge fails, an initiated measure offers reformers their best hope.

North Dakota has every chance of passing a real “landowners rights” initiative: one that returned to landowners their right to sell to conservation groups, thus protecting water, wildlife and scenery for future generations to enjoy.

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