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Published October 28, 2013, 10:31 AM

Money poorly spent

A government measure would empower environmentalists to buy 25 farms a year.

By: Doyle Johannes, Agweek

BISMARCK, N.D., — North Dakota is an agricultural state. And we have abundant wildlife. Farmers and ranchers love the land they take care of, and they enjoy providing food and habitat for more than 75 percent of the state’s wildlife.

So, why do we need a constitutional amendment that would give special interest groups millions of dollars — more than $150 million every two years — to fund so-called “unmet needs?”

If this constitutional amendment gets on the ballot and is passed, the Water, Wildlife and Parks Trust Fund would get 5 percent of all oil and gas extraction taxes collected by the state. Conservatively speaking, that is $75 million a year. Chances are, it will be a great deal more than that.

There are many unmet needs in the state that directly impact people. We have roads that need repairing. We have schools that need to be funded. the North Dakota Farm Bureau recognizes that and supports the responsible development of our state’s resources.

We already have a new program in place to help fund conservation projects. It’s called the Outdoor Heritage Fund, and it was put in place by the 2013 Legislative Assembly. The board, appointed by the governor, brings together representatives from agriculture, conservation, energy, business and recreation to oversee how grant monies will be distributed.

This fund will provide up to $30 million a biennium for conservation, outdoor recreational opportunities and the restoration and development of facilities throughout the state. What it doesn’t do is allow for the purchase of land.

If the constitutional amendment were to pass, state agencies, tribal governments, local governments, political subdivisions and nonprofit organizations all would have access to more money than the North Dakota State University Main Research Center, the NDSU Extension and the North Dakota Department of Agriculture general fund appropriations combined. And they would be able to buy land.

What is even more concerning is that at least 75 percent of the money must be spent each year, whether it’s needed or not. It’s required by law.

How do you spend that much money? You buy land.

To put it in perspective, spending $150 million means these groups could buy 150 acres of farmland a day, or 25 average-sized North Dakota farms each year. Thinking of it another way, that’s 300 half-acre house lots a day.

At that rate, it wouldn’t take long before a substantial amount of land is locked up. That’s not good for taxpayers, because reducing the property tax base means more of the burden will be placed on North Dakota’s property owners.

In the next 10 years, North Dakota will spend $15 billion on parks, wildlife and conservation. If the constitutional amendment were to pass, it would add an additional $2 billion over those 10 years.

The petition would also create another level of government — a conservation commission. That commission would have the ability to employ staff like other state agencies.

We already have a Game and Fish Department. We have a Parks and Recreation Department. Do we really need another government agency comprised of conservation groups and virtually no representation from other groups?

What it all boils down to is, the Outdoor Heritage Fund gives conservation groups an additional $15 million a year. Yet proponents of the Water, Wildlife and Parks constitutional amendment don’t think that’s enough. They want more.

The way we see it, that’s just plain greed, not need.

Editor’s note: Johannes is president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau.