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Measure 5 sets back ag-hunter relations

I took about a week off in late October this year to go pheasant hunting with Dick Unkenholz, a retired former United Methodist pastor. Dick baptized our two children in the late 1980s.

Mikkel Pates

I took about a week off in late October this year to go pheasant hunting with Dick Unkenholz, a retired former United Methodist pastor. Dick baptized our two children in the late 1980s.

I've been hunting with Dick for more than 25 years. My son and I would often go on pheasant outings with Dick and a group of his former parishioners from the Jamestown, N.D., area. The "Road Kill Gang," as they called themselves, traveled in a panel van. We'd often rendezvous in Morton County, where Dick grew up and still owns some parcels of farmland.

For our son (and for me), Dick's take on the creation of life was full of gentle wonder and seasoned with stories about "Uncle Joe's claim shack," or where natural springs would come up, or the spot on the place where Custer camped en route to the Black Hills. We often got some birds, but we always got stories and experiences.

Dick, now 86, lives in Prescott, Ariz., near one of his daughters. It was a joy to knock around with him on sunny, warm October days, accompanied by his relatives and friends.

One thing was always the same: Most pheasants are directly related to farm or ranch activity.

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The birds are in the brush around a stock dam that a cattleman has built, or in the trees around the farmyard not far from the pens and corrals where Roger feeds pigs and cattle. The roosters are in the open-pollinated corn that LeRoy raises, or in the stock dam near Leland's place, or in the trees on Duane's place.

Wildlife here seems inexorably linked with agriculture. Dick has always made sure that any of these former neighbors or relatives know their farming business priorities come first -- their crops and cattle a necessity that comes before his interest in pheasants.

I thought about that a lot as I agreed to moderate a debate between proponents and opponents of Measure 5 -- the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment to the North Dakota constitution. It would take 5 percent of oil extraction taxes, and would enhance North Dakota's land and water to "maintain our great quality of life," proponents say. The measure is heavily promoted by Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy and conservation groups.

But the measure is heavily opposed by agricultural groups of all ilk, including the North Dakota Farm Bureau and the North Dakota Farmers Union, the North Dakota Grain Growers Association and the North Dakota Stockmen's Association.

Opponents say the money would be better put to use to provide property tax relief or finance health care benefits. It puts "ducks before people," says Jeff Missling, executive vice president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau. Julie Ellingson, executive director of the stockmen's group, is on advertisements saying the groups favoring the amendment are those who often work to undermine agriculture.

Pass or fail, I think it's sad the amendment seems likely to set back relations between agriculture and the broadly painted "conservation" groups that actually do some good work.

The aggies feel compelled to ratchet up the rhetoric for the purpose of defeating an amendment. Why? In part because it implies Morton County farmers and others in the state can't be trusted to "keep North Dakota North Dakota," unless they receive privately administered incentives with money twice the current level of the Conservation Reserve Program, and with provisions not yet revealed, proposed or approved, and with enforcement mechanisms as yet untold. Good job.

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Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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