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Conservation fund dollars bearing fruit in North Dakota

BISMARCK, N.D. - After more than two years of existence, a state conservation fund's dollars are beginning to bear fruit as several projects, including statewide tree plantings and a new Bismarck park, have been completed.

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Through September, more than $4.16 million in Outdoor Heritage Fund dollars has been spent on projects, including the creation of Johnny Gisi Memorial Park. (Submitted Photo by Bismarck (N.D.) Parks and Recreation District)
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BISMARCK, N.D. - After more than two years of existence, a state conservation fund’s dollars are beginning to bear fruit as several projects, including statewide tree plantings and a new Bismarck park, have been completed.

“It was clean, simple and made sense. Anytime you can provide funds for something like this it’s going to be important," said Greg Smith, operations director for the Bismarck Parks and Recreation District, of the $105,000 awarded for creation of Johnny Gisi Memorial Park, located off of Calgary Avenue, in early 2014.

On Sept. 23, the park, which includes 12 acres of conservation area as well as 3.5 acres of developed parkland with playgrounds, tennis and pickleball courts, a picnic area and community garden, was dedicated.

Needed dollars

Through September, more than $4.16 million in Outdoor Heritage Fund dollars has been spent on projects and nearly $90,200 on administrative costs by the North Dakota Industrial Commission.

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The most recent Office of Management and Budget estimate of revenues for the fund during the 2013-15 biennium is at about $18.5 million. OMB estimates about $27.4 million will be available for the 2015-17 biennium while North Dakota Legislative Council’s most recent estimate was slightly lower at $27.25 million.

“I think the process is working fine,” Karlene Fine, executive director of NDIC, said. “What I’ve been hearing from them (applicants) is that their projects wouldn’t have been able to move forward without that additional funding.”

The Outdoor Heritage Fund, created in 2013, had a $30 million per biennium cap in funding, which was raised to $40 million during the past legislative session. It is intended to provide money for conservation projects and to provide public access to outdoor recreation areas.

Wade Moser, chairman of the Outdoor Heritage Fund Advisory Board, said the fund is allowing projects to happen that otherwise might not have proceeded.

“I’m hoping to see more conservation practices that are actually installed in the ground. If we can put the actual practices into the ground: grass, water and fence, we’ll do more. It’s going to be a win-win,” Moser said.

A total of $23.7 million for more than 80 projects was approved during the 2013-15 biennium. Fund dollars come from a portion of the state’s oil and gas gross production tax.

A new round

The first 2015-17 grant round deadline passed Oct. 1 with 21 projects, totaling more than $9.52 million, being submitted for a total value of more than $15 million. The 12-member advisory board will make recommendations on which projects to fund at its Nov. 30 meeting, and the NDIC will make a final decision in December.

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Managing the fund’s dollars during a period of low oil prices is a concern.

“We need to proceed with caution due to lowered dollars,” said Moser, who advocates that the advisory board is the most effective method in addressing statewide conservation rather than a mandated fund such as the one outlined in Measure 5 and was rejected by 79 percent of voters last year.

During the last legislative session, lawmakers passed House Bill 1409, clarifying legislative intent. The bill included new restrictions on what kind of projects were eligible for funding.

Brian Johnston, CEO for the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts, said the organization was awarded $1.878 million in early 2014 for its statewide tree planting initiative.

“There was quite a backlog for tree plantings. There’s been a lot of demand out there,” Johnston said.

The association has already dedicated all its funding for what was to be a three-year project, prompting it to apply for an additional $2 million in the most recent grant round.

“It’s made all the difference in the world,” said Johnston, adding that, without the funding, the project would have been drastically reduced.

“I think it has the potential to do a lot of things in the state,” Johnston said of the fund.

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Rhonda Vetsch, with the association’s district office in Linton, said about 1.95 million lineal feet of trees and weed barriers have been planted across the state as a result of the project. Fifty-two of the 55 soil conservation district offices in the state participated.

Pending funding approval, more than 1.4 million lineal feet of trees and barriers are planned for 2016, according to Vetsch.

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTA
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