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More than $5 million pumped into battle over ND conservation fund measure

BISMARCK, N.D. -- Supporters and opponents of a proposed conservation fund on the Nov. 4 ballot have pumped more than $5 million into the election, campaign finance records show, and each side is criticizing the other's support from out-of-state ...

BISMARCK, N.D. -- Supporters and opponents of a proposed conservation fund on the Nov. 4 ballot have pumped more than $5 million into the election, campaign finance records show, and each side is criticizing the other's support from out-of-state donors.

Friday was the deadline for filing pre-general election statements with the secretary of state's office, providing a snapshot of how much has been spent on efforts to pass or defeat Measure 5.

The constitutional amendment -- perhaps the most hotly contested of the eight measures on the statewide ballot -- would establish a conservation fund and trust using 5 percent of the state's share of oil extraction tax revenue in the next 25 years. The state budget office estimates that if approved, the fund and trust would collect an estimated $308 million in the 2½ years, starting Jan. 1.

Campaign statements show supporters have dumped at least $2.85 million into getting the measure passed, while opponents have put at least $2.19 million toward defeating it.

Steve Adair, chairman of the pro-measure campaign and regional operations director for Ducks Unlimited -- the single largest spender on either side at more than $1.87 million -- says proponents didn't expect to be outspent by opponents until the American Petroleum Institute stepped in last month with more than $1.1 million to try to crush the measure.

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"We expect them to outspend us now with that group joining the opposition," he says.

Contributions pile up

North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks, the committee backing the measure, reported $800,985 in contributions and $646,777 in expenditures on its pre-general statement filed Friday.

The committee also filed a 48-hour statement for $92,177 in contributions received on Thursday, raising its total to $893,162 in contributions.

Between the two reports, the largest contribution was $600,000 from The Nature Conservancy, followed by $100,000 from John Childs of Vero Beach, Fla.

Childs is CEO and board chairman of a Boston-based private equity firm and a former president of Wetlands America Trust, which provides the financial support for Ducks Unlimited, according to The Center for Public Integrity.

The committee also received $50,000 each from Pheasants Forever and David Grohne of Wilmington, Ill., a Wetlands America Trust trustee.

Adair says Childs and Grohne are longtime Ducks Unlimited supporters who go hunting in North Dakota every year, "and they love the state."

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Other significant contributions included $17,341 from the ND Conservation Fund in Bismarck, $15,000 from The Conservation Fund in Arlington, Va., $11,835 from United Printing in Bismarck, $11,000 from the National Wildlife Federation in Reston, Va., and $7,500 from Delta Waterfowl in Bismarck.

Of the group's contributions of more than $100, a total of $837,000 -- nearly 94 percent -- came from outside North Dakota.

By comparison, North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, the coalition of business, agricultural and governmental organizations opposing Measure 5, reported $578,050 in contributions and $472,596 in expenditures on its pre-general report. It also filed two 48-hour reports on Monday and Thursday with a combined $374,200 in contributions, for a total of $952,250.

None of the contributions were from out of state.

The largest campaign donor by far was the Greater North Dakota Chamber, which contributed $797,650. The coalition also received $50,000 each from the North Dakota Farmers Union and North Dakota Petroleum Council, $12,500 from the Associated General Contractors of North Dakota and $10,000 from the North Dakota Farm Credit Council.

The coalition had $105,454 in cash on hand at the end of the reporting period, less than half the $263,357 remaining in the war chest of North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks.

Outside spending mounts

Contributions made to the committees represent only a fraction of what's being spent on the measure.

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Independent expenditure reports show wildlife and conservation organizations have spent at least $1.96 million in support of the measure, led by the $1.87 million spent by Ducks Unlimited since June 4.

Measure opponents have reported at least $1.24 million in independent expenditures, led by the American Petroleum Institute.

Jon Godfread, a spokesman for the opposition group, says even with the spending by API, about 50 percent of measure opponents' money is coming from within North Dakota.

"To me, there is a big difference for a group coming in and advocating for the tax dollars in North Dakota to keep flowing to schools, roads and tax relief, whereas these (pro-measure) groups are looking to get a piece of North Dakota tax revenue," says Godfread, vice president of governmental affairs for the Greater North Dakota Chamber.

For groups supporting the measure, their contributions are "a small investment" to gain access to billions in oil tax revenue through the conservation fund, Godfread says.

"That's the big difference to me, is these groups are advocating a measure that will ultimately be used in their own operating budgets," he says.

Adair says just because many of the checks coming from wildlife and conservation groups are from out-of-state corporate headquarters doesn't mean those groups don't have a presence in North Dakota. He notes Ducks Unlimited has about 50 employees in the state and has operated here for 50 years, and he says the only contributor that might not have staff in North Dakota is The Conservation Fund.

By contrast, he characterizes API as a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group that's looking out only for the oil and gas industry it represents.

"You can go to their website and look at their mission, and I don't see anything about education," he says.

As for criticism that the fund would go toward conservation groups' staffing, Adair says that would be at the discretion of the state Industrial Commission, which would have to approve grant awards from the fund. But he said he's "puzzled" by how opponents have focused on that issue, adding that restoring wetlands and other conservation efforts require engineers and other staff.

"It takes boots on the ground to do projects," he says.

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