Opinion: Build habitat with landowner incentives
In last year's general election, a constitutional amendment to use some of North Dakota's oil wealth to fund conservation projects failed miserably. The amendment, Measure 5 on the November ballot, got 51,745 yes votes, less than 21 percent of th...
In last year’s general election, a constitutional amendment to use some of North Dakota’s oil wealth to fund conservation projects failed miserably. The amendment, Measure 5 on the November ballot, got 51,745 yes votes, less than 21 percent of the total cast.
Supporters continue to lick their wounds.
In July, a consultant traveled the state, interviewing interest-
ed persons on both sides of the issues and holding focus groups.
The idea was to consider whether, and when, to try again.
Before that decision is made, we ought to absorb what there is to learn from the outcome last year. The answer is plenty.
First, North Dakotans don’t tinker with the constitution. This is especially true of opinion leaders. Legislators are generally reluctant to entrench items in the constitution, particularly new taxes, new spending and new bureaucracy.
Measure 5 did all of those things.
Newspaper publishers don’t like that, either. Forum Communications newspapers didn’t endorse the measure because the owner of the company feels strongly that such matters should be kept out of the state constitution. He used the same logic to oppose a conservation amendment in Minnesota, where it passed.
Second, North Dakotans don’t want any encroachment on private property rights. The measure was widely seen as a land grab. That’s an exaggeration, but it isn’t important. It’s the perception that counted.
Third, the measure was seen as establishing a bureaucracy that wasn’t really accountable to anybody. North Dakotans don’t like that either. Instead, we want to elect everybody.
Then there was the price tag. The measure would have diverted 5 percent of the oil and gas production tax to “clean water, wildlife and parks,” as its title said. That’s an enormous amount of money, and supporters of the measure didn’t explain how it would be spent.
These issues in combination probably doomed the measure, even though public opinion polls have shown consistently that North Dakotans are concerned about the natural environment and are inclined to support programs to protect it.
While the result suggests the way is blocked, there might be an opening for a program focused on wildlife habitat.
The opening leads not through the ballot box, but through the Legislature; not through the constitution, but through statutes; not through land acquisition, but through incentives to landowners.
This idea owes something to Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. - not directly, but philosophically, at least. Discussing the Obama administration’s rules to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired generating plants, Hoeven suggested that incentives work better than mandates.
The same is true for land-owners.
Instead of a constitutional amendment directing millions of dollars to conservation programs administered by a big new board, North Dakota needs a habitat incentive aimed at landowners, whose individual decisions have the greatest impact on the ground in North Dakota.
The state ought to create a program that rewards landowners for setting aside acres for habitat. These need not be large plots. Seven acres will support a pair of meadowlarks, for example.
It used to be that federal farm policy offered these incentives. That’s what the Conservation Reserve Program was about, for example. The intention was to reduce production and stabilize prices. Habitat was a collateral benefit.
But it was a huge benefit. Wildlife numbers boomed in CRP’s heyday.
Today, the incentives in federal farm policy are all in the other direction. The worst offender is the crop insurance program. Vincent H. Smith pointed this out in a recent article. Smith is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
He wrote, “The federal crop insurance program unequivocally distorts production incentives and encourages the expansion of crop production on environmentally sensitive lands.”
That’s not his only complaint, but it is the one that’s most relevant here.
Federal crop insurance has removed the risk of growing crops - corn especially - on marginal lands. As a result, these lands have been brought into cultivation.
These spots often provided habitat for wildlife - including the western meadowlark, North Dakota’s state bird, which is now listed as a species of special concern by the state Game and Fish Department.
The sad consequence of this production incentive is that this land often doesn’t produce a crop at all. There are many such spots in Grand Forks (N.D.) County, including low spots that flooded in heavy rain early in July, grassy margins of wetlands, sandy beach ridges and so on.
Yet they are tilled and planted because farmers can recover their costs through the government’s insurance program - subsidized by taxpayers.
A state incentive might encourage farmers to leave those areas untilled. They’d need to be compensated. The contracts would need to be short-term, 10 years perhaps, rather than perpetual. Landowners would have to retain the right to limit public access.
That’s ok, though, because the point is to provide habitat, not to aggrandize conservation organizations.
North Dakota is rich enough to provide this kind of incentive - at far less cost than the initiated measure contemplated, and with far less bureaucracy.
It could be enacted by the Legislature and assigned to an existing state agency - the Land Board, perhaps, or the existing Outdoor Heritage Fund, which so far has mostly built recreational facilities.
A habitat incentive: It’s a common sense, North Dakota approach to maintaining habitat, boosting wildlife numbers and ensuring the state’s natural legacy.
Editor’s note: Jacobs writes a regular column for the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald. The Herald and Agweek are owned by Forum Communications Co.