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Coalition organizes to oppose proposed N.D. conservation ballot measure

FARGO - A coalition headed by an influential business group is preparing to mount a campaign opposing the proposed Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Fund aimed for the November 2014 ballot.

Andy Peterson, president of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, said Wednesday that the business group and others plan to launch what will be called North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation early next year.

The proposal, backed by a coalition of conservation groups, would amend the state constitution to set aside 5 percent of the oil extraction tax for the outdoor heritage fund.

That would raise an estimated $150 million during the 2015-17 biennium, much more than the current fund, capped at $30 million per biennium.

Because it would amend the constitution to set aside funds, "It will set a precedent for our state," Peterson told The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's editorial board, referring to the proposed Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Fund. "I just don't want this to be successful."

The emergence of a large coalition to oppose the expanded outdoor heritage fund sets up a major ballot measure battle in the 2014 general election.

Besides the chamber, those lining up behind the opposition coalition include the North Dakota League of Cities, North Dakota Association of Counties and North Dakota School Boards Association.

Several farm groups, including the North Dakota Farm Bureau, North Dakota Grain Growers and North Dakota Corn Growers, also oppose the measure, as do several energy groups, including the North Dakota Petroleum Council and the Lignite Energy Council.

Conservation groups supporting the proposed amendment include Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, The National Wildlife Federation and Audubon Society.

"It's going to be well-financed, well-advertised," Peterson said.

A report filed with the secretary of state showed $690,946 in contributions for 2012, including $237,000 from The Nature Conservancy and $100,000 each from individual donors, as well as $25,000 contributions from The Conservation Fund and World Wildlife Fund.

The state of North Dakota already provides more than $130 million per biennium on conservation and related efforts, according to figures cited by Peterson.

They include $31.8 million for parks and recreation, $67.5 million for game and fish, the $30 million authorized for the outdoor heritage fund and $1.1 million for soil conservation districts.

'Perfect storm'

Backers of the conservation amendment say significantly greater measures are needed to protect the state's air, water and land because of unprecedented oil and gas development, and the rapid loss of conservation acres on farms.

As a result, wildlife habitat is being rapidly lost, and the wide-open spaces North Dakotans have long taken for granted are at risk, conservation fund proponents said.

Among other things, the proposal would protect or restore rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands, grasslands and forests, and conserve or acquire natural areas, parks and recreation areas.

The ability to buy land, and take it off the tax rolls, draws opposition from many farming groups and local governments, Peterson said.

Peterson did acknowledge, however, that energy development and the loss of conservation acres are changing the North Dakota landscape.

"We need to have some kind of conservation measure in our state," he said, adding that the threats to wildlife areas combine to form a "perfect storm."

About 145,000 acres of North Dakota native prairie were converted to cropland between 2002 and 2007, according to the conservation coalition. North Dakota has lost almost 2 million acres of conservation land.

Craig Whitney, president of the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber, said the local business group has concerns about the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment but has not taken a formal position.

"This issue will have to go through our systems," he said, including a review by the board of directors. "We will become very versed on it. We're troubled by a number of things."

Backers of the amendment have said public opinion polls show broad support for a bigger conservation fund.

The conservation coalition must collect 26,904 petition signatures to get the measure on the Nov. 4, 2014, ballot, and plans to collect 40,000.