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Former Minnesota Sen. Bob Lessard says N.D. voters have an opportunity with Measure 5 that may never come again

As a 26-year northern Minnesota legislator who spent 15 years as chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee in the state Senate, Bob Lessard saw time and again how conservation and the outdoors fared come budget time.

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Bob Lessard pilots his boat on Trout Lake in northwestern Ontario in August. Lessard, who led the push for dedicated conservation funding in Minnesota, said he's following the debate surrounding Measure 5 in North Dakota. The Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which makes funding recommendations to the Legislature from Minnesota's outdoors funding, is named in part after Lessard. (Brad Dokken photo)

As a 26-year northern Minnesota legislator who spent 15 years as chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee in the state Senate, Bob Lessard saw time and again how conservation and the outdoors fared come budget time.

Education, health and human services and local government aid - all important needs - consumed more than 70 percent of the state’s annual budget, Lessard recalls.

“So, what we got for outdoor resources, we didn’t even show up on a pie chart, and yet sportsmen and women contribute direct sales tax to the economy,” Lessard, 83, said. “Then you do the spinoff, and it’s billions of dollars, but we couldn’t get anything.”

The state would have had to set hunting and fishing licenses at $500 apiece to address the needs on the landscape, he said.

Lessard, who left the Minnesota Senate in 2002, never was able to secure dedicated conservation funding at the legislative level, but in November 2008, state voters approved a constitutional amendment to implement a small sales tax increase to fund clean water, parks, the arts and fish and wildlife habitat for the next 25 years.


That amounts to about $300 million annually divvied up among four funds, including the Outdoor Heritage Fund, which receives a 33 percent share of the proceeds.

Now, a similar push is underway in North Dakota, where conservation advocates want voters to approve Measure 5, the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment. If it passes, Measure 5 would dedicate 5 percent of the state’s oil extraction tax to a conservation fund for the next 25 years.

Proponents gathered some 41,000 signatures to get the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot.

According to Stephen Adair of Bismarck, chairman of the North Dakota Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Coalition, the concept of dedicated conservation funding in the state dates to the middle 2000s, when it became apparent the state was going to lose a substantial amount of Conservation Reserve Program land as contracts expired and farmers returned the land to crop production.

CRP is a federal program that reimburses farmers for setting aside marginal lands for conservation.

About four years ago, Adair said, conservation groups including Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, North Dakota Natural Resources Trust and the Nature Conservancy began polling North Dakota residents about the need for investing in conservation, wildlife and clean water.

Funding was always the question until the western North Dakota’s Bakken oil boom, which coincided with the polling, Adair said.

 “Overwhelmingly, the people of North Dakota said, ‘Yes, we should make a greater investment, and that should come from a portion of the oil and gas taxes that the state is receiving,’” he said.


Key difference

Where Minnesota voters approved a tax increase, North Dakota’s Measure 5 would reallocate existing funds - in this case, the 5 percent share of oil extraction taxes - to conservation. That mandate has garnered fierce criticism from opponents, including the oil industry, major agricultural groups and the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce.

This past week, North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, a coalition of some 70 Measure 5 opponents, held press conferences in Grand Forks, Fargo, Bismarck and Minot, where officials including Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, local legislators in each of the cities and others spoke out against Measure 5.

A new spin-off coalition, Decision Makers for Common Sense Conservation, includes 101 legislators, 26 mayors, all 53 North Dakota counties and 300 cities that oppose Measure 5.

The fund, opponents said, would receive more than $300 million by the end of the 2015-17 biennium based on state revenue projections, making it the sixth highest-funded agency in the state.

“One of our primary concerns with this measure has always been that it would take too much money away from other key needs in the state without any input from lawmakers,” Jon Godfread, chairman of North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, said in a statement. “The figures show just how much money the out-of-state organizations supporting this measure are looking for.”

As written, Measure 5 calls for a Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Commission made up of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner to oversee the fund and how it’s appropriated.

A 13-member “citizen accountability board” would make grant recommendations to the commission. Two of those 13 panel members would be appointed from the state Senate, with two others from the state House of Representatives. The director of the state Game and Fish Department would recommend four members, the director of the state Parks and Recreation department would recommend two members, and the Indian Affairs Commission would recommend one member, with the governor making the appointments based on those recommendations. The Public Service Commission would appoint a representative from the energy industry, and the agriculture commissioner would appoint a farmer or rancher.


Previous effort

This isn’t the first time advocates have tried to get dedicated conservation funding on the ballot. A 2012 attempt was scuttled after several people hired for the petition drive that is required as part of the initiative and referendum process forged signatures while gathering names.

In the meantime, North Dakota lawmakers in 2013 passed legislation to create an Outdoor Heritage Fund, which receives as much as $30 million per biennium from oil and gas production tax revenue. That’s a good start, conservation advocates said, but it doesn’t meet the needs. Adair said the Industrial Commission, which administers the Outdoor Heritage Fund, had requests for nearly $55 million during the initial three rounds of proposals its first year, and $14.1 million of those requests were funded.

In other words, 74 percent of total requests have gone unfunded to date.

Last Monday, Gov. Jack Dalrymple sweetened the pot by proposing to spend more than $80 million, including a one-time expenditure of $30.4 million to improve existing state parks, trails and other amenities and increasing the Outdoor Heritage Fund cap from $30 million to $50 million in the 2015-17 biennium.

The governor’s proposal would need Legislature approval next year.

 “I think the governor made a very good proposal,” Dan Wogsland, executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers and a Measure 5 opponent, said during a Grand Forks press conference.

“When the Outdoor Heritage fund was created with $30 million, the conservation community said that’s not enough. But the fact is, $30 million is a lot of money, and when the governor is talking about $80 million, that’s really a lot of money,” Wogsland added. “And when you have a collaborative process and a collaborative effort, I think that is the best way to achieve and get legislation done.”


Dalrymple’s move could put even more pressure on Measure 5 supporters to make their case. However, dedicated funding isn’t a new concept, and Adair said 33 other states already have dedicated funds for conservation, some through their constitution and some through the Legislature.

In Minnesota, Lessard says dedicated funding came none too soon.

 “Maybe I shouldn’t say this publicly, but everything is being plowed up,” Lessard said. “You go to some areas, and you can hardly find a row of trees so we’re fortunate in Minnesota that we have the money now.

“I don’t know where Minnesota would be right now as far as game and fish without that.”

Eyes on N.D.

Given the battles he’s fought on behalf of Minnesota’s outdoors, Lessard said he’s watching the battle now under way in North Dakota to pass Measure 5.

He said the opposition is difficult to fathom in a state with an economy as healthy as North Dakota’s. According to the Office of Management and Budget, the state’s projected revenue is nearly $4.9 billion for the 2013-15 biennium, rising to more than $5.1 billion in the 2015-17 budget.

“A lot of us look at what’s happening in North Dakota, and we’re shaking our heads,” Lessard said. “It’s beyond our comprehension when we look at the opposition. I can see some of the opposition, and legislators don’t want to give up (their power), but I can’t understand when it’s a no-brainer.”


Jason Mitchell of Devils Lake, a North Dakota native and host of the “Jason Mitchell Outdoors” TV show, said he also has been “kind of surprised” by the opposition, especially the claim the money will be used to buy up land.

A board made up of North Dakotans and the governor will make those decisions, he said.

“People make a big deal about outside lobbying groups, but the opposition is using outside dollars, too,” Mitchell said. “It’s unfortunate, because all of a sudden now, if you support conservation or want to fund conservation, you’re considered a radical. And if our forefathers wouldn’t have had the insight to spend money on some of these things, where would we be today?

“North Dakota is going to be deciding where this money goes,” Mitchell said, adding it makes sense to use conservation funds to compensate farmers for establishing wildlife habitat on marginal lands.

“Their job is not to raise wildlife; it’s to raise crops,” Mitchell said. “But if you can give (a farmer) incentive in an area he’d just as soon not farm, that’s going to take money. You can’t expect landowners to foot the bill.”

In Minnesota, Lessard says sportsmen led the grassroots campaign that eventually got the measure passed. Ultimately, he said, North Dakota’s grassroots contingent will decide the fate of Measure 5.

“I can’t see anybody who ever buys a hunting or fishing license in North Dakota, not to mention people who want clean water, not supporting an amendment like this,” he said. “They have an opportunity that will probably never come again to leave a legacy and protect the environment. The story we have to get to the people is it’s a very small price to pay, that leaving something for their grandchildren is worth it.”

Mitchell said voters should do their homework before Election Day and sort through the information, both good and bad, that’s getting thrown around about Measure 5.


“The biggest thing is look into it; do the research before you jump to conclusions,” Mitchell said. “There’s things I’m not in favor of, things I have concerns about, but at the same time, I’m willing to take that jump, so to speak, because I think it’s something the state’s going to need down the road.”

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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