A signature drive will soon get under way throughout North Dakota in an effort to place the "Clean Water, Lands and Outdoors Heritage Amendment" on the November 2012 ballot.
Twenty-seven thousand signatures must be filed with the N.D. Secretary of State by Aug. 8 for the issue to be placed on the ballot.
Proponents of the amendment say they hope to reach their goal well before the deadline.
Kim Fundingsland/MDN - - This group promoting the “Clean Water, Lands and Outdoors Heritage Amendment” to the North Dakota Constitution visited The Minot Daily News recently. From left are Jesse Beckers, Valley City, Pheasants Forever biologist; Eric Rosenquist, Center, The Nature Conservancy; Keith Trego, Bismarck, N.D. Natural Resources Trust, and Chuck Rostad, Bismarck, N.D. Wildlife Federation.
The proposed amendment would require that 5 percent of the state's oil and gas extraction tax be set aside for "a broad set of purposes including protecting and enhancing the state's water, wildlife and working farms and ranches."
"The state has infrastructure needs. Our language ensures that those needs are funded first," said Keith Trego, N.D. Natural Resources Trust. "We want to make sure there's absolutely no confusion about that. Those kinds of things are extremely important and we recognize that, but there's enough dollars for natural resources."
If the signatures are gathered and approved, and the state's voters voice their approval in November, a nine-person board would determine how and where to spend an estimated $50 million per year based on current oil and gas tax extraction revenue. The Legislature would appoint four of the nine board positions, the governor four more and the ninth would be a selected representative of state wildlife professionals.
"That board would really define how the money would be used," Trego said. "One thing we've considered is what we call a CRP-type program which would put habitat out there. We've tried to look at all the different needs. Every conservation program that is out there is over-subscribed."
The driving force behind the petition drive is the energy boom in western North Dakota that has impacted some hunting lands and brought thousands of new residents to the region. Proponents say they are not opposed to energy production, but remain concerned about the future of outdoor recreation and habitat in the state.
"We hold quality of life in high regard and that's why we believe the time is now," said Eric Rosenquist, Center, The Nature Conservancy. "We still have an opportunity to take care of clean water in the state. We still have prairie. We still have something to work with. The risk of waiting is unacceptable. There are some real forces at work that are diminishing the habitat."
Proponents emphasize that the 5 percent request would come from the state general fund's share of the oil and gas extraction tax and not from other budgets, such as dollars dedicated to cities, counties, schools or townships.
"This amendment will help North Dakota conserve its best lands and waters for the future," said Jesse Beckers, Valley City's Pheasants Forever biologist. "It will protect clean water for our ground water, lakes and streams while providing incentives for farmers and ranchers to conserve wetlands and grasslands on their property. There's also specific language in the amendment for working with beginning farmers and ranchers."
According to Trego, the idea for the amendment was spawned after conversation with various state legislators revealed they "didn't seem to have a lot of interest in moving something like this through the Legislature." Despite the initial rebuff, Trego said polling data showed strong support for such an amendment among the residents of North Dakota.
"We came to the conclusion, with encouragement from elected officials, to sort of launch out in the direction that we have," said Trego.
Chuck Rostad, N.D. Wildlife Federation, is among those backing the proposal.
"From a hunter's and fisherman's standpoint, we feel this is a real good measure and we need it now," Rostad said. "The oil boom is just exploding. We're talking 2,000 wells or more every year. That's a lot of impact. We feel the time is now."