Oil development has stepped hard on western North Dakota’s landscape.

The state has been reasonably quick to reinforce and expand infrastructure in the Western oil-producing counties. It’s applied funds to social issues raised by oil development. The state has given a hand to cities, school districts and counties attempting to meet the needs of their citizens in this boom. All this in an area where people’s lives are being changed by rapid development and industrialization of the landscape.

Inevitably, this kind of development also puts pressure on wildlife and other natural resources. The state should provide some assistance to those whose mission it is to protect valuable wildlife habitats, ensuring the future of North Dakota’s outdoor experience.

The North Dakota Heritage Fund has been put forward by Gov. Jack Dalrymple. If it gets legislative approval, the fund will be managed by the state Industrial Commission — governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner — and make grants to state agencies, tribal governments, political subdivisions and nonprofit organizations to provide access to public and private lands for sportsmen, improve, maintain and restore water quality, soil conditions, plant diversity, animal systems and support other “practices of stewardship to enhance farming and ranching,” and conserve natural areas.

Almost as important as what it will do is what it will not do: The fund cannot be used to litigate, lobby, do anything to “interfere, disrupt or prevent activities associated with surface coal mining operations; sand, gravel or scoria extraction activities; oil and gas operations or any other energy development; acquisition of land for more than 20 years or projects outside the state.”

It makes clear what’s important at this point in the state’s history — the economic benefits and jobs associated with energy development. Not that conservation and wildlife are not important; they are, but the need is to shore up the livelihoods of families for the near future and, hopefully, beyond.

It is not an either or. Both are possible — vigorous oil development and sustaining the quality of the natural world in western North Dakota. And as oil development raised the need for improvements in transportation and community infrastructure, so, too, has it raised a need for improvements in conservation infrastructure.

The mechanism proposed by the governor makes sense. The critical issue remaining in flux is how much money should go to the Heritage Fund. The legislation in play now has $15 million annually attached to it. Some members of the wildlife and conservation community think this is too little. They would prefer to see $100 million.

Although the state is flush financially, there are many demands for funds. Toward the end of the session, the appropriations committees will tally up the requests for spending and try to balance that with revenues. That’s when the real funding decisions are made. When that time comes, we urge legislators to give as much consideration as possible to the Heritage Fund. The governor’s $15 million seems a minimum. The $100 million suggested by conservation and wildlife supporters represents the high end.

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