BISMARCK, N.D. - By a 33-12 vote, the Senate on Thursday approved a bill creating an outdoor heritage fund to provide money for conservation projects and public access to outdoor recreation areas.
The House earlier approved the bill, which would take a percentage of the gross oil production tax for the fund to provide grants to state, tribal and local entities.
The House passed the bill by a 48-44 vote in what has been a contentious issue going back to the most recent general election.
A constitutional measure was scheduled to appear on the November ballot, but was removed because of petition signature fraud.
Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan, introduced HB1278 early in the session. It has had broad support from civic, conservation and agricultural groups.
A competing version of the bill was introduced by Sen. Tyler Axness, D-Fargo, shortly before crossover but was defeated within a matter of days.
During Thursday’s floor debate, Axness said he was “torn” in his support of the bill.
“In this form, I don’t know if I can support this bill,” Axness said.
The freshman senator introduced an amendment Thursday that would have removed the state Industrial Commission as the governing body of the fund, in favor of the state Land Board.
The Industrial Commission is a three-member group comprised of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner.
Axness said the Industrial Commission tends to “lean toward” the oil and energy industry, citing recent decisions allowing oil drilling near a historic site near the Killdeer Mountains and near the Little Missouri State Park.
“Those decisions were misguided, in my opinion,” Axness said.
The amendment was defeated by a 33-13 roll call vote.
While the Industrial Commission would have final say over funding grant requests, a 12-member advisory board will make recommendations on funding projects.
That board would be made up of four representatives from the agriculture community, two from the energy industry, four from conservation groups and one each from the business community and the recreation community.
There also would be four non-voting members on the advisory board serving as technical advisers: one each from state Parks and Recreation Department, Game and Fish Department, Forestry Department and soil conservation districts.
The outdoor heritage fund would receive a portion of the gross oil production tax, an estimated $17 million per biennium, Porter said.
The fund, however, would be capped at $15 million a year and $30 million per biennium.
Before passage, the bill drew impassioned debate from some members of the Senate.
Sen. John Andrist, R-Crosby, said people in his district are leery of any bill that dictates how their land should be managed.
In an arid part of North Dakota, Andrist said, some federal agencies have been “ruthless” when it comes to securing water easements.
He said given the fragile nature of much of the land in the northwestern part of the state, farmers and ranchers have done wonders conserving what is there.
“They wonder why everyone wants to fix their land ... we do care about our land,” Andrist said, but people are resistant when it comes to others telling them what to do with it.
Andrist, along with Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, who is a fourth-generation farmer, both told the Senate they were unsure of how they would vote right up to the time of the vote.
“We (farmers) don’t seem to get enough credit at times,” Wanzek said. Advances in farming and ranching methods have improved conservation on the land exponentially in the past several decades, he said.
“We have a connection (to the land) beyond what anyone else can understand,” Wanzek said.
Axness, Andrist and Wanzek voted no on the bill.
The bill does not allow for the purchase of land, litigation or lobbying activities, and easements paid for through the fund would be limited to 20 years.
Porter said he believes that along with license fee increases for hunting and fishing license, it’s a good situation for outdoor enthusiasts.
He said the whole premise of the bill is to piggyback with existing conservation programs that offer matching funding.
“As a package, it’s a win for everyone, I think,” Porter said.