Oil-Rich North Dakota Rejects Conservation Funding Measure

Environmental groups spent nearly twice as much money as their opponents to set aside some oil revenue for protecting the land, but the ballot measure lost by a landslide.
by | November 5, 2014

North Dakota voters soundly defeated a measure Tuesday that would have set aside oil and gas tax revenue for land conservation efforts.

The proposal, called Measure 5, had only 21 percent approval with 76 percent of precincts reporting. It was a stunning loss for conservation groups, which spent more $4.2 million -- a significant sum in North Dakota -- supporting the measure. Ducks Unlimited, which spearheaded the effort, spent $2.6 million, and The Nature Conservancy contributed nearly $1 million more.

But oil companies, farmers groups, business interests and even education groups fought the measure aggressively. They spent $2.4 million to defeat the measure, arguing the plan would tie up too much money for too long.

The proposal would have required North Dakota to use 5 percent of the state’s oil and gas extraction taxes for conservation measures for the next 25 years. At current oil production levels, that would have meant as much as $150 million for buying land, creating parks, improving fish and wildlife habitats, preventing flooding, improving water quality and educating students about the environment.

The ballot measure gave voters an opportunity to determine whether the state had been too accommodating to the booming oil industry, which has transformed remote stretches in the west of the state into boom towns. The growth has been great for the state’s economy overall, but it also increased demand for state and local governments to increase the quantity and improve the quality of roads, schools, sewers and housing.

The conservation measure, along with what looked to be a competitive race for agriculture commissioner, could have shifted discussions over land use at the state capitol, said Nick Bauroth, a political science professor at North Dakota State University. But with Republican Doug Goehring, the incumbent agriculture commissioner, fending off a challenger and Measure 5 soundly defeated, “business as usual” will continue toward land use, he said.

Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple added a wrinkle to the campaign when he announced a plan to spend $30 million more on state parks and add an extra $50 million more for conservation efforts. The move, which the governor said was developed over several years, was widely seen as a way to undercut Measure 5.