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Backers of conservation measure cite ND's second-to-last ranking in state park acreage

Ryan Hoffner and his 3-year-old son, Royce, fish at Lake Metigoshe State Park on the shores of Lake Metigoshe near Bottineau, N.D. in June 2013. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

BISMARCK – Backers of a proposed conservation fund are shining the spotlight on North Dakota’s second-to-last ranking in state park acreage and the fact it hasn’t added a new state park since the 1980s as examples of why the growing state needs to spend more on parks and recreation.

“When you look at the stats ... it really substantiates that we have not done a whole lot,” said Steve Adair, chairman of the sponsoring committee that has turned in signatures and is waiting for the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks amendment to be approved for the Nov. 4 ballot.

“And I think it’s understandable because we have not been in this state of growth before, so this is sort of new territory for us,” he added.

The constitutional amendment would channel 5 percent of the state’s share of oil extraction tax revenues into a fund and trust. Among other uses, the fund could be spent to purchase land for new parks or expand and improve existing parks.

Opponents contend the fund would collect $300 million per biennium – twice the proponents’ estimate – and leave less money for infrastructure, education and other priority needs. They say better avenues exist for creating new state parks through the Legislature, the state Parks and Recreation Department and the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund grant program.

“We don’t need a constitutional measure to build a state park,” said Jon Godfread, vice president of governmental affairs for the Greater North Dakota Chamber and a leading voice of the Common Sense Conservation coalition opposing the measure.

Parks acreage lags behind

North Dakota, the nation’s 19th largest state by area, had 14,224 acres of state park land in 2010-2011, fewer than any other state except Rhode Island, according to a report by the National Association of State Park Directors.

When adding state-managed recreation areas and natural areas, North Dakota’s total of 19,827 acres was still the second-lowest in the nation behind Rhode Island, the report showed. By comparison, Minnesota had 280,863 acres, Montana had 44,235 acres and South Dakota had 93,676 acres, with 71,000 of those acres lying in Custer State Park alone.

The last state park added in North Dakota was Cross Ranch State Park, which officially opened in 1989 along the Missouri River about an hour’s drive north of Bismarck.

North Dakota also lags behind its neighbors in National Park Service acreage. The state had 72,568 NPS acres at the end of last year, compared with about 1.27 million acres in Montana, 301,330 acres in Minnesota and just under 303,000 acres in South Dakota. North Dakota ranks 33rd in NPS acreage.

But parks acreage doesn’t tell the whole story of opportunities for outdoor recreation.

Of the 44 states with U.S. Forest Service acreage in 2012, North Dakota ranked 23rd with about 1.1 million acres, including the 1-million-acre Little Missouri National Grassland, compared with roughly 17.1 million acres in Montana, 2.8 million acres in Minnesota and 2 million acres in South Dakota.

Among the lower 48 states, North Dakota ranks second behind Nevada in lands under control of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, with a nation-leading 66 national wildlife refuges and third-best 41 waterfowl production areas as of September 2013. The FWS had control of 1.93 million acres of land in North Dakota, compared with 1.64 million acres in South Dakota, 625,560 acres in Minnesota and 84,309 acres in Montana.

Parks see record usage

Mark Zimmerman, director of the state Parks and Recreation Department, said that while North Dakota doesn’t have a lot of state park acres, “our parks have certainly served the people well.”

North Dakota added about 78,000 residents between 2004 and 2013’s record census estimate of 723,393, and that growth has put pressure on the 13 state parks, Zimmerman said.

The state parks are on track for a record of nearly 70,000 camper nights and more than 1 million daily visits this season, with most of those coming during a sixth-month period, he said.

Additional campground loops have been installed to meet the increased demand, including 46 campsites added last year at Grahams Island State Park on Devils Lake and 35 sites at Fort Stevenson State Park on Lake Sakakawea. Thirty-four new campsites will be completed this fall at Lewis and Clark State Park on Lake Sakakawea near Williston, the center of the state’s oil boom.

While some parks are full on certain weekends, Zimmerman said campsites generally aren’t overcrowded.

“Would I like to see a new state park? Absolutely. But we’ve got good parks now,” he said.

Outdoor fund inadequate?

Amendment supporters argue the Outdoor Heritage Fund created by lawmakers last year and capped at $30 million from state oil and gas production tax revenue for 2013-2015 isn’t adequate to meet future park needs, largely because it can’t be used to purchase land.

Adair acknowledged there are concerns about using the proposed fund to buy land for parks.

“Our thinking there is if there was strong community support for that, the Industrial Commission would be presented with that and it would be their decision,” he said, referring to the three-member panel made up of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner that would have final say over projects recommended by a 13-member “citizen accountability board.”

Dan Wogsland, an Outdoor Heritage Fund advisory board member, said during a recent chamber-sponsored debate in Bismarck that while the fund can’t be used to buy land, it does allow for 20-year land easements. He noted that Zimmerman’s department hasn’t requested a new park and suggested that if the state “needs a park that bad,” the department would put together the money, seek it from the private sector – singling out Adair’s organization, Ducks Unlimited – or ask the Legislature.

“The availability through the Outdoor Heritage Fund to put all of the infrastructure necessary for a new park in the state of North Dakota is there,” said Wogsland, executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association. “We haven’t seen the grant application. I would welcome it. I would vote for it. But we don’t need this (proposed) fund.”

Zimmerman, a non-voting member of the advisory board, said he believes the Outdoor Heritage Fund is suited for funding parks, adding, “I’d like to see it give us a chance here.” He said he hopes state lawmakers approve more money for the fund in the 2015-17 biennium.

Measure sponsors submitted more than 41,000 signatures on Aug. 4 to try to put the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot. The secretary of state’s office has until Sept. 8 to verify the necessary 26,904 signatures.

Measure supporters tout economic benefits of parks

Supporters of the proposed Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks amendment say it would not only create more recreational opportunities for residents but also would give the state’s economy a boost.

North Dakota spent an estimated $9.9 million to operate its 13 state parks, eight recreation areas and seven nature preserves in 2012, according to an economic impact study conducted by the North Dakota Recreation & Park Association and North Dakota State University’s Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics.

Citing the study, North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks released an infographic last week stating that the $9.9 million investment in state parks generated $802 million in revenue and 6,000 jobs.

However, the $802 million figure includes the overall direct and secondary economic impacts of both state parks ($233 million) and city park districts ($569 million). When the discrepancy was pointed out to Adair on Friday, he said he agreed the graphic should note the contribution from city park districts and would look at having it revised. As of Monday, it hadn’t been changed on the website

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.