In the Grand Forks Herald today, opinion editor Tom Dennis suggests that the need for a state conservation fund in North Dakota (first proposed in a ballot measure derailed by petition fraud perpetrated by NDSU football players and now given new life in Governor Jack Dalrymple’s executive budget) is rooted in the failure of the free market. You see, private business and private property owners won’t do the sort of conservation people like Dennis would like to see, so the state must do it for them.
I think Dennis is missing the point. The idea of a conservation board isn’t about whether or not we should do conservation. It’s about how we’ll do conservation.
Right now the State of North Dakota is perfectly capable of doing conservation. The legislature can make grants to local governments and even non-profit entities. The legislature can appropriate money to purchase land to set aside for the purposes of conservation. Bills to do these things can be introduced by any legislature and, thanks to the legislature’s long-standing rule of giving every bill a vote, they will be debated and they will come to the floor of at least one house of the legislature.
That’s the democratic process, and it’s important when we’re talking about property rights. Conserving a piece of land means taking it off the market for use, be it for agriculture or energy production or development. So it is gratifying to know that such a decision can only be made with the approval of both houses of our state legislature, and the signature of the governor.
But what Dalrymple is proposing, and people like Dennis are supporting, is a short-circuiting of that process. Rather than important decisions impacting property rights being made through the legislative process, they’d be made by a committee of bureaucrats funded by a steady stream of oil tax revenues. While those revenues would be capped under the governor’s proposal, and while the committee’s decisions would have to be ratified by the State Industrial Commission (neither was true of the measure that would have been on the ballot), the process would not provide sufficient debate, scrutiny or accountability.
Also, remember that this committee would receive millions of dollars in funding every year (capped at $10 million) from oil revenues. They would have that money to spend, and would no doubt feel an obligation to spend it, whether the state has need of additional conservation or not.
Couple that with the group having free reign to make grants to non-profit organizations (many of which, like the Sierra Club or the Dakota Resource Council, have every extreme environmental agendas) and this adds up to a very bad idea. It might be hard to imagine North Dakota’s Republican-controlled State Industrial Commission approving grants to extreme groups like those, but remember that the state might not always be governed by Republicans.
We should have a debate about conservation in North Dakota, but that debate should take place in the legislature by elected officials, not before a committee of bureaucrats controlling a big pot of money.