Okay I’m going to get a little preachy again. It’s about the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment (you can read the text of the proposed amendment here). You’ll remember I said I was going to sit this one out this year because I have some differences with the measure’s authors. But at least they’re doing SOMETHING, and something needs to be done. And they seem to be running a good campaign, and I like good campaigns. What I don’t like is what the other side is doing—running a dishonest campaign. The other side is the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce and the North Dakota Petroleum Council, doing the bidding of Jack Dalrymple, trying to stifle any serious effort to provide real conservation initiatives in our increasingly degraded state. And doing it in a dishonest way, by using the Big Lie strategy: if you’re going to lie, lie big, and do it over and over, and soon people will come to accept it as truth. Frankly, they’re shameless.
So the Big Oil boys and the Chamber have trotted out various spokespersons using the same phrases over and over in letters to the editor, press releases, interviews and talk show conversations. Most recently, they duped the new Farmers Union president, Mark Watne, into believing they were friends of his, and handed him a letter which he unwittingly signed and sent to all the newspapers. I don’t know what they promised him in return, but it better be big, because Mark made a giant screwup by signing that letter. Still, Mark’s a big boy, responsible for his own actions, so he needs to be called to task for what he’s done.
The letter Mark sent was so bad that it is causing concern among Mark’s friends and mentors inside the Farmers Union. One of them told me this week “Mark’s letter is truly terrible. It reads like it was from a political unit of the Koch brothers. I can’t figure out why he’d sign such crap and blatant misinformation.” He went on to say that the Farmers Union is “dirtying their good reputation for being a reasoned voice for farmers by acting as a mouthpiece for fear mongering misinformation. I’m deeply concerned about this.”
I’m concerned too. And so I wrote another letter to the editor of my own, one I’m going to send this time. You may recall I wrote one a few weeks ago about the same issue, responding to the same kind of letter, which I didn’t send, because the writer’s father, James Odermann, is a friend of mine. Well, history is repeating itself. Turns out Mark’s dad, Gene, is a friend of mine too. But there’s a difference this time. Mark is a public figure by virtue of his statewide office. He needs to accept responsibility for what he’s doing as president of the Farmers Union.
So I sent my letter off to the ten daily newspapers yesterday, asking them to print it if they printed Mark’s. I expect it will start showing up this week. I thought I’d share it with you first. So here it is, along with Mark’s letter, so you can see what it is I am upset about. Marks’s is first.
As a longtime farmer, I’m a big believer in protecting our state’s great outdoors and natural resources. North Dakota’s farmers and ranchers were our state’s first conservationists going back to statehood. But the proposed Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment wildly misses the mark in trying to accomplish that.
Under the amendment, 5 percent of North Dakota’s oil extraction tax would be set aside in a new conservation fund. The amendment requires that between 75 and 90 percent of this fund be spent each year.
The only conservation spending specifically outlined in the measure is that these massive funds — anywhere from $300 million to $400 million per biennium, based on current oil production projections — could be used to acquire farm land.
If nonprofit groups are given millions of dollars every year that they can use to acquire land, it won’t be long before we will see them buying and removing land from production agriculture, driving up land prices and making it harder for agriculture to compete, especially new farmers and ranchers.
The measure also is troubling because the groups supporting this amendment have a history of being hostile toward the ag industry, which still is our state’s largest industry. Imagine the impact to our state’s economy and workforce if these groups suddenly have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend to undermine the agriculture industry in the name of conservation.
Let’s be clear, folks: The out-of-state groups financially behind this measure would like to change our way of life here in North Dakota, and they see the creation of this private fund in our state constitution as their way to do just that.
The truths behind this amendment are loud and clear, and that’s why farm and ranch groups have come together in the North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation coalition to oppose it.
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I am saddened that less than six months into his new job as North Dakota Farmers Union President, Mark Watne has really damaged his credibility and sullied the reputation of North Dakota’s most prestigious farm organization.
As a nearly lifelong Farmers Union member, I want to reassure members of the conservation community that his recent letter about the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment does not reflect the feelings of most rank and file Farmers Union members. And I want to correct a few misstatements Mark made.
Mark charges that “out of state groups” are trying to undermine agriculture. That’s not true. In addition to being a Farmers Union member, I’ve been a member of two of the major sponsors of this measure, Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited, throughout many of my years as a hunter and conservationist, as have more than 10,000 current North Dakota members of those organizations. We’re not from out of state, and we’re not “hostile to the ag industry” as Mark says. We know that farmers, who make habitat for the birds we hunt, are our best friends. We’d hardly want to undermine them.
Pheasants Forever, to my knowledge, doesn’t own any farmland. Ducks Unlimited from time to time buys small pieces of wetlands, mostly unproductive farmland, on a willing-seller basis, although not so much in North Dakota because of our state’s anti-corporation farming laws. Mark knows full well that those laws, of which the Farmers Union is the staunchest defender (one of the reasons I am proud to be a member), prevent those groups from even owning farmland here.
Mark says that the measure will create a “private fund” in our constitution and give nonprofit groups hundreds of millions of dollars to buy land. Again, that’s not true, and Mark knows it. All funds that go into the new program are controlled by a committee made up of the governor, the attorney general and the agriculture commissioner. They have to approve every penny that is spent from that fund. I’m pretty sure they are not going to allow it to be used to compete for land with farmers.
As president of Farmers Union, it is okay for Mark to have his own opinion on these things, but he represents the members of an organization, and he can’t just make up his own facts. At last fall’s state Farmers Union Convention, delegates voted to reject a statement opposing this measure. In fact, I expect there is pretty broad general support from Farmers Union members for this measure. And I would think there is a lesson to be learned from the actions of the state’s other farm organization, the Farm Bureau, when its leaders got too far out ahead of their members at the recent state Republican convention. They turned around and found no one was following them.
Most farmers, and most Farmers Union members, don’t hold the hostile attitude towards conservation organizations reflected in the recent letter. Many of them are members of those organizations. And most sportsmen and women know that farmers are our best friends. It’s their land we hunt on. We’d never get behind any measure designed to hurt agriculture. The facts are, that much of the money generated for this Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks fund (the N.D. Office of Management and Budget says it will be about $150 million, not the made-up $300-400 million figure Mark and other opponents of the amendment have been using) will likely find its way back to farmers to help them make habitat for wildlife, much as the CRP and PLOTS programs have been doing here for years. In that case, everyone wins—farmers, hunters and critters.