Sometimes You Have To Be Careful What You Ask for

Tomorrow is the deadline for people to apply to become the next Chancellor of the North Dakota Higher Education system. Given the chaos that exists in the state’s higher education system right now, I’ll almost be surprised if anyone applies. I said almost. Because anyone who does apply will surely be well-educated and reasonably intelligent, and so even though they know they will be working for a dysfunctional board and they know that two of the last three chancellors didn’t last long and left under clouds of controversy, they also know that those two left with nice little buyout packages that enabled them to take a little time off and relax before jumping into a new career.

Former chancellor Dr. Robert Potts came out on the losing end of a spat with the president of NDSU and resigned, taking with him a buyout of about a quarter of a million dollars. He moved on to the Arkansas university system and is  now retired, I think.  Former legislator Bill Goetz then served out the last few years of his public service career before retiring and turning the job over to Dr.  Hamid Shirvani, who did much better financially than his predecessors, departing in 2013 with a buyout of his entire contract, about $925,000 cash in his pocket. He apparently hasn’t been so lucky in re-establishing himself in the academic world.

My friend Dr. Larry Skogen, who was serving as President of Bismarck State College, stepped up in mid-2013 and has been running the North Dakota University System about as well as anybody has ever done while the SBHE searches for a permanent chancellor, but he wants to go back to being a college president and will do so on July 1 unless the list of applicants for the job is so thin that the board convinces him to take the chancellor’s job. Could happen.

One whose name won’t be on the applicants list is Dr. Shirvani, although from what I hear, his name is on other application forms around the country. Which brings me to the point of this blog.

I got a call from a North Dakota legislator this week who told me Dr. Shirvani is having a hard time finding a job. He left with the $925,000 buyout in June of 2013, so maybe the bank account is getting a little light.  According to his Wikipedia page, which I have to say is one of the more amazing self-written Wikipedia pages I’ve ever seen, Dr. Shirvani is “currently a Senior Fellow with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.” I wasn’t quite sure what that was all about, so I went to their website, but they don’t seem to know him. I typed his name into their search engine, but he doesn’t show up on their website. I suppose that’s just an oversight and only means that either AASCU or Dr. Shirvani has not updated their website lately.

Anyway, the reason for the call was to tell me that Dr. Shirvani felt that a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago as Dr. Shirvani was leaving his job here was preventing him from getting a new job. And he would like it if I would remove that particular post from my blog. Really.

Well, I said, I couldn’t recall what I had said on that blog, but I would take a look at it and get back to him, adding that I wasn’t sure what kind of job Dr. Shirvani was looking for, but I was pretty doubtful that people who hire college presidents and chancellors and positions of that ilk really take time to read The Prairie Blog.

So this morning I finally got around to looking at that blog post, from June 3, 2013 (I was busy yesterday putting together a new gas grill that said on the box “some assembly required”). What I found was that I had written about the dysfunctionality of the State Board of Higher Education (SBHE), with a reference to the fact that Dr. Shirvani was their latest victim, and quoting from an earlier blog I had written when Dr. Shirvani first arrived here. That blog post referred to a story out of a California newspaper about the controversy that erupted when Dr. Shirvani hired Sarah Palin to speak at a fundraiser at the university he was running in California, which got him a no-confidence vote from his faculty. But other than that reference, and what I thought was a nice picture of Dr. Shirvani with his arm around Sarah Palin (you’ll notice if you look at his Facebook page he likes to put his arm around pretty women), that post was about the incompetence of the SBHE, which had led to the North Dakota Legislature’s goofy proposal to replace the board with a full-time, 3-member commission, an idea which was soundly trounced by North Dakota voters last November.

I can only surmise that it is the Shirvani-Palin photo which is giving the former chancellor heartburn as he seeks new employment. Because I certainly didn’t say anything disparaging about Dr. Shirvani in that blog post. You can read it yourself if you want.

So I politely informed the Legislator who had called me with the request that I didn’t see a good reason to take that down from my website. Not mentioning anything about the ethics of doing something like that, or even making a request to do something like that. It’s interesting that on the Internet, you can actually make a story disappear. You can’t “unprint” a newspaper, but you can “unprint” a web post. Well, thanks, but no thanks.

I did take the time, while I was online this morning looking at the blog, to take a good look at the amazing Wikipedia page of Dr. Shirvani’s. And after reading it, (including the sentence in which he declares himself a “devote” Catholic) I cannot figure out why he can’t get hired. It is really, really impressive. According to it, he’s not just a Fellow at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities—he’s a Fellow in a lot of places. Here’s an excerpt:

“Sir Hamid Shirvani is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, Recipient of Special Commendation by the American Institute of Architects (2003) for his contributions in the fields of architecture and urban design, Recipient of the Seikyo Culture Award of Japan (1999) and is listed in the “Who’s Who in the World.” Sir Hamid Shirvani has lectured at 27 international and 48 U.S. universities, several dozen public and private agencies, and professional societies.” 

Holy Cow! He’s a “Sir.” I never knew that! I wondered, how do you become a “Sir?” Well, the short answer is, you apply for it, on the website of the Royal Society of Arts. It’s a short process, with just three pages, titled “Your Details,” “Your Application” and “Your Payment.” You pay an entry fee of 75 pounds sterling (it is, after all, a British society—we don’t have organizations that make you “Sirs” in this country) and another 165 pounds sterling a year, and you have to pass some sort of screening committee, which means you have to have done something to earn the right to be called “Sir.” You and the other 27,000 “Sirs” and “Dames” worldwide. Quite an exclusive club, whose members include some of these people you might recognize: Judi Dench, John Diefenbaker, Anthony Armstrong Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon (remember him? He was married to Princess Margaret), Alfred Dunhill (the Dunhill Tobacco guy), Ian McEwan, George Washington Carver (apparently the Society has been around for a while), Stephen Hawking, Charles Dickens and Karl Marx. And then about 26,000 names you might not recognize, like Helena Kennedy, Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws;  Anthony FitzClarence, 7th Earl of Munster; Trixie Gardner, Baroness Gardner of Parkes; and John Stevens, Baron Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, among others. I couldn’t find Hamid Shirvani on the list I looked at on Wikipedia, but, it was only a partial list—I am sure 27,000 names is too many to list on one website. 27,000 “Sirs” and “Dames.” Pretty exclusive company, eh?

As for that “Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science,” title, well, I was curious about that too, so I looked them up. Their website says  “The World Academy of Art and Science is composed of 730 individual Fellows from diverse cultures, nationalities, and intellectual disciplines, chosen for eminence in art, the natural and social sciences, and the humanities.”

Cool. A much more exclusive club. Except that they do list all 730 members on their website, and there’s no one named Shirvani on it. Probably needs to be updated too. Oh, I checked, and Sarah Palin wasn’t there either.  Good news, though. I did find Dr. Shirvani on the Who’s Who in the World list (go ahead, take a peek), just like he said. Along with 1,499,999 other really important people. Including Sarah Palin.

Well, anyway, with credentials like that, Dr. Shirvani shouldn’t have trouble finding work. I wish him well. And I’ll be checking the traffic on that June 3, 2013 blog post of mine. Hope my server holds up.

P.S. If you want to see the most impressive Facebook page ever, check out the page for Dr. Hamid Shirvani. Don’t leave out the title–there are quite a few Hamid Shirvani’s, but none of the rest are “Dr.’s.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

So Long, Bighorn Sheep

 

I learned about this earlier in the week, but today it became official, when my copy of North Dakota Outdoors arrived in the mail: Add Bighorn Sheep to the list of species for which there will be no hunting season in North Dakota this year. Or for the foreseeable future. At least not likely in my lifetime.

The Game and Fish Department announced this week that because of the big die-off of Bighorn Sheep in the past year, they have ended sheep hunting in the state—for now. When—or if—there will ever be a season again is unknown. This is the first year since 1983 there will be no Bighorn season.

Bighorns join Mule Deer does and Sage Grouse as species which will not be hunted here. In addition, like last year, there will be a severely reduced Mule Deer buck season and a limited Pronghorn Antelope season in just one small area of the extreme southern Bad Lands, with Antelope season closed again in the rest of the state.

Moose licenses are down about 40 per cent from five years ago. Likewise Elk. Moose licenses in the Oil Patch units are down 50 per cent.

And Whitetail Deer licenses are down by more than two-thirds from the peak in 2009.

What the hell is going on here?

Game and Fish has lots of answers, all legitimate, I think, and all different for each species. For Bighorns, the latest casualty, the Department says it is pneumonia. The herd has come in contact with a domestic sheep herd and caught pneumonia and is dying off in numbers so serious that the department’s wildlife chief, Jeb Williams, says “it would be irresponsible on the Department’s part to issue once-in-a-lifetime Bighorn licenses without further investigating the status of the population.”

In other words, it wouldn’t be fair to send someone afield who gets drawn  for one of those once-in-a-lifetime hunts this year, because the odds are he won’t find anything to shoot. They say they’re not sure about that, but they don’t want to take a chance. Actually, they’re pretty sure, they just don’t want to say so. And I don’t blame them, just in case they are wrong, and there are a bunch of critters hiding out there they just haven’t found. But that’s unlikely. They keep   pretty good track of the critters.

I spotted this yearling Bighorn south of Medora last summer. I hope he's grown up and still hanging around.

I spotted this yearling Bighorn south of Medora last summer. I hope he’s grown up and still hanging around.

And its not just pneumonia. The sheep are getting hit by trucks along the main highway through the Oil Patch, Highway 85, and the gravel roads leading up to it as well, taking a further toll on the population. Just about exactly two years ago this week, Game and Fish said they had lost six rams to collisions with vehicles along Highway 85 and had moved the remainder of what used to be a herd of 43 out of the area along Highway 85 to get them out of danger. I haven’t heard if they’ve lost any more to vehicles since then.

Since 1986, the beginning of the CRP program, North Dakota has been a hunter’s paradise. Now it is a totally screwed up disaster. And it’s not just the species I’ve lready mentioned that are hurting. Add Pheasants, Sharptail Grouse and Hungarian Partridge to the list.  Game and Fish blames a lot of it on three bad winters a few years back, and loss of habitat with the disappearance of CRP. I agree, but I’ll add one more reason they don’t like to talk about: the Oil Boom. I’m adding it because the loss or decline of most of these seasons and species is taking place in Oil Country. That’s no secret, and that’s no coincidence.

I can tell you the guys at Game and Fish are getting tired of covering up the casualties caused by the Boom though. Last spring, when I was doing a story about Sage Grouse for Dakota Country Magazine, which you can read on my blog by going here, one of the biologists, who gave me permission to use his name, although I didn’t, told me “Go ahead and use my name. I’m sick and tired of everyone walking on eggshells. This massive oil and gas development is bad for wildlife, and not just sage grouse. There are other species suffering just as bad.” That was a North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologist. He was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it any more. And I don’t blame him. These biologists, more than any of us can imagine, really CARE about the critters.  His job is becoming almost impossible.

He didn’t list all the other species who are hurting, but I’ve listed them above.

There are some really big losers with this latest turn of events. First, we’re losing one of our most spectacular species. Losing any species is a disaster. Losing this one is hard for a couple more reasons:  There are four North Dakotans who might have been able to spend their autumn in the Bad Lands hunting for a Bighorn Sheep this year, but won’t get a chance. They may never get another chance. But bigger than that, the Department has donated one license each year to the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep (FNAWS) to be sold at their annual banquet as a fundraiser. That has been bringing in about $75,000 a year for FNAWS. And FNAWS has been pumping money back into the state to help our sheep program here. That’s gone now.

Y’know, I know I can’t blame all this on the Oil Boom. But there are some days I really just want it to go away.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Another Black Eye for North Dakota

Here’s an update to a post I wrote last night regarding North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Douglas Goehring. Thanks to Valerie Barbie-Bluemle for pointing this out to me this morning. You can read yesterday’s post by going here.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General released its report Monday which tells why they will resume federal inspections of pesticides in North Dakota. It is a short report—take less than five minutes to read—but it is a damning one for North Dakota, and casts our state in a very bad light in the eyes of the nation.

Monday, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Douglas Goehring told the Forum News Service’s Johnathan Knutson that state Agriculture Department officials are enforcing state and federal pesticide requirements, and public safety isn’t at risk, and that the Department will continue to implement state and federal law.

Well, here’s what the Inspector General’s office had to say about that:

“EPA Region 8 staff stated that FIFRA inspections have not been conducted because North Dakota officials do not want federal inspections conducted in their state. The failure to conduct inspections increases the risk that pesticides are not in compliance with federal law, which could result in potential risks from toxics being undetected and adverse human health and environmental impacts occurring.”

Further:

“Since 2011, EPA Region 8 has also failed to conduct inspections of pesticides imported into North Dakota. Since that time, approximately 1,300 pesticide imports to the United States have come through North Dakota and none have been inspected. EPA Region 8’s failure to inspect imported pesticides to ensure compliance with federal law creates a potential risk not only for residents in North Dakota but residents in other states and locations in the United States.”

I’m going to just post relevant excerpts from the Inspector General’s report here. But let me point out a couple things in summary that I did not know yesterday when I wrote my initial story.

The reason the EPA requires federal inspections here is that we have pesticides coming into North Dakota from Canada. Canada has different pesticide regulations than we do, so we need to be sure pesticides coming from there meet our federal requirements for safety. The EPA provides funding to North Dakota to conduct these inspections for them. I don’t know how much we get each year–Douglas would know that. The inspector General’s report says that every state must have at least one federally-certified inspector. North Dakota has not had one since 2013. You will note that the EPA has not yet cut off our funding, in spite of the fact we do not have anyone certified here. I suspect that is a matter of time. Probably a short time, since we’ve been busted now.

Here are some relevant excerpts from the report. You can read the whole thing by going here.

            “The last FIFRA import inspection conducted by a Region 8 inspector in North Dakota was in 2010. Since 2011, the EPA has received approximately 1,300 notices that pesticides were coming into North Dakota from other countries and none have been inspected, according to the region’s data. EPA Region 8 staff explained that FIFRA import inspections are “inspections of opportunity.”  Failure to conduct import inspections increases the risk that pesticide products entering the United States through North Dakota are not in compliance with FIFRA rules for registration, labeling and sampling to verify the compound matches its label. Also, without such inspections, residents in other states and locations in the United States in addition to North Dakota could be at risk.

             “EPA Region 8 staff stated that producer establishment and import inspections have not been conducted in North Dakota because North Dakota officials do not want federal inspections conducted in their state. The North Dakota Director of the Pesticides and Fertilizer Division asserted that its state producer establishment inspections were sufficient to ensure FIFRA compliance, and that Region 8 officials were also in agreement. However, EPA Region 8 has the responsibility to conduct FIFRA producer establishment and import inspections in all of Region 8’s states, including North Dakota. The state’s preference that federal inspections not be carried out in North Dakota should not be accepted by Region 8.”

            “North Dakota does not currently have a federal-credentialed state inspector and has not had one since the inspector with credentials retired in 2013.  A 2013 EPA memorandum on this issue states, “due to the interstate nature of FIFRA, it would be inefficient to have a state-by-state, patchwork approach to inspection authorities and especially detrimental should there be an exigent need for Federal inspection. Therefore, all State Lead Agencies must have at least one inspector with a Federal credential.” The same 2013 memorandum regarding the use of credentials by state inspectors says that “the failure to have at least one inspector with a Federal credential may affect inspection-related funding under a cooperative agreement.” ” EPA Region 8 has not reduced funding under the Region 8 cooperative agreement with North Dakota since the position’s vacancy in 2013.”

            This is another black eye for North Dakota. At a time when we are being criticized all across the country for our lax regulation of the oil industry, in the wake of huge fireball explosions when tanker trains are involved in derailments, we don’t need more of this kind of publicity. We need to get in compliance, both in federal pesticide inspection and in oil train safety. It is getting to be embarrassing to be from North Dakota.

Shame on our elected officials.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Douglas Goehring and The EPA: The Real Story

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Douglas Goehring is all over the news media this week saying he was “blindsided” by the EPA. Looks to me like he was just blind. And pretty stupid too, and now he’s going to cost the U.S. taxpayers a bunch of money, if the EPA has to send in a team of federal pesticide inspectors to do what he’s supposed to be doing for the taxpayers and farmers of North Dakota.

Douglas, Douglas, Douglas. Whatever are you thinking?

It seems the Commissioner got a notice this week after an EPA audit that said “EPA Region 8 (which includes North Dakota) is not conducting inspections at establishments that produce pesticides in North Dakota. Further, North Dakota does not have a state inspector with qualifications equivalent to a federal inspector to conduct inspections on the EPA’s behalf.” As a result, “EPA pesticide inspections must resume in North Dakota to determine compliance and protect human health and the environment,” the EPA said in an audit.

Douglas blamed everyone from President Obama on down, calling the EPA “politically motivated” and telling The Forum’s Jonathan Knutson “I get the feeling the White House isn’t very happy with us. Maybe EPA isn’t very happy with us because we’ve pushed back on some issues.”

What a load of crap. Truth is, Douglas screwed up, and he got caught. No amount of railing against the federal government is going to change that.

When I read the story, it said that “federal inspections of establishments that produce pesticides in North Dakota have not occurred for 14 years.” Well, I was taken aback by that, because two of my good friends were federally-trained pesticide inspectors for former Commissioner Roger Johnson for years, and my friend Jeff Weispfenning was Deputy Commissioner for nine of those years, and he would have never let such a thing happen.

Jeff cleared it up in a Facebook post today. All the time Roger and he were running the department, they sent their state pesticide inspectors to federal pesticide school, and they got their federal credentials to carry out federal inspections, and did so under an agreement with the EPA. So, technically there hasn’t been a federal inspector here for 14 years—the first 9 under Johnson, the last 5 under Douglas. But there were federal inspections under Johnson, carried out by federally-certified state inspectors.

Roger and Jeff left the State Ag Department nearly six years ago now, and apparently the stories you read about 70 percent employee turnover in the Ag Department in that time are true, because now none of the department’s handful of pesticide inspectors has federal credentials. Thus, no agreement with EPA to carry out their federal inspections.

Jeff went and read the same audit Douglas did. He says “The audit pinpoints that since 2013, the Ag Department hasn’t had any pesticide inspectors with federal credentials. For some unknown reason the current Agriculture Commissioner didn’t continue with the federal credentials for the pesticide inspectors. This means there haven’t been ‘federal’ inspections since 2013.”

So here’s the bottom line: up until 2013, when the last pesticide inspector with federal credentials was not replaced, there was no problem, and there was no cause for an audit finding. Somebody screwed up, and that somebody is the current Ag Commissioner, who didn’t think the federal EPA credentials for his staff were a big deal.

Well, it turns out they were a big deal. All 50 states have to have federally-certified inspectors to inspect pesticide facilities. That’s the law. Laws are made by Congress, not the White House or the EPA. In most states, to save the federal government some money and avoid duplication of effort (there are state pesticide inspection laws that must be followed as well, so the states have their own inspectors to do that), the state has their inspectors federally certified and the same inspectors fulfill the requirements of both state and federal laws.

Douglas turned a blind eye, and as inspectors hired by Johnson left their jobs (apparently a hundred per cent turnover in that division of the department in just five years) he didn’t send their replacements to school to get the federal certification. That’s taking his disdain for the federal government just a bit too far—he’s an elected state official, and he needs to get his politics out of the way when it comes to the serious business of keeping our farmers and our consumers safe. If it’s not politics, then he’s just plain stupid for not doing his job. Those are the only two possibilities here. I’ll let him choose whichever one he’s comfortable with.

Or maybe the $8,500 in campaign contributions he got last year from Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer Crop Science—three of the world’s largest ag chemical companies—had something to do with it.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Another Oil “Boom”

North Dakota’s oil boom was built on the back of lax regulation of the oil industry.           Period.

When Jack Dalrymple takes credit for the oil boom, let’s remind him:

The train that blew up in West Virginia Monday did not have to blow up. It could have derailed without blowing up. It’s easy to blame the railroad—they should have safer cars, right?

Well, not in this case.  The train was using model 1232 tank cars, which include safety upgrades voluntarily adopted by the industry four years ago, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The rail company, CSX, was using the latest technology available—safer cars than the ones that exploded in Quebec and Casselton.

So who’s to blame? I’d say the blame has to go to the North Dakota Governor. The Governor could require that the oil that goes in the cars is safe before it goes in. We’ve been asking for him to require oil companies to stabilize highly volatile Bakken crude before it goes into tank cars since the explosions in Quebec and Casselton. To no avail.

To quote the Dakota Resource Council (DRC), which has taken the lead on the demand for stabilization of Bakken crude before it goes into the tank cars (which is possible with current technology): “They (North Dakota regulators) could make sure oil is safe before it’s put on trains, but they’ve refused to do that. They have put protecting oil companies as their highest priority. They do not care about the consequences . . . It is irresponsible to keep approving permits to drill wells if there isn’t a safe way to get the oil to market. North Dakota’s current officials should slow down giving drilling permits. Governor Dalrymple’s Administration is putting people’s lives and property at risk here and across the continent.”

Amen.

I had lunch recently with one of North Dakota’s pre-eminent environmental lawyers. He said it is a matter of when, not if, someone here gets their ass sued off big time. Let’s hope nobody dies before that happens.

Here’s a video of Monday’s crash and fire.

And then let’s remind Jack Dalrymple of this, from Dickinson Press reporter Andrew Brown’s story over the weekend:

“The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources’ Division of Oil and Gas has allowed saltwater disposal wells to continue injecting fluid underground even as mechanical integrity tests—meant to detect weaknesses in the well’s construction—have indicated leaks in parts of the wells multiple layers of casing. A review of 449 well files and more than 2090 mechanical integrity tests reports show how state officials conditionally approve disposal wells even after they don’t meet widely accepted pressure testing standards.”

Further, Brown’s story says “State officials said the EPA guidance documents related to integrity testing don’t hold the same standing as the administrative rules, and that the agency has the authority to choose which EPA guidelines to follow. ‘There is a big difference between guidance and having your own (underground injection control) program,’ said Alison Ritter, the public information specialist for the Division of Oil and Gas.”

“But environmental lawyers who reviewed the guidance documents said the state’s actions were legally questionable and could open the agency up to citizen lawsuits or a review by the EPA if enough people petitioned federal officials.”

“‘The EPA doesn’t put these guidance documents out there to be ignored,’ said Patrick Parenteau, a professor at the Vermont Law School and former counsel for the EPA from 1984 to 1987.” You can read Brown’s whole story here.

There’s another case of an expert saying the state is going to get its ass sued off one of these days.

And then there’s this–an exchange between Jack Dalrymple’s top oil “regulator,” Lynn Helms, and Prairie Public Radio’s Emily Guerin, in a story she reported just this morning. The first quote is from Helms testifying before a Legislative committee, and then Guerin challenged the truth of his statements:

LYNN HELMS: Yes, the number of spills is up. But look at it in comparison to the number of wells. The rate of spills is way, way down.

EMILY GUERIN: In fact, the rate of spills was way, way up. That’s according to the state’s own data. It’s more than twice as high as it was in 2006, at the start of the Bakken boom. I asked Helms why he didn’t say that.

HELMS: I never, in a conversation with people, farmers, the general public, get into a whole bunch of statistical analysis business….the detailed statistics are lost on them or just simply don’t work in making a presentation.

Does that qualify as one of the most arrogant statements ever made by a public official? I’d say. Here’s a link to the whole story.

Meanwhile, we wait for Spring to find out if the oil spilled from the pipeline west of Glendive, now trapped under the ice, shows up in sinks in Williston. And if water in Williston, and downstream in New Town and Garrison and even in Bismarck, tastes a bit salty from the millions of gallons of brine which flowed into the creeks which feed the Missouri River. And how many thousands of acres of prairie lie dead from the effects of the brine spill from a pipeline that was never inspected by state officials.

There have been so many stories this winter about lax regulation it makes your head swim. Fines for environmental violations being reduced to less than 20 per cent of what state laws provide for—the state’s “second chance” policy. Thousands of miles of pipelines being installed without inspection by any state official. State officials seeking to eliminate the state’s stringent requirements on disposal of radioactive filter socks. And on and on. Is it any wonder people like me, just an ordinary concerned citizen, question the activities of state officials, and criticize the Governor and his appointed officials? I don’t like being a constant critic, but what choice do ordinary citizens have? Our government has abandoned us so that we can have an oil boom,  which they can take credit for.

And those are all things which happened when oil was a hundred bucks a barrel. Imagine what’s ahead, with oil only bringing half that, and our boom in danger. When oil companies really have to cut corners. And regulators have to turn away even farther and faster to overlook continued violations. To keep that boom going. Imagine.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

NBC Buys Comedy Central In A ‘Big F**king Deal’

The Prairie Blog has learned that the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) has bought the Comedy Central television network for an undisclosed sum that is said to be about half of what former NBC News anchor Brian Williams earns in a year.

“We had a bunch of cash lying around, and decided this would be a good use for it,” a network executive said today.

In an effort to boost their NBC Nightly News show in the under-70 demographic, the network announced that Comedy Central’s Daily Show host Jon Stewart will replace the recently-fired Williams as anchor in their regular 6:30 p.m. (ET) news show.

“We know that most of our regular Nightly News viewers have never stayed up late enough to watch Stewart, so he’ll take some getting used to,” the network executive said. “But we also know that most of Stewart’s regular viewers are just toking up for the evening when Nightly News comes on, and we think they will enjoy watching Stewart when they are not as wasted as they normally are when he comes on the air at 11:30 (ET).”

The network also announced that, in an effort to boost the number of black viewers watching the Nightly News, they will replace Williams’ regular black substitute host Lester Holt with Comedy Central’s new black comedy show host Larry Wilmore, who recently replaced Stephen Colbert in the time slot following Stewart.

“A lot of our black viewers found Holt to be a little too, well, ‘brown’” the NBC executive said. “Wilmore’s presence will assure them that the network is indeed committed to a ‘black’ audience.”

When asked to comment on the story, Stewart said “Wow, this is a big f**king deal! You can be sure I won’t be reading the same s**t that Brian Williams was reading every night.”

NBC also announced that instead of being a truly “live” broadcast, the network will switch to a ten-second delay for the show, allowing network “editors” to take advantage of new broadcast software being developed especially for Stewart’s show which will offer nearly-instantaneous substitution of the words “flip” and “snap” for two of Stewart’s favorite on-air words, which FCC regulations forbid on broadcast television. “The software is so good, it will be seamless,” the NBC executive said. “We thought this software program was a much better solution to curbing Stewart’s use of four letter words than trying to reprogram him.”

Williams, meanwhile, could not be reached for comment. A voicemail message on his cellphone said he was tied up having lunch with Queen Elizabeth, the Pope and the Dalai Lama.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Golden Bison Tomatoes and Thoughts of Spring

Here’s a story about the best customer service ever. Even better than the lady who almost bankrupted Herberger’s. It started last March when Lillian and I attended a presentation by Robert Hanna of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation at the former North Dakota Governor’s Mansion. Robert’s Foundation has taken over the interpretation of the Oscar H. Will Seed Company, and has a display of the company’s early products at their Interpretive Center in Washburn. That cold March night, Robert spent about an hour telling us about the Will company, complete with displays of seed packets sold by the company more than 100 years ago. (For a brief history of the company, founded here in the 1880s, go here.)

What caught our attention was a handout Robert gave us at the end of the session, listing the various places you could still purchase seeds once sold by the Will Company. We read that a company in Oregon had preserved one of Will’s heirloom tomato varieties, called Golden Bison. We ordered some of the seeds last spring, planted them, and they were our best-producing tomato last summer. And early. We were eating them on August 12. And they kept producing right up until freeze-up.

Fast forward to January 21, 2015. I got a call from my friend Sheila (pronounced Shy-la) inviting me to a birthday party–a small, intimate dinner she and our friend Valerie were hosting on Feb. 4 for our friend Clay’s birthday. Clay was going to turn 60 that day, so she said that for a present we should bring 60 of something. That’s Sheila.

We puzzled over it for a bit. Clay likes wine and books, but 60 bottles of wine or 6 ten-year-old bottles of wine were a bit out of our price range, even if we could find them, and 60 books would be insignificant in that house of his with thousands of books, even if we could find 60 he hadn’t read, which is unlikely, unless there are 57 more books in the 50 Shades of Grey series.

But almost simultaneously, Lillian and I hit on the perfect solution: Seeds. And not just any seeds. 60 Golden Bison heirloom tomato seeds. Golden Bison tomatoes were bred in North Dakota in 1932 by horticulturist A. F.  Yeager at the North Dakota Agricultural College (now NDSU, winner of four straight national football championships–sorry, couldn’t resist). Yeager was a pioneer in developing tomato strains for the northern tier of states, with short growing seasons. He did much of his research in Bottineau County, North Dakota, which is about as “northern” as you can get and still be in the U.S. He is credited with developing 14 varieties of tomatoes. I don’t know what happened to the other 13, but the identity of Golden Bison has been preserved all these 80-plus years, and they are great tomato plants, as I mentioned earlier. You can read about them by going here.

You should know that you can’t just buy any old ordinary seeds for Clay. He is a devout North Dakotan and personifies all things Dakota. The Golden Bison would be perfect for him.  The problem was, we didn’t have any, and time was short. We thought we could just write up a card saying they had been ordered and were on their way, and give it to him, which would have been fine, but not great.

So on Saturday, January 24, I went to the website of Adaptive Seeds and pulled up the order form for Golden Bison, and ordered three packets, each of which had 30 seeds–two for Clay (60 total) and one for us. When I clicked on “checkout” there was a message that said they were really busy this time of the year and we should allow a few weeks for delivery. That was okay, because we were just going to give him the card with the note anyway.

But down at the bottom of the order form was a box that said “Comments welcome.” So I thought, what the heck, I’ll send them a note. I wrote that the seeds were for a birthday present  for a friend having a 60th birthday on February 4, and that their Golden Bison seeds would be  special for him because they were bred in North Dakota, and he was a true North Dakotan, and if there was any way they could get the seeds to us before February 4, that would be appreciated, but if not, that was okay too. I pushed “send” about 6 p.m. Saturday evening, January 24.

On Tuesday, January 27, the mailman brought us a manila envelope full of seeds from Adaptive Seeds, postmarked on their end January 25. Sunday. The day after I had ordered them at 6 o’clock in the evening.

Inside were three packets of Golden Bison tomato seeds. Along with most of our other garden seeds for the year–I had liked their website so well–it was so friendly–that I decided to just forget the other 32 or so seed catalogs we had on the shelf and get most of this year’s stuff from them.

Here’s some of the seed catalogs we got so far this year. I have never ordered from most of these, so all I can think of is they swap mailing lists. I’m not complaining. They brighten up otherwise dreary winter days when they come in the mail.

So there were carrot seeds, and beans, mesclun, basil, lettuce, sugar snap peas, radishes,and three other varieties of tomatoes.The whole order, most of what we would need for this summer’s garden, was just a shade over $50.

At the bottom of the receipt, it said the order was processed at 5:13 p.m. on Sunday, January 25, 2015. Just 23 hours after I had ordered.

But the best thing was the handwritten note at the bottom of the receipt. It said “Thanks for your order! I hope your friend has a Happy Birthday. Happy sowing. Sarah” Accompanied by a drawing of a happy face.

Seeds ordered from Oregon Saturday night. Seeds delivered to Bismarck Tuesday afternoon. That is incredible customer service. Generally, when you buy things online, there is little or no human contact. One computer talking to another. Not with Adaptive Seeds. They have real people there. Real friendly people.

Better yet, to paraphrase, the proof of the tomatoes is in the eating. We ate them last year and they were great. Even better than that, they are North Dakota bred, identity preserved, heirloom  tomatoes.

When we gave them to Clay Wednesday night, we offered to start some for him when we start ours in March, because we know he is on the road a lot. We’re going to start a whole bunch anyway. So if you are in Bismarck, or close by, and you want a couple plants, let me know,  and come by on May 15 to pick them up. That’s the day we plant outside. We’ll have plenty.

Or, you can just go to the Adaptive Seeds website, order some, along with your other garden seeds, and start your own. As Sarah would say, “Happy Sowing.”

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

“The Badlands Are Willfully Coquettish”

I’ve been writing about the North Dakota Bad Lands on this blog since I first created it in 2009. I have tried to focus on what forces are affecting this important part of North Dakota’s landscape, and why it is such a special place, deserving of more attention and protection than it is getting from our politicians these days.

Somewhere between a half and a third of what we call our Bad Lands is owned by the state and federal governments. As I’ve explained here before, the federal government acquired a million acres out in western North Dakota during the Dirty Thirties, and then rented it back to ranchers, to help them stay on the land during our Great Depression. That practice continues today.

But it is still publicly owned land. We all own a little bit of these wonderful Bad Lands. And we all have a responsibility to do what we can to preserve them. It is the only land in North Dakota which can be protected from the ravages of rapid development, because we are the owners and have some say in what happens to it. There are many who have come before us into the Bad Lands who would be alarmed at what we are allowing to happen there today. Let me share a few of their words, to illustrate why I think it is important we pay special attention to the future of our Bad Lands.

Here’s John Steinbeck from Travels With Charlie:

“I was not prepared for the Bad Lands. They deserve this name. They are like the work of an evil child. Such a place the Fallen Angels might have built as a spite to Heaven, dry and sharp, desolate and dangerous, and for me filled with foreboding . . . And then the late afternoon changed everything. As the sun angled, the buttes and coulees, the cliffs and sculptured hills and ravines lost their burned and dreadful look and glowed with yellow and rich browns and a hundred variations of red and silver gray, all picked out by streaks of coal black.

It was so beautiful that I stopped near a thicket of dwarfed and wind-warped cedars and junipers, and once stopped I was caught, trapped in color and dazzled by the clarity of the light. Against the descending sun the battlements were dark and clean-lined, while to the east, where the uninhibited light poured slantwise, the strange landscape shouted with color.

And the night, far from being frightful, was lovely beyond thought, for the stars were close, and although there was no moon the starlight made a silver glow in the sky. The air cut the nostrils with dry frost. And for pure pleasure I collected a pile of dry dead cedar branches and built a small fire just to smell the perfume of the burning wood and to hear the excited crackle of the branches. My fire made a dome of yellow light over me, and nearby I heard a screech owl hunting and a barking of coyotes, not howling but the short chuckling bark of the dark of the moon. This is one of the few places I have ever seen where the night was friendlier than the day. And I can easily see how people are driven back to the Bad Lands . . . In the night the Bad Lands had become the Good Lands. I can’t explain it. That’s how it was.”

From Lewis Crawford, Former Superintendent of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, in his book Badlands and Broncho Trails, published in 1922:

“Size is only one element of grandeur. Beauty is usually made up of fine lines and rich colorings, and depends largely upon its transitoriness. It defies the camera. Beauty, whether in woman or nature, is never static. The camera always is. Mountains are too vast to get a close up view and too far away to give distinctiveness; they are grand, sublime, majestic, but are static, lifeless pictures unchanging through the ages, everlasting to everlasting. The Badlands are willfully coquettish. Mountains are the cold marble statues with unspeaking lips and unseeing eyes; the Badlands are the living actors with flushed faces, beaming countenances and pulsing blood. The sublimity of the mountains is awe-inspiring and reduces the beholder to nothingness, while that of the Badlands is palpitating, alluring, ecstatic; the one soul diminishing, the other soul accruing.”

Olaus Murie, the great naturalist and “father of modern elk management” came to the Bad Lands in the 1950s, partly to make recommendations on the re-introduction of elk into what was then Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. This description is from his handwritten report:

“Here is history! Our visitor looks across the badlands—the broken, tumbled Badlands—domes and bluffs and color-banded rims. Traces of lignite coal are there, speaking of ages still farther back in time. And the colored scoria, the product of native clay baked by burning coal seams. Traces of petrified forest. A landscape of clay and sandstone, persistently, patiently carved by muddy water, through infinite ages, until these rugged land forms took shape.

“I like to remember one evening on the rim of the deeply chiseled valley in the north area. We had been looking down on the winding course of the Little Missouri far below us, with its typical line of cottonwoods, and bordered by the typical Badlands formations. I had thought of those high school days in Minnesota, when I had borrowed Roosevelt’s books from the library. I remembered Frederic Remington’s drawings, remembered the burning desire to find this western scene. Will the people of today, the people of tomorrow, continue to feel the pull of land that beckons to a sample of our country as it was, a country of space and beauty and a sense of freedom?

“The sun went low and dusk was creeping over the valley below us. We watched that poetic quality of light envelop the cliffs and rims about us, and settle over the river bottom where we glimpsed the gleam of water in the bends.

“Not a serrated mountain range here, not a mossy forest, nor a lake-studded paradise. Rather an open country; its trees are twisted and storm worn, and grow sparingly along the river banks. A raw country, a country in the making, perhaps. This very fact, this character, the attributes of chiseled buttes and domes, the clay and the prairie grass, the eagle, the prairie dogs, deer, coyote; the flocks of grouse at the heads of the wooded draws—all of these spell one phase of our west—not to be compared with different ones—to be taken and enjoyed for its own singular beauty and character. Ordinary country, but with an aura of the west—something that drew Roosevelt, the adventurous ones.”

Herman Hagedorn, one of Theodore Roosevelt’s first biographers, in his book Roosevelt in the Badlands, described the world Roosevelt encountered when he first came to the Bad Lands:

“It was a region of weird shapes garbed in barbaric colors, gray-olive striped with brown, lavender striped with black, chalk pinnacles capped with flaming scarlet. French-Canadian voyageurs, a century previous, finding the weather-washed ravines wicked to travel through, spoke of them as mauvaises terres pour traverser, and the name clung. The whole region, it was said, had once been the bed of a great lake, holding in its lap the rich clays and loams which the rain carried down into it. The passing of ages brought vegetation, and the passing of other ages turned that vegetation into coal. At last this vast lake found an outlet in theMissouri. The wear and wash of the waters cut in time through the clay, the coal and the friable limestone of succeeding deposits, creating ten thousand water-courses bordered by precipitous bluffs and buttes, which every storm gashed and furrowed anew. On the tops of the flat buttes was rich soil and in countless pleasant valleys were green pastures, but there were regions where for miles only sagebrush and stunted cedars lived a starved existence. Bad lands they were, for man or beast, and Bad Lands they remained.“

And the great Roosevelt himself wrote much about the Bad Lands, including this description of the Bad Lands in winter, written in his log cabin on the Littler Missouri River on a long, cold winter night, and published in his book Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail:

“When the days have dwindled to their shortest, and the nights seem never-ending, then all the great northern plains are changed into an abode of iron desolation. Sometimes furious gales blow out of the north, driving before them the clouds of blinding snowdust, wrapping the mantle of death round every unsheltered being that faces their unshackled anger. They roar in a thunderous bass as they sweep across the prairie or whirl through the naked canyons; they shiver the great brittle cottonwoods, and beneath their rough touch the icy limbs of the pines that cluster in the gorges sing like the chords of an AEolian harp. Again, in the coldest midwinter weather, not a breath of wind may stir; and then the still, merciless, terrible cold that broods over the earth like the shadow of silent death seems even more dreadful in its gloomy rigor than is the lawless madness of the storms. All the land is like granite; the great rivers stand still in their beds, as if turned to frosted steel. In the long nights there is no sound to break the lifeless silence. Under the ceaseless, shifting display of Northern Lights, or wintry brilliance of the stars, the snow-clad plains stretch out into dead and endless wastes of glimmering white.”

At the conclusion of an early summer hunting trip he took to the Bad Lands in 1884, Roosevelt wrote a letter to his sister Anna back in New York:   

“For the last week I have been fulfilling a boyish ambition of mine—that is I have been playing at frontier hunter in good earnest, having been off entirely alone, with my horse and rifle, on the prairie. I wanted to see if I could not do perfectly well without a guide, and I succeeded beyond my expectations. I shot a couple of antelope and a deer—and missed a great many more.  I felt as absolutely free as a man could feel; as you know, I do not mind loneliness; and I enjoyed the trip to the utmost. The only disagreeable incident was one day when it rained. Otherwise the weather was lovely and every night I would lie wrapped up in my blanket looking at the stars till I fell asleep in the cool air. The country has widely different aspects in different places. One day I would canter hour after hour over the level green grass, or through miles of wild rose thickets, all in bloom; on the next I would be amidst the savage desolation of the Bad Lands, with their dreary plateaus, fantastically shaped buttes and deep winding canyons. I enjoyed the trip greatly.”

I’m sharing these words, some of the best ever written about the Bad Lands, because when I try to describe them myself, I feel much like another North Dakota historian, Clell Gannon, who wrote, after a canoe trip on the Little Missouri River in the 1920s, “The view from the top overlooking a canyon-like reach of the Little Missouri was of the kind that gains little and suffers much from the inadequacy of a written description.”

Yes, the Bad Lands are hard to describe. The Bad Lands must be experienced to be appreciated. How they survive the coming storm of development will depend on how much attention we pay to them, and how we rise to their defense. That’s why I keep writing about them.

            FOOTNOTE:     If you have observed these writings carefully, you will notice a certain inconsistency throughout them: the spelling of Bad Lands-Badlands-badlands. Since I deal with this part of the state a lot, it is a particularly annoying problem to me. I prefer Bad Lands, two words, capital B, capital L. I never gave it a lot of thought, frankly, until Tracy Potter, who worked with me in the North Dakota Tourism Department, said to me, casually, one day, “It should always be two words, both capitalized.” I realized then that I agreed with him, but I had often been carelessly spelling it all three ways from time to time.

There’s no question that, at least as a matter of pride, it should be capitalized. Everyone pretty much agrees with that. But one word ort two? Broad disagreement. Theodore Roosevelt almost always used two words, Bad Lands. I say almost because, while I haven’t found any writings by him that make it one word, there might be. I probably have not read every word he wrote. But I did a quick check in the Roosevelt books on my shelf and cannot find any other spelling than Bad Lands in his writings. Roosevelt’s use of two words, capitalized, is just so Rooseveltian. In his usage, the word Bad is an adjective, describing some Lands, and both words are capitalized for emphasis. In Badlands, the whole word becomes a noun, and even if it is capitalized, it does not carry the strong character reflected in Bad Lands.  As Hagedorn points out, the French Canadian fur trappers who first came here called them mauvaises terres pour traverser, which translated means “bad lands to travel through.” Mauvais is French for “bad.” The trappers were describing the lands they traveled through.

But most people use Badlands, including the National Park Service, both in the name of Badlands National Park in South Dakota and in describing the area in which Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located. North Dakota state government usage is one word as well, and I blame Ed Schafer for that. Ed made it the semi-official position of the state when he was governor, based on the fact the NPS uses one word. I’ve tried to talk some sense into his head, but he’s stuck on it, so I guess we are too. But I will continue to use two words, except when I am quoting someone who does it differently.  I say, if it was good enough for our 26th President, the great TR, it is good enough for me.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Wading Through More Outdoor Heritage Fund Questions

Okay, I’m going to take another whack at the Outdoor Heritage Fund after getting off on too many tangents in yesterday’s article. Plus, there’s new information coming out daily in light of the sharp drop in oil prices, leading to a sharp drop in state tax revenues.

Here’s what we know for sure:

The Outdoor Heritage fund was created by the 2013 Legislature and received its revenue from a small percentage of oil and gas tax revenues. The fund was to receive “up to” $30 million if the total oil and gas taxes collected were sufficient to provide that much under the percentage allocated to the Fund. This week the North Dakota Legislative Council released income projections for the remainder of the biennium which revealed that the Outdoor Heritage fund is likely to collect only $18.7 million (about $700,000 more than I estimated in yesterday’s article, but, hey, I was pretty close).

As of January 9, the date of the last North Dakota Industrial Commission meeting, the Fund had spent $19.3 million. That’s about $600,000 more than anticipated revenues. And they have announced another round of grants, with a deadline for applications of April 1.

The Industrial Commission awards the grants upon recommendations from its Outdoor Heritage Advisory Council, a citizens board appointed by the Governor to screen grant applications and make recommendations to the Industrial Commission. The Advisory Council has no authority to spend money, only to recommend to the Governor, the Attorney General and the Agriculture Commissioner how to spend it.

That $600,000 glitch is going to have to be dealt with somehow, because they can’t spend money they don’t have. And unless they solve their revenue problem, the next round of grants is likely going to have to be canceled.

There are two bills in the Legislature which would seemingly fix the problem, at least for the next biennium. The Governor announced last summer, and then included in his executive budget bills submitted to the Legislature, an increase in the fund to $50 million per biennium. Not “up to” $50 million, but 50 million real dollars. There are, in fact, two bills in the Legislature using the $50 million figure.

HB 1013 is ostensibly the budget bill submitted by the Governor for the Board of University and School Lands, but it has some additional budgets tacked onto it, including the budget for the Outdoor Heritage Fund. The paragraph dealing with the OHF amends the language in the current law as follows:

d. Credit four percent of the amount available under this subsection revenues to the North Dakota outdoor heritage fund, but not in an amount exceeding fifteen twenty – five million dollars in a state fiscal year and not in an amount exceeding thirty fifty million dollars per biennium;

Words with a strike-through is language from the current law that is being removed, and words underlined are what is being proposed to replace them. So, as you can see, the new language removes the reference to a percentage of the Oil and Gas Tax and replaces it with just the word “revenues,” and increasing the amounts to $25 million per year and $50 million per biennium.

It’s seemingly a bit confusing, because you can see it doesn’t specifically say exactly how much will be allocated, just how much it cannot exceed, but my friends who know this stuff say that is standard legislative language which would mean the fund gets $50 million per biennium. This is, after all, the Governor’s bill, and that is certainly what the Governor intended when he first broached this last summer. He did not say he wanted to simply raise the cap on the existing program—he said he was going to include $50 million in his budget for the Outdoor Heritage Fund. So despite the seemingly cumbersome language, we have to assume that’s what it means.

There is a second bill, HB 1409, introduced by the Governor’s nemesis in all this wrangling over all matters outdoors, Rep. Todd Porter, who wants to be “Mr. Outdoors” in the Legislature, in his capacity as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and therefore wants to take credit for these kinds of things instead of acquiescing to the Governor.

Porter’s bill does a couple of things the Governor’s bill does not—it starts to solve the problem of too much money for swing sets on public and school playgrounds, and tries to direct the funds more to natural resource and conservation projects. Tries to. Public pressure will likely keep it from deleting those kinds of things from the fund’s approved activities.

But the revenue part of the bill is goofy. Current law, the bill passed last session, has two parts, with pretty much identical language, except the first part deals with allocating funds during the current biennium, and the second part makes some changes in how things are to be handled in the next biennium. The Governor’s bill simply gets rid of one section, and makes the other section permanent, so it doesn’t change from biennium to biennium. It simplifies the law. The language I quoted above is from that bill.

Porter’s bill has the same language, but leaves both sections in–dealing with the current biennium and the next biennium–so it seems to change the allocation amount to $50 million in the current biennium, as well as in the next biennium. Except, if it passes, the law doesn’t take effect until July 1—it says that specifically at the end of the bill—so the effect would be back-dating checks, which I don’t think is legal, or was anticipated by the Governor. It would be, in effect, the deficiency appropriation I mentioned yesterday, but it seems to me it would need an emergency clause at the end of the bill making it law as soon as it was passed for the funds to become available this biennium. Otherwise, the new law, taking effect on July 1, would send funds back to the former biennium, to cover overspending by the Industrial Commission. Maybe some lawyers can tell me if that is legal. It doesn’t look like it to me.

See, the law as it is written now is the law the Industrial Commission has to go by. And under that law, the fund only gets a percentage of the oil and gas tax, which  the Legislature’s own research arm estimates is going to be just $18.7 million.  As I mentioned at the top of this article, the Industrial Commission has probably already overspent the fund for this biennium. That’s something they’re going to have to deal with. Maybe one of these bills can do that, by attaching that emergency clause, giving them an additional direct appropriation–in Porter’s bill, that would be $50 million–for this biennium, as I read it.

We’ll keep an eye out for an amendment with an emergency clause as the bills emerge from committees. Obviously, because the bills both deal with the same subject, one of them is going to have to be killed or changed.

Meanwhile, we’ll be waiting to see if the Industrial Commission proceeds with another round of grants giving out more money they don’t have.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

What If the Governor, the Attorney General and the Agriculture Commissioner All Went to the Pokey?

During last year’s campaign for and against Measure 5, the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks amendment to the North Dakota Constitution, opponents of the amendment—the Greater North Dakota Chamber, the North Dakota Grain Growers, the North Dakota Petroleum Council, the North Dakota Farm Bureau, the North Dakota Farmers Union, the North Dakota Stockmen, the Lignite Energy Council and others—used as one of their sticking points the fact that there is already an Outdoor Heritage Fund in state government and it will provide $30 million this biennium for the same kind of projects the CWWP proponents advocated for.

Voters heard that number–$30 million—over and over. “We don’t need Measure 5. There is already an Outdoor Heritage Fund with $30 million for conservation projects.”  Then the Governor came out and said he was going to increase it to $50 million in the next biennium. The use of those figures was an important factor in the voters’ rejection of the CWWP Amendment, which various estimates ranged from $200 to $400 million per biennium for conservation projects.

That’s background. This is not another screed against the lying opponents of Measure 5. This is about that Outdoor Heritage fund that already exists. Something bad is going on, and I can’t figure out why. But it is time somebody asked for some answers.

I’m going to put the bottom line at the top. So far, in the first 18 months of the 2013-2015 biennium (there are 24 months in a biennium, and it started July 1, 2013), the Outdoor Heritage Fund has collected less than half of that $30 million. Here’s a direct quote from the State Treasurer’s website:

As of December 19, 2014, the Outdoor Heritage Fund has received $14,708,577.88 since its inception on July 1, 2013.

            Okay, so the fund is running a little—well, a lot—behind projections. Three fourths of the way through the biennium, the fund has collected less than half of what it was projected to raise, and with the precipitous drop in oil prices, it’s likely not going to get to $30 million, because the tax that funds it is based on a percentage of the price of a barrel of oil.

But here’s the problem: despite the fact that the fund has only collected $14.7 million, the three men responsible for spending the money in the fund—the Governor, the Attorney General and the Agriculture Commissioner, who make up the North Dakota Industrial Commission—have already spent $19.3 million. You read that right. Jack Dalrymple, Wayne Stenehjem and Douglas Goehring have overdrawn their bank account by $4.6 million.

The numbers are real. I’m not making this up. Here’s a quote from a press release issued by the Industrial Commission on January 9, 2015—three weeks ago:

The 2013 Legislature appropriated up to $30 million per biennium from oil and gas production tax revenue to support outdoor recreation and conservation projects including access to public and private lands for outdoor activities, farming and ranching stewardship practices, fish and wildlife habitat preservation, and outdoor recreation areas. A total of $19,312,625 has been awarded during the biennium.

            Prior to January 9, the Commission had given out $14.1 million in grants, well within the amount shown a couple weeks earlier in the State Treasurer’s report.  On January 9, according to that same press release, they approved $5,202,225 in new grants.

Add ‘em up. It’s $19,312,625.  

Bank balance: $14.7 million. Checks written: $19.3 million.

In addition, there is one more grant round scheduled for April 1, 2015. Here’s another quote from the Industrial Commission press release:

The next application deadline is April 1, 2015. More information about the program, including the application process can be found on the Outdoor Heritage Fund website. http://www.nd.gov/ndic/outdoor-infopage.htm.

April 1 is just two months from now. Conservation groups, city park boards, state agencies, local wildlife clubs, and deeply committed local groups interested in adding swing sets to their playgrounds are busy writing grant applications to get them done in time for the April 1 deadline, because they’ve been told there’s still more than $10 million of that $30 million left to be divided up before the end of the biennium, Which ends just three months after that April 1 deadline.

The Industrial Commission is still saying that’s there’s going to be $30 million in the fund, and they’re spending money like it is so. The last financial statement presented to the Outdoor Heritage Fund Advisory Board, at their December 15 meeting last month, showed anticipated biennial revenues of $30 million. Which, according to the Commission’s own numbers, means there is still more than $10 million to give out in the next six months.

Except there isn’t.

I’ve got a friend who’s worked in government many, many years, and knows budgets, and accounting, and tax collections, and things like that. Things an English major like me could never figure out. My friend says that during the slap-happy days last summer when oil was cruising along at about $88 a barrel, the fund was collecting about $930,000 a month. He says the price of oil is probably half that now, so the fund is probably collecting about half that much in taxes. That would be about $465,000 a month. As of that last financial statement, there were about 6 months left in the biennium. So that would come to about $3 million more in anticipated income for the rest of the biennium, bringing the total income to roughly $18 million in collections for the biennium that ends June 30.

Except that the Industrial Commission has already spent more than $19 million.

Gulp.

It’s probably not a cash flow problem, because it’s likely many of the grant funds haven’t been paid out yet. They might get paid out in stages, as projects get underway, or at the end of a project, when all the bills come in.

But any organization or agency that hasn’t gotten its check by June 30 is probably in trouble. Because state government, by law, cannot commit future biennial appropriations for expenses incurred in this biennium. In other words, you can’t charge things now to the next biennial budget. Because, you know, the price of oil could drop and the Legislature could decide to just kill the program. Then there wouldn’t be any money to pay the bills.

And if my friend’s research is right, and these numbers are right, and the bank account really is overdrawn, then what? Do we send the state’s top three elected officials to the pokey?

Thing is, they should have known better. Here’s what someone who follows the Legislative process told me:

Sometime after the bill that created the Outdoor Heritage Fund was introduced in the 2013 Legislature, supporters of the bill, HB1278, discovered that the Legislative Council was scoring the legislation as having a fiscal impact of only $17.62 million. Closer analysis revealed that oil production would need to increase significantly in order to achieve a level of $30 million for the fund, due to the way the bill was drafted. Although the sponsors, especially Rep. Todd Porter, were aware of the problem with the bill draft, the language was not changed during remainder of session, despite efforts by conservation interests. (Porter was angered that conservation groups had also supported separate legislation that would have created a larger fund with a more conservation-oriented advisory committee. Coincidentally, Porter received a public service award from the North Dakota Petroleum Council for his work on the Outdoor Heritage Fund.) 

            In May, after the Legislature had gone home, Fargo Forum reporter Patrick Springer wrote a story about that. Springer wrote

A glitch in the funding formula for North Dakota’s new Outdoor Heritage Fund means the conservation initiative is projected to have only a little more than half of the $30 million authorized for the next biennium. The fund is projected to raise $17.62 million during the 2013-2015 budget, well short of the $30 million cap allowed by the law to fund conservation projects.”

            Springer noted in that story back last May that Governor Dalrymple was saying that the legislators decided not to adjust the funding formula during the session because there was a “very real possibility” that production levels would exceed the estimates the state’s Office of Management and Budget used in its revenue forecast for the fund.

“We know the collection is going to be growing, basically every month,” the governor said. “There was talk of adjusting the percentage. There’s a lot of people who think production levels are about to jump again.”

            My friend who follows the Legislature told me this week:

Since the bill was enacted, oil production and prices have exceeded the original legislative assumptions (830,000-850,000 barrels per day for the two years of the biennium, and $75-80 per barrel for the two years). The outlook was so rosy that in September, 2013 OMB predicted the Outdoor Heritage Fund would grow to $23.8 million during the 2013-15 biennium based on increased production of 1,290,000 barrels per day by the end of the biennium.

But sometimes state regulators aren’t all-powerful, and the “invisible hand” intervenes.  According to Lynn Helms’ January 14, 2015 “Director’s Cut” the price of North Dakota sweet crude has sunk to $29.25 per barrel and North Dakota oil production hovers at 1,183,000 barrels per day.

            Uh huh. So there weren’t a lot of people predicting a 50 per cent drop in the price of oil, which has two effects: an immediate loss of revenue, because the fund comes from a percentage of oil taxes collected (which itself is a percentage of the price of a barrel of oil), and a drop in exploration, resulting in, at best, a stabilization in production instead of the hoped-for regular monthly production increases.

Still, the Industrial Commission has been walking a pretty fine tightrope, giving out grants as late as this January that exceeded OMB forecasts, even after watching the price of oil tank for four or five months. I don’t think there are a lot of state agencies that are allowed to do that. But when the chairman of the Commission is the Governor, and the Attorney General is sitting beside him, well . . .

And that’s the way it all appears to me, an English major, writing a story with a lot of numbers in it. I’m sure if I am wrong, someone will be quick to point that out.

I’m a little puzzled by all this. Oh, I’m not puzzled that the Governor and all his fellow opponents of Measure 5 used the $30 million figure to defeat the measure, and even increased it to $50 million for the last few months of the campaign. This was just another of the lies they told, lies which went unchallenged by the woefully inexperienced Pollyanna-ish proponents of the measure. The lobbyists for the Greater North Dakota Chamber, the North Dakota Grain Growers, the North Dakota Petroleum Council, the North Dakota Farm Bureau, the North Dakota Farmers Union, the North Dakota Stockmen, and the Lignite Energy Council are all up there at the Capitol these days, so I hope they’ll all go running down to the Governor’s office and make sure the Governor has a plan to cover his tracks, because, after all, they promised the voters $30 million . . .

Look, the Industrial Commission members had to know the number was wrong, yet they kept on spending the money as if the number was right. I just don’t get it. Unless . . . unless they planned to take advantage of a loophole called a “deficiency appropriation,” and ask the currently-meeting Legislature to appropriate more money to the fund, and then announce with a fanfare that they are so concerned about conservation that they are putting MORE MONEY into the Outdoor Heritage Fund, when all they are really doing is covering their tracks of bad management and overspending.

I don’t know. I hope they have an answer to all this. Because I’d really hate to see the Governor, the Attorney General and the Agriculture Commissioner go to the pokey. Then again . . .

UPDATE 11:58 A.M. FRIDAY, JANUARY 30:  Just released figures from the North Dakota Legislative Council project revenue to the Outdoor Heritage Fund for the 2015-2017 (next) biennium to be $16,720,000, based on a revised state revenue forecast due to falling oil prices. Remember, the Governor promised us $50 million if we’d vote against Measure 5. Stay tuned. 

UPDATE #2, 12:50 P.M. FRIDAY, JANUARY 30: I missed this earlier: The Legislative Council’s latest revised revenue projections for the 2013-2015 (current) biennium estimate the Outdoor Heritage Fund will receive only $18,700,000. As noted above, the Industrial Commission has already spent $19,312,625. Uh oh. Now we’ve got a real problem.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment