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By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

North Dakota has a $450 million budget surplus and the nation’s lowest unemployment rate, but only about 725,000 people to enjoy it.

The state — a long neglected backwater — is becoming the Saudi Arabia of North America, growing into one of the nation’s most affluent societies.

Like anybody with newfound wealth, however, it isn’t easy to decide how to use it.

A contentious ballot measure this year is asking voters to approve a plan to divert 5 percent of future oil revenue to fund clean-water projects, wildlife preservation and parks.

The Nature Conservancy, the Virginia-based environmental organization, is backing Measure 5 with $600,000 so far.

The conservancy, which already owns and manages 16,000 acres in the state, says the ballot measure will help protect North Dakota’s distinct landscape, waterways and outdoor recreation.

It doesn’t mention hunting and fishing in its promotions, but at least some hunting groups are supporting the measure. Minnesota-based Pheasants Forever and Tennessee-based Ducks Unlimited, among others, are backing the proposal.

The disappearance of wetlands, contamination of waterways and loss of honeybees are a threat to the state’s very heritage, says Howard Vincent, chief executive of Pheasants Forever.

Both groups promote habitat for the birds, though hunters figure prominently in their mission.

North Dakota produced 314 million barrels of oil last year, making it the second-largest crude producer in the nation after Texas.

The state captures huge revenue through an excise tax, and the proposed park fund and trust would get about $150 million annually, based on current output and prices.

But the proposal has encountered stiff resistance from the agriculture industry, oil producers, education groups, builders and business organizations.

North Dakota is the nation’s largest producer of wheat, dry beans, and canola oil, the traditional products of the German and Norwegian immigrants who settled the state in the 19th and 20th centuries.

North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, an opponent of the ballot measure, asserts the effort is being funded primarily by out-of-state special interest groups and the large amounts of money diverted to the effort could result in “wasteful and irresponsible spending.”

The group says there is no spending plan for what could be a flow of $4 million a week.

As of early October, the campaign for passage had raised $798,375, the vast majority from the Nature Conservancy, and opponents had raised $577,950.

Photo via Elizabeth Flores/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT

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Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons, a novel and a memoir. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

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