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Sentiment on parks changing

“‘Does North Dakota need more parks?” the headline asked. (The Jamestown Sun, Aug. 26.)

The accompanying article by the The Forum News Service’s Mike Nowatzki had the answer: A resounding “yes!”

As good as North Dakota’s state park system is, there is no getting around the reality that the state has done very little of substance to either expand or improve parks for 30 years. Three decades passed as demands on parks increased. Three decades during which the Legislature in its wisdom shortchanged one of the most attractive amenities the state has to offer.

Defenders of a do-nothing (or do-very little) parks policy like to point out the state has millions of acres of public land outside of the state park system, much of it federal parks, preserves and wildlife refuges. True enough. But those same people, particular many legislators and the leaders of major farm and commodity groups, would be the first to snatch back all public land from the public, put it in private hands, and convert it to corn acreage, cattle pasture and oil roads. Indeed, if they could get their hands on state parklands, they’d likely do the same. For that gaggle to use federal lands as an excuse for not expanding state parks is chutzpah in the extreme.

It is no surprise that legislative sentiment regarding public lands and parks is less than enlightened. The dog wagging the legislative tail is stronger than ever, and that hound is not interested in any policy that protects more land for public use, when that land holds mineral and other riches for a select few. The accelerating trend among legislators in the majority has been to respond to special interests at the expense of the greater public interest.

The suspicion of a stacked deck is one factor driving the campaign to approve a constitutional parks and wildlife amendment, which is close to approval for the November ballot. Whether it’s wise to amend the Constitution to lock up public money for a specific purpose is a question worthy of vigorous debate. But the aim of the amendment — to restore some balance to the development vs. conservation equation — resonates with more North Dakotans every day.

The decades-long failure of the state to expand and improve state parks, coupled with irrational resistance to any and all attempts to reserve lands and waters for conservation and/or recreation — is stirring voters as never before. How it plays out in the next few months will be pivotal to the state’s future.

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