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Conservation becomes political force in N.D.

Not so long ago, if the North Dakota Industrial Commission had weighed a conservation-minded argument against a pro-development case that had strong industry support, the developers would have won in a rout.

Back then, North Dakota had little patience with most conservationists, whose “protect and preserve” mantra violated many residents’ longstanding belief that the state’s good and productive land should be used.

But times are changing in North Dakota. And while every resident knows this, some of the changes continue to surprise.

The outcome of last week’s Industrial Commission meeting was one.

For instead of rejecting outright a suggestion that the state give special consideration to a list of especially scenic and/or wildlife-friendly places, the commission — which consists of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner — tentatively supported the idea. Unanimously.

Clearly, North Dakota’s rapid industrial growth also has fueled conservation sentiment, as residents wake up to the idea that if they want their state to keep its famed scenery and wildlife, the residents and their government will have to act.

Elected officials — Republicans and Democrats alike — take note.

The first sign of this change may have been the 2010 poll that showed a striking level of support statewide for conservation. “The survey results showed that North Dakota voters are strongly supportive of dedicating some state funding for conservation,” the poll’s research team reported.

The second sign was the 2012 petition that hoped to follow up on the poll by putting to a vote that question of “dedicating some state funding for conservation.”

The third sign was Gov. Jack Dalrymple and the Republican-controlled Legislature’s reaction to the 2012 proposal; for rather than dismissing the idea, they co-opted it, and passed into law a greatly scaled-down version called the Outdoor Heritage Fund.

Clearly, the new law amounted to an admission that the original, more-ambitious proposal — if it had made it to the ballot, which it didn’t — may very well have passed.

A fourth sign of the change is the fact that one of the members of the Industrial Commission itself, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, presented the list of “extraordinary places” and suggested they deserve special consideration.

There was a time when no commission member would have presented or suggested any such thing.

Then last week, a fifth and especially vivid sign emerged.

For even after a coalition of oil producers and royalty owners strongly opposed Stenehjem’s idea, and even after the coalition suggested the plan would jeopardize North Dakota’s entire “economic miracle,” the Industrial Commission tweaked rather than rejected the “extraordinary places” plan.

And in North Dakota, for a high-level vote to go against such a coalition and in favor of a conservation measure — well, that’s new.

Or at least, it has been rare. But it may be becoming more common as North Dakotans try to prevent key viewsheds from evolving into an industrial landscape.

Understand, North Dakota hasn’t “flipped.” Stenehjem’s well-crafted proposal is no land grab. In fact, it takes great pains to protect property- and mineral-owners’ rights.

But the state has changed, as the above policy evolutions show. And if the change lets the state keep its “Legendary” scenery while maintaining robust growth, then a better North Dakota will be the result.