Officials discuss how to address drunken driving

BISMARCK — Days after a West Fargo family was killed in an alcohol-related crash, officials debated Monday how to address North Dakota’s growing problem of drunken driving with some blaming society’s lax attitudes and others pushing for tougher state laws.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said last week one of his biggest concerns is the increasing number of arrests for driving under the influence in North Dakota. There were 6,600 DUI arrests reported last year, the highest in a decade and 22.6 percent of all arrests in the state.

Four days later, Aaron Deutscher, 34, his pregnant wife Allison, 36, and their 18-month-old daughter, Brielle, of West Fargo were killed in a car crash involving Wyatt Daniel Klein, 28, of Jamestown.

The North Dakota Highway Patrol said troopers smelled alcohol on Klein and in his vehicle.

In addition, a 30-year-old driver from Newburg, N.D., was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving after a 1 a.m. Sunday accident at Lake Metigoshe near Bottineau, N.D., the Associated Press reports. Two young brothers from Texas were killed when a driver lost control of his vehicle and drove over their tent at a campsite.

It’s time everyone in the state gets together and figures out a way to address the problem, said Aaron Birst, executive director of the North Dakota State’s Attorneys Association.

“Something’s not working and whether that needs to be increased penalties or a rethinking of how we deal with this problem, something needs to change,” said Birst, who went to high school with Aaron Deutscher.

Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said he’s open to reviewing the state’s penalties for DUI, but he also pointed to society attitudes as a challenge.

“Drunk driving is a terrible problem in our state, but there’s only so much laws can do to prevent it,” said Koppelman, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee. “We can deal with it after the fact, once it’s committed, and I think we ought to do that, but it takes societal change to make it socially unacceptable.”

Sen. Stan Lyson, R-Williston, a former sheriff, said the state’s drunken driving problem isn’t related to law enforcement or state law but the public’s attitude about alcohol. The public needs to say “enough is enough” and end the acceptance of people driving after drinking, he said.

“To make another law, a more stringent law, is not going to make any difference until we change the mood of the public,” said Lyson, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Although about half of North Dakota’s fatal traffic accidents  involve alcohol, the public has largely become desensitized to the reports in the news, said Lt. Jody Skogen of the North Dakota Highway Patrol.

“Sadly, it’s events like this that jolt us into taking another look at it,” he said, referring to the recent fatalities.

Society needs to send a message that drunken driving isn’t acceptable, he said.

“They need to let their governing body (the Legislature) know, ‘We feel there’s topics that need to be discussed to make it more of a deterrent for people to hop behind the wheel,’ ” Skogen said.

Right now, the minimum mandatory sentence for a first-time DUI offense is a $250 fine and an order for addiction evaluation. The driver’s license is typically suspended for 91 days for a first offense, but the driver is eligible for a work permit after 30 days.

In Fargo, first-time offenders typically don’t serve jail time and pay about $625 in fines and fees, said city prosecutor Scott Diamond. They also attend a victim impact panel and have their license suspended.

In Stark County in western North Dakota, once fees are added, the financial penalty for a first-time offense there adds up to about $500, State’s Attorney Tom Henning said.

“It’s pretty clear to me the penalties, monetary penalties, have not kept pace (with the times),” he said.

There have been 580 DUI arrests in Fargo so far this year, up slightly from normal, Fargo Deputy Police Chief David Todd said.

He would like to see tougher penalties for repeat offenders. Right now, a Class C felony doesn’t come into play until a fifth DUI, he said. Todd also would like to see repeat offenders’ vehicles seized.

“I think there’s some things that the Legislature can do there,” he said. “I think law enforcement is holding up their end of the bargain and now maybe the Legislature needs to step up and take another look at the laws that surround DUIs.”

Law enforcement is doing what it can to keep roads safe, said Stutsman County Sheriff Chad Kaiser. Agencies brainstorm how to reduce the number of drunk drivers and are doing extra DUI saturation patrols, he said.

Grand Forks Police Lt. Grant Schiller also said he thinks the state is aggressive with its support of saturation patrols and media campaigns against drinking and driving.

“There’s always something more we can look at. What exactly that is, I can’t exactly say,” he said. “How much saturation, how much preaching or convincing can a person do to try to convey what is so painfully obvious to anybody? You just don’t drink and drive.”

The state Department of Transportation has used a number of public service announcements to try to get the message out to not drink and then drive, said Mark Nelson, the safety division director who spent nearly 29 years working for the Highway Patrol.

“I don’t know that you can do everything by law,” he said. “With that said, I think increased penalties can have an impact. Until we can get to the culture and change the way people view drinking and driving, we have an uphill battle.”

Today’s Ask Your Government

Dear Teri,

How does our state income tax garner taxes from individuals that live out of state, work for companies that are based out of state, but the work occurs in North Dakota?

Rick Kram

Dickinson

Thanks for writing! I asked Tax Commissioner Cory Fong to respond. Here’s what he said:

“Generally, when an individual earns compensation for work performed in North Dakota, the income is subject to North Dakota income tax. Regardless of where a business is located, if there are employees working in North Dakota, the business is required to register with the Office of State Tax Commissioner and obtain a withholding account. 

“From there, the business will withhold North Dakota income tax from the employees based on the amount of income earned in North Dakota. The business pays the money withheld to the state of North Dakota. The business also reports that amount to the employee on a Form W2.  This is the amount that the employee will claim as North Dakota withholding when they file their North Dakota individual income tax return.

“Keep in mind, there are some exceptions. For example, North Dakota has income tax reciprocity agreements with the states of Minnesota and Montana. If certain conditions in the agreements are met, a resident of Minnesota or Montana does not have to pay North Dakota income tax on compensation received for work performed in North Dakota and the compensation earned in North Dakota is taxed in their resident state.

“Conversely, a resident of North Dakota does not have to pay Minnesota or Montana income tax on compensation received for work performed in the other state, and it is taxed here in North Dakota.  For more information about reciprocity with Minnesota and Montana, please go to the latest version of the Form ND-1 and the booklet at www.nd.gov/tax/indincome/forms/2011/nd1instruct.pdf.

 

Dear Teri,

I saw an article in the Grand Forks Herald regarding cremation. (The May 27-28 Ask Your Government column.) I have a question. Is it mandatory you burn a casket after embalming a person and then cremate him? His wife is still living and will be embalmed and then cremated also. We feel the same casket should be used, or can a casket be rented? Thanks so much!

Javon Flaten

Hatton

Thanks for reading and writing! I contacted Dale Niewoehner, executive secretary of the North Dakota State Board of Funeral Service. Here’s what he said:

 “This is difficult to reply to without knowing all the details. There are no rules, laws or codes regarding this matter so our board cannot provide information or legal advice.”

He did say some funeral homes rent caskets that have a removable interior tray/box and cloth liner.

I also contacted Jay Seibel with the North Dakota Funeral Directors Association. Here’s what he said:

“Mr. Niewoehner said it best when he stated that, ‘There are no rules, laws, or codes regarding this matter.’ Each funeral home may have their own idea on how this should be handled and how they would handle it. People should talk to their funeral director and ask him or her what their options are.”

Do you have a question for a North Dakota state government official or agency? Send us your question, and we’ll do our best to find an answer.

E-mail politics@wday.com (Subject: Ask your government).

You may also write to Teri Finneman c/o Forum Communications, Press Room, State Capitol, Bismarck, ND 58505.

Please include your name, town and a phone number to reach you for verification.

Bonus holiday edition Ask Your Government

Dear Teri,

If North Dakota is the No. 2 producing oil state in the United States, then why don’t we do what Alaska does and give the citizen a percentage of the money from the oil that the state produces?

Todd Gonser

Dickinson

Thanks for writing! I hear this question often lately, so it’s a good time to do a refresher on this issue. I’ll give a short answer and then a longer one about why the state doesn’t do this.

The simple answer: The state Constitution doesn’t allow it. North Dakota has a complex system for how it distributes oil tax money that doesn’t leave a lot of “free” money left over. It would require state law and constitutional changes to change this system. Plus, Alaska has much more money.

Now, here’s the longer explanation, starting with Tax Commissioner Cory Fong’s response:

“Many have suggested that the state of North Dakota make direct payments back to North Dakota’s residents using the surplus oil/gas tax revenues, similar to the state of Alaska’s program. 

“In order for North Dakota to do something similar, our state Constitution would likely need to be changed. Currently, the North Dakota Constitution prohibits the state from ‘gifting’ state money unless it is given in support of the needy or some other public good.

“Even if the state Constitution allowed for direct payments back to our state residents, those payments would be spread among all qualifying recipients. Depending on the requirements of the program, the payment per person may not amount to that much.”

The reason Fong says this is because the state has a complex formula for how it distributes/spends oil tax money, which I explained in two columns several months ago.

Total oil tax collections for this biennium – through May – are $714.1 million in production tax and $787.7 million in extraction tax, or about $1.5 billion, according to the state Tax Department.

A chunk of the oil tax revenue benefits the oil and gas counties. From July 1, 2011, through this May, oil and gas producing counties (and cities/schools/townships) received a combined total of $93.7 million through the distribution formula, said Kathy Strombeck of the Tax Department.

There was also $100 million in oil tax money set aside to provide energy impact grants to the oil and gas counties, as well as $4 million for oil and gas research.

Several western North Dakota officials have told legislators they need to send more money back to the oil counties, so these numbers could go up in the future.

Other oil tax money goes into accounts that support property tax relief ($261.8 million worth so far and growing), K-12 education, infrastructure and flood projects across the state.

Plus, 30 percent of oil tax revenue is locked up in the Legacy Fund until 2017. The fund has rules for how money can be spent after that. As of June, there was nearly $397 million in the fund.

One could point to the oil tax revenue that goes into the general fund as money that could go back to North Dakota residents. Right now, there’s a cap of $300 million in oil revenue that can go into the general fund.

Legislators will more than likely use surplus general fund money for further tax relief and infrastructure needs during the next session.

But, for fun, let’s say the $300 million was slated to go back to North Dakota residents instead. If there are 684,000 North Dakota residents, that would come up to $438 per person.

But, keep in mind there would also need to be additional state employees hired to accept and review applications and to manage and distribute this money like there is in Alaska.

Alaska, which has a population of about 723,000, has a dividend division with 81 employees. The division’s operating budget for fiscal year 2013 is $8.4 million, said Jerry Burnett of the Alaska Department of Revenue. Since North Dakota makes budgets in two-year periods, that would be $16.8 million.

Alaska also has a Permanent Fund Corp., which manages the now $40.5 billion fund. The corporation has an operating budget of approximately $11 million for fiscal year 2013 with about 40 positions, Burnett said. They are authorized to spend a little more than $100 million in external custody and management fees in fiscal year 2013, he said.

The Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. is self-supporting. All expenses are paid out of the revenue generated by the fund’s investments, said spokeswoman Laura Achee.

The expenses of the Permanent Fund Dividend Division are also paid out of fund earnings (subtracted from the dividend lump sum before it is divided into individual dividend payments) and not from the general fund, she said.

So, once all of that is taken into account (plus paying for North Dakota office space for these employees), each North Dakota check would likely be worth less than $75. And the Legislature wouldn’t have that money for state projects.

Granted, the Legislature could look at raising the cap on how much oil tax revenue the general fund receives (as it has in the past), but that would mean taking money away from the infrastructure and the disaster relief funds.

North Dakota taxpayer advocate Dustin Gawrylow of Bismarck-Mandan doesn’t think there should be a direct payment of funds to residents.

“First off, those funds are not always going to be there,” he said. “What we should do with this oil revenue is look at our entire tax structure and rebalance it … while it is a populist idea to start cutting checks to everybody, the better thing would be to take that (money) and use it to prevent taxes from ever having to go up again in the state.”

One could point to the interest and earnings of the Legacy Fund as a potential for returning money to residents in the future. Now at almost $400 million, it’s in the beginning stages compared to Alaska’s $40.5 billion permanent fund.

Here’s more on Alaska’s system from my past and recent discussions with Burnett from the Alaska Department of Revenue:

“It is a common misperception outside of Alaska that the state is paying out a portion of its oil royalties, or even oil taxes, to residents … the dividends that are paid to residents come from the earnings on royalties that are invested in a range of assets including stocks, bonds and real estate.” 

In 1976, there was a constitutional amendment in Alaska that set up the permanent fund, which receives 25 to 50 percent of the rents and royalties from minerals – which are almost entirely oil.

The principal of the fund cannot be spent, but the earnings can be appropriated by the Legislature.

In the early 1980s, the Legislature set up a program where half of the average of the previous five years’ earnings on the permanent fund would be returned to state residents each year—a permanent fund dividend.

Dividend amounts have varied from hundreds of dollars to more than $2,000. Last year’s dividend was $1,174, Burnett said.

In years when there’s a need for additional money, there’s been pressure to use the fund for other things. “But people become very bought into the idea of getting money every year, so it does make it very difficult once you start doing this to use the money for anything else,” Burnett told me a few years ago.

Do you have a question for a North Dakota state government official or agency? Send us your question, and we’ll do our best to find an answer.

E-mail politics@wday.com (Subject: Ask your government).

You may also write to Teri Finneman c/o Forum Communications, Press Room, State Capitol, Bismarck, ND 58505.

Please include your name, town and a phone number to reach you for verification.

Today’s Ask Your Government

Dear Teri,

(Regarding) minerals I have inherited in Slope County, North Dakota: As I look on the Oil and Gas Commission’s map, it appears that drilling stops at the north of the county and begins again in the county to the south.

It makes me wonder why. Since I don’t have a clue who the other mineral owners are, could it be because no one can find them? If this is the situation, does North Dakota allow an oil company to “force pool” that acreage and place those monies in a suspense account until the owners are found?  I’m concerned because I have enough acreage for the drilling locations, sites or pads.

Respectfully,

Jack Gant

Mustang Island in Port Aransas on the Texas Gulf Coast

Thanks for writing! I contacted North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources spokeswoman Alison Ritter. Here’s what she said:

“There is a tiny part of the Bakken that reaches northeastern Slope County, and operators simply haven’t moved that far south yet. There is no Bakken formation present in (neighboring) Bowman County. Historically, any drilling done in Bowman County has targeted other formations. If mineral owners aren’t locatable, the royalties paid on a well are sent to the Unclaimed Property Division of the North Dakota Department of Trust Lands.”

 

Dear Teri,

I have a question that has come up often amongst friends while traveling together.

We have noticed that the yield signs are no longer posted on the on-ramps for interstate as they used to be and, fairly often, (I) have been flipped off by my fellow citizen for not adjusting for their inappropriate speeds, either way too slow or a speed above what is posted for the area. 

When I went to driving school many years ago, the person adjusted their speed coming onto the highway, to fit into the openings. Many of them are not up to speed yet, and they except me to slow down to let them onto the highway. Have there been some traffic rule changes that many of us missed?

Thanks for your time.

Donna Johnson

Fargo

Thanks for writing! I contacted Lt. Jody Skogen with the North Dakota Highway Patrol and Jamie Olson with the North Dakota Department of Transportation. Here’s what Skogen said:

“Drivers entering a roadway from an on ramp should do so in a manner that does not cause traffic already on that roadway to be forced to compensate for them. That being said, responsible motorists can anticipate the merge and make a lane change or slightly adjust their speed to help facilitate a smooth and safe lane entry.”

Here’s what Olson said:

“The reason there are no longer yield signs on the on-ramps to the interstate is that, over the years, the interstate ramps have been lengthened to comply with federal standards. Therefore, yield signs are no longer needed. The entrance ramps allow you to adjust your speed to merge safely with the flow of traffic on the highway. Only stop on the ramps if there is no opening in the traffic flow. Unless posted signs indicate otherwise, any vehicle entering the freeway from an entrance ramp must yield the right of way to vehicles on the main roadway.

“Thank you for contacting the North Dakota Department of Transportation.”

Do you have a question for a North Dakota state government official or agency? Send us your question, and we’ll do our best to find an answer.

E-mail politics@wday.com (Subject: Ask your government).

You may also write to Teri Finneman c/o Forum Communications, Press Room, State Capitol, Bismarck, ND 58505.

Please include your name, town and a phone number to reach you for verification.

Latest oil stats

BISMARCK– The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources has released a new batch of oil statistics:

March Oil 17,901,807 barrels = 577,478 barrels/day

April Oil 18,281,116 barrels = 609,371 barrels/day (preliminary) (NEW all-time high)

March Gas 19,302,603 MCF = 622,665 MCF/day

April Gas 19,521,986 MCF = 650,733 MCF/day (preliminary) (NEW all-time high)

March Producing Wells = 6,932

April Producing Wells = 7,025 (NEW all-time high)

March Permitting: 181 drilling and 1 seismic

April Permitting: 167 drilling and 2 seismic (all time high was 245 in Nov 2010)

March Sweet Crude Price = $76.29/barrel

April Sweet Crude Price = $78.17/barrel

Tuesday’s Sweet Crude Price = $73.25/barrel ND (all-time high was $136.29 July 3, 2008)

March rig count 205

April rig count 209

May rig count 211

Tuesday’s rig count is 212 (All-time high was 218 on May 29, 2012)

Legislators prepare for 2013 session

BISMARCK — North Dakota legislative leaders agreed Tuesday to move forward with a video project that they see as an opportunity to improve public access to the Legislature.

In previous sessions, the public has been able to go to legis.nd.gov to watch Senate and House floor sessions while they are happening.

Starting in 2013, video of floor sessions will also be recorded and placed online so the public can watch at their leisure. Cameras will also be placed in the two main committee rooms used by Senate and House Appropriations.

The public will be able to search and view a list of all recordings for a particular bill number, so they can skip ahead to watch the issue they’re interested in.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo said the project will provide the public with greater access to what legislators are doing and increase transparency.

He said they can expand video coverage to additional committee rooms in the future.

Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor of Towner agreed they should improve public access.

“Some people can come to the session and sit and listen. A lot can’t,” he said. “This is one way to democratize the process to make sure everyone has access.”

The project will cost $110,500 in the 2011-13 biennium for the initial purchase and implementation of hardware, software and services.

Also Tuesday, legislative leaders discussed key dates for the upcoming 2013 session. The organizational session is set to begin Dec. 3. The plan is for the governor to present the executive budget and revenue proposals on Dec. 5.

The governor’s State of the State address is slated for Jan. 8, followed by the State of the Judiciary on Jan. 9 and the tribal-state message on Jan. 10.

Today’s Ask Your Government

Dear Teri,

What would a 2 percent across the board increase in state income tax raise for the state of North Dakota?

Tom Glaser

Dickinson

Thanks for writing! Here’s what Tax Commissioner Cory Fong said:

“I asked Kathy Strombeck, research analyst, to assist me with my response to you. She based her analysis on the assumption that the reader was interested in the individual income tax rates. 

“Under current law, individual income tax rates range from 1.51 percent to 3.99 percent of North Dakota taxable income. If each of the tax rates were to increase by 2 percent, the rates would then range from 3.51 percent to 5.99 percent. That would result in an increase in total individual income tax collections of approximately $254 million per year.”

 

Dear Teri,

The media often reports on the Minnesota Legislature deliberating and authorizing a “bonding bill.” I assume a “bonding bill” approves borrowing money to fund the state of Minnesota infrastructure projects and so my question is:

How does North Dakota fund infrastructure projects? Describe the source of funds and the funds allocation process that accomplishes highway, bridges, higher education campus, flood control, and other state building and infrastructure projects in North Dakota.

Thank you.

John Postovit

Fargo

Thanks for writing! I asked Office of Management and Budget Director Pam Sharp to answer your question. Here’s what she said:

“North Dakota has not had a ‘bonding bill’ for the past three biennia. Due to the state’s strong fiscal condition, the state has paid cash for buildings and infrastructure projects rather than bond.

“Infrastructure projects are funded with various funding sources in North Dakota, depending on the project. Highways and bridges are normally funded with a combination of federal funds and revenues collected from the North Dakota gas tax. In the current biennium, however, infrastructure for the western part of the state was funded with general fund dollars in addition to federal funds and gas tax funds.

“Academic buildings for higher education campuses and other related projects have been funded either through the North Dakota Building Authority with a bonding bill or funded directly with cash. For the last three biennia, projects that could have been funded through the Building Authority have been funded with cash.  

“Flood control is funded from the Resources Trust Fund. This fund receives 20 percent of the oil extraction revenue and is available to be spent on water projects throughout the state.”

The Senate and House appropriations committees determine how to allocate money after reviewing the governor’s recommendations and bill drafts, as well as hearing testimony from interested parties. Members then present committee recommendations to their colleagues during floor sessions.

Do you have a question for a North Dakota state government official or agency? Send us your question, and we’ll do our best to find an answer.

E-mail politics@wday.com (Subject: Ask your government).

You may also write to Teri Finneman c/o Forum Communications, Press Room, State Capitol, Bismarck, ND 58505.

Please include your name, town and a phone number to reach you for verification.

Western N.D. child care pilot program moves forward

BISMARCK—State officials agreed Wednesday to move forward with a pilot program that aims to provide more child care in western North Dakota’s Oil Patch.

The Board of University and School Lands set aside $500,000 of energy impact grant funding for the cost-share program.

Oil-producing cities or other political subdivisions can apply for up to $125,000 to create new openings for child care.

The money can be used to help buy a community-owned modular child care facility to lease to a for-profit or nonprofit operator. The money could also be used to help build a public early childhood facility or expand an existing publicly-owned and privately-operated childhood facility.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple proposed the idea to the board a few weeks ago. The state’s energy impact grant program has helped other infrastructure needs in western North Dakota, but the “tremendous need” for day care services hasn’t been addressed, Dalrymple said.

State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt again expressed concern Wednesday that the state was competing with the private sector.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said they want families to come to western North Dakota, but there needs to be day care for them to come. He said the program is a pilot, and they can see how it works.

“I don’t think anybody is going to object because the need is so overwhelming,” he said.

Dalrymple said he was confident the state wasn’t taking away private sector opportunities. The supply of home-based child care is exhausted, and it’s too expensive in today’s market to buy property and start a child care, he said.

Eligible western North Dakota governments that apply for grant funding will need to demonstrate inadequate child care capacity and would need to acquire the property for the childcare facility.

The board plans to discuss grant awards in late July.

Baesler, Potter advance in DPI race

BISMARCK — Kirsten Baesler and Tracy Potter have secured the two spots on the November ballot in the superintendent of public instruction race.

Baesler of Mandan received 41,256 votes, or 37.3 percent, in the nonpartisan race, according to complete but unofficial results.

Potter of Bismarck received 35,891 votes, or 32.4 percent. Max Laird of Bismarck finished third with 33,289 votes, or 30.1 percent.

The race was close throughout Tuesday night. On Wednesday, Baesler told supporters she was excited to continue working hard and spreading her message across the state.

“It was humbling for me to see the extent of interest in education throughout this initial phase of our campaign,” she wrote on her campaign Facebook page.

Potter said he was pleased with the results and thinks his campaign is positioned well for the fall.

“Now I’m looking forward to a fun campaign. It’s going to be great,” he said.

Laird did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

For the first time since 1980, current Superintendent Wayne Sanstead was not on the ballot after deciding earlier this year to retire.

Baesler won Republican support for the nonpartisan office during the party’s convention, while Laird received Democratic support. Potter said he wanted to honor the spirit of the nonpartisan office and did not seek support from the Democratic Party.

The state superintendent serves a four-year term and has an annual salary of $102,868. The salary increases to $105,954 on July 1.

Today’s Ask Your Government

Dear Teri,

I have been noticing farmers removing shelter belts from their land. Last summer, I witnessed the removal of an entire grove full of magnificent old (and still healthy) trees.

I could be mistaken, but it looked to me as if the farmer was willing to sacrifice this area for the sake of a few more acres of farmland (i.e. profits). 

Back in the ‘30s and ‘40s when the shelter belts were first planted, was the planting optional or was it required by federal or state government? I was under the impression that it was a program designed to keep the soil from blowing away and was therefore a benefit to society in general and not just for the benefit of any particular farmer.

Do farmers need permission from someone to remove shelter belts and old-growth groves?

What will happen if all the farmers decide to remove the trees? Could we have another dust bowl?

As a side issue, I wonder, with all the laws about air pollution, how come farmers (and I do love farmers) are permitted to burn the ditches creating plumes of smoke that can be seen for 20 miles? Just curious about that, too. 

Sally Hoffman

Grand Forks

Thanks for writing! I sent your questions to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. State conservationist Mary Podoll, state forester Craig Stange and state resource conservationist Todd Schwagler contributed to the answer:

“All of the conservation work completed by the soil conservation districts and Natural Resources Conservation Service is voluntary. In the 1940s, there were no legal requirements to address erosion. Voluntary conservation programs have been extremely successful over the past 80 years.

“Windbreaks are extremely valuable to preventing wind erosion. Research over the past 100 years also shows that crop yields can be boosted 12 to 15 percent by a well-maintained windbreak. 

“Landowners do not need permission to remove shelterbelts. Private property rights are a significant identifier of a democratic nation. There are some taxpayer, or societal, requirements to addressing erosion and wetland protection in a farmer’s ability to receive USDA payments that became law in 1985. An agriculture producer who participates in USDA programs meets minimum requirements to protect soil from erosion and wetlands from being drained.

“Yes, part of me is sad to see the removal of windbreaks, too.  But for every windbreak that I see removed, I also see new ones being planted.  Soil conservation districts continue to promote and assist landowners in planting new trees every year. USDA- Natural Resources Conservation Service continues to provide technical and financial assistance for new windbreaks. 

“Last year, North Dakota producers participated in Natural Resources Conservation Service voluntary programs at record levels. 

“Could we have another Dust Bowl? I’ve been working in the field of conservation for a long time in addition to growing up with parents who experienced the Depression, but this is still just an opinion: Yes, I do believe that conditions could occur allowing wind erosion to again be a concern. Weather conditions, the pressure we place on our soils and other natural resources for production/energy/infrastructure, and our optimistic human nature could create areas that wind erosion is a problem.

“We might take a little step back in the arena of conservation, but we never go back to where we were.

“In the Dust Bowl era, windbreak planting was encouraged. Federal agencies such as Soil Conservation Service provided planting stock and sometime planting crews. At the peak, nearly 3 million acres of North Dakota cropland were protected from wind erosion by field windbreaks.

“Today, in addition to windbreak conservation practices, there are many other agronomic practices to control wind erosion, including no-till, conservation cropping rotations and crop residue management.

“There are several agronomic practices that Natural Resources Conservation Service recommends to avoid the need for burning ditches and wetlands. However, burning is not all bad.  North Dakota soils and plant communities formed under frequent wildfire. Proper native vegetation management includes prescribed burning.

“Additionally, seed producers often use burning as a way to reduce the need for pesticides or aggressive tillage that exposes soil to erosive forces. A well-planned prescribed burn often results in much healthier plants … Prescribed burning has also been used to control invasive species.

“Thank you so much for your interest!”

Do you have a question for a North Dakota state government official or agency? Send us your question, and we’ll do our best to find an answer.

E-mail politics@wday.com (Subject: Ask your government).

You may also write to Teri Finneman c/o Forum Communications, Press Room, State Capitol, Bismarck, ND 58505.

Please include your name, town and a phone number to reach you for verification.