While North Dakotans were debating Measure 5 on the 2014 ballot – that was the one which would have diverted hundreds of millions in oil tax revenues to a slush fund for conservation groups – farm groups began to wonder why the measure’s primary sponsor, Ducks Unlimited, was allowed to hire personnel for the federal government.
The Measure 5 debate is over, but the farm groups are still pushing to get Ducks Unlimited employees out of the Natural Resources Conservation Service despite a recent agreement brokered by Senator John Hoeven which, he claims, limits their activities.
Sen. John Hoeven recently announced an agreement with NRCS that he said would restrict the activities of personnel working for the agency who were hired by Ducks Unlimited. But some farm groups are saying the agreement changes very little.
“It’s disappointing that we are not getting any more out of this,” Pete Hanebutt, public policy director for the North Dakota Farm Bureau, told Watchdog. “They had a contract and the spoken part of the contract is now put on paper. We don’t think it does any more than what we had before.”
Dan Wogsland, executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, agrees. “We’re in the same place as the Farm Bureau,” he told Watchdog, though he called Hoeven’s agreement a “good first step.”
For their part, the NRCS says that the Ducks Unlimited employees are just entry-level biologists who have nothing to do with making or enforcing policy:
“These DU Farm Bill Specialists are not allowed to participate in any shape or form with compliance tasks,” Podoll told Watchdog via email. “Policy and direction comes to us through Farm Bill legislation, rule-making and then manual and procedure development. This is all done at a national, regional level.”
Podoll says the recent agreement brokered by Hoeven makes it even more clear that Ducks Unlimited personnel are not involved in policy or enforcement. “The agreement between NRCS and DU was recently updated to state clearly that these staff may not complete any part of compliance tasks,” she said. Podall also stated that contracts with DU “were also clarified to avoid misunderstanding with the term ‘compliance’ as NDFB and producers associate this with wetlands.”
But the farm groups aren’t buying it. They going to continue to fight this situation which they say has “corrupted” the NRCS because Ducks Unlimited “bought a seat at the table.”
Wogsland says his organization is skeptical about the level of involvement from Ducks Unlimited personnel described by Podoll. “When we go through all the hullabaloo about this and they won’t let go there’s got to be something more than some entry-level biologists putting some boots on the ground,” he said.
Both Hanebutt and Wogsland said the fight isn’t over.
“The NRCS used to be a federal agency that helped farmers. Now the NRCS has been bought out and corrupted and it’s about what we can do to make our new partners happy who have bought a seat at the table,” Hanebutt said. “We’re going to continue to push. Congressman Cramer has been the salt of the earth on this helping to defend agriculture against outside folks. We’re going to continue to pursue this through Congressional action to make sure federal agencies aren’t housing private wildlife organizations within their offices.”
“We think it’s a conflict of interest,” Wogsland said. “We need them out. We don’t think it’s a healthy environment. It’s certainly not good for North Dakota landowners.”
The appearance of impropriety seems clear.
After all, how satisfied would be be if the ATF let the National Rifle Association hire personnel for them? I love the NRA – I’m a member – but that wouldn’t be appropriate because the NRA has an agenda and the federal government doesn’t.
Or, at least, the federal government isn’t supposed to have one.