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​Much Ado About Nothing?

Last Word | June 27th, 2024

By Jim Fuglie

jimfuglie920@gmail.com

My articles here are about politics. I’m writing this before the North Dakota primary election. You are reading it after the primary. Advantage: readers. So I won’t speculate much on that election, because you already know who won.

I think instead I’ll talk about Burgum. Doug Burgum. You’ve heard of him. He used to be North Dakota’s Governor. Not so much lately. Even he admits it. I went to the Memorial Day Service at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery on Memorial Day, and Burgum bragged that it was nice to be home in North Dakota because, “Kathryn and I have had the chance to see a lot of America in the last year.” I heard a few groans.

Burgum rambled on for almost 25 minutes, a speech that almost no one in the crowd of hundreds came to hear, about his family and his business, and misquoting Thomas Jefferson. As I looked around during the closing minutes of the speech, I noticed that’s what most everyone was doing — looking around.

But that’s not what I came to write about today. The other day, I read in the paper that Burgum had skipped the groundbreaking for our newest state park, the Pembina Gorge State Park, which he was scheduled to attend, because he went to New York to stand with Donald Trump after Trump’s conviction instead. That was just a few days after the big to-do Burgum had made about the creation of a new Office of Outdoor Recreation in North Dakota. Priorities.

In his signed Executive Order 2024-03, creating the new office, dated May 9, Burgum went on and on about how his new office will help “drive the economic impact of outdoor recreation” (yep, with Burgum, there’s always that) from our state parks and our diverse landscapes, including “prairies, lakes, forests and Badlands” and the abundant outdoor recreation opportunities they offer, in addition to “conservation education and cultural enrichment” in our state park system.

The thing is, we’ve had an outdoor recreation agency in North Dakota in one form or another for a very long time. In a piece I wrote for The Prairie Blog a couple weeks ago, I quoted King Solomon, the wise man, who wrote in Ecclesiastes, chapter 1, verse 9, these words:

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Hmmm. Nothing new under the sun. Including an Outdoor Recreation Office in North Dakota. A little history.

In 1965, the U.S. Congress passed the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, setting aside the money from royalties paid by energy companies drilling for oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) to be distributed to the states to be used for outdoor recreation.

That was almost 60 years ago. That same year, the North Dakota Legislature created two new agencies: The North Dakota Park Service and The State Outdoor Recreation Agency.

The purpose of the Outdoor Recreation Agency was to assist the Park Service with planning park improvements, and to “accept and administer funds paid hereunder for approved projects.” Those funds were the money the state got from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

Governor William Guy appointed a young fellow named John Greenslit to be Director of the new North Dakota State Outdoor Recreation Agency (SORA) as North Dakota’s “state liaison officer.” John initially didn’t get much more than a salary, some travel money, and an office in the State Water Commission building on the Capitol Grounds with a phone and access to the secretarial staff of the Land and Water Commission.

But John made the most of it. Although he was just 24 years old, he was actually a member of the Governor’s cabinet. John traveled to meetings with other State Liaison Officers, and together they created the National Association of State Outdoor Recreation Liaison Officers (NASORLO) to implement the LWCF Act.

Much was accomplished during those early SORA years, including establishing state parks on Lake Sakakawea and building, paving and designating North Dakota State Highways 1804 and 1806 as the Lewis and Clark Trail in North Dakota. They trace the explorers’ path during those two years (1804 and 1806) from where the Missouri River enters the state from Montana to where it exits into South Dakota, with one highway on each side of the river. It’s probably the best tribute to the Lewis and Clark Expedition of any of the states they traveled through.

The LWCF still exists today, and every year, royalties paid by energy companies are put into the fund and distributed to the states to be used for conservation and outdoor recreation. It’s a permanent fund, to the tune of $900 million each year. North Dakota beneficiaries, in addition to our state parks, include cities, counties, townships, parks boards and park districts, water management districts, school districts and federally recognized tribes. The program is now managed by the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department. So far, we’ve received nearly $60 million dollars and grants from the fund have been made to every county in North Dakota. We get about $2.4 million every year.

When NASORLO was formed in 1965, the organization needed officers. When it came time to elect a secretary, they looked around the room and, as John told me in a phone call recently, “there were no women in the group (heh heh) and I was the youngest person in the room, so I was named secretary.”

John went back to Bismarck and filed incorporation papers as a non-profit organization with the North Dakota Secretary of State. The organization’s incorporation papers remain in North Dakota today. In fact, many years later, when former North Dakota Parks and Recreation Director Doug Eiken retired, he became Executive Director of NASORLO and he donated the group’s organizational records, including meeting minutes, correspondence, annual meeting material, documentation of activities and projects, printed material, published articles, photographs and films (taking up six feet of shelf space in the North Dakota State Archives) to the State Historical Society of North Dakota, now their “forever home.”

Notice Doug’s title: North Dakota Parks and Recreation Director. In 1977, the State Parks Department and SORA were merged, and renamed the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department. So, while we no longer had a separate Outdoor Recreation Agency, in its new home with the State Parks and Recreation Department, the process of developing and promoting outdoor recreation sites was re-energized, and has been active ever since. Well, maybe not so much lately. Hence Burgum’s announcement.

Under Eiken’s leadership in the 1980s we saw a host of tourism and recreation sites developed and improved with state and mostly federal funds. They include Fort Union and Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Sites, Theodore Roosevelt National Park Visitor Centers, Fort Mandan and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, the Custer House and other historic buildings at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park south of Mandan, as well as many other public places, including the Lawrence Welk Homestead near Strasburg and boat ramps and state parks on Devils Lake. And now a new state park in the Pembina Gorge.

I was State Tourism Director during those days and we worked with the private sector as well, helping a number of private resorts on Lake Sakakawea and Devils Lake. Using a new Roads to Recreation Areas federal funding program, we worked with Highway Commissioner Richard Backes’ staff to build boat ramps and roads to get to them all over the state, as well as interpretive sites at rest areas and even at a golf course in the Badlands.

The Department also sponsored a 25-year run of the Prairie Rose State Games, North Dakota’s Olympic-style multi-sport festival (outdoor recreation), which attracted more than a hundred thousand North Dakotans of all ages (even me) until it was discontinued during Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s time in office. I got a medal for competing in the Volksmarch and got to play a round of golf with legendary Fargo Shanley football coach Sid Cichy. He won.

Yeah, we’ve had a pretty good Outdoor Recreation effort over the years, first as a result of SORA, and then its merger into the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, with great cooperation from the Game and Fish Department, establishing more than 100 new fishing lakes around the state, and building boat ramps to get on them. So while I applaud Governor Burgum’s efforts to revive our emphasis on outdoor recreation, I’m not quite sure why he thinks he is doing anything new with this office. The work is already being done, and has been for many years, in the Parks and Recreation Department. This looks like little more than window dressing to me.

He called the news media to Fort Lincoln State Park this Spring to read that executive order, in which he said the new agency will be “. . .a multiagency body comprised of representatives from Parks and Recreation Department, Department of Commerce, Game and Fish Department, Forest Service, Indian Affairs Commission, Health and Human Services Department, Department of Public Instruction, Department of Transportation, Job Service ND, Department of Water Resources, Department of Trust Lands, North Dakota Historical Society (whose name is actually State Historical Society of North Dakota), and the Outdoor Heritage Fund . . .”

Well. Pretty much the same folks State Outdoor Recreation Agency Director John Greenslit sat around the table with as a member of Bill Guy’s cabinet in the 1960s.

I guess Solomon was right. There is nothing new under the sun. Even if a Governor and would-be Vice President tries to make it so.

Oh, and that primary election? Armstrong and Becker. Or maybe Fedorchak. And 80 percent of the votes will be cast in the Republican column. Maybe 85.

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