Northern Plains Heritage Area’s Dubious Process of Designation
Monday, June 08, 2009
NDPC Investigates by Jacqueline Dotzenrod
Issue: Property Rights

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Northern Plains Heritage Foundation Director and North Dakota State Senator Tracy Potter organized a lobbying effort to get more than half a million acres of private property designated as the Northern Plains Heritage Area in March (See Figure 1 below), by the US Congress, without disclosing such efforts to the IRS, which is required by law. He also convinced a congressional subcommittee, in 2007, that such a designation had widespread public support, when it did not.

A National Heritage Area (NHA) is designated by Congress and defined as a place where natural, cultural, historic, and recreational resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally distinctive landscape arising from patterns of human activity shaped by geography. They are typically managed by a designated non-profit, which writes a management plan for the area and administers the federal and local government funds that accompany the area. Currently, there are 49 total NHAs throughout the United States.

The Northern Plains Heritage Area in North Dakota is part of the newest batch created by the Omnibus Land Management Act of 2009 and encompasses 800 square miles in five counties – Burleigh, McLean, Mercer, Morton and Oliver. The Northern Plains Heritage Foundation (NPHF) was created to write the management plan for the NHA and manage the federal and local funds put into it.

In 2005, the NPHF Board began as a sub-group of the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation, which is also administered by Potter. In 2007, the NPHF received a $62,000 federal grant and split away from the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation. In fact, the NPHF filed its own Form 990 – the tax return filed by non-profit organizations – which revealed that a portion of the federal funds ($8,446.22 - Page 2) were used to pay for Potter’s trip to testify at the subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C. And the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation hired lobbyists to urge the passage of the NHA.

The Greystone Group, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying organization which also does work for a handful of North Dakota colleges, filed a 2007 lobbying report for the work that was done on behalf of the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation in support of the NHA designation. However, the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation reported on its Form 990 that it did not lobby. Clearly, however, the non-profits were attempting to influence legislation.

According to the Greystone Group’s disclosure reports, both the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation and the NPHF lobbied for the Northern Plains National Heritage Area Act, in 2008. And in 2009, the NPHF lobbied for S. 22 – a bill which included the NPHA designation.

In testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks, Potter also claimed that there was public support for the NHA designation.

“In public hearings before city and county commissions the meaning of such a program has been discussed and the commissions have unanimously provided their encouragement,” Potter testified.

The NPHF met with the commissions and several civic organizations to discuss the idea of a National Heritage Area designation in 2005 and 2006. However, not all five county commissions Potter referred to offered up support for the designation, as letters that appear in the feasibility study and meetings minutes show. (Click HERE and HERE to view the letters.)

“The McLean County Board of Commissioners are looking forward to the public meetings and hearing the results of the public comments,” County Commission Chairman Ron Krebsbach wrote in January 2006. According to the McLean County auditor Leslie Korgel, McLean County did not have a public hearing and only approved the feasibility study.

Burleigh County Commission meeting minutes (Page 2) from January 6, 2006, note that the NPHF explained the proposed NHA and asked for support for the study. The minutes do not note a public hearing was held and do not note that the actual designation was supported.

On January 4, 2006, the Bismarck Tribune incorrectly reported that the NPHF “would be requesting resolutions of support for the designation.” Meeting minutes show that the NPHF was only looking for support for the feasibility study. The Morton County Commission supported the study, but, according to the Bismarck Tribune, fell short of getting support for the designation. According to Morton County auditor Paul Trauger, no public hearings were held. On January 26, 2006, the Beulah Beacon reported that Mercer County supported the NHA designation; however, according to a Mercer County representative, there were no public hearings.

The meetings Potter referred to were not held with the intent to gather public input. Rather, the NPHF delivered presentations to various organizations, implying that public input would be gathered as part of the feasibility study. The meetings were more along the lines of presentations. An unidentified media article, included in the feasibility study, called the meetings “informational meetings,” not public hearings.

The distinction between informational meetings and public hearings is important. In order to approve an NHA, there must be strong public support from stakeholders in the proposed area. Many landowners were not even aware that this process was happening until it was too late.

“I really feel like they didn’t want us to know about it,” landowner Ramona Sailer said at a town hall meeting hosted by the North Dakota Farm Bureau about the area. “I think this whole thing was railroaded through… The private landowner really should have more say.”

It is unclear whether or not anything can be done to reverse the designation since the evidence of Potter’s activities have come to light, but it is clear that many people are not happy with how the process unfolded.

If Potter knowingly misled Congress about the level of public support for the designation and misled the IRS about the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation’s and Northern Plains Heritage Foundation’s lobbying activities, perhaps there could be reconsideration of the designation. At the very least, the matter should be investigated.

It is also unclear how much Sen. Byron Dorgan, the primary backer of the NPHA in the US Senate, was involved in the deception.

Listen to NDPC executive director Brett Narloch discuss this article with Rob Port on AM100 The Flag.

Look for more to come...

Jacqueline Dotzenrod is an investigative reporter for the NDPC. She can be reached at (701)640-9847 or (JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Figure 1: Source, North Dakota Farm Bureau