George A. Sinner
Governor, North Dakota
North Dakota

Governor George A. Sinner, the recipient of the Special Award for public policy leadership, is renowned as a man who loves an issue in need of a solution. An eternal optimist, he resolved to bring an end to the wetlands disputes and the loss of wetlands in North Dakota.

Through the 1970s and into the 1980s tensions surrounding wetland issues escalated. A collision course between those advocating developing wetlands and those preferring to preserve them was preordained. In North Dakota, the struggle was adorned with the title “the wetland wars.” Perhaps no other contemporary issue in the prairie region has generated so much controversy and animosity.

In North Dakota, about half of the state’s original wetlands remain. The wetlands of the prairie pothole region were very early recognized as a major breeding area for waterfowl in North America. The wetlands that are left in North Dakota provide the habitat that produces about 50 percent of the waterfowl in the United States. Since the settlement of the region began less than 100 years ago, much of the prairie and its associated wetlands have been plowed and cultivated for agriculture. Each year, more and more wetlands were drained. Approximately 95 percent of North Dakota’s wetlands are privately owned. The conflict between agricultural interests and environmentalists over wetlands is one of the most important lasting issues in the region.

In 1987, Governor Sinner established a State Wetlands Management Committee to deal with wetland policy issues as they arose within the state. He worked closely with the state legislature and policy makers in the public and private sectors on wetland matters. As a result of his leadership, North Dakota enacted a no net loss of wetlands law in 1987, which requires that for every acre of wetland destroyed another acre must be restored or created. The purpose of this law is to protect the 2.5 million acres of remaining wetland resources in the state while providing flexibility to allow some conversion to occur. Prior to the passage of the act, wetlands were being lost at the rate of 20,000 acres per year in North Dakota. Since its enactment, there has been a net gain of approximately 2,500 acres of wetlands.

The North Dakota State Water Commission (SWC) and the Game and Fish Department (FGD) have the primary responsibility for implementing the state’s no net loss law. The SWC has the lead in the regulatory component of the program, while the FGD provides biological technical assistance and general oversight. The North Dakota Water Users Association provides wetlands outreach, meeting with local organizations and individuals at the grassroots level on a regular basis. It provides information about the regulatory and nonregulatory aspects of the state’s wetlands protection program, including the Swampbuster provisions of the 1990 Farm Bill. Governor Sinner has used the State Wetlands Management Committee to provide continuity among state agencies.

On the national level, Governor Sinner met regularly with federal agency managers to resolve long-standing wetland management concerns. Through his foresight, he forged a 12-point agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agreement, among other things, establishes procedures for resolution of disputes and conflicts through mediation, the trademark approach of Governor Sinner. Also, as Chairman of the National Governors Association’s Wetlands Committee, Governor Sinner responded to wetlands issues from a cooperative perspective, seeking to establish partnerships between adversaries whenever possible.

In addition, Governor Sinner is the lead governor for the Western Governors Association on water issues. As a member of the Federal Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, he chairs the Senior Advisory Council on Water Governance. Governor Sinner received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Governor Sinner’s efforts were tireless, effective, and unprecedented. Through his leadership, a unique coalition of former adversaries—water-rights, agricultural, and environmental interests—has formed partnerships which are proving mutually beneficial to all North Dakotans.

— Keith Trego, Deputy Director, North Dakota Game and Fish Department