Political Hay

Grassroots Conservation at the Polls

Red state and Blue state voters alike think and act locally on environmental issues.

By 12.5.06

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If the recent election is any indication, Americans have not given up on conservation. They have just discovered an alternative to the federal government.

Conservation and environmental policy is immobilized in Washington. Congress has not reauthorized any environmental laws in a decade, which may not be all bad. At any given moment, two or three of President Bush's nominees for EPA positions are held up in the Senate confirmation process for...whatever.

To the extent that environmental issues and natural resources are federalized, they become terminally polarized, immersed in litigation or Byzantine regulatory processes. Legislative or regulatory proposals emanating from the right and left are either blocked or punted to the courts. Issues relating to wetlands, endangered species, forest management, drilling in the Arctic, or air quality are piled on by environmental advocates and business lobbyists alike.

The recent American Environmental Values Survey (October 3rd) revealed that Americans, while valuing the outdoors, have concerns that are "divergent and polarized." The Survey noted a fading interest in environmental issues.

Moreover, only 44 percent of respondents were willing to label themselves "environmentalists," and just 48 percent found environmentalists to be "practical." Forty-four percent thought environmental advocates to be "self-righteous." And these were results of a poll sponsored by the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations!

Blessedly, we live in a federal system with vibrant state and local governments, close to the citizenry. While not free of the inevitable political friction, which is inherent in any human institution, the proximity of neighbor to neighbor, the local sense of place, as well as the American can-do spirit allow for freedom of action grounded in community consensus, something that seems to elude Washington, D.C.

THE LAST ELECTION IS a case in point. While Red and Blue states continue to sort out voters by party, there seems to be little difference among them when it comes to land conservation.

According to the Trust for Public Lands, a national conservation organization, of 130 conservation funding measures on the ballot, nationwide, 104 passed authorizing $6.4 billion in new funds for conservation. This was a success rate of 80 percent.

"The election broke two conservation funding records," claims the Trust for Public Lands. "The new funding was the most ever raised for conservation in a November election, and it made 2006 the nation's most lucrative year ever for state and local conservation finance."

Citizens of Red and Blue states and localities all voted for conservation with their ballots and their pocket books. Salt Lake County, Utah, saw voters endorse a $48 million bond issue by 71 percent. In Quincy, Massachusetts, a Community Preservation Act, which included a property tax hike, won 57 percent voter approval.

In the state of Texas, six city and county spending measures, totaling $685 million for parks and conservation, won passing with more than 61 percent of the vote. Ravalli County, Montana, approved a $10 million bond, 58-42 percent.

Nassau County, New York, approved a $100 million bond with 77 percent support; and Beaufort County, South Carolina, renewed its funding for land conservation with a $50 million measure that received 75 percent of the vote.

The voters of Cobb County, Georgia, outside of Atlanta, carried to victory a $40 million bond for land conservation with 72 percent support. In Florida voters approved three out of four county-level financing propositions providing $260 million for open space.

With this election every county in Hawaii now has a dedicated fund for land protection. Seven more cities and towns in Massachusetts voted in funding for parks and land conservation, which now means that one-third of local governments in that Commonwealth have supported funding for open space since 2001.

THERE IS A LONG HISTORY of locally based land and watershed protection often for very practical reasons. In 1896 Seattle developed a long-term plan to gain ownership of the entire Cedar River Watershed and thereby permanently protect that city's major drinking water sources. Today, Seattle owns 100,000 acres in the watershed and is working to restore old logging roads to reduce sediment running off into the water supply.

Protecting landscapes, flood plains, wetlands, and forests is actually a cost-effective approach, say, to flood control and water supply protection, given substantial reductions in storage or treatment costs in favor of the natural filtration processes of these ecosystems.

A study of 27 water suppliers conducted by the Trust for Public Lands and the American Water Works Association in 2002 found that more forest cover means lower treatment costs. For every 10 percent increase in forest cover in the source water area, treatment and chemical costs decreased approximately 20 percent. Moreover, approximately 50 to 55 percent of the variation of treatment costs can be explained by the percentage of forest cover in the source area.

These community-based initiatives often address practical, economic concerns in the course of pursuing conservation goals. In August almost 70 percent of Missouri voters approved a renewal of one-tenth-of-one percent sales tax to support state parks and soil and water conservation with a provision that the tax be placed on the ballot for renewal every 10 years thereafter. According to the Missouri Parks Association, the electorate has supported this same proposal in 1984, 1988, and 1996 by margins of 2 to 1.

This ballot initiative generates annual income in the neighborhood of $82 million, split evenly between the state parks system and soil and water conservation.

Missouri's parks-and-soils tax may be one of the few projects that earned the backing of both the Sierra Club and the Farm Bureau! It also drew the support of multiple constituencies -- campers, hikers, birders, hunters, but also local chambers of commerce, farmers, and agri-business. Parks are economic engines for recreation and tourism in many rural communities, and Missouri was one of the worst states in the Union in terms of soil erosion, a clear threat to agricultural yield and water quality.

TO RECOGNIZE THIS OVERWHELMING, grassroots trend is not to endorse every expenditure of public money or assumption of debt. But it is a valid indicator that Americans, whatever ambivalence they show towards federal environmental laws and programs, are decidedly pro-conservation.

Grassroots conservation affirms the nation's articulated, federal system, the principle of subsidiarity, and the voters' appreciation of the role of state and local governments in dealing with matters close to home. It treats the protection of local landscapes and watersheds as the responsibility of multiple levels of government and not the exclusive preoccupation of Washington.

Free-market environmentalists would prefer that land conservation be undertaken by non-governmental actors such as land trusts or conservancies. The growth in private land trusts has been impressive. According to the Land Trust Alliance, there are over 1,600 land trusts in the United States which have protected approximately 11.9 million acres. (These are the latest figures, not yet posted on the Alliance's website). While such private initiative is always to be preferred and encouraged, state and local action in protecting land through acquisition or conservation easements has certain attractions.

First, it is preferable to regulation or overly prescriptive land-use controls. Land purchases, especially those exercised without recourse to eminent domain, embody the freedom and flexibility of a market transaction and the protection of property rights. The Nature Conservancy, the world's largest conservation organization, used to have an old marketing slogan: "We protect the environment the old-fashioned way. We buy it." State and local ballot initiatives partake of that spirit.

State and local initiatives, nurtured and sustained by smaller political jurisdictions close to home, are more likely to express organic community values than the gargantuan federal government ever could.

Federalism and the principle of subsidiarity, assign responsibility to the appropriate level of government. Interstate air pollution is rightfully a federal concern. Groundwater protection is probably not. And state and local governments should not be overshadowed by an over-extended, dysfunctional federal government.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.