Bison herd, Broken Kettle Grasslands, Loess Hills, Iowa. Conservation easements are an effective protection for areas like this one along the Missouri River that face strip mining or overdevelopment. Photo courtesy of Chris Helzer/The Nature Conservancy.

It was a much repeated theme in last November’s midterm elections: the public wanted government to spend less, not more.

But in one far less remarked-upon area of government, the opposite was true. When the issue was conserving public lands, voters had rarely been so enthusiastic:

  • In Iowa, a landslide 63 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment that will permanently dedicate $150 million a year in state sales tax revenue for land, water, and farmland protection.
  • In Oregon, a measure dedicating a portion of state lottery funds that will generate $100 million a year for parks and natural resources passed with a majority in every county.
  • And in Maine, 59 percent of voters approved a statewide bond measure that will provide for investment in land conservation and the preservation of working waterfronts and state parks.

Even Butler County, Ohio—home of Speaker of the House John Boehner, who rode to leadership on a vow to shrink government—passed a $22 million measure for land acquisition and park maintenance.

All told, voters nationwide passed twenty-eight of thirty-five proposals for conservation funding in November—an approval rate of 80 percent—and generated a total of about $2 billion for conservation work nationally, according to The Trust for Public Land, a Hewlett Foundation grantee that works on land conservation issues. And over the course of 2010, the success rate was even slightly higher, with Americans approving thirty-nine of forty-eight conservation-related ballot measures, according to The Nature Conservancy, another Foundation grantee working in this area.

The Underlying Strategy

These two grantees are linchpins in one part of the Foundation’s grantmaking strategy for western land conservation. The strategy focuses on making grants to protect wilderness, increase public funding for private land conservation, improve river flows, increase energy efficiency and renewable energy investments, and pursue responsible fossil fuel development. An important aspect of this approach involves engaging western constituencies such as ranchers, hunters, anglers, Latinos, faith-based groups, Native Americans, and environmental interests in support of improved land, water, and energy policy in the region. More information about the Foundation’s western conservation strategy can be found here.

Ultimately, the Foundation makes grants in these three areas in order to improve the ecological integrity of 300 million high-priority acres of land in the North American West by the year 2035. This, in turn, is part of the overall goal of the Foundation’s Environment Program: to ensure the ecological integrity of the West for wildlife and people.

By law, the Foundation is prohibited from funding lobbying. Instead, it works to achieve conservation goals by making grants to organizations such as The Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy so they can offer a wide range of technical assistance and research to identify crucial parcels of land and create plans to have them set aside for conservation. It is work that a broad swath of the public usually supports, as the recent election suggests.

“What’s fascinating is that, year in and year out, regardless of political trends or whether a state is liberal or conservative, people vote for open space,” says Michael Scott, an officer in the Foundation’s Environment Program who manages grants for land conservation. “When asked to vote with their pocketbooks, people understand the value to them personally of protecting open space, everywhere from an urban park to a wildlife preserve. Not every land conservation measure passes, but a great majority do.”

Indeed, a fall 2009 survey of voter sentiment about land conservation commissioned by The Nature Conservancy reflected the depth of this support. The telephone survey, jointly conducted just after the official end of the Great Recession by the Democratic polling firm of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates and the Republican polling firm of Public Opinion Strategies, queried 800 voters nationwide with a 3.8 percent margin of error.

Willing to Pay to Protect Land

Among the findings was that three in five voters surveyed support increased public investments in land conservation at the local, state, and federal levels. More importantly, a significant majority—59 percent—were willing to back this by paying as much as $100 more in annual taxes. The survey also found that this support springs from voters’ strong personal connection to this issue: 70 percent of all voters identified themselves as conservationists, and more than four in five reported having visited a local or state park in the past year.

And while jobs and the economy were the top concerns of those surveyed, 76 percent agreed with the statement, “We can protect land and water and have a strong economy with good jobs for Americans at the same time, without having to choose one over the other.”

Dee Frankfourth, associate national director of conservation finance for The Trust for Public Land, says the high success rate of conservation measures depends not just on public support but on hard work behind the scenes. Since 1996, the Trust has helped more than 400 state and local jurisdictions generate almost $32 billion to protect land for parks, trails, open space, forests, watersheds, wilderness, historic landmarks, farms, and ranches.

Frankfourth works in locations throughout the country to gauge local support for proposals to protect land parcels. Meanwhile, the Trust’s research department determines everything from the cost of the land to the historical support for land conservation in the jurisdiction in question. “Our process is tried and true. That’s what makes the difference,” Frankfourth says. “If the initial signs are positive, the Trust will move on to conducting polling to determine public support.”

Sometimes a quandary arises when local conservationists have labored for years to preserve a parcel, but the research suggests public support is not yet sufficient to assure success, she says.

Remaining Obstacles to Surmount

Of course, not all the trends in land conservation are positive. While public support for the issue remains high, state and local governments, strapped for cash as a result of falling revenues, are looking everywhere for money to balance budgets.

“It’s a challenge to preserve funding that has already been won,” Eleanor Morris, a policy associate with The Nature Conservancy, says of budget cutbacks. For example, “state agencies tasked with wildlife protection are being gutted all over. In the Northwest, take the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition. In the past, it’s had $100 million in funding. And it’s a line item in that state’s budget, so it doesn’t have statutory protection.”

“It makes us more aware that we need to solidify gains when times are good,” she continues. “Getting funding in perpetuity is always our first position.”

The Nature Conservancy uses public opinion research, both polling and focus groups, to develop data on various constituencies in the West. Through its polling work, effective messages, materials, and state and local partnerships, the organization builds statewide public education programs that transform this information into support for conservation.

Both Morris and Frankfourth say ultimate success for their two organizations will be measured over the course of generations, with Frankfourth adding that it will entail every governmental jurisdiction with land that might be protected having a dedicated fund for that purpose.

Meanwhile, says Andrew du Moulin, national programs director at the Center for Conservation Finance Research at The Trust for Public Land, the work “just keeps on unfolding. New land conservation projects keep presenting themselves, and the public keeps raising big bucks to support them.”



February 2011 Newsletter