As states face tight budgets in the economic downturn, a new report released by Environment America today draws on the experience of 15 states in securing reliable funding for open space programs. Among its key recommendations, Preserving America's Natural Heritage embraces bringing preservation measures directly to the voters – as is happening this fall in Minnesota, Ohio, Colorado, Georgia, and Florida.
“With the exurban real-estate market still reeling, states have a chance to protect their cherished landscapes at bargain prices,” said John Rumpler, Senior Attorney for Environment America. “But without stable funding schemes, many states are missing this historic opportunity to efficiently protect their natural heritage.”
America lost 21.6 million acres of forests, fields, and farmland to development from 1992 to 2003 – an area larger than the state of Maine. To stem this tide, several states set up programs to buy up remaining open space before it is lost to the next subdivision. But when budgets get tight, legislatures sometimes derail the very funding schemes they established for open space – siphoning off money, even from dedicated revenue streams. The report recommends several accountability measures to solve this problem.
“Nothing secures preservation funding so much as the voice of the voters,” explained Nicole Gentile, Preservation Associate with the group. This fall, voters in three swing states will consider measures that will fund open space programs:
- Minnesota: the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment would dedicate a portion of the sales tax to fund wildlife habitat and parks for the next 25 years.
- Ohio: the Clean Ohio measure would establish a $400 million bond for conservation in the Buckeye state.
- Colorado: Initiative 113 would increase the severance tax on that the oil and gas industry pay to drill on public land and direct 15 percent of that increase to safeguarding wildlife habitat.
The report also has several other recommendations for effective open space programs. For example, the group concludes that multi-year bonding creates the stability required to negotiate real-estate deals over a number of years. But even these well-structured programs have end-dates, and require continued political leadership to renew them. This year, Florida extended its successful Florida Forever program, but in New Jersey, the Garden State Trust Fund now languishes – facing up to a two-year gap in funding if lawmakers fail to act.
In addition, the report suggests that some forests and fields can also be protected with tax incentives for conservation easements. Voters in Florida and Georgia will consider such programs in November. And on a less sanguine note, the report cautions that acquiring public land does not always guarantee protection – noting Michigan’s decisions to encourage more logging in state forests.
“The recent lust for drilling on public lands reminds us that stewardship will require not just ownership but vigilance,” Gentile concluded.