One thing Americans can agree on

Politicians, pundits and ordinary people are scanning the horizon for clues about the deeper meaning of the November 4 election. Are voters shifting to the right, or did the Republican gains in the House and Senate primarily reflect dissatisfaction with an unpopular Democratic president?  With record amounts of political money spent on negative advertising, has the electorate become more polarized than ever?  Is there a political center anymore—something that a large majority of Americans can agree on?

Flying under the radar was a long list of ballot measures to authorize government spending for land conservation, restoration and related environmental purposes. 

California voters considered a $7 billion water bond that included over $1 billion for land conservation.  In New Jersey, the legislature put a $2.8 billion constitutional amendment on the ballot.  That measure was to dedicate a portion of the state corporate business tax for twenty years to fund the state’s GreenAcres land conservation program.  And in Florida, another constitutional amendment offered voters a chance to raise an estimated $18 billion from real estate filing fees to fund the Florida Forever conservation program and restore the Everglades.

Along with state and local measures in locations as diverse as Montana, Michigan and Maine, North Dakota and New Mexico, South Carolina and Oregon, over $25 billion in funding for land conservation and restoration was on the 2014 general election ballot.  How did these measures fare?

Almost all of them were approved.  And with these elections, over $23 billion will be guaranteed for future land protection and restoration.  In fact, November 4 proved to be the most important day for funding land conservation in America’s history.

Most of these measures didn’t just squeak by—they were landslide victories.

  • In Florida, where an acrimonious race for the governor’s office dominated headlines and split voters’ support, the Florida Water and Land Legacy Initiative garnered a smashing 75% of the vote.
  • In New Jersey, despite the governor’s opposition to the measure, 65% of the electorate cast their votes in favor of the land conservation program.
  • In California, the water bond won over 67% of the voters.

For those of us in the business of land conservation, these results were not a surprise.  According to the Trust for Public Land’s LandVote database, three-quarters of all ballot measures for land conservation since the beginning of this century have been successful.  One of my favorite examples is a state constitutional amendment that was considered by Alabama voters in 2012.  This levy on offshore gas operations will raise $300 million for the Alabama Forever Wild program over a twenty-year period.  The measure was backed by the Sierra Club on the left and the National Rifle Association on the right and by almost every other group in between that has an interest in America’s outdoors.  That measure also passed in a landslide, with 75% of the vote.

Politics has become so divisive in recent years, and Americans seem polarized around so many issues, including the environment.  New government spending is almost always controversial, particularly when new taxes are involved.  So what’s going on with these ballot measures?  Why are they so successful?

The Trust for Public Land often uses public opinion surveys to understand how Americans feel about parks and land conservation. Based on those surveys, we know that protecting America’s legacy of open lands is important to every demographic group.  Republicans, Democrats and Independents all support land conservation, both men and women, as do people of all ages and colors and incomes.

In fact, support for the environment in general is strong. People may have very different opinions on some of the narrow, hot-button issues of the day, like the Keystone XL pipeline or the re-introduction of wolves, but there is almost universal agreement that clean air and water are essential, and that protecting the environment is not bad for our economy.

And when it comes to new government spending for protecting open lands—our natural areas, our farms and ranches, and the lands that protect our drinking water sources—voters really understand that these are wise investments that will pay dividends far into the future.  You only have to protect a farm once to keep it available for producing crops forever.  And once you buy the land over your aquifer, it will always filter and purify your water supply.

But is Texas different from the rest of the country when it comes to land conservation?  Something like 97 percent of the state is privately owned, and historically there has been very little role for government in protecting land.

To answer this question, it’s instructive to look at LandVote once again.  There has never been a statewide ballot measure for land conservation funding in Texas.  But since 1990, there have been 99 ballot measures at the local government level.  And 89 of them have been successful.  This passage rate of 90 percent is much higher than the national average.  Most of these measures have been in and around the state’s cities, where most of the population lives.  So these elections probably give us some indication of what most people in the state prefer.  Who would have guessed that Texans have such a hearty appetite for government spending on land conservation?

Another indicator is public opinion polling.  Going back fifteen years, conservation groups in the state have sponsored public opinion surveys to gauge whether Texas voters would support greater investment in state parks and conservation programs.  The answer has been a strong “yes.”  In particular, voters have been asked about the state sales tax on sporting goods as a funding source. 

Many years ago, the legislature “dedicated” this funding to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.  But that doesn’t happen without a legislative appropriation, so not much of the funding has made its way to its intended purpose.  According to the polling, voters would really like to see that change.

Texas missed the November 2014 bandwagon of funding for land conservation.  But maybe not too far in the future, the citizens of Texas will be given the chance to make a decision on protecting the state’s legacy of open lands.  November 2016 would be a good date to shoot for.


Ernest Cook oversees the national divisions of The Trust for Public Land that provide TPL's conservation services. Ernest holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a Master's in Public Administration from New York University. Follow The Trust for Public Land on Twitter @TPL_org.

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