From its present stance as the only nation that is not a member of the Paris Agreement to its reduction of public lands protections at the federal and state level, the United States appears be failing to lead on environmental causes when compared to other developed nations. But while voters elected the officials who implemented many of these policies, the public seems to care deeply about conservation, as shown by popular voting behaviors for ballot measures.
Voters tend to provide robust support for ballot measures to fund public land conservation projects. These proposals can range from preserving large swaths of forests to maintaining a park in a large city. This support may not be reflected in their choices of political leaders – but these ballot initiatives suggest that voters have a strong desire to promote conservation.
According to The Trust for Public Land’s LandVote Database, 2,645 land conservation initiatives have been voted on at the local or state level between the years 1988 and 2017. These measures had above a 75 percent success rate. They have cumulatively raised over $76 billion to support public land conservation. This support has remained mostly constant and healthy throughout the past several decades, though fewer measures made it onto ballots during the Great Recession.
A University of Chicago study titled “Demand for Environmental Goods: Evidence from Voting Patterns on California Initiatives” finds that supporters of public conservation tend to be more highly educated than average. They are also less likely to live in areas where resource-extractive industries are a strong foundation of the local economy.
“The Successes and Unknowns of Conservation Ballot Initiatives,” published by The Nature Conservancy’s website, reported that jurisdictions which pass conservation referenda are likely to have greater species biodiversity than average. They are also likely to have a higher proportion of residents who live below the poverty line than is typical. From Boston to Boise, ballot measures have won at the polls in a diverse array of political climates.
One reason these ballot measures seem to be popular with voters is that their focus on the local and state-level issues brings the consequences close to home.
“When it’s their community, when it’s their area, I think that does make a difference,” said Lori Faeth, government relations director at Land Trust Alliance.
For example, in 2012, Alabama voters renewed funding for the state’s Forever Wild program by a three-to-one margin. The renewal allowed Forever Wild to continue its mission of obtaining and preserving land for public use.
According to Tammy Monistere Herrington, executive director of Conservation Alabama, conservation is “not really a red or blue issue... People tend to be really attached to having access to those public lands in their backyards.”
Conservationists can develop messaging to voters that focuses on local areas and inspires community pride, giving voters a more intimate connection to the conservation initiatives on their ballots.
Additionally, ballot measures allow conservationists to clearly articulate the importance of public lands. In particular, advocates have found that messaging around water quality can be tremendously effective in generating support for referenda.
According to The Nature Conservancy’s "The Language of Conservation" memo, "Voters consistently tell us that nothing is more important than having clean water to drink. Ensuring reliable supplies of clean water cannot be stressed enough as a primary rationale for conservation."
Eleanor Morris, a senior policy advisor with The Nature Conservancy, said this is because “voters inherently see how water connects to everything around them.”
A 2016 Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Americans believe their drinking water is at risk of pollution.
Will Abberger, conservation finance director at The Trust for Public Land, said connecting conservation to clean water is effectively “raising the issue from an environmental issue to a public health issue.”
Effective messaging around water can simultaneously persuade voters who are on the fence about conservation and encourage robust turnout among traditional supporters of the environment.
Last, another benefit of referenda is that they allow voters to consider conservation in isolation without numerous competing priorities to factor into their decision-making. This differs from federal and state elections, where voters have to consider a wide range of issues and choose which they value most.
Abberger said that in federal or state candidacy races, the “environment is not a top-of-line issue for most voters.” Instead, issues like the national economy, foreign policy, and social causes can take precedence. A ballot measure allows the public to assert its support for conservation independent of other policy priorities.
However, the success of ballot initiatives is not without its limits. While conservation referenda are frequently passed, substantial legwork is necessary to get the measure to a vote.
Faeth said she has found that a “tremendous amount of work goes into researching whether or not something goes on the ballot.” Conservationists have to consider the environmental rationale for the change as well as legal and political hurdles.
Morris said there is an increasing “barrier to getting on the ballot” as signature requirements are being increased in many parts of the country. For instance, a 2016 effort backed by the oil and gas industry made it much harder to get proposals to a vote in Colorado. Supporters cannot just garner a standardized total number of signatures to get on the ballot; they must now also ensure they get signatures from every state senate district.
Across the country, state requirements for signatures to get a measure in front of the voting public range from 2-15 percent of the number of voters in the past election. Additionally, many states require publicly-approved questions to also be passed by the legislature, adding an additional hurdle to implementing reform.
Faeth said there is “not any one single answer to the funding question.” Public land conservation depends on strong federal funding and support. Local and state ballot measures cannot fully compensate for robust federal action – nor can they create the consistent support for conservation that is needed.
“You do need a system that can be standardized from state to state,” Morris said. Patchwork conservation efforts along state borders can often create inconsistencies in protections.
The high passage rate of land conservation measures might not be replicable for other environmental causes. Abberger said policy reforms not directly related to funding, such as regulations, often encounter the opposition of powerful special interest groups or voters concerned about property rights. Certain methods of taxation can draw the ire of prominent advocacy groups.
For instance, in North Dakota a 2014 ballot proposal to finance conservation activities through a state tax on oil was defeated. Opposition to the effort was led by the Greater North Dakota Chamber. The American Petroleum Institute spent significantly to counter the advocacy and funding of conservation groups on this measure.
The public initiative process is designed to give voters a more direct method to guide policy, yet frequently grassroots groups can get drowned out by special interests.
According to Faeth, 25 to 30 of these land conservation measures could be on the ballot this November alone. For decades, conservationists have found ballot initiatives successful at motivating voters to support protections for public lands.
While it might not be reflected in their recent choices of political leaders, voters care deeply about land conservation. Their support for conservation ballot measures is likely to become even more essential to environmentalists in the next several election cycles.