Public Ballot Measures Unlock Billions of Dollars for Conservation Nationwide

A new WRI report explores what makes public ballot measures successful and how they can help conserve forests in the U.S. South.

Public conservation ballot measures are a means to secure citizen approval to raise public funds for conservation. They allow people to vote at the state or local level to approve new public funding—from bonds, taxes, lottery proceeds, or other sources—to dedicate to the conservation of natural landscapes, bodies of water, and/or farmland.

These ballot measures have a strong track record of success in the United States. Between 1988 and 2010, voters secured more than $58 billion for conservation.76 percent of proposed ballot measures were approved. In fact, these measures have received public support even during periods of economic recession, such as 1990-91 and 2008-09.

For example, Maine voters have passed five bonds to fund the “Land for Maine’s Future” program, which invested over $57 million dollars in the protection of more than 504,000 acres of land between 1998 and 2008. This acreage is more than threefold the amount acquired by funds approved by the state legislature.

But how can these measures help fund more conservation in the southern United States? The World Resources Institute’s new issue brief Funding for Forests: The Potential of Public Ballot Measures explores what makes ballot measures successful and how lessons learned can increase support for conservation of forests and other open space in the South.

How have ballot measures fared so far in the U.S. South?

Southern states raised approximately $7.5 billion between 1988-2010 from ballot measures for conservation, with a high average passage rate of 82 percent. The passage of these measures, however, has varied significantly among states. To date, Florida and Texas have each passed more than 80 measures, while Tennessee and Louisiana have only passed 1 measure each, and Mississippi and Kentucky have not passed any measures (Table 1).

Most of the ballot measures passed tend to be local, with the vast majority at the municipal and county, rather than state level. Though local, these measures can be quite successful in raising large amounts of funding for conservation. For instance, Martin County, Florida, passed a ½ percent increase in sales tax in 2006 that approved $60 million for clean water, wildlife habitat, and park improvements.

Several factors may have contributed to the disparities among southern states.

  • Some states and counties experienced greater rates of population growth, and therefore development pressure, during this time period. For instance, while Florida’s population grew approximately 52 percent between 1988 and 2010, Mississippi’s only grew about 15 percent.

  • In some states, other uses of publicly raised funds may out-compete land conservation. For example, counties in Tennessee often use up their capacity to fund bonds by focusing on funding for educational purposes, leaving little room for funding conservation.

Overall, there is significant need for ballot measures in the region to help finance conservation given that 31 million acres of forest – an area the size of North Carolina – is slated to be lost to development by 2040 in the South if current trends continue.

How can the U.S. South increase conservation funding from ballot measures?

The conservation-related ballot measure has a proven track record of use in the South. It has been effective in raising large amounts of funds, and, where applied, appears to enjoy strong public support. So what can be done to ramp up utilization of this promising approach? Several actions could help achieve this objective:

  • Introduce more conservation-related ballot measures. These measures have been particularly under-utilized in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Tennessee (Table 1). The focus should be at the local level. For instance, currently only [4 percent of counties] (node/12165) in the South have passed ballot measures.

  • Continue to emphasize bonds but consider other funding mechanisms too, where applicable. In the South and in the U.S. overall, bonds are the most popular funding source for conservation. They allow public entities to purchase land more quickly and the payback occurs over a longer time period. In addition, most states already have the authority under existing policies to authorize bonds and give authority to counties and municipalities to do the same. Depending on what enabling authority is allowed, southern states and jurisdictions should also consider more aggressively pursuing other funding mechanisms that raise more money on average per ballot measure than bonds. For example, on a per-measure basis, lottery proceeds raised $626 million, oil and gas revenues raised $400 million, and dedicated portions of sales taxes raised $124 million, while bonds raised $32 million. It is important to assess, however, the local political feasibility of each candidate mechanism.

  • Leverage existing “best practice” guidance on how to design and successfully pass conservation-related ballot measures. Experience over the past several decades has generated a number of lessons learned and best practices for successfully preparing and passing conservation-related ballot measures. For instance, in polls of seven southern counties, 61 percent of citizens, on average, supported bond measures to raise funds for land conservation in their respective counties, especially when aimed at protecting water quality and drinking water sources. A number of guides are available to help members of state, county, or municipal governments, citizens, conservation organizations, and other stakeholders successfully introduce conservation-related ballot measures. These include the Conservation Campaign Toolkit and the Conservation Finance Handbook: How Communities are Paying for Parks and Land Conservation.

Conservation-related ballot measures have already unlocked billions of dollars for conservation nationwide and have tremendous potential for growth in the South. For more information and discussion on how to increase the use of public ballot measures in the South, please download Funding for Forests: The Potential of Public Ballot Measures.

To access this brief and other issue briefs in the Southern Forests for the Future Incentives Series, and to learn more about southern U.S. forests, visit: Developed by WRI with support from Toyota, this interactive site provides a wide range of information about southern forests, including current and historic satellite images that allow users to zoom in on areas of interest, overlay maps showing selected forest features and drivers of change, historic forest photos, and case studies of innovative approaches for sustaining forests in the region. To order free hard copies of this issue brief, and other briefs in the Southern Forests for the Future Incentives Series, please contact us.