Surprise: Conservation counted in the last election

  To many people who care about the West's publicly owned lands, the Nov. 5 election results fell somewhere between disastrous and catastrophic.


Voters handed control of the Senate back to the Republican Party and enlarged its majority in the House of Representatives, thereby sweeping away the fragile congressional roadblock that had hampered Bush administration efforts to poke loopholes into key federal environmental laws. In post-election conversations with reporters, environmental activists decried the outcome, one going so far as to suggest it meant "political Armageddon in the nation's forests."


But at the state and local levels, voters also embraced a remarkable number of ballot measures intended to preserve wildlife habitat and open space, approving 79 of the 99 such measures nationwide, and authorizing $2.6 billion in public funding for land acquisition.


Election Day thus produced a striking dichotomy between the results of Senate and House races "- which Republican leaders in Washington will be tempted to regard as a mandate to accelerate drilling and mining on public lands, and to exempt logging and road construction from citizen challenges "- and the fate of ballot measures intended to put more land off-limits to development and resource extraction.


The paradoxical election outcomes suggest that it is premature, if not inaccurate, to regard the restoration of single-party dominance in Washington as a referendum on the drill-and-cut agenda being pressed by many Western lawmakers and their kindred spirits in the White House. As it so often does, California skewed the national data. The state's voters approved Proposition 50, a $1.5-billion land-acquisition initiative intended primarily to safeguard watersheds critical to California's urban and agricultural water supplies, thereby accounting for 58 percent of the conservation funding approved nationwide on Nov. 5. Two other big measures that won approval "- Question 1 in Nevada, which included $89.5 million for land acquisition, and Question 2 in Virginia, which included $36.5 million for the same purpose "- brought the total to more than $1.6 billion. The remaining $1 billion in voter-approved spending was scattered all over the country, according to the Trust for Public Land and the Land Trust Alliance, which tracked such measures in 22 states. They included three local measures in New York worth a total of $315 million and one worth $221 million in Charleston County, S.C. Other large measures included $4.5 million in Lake Oswego, Ore.; $19.8 million in Coconino County, Ariz ; $37 million in Northampton County, Penn.; $20 million in Dakota County, Minn.; $120 million in Fort Collins, Colo.; $63.7 million in Collier County, Fla.;.; and $8.4 million Kirkland, Wash.


Not all the measures that won approval Nov. 5 authorized bonds, a relatively painless way for voters to spend money since it does not come directly out of their pockets. Many involved tax increases: Voters in Colorado, Arizona and Massachusetts, among other states, boosted the sales tax to buy land; voters in several jurisdictions in Florida, Michigan, New Jersey and Washington raised the property tax rate; those in several Pennsylvania communities raised the income tax.


Given the economic doldrums gripping many of these states, their tax revenues driven down by diminished corporate earnings and plummeting stock values that have erased capital gains and eviscerated retirement accounts, the willingness of voters to spend money was remarkable. Yet the Nov. 5 vote was not an anomaly. During primary elections earlier this year, voters in 47 communities in 14 states approved $2.7 billion in conservation spending.


Many of these conservation measures won support in parts of the country that were crucial to President Bush\'s 2000 election and to the GOP's Nov. 5 mid-term victory "- Florida, Colorado, South Carolina, Oregon. This suggests that the length of Bush's campaign coattails this fall had more to do with the electorate's craving for stability and security in the face of international threats than an endorsement of his administration's efforts to roll back Clinton-era environmental protections. Rightly or wrongly, voters still tend to regard the GOP as the party to trust when the shooting starts.


If the shooting doesn't start, however, they'll focus again on other priorities. And given their demonstrated willingness to open their wallets on Nov. 5, those priorities include protecting lands they hold dear from exactly the sort of activities the Bush administration hopes to accelerate.


John Krist is a contributor to Writers on the Range, as service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is senior reporter and opinion page columnist for the Star in Ventura, California.