Preserving America's Natural Heritage: Lessons From States' Efforts to Fund Open Space Protection

Released by: Environment America

Executive Summary

America’s open spaces are an integral part of our national identity. Our natural landscapes not only provide us with places of great beauty, but they also play a critical role in providing habitat for wildlife along with clean water, fresh air and recreational opportunities for Americans. 

With these values at stake, many states—and their taxpaying citizens—have made significant investments in protecting these beautiful landscapes from destructive activities. Nevertheless, America’s woods, fields, and meadows are steadily slipping away. Sprawling, unplanned development and mounting pressure to drill, log, and mine America’s last remaining wilderness areas threaten the health of our environment and communities and jeopardize the natural legacy we will leave to future generations. 

Development covered an additional 21.6 million acres of land in America—an area larger than the state of Maine—between 1992 and 2003. The country lost approximately 34.6 million acres of agricultural land over that same time period—lands that are not only important for the production of food but which also play an important role in local ecosystems. Despite the recent downturn in the real estate market, there is every indication that the long-term trend toward sprawling development will result in continued paving over of woods, pastures and other open spaces across America. 

If states want to save the special places that remain within their borders, they need to redouble their efforts—and quickly. Fortunately, the examples set by existing state land preservation programs hold important lessons for states as they seek to protect their most treasured natural areas. This report profiles the experiences of preservation programs in 15 states as they have striven for consistent and adequate funding for open space protection. 

The experiences of these states suggest that future state-level land preservation efforts in the United States should:  

Plan for and finance preservation over the long-term. States in which funding for preservation is subject to the annual state budget process have a more difficult time sustaining consistent and meaningful land preservation efforts. Consistent funding is important because there is often a very short window of opportunity during which threatened open spaces can be protected. The loss of funding at a critical moment could result in important natural areas being lost forever. The most effective way to ensure long-term stability in funding is to adopt multiyear programs paid for with bonds backed by dedicated revenue streams. States such as Florida, which has established 10-year preservation programs funded through the issuance of bonds, have been able to maintain momentum for their preservation programs without having those efforts interrupted by funding cuts during periods when state budgets are tight. 

Create a dedicated funding stream. States have created a variety of dedicated funding streams for preservation programs – ranging from real estate taxes to a percentage share of lottery revenue to a designated portion of the state’s general sales taxes. In reality, however, no source of funding is truly “dedicated” forever, and legislators in several states have diverted funding from these sources to fill short-term budget holes. The “dedicated” funding sources that appear least likely to be diverted are those that are dedicated in the state constitution to land preservation or are used to secure revenue bonds. Constitutional provisions that dedicate specific funding sources to preservation programs are difficult to overturn. Issuing revenue bonds secured with a stable source of dedicated funding can make it difficult to divert funding from preservation activities while providing consistent funding for preservation needs over a period of time. 

In several states, dedicated sources are not the main source of preservation funding, but still play a useful role in helping a state to diversify its funding stream for preservation, minimizing damage in cases where funding from one source temporarily dries up. 

Set goals and evaluate progress. Several states, including Connecticut and North Carolina, have set numerical goals for the amount of land they wish to preserve through their open space protection programs. In addition, North Carolina produces an annual report evaluating progress toward its “million acre” goal and the challenges faced in achieving that target. These numerical goals enable government officials, preservationists and the public to evaluate the success of a state’s preservation efforts, evaluate where those efforts may be falling short, and devise strategies to address those shortcomings. The quality of land protected is as important as the quantity. State programs should focus on protecting lands of high ecological and community value, for example, by prioritizing the protection of contiguous parcels of open space. Washington, Florida and other states have developed systematic criteria by which they prioritize lands to be protected, ensuring that the investment of state funds delivers the maximum benefit for the environment and state residents. 

Create funding mechanisms that align with preservation priorities. Michigan obtains some of its funds for new state land purchases through revenues from logging and other extractive activities on existing taxpayer-owned lands—a mechanism that undermines preservation goals. Several other states use real estate taxes to fund preservation efforts, generating more revenue for preservation at times when there is greater pressure to develop land. 

Harness local and private-sector resources. Several states rely on local and private efforts to augment state land purchases as part of their overall land preservation strategies. States such as Georgia are using tax credits to encourage private efforts to preserve land, while states such as New Hampshire, Connecticut and Wisconsin offer matching grants to spur the purchase of land by local governments and land trusts. Well-designed tax credits and matching grant programs can enable states to protect more land with less state money and maintain momentum toward land preservation even when state budgets are tight. 

Combine land purchases with effective land-use planning. Oregon has achieved great success in preserving natural and agricultural lands through a combination of innovative land use planning and purchases of important natural areas. Effective planning can reduce the pressure placed by sprawling development on natural areas and play an important role in America’s overall preservation effort. 

Ensure that taxpayers’ lands remain protected. When taxpayers use their hard-earned dollars to purchase forests, fields and mountain valleys, these lands should be protected for future generations. But in some states, powerful industries have been allowed to trample on publicly-owned open spaces. Lands purchased by taxpayers for preservation should not be opened to logging, mining, drilling or other destructive activities. 

Seek public support. Citizens across the country support land preservation. When preservation funding initiatives make it to the ballot – either at the local or state level – they frequently receive overwhelming support. The adoption of preservation funding referendums makes it less likely that lawmakers will choose to override the will of the voters by diverting funding and it helps nurture the civic constituency needed to  maintain a long-term commitment to protecting the country’s natural resources.