As states face tight budgets in the economic downturn, a new report released by Environment Ohio today draws on the experience of 15 states in securing reliable funding for open space programs. Among its key recommendations, Preserving Our Natural Heritage embraces bringing preservation measures directly to the voters – as is happening this fall in Minnesota, Ohio, Colorado, Georgia, and Florida.
“With the exurban real-estate market still reeling, states have a chance to protect their cherished landscapes at bargain prices,” said Amy Gomberg from Environment Ohio. “But without stable funding, many states are missing this historic opportunity to efficiently protect their natural heritage.”
America lost 21.6 million acres of forests, fields, and farmland to development from 1992 to 2003 – an area larger than the state of Maine. To stem this tide, several states set up programs to buy up remaining open space before it is lost to the next subdivision. But when budgets get tight, legislatures sometimes derail the very funding schemes they established for open space – siphoning off money, even from dedicated revenue streams. The report recommends several accountability measures to solve this problem.
"Nothing secures preservation funding so much as the voice of the voters," explained Steve Caminati Chairman for the Citizens for a Clean Ohio "this is the continuation of a vital quality of life issue that has broad-based, bi-partisan support."
This fall, voters in three swing states will consider measures that will fund open space programs:
• Minnesota: the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment would dedicate a portion of the sales tax to fund wildlife habitat and parks for the next 25 years.
• Ohio: the Clean Ohio Fund measure would establish a $400 million bond for conservation in the Buckeye state.
• Colorado: Initiative 113 would increase the severance tax that the oil and gas industry pays to drill on public land (to 5 percent of revenue) and direct 15 percent of that increase to safeguarding wildlife habitat.
Ohio’s proposed Clean Ohio Fund will be listed as Issue #2 on the Ohio ballot this fall. The program, which was originally approved by Ohio voters in 2000, has proven to be a huge success. Since it was passed eight years ago, the Clean Ohio Fund has:
• Protected more than 26,000 acres of wildlife habitat and 20,000 acres of farmland;
• Created 216 miles of recreational trails;
• Cleaned-up more than 173 abandoned industrial sites.
Joe Reidy, an attorney who heads the brownfields practice group at Schottenstein Zox & Dunn Co. LPA. pointed to brownfield redevelopment as a crucial part of the Clean Ohio Fund.
“The Clean Ohio funding allows developers to choose to redevelop a polluted industrial site in an urban area rather than bulldoze over undeveloped farmland” Reidy said. "Because the cost to redevelop brownfield sites is significantly more than to develop cornfields, the Clean Ohio helps to fill that gap and level the playing field."
The money available for farmland and green space preservation has also gone to good use in Ohio. The Tecumseh Land Trust, has been involved in over 30 Clean Ohio Fund projects in western Ohio.
“The Clean Ohio Fund has had a tremendously positive impact on our community” state Krista Magaw, the Executive Director of the Tecumseh Land Trust. “That is why we are urging voters all across the state to vote yes on issue #2 this November.”
Lastly, the report cautions that acquiring public land does not always guarantee protection – noting Michigan’s decisions to encourage more logging in state forests. Ohio’s legislative leaders, too, are considering proposals to allow oil and gas drilling in Ohio’s state parks and nature preserves.
“The recent lust for drilling on public lands reminds us that stewardship will require not just ownership but vigilance,” Gomberg concluded. “We urge Ohio’s lawmakers to protect Ohio’s state parks for future generations, not hand them over to the oil and gas industry.”