GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Voters across the nation are deciding whether to set aside billions of dollars for parks and preservation in what some environmentalists are calling one of the most significant elections for land conservation in American history.
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Pollsters say it's one of the few places on Tuesday's ballots where voters of all kinds can find common ground.
The most money at stake is in Florida, California and New Jersey.
"These are highly developed and dense states, and they are watching the good natural places disappear," said Will Rogers, president and CEO of the Trust for Public Land, which tracks and raises money for the ballot measures. "People know if they don't step up and protect it, it will be gone."
Nationwide, it adds up to more than $15.7 billion overall in taxes and bonds for land and water conservation, the most in a quarter-century of elections, according to the trust's data, which was independently verified by The Associated Press.
Other states with significant conservation funding on their ballots include Utah, New Mexico, North Dakota and Oregon. There are local measures, too: voters in Larimer County, Colorado could renew a sales tax to generate $131 million over 25 years for open spaces.
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"One of the things we see in this hyper-partisan age is that support for these measures can extend across party lines," said Lori Weigel, a pollster in Denver, Colorado, who has been tracking voter preferences on this year's measures. "There's something appealing about conserving these natural areas, whether that's for sportsmen like hunters or environmentalists."
The dynamic has shown up even in tax-averse Alabama, where 75 percent of voters amended the constitution in 2012 to fund open spaces with oil revenues after a campaign targeting hunters and environmentalists. In Missouri, 71 percent voted in 2006 to renew a sales tax for parks and erosion control that originally passed by just 50.1 percent in 1984.
"It has worked really well. We have over 80 state parks and not only are they nice places but they bring in a lot of tourist revenue," said William Lowry, a political science professor who focuses on environmental issues at Washington University in St. Louis.
Florida voters are considering a constitutional amendment that would dedicate $18 billion in existing real estate taxes to environmental protection over the next two decades. About half the revenue would go to buy nearly 2 million acres — pockets of wilderness including swamplands, beaches and other places that link key corridors of open space where wildlife can migrate naturally.
New Jersey's voters could renew and increase a tax on corporations to pay for $2.1 billion for open spaces and farmland.
And drought-suffering Californians are being asked to pass Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion voter initiative to fund more dams on the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to improve water supplies in the central part of the state, where most of the nation's fruits and vegetables are grown. The same bond measure would set aside much less money — about $1.5 billion — for land and watershed conservation.
That's hard to swallow for some environmental advocates. The Natural Resources Defense Council is backing Proposition 1, but the Sierra Club decided to not take a public stance, concerned that resource conservation funding could be dwarfed by the billions going to concrete in the form of new dams.
The scope of the initiative is so vast, chances are that environmentalists don't truly understand its overall effects on land and water resources, said Sejal Choksi, program director of San Francisco Baykeeper. Choksi expressed skepticism about the "vague language and the state's shabby history of water policy implementation," and said the proposition's wording opens too many loopholes for developers.
In Florida and New Jersey, business groups and Gov. Chris Christie are against locking in environmental funding, saying that the Legislature needs power to move money where it's most needed in tough times.
But the measures' backers feel good about Tuesday, optimistic that the strengthening economy has made voters willing to pay to preserve natural resources for future generations.
"Wherever you look, in the interior West, in the Rust Belt, the Sun Belt, people care about places, they care about nature and are willing to vote with their wallets to do something about it," Rogers said.
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