Colorado voters approve record conservation funding in 2020 and 2021


Last year was a banner year for voters across the country who approved taxes that protected open spaces, parks and public lands. There were 51 conservation finance measures on ballots last year and voters approved 50, creating a flow of over $ 3.7 billion for climate, open spaces and parks for the next two decades.

It was a highlight for conservation funding.

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The 2021 election cycle featured fewer ballot conservation measures, but voters again came out in favor of earmarking taxpayer dollars to protect public lands and natural spaces.

“It feels like we might be about to push through something that has been good to really great,” said Conor Hall, director of conservation strategies, policy and advocacy for Intermountain West at the Trust. for Public Land.

The Trust for Public Land – alongside many conservation groups – championed 26 conservation voting measures in 11 states in 2020 and voters adopted them all, marking a first sweep since the trust began helping communities to adopt conservation measures 25 years ago. Typically, the group sees about 85% of the metrics they support win.

Colorado voters last year renewed Adams County’s quarter-cent sales tax, which will bring in about $ 400 million for parks and green spaces over the next 20 years. Denver voters in 2020 approved a quarter-cent climate sales tax that supporters say will generate $ 720 million for climate programs over the next two decades. Voters in 15 Western Slope counties have approved a property tax increase that will allocate $ 100 million over the next 20 years to water projects.

This year, Colorado voters again approved a record amount of conservation funding, setting an off-year election cycle record in Colorado with $ 580 million in funding for the next 20 years.

Arapahoe County Measure 1A continuously directs the county’s quarter-cent sales and use taxes to local parks, nature preserves, trails, farms and conservation projects. Over 20 years, the tax will create funding of approximately $ 560 million. Colorado Springs’ 2D measure allocates $ 20 million in taxes to a regional wildfire mitigation plan. And the rejection of Denver Order 304, which would have lowered the sales and use tax in Denver, protected sales tax funding for parks and climate policies that Denver voters approved in 2018. and 2020.

But it wasn’t a sweep in 2021 like it was in 2020. Conservation groups lost Colorado Springs Measure 2C, which would have doubled a sales tax that funded parks, trails, and open spaces and extended the tax until ‘in 2041.

(Hall said the campaign for 2C enjoyed diverse support, but was unable to overcome “a wave of very conservative voters who turned out to vote in majority-ballot races, mainly involving school boards. “)

Conservation groups see the wave of diverse voters endorsing taxes for land protection in 2020 and 2021 as, perhaps, a new normal. Could conservation become one of the few bipartisan issues that unites voters in urban and rural areas? Hall thinks so.

“I think there is a realization that we need to step up,” Hall said. “People recognize the importance of nature in their lives and they want to protect it for generations to come.”

The same goes for Jessica Goad, deputy director of Conservation Colorado. She finds that the growing population of out-of-state users exceeds the capacity to protect open spaces and access to natural spaces.

“People see this pressure outside every time they go out, so it’s no wonder conservation measures are so successful right now,” she said.

Colorado has a long history of paying taxes to keep natural spaces open, accessible, and free from development. Voters in Boulder County approved one of the state’s first open space sales taxes in 1967. The creation of Great Outdoors Colorado in 1992 raised more than $ 1.3 billion in cash. The Colorado Lottery fund some 5,300 conservation projects in Colorado’s 64 counties.

More recent votes have directed conservation dollars to urban and neglected areas, like the Denver Climate Protection Fund and Arapahoe County 1A.

“You realize the importance of focusing on who has access to conservation funding funds,” Goad said. “We believe that large-scale and large-scale public investment is needed and that conservation should be seen as a core government function similar to infrastructure and law enforcement.”

It’s not just voters who are turning to conservation. Politicians are more willing to spend taxpayer dollars on protecting endangered landscapes, providing water and equitable access to the outdoors.

Recent legislation approving the Keep Colorado Wild Pass, which funds Colorado Parks & Wildlife, shows lawmakers are ready to invest in conservation.

To achieve ambitious goals such as protecting 30% of the country’s land and water by 2030, funding for conservation needs both lawmakers and voters, Goad said.

“Time and time again, Colorado voters say our priority is to invest in conservation and they demonstrate it not only by endorsing conservation measures, but by putting conservation leaders in place,” Goad said. .

Many city dwellers have moved to rural enclaves in the past 18+ months and these newcomers are big fans of outdoor recreation on public lands. Overcrowding at trailheads and in high traffic areas amplifies the need for more trails and places to recreate. And a new wave of rural voters are ready to help pay for this access and expansion.

At the same time, growth pressures in rural communities create more housing and more development.

“All of this rapid change and rapid growth is really drawing people’s attention to how their communities are changing. No matter what your political stripe, you notice these things, ”said Megan Lawson, economist at Headwaters Economics of Montana, a nonprofit research group that studies rural and public land issues.

Some of Lawson’s more recent research shows that more people are moving to counties with lots of recreational opportunities, and these newcomers tend to have higher incomes than people moving to cities. And these new residents seem more willing to spend taxpayer dollars on conservation.

This demographic change reflects recent developments in outdoor recreation.

Playing outdoors, not so long ago, was considered a simple hobby. Today, it is emerging as a key economic engine that anchors rural economies. (The latest federal outdoor recreation accounting – an important tool for framing recreation far more than a side pursuit for pleasure seekers – shows a growing industry contributing $ 688 billion to the U.S. economy.)

More and more communities are trying to build their economies around outdoor recreation and that requires space to play, Lawson said.

“It really doesn’t have to be partisan,” she said. “It really depends on how the conservation is framed and how to ensure that whatever is developed or protected meets the needs of the communities, whether it is a community walking trail or ATV trails or economic development. If the investment is what residents want and need most, it’s no surprise that it is gaining voter approval.

In places where sales taxes have funded conservation for many years, voters often approve of extending these taxes because the benefits are evident in trails, parks, and unmanaged tracts of protected land. The challenge going forward for conservation groups is to introduce these sales taxes in new places, such as Weld County, Mesa County, Garfield County and the San Luis Valley, Hall said.

“There are still parts of Colorado where we haven’t yet been able to establish that first sales tax to get local conservation funding. That’s where we want to build that momentum, in those jurisdictions that don’t have that funding, ”Hall said. “Access to nature should not be a privilege. It should be a right. It is so important for our development and our health.

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