Tony Soprano, Atlantic City, and…Conservation?

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With 1,174 residents per square mile, it is the most densely populated state in the country. Its “Meadowlands” is not known for wildlife diversity, but rather football diversity (the only stadium home to two NFL teams). The longest hike many visitors may take is along Atlantic City’s neon-lit boardwalk. In short, New Jersey is probably better known for providing habitat to “The Sopranos” than to species.

Yet even this most urban of states provides the latest reminder of how important conservation is to Americans, evident with the approval of the state-wide Green Acres conservation bond this past November 3.

In an election where the incumbent governor who supported the Green Acres bond lost, and the “economy” and “taxes” were the runaway top-two issues cited by voters in exit polls, this $400 million conservation bond received 53 percent of New Jersey voters’ support. In doing so, the Green Acres conservation bond actually won more counties than either of the two major gubernatorial candidates.

How do you explain this?

Well, the first answer may be that people in New Jersey would rather get their clean water from filtering forests and wetlands than expensive water treatment facilities. Voters may have remembered nearby New York City’s deliberations about future water use in the mid-1990s.  At that time, the Big Apple realized it could spend less than $2 billion on preserving existing watershed lands upstate, or spend an estimated $6-8 billion to build new water treatment facilities. That’s an easy decision.

The second reason may be there is actually more to the Garden State than just turnpikes. The state’s Pinelands National Reserve is home to the largest body of open space on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard between Richmond and Boston. The state also has more than 200 miles of ocean and bay shoreline, and its 800,000-acre Highlands Region provides clean drinking water to more than one-half the state’s population. The urge to protect the value of those assets is completely understandable, as the payoff is “better than gold.”

The third may be that people in New Jersey are really not that different than the rest of the country — because conservation goes beyond politics in the United States.

While pundits across the political spectrum are now pondering what the most recent elections mean for the coming 2010 elections, the truth is that if conservation was a candidate, it would be a guaranteed winner almost every election.

To whit— by the end of 2008, The Nature Conservancy had an 89 percent success rate in supporting 164 conservation-related ballot measures across the United States.  The vast majority of these ballot measures were efforts to win voter approval for new public funding – such as bonds, lottery funds, or sales taxes – dedicated to land and water preservation.

And even in the face of our current recession, support for conservation investment is very robust.  This year The Nature Conservancy commissioned a national public opinion survey, conducted in partnership by a Democratic and Republican polling firm. The poll revealed that:

  • Nearly 2/3s of American voters support public investments in conservation, even if it required a small increase in taxes;
  • 70 percent of voters considered themselves as “conservationists”;
  • Some of the highest rates of support come from African American and Latino voters;
  • More than 80 percent have visited a state or local park in the last year.

Yet with all this support for conservation at the state and local levels, it is curious a federal-level program specifically designed to fund national conservation efforts has fallen short every year since 1977.

Called the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Congress is authorized to spend $900 million of royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling on conservation efforts. Yet despite strong public support for it, every year that funding is mined for other purposes.

Fortunately two Senators far from the shores of New Jersey, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Max Baucus of Montana, are looking to rectify this national oversight. They introduced a bill several weeks ago that would guarantee financing of the $900 million every year, beginning with the next fiscal year, and would insulate the fund from future raids. Representative Nick Rahall of West Virginia is promoting the same idea in the House.

This legislation offers hope, and when the time comes for a vote in Congress, The Nature Conservancy will be supporting this restoration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

But in the meantime we will revel in this latest victory in New Jersey. Because in a state where natives don’t ask what town each other are from, but rather which New Jersey Turnpike exit they live off, it is reassuring there is still an exit for nature.

(Photo: Traprock glade at High Mountain Park Preserve in New Jersey. Photo credit: Harold E. Malde.)

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