Conservation in Common—Land&People

In some ways Nassau County, New York, and Gallatin County, Montana, could not be more different. Nassau County, which borders New York City, is a classic East Coast commuter suburb of more than 1.3 million people—that's 4,600 people per square mile. Gallatin County, in southwestern Montana and hundreds of miles from the nearest large city, is ranching country, with fewer than 30 people per square mile.

The counties also differ politically. Nassau County, while somewhat less liberal than nearby New York City, voted for John Kerry in 2004. Gallatin County, while less conservative than some counties in Montana, went for President Bush.

Despite these manifest differences, residents of the two counties share a common concern: that population growth and poorly planned development may irrevocably damage their environment, the character of communities, access to the outdoors, and their way of life. They have also chosen a common response to this concern: creating and passing new bonds to conserve land and acquire open space.

In opening their wallets for conservation, the residents of Nassau and Gallatin counties are hardly alone. The Trust for Public Land's Center for Conservation Finance, which monitors state and local conservation funding measures, reports that between 2000 and 2004, 730 states, counties, and communities passed such measures, generating $18 billion for conservation. Typically, in any year, 75 percent of the conservation funding measures that come before voters do pass-among the highest rates of passage for any type of local tax or bond.

To get beyond the numbers to the practical and emotional forces driving the success of conservation finance measures in very different kinds of places, Land&People asked one writer to spend some time in commuter country and another to report from cowboy country. Here then is TPL's tale of two counties with conservation in common.

Nassau County's Common Bond
by Christine Woodside

Driving around the northern half of Nassau County, on western Long Island, you can still catch glimpses of what it was like a century ago, when city people began to migrate to the country. As you weave through traffic on the Long Island Expressway, high-rise apartment buildings and commercial strips begin to give way to single-family homes, mature trees, and an occasional field with a tractor chugging along.

Just east of the New York metropolis, Long Island became a rural retreat for captains of industry in the early 20th century: Vanderbilts, Woolworths, Phippses, and Guggenheims built sprawling estates in the north shore uplands overlooking Long Island Sound. The less wealthy flocked to the expansive beaches of the south shore, as millions still do. Long Island's glacier-smoothed terrain also features pine barrens, rich farmland, and forested groves.

Peaceful rural scenes are downright rare in Nassau County these days, and it's not hard to see why. Bordering the borough of Queens, the county was the frontline of the great postwar flight to the suburbs, and subdivisions steadily began to eat up farmland and estates. After five decades of intensive growth, little open space remains. Just five farms are left, and the largest of these is only 48 acres. The few old estates that haven't been sold to developers seem headed for that, because land values have spiked like a sudden fever.

"So many people have moved out here for the peace and quality of life," says Lisa Ott of the northern Nassau County community of Oyster Bay. Ott moved here 18 years ago, and what she soon began seeing in her new home unsettled her: "Farms developed, the coming of Wal-Mart, little villages shriveling up-the story of America. In three to five years, Nassau County will be built out. Most remaining open space today is in golf courses."

Today, the soft-spoken Ott has a husband and two children and is director of the North Shore Land Alliance, which last fall helped pass a $50 million bond issue to buy or otherwise protect the county's remaining open space. She had never envisioned herself as a political activist: helping to raise $175,000 for brochures and television ads, attending conferences, and meeting with the press. She became an activist, she says, because the need was urgent. In 2001 the county documented its remaining open space and formed an Open Space and Parks Advisory Committee composed of citizen environmentalists. But the county couldn't keep up with its own plans to protect land. "Since 2000, over half of the properties identified have been bought by developers for cookie-cutter, extreme-mass-density subdivisions," Ott says. "We needed money fast."

Nassau's $50 million bond was one of four conservation funding measures approved by Long Island voters in November. But it stands out from the others in several ways. For one thing, Nassau was only the second New York county to bring an open space funding measure before the voters. (Neighboring Suffolk County has passed several measures, including the nation's first farmland preservation program in the 1970s.) And remarkably, the resounding "yes" vote to fund open space came when the county was just emerging from fiscal hard times-only a year after it had raised taxes substantially to pull itself out of a financial crisis.

That the measure passed is due to a number of factors, including the energy of activists like Ott, but also the support of local government and business leaders, including some developers, who understood how badly the county needed to conserve land. One tipping point came when the Trust for Public Land's conservation finance staff offered to help. In considering conservation opportunities across New York state (see sidebar, page 35), TPL's staff had targeted Nassau County as fertile ground for a preservation effort. Joining forces with Ott and others, they helped draft the bond measure, conducted polling and research to demonstrate it could succeed, secured the support of county officials, and recruited strong local partners.

"It was a first for us," says Erik Kulleseid, TPL's New York State Program director. "Often you find yourself reacting to development, and it was one of those moments when we could be proactive."

"I had called for this effort for years but was resigned that I would have to wait," says Neal Lewis, a member of the county's planning commission who is also executive director of the Neighborhood Alliance, an environmental group in Massapequa. Lewis describes as "almost the perfect storm" the combination of events that led to the measure's success. "You had the presidential election year, with a good turnout. You had three other bond issues for open space … going on the ballot on Long Island. That created the momentum that Nassau ought to have one. And finally, the county had finally gotten over the real bad years with a significant tax increase. The county could be convinced that we were strong enough to do this."

One key step was convincing local government to put the measure on the ballot in a time of fiscal uncertainty and when voters had balked at new taxes. But new leaders-in particular County Executive Thomas Suozzi-had endorsed parks as important to the economy, and a TPL voter poll had found broad support for open space preservation. Members of the county legislature cut short their summer vacations for an emergency session to consider putting the measure on the ballot. After several drafts and compromises, the measure went to the ballot with unanimous support, earning the legislators a standing ovation from the gallery. The annual cost of the program? Only $6.73 per resident.

Passed by a margin of 77 percent to 23 percent, the measure authorized $50 million in bonding to buy land and remediate brownfields and to limit polluted runoff of stormwater. The measure stipulates that a committee review and recommend projects, which must be approved by the county legislature by a two-thirds "supermajority."

"We've got our work cut out for ourselves," Neal Lewis predicts. "All the environmental groups are going to stay involved to make sure this thing doesn't get bogged down." In a county where a two-acre lot can sell for $1 million, it will be a challenge to balance all the needs with the funds available. And it's possible that in a few years more money will be needed.

Despite these challenges, last November's votes made clear that people in Nassau County want to put money into conserving their landscape. As for Lisa Ott and the other volunteers from the North Shore Land Alliance who worked so hard to pass the measure, they hope that a portion of the funds will go to protect some of the last farmland on Nassau County's north shore.

Christine Woodside is a Connecticut writer and editor specializing in the environment and American civilization. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, Appalachia, Preservation Online, Woman's Day, and other publications.

Gallatin Voters See the Big Picture
by Todd Wilkinson

From the quiet northern rim of the Gallatin Valley in the Horseshoe Hills, salt-of-the-earth ranchers and newly minted newcomers can see with their own eyes the priceless rewards that materialize when people vote with their wallets. It's part of a national movement, but for Gallatin County citizens it came down to a referendum on two Montanas, visible through clear skies and across open space.

Off in the far hazy distance is Bozeman, one of the fastest-growing urban centers in the state. There, crops of new residential subdivisions and commercial big-box developments rule the horizon. In the foreground, across a sweep of tree-lined creek bottoms and sloping grasslands, is an inspiring alternative-thousands of acres of Big Sky country, lightly dotted with farm and ranch buildings, which will remain largely unchanged forever.

Minus the few structures, this is the same view known for millennia to Native Americans when they converged on the Gallatin Valley for buffalo hunts, and the same to greet the Lewis and Clark expedition when it passed through in 1806. Meandering tributary creeks feed the famous Gallatin River, a renowned trout stream. Within the valley and its foothills and forested slopes lies a matrix of life zones offering habitat to hundreds of species of native flora and fauna, including elk and mule deer, moose, black bears, mountain lions, native trout, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and a further array of breeding birds and migratory species that pass through in the spring and fall.

The valley was home to some of the region's first cowboys, and today it offers an idyllic vision of a still-wild West, serving as both an economic engine and a symbol of local quality of life at the exurban edge of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

"When you look out there, you can see two versions of Montana's future, and one does not exist without the other," says Alex Diekmann, the Trust for Public Land's local project manager. "Our beautiful scenery, abundant wildlife, blue-ribbon fly-fishing streams, and rural character are drawing newcomers here in record numbers. The county's open space program is one of the few tools we have to protect those places we care so much about."

Last November, in one of America's most politically conservative states, residents of the Gallatin Valley went to the polls and voted overwhelmingly to tax themselves in order to save their pastoral heritage. Their passage of a $10 million open space bond was even more remarkable because it was the second time in four years that citizens affirmed the importance of uncluttered landscapes by funding open space protection.

Formally launched in 1999, the Gallatin County Opens Lands Program uses the bond money to buy development rights from rural property owners whose tracts are valued by the community for their views, wildlife habitat, cultural history, and usefulness in maintaining water quality. The incentive-based program is entirely voluntary, with owners willingly limiting the future subdivision potential of their properties through the sale of a conservation easement to the county.

By agreeing to place conservation-related conditions on the deed, the landowner receives a cash payment and is able to continue farming and ranching, knowing the tract will never be carved up.

"Gallatin County's open space funding mechanism is the only one like it in Montana, and it is also the only such countywide measure ever passed in the Northern Rockies," says Debbie Deagan, formerly of the Gallatin Land Trust, which worked to promote the bond.

The program is administered by a 15-member citizen advisory panel, the Open Lands Board. The board, TPL, the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, the Montana Land Reliance, and Montana's congressional delegation have worked to leverage the bond money with state, federal, and private contributions. TPL helps negotiate the easements with landowners and to find federal matching dollars, including monies from the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, administered by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

As a result of all this leverage, the county is on the verge of acquiring just over $33 million in land and easement value while investing only $8.3 million in bond funds. To date, funding has been committed for 14 separate land conservation projects, of which 9 are now complete. If all of the pending transactions close, more than 25,400 acres-almost 40 square miles of land-will have been protected. For the average homeowner, the cost of funding both bonds is about $36 a year, roughly equal to the dinner tab for a family of four going out for pizza.

The first ranching family to participate in the program was the Skinners, Joe and his wife, JoJo. "As someone who has been involved in the program as a landowner, I like the idea that it was voluntary and market-based," says Skinner, a Republican who won a seat on the Gallatin County Commission in 2004, the year after his ranch was protected. "It might not work for everyone, but for those who decide to participate, it helps families keep their land in production and provides opportunities for the next generation."

"With developers constantly knocking on their doors, every one of the landowners we worked with could have made more money by slicing up and selling their farms and ranches piecemeal to the highest bidder," says TPL's Alex Diekmann. "Yet they opted to leave a lot of profit potential on the table by selling us their development rights at substantial discounts. Their heartfelt connection to the land is what really drives this program and makes it such a great success. Without it, the public would never get such a big bang for the buck."

After the Skinners got involved and other residents saw that participating in the program didn't result in heavy-handed government intervention or loss of agrarian opportunities, much of the suspicion that had surrounded the program was defused. Conversations in coffee shops, church prayer groups, farm implement stores, and barbershops turned in favor of the program. It hasn't hurt that the Open Lands Board successfully lobbied the state legislature to exempt farmers and ranchers from having to pay any additional taxes to cover the interest and principal payments on either of the two bonds.

In the years since the Skinners signed on, several of their neighbors also have stepped forward-the latest being the DeHaan family, with whom the county closed on an easement in December 2004. The DeHaan Ranch, with 10,369 acres under easement, is the largest protection effort to date.

"This program is exceeding my expectations, and Alex Diekmann has accomplished a tour de force in helping bring people to the table," says Bill Murdoch, a Gallatin County commissioner and a longtime proponent of open space protection. "I was cautiously optimistic initially, but when you get out on the landscape and see the accumulating benefits of saving a farm here and there, you begin to notice that the public is protecting a pretty impressive mosaic."

Murdoch says that word of the program has spread across the West, and several county commissioners from other states are interested in putting similar ballot initiatives before their constituents.

And citizen support hasn't stopped at the voting booth. A few years ago the Open Lands Board issued its first specialty auto license plate, which touts the value of open space protection. The plates have been enormously popular, with sales generating more than $400,000. In another dividend of the program, a portion of the monies raised have gone to purchase outright 100 acres that will become Gallatin County's first regional park.

"Are market-based solutions coming on line fast enough to save everything we value about living in a place like this? Unfortunately, probably not," says rancher Joe Skinner. "This open space fund is one of several tools we need to consider using strategically, including regulatory mechanisms. There's not one tool in the toolbox that is going to save the day, but when you put them all together you can make good things happen."

For more than 20 years, Todd Wilkinson has been an environmental journalist traveling the world and focusing on the American West. He work appears regularly in the Christian Science Monitor, Audubon, and other publications.