County Leadership in Conservation Awards—Land&People

Across the nation, counties are assuming an increasingly important role in conservation. This year the Trust for Public Land and the National Association of Counties (NACo) launched their first annual County Leadership in Conservation Awards. More than fifty county conservation programs were reviewed, with special attention to management, innovation, funding, partnerships, acquisitions, and public support. We're happy to announce this year's winners.

Pima County, Arizona
Protecting Desert Habitat

Development in and around Tucson currently is consuming an estimated 10 square miles of the biologically rich Sonoran Desert each year. To combat this trend, Pima County developed the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, whose centerpiece is a science-based effort to accurately map the habitat of endangered and vulnerable species. In May 2004 county voters approved a $174 million bond that is being used with matching federal funds–and may be matched with state funds–to help protect critical habitat and biological corridors, mountain parks, historical and cultural resources, and ranchlands. The conservation effort includes public-private partnerships and an emphasis on public awareness and oversight to assure the community that tax dollars are being well spent and to ensure that the county's biodiversity is protected for the next 50 years.

Platte County, Missouri
Creating Parks for a Growing Population

Located just north of Kansas City, once-rural Platte County is working to build new parks and acquire open space to meet the needs of its growing population. Platte Profile 2020, a recent plan that identifies county needs over 20 years, highlights an expanded park system as a top priority of elected officials and citizens alike. To begin the process, voters in 2000 approved a one-half-cent sales tax dedicated in large part to parks and recreation. In planning its premier park system, the county has forged important partnerships with Missouri's departments of transportation and natural resources and with the National Park Service. The program has also secured funding from numerous sources and has provided outreach grants to local cities, school districts, and nonprofit organizations. An oversight system allows the public to keep track of progress and of funds expended on specific projects.

Pinellas County, Florida
Conservation in an Urban Environment

Located north of St. Petersburg and west of Tampa, Pinellas County is Florida's second smallest county in area as well as the state's most urbanized county. But despite its small size and dense population, Pinellas features nationally ranked beaches, abundant wildlife, and sensitive ecosystems. Since 1972 the county has worked to "red-flag" for protection areas of critical ecological concern, and voters have responded by passing five tax measures to fund conservation programs. Other funding is sought through land donations, nonprofit groups, and grants. In a remarkable success story, all but one of the 162 areas tagged have now been protected. The county has forged conservation partnerships with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, water management districts, and school boards, and it works with schools to teach environmental awareness at an early age. In 1990 the county created the 47-mile Pinellas Rail Trail, the first rails-to-trails effort in Florida and a model for trails nationwide.

Gallatin County, Montana
Preserving a Rocky Mountain Landscape

Over the past 35 years Gallatin County, in the Northern Rockies, has watched its rural, ranching landscape shrink as its population has increased by nearly 140 percent. In 2000 and again in 2004 voters passed open space bonds of $10 million each, giving the county funds to preserve its striking mountain vistas, rolling agricultural plains, fish-filled streams, and abundant wildlife. Much of the land is conserved through the use of conservation easements, which allow traditional ranching to continue while preventing development. The county's Open Lands Board, a 15-member citizens' advisory panel, reviews and approves all open space expenditures. The county supplements the bonds with state and federal money, including matching funds from the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, and from private donations, especially from the Doris Duke Char-itable Foundation. To date, funds have been committed to 14 conservation projects, 9 of which have been completed. Completion of all 14 projects would protect 25,400 acres–more than 40 square miles.

Burlington County, New Jersey
Pioneering Conservation in New Jersey

New Jersey's largest county established the state's first open space and farmland preservation program in 1985. In 1996 and again in 1998, Burlington County voters approved a dedicated property tax that raises $11 million per year and qualifies the county for matching funds from the state's Green Acres and State Farmland Preservation programs. To date, Burlington County has protected more than 20,000 acres of farmland and natural open space. The county also encourages conservation through grants to municipalities, nonprofits, and individuals and through a Transfer of Development Rights program that helps promote smart growth. The county keeps citizens informed on conservation issues through town meetings, local information sessions, press releases, mailings, and newsletters.

Dakota County, Minnesota
Conserving Midwest Farms and Natural Lands

Located just south of Minneapolis and St. Paul, this rapidly developing county has been looking for ways to preserve farms and natural lands while providing parks and recreation for its expanding suburbs. Years of planning by agencies, elected officials, and interest groups have now led to the Dakota County Farmland and Natural Areas Program. A citizen advisory committee oversees all aspects of the program, which is funded by a $20 million bond passed by voters in 2002. In only a few short years the program has launched 14 conservation projects, with the long-term goals of enhancing water quality and protecting 10,000 acres of farmland, natural land, and wildlife habitat. Its innovative design and effective leadership have made the program a model for a new statewide farmland protection effort.