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The year 2020 was a banner year for voters across the country approving taxes that protected open spaces, parks and public land. There were 51 conservation funding measures on ballots in 2020 and voters approved 50 of them, creating a flow of more than $3.7 billion for the climate, open space and parks for the next two decades.

It was a high-water mark for conservation funding.

The election cycle in 2021 had fewer ballot conservation measures, but voters again came out in widespread support for directing tax dollars toward protecting public lands and natural spaces.

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

The Trust for Public Land — alongside many conservation groups — championed 26 conservation ballot measures in 11 states in 2020 and voters passed all of them, marking a first-ever sweep since the trust began helping communities pass conservation measures 25 years ago. Typically the group sees about 85% of the measures it backs win.

In 2020, voters in Colorado renewed Adams County’s quarter-cent sales tax, which will yield about $400 million for parks and open space in the next 20 years. Denver voters in 2020 approved a quarter-cent climate sales tax that proponents expect will generate $720 million for climate programs over the next two decades. Voters in 15 Western Slope counties approved a property tax increase that will direct $100 million in the next 20 years toward water projects.

In 2021, voters in Colorado 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’s Measure 1A permanently directs the county’s quarter-of-a-penny sales and use tax to parks, wildlife areas, trails, farms and local conservation projects. Over 20 years, the tax will create about $560 million in funding. Colorado Springs’ Measure 2D directs $20 million in tax dollars to a regional wildfire mitigation plan. And the rejection of Denver’s Ordinance 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 2020. Conservation groups lost Colorado Springs’ Measure 2C, which would have doubled a sales tax that funded parks, trails and open space and extended the tax to 2041.

(Hall said the campaign for 2C had diverse support but was unable to overcome “a wave of very conservative voters who turned out to vote on up-ballot races, mostly involving school boards.”)

New normal possible

Conservation groups are looking at the wave of diverse voters approving taxes for land protection in 2020 and 2021 as, possibly, a new normal. Could conservation become one of the few bipartisan issues that unites voters from both urban and rural areas? Hall thinks so.

“I think there’s a realization that we have to step up,” Hall said. “People recognize the importance nature plays in their lives and they want to protect that for generations to come.”

So does Jessica Goad, the deputy director of Conservation Colorado. She sees the state’s growing population of outdoor users outpacing the ability to protect open spaces and access to natural spaces.

“People are seeing that pressure in the outdoors every time they go outside, so it’s no wonder conservation measures are seeing such success right now,” she said.

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

More recent votes have directed conservation dollars toward urban and overlooked areas, like Denver’s Climate Protection Fund and Arapahoe County’s 1A.

“There is a realization moving forward on how important it is to focus on who has access to conservation funding dollars,” Goad said. “We believe broad and large scale public investment is needed and conservation should be viewed as a core government function akin to infrastructure and law enforcement.”

It’s not just voters who are coming around to conservation. Politicians are more ready to direct tax dollars toward protecting threatened landscapes, water supplies and equitable access to the outdoors.

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

To reach lofty goals like protecting 30% of the nation’s land and water by 2030, conservation funding needs both lawmakers and voters, Goad said.

“Over and over again, Colorado voters are saying it is our priority to invest in conservation and they are demonstrating that by not just approving conservation measures but putting conservation leaders in office,” Goad said.

Rural areas see newcomers

A lot of urbanites have moved to rural enclaves in the last 18-plus months and those newcomers are big fans of outdoor recreation on public lands. The crowding at trailheads and in heavily-trafficked areas is amplifying the need for more trails and places to recreate. And a new swell of rural voters is ready to help pay for that access and expansion.

At the same time growth pressures in rural communities are creating more homes and more development.

“All these rapid changes and rapid growth is really getting people’s attention about how their communities are changing. Regardless of your political stripe, you are noticing these things,” said Megan Lawson, an economist with Montana’s Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group that studies rural and public lands issues.

Some of Lawson’s more recent research shows more people moving to counties with lots of recreational opportunities and those newcomers tend to have higher incomes than people moving to cities. And those new residents appear more ready to direct tax dollars toward conservation.

That demographic shift mirrors the recent evolution of outdoor recreation.

Playing outside, not long ago, was considered a mere pastime. Now it is growing into a critical economic engine anchoring rural economies. (The latest federal accounting of outdoor recreation — an important tool for framing recreation as much more than a side pursuit for fun-seekers — shows a growing industry contributing $688 billion to the U.S. economy.)

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

“This really does not have to be partisan,” she said. “It really depends on how conservation is framed and making sure that whatever is developed or protected meets the needs of the communities, whether it’s a community walking trail or trails for ATVs or economic development. If the investment matches what residents want and need most, it’s not surprising to see it win voter approval.”

In places where sales taxes have been funding conservation for many years, voters often approve extensions of those taxes because the benefits are evident in trails, parks and swaths of undeveloped, protected land. The challenge going forward for conservation groups is to introduce those sales taxes in new locations, like Weld County, Mesa County, Garfield County and the San Luis Valley, Hall said.

“There are still corners of Colorado where we have not yet been able to establish that first sales tax to get the local conservation funding flowing. That’s where we want to take this momentum, into these jurisdictions that don’t have this funding,” Hall said. “Access to nature should not be a privilege. It should be a right. It’s so important to our development and health.”

This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.