09/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fighting Sprawl Through the Ballot Box

Sustaining life on Earth in all its diversity depends on preserving an ecologically viable web of wild places and waterways--not just in the wilderness but also where people live. But for all the environmental reasons to rein in sprawl and conserve land and water, there are very human ones, too. Who hasn't felt the profound sense of loss when a favorite patch of woods, a local farm, or the stream where you played as a child is altered beyond recognition? As Tony Hiss says in The Experience of Place, the sights and sounds of our surroundings mold our understanding of the world. Our relationship with the places we know, he writes, is "almost a continuum with all we see and think."

Perhaps that is one reason that on Election Day 2008, even amid the economic wreckage, so many people were willing to increase their taxes a little to preserve the landscapes where they live. Around the country--in both rural, Republican-leaning areas and in the more urbanized Democratic strongholds--voters approved $7.3 billion in new public funding for open space and parks, passing 63 of 89 local and state conservation referendums.

Land acquisition projects increasingly require multiple sources of money, combining donations from land trusts, conservation groups and private individuals with funding from various government sources. Around the country, there is a growing wave of local activism to generate public conservation funding through the voter initiative process. To help these community advocates preserve what they love best about their communities, we have created an online portal of tools, information and advice for passing conservation voter initiatives--the Conservation Campaign Toolkit, at

The Conservation Campaign is the only national organization that focuses solely on political action to gain public funding for conservation. Since it was founded by The Trust for Public Land in 2000, the Conservation Campaign has supported more than 250 successful conservation funding initiatives around the country, helping to generate billions of dollars for land conservation. The Toolkit draws on lessons learned by these local campaigns as well as the expertise of field staff from the Conservation Campaign and The Trust for Public Land.

The recession has made it even more challenging to raise new public revenue for land conservation. But it also presents us with a tremendous opportunity, as development slows and land prices drop, to preserve the landscapes that sustain us in so many ways: farms that supply local produce, lands that absorb and filter the water supply, mountain views that are the backdrop to daily life, forests and lakes we escape to for recreation, parks and town centers that that bind communities together. For the Earth, and for future generations, it's an opportunity we can't afford to pass up.