State Funding for Land Protection

Across the myriad landscapes of the 50 United States, it’s no surprise to find a variety of methods and sources to fund land conservation. Two of the most popular methods are general fund appropriations, which state legislatures approve every year or two as part of their budgets, and bond measures, which voters approve at election time.

Other funding sources include:

  • real estate transfer fees and taxes
  • state lotteries
  • sales taxes
  • cigarette taxes
  • sales taxes on sporting goods
  • environmental license plate proceeds
  • taxes on oil, gas, and mineral production, and
  • environmental lawsuit settlements

An age-old problem with state funding of land conservation is its up-and-down nature. In times of plenty, legislators fund such programs handsomely, only to starve them during the next economic slowdown. This is especially true in states whose land conservation activities depend almost exclusively on annual appropriations. Lawmakers often view land conservation as a luxury, making it a likely candidate for the chopping block in difficult financial times.

The Conservation Almanac, a resource developed by the Trust for Public Land’s Conservation Finance program, provides detailed, state-by-state overviews and data on land conservation programs and policies.

Below are a few examples of successful funding strategies for state land conservation programs.

Bonds

Pennsylvanians dedicated significant new funding to land conservation by voting in May 2005 to approve $625 million in bonds for Growing Greener II. Allocations included $217.5 million to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to preserve natural areas and open spaces, improve state parks, and enhance local recreational needs, and $80 million to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to protect working farms.

Real Estate Transfer Fees and Taxes

Although at least 14 states have used revenue from taxes on the transfer of real estate to fund land conservation, instituting such a tax has become increasingly difficult as real estate interests have gotten better at defeating such measures. South Carolina has become a recent stand-out by funneling some of its fee on real estate transfers to statewide land preservation.

After several years investigating how to protect the state’s most important lands, lawmakers created the South Carolina Conservation Bank in 2002. Funding comes 25¢ at a time, drawn from the state’s portion of the deed recording fee on the realty transfers. From its first year of operation in 2004 through 2008, the bank has awarded $80.6 million in grants to state and local government agencies and nonprofit groups. These proceeds have obtained conservation easements or full title acquisition for 152,720 acres of forest and farmlands, wetlands, urban parks, and historical land around the Palmetto State.

Lottery

Some states have succeeded in creating dedicated funding sources for their land preservation programs. Through an amendment to its state constitution in 1992, Colorado now dedicates one-half of its state lottery proceeds—approximately $53 million each year—to Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), a program that protects and enhances the state’s parks, wildlife, trails, rivers and open space.

From 1994, when the program awarded its first grants, through fiscal 2008, GOCO has committed $578 million for more than 2,800 projects throughout the state. It has helped protect more than 850,000 acres of open space and create or enhance 900 community park and outdoor recreation areas such as skateparks, ballfields, and playgrounds.

Sales Tax

Minnesotans approved a constitutional amendment in November 2008 that increases the state sales tax by three-eights of 1 percent, which will raise $6.9 billion over 25 years, including $5.5 billion for natural resource protection. Voters approved the measure—the largest conservation ballot measure in U.S. history—by a 56/44% margin. The state’s current general sales and use tax rate is 6.5%. The amendment hikes the rate to 6.875% beginning on July 1, 2009, and dedicates the additional proceeds as follows:

  • 33% goes to a newly created Outdoor Heritage Fund to be spent only to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forests, and habitat for game, fish, and wildlife (approximately $80 million in FY 2010 and $91 million in FY 2011);
  • 33% to a newly-created Clean Water Fund to be spent to protect, enhance, and restore water quality in lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater, with at least 5% of the fund spent to protect drinking water sources (approximately $80 million in FY 2010 and $91 million in FY 2011);
  • 14.25% to a newly created Parks and Trails Fund to be spent to support parks and trails of regional or statewide significance (approximately $35 million in FY 2010 and $39 million in FY 2011);
  • The remaining 19.75% will fund art and cultural projects (approximately $48 million in FY 2010 and $54.5 million in FY 2011).

State lawmakers will make final funding decisions based on the merits of proposed projects. Projects can be proposed by the state department of natural resources as well as other organizations and agencies. 

State Conservation Tax Incentives

Beyond funding, many states are now using state conservation tax credits to boost their land conservation efforts. Under the credit program, states allow landowners who protect their land through donation of fee title or a conservation easement to deduct part of the value of the donation from their state income taxes. Specific rules vary state by state.

Currently 12 states have such credits: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, along with Puerto Rico.

Go Straight to Your State

Learn about conservation and open space in your state.

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