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Ballot Box Birders

Love birds and birding? Supporting ballot measures can help conserve birds. Find out what you can do for birds.

Peter Stangel, Ph.D.

young birders
Birders – even those with jobs, children and thousands of other obligations – who want to protect critical habitat can participate in conservation ballot measures in several ways.

For years, the only thing really holding together the bumper of my Toyota pickup was a bumper sticker: "Birders Vote.” Flakes of rust protruded from its edges, held in place by the sticker’s adhesive, which must have been some space-age compound, given its strength and durability. Two out of three comments centered on the bumper sticker, with the remainder citing the condition of my vehicle.

As with many actions in my life, I was making a statement. The sticker had been given to me by Texas bird conservationist Ted Eubanks.

Our message? There are a lot of birders out there, and when we organize our political might, we create a considerable force. Nowhere is that force more important than in conservation ballot measures that provide funding to protect open lands valuable for recreation, water conservation and bird habitat.

$7.3 Billion
According to The Trust for Public Lands – a national, land conservation organization based in San Francisco – voters in the November 2008 elections approved 62 of 87 conservation finance measures across the country, generating $7.3 billion for parks and land conservation and a single-day record. When combined with the results from elections earlier in 2008, a total of 88 measures received approval, equaling $8.4 billion.

The big daddy in 2008 occurred in Minnesota, where voters approved a $5.5 billion Clean Water, Land and Legacy constitutional amendment, nearly doubling the previous conservation ballot initiative. Audubon Minnesota participated in leading the charge for this amendment. Despite the rock ‘n’ roll economy, voters sent a pretty clear message: Conservation lands are important, and we are willing to pay for them.

Parulas In The Park
I can vouch for the importance of conservation ballot measures to birds. One of my favorite birding sites near our former home in Atlanta was a park protected through a special-purpose local-option sales tax, known as a SPLOST. The voters had approved a five-year small increase in our county’s sales tax, a portion of which went to park conservation.

Some land went for ball fields and recreation, but this park – catering to mountain bikers and hikers – remained largely natural. Luckily, it was right on my way to work. During spring and fall, I’d stop by for a quick bird in the morning, convinced that this time increased my productivity during the workday.

The park won’t make the list of best birding sites in Georgia, but it was darn good. Over the course of the fall season, I’d rack up 15 or 16 warbler species, including Northern Parula, Cape May Warbler and, for some reason, quite a few Golden-winged Warblers. Hooded and Kentucky Warblers nested there, and Louisiana Waterthrushes seemed to show up here first in April.

Sadly, I don’t think that my fellow birders and I can take credit for the SPLOST or the park’s establishment. We likely rode on the shoulders of the well-organized mountain bikers and others who campaigned for the tax and went out of their way to "get out the vote.” Birders might have played some part, but we sure benefited from the county-wide effort.

Conservation Measures
They come in many forms, but conservation ballot measures basically are self-imposed taxes. Almost any level of government can generate a ballot measure, and they have been enacted in one form or another in all 50 states. A measure typically states a time limit for the tax and a clear purpose for the funds.

As with any activity involving taxes and money, special-interest groups get involved in crafting ballot initiatives. Sometimes parks and land conservation receives only a portion of the funding. According to The Trust for Public land, close to $54 billion has been raised for conservation purposes over the years.

Birders Can Lead The Way
Always a leader in conservation ballot measures, Florida continued the trend in 2008. Audubon of Florida’s website provides a wealth of information about the many conservation ballot measures and encourages birders to take the lead in promoting the measures.

The payoffs can be big. In Florida’s Alachua County, more than 13,000 acres of environmentally sensitive lands have been protected since 2000. The measure approved in November 2008 makes even more land conservation possible; it will generate about $20 million through a two-year, one-half-cent sales tax. Some of the funds will benefit Bald Eagles and Sandhill Cranes, among many species of birds and other wildlife.

In Flagler County, the 1,500-acre Princess Place Preserve received protection in part through the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands program. This park preserves coastal hammock and marsh lands, which – as any birder who has been to Florida knows – means good birds and birding.

The preserve is part of the larger 60,000-acre Guana-Tolomato-Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, which provides shelter to Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills, among others.

If a ballot measure is developing in your area, consider helping to steer the program and make sure that natural lands for birds will be part of the outcome.

In November 2008, Florida voters in St. Johns County joined the bandwagon with their first conservation ballot measure. Their five-year, one-cent tax will be split between land conservation and transportation improvements.

Ballots, Then Binoculars
Birders who want to protect critical habitat can participate in conservation ballot measures in several ways. First and most obviously, study the measures carefully, and consider their merits. If convinced that the ballot measures in your area are sound, then spread the word. A letter to the editor of the local newspaper or an article in your bird club's newsletter can amplify the impact of your actions.

If a ballot measure is developing in your area, consider helping to steer the program and make sure that natural lands for birds will be part of the outcome. Don't underestimate your clout. Involve local birding groups, and let your elected officials know who you are, how many birders live in your area and how much natural lands mean to you.

If no ballot measures are proposed in your area, consider starting one. The Trust for Public Lands and other organizations can provide advice. Will it be lots of work? Yes. Could the payoff be huge? Yes. Can birders – with jobs, children and a thousand other obligations – really take the lead? You bet.

When the National Rifle Association talks for its almost 4 million members, politicians listen. When AARP – formerly known as American Association of Retired Persons – speaks for its 38 million members, elected officials pay attention. These groups include members who actively vote for the causes dear to them.

A 2006 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service survey cites more than 47 million Americans who enjoy watching birds around their homes and on trips.

Birders might be the biggest constituency that the politicians have never heard from. Let’s change that.

Excerpt from WildBird March/April 2009 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC. To purchase digital back issues of WildBird, click here

For More Information ...

Audubon of Florida: 305-371-6399
The Trust for Public Lands:  800-714-5263
2006 U.S. National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation  


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Posted: July 19, 2013, 6:15 p.m. PDT

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I did not know that these issues were that successful at the voting poll. I am glad they won so many.
William, San Francisco, CA
Posted: 1/25/2014 2:33:16 PM
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