By Jeff Green
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The leaders of any political party would envy the success rate land conservation measures have found in elections across the United States, and this year was no exception.
Voters approved 77 percent of the tax or bond initiatives on the ballot in 23 states in the midterm elections, according to research by the Trust for Public Land, a California-based nonprofit group. Ninety-nine of 128 measures passed.
Those votes will place $5.73 billion in the hands of local and state leaders to help fund land conservation, including $2.25 billion from one California bond resolution alone.
The total was the highest in any election since 1988, the earliest voting analyzed by the trust.
Of the 1,862 initiatives tracked from 1988 to 2005, 1,422 -- or 76 percent -- were approved. In 2002, voters backed 143 of 192 measures, worth about $5.5 billion.
With the nation's population recently surpassing 300 million and land consumption growing, communities are using such initiatives to help cope with sprawling development, said Ernest Cook, director of the trust's conservation finance program.
"It's an investment that pays dividends over and over and over again for future generations," Cook said. "There are community-wide benefits that mean a lot to everyone."
And while the largest sums up for votes this year were in so-called blue states, support for government spending on land conservation isn't unique to Democratic Party strongholds, he said.
In Cobb County, Georgia, a $40 million bond for land conservation passed with 72 percent of the vote. The suburban county is solidly Republican, with GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue taking 66 percent of the vote this year.
"It's a nonpartisan issue," said Cobb County Commission Chairman Sam Olens, a Republican.
"For years, I would go to Cobb Republican Party breakfasts where conservative Republicans were telling me, 'Look, you gotta get this park space before it doesn't exist any more, before the potential doesn't exist any more.'"
In neighboring Paulding County, a $15.2 million parks bond got the same strong support as Perdue -- 71 percent.
Elsewhere, Republican Sen. Conrad Burns' failed re-election effort won 57 percent of the vote in Ravalli County, Montana. The county's first-ever bond to preserve open space, a $10 million initiative, fared slightly better, winning approval with 58 percent of the vote.
In President Bush's home state of Texas, all six city and county measures for parks and land conservation were approved, each of them with more than 61 percent of the vote, according to the trust.
In Dallas, where incumbent GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson took 54 percent of the vote, more than $36 million for land acquisition was approved as part of a bond that had support from 81 percent of voters.
And in Salt Lake County, Utah, a $48 million open space bond passed with 71 percent of the vote. Fifty-four percent of voters there supported incumbent GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch.
Bond pumps up Schwarzenegger
While voters in blue-state California have traditionally been supportive of such initiatives, this year's Proposition 84 was considered a tough call by the trust because it was on the ballot with a separate bond package totaling $37 billion.
With the support of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, all of the bond measures passed. Among them was a $5.4 million bond for water-quality protection and flood control that also included $2.25 billion dedicated to land conservation.
"The reason I think they were successful was because Democrats and Republicans worked together," Schwarzenegger said of the bond measures.
In Nassau County, New York, voters in 2004 approved a $50 million bond to purchase open space and protect water quality. But the Long Island community "found that $50 million in a large urban county didn't go very far," Cook said.
So they doubled it this year, asking voters to support a $100 million initiative.
Before the election, County Executive Thomas Suozzi stressed the urgency of preserving what little open land remains in the area.
"Forty percent of the county's open land has been developed since 1980, and that leaves less than 10 percent of remaining land that we can enjoy," Suozzi said in a written statement.
Voters were receptive to the message, approving the bond with 77 percent support. The effort followed advice that the trust frequently gives to local officials to build confidence among voters.
"We often recommend to towns and counties that are setting up new programs that they start small ... and then let the voters evaluate the kind of job that their government is doing," Cook said. "And if they like it, they can vote to extend the program."
Of the 29 measures that failed in the midterm elections, the largest was in Seminole County, Florida.
By a margin of 51 percent, voters in the suburban Orlando community narrowly rejected a property tax increase that would have provided $70 million over a 10-year period for the purchase of environmentally sensitive land.
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