John M. Bethea State Forest

Moonlight shines through pines in Bethea State Forest, a 37,000-acre wildlife corridor acquired by Florida in 2001. (Photo: Shutterstock)

The U.S. Senate may be shifting from blue to red after Republican wins in the 2014 midterm elections, but several states also voted to keep swaths of the country green — and not just for two to six years.

The biggest ballot measure for nature conservation was Florida's Amendment 1, which locks in $18 billion of existing tax revenue for land and water protection over the next two decades. About half of that money is for new preservation efforts, including some in the Everglades, making this "the largest land conservation measure ever approved in a single state," according to the Trust for Public Land.

And not only did Florida approve such a major amendment to its constitution, but it did so by a margin of roughly 4.2 million to 1.2 million votes, or 75 percent in favor versus 25 percent opposed.

"Floridians overwhelmingly voted yes on Amendment 1," the measure's supporters said in a statement released Wednesday, "clearly showing that Florida voters understand the importance of water and land conservation to our state's environment and to its economy."

The amendment is meant to strengthen Florida Forever, a state conservation program that has acquired more than 700,000 acres since its creation in 2001. Much like the U.S. Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is regularly raided by federal lawmakers, Florida Forever's funds have become a popular epoxy for patching unrelated state budget holes. Amendment 1 will prohibit redirecting those funds, thus ensuring around $1 billion per year for protecting the state's natural landscapes. (It won't raise taxes, instead forcing the state to use money from an existing real-estate tax for conservation.)

FWC map

Setting aside wild space has benefits almost anywhere, but especially in Florida. Roads and agriculture have fragmented many of the state's wildlife corridors and waterways, which once stretched from the Panhandle to the Everglades. Beyond adding pressure to native wildlife like panthers, bears and alligators, fragmentation can disrupt the way water flows through the swampy, porous peninsula.

Changes to Florida's hydrology in the 20th century — including development and intensive groundwater pumping for irrigation — have led to problems like dried-out wetlands, saltwater intrusion and possibly even sinkholes. Rehab efforts have been chipping away at this legacy for decades, focused on restoring natural water flows and on acquiring tracts of land to reconnect patches of isolated wilderness.

Florida Forever has led that charge for the past 13 years, using tax revenues on strategic wilderness areas like the John M. Bethea State Forest, which spans 37,000 acres in northeast Florida to link the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge to the Osceola National Forest. Much of the tax revenue covered by Amendment 1 will also go toward major new investments in the Everglades, but it can help repair less pristine wilderness, too, like Tate's Hell, an important Panhandle forest between the Apalachicola and Ochlockonee rivers that was badly degraded by attempts to grow pine plantations in the 1960s.

About 30 percent of all land in Florida is now protected, thanks to an average $300 million in yearly land-acquisition funding since 1990. But those funds have increasingly been used for other purposes in recent years, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. While the period from 2009 to 2012 would have generated $1.2 billion for land conservation under previous regimes, according to the Fort Myers News-Press, the state allocated just $20 million to Florida Forever during those four years.

"The passage of Amendment 1 means there is now a dedicated funding mechanism to protect, restore and maintain conservation lands and waters," explains the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a nonprofit group trying to relink the state's habitats. "This is critical to our mission; it will help us close the missing links in the Florida Wildlife Corridor. We commend voters for taking this bold step to keep Florida wild."

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Members of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition venture through sawgrass under a starry sky. (Photo: Carlton Ward Jr./FWC)

Several other states also passed conservation measures this week, albeit not at the scale of Florida's. New Jersey approved a similar constitutional amendment, for example, that dedicates 6 percent of corporate business tax revenues — or $2.15 billion over 20 years — toward open space, farmland and historic preservation. Two-thirds of California voters approved a $7.5 billion water bond, which includes $1.5 billion for conservation. That marks the state's first new funding for land conservation since 2006.

"Tuesday was a remarkable day for land conservation in states and cities across America," says Will Rogers, president of The Trust for Public Land, in a statement about the ballot initiatives. "Voters in Florida, New Jersey, and California all approved measures which will mean billions of dollars will be spent to preserve the special places which are important to them and their families."

"And that approval," he adds, "came from voters regardless of their party affiliation."

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