The Paradox of Open Space Ballot Initiatives in the American West: A New West-Old West Phenomenon?

By Shanahan, Elizabeth A. | Studies in Sociology of Science, June 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Paradox of Open Space Ballot Initiatives in the American West: A New West-Old West Phenomenon?


Shanahan, Elizabeth A., Studies in Sociology of Science


INTRODUCTION

The use of local direct ballot initiatives to preserve open space is a burgeoning yet paradoxical phenomenon in the American West. These local land conservation initiatives propose to raise taxes (sales, property) or issue bonds in order to purchase private land for public open space in or adjacent to the sponsoring municipality or county. As farmlands, foothill acreage, and riverfront property have given way to trophy homes, subdivisions and strip malls, American western municipalities and counties are finding their once expansive open space shrinking. One response to such growth has been citizen-led proposals for open space initiatives to create expanses of undeveloped public land (Selmi 2001). While there are debates around whether these ballot initiatives are a response to sprawl (Howell-Moroney 2004, Romero and Liserio 2002), it is widely acknowledged that citizens are utilizing this policy making venue at increasing rates in an attempt to by-pass their state and local governments to institute land conservation statutes (Kotchen and Powers 2006, Rabe 2003). These initiatives are a form of direct democracy and reflect a citizen-driven preservationist value regarding the creation of open space in their communities.

Yet the support for these open space ballot initiatives in the American West is surprising, given that US federal land conservation legislation tends to be lightning rod issues with deep partisan divides. Democrats typically embrace a conservationist philosophy, while Republicans routinely advocate for economic benefit over environmental protection (Dunlap et al. 2001, Vig and Kraft 2003). Contemporary examples of this partisan dichotomy over federal land use issues are forest conservation for the protection of the spotted owl, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and banning snowmobiling from Yellowstone National Park. US western states with direct initiative processes are predominantly Republican (Dresang and Gosling 1996), and yet citizens of the region's municipalities and counties are proposing Democratic-like land conservation statutes via the initiative process. Hence, the juxtaposition of polarized partisan platforms at the federal level with that of a marked increase in the use and support of local direct initiatives (Haskell 2001) in the American West to create land conservation policy is simply unexpected.

In addition to partisanship divides, these land use battles also occur due to changing cultural, social, and economic landscapes. Some research describes the heated battles over public lands in the American West as a 'New West-Old West' phenomenon, resulting from deep cultural divisions (McBeth et al. 2005, Shanahan et al. 2008, Tierney and Frasure 1998, Wilson, 1997). Many western communities have experienced economic changes that have impacted land use and undergone social transformations as a result of new migration to the region (Power and Barrett 2001) with accompanying higher levels of individual wealth to communities. New West communities are typically conceived as having a service economy, urban access, a professional population, and harboring environmentalist attitudes (Hunter and Brehm 2004, Shumway and Otterstrom 2001, Theodori et al. 1998). Old West communities engender a natural resource based economy (farming, cattle ranching, mining, timber), a rural, working class population, and resource-use attitudes (Hays 1991). This New West-Old West dichotomy reflects the theory that there is a varying and conflicting definition over what the environment means today in the American West: a commodity for extractive consumption or an entity to conserve.

In viewing these local land conservation ballot initiatives as a form of environmental decision making about land use (Myers 1999, Slind-Flor 1998), a larger question seeks to shed light on the paradoxical nature of the success of these local ballot initiatives in the changing American West: what are the characteristics of these local communities to drive such seemingly environmentally-oriented behavior? …

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