WASHINGTON – To fend off urban sprawl,residents of Fort Collins,Colo.,took an ambitious step – they voted to tax themselves to buy more than 34,000 acres of land to protect it from development.
This effort helped the city earn recognition as one of the top 19 nature-friendly communities in a new book by author Chris Duerksen. “Nature-Friendly Communities” names cities and counties that have done the most to safeguard natural landscapes and protect wildlife.
Pressed by growth and political pressures from Denver 65 miles to the south,Fort Collins land use planners regularly meet with land owners in an outreach program to discuss the balance between conservation and farming efforts to help protect the area's natural beauty.
The city and surrounding Larimer County also work with preservation groups,including the Nature Conservancy,to buy land and set it aside for parks,trails or nature reserves.
While the city is a little behind its environmentally progressive neighbor,Boulder,Colo.,Fort Collins is “certainly environmentally aware,” said Mark Sears,the city's natural areas program manager.
In his book,Duerksen notes,“Americans have demonstrated that they endorse and will pay for protecting natural resources. There has been strong support for preservation of open space and habitat from voters nationwide as well as in surveys of the general public.”
As population in the South and Southwestern regions booms,protection of natural areas in those regions is becoming more urgent.
Eight of the top 10 fastest-growing large cities lie in the Western states of Arizona,California and Nevada. Florida led the country,with 14 of its counties among the nation's fastest growing counties,according to recent releases from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Some of these nature-friendly communities,such as Chicago,Ill.; Pima County,Ariz.; and Austin,Texas,are near areas that have had big upswings in population.
“In a lot of cases,growth is pitted against environmental conservation too much,” said Laura Watchman,senior manager for land use programs for Defenders of Wildlife,an environmental group with several programs aimed at promoting more environmentally friendly growth.
As population increases and natural areas diminish,it is important to have programs that promote sustainable growth focused in areas that are not as environmentally sensitive,Watchman said.
Duerksen cited Sanibel,Fla.,as one of the top 19 communities for its wildlife habitat protection program and its ecologically sound land planning.
Although the island is 22 miles north of vacation hotspot Fort Myers,Fla.,residents and city planners have maintained the natural setting of the island,said Nancy Hamilton,communications director for the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau,where Sanibel is located.
“We have been lucky to have Florida grow around it,” Hamilton said of the state's recent population growth.
Florida's growth can be attributed to a combination of abundant jobs and a high quality of life,with great weather and the beautiful surrounding natural environment,Hamilton said.
To protect Sanibel's environment,the city enforces laws to prevent damage by visitors or residents,Hamilton said. Some of them include prohibitions against collecting shells on the beach with live animals inside and building codes that limit construction to four stories.
The city does not rake the beaches so native birds can feed on seaweed that washes up on the shore. And there are no traffic or overhead street lights to protect the sea turtle population during breeding season.
To see the entire list of nature-friendly communities,go to: http://www.naturefriendlytools.org