Empowered by Constituents
By Aleta George
Amanda Montez grew up in Orange County, but her father liked to take her family on car-camping trips to Northern California. She recalled that they “always ended up exploring something green.” When her dad died, she rethought her priorities and forged a career path that led to her current position as director of programs for the San Francisco Parks Alliance. “It was my dad’s passion to be outdoors, and in his passing, I decided to pursue my own passions and ensure that more kids like me get out and have these experiences,” she said.
By ‘kids like her’, she specifically meant Latinos — a community that has historically been neglected when policymakers tackle open space issues. Montez said that local park districts and open space agencies have begun doing a better job of reaching out to underserved communities like hers, but she believes that there’s more to do.
Concerns such as hers are addressed by those who wrote Proposition 68, a $4.1 billion bond measure that will be on California’s June 5 ballot. It is the largest park bond in state history, and the widest in scope. If passed by voters, it will provide $1.5 billion for habitat conservation, ecosystem improvement, and environmental resilience; $1.3 billion for parks and recreation projects; and $1.3 billion for various water-related projects.
Proposition 68 represents California’s first park bond in several years, and it landed on the upcoming ballot by the will of the people, according to Montez. “Elected officials represent their constituency, and this proposition is a clear message that these environmental issues are a priority. It’s a need that’s being responded to by the Latino Legislative Caucus. They felt confident to put it on the ballot because they were empowered by their constituents.”
Polls show that Latinos are concerned about the environment and vote to protect it. A 2015 Earthjustice and GreenLatinos poll found that 78 to 85 percent of Latino voters support environmental measures that include clean energy sources, more water conservation, programs to reduce air pollution, and the protection of wildlife, public lands, and endangered species. And a 2014 survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs revealed that 54 percent of Latinos nationwide believe climate change is a critical threat to U.S. interests, whereas only 32 percent of non-Latinos think so. The survey also found that more Latinos than non-Latinos say the government is not doing enough to combat climate change (54 percent compared to 49 percent), and more are supportive of expanding funding for environmental protection (55 percent compared to 41 percent).
One possible reason for the difference in percentage points, according to analysis by the Pew Research Center, is that the median age of Latinos in America tends to be younger than the general population, and younger people as a whole tend to attribute climate change to human activity. Pew has also noted that Latinos could become a state majority by 2060.
“We cannot fall into the assumption that because California is becoming more brown that there will be a deterioration of parks and open space,” said José González, founder of Latino Outdoors, a San Francisco nonprofit that connects Latino families and children to the outdoors and inspires Latino leadership. “For California to build on its conservation successes of the past, we must engage in equity work for natural resources.”
California’s past conservation successes include voter authorization of $27 billion in bonds supporting natural resources since 2000, with roughly $9 billion still available (primarily for water projects via 2014’s Proposition 1). This is according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, which also notes that Proposition 68 would require the state to pay roughly $200 million every year for the next 40 years. That amount — paid from the state’s general fund and equaling less than one-quarter of a percent of the current general fund budget — will cover the cost of repaying the bond as well as $3.8 billion due in interest.
The Latino Legislative Caucus has been advocating for equitable outdoor access since at least 2000, said Fred Keeley, a former state assemblymember who authored Proposition 12 in 2000 and Proposition 40 in 2002. Both those successful open space bond measures reflected shifts in equitable access because of the work of the caucus, Keeley said.
That work has had an even bigger influence on Proposition 68, according to González. “Latino legislative leaders were direct and nuanced about insisting that the proposition not be a traditional park bond or conservation measure,” he said. In the past, González said a bond with an environmental agenda would be handed over to Latinos for a seal of approval and a vote. “Latinos vote for environmental protection and conservation, but there has been inequity in the impact. Communities finally see themselves reflected in the process and the impact,” he said.
One particularly notable impact of Proposition 68 in that regard is $725 million for parks in underserved urban and rural communities — although the bulk of that funding would potentially go to Southern California and the Central Valley, because those parts of the state have the greatest need.
In any case, Proposition 68 stands to be “the largest investment ever in underserved communities in a natural resource bond,” said Mary Creasman, California director of government affairs for The Trust for Public Land. “As the power shifts to reflect changing demographics, we are seeing real leadership in the protection of environmental resources that reflects our state, both in demographics and in need.”
And as that shift continues — regardless of whether Proposition 68 passes or not — California will likely hear more voices from those underserved communities who have been living with a lack of parks and open spaces, and who in general desire greater environmental protections.
“Inclusion of more diverse voices doesn’t devalue the process or the issues,” said González. “It adds collective strength.”
Aleta George covers open space for the Monitor.