A new poll suggests Virginians, worried that tracts of environmentally sensitive lands could be permanently lost to development, strongly support additional state spending for land conservation.

The survey of 750 voters conducted by a team of Republican and Democratic pollsters found that Virginians ranked preserving and protecting open spaces nearly as high as reducing crime and improving education, and higher than tax cuts.

In a summary report, the pollsters said support for land protection had grown significantly in the past decade.

“In a similar statewide survey in 1992, when the voters were given a list of problems, the level of concern about crime and public education was five times higher than the concern for the conservation of natural resources,” they wrote. “In the current survey, the concern for conserving natural resources is nearly equal to the concern about crime and public education.”

The survey found that almost four out of five voters supported spending $40 million a year to protect open space, something that has been proposed, but not passed, in the General Assembly.

In fact, the poll comes at a time when state funding for land acquisition is being cut. Last year, the state’s two-year budget set aside $6.2 million in general fund money for land protection in each of the two years. Money for the second year of the program was recently eliminated — a victim of declining state revenues and the failure of the governor and the General Assembly to resolve a dispute over how to pay for a reduction in the state’s car tax.

The survey was funded by the Trust for Public Land, The Nature Conservancy and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The Chesapeake 2000 Agreement calls for permanently preserving 20 percent of the Bay watershed as open space by 2010. To meet that goal, nearly 6.7 million acres would need to be protected through land acquisition or permanent conservation easements.

So far, according to a recent report by the Trust for Public Land and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislatures of the three Bay states, about 17.2 percent of the watershed has been preserved, leaving another 1.1 million acres that need to be protected to reach the goal.

Among the Bay states, Pennsylvania has protected 18.8 percent of its portion of the watershed, Virginia 16.1 percent and Maryland 14.7 percent.

But from 1992 through 1999, Virginia protected only about 92,000 acres compared with 152,000 acres in Maryland and 153,000 acres in Pennsylvania.

During that same period, Pennsylvania spent about $139 million on land preservation, while Maryland spent $306 million and Virginia $24 million. Most of the land protected in Virginia during the study period came through donations of land.

Virginia is the only Bay state that has no dedicated source of funding for land acquisition and protection.

When informed that Maryland and Pennsylvania spend more than $100 million a year on land protection programs, 37 percent of the respondents said that they “strongly supported” Virginia spending at least $40 million to protect open space, while another 40 percent said they would “somewhat support” the proposal.

To pay for open space protection, 82 percent said they would support earmarking one-fourth of the state’s land recording fee — assessed whenever someone buys or sells real estate — which would generate about $40 million a year.

When asked about other ways to fund land protection, 48 percent said they would support increasing the sales tax by one-eighth of one percent, 27 percent said they would support an increase in the gasoline tax, and 51 percent said they would support a $200 million bond to be repaid over 20 years.

Also, 68 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports a dedicated source of funding for land conservation.

In the poll, 57 percent strongly agreed with the statement, “if we don’t save Virginia’s natural areas now, they will soon be lost forever,” while another 25 percent said they somewhat agreed with the statement.

Half of those surveyed said “a great deal” of open space had been developed in their community during the past five years. Still, a majority of people, 53 percent, said the state was growing “at about the right rate,” while only 38 percent said the state was growing “too fast.”

Also, 51 percent disagreed with the statement that economic benefits of growth outweighed environmental problems caused by growth, while 44 percent agreed with the statement.

At the same time, 88 percent agreed that protecting the environment helps the state’s economy by increasing tourism and recreational opportunities.

The poll was conducted April 23–26 by a Democratic research firm, The Kitchens Group, based in Orlando, FL, and a Republican firm, The Tarrance Group, based in Alexandria, VA. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percent.