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Press Release · June 21, 2000

State’s Environmental Problems Pose Serious Personal Threat, Residents Say

Strong Support for Growth Restrictions, Open Space Preservation Dwindles When Public Asked to Ante Up

SAN FRANCISCO, California, June 21, 2000 – It’s the environment, stupid. California’s unique natural resources are on the minds of residents this election year, with an overwhelming majority seeing environmental problems as a threat to their health and well-being, according to a new survey just released by the Public Policy Institute of California and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. But while the public will make certain tradeoffs to deal with the growth-related issues driving their environmental anxiety, they would prefer to see someone else foot the bill.

The large-scale public opinion survey of 2,001 Californians found that seven in ten residents see today’s environmental problems as a threat to their personal health and well-being, with one in four saying environmental problems are a “very serious” threat and almost half (45%) seeing them as a “somewhat serious” threat. When asked to identify the most important environmental issue facing the state, the top issue by far was air pollution (33%), followed distantly by growth (13%), pollution in general and water pollution (9% each), traffic (7%), and the water supply (6%).

Nearly half of Californians also say that soil and groundwater contamination (48%) and urban and agricultural runoff (47%) are “big problems” today. Four in ten think that suburban development harming wildlife is a big problem. Specific regional issues also raise considerable worry: About half say that ocean and beach pollution (53%) and growth and pollution damaging the Sierra Mountains’ forests (45%) are big problems, and more than one in three have significant concerns about urban sprawl taking over farmlands in the Central Valley (39%) and the logging of old-growth redwoods in Northern California (34%). Solid majorities rate all of these environmental issues as at least “somewhat of a problem.”

More Government?

Given their broad concern, Californians are less than impressed with their state government’s efforts to protect the environment. Half of all residents believe the state is not doing enough in this arena. And Governor Davis – who receives strong ratings for his handling of economic issues – has failed to distinguish himself in a similar way on environmental issues. While 36 percent of residents approve of the way he is handling environmental issues, 28 percent disapprove and 36 percent say they don’t know. Californians are also looking to their federal representatives for environmental leadership: Most (84%) say the presidential candidates’ positions on growth, land use, and environmental issues are important to them, with 41 percent saying they are “very important.”

“The successful candidate in California will be mindful of the concern Californians have for their state’s environment and natural resources,” said PPIC Statewide Survey Director Mark Baldassare. “Quality of life is a key issue in the Golden State, especially in this period of prosperity and growth.”

Most Californians are willing to accept a greater degree of government involvement in protecting the environment, although Americans as a whole are more likely to hold this view. Fifty-seven percent of state residents agree with the statement that “stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost,” compared to 65 percent of Americans. A majority of Californians also say they are willing to make some tradeoffs in order to preserve the environment: 54 percent favor restricting oil drilling off the coast, even if this means higher gas prices, and 59 percent oppose building new housing if it threatens endangered species, even if the result is more expensive housing.

Public Likes Growth Limits, But Not the Price Tag

Population growth is a persistent and troubling theme in California today, adding to worries about natural resources and land use. Most Californians (81%) believe that their local population has been growing in recent years – 58 percent say it has been growing rapidly – and most expect this trend to continue into the next decade. While they are generally happy with current conditions in their region, residents clearly have qualms about the effects of future growth on their quality of life: A greater number believe that their region will be a worse place to live in 2010 than a better place (36% to 28%).

Most Californians say their area is already experiencing problems, although perceptions vary from region to region. Three in four say traffic congestion is a big problem, and 44 percent rate it as a big problem. In the San Francisco Bay area, 74 percent view traffic as a big problem, compared to 21 percent in the Central Valley and 47 percent in Los Angeles. Two in three Californians also cite growth and development and air pollution as problems, and about one in four rate each of these problems as serious.

Given the expectations and concerns about rapid growth, it is not surprising that residents support a variety of local and regional policies aimed at controlling growth and development in the future. A majority (58%) would support a local initiative that would slow the pace of development in their city or community, even if this meant less economic growth. Three in four Californians say that establishing growth boundaries around cities, encouraging job centers near existing housing, and restricting development in environmentally sensitive areas can be at least somewhat effective in improving their region’s quality of life over the next decade.

True to the strong support for slowing the pace of local development, most state residents (57%) like the idea of using public funds to buy undeveloped land in order to shield it from development. In fact, Californians are more likely than Americans in general (57% to 44%) to support this idea. But while they favor the concept of using taxpayer dollars to buy open space, Californians are ambivalent when confronted with the choice between using $1 billion of the state budget surplus to reduce their taxes or to create a trust fund to purchase and preserve open space. Forty-nine percent of residents support the idea of starting a conservation trust fund, while 44 percent would take the tax cut. Further, a majority of residents (52%) say they would oppose a bond measure authorizing local government to buy land in order to preserve it from development if it meant paying higher property taxes. Public support for land conservation is overwhelming, however, when someone else is picking up the tab: Seventy-one percent favor the idea of nonprofit organizations using their money to buy undeveloped land to keep it free from development.

“These results underscore what we’ve found in our conservation work: A growing majority of California residents share a deep concern for the quality of their environment,” said Richard T. Schlosberg III, President and CEO of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. “Clearly, Californians see conservation as best approached through a partnership between public and private agencies.”

Environment a High Priority for Latinos; Few Worries in Central Valley

Surprising ethnic and regional differences lurk beneath the broad public concern about the environment and growth and development. Overall, Latinos appear to be more concerned than the public at large about environmental problems, with a greater number believing that those problems pose a very serious threat to their health and well-being (31% to 25%). They are also more likely to believe that specific environmental issues – such as coastal pollution and threatened forests in the Sierras – are big problems today and to say that the presidential candidates’ views on environmental issues are very important to them. On the other hand, Latinos are also more likely than residents generally to support the way Governor Davis is handling environmental issues (52% to 36%), to believe that more oil drilling should be allowed off the California coast if this means lower gas prices (49% to 43%), and to believe that their region will be a better place to live ten years from now (37% to 28%). Interestingly, Latinos are also less likely to support using taxpayer dollars to buy and preserve undeveloped land (52% to 57%).

Although Central Valley residents are the most likely to say that the population of their city or community has grown – and will continue to grow – rapidly, they are also the least likely to see population growth and development as a big problem. They are also less likely than all Californians to view as big problems urban and agricultural runoff (34% to 47%), suburban development harming wildlife habitats (27% to 39%), and growth and pollution damaging the Sierras (37% to 45%). One issue – urban sprawl taking over farmlands – does register more strongly in the Central Valley than elsewhere in the state (49% to 39%). Like Republicans throughout California, Central Valley residents are less likely to support environmental laws and regulations, more likely to support individual property rights, and would choose a tax cut over the creation of a conservation trust fund.

“It is striking and disturbing that Central Valley residents – living in California’s most threatened and fast-growing region – see so little cause for concern or action,” said Baldassare.

About the Survey

The Californians and the Environment Survey – a collaborative effort of the Public Policy Institute of California and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation – is a special edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey. The Packard Foundation provides grants to nonprofit organizations in several program areas, including conservation and population. This survey provides the first comprehensive, advocacy-free study of Californians’ attitudes toward growth, land use, and environmental issues. Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,001 California adult residents interviewed from May 22 to May 30, 2000. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. For additional information on survey methodology, see page 29.

Dr. Mark Baldassare is a senior fellow at PPIC. He is founder and director of the PPIC Statewide Survey, which he has conducted since 1998. For over two decades, he has conducted surveys for the University of California, Irvine, and major news organizations, including the Orange County Edition of the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle, KCAL-TV, and KRON-TV. Dr. Baldassare is the author of numerous books, including California in the New Millennium: The Changing Social and Political Landscape (University of California Press, 2000).

PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to objective, nonpartisan research on economic, social, and political issues that affect the lives of Californians. The Institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.