Pennsylvania Legacies #189: Landslide

When people vote to raise their own taxes to fund conservation programs, it’s noteworthy. When it happens in a deeply conservative rural community, it’s unusual. But when the proposal passes by a four-to-one margin, it’s a mandate — and then some. How did the campaign for Carbon County’s open space initiative achieve such a blowout? And could other Sixth Class PA counties do the same? Organizer Dennis DeMara has answers.

Josh Raulerson (00:01):

It’s Friday, April 14th, 2023. And from the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, this is Pennsylvania Legacies. I’m Josh Raulerson. In any kind of democratic policy making process, mustering majority support for any proposal is a pretty big accomplishment. Getting to a super majority of 60% is exceedingly rare. And excluding the grand legislative tradition of naming bridges and highways, cracking the 80% mark is all but unheard of. What idea, other than mom or apple pie, could possibly win the approval of four out of five voters? Well, in at least one Pennsylvania County, it’s conservation, and no, we’re not talking about the left-leaning suburbs of Philadelphia or the tree-hugging environs of State College. We’re talking about Carbon County in the Lehigh Valley, where Donald Trump beat Joe Biden by a two-to-one margin in the 2020 presidential election. Last fall, voters in that deep red county delivered a resounding mandate for clean water, healthy wildlife habitat, and preservation of open space and farmland.

Josh Raulerson (01:05):

More than 82% of people who turned out last November voted to establish a countywide conservation program, authorizing the county to borrow up to 10 million over 20 years to support those goals. Well, that result surprised everyone, even the organizers of the campaign that put the question on the ballot. But it wasn’t rocket science. All they did was identify what really mattered to residents, crafted a simple message around it, and took it to as many people as possible. Dennis DeMara — the county’s former Director of Parks and Recreation, now with Wildlands Conservancy — was part of the effort, which he says could be replicated in other Pennsylvania counties. Dennis DeMara is our guest on this edition of Pennsylvania Legacies to explain how Dennis, welcome,

Dennis DeMara (01:49):

Great to be here.

Josh Raulerson (01:50):

Why don’t you take a moment to introduce yourself and talk a bit about Wildlands Conservancy what you do there and how you ended up in this role?

Dennis DeMara (01:58):

Yes. I’m the Conservation Outreach Coordinator with the Wildlands Conservancy, primarily working in the Upper Lehigh Watershed, focusing on the Delaware River Watershed Initiative. I’ve been in conservation and parks and recreation since 1976. The Carbon County Parks Director, then DCNR and now with the Wildlands Conservancy. And the Conservancy is 50 years old this year. And our Lehigh River Conservation Plan has been the guiding document in, in the, in the Conservancy implementing all the action items within that River’s conservation plan. So we’ve been very aggressive in, in trying to accomplish that.

Josh Raulerson (02:45):

So, I mean, you have been in this region for a while, deep roots, I think I would imagine a, a pretty deep understanding of what people are like, what, what makes this county tick? How would you characterize the relationship that people in your area have with the outdoors, with the environment? Has there always been this kind of conservation ethic?

Dennis DeMara (03:03):

Yeah, I, I think there’s, there’s always been a connection to the outdoors. Carbon County is unique. It’s a sixth class county population, 65,000. In the northwest corner you have the anthracite region, to the east you have the Western Poconos, to the south you have the agricultural region. So it’s quite varied. But the Lehigh River that cuts through it has, has pretty much defined so many things about the history of Carbon County: the industrial history, obviously, of the Lehigh Canal and the coal companies, and the navigation of anthracite to Philadelphia, but also a real connection to the outdoors of hunting and fishing and boating.

Josh Raulerson (03:51):

So, you know, coming from this background and knowing this area so well, what was the need that you saw to take this step to protect open space and wild places in, in the Northeast PA? What are the challenges specific to this area, and how does the ballot question that you put together address those?

Dennis DeMara (04:07):

Well, really how this all started, it was the, the spark was a gentleman who is the chairman of the Agricultural Land Preservation Board for the last 30 years, came to me, very frustrated and said, “Dennis, we have 15 farmer applications to preserve their farms.” And historically, the county has had very little funding for initiatives like this and in conservation and parks and recreation. And he knew that I was involved in conservation, and he said, Dennis, I need your help. Please help me figure out a way to get more funding. And that was over three years ago. And that really, that really started the initiative of me talking to the county commissioners. I was appointed on the Carbon County Planning Commission. I mean, I knew all three county commissioners. Two of them were relatively new. I mean, and they, they knew me. I’m, I was born and raised in Carbon County, worked in Carbon County.

Dennis DeMara (05:12):

You know, I feel I had the credibility and the background to help. And really it was the willingness of the county commissioners to entertain the idea. And it started with agriculture, but I asked if we could include open space, and they said yes. So I was really impressed that and never in a million years thought Carbon County would entertain this, because when I was the county parks director for 24 years, trying to complete projects, getting local match money, it was, it was very, very difficult. So with their willingness, we started out on a venture with the Trust for Public Land and the Nature Conservancy, who I had worked with previously. And they helped us guide through each of the steps and the commissioners were even willing to put in for the financing feasibility study which was the first step.

Josh Raulerson (06:14):

What inspired the idea for a referendum? Why was it important to take this issue to the voters? You’ve got a dialogue already going with the county commissioners, why did you feel the need to broaden that conversation?

Dennis DeMara (06:26):

Well, I think that the pandemic showed us that, that folks were, were leaving the, the cities were leaving the New York New Jersey area, and discovering Carbon County. I had known over the years that, that it was somewhat of a, a sleeping jam that you know, the, the Lehigh Valley had a lot of development, obviously Monroe County as the heart of the Poconos, and that eventually folks were gonna discover Carbon County. It’s real nature. It’s beauty in its small towns and all of its natural assets. And I think the pandemic exasperated that. And then also Eastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey is the second largest warehouse hub in the nation. It’s called an inland port. Developers are eating up prime agricultural land and putting these expansive warehouses. And again, we’re all, we’re all part of the issue where we order things on Amazon and we get them in a day or two.

Dennis DeMara (07:34):

It’s because the, the road network allows or the the warehouses along the major arteries allow delivery of, of our goods quickly. So I think there was that pressure, and I think they saw, and prior to that, we completed the return on environment study that really showed the economic value of the river, our streams, our parks, our trails, and that that was the heart of the future of the county. That, that we were not gonna have large industry come in due to the, the the landscape and the topography of, of our county. And that our future was small businesses supported by outdoor recreation. And, and I believe they, they saw that and and wanted to protect that.

Josh Raulerson (08:29):

So yeah, the, the economic piece is clearly a big driver, and we see that all over the state and all over the country. When you were going about making the case to the people of Carbon County for this ballot initiative, you know, what was the approach you took, first of all, just to start those conversations in the first place. But also, what were the most impactful arguments to make? I know you did some, some public opinion research that informed that.

Dennis DeMara (08:52):

Yes, absolutely. So once we completed the the financing feasibility study, and then we did the polling, and the polling showed that there was willingness for up to 10 million. If we went beyond that, the numbers went down and that water quality working forms and wildlife habitat were the top three issues on the voters’ minds. And so we really formed our message around that. We created a public campaign committee, and, you know, we did little things, but we, we feel they, they made a great impact. We designed a logo of Carbon County with water farms and land on it. We made pins, we had pens bought, we had rack cards. We had a Facebook page with a, one of our members granddaughter who had a, a stuffed raccoon, and it was Ricky, the Referendum Raccoon. And he went around to special places in Carbon County. And every week folks had to find out where Ricky was. And, and in that process Ricky bumped into fishermen, bumped into sportsmen, paddlers, and it, it was a great success.

Josh Raulerson (10:13):

That’s such a great idea and such a really well thought-out social media strategy and communication strategy in general. But you also invested considerable shoe leather, I think, in this initiative, too. You, like, you actually had a lot of face-to-face conversations.

Dennis DeMara (10:28):

Yeah. And I do wanna say early on there was some, there was some pushback. There’s always pushback. And we started testing the, is talking to folks, both Dan Kunkle and I, and Dan was the science teacher who became the first director of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, which is in its 20th year, the only Superfund industrial remediation site in the nation that is a nature preserve along the Blue Mountain, the Kittatinny Ridge, in the Palmerton area. So Dan also had great credibility in talking to folks. But we, there was a, there was some pushback due to overcrowding of some of the parks, folks feeling that it was gonna benefit only a few folks, not trusting government, like is this another, another government program? So we countered those things with just direct interaction with folks. We had a case statement, we had Q&A sheets that we handed out, and we just just began to dialogue and educate folks that we knew that knew us, that, again, it’s, it’s not to elevate Dan and I, but in other counties, if you’re gonna do this, you gotta find someone with credibility, someone who has a track record of positive projects and, and issues in the county.

Dennis DeMara (11:54):

And, you know, we feel like we won a lot of folks over just by our, our interaction with them. We probably went to 80 community groups. We went to the Democratic committee, we went to the Republican committee and learned a lot about the history of Carbon County being primarily anthracite coal mining. A union [area], was very Democratic when I started 40 years ago, and has blended over and switched over to primarily Republican. And we just knew what, in the hearts and minds of folks, what was important to them. And, and this message touched those hearts and minds.

Josh Raulerson (12:38):

So you, you did your homework, you did the retail politicking, you had every reason to expect at least a favorable outcome, but what you got was pretty overwhelmingly positive. And I, I do want to get into it in a minute, like the lessons learned and how can these lessons be applied in other places? But first, just tell the story of the vote itself and your reaction to it. Was it surprising?

Dennis DeMara (13:00):

Yes, it was. I mean, I couldn’t believe it. And at the campaign campaign committee, we did have a couple bottles of, of champagne expecting a positive result. But never ever, ever expected anything like this. You know, it was just, it was a team effort. And, and I do wanna say, when we started out, we started out with nothing. When the TPL and TNC handed me the playbook, we had no money, we had no organization, we had nothing. And it’s truly amazing with the conservation team we have with Natural Lands, with Audubon and the work we were doing, we were laying groundwork. We found a treasure, we found through and through Wild Lands, and our director Chris Kocher, helped us with funding. The minimum we needed was 50,000. And we got, we received $54,000 in donations to pay for the commercials. It was interesting, because you hear, we’re actually told, you know, the, the problem sometimes isn’t getting the vote. It’s the conservation organizations working together, <laugh>. And then once I’m being honest here, so once, once we had money, then it’s like a little bit of a heated discussion as to how we’re gonna spend that money <laugh>, which usually occurs.

Josh Raulerson (14:28):

Well, I think that’s a good argument to be having with your, with your partners.

Dennis DeMara (14:31):

Yes. And we, Dan and I and Kathy Henderson from Economic Development, we knew that what the local folks did, they watched the local TV station, they read the local paper. And, and even though statistically it says, you know, all the folks that watched their news online and all of that, we just knew the folks of Carbon County and invested some of the funding in the local newspapers and, and weekly newspapers and stickers on the front page of the newspaper. And I don’t know, it just, it resonated. You know, we thought of ideas, do we have farmers put their tractors in the parking lot of the election sites? We had posters made. So we went out to the highest number polling places, you know, to share information, but to see folks, you know, to, in knowing that it was gonna raise their taxes 10 or 15 or $20 a year.

Dennis DeMara (15:34):

But to see elderly folks who I, I knew had a, an agricultural farming background who loved Carbon County come out and give me the thumbs up and, and it’s a smile and know that they were gonna vote yes, it was you know, it just, it gives me goosebumps thinking about it that. You know, young and, and not-so-young alike supported this. And, you know, we expected, we didn’t want 50 plus one. We knew the county commissioners may have a challenge agreeing to it, and we expected, we hoped for 60, 65, but when we saw 82.7%, it just, it was, it was a celebration time. It was, it was unreal. I, I mean, almost couldn’t believe that. I said, they gotta verify those numbers <laugh>. So it was very exciting.

Josh Raulerson (16:27):

So you, I mean, you got the mandate you needed, clearly. And that says something about where people are at in your region on open space, obviously, but perhaps also environmental conservation issues more broadly, and maybe you can speak to that. But really what I want to know is, do the elected officials get it? How is this outcome shaping decision making at the county level, maybe municipal, other counties in your area? Where do you see this going from here?

Dennis DeMara (16:53):

Yes, I think they very much they were very excited to see the numbers. One of the county commissioners was even in some of our commercials they’ve actually just purchased land near the largest county park. They have committed initially now over a million, million dollars for this year to the Department of Agriculture to up our reimbursement from the Department of Ag for the ag program. So the investment is already is already producing dividends. And I think they’re excited that they have a tool, a, a, a tremendous tool to work with land trust conservancies and municipalities to preserve the highest quality conservation land. You know, some of the pushback was, well you know, we conservationists wanna wanna buy all the land. We want to, we wanna save everything. And we know that 10 million isn’t going to go that far, and we’re not against development.

Dennis DeMara (18:00):

And we address that to the Builders Association, to the realtors. We’re not against development, but we are against just haphazard development and promoted the growing greener by design and, and those programs. So they’re excited that they have this tool and we look forward to establishing the program. One of the big emphasis from the beginning was that it’s controlled locally by county residents, and so there will be an advisory board of county residents advising the commissioners. They really didn’t want outside organizations dictating how, how this program would operate. So it’s very much with local control, with the county commissioners. And we’re excited about the future.

Josh Raulerson (18:52):

As I think, you know, PEC gave an award last fall to Kathy Henderson from the County, and I got a chance to interview her about the work that she’s been doing that did touch on the open space initiative. And one thing that stuck with me was that you guys had some strong allies among the realtors, maybe counterintuitively, but that the, that a lot of the realtors were able to see, you know, both the potential and the, and the danger of the way development was happening and wanted to ensure that Carbon County would remain a place that people would want to, you know, come to, whether that’s to visit or to, to own property. But a big part of that has to do with, with the natural beauty, the natural resources that you have there.

Dennis DeMara (19:32):

Yes, I think they understand what really, with what we in the conservation world promote that the value of future development along open space as, as a higher value. But Kathy Henderson has been amazing, and, and thank you for that, that award. And I guess what made Carbon County unique is not many economic development directors get directly involved in initiative like this, but Kathy comes from a farming background. She sees the, the value of striking the balance between conservation and development. And she was a tremendous ally credibility with the commissioners. And so she was our liaison in many ways with county government to in a sense get our foot in the door. And and we did the return on environment through her study, through the chamber and economic development. And you know, she continues to be an ally today.

Josh Raulerson (20:33):

So if we could bring this back to where you started, you were talking about the ways in which Carbon County fits a profile that is, that also pertains to a lot of other counties, a lot of other areas within Pennsylvania. Given the dramatic outcome of this vote and the things that you learned in the process, what are the more widely applicable lessons of your experience here? What can other regions learn from what has happened in Carbon County? What’s happening in Carbon County?

Dennis DeMara (20:59):

Yes, it, it’s interesting of the 67 counties, 34 counties are Class Six, Seven, or Eight, with 50 to 90,000 in population. I think I, I can summarize it by saying it was a tremendous team approach. It was, it was the right people at the right time with the right message and some other things. It was, as I said, the strong team. We stayed positive, we stayed consistent, and we stayed politically neutral. Not once in our committee meetings did we talk politics or who else was on the ballot last November. That never ever came up. It was about water, farms, and land. So we stayed consistent with the message, and I think that consistency and that local connection, the local contacts brought it over the top in a great way.

Josh Raulerson (21:57):

What has the, the on-the-ground impact been? What policies, I guess, have been enacted or are in the works, and where is all of this going? What’s next as a result of what you’ve accomplished?

Dennis DeMara (22:09):

Yeah, what, what I had mentioned, the, the planning director who manages the ag program has to let the state know what the, what the county contribution’s gonna be. And obviously we up that by a million dollars. So right there, we have two and a half million dollars to start preserving some small farms. In the next 24 months, we’re forming the the advisory board. Really, it’s just, it’s gonna take a number of months to get everything up and running. We’re looking at other programs. Chester County has a great program, you know, Pike County did this. They’re another sixth class county in the Northeast. So we look at other examples talk to folks, and in the next few months we’ll be establishing the program and taking applications and doing some outreach.

Josh Raulerson (22:58):

I imagine the, the allocation of funding in itself is probably opening some doors, creating some new opportunities.

Dennis DeMara (23:03):

Yes. And one of the things with, with promoting this was that, that it’s match money. When I was involved with DCNR in the Monroe 2020, the 20 million, and then they added a, a few more million, you know, I think it was over 70 million for open space funding and regional parks from that seed money of 20 million. So this 10 million is, is going to be at least 30 million, and maybe they’ll do another one in the future. So doubling and tripling it with other state and federal funding is a key component.

Josh Raulerson (23:41):

Well, we’ll be really excited to see where it goes from here. Congratulations on this result and, and all your hard work.

Dennis DeMara (23:47):

Well, thank you. It’s you know, I was born and raised in the county, and, and it’s almost a, it’s the icing on the cape. You know, it’s, it’s a culmination of, of the hard work for our team, for Dan, for Kathy, for so many people who contributed their time and resources to make this happen.

Josh Raulerson (24:05):

Well, I appreciate you sharing your time today to tell this story. I think it’s a, it’s a good one and people are gonna be interested to hear it. So Dennis, thank you so much for being on Pennsylvania. Legacies

Dennis DeMara (24:14):

Great. Thank you, Josh.

Josh Raulerson (24:19):

Dennis Damara is a Conservation Outreach Coordinator with Wildlands Conservancy, former parks and recreation director for Carbon County, and one of the leaders of last year’s shockingly successful campaign for open space preservation. Learn more about it via links on the show notes for this episode on the PEC website, where you can stream all of our past podcast episodes in your web browser. It’s at If you just go to the “Resources” tab and find the checkbox for “audio,” check that you’ll see all of our podcast episodes going way back to 2016. While you’re on the website, check out the news on our program work statewide, including Trails and Recreation in support of Pennsylvania’s vibrant outdoor economy. Also news about watershed health and the transition to a clean energy economy in Pennsylvania. All of that and more on the [email protected], New episodes of the Pennsylvania Legacies Podcast go up every other Friday, so check back in two weeks for the latest installment. Until then, for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, I’m Josh Raulerson and thanks for listening.