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Know the West

Even Tea Partiers are Conservationists


New Mexico's new governor, Republican Susana Martinez, may have gotten right down to business last month by putting a hold on a rule that would require large polluters to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But if new data on Western public opinion is accurate, then it wasn’t the state's voters who gave her that mandate. According to a bipartisan poll sponsored by Colorado College and funded through the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, 65 percent of New Mexico's voters support the EPA’s regulation and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

The survey--conducted in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming--polled 2,200 Western voters on their opinions of conservation and environmental issues.  In order to sample a representative cross-section of the Western region, the number of voters polled in each state was proportional to the state's electorate--600 in Colorado, and 400 in each of the other states.  Voters were interviewed by cell phone or landline and given the option to answer in Spanish.

Self-identification as conservationist or environmentalist by party/ideology.  Courtesy of Public Opinion Strategies and FM3

Westerners, the study shows, are in resounding agreement when it comes to protecting the environment. More than three-quarters of survey participants agreed with the statement, "We can protect land and water and have a strong economy with good jobs at the same time, without having to choose one over the other." And when given a choice to "generate jobs as quickly as possible" at the expense of protections for land, air and water, roughly 75 percent of participants in all five states elected to maintain environmental protections.

The study's results are posted on the Colorado College "State of the Rockies" website. Here are some highlights:

  • 84 percent of voters in the Western region agree, "even with state budget problems, we should still find the money to protect our land, water, and wildlife."
  • 48 percent believe current environmental laws are tough enough but should be better enforced.
  • 67 percent believe increasing the use of renewable energy will create, not cost, new jobs in their state.
  • 65 percent would dramatically increase the amount of their state's electricity needs produced by renewable sources.
  • 74 percent of people who identify themselves as Tea Party members also consider themselves conservationists

Just as counterintuitive are the stats on voters' opinions of their state governments.  In New Mexico, for example, 65 percent of voters trust in the state "only some of the time" or "never," while half as many "always" or "most of the time" trust in the state. In Wyoming, the numbers are the reverse, which could explain why the Republican state is the first and only to adopt rules requiring natural gas companies to publicly disclose chemicals in fracking fluids. (Some say the rule is an effort to escape federal oversight.) In fact, two-thirds of respondents in the top coal producing state believe Wyoming is working for the "benefit of all," rather than for a "few big interests."

But even in Wyoming, 85 percent of poll respondents said they would be willing to pay more for utilities if it meant boosting the state's renewable energy use.  And 91 percent of New Mexicans were even more willing to throw down some extra cash on utilities if it supported renewables.

Which begs the question: who gave Martinez permission to cut environmental regs, when even the Tea Partiers--or at least three-quarters of them--call themselves "conservationists"?

Sierra Crane-Murdoch is a High Country News intern.