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Know the West

Western States Survey says


Colorado College’s 2013 Western States Survey report is out. This year pollsters grilled 2,400 voters in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming on energy, conservation and the role of government in both, and it yielded some fascinating results.

Westerners' views of natural resources and public lands, and the roles they play in our economy and quality of life, figure prominently in the poll.

When asked if national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife areas are an essential part of their state’s economy, 91 percent of those polled agreed that they are, and 7 out of 10 strongly agreed. Three-quarters of those asked also agreed that those resources attract high quality employers and good jobs to their states.

Western States Survey. Courtesy of Colorado College.

Incidentally, the facts strongly support these viewpoints. A recently-released report by Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics looks at how public lands create a competitive economic advantage in the West. The study found that, from 1970 to 2010, job growth in the West was double what it was in the rest of the country. Most of that employment was in service industries including high tech, insurance, finance, health care, real estate and insurance, “which created 19.3 million net new jobs, many of them high-paying.” Non-metropolitan counties whose land base was more than 30 percent federally-protected land saw a 345 percent rise in employment during that same period. The report also shows that, in 2010, per capita income in Western, rural countries with 100,000 acres of protected public lands is $4,360 higher on average than those countries with no protected public lands.

What else did the Western States Survey reveal about our thinking? Nearly 80 percent of us believe protected public land enhances our quality of life, and we worry about its future viability. When asked if loss of fish and wildlife habitat is a problem in their state, 72 percent replied that they believed it was a “serious” problem. More than three-quarters of those polled are troubled over pollution of rivers, lakes and streams, and nearly 80 percent agreed that “cuts to funding for state parks” and “protection of our natural areas and water quality” were major issues. Two-thirds of those polled oppose the sale of public lands as a way to pay down the federal budget deficit.

Of the most critical points on the minds of Westerners is our nation’s dependence on foreign oil—89 percent consider it a “serious” problem. And, for the second year running, public opinion supports renewables over extractive resources (including oil, coal and natural gas). In Arizona and New Mexico, a high percentage of polled voters want to encourage solar development; in Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, wind energy was most popular and, in Utah, wind power and natural gas were nearly even.

If Westerners regard our natural resources in these ways, why are our elected officials counteracting those views by, for example, demanding the sale of public lands (as is the case in New Mexico and Utah) and supporting extractive practices in sensitive places (like the Alton Coal mine expansion near Bryce Canyon National Park, and proposed drilling next to Dinosaur National Monument and Mesa Verde)?

Bryce Canyon National Park. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

Why did former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, speaking earlier this month, blast the Obama administration for prioritizing energy development over conservation on public acreage (during the president’s first term, double the amount of federal land was leased for gas and oil development than gained wilderness protection). Why are state and federal-level policies not gelling with the opinions of the people who have to live with their consequences?

This is where the results of the poll get really interesting. When asked to compare the priority their members of Congress put on protecting land, air and water, with their own priority on such protection, most of the Westerners questioned shrugged their shoulders. Fifty-four percent of people admitted (and perhaps a larger number didn’t want to 'fess up) that they are not sure of the positions their elected officials have taken on those issues.

Another surprising finding was the understanding everyday voters have of which federal lands are open to what kinds of energy development. When asked to assess the truthfulness of the statement: “Oil and gas drilling is taking place on some public lands, like National Forests… [and] National Parks,” only 37 percent believe extractive leasing is allowed in national forests and still fewer—31 percent—believe it is happening in national parks.

Natural gas drilling rig. Courtesy of the USDA.

In truth, some 38 million acres of federal land are leased for oil and gas drilling including 42 national park units and countless national forest tracts. It is something most Western lawmakers support and, according to the poll, most Western voters do not.

The pollsters, made up of a Republican firm and a Democratic one, also asked voters if an elected official voiced support for protecting public lands, would it affect the way they viewed that person? More than half said that if a Republican lawmaker defended conservation, they would view him or her more favorably. A little less than half had the same opinion of a Democrat. Thirty-six percent of the voters polled are registered Republicans, 31 percent Democrats and 31 percent are Independent or other.

The Western States Survey makes it clear there’s a disconnect between many voters and the officials we put into office. It also show that Westerners continue to defy stereotypes (48 percent of people polled voted for Romney; 41 percent for Obama; 63 percent said they consider themselves conservationists and 61 percent believe climate change is at least partly responsible for droughts and wildfires).

So how do we easily find out what our elected officials views are on energy and the environment, and how do we remind them of what we truly value?  Find representatives by state or name (or search by zip code) including their phone numbers and links to home pages (many have issue statements, voting records and legislation-sponsored listed on their websites). Locate senators by clicking the “Find Your Senator” button, which links you to contact info including comment forms. Join e-mail lists to get updates on their opinions and activities. Continue to break the mold by actively participating in decisions affecting our natural resources.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for their content.

Heather Hansen is a journalist, working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at CU Law School, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.
#1 - Western States Survey map. Courtesy of Colorado College.
#2 - Bryce Canyon. Courtesy of the National Park Service.
#3 - Natural gas drilling rig. Courtesy of the USDA.