Coloradans increasingly support public lands, poll says, with 75 percent identifying as conservationists | VailDaily.com

Coloradans increasingly support public lands, poll says, with 75 percent identifying as conservationists

Jack Queen
Summit Daily News

Nearly three-quarters of Colorado voters now consider themselves conservationists, part of a broader swell of support for public lands across the West that researchers say shows Americans are increasingly uncomfortable with the President Donald Trump administration's approach to land management.

The eighth annual Conservation in the West Poll, released on Thursday, Jan. 25, by Colorado College's State of the Rockies Project, shows support for conservation steadily increasing in eight western states with plentiful public land. The latest increase, from 65 percent last year in Colorado to 75 percent, is especially pronounced.

Researchers attribute the bump at least in part to Trump, who recently slashed the size of two national monuments in Utah and advocates rolling back environmental protections on public lands and opening more of them to mining and drilling.

"In the blue states, in the purple states, in the red states, it doesn't matter — we have upwards of two-thirds in all of them that consider themselves a conservationist," said pollster Dave Metz, a member of the bipartisan research team. "And even more striking is the fact that over the course of the last two years, those proportions have increased in every single state."

Majority disapprove

Even in conservative regions like Utah, where a plurality of voters approved of Trump's performance on the economy, a majority disapproved of his administration's handling of land, water and wildlife issues.

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Of the eight states polled, Wyoming was the only one where a clear majority of voters approved of Trumps' performance on conservation. Clear majorities in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona disapproved.

While rural voters were less enthusiastic about conservation than their urban counterparts, researchers said they still tended to agree that the government's approach to public lands has taken a wrong turn.

"One thing that struck me was the increase in people who identify as a conservationist, and frankly I think that response is linked to some of the other data we see in the survey where there's a lot of discomfort in the West with the direction that some of the administration's policies are going," Metz said.

The Trump administration argues that opening more public lands to mining and oil and gas extraction will create jobs and generate growth. But conservation advocates are pushing back on that rationale, arguing that preserving lands for recreation can deliver its own economic boost.

"What I think this poll shows is that voters recognize that we're an economic force," said Amy Roberts, head of the Outdoor Industry Association. "Our industry represents an opportunity for rural communities to transition to outdoor recreation opportunities."

Outdoor recreation and extractive industries compete for access to public lands. Since Trump's election, the scales have tilted toward mining and drilling, and companies that make money off hiking, biking and hunting are flexing their muscles in response.

The data's release Thursday coincided with the first day of Outdoor Retailer, an annual outdoor industry trade show. Last year, OR announced it was moving to Denver from its 20-year home in Salt Lake City in response to Utah lawmakers' public lands policies.

It was a show of force from an industry that contributes $877 billion to the economy and accounts for 7.6 million jobs, according to its own estimates. In the fight for open access to land, the industry hopes to convince voters that trails are more valuable than mines.

Translate to votes?

The message seems to be resonating. Of the 400 Colorado voters polled, 96 percent said the outdoor recreation economy is important to the state's future, and 87 percent said the state's public lands and outdoor lifestyle were an advantage for attracting good jobs and innovative companies.

"We have seen a shift over the last few years in terms of the outdoor recreation economy and people attaching that to the creation of jobs and to being an economic advantage in their state," said pollster Lori Weigel.

The question is whether those sentiments will translate into votes, but Roberts is optimistic.

"We are definitely gratified to see the strong majorities supporting protections for public lands, and we feel like this will be a factor in the mid-term elections this year and voters will be thinking about these issues as they go to the polls," she said.

Beyond general conservation attitudes, many of the Trump administration's specific policy proposals polled poorly. Among Colorado voters, strong majorities opposed privatizing management of campgrounds, expanding land available for drilling and changing habitat protections for sage grouse.

Allowing mining on public land adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park was extremely unpopular with Coloradans, 72 percent of who opposed the idea. Conversely, 74 percent supported rules requiring drillers on public lands to limit methane gas leaks, a regulation the Trump administration seeks to overturn.

In the bigger picture, the data show a paradigm shift underway that sees potentially greater value in saving lands for recreation than harvesting from them, said Dr. Walt Hecox, founder of the State of the Rockies Project and professor emeritus of economics at Colorado College.

"As we move to new uses for resources, much more focus on amenity uses — recreation, tourism, people's desire to enjoy nature in its original condition — that both presents challenges but also a lot of public support for the kinds of issues we asked about in the poll this year," he said.

About the study

This is the eighth consecutive year Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project has gauged the public’s sentiment on public lands and conservation issues. Idaho was added to the survey for the first time this year.

The 2018 Colorado College Conservation in the West Poll is a bipartisan survey conducted by Republican pollster Lori Weigel of Public Opinion Strategies and Democratic pollster Dave Metz of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates.

The poll surveyed 400 registered voters in each of eight Western states (AZ, CO, ID, MT, NV, NM, UT and WY) for a total 3,200-person sample. The survey was conducted in late December 2017 and early January 2018 and has a margin of error of ±2.65 percent nationwide and ±4.9 percent statewide. The full survey and individual state surveys are available on the State of the Rockies website.